22 January 2006

We really had a wonderful time in China. We didn't have much time because we had to squeeze the trip between semesters. We also had to cut a few days off because the visas weren't quite ready in time. We didn't do any traveling around western China, but we very much hope to be able to go there before we leave Kyrgyzstan.

We spent our time in Beijing and Xi'an. Beijing was rather crowded and things didn't go very smoothly there. They are building several subway lines that will be ready just in time for the Olympics. That will be a big help. If we go back to Beijing, I'd go in the winter again after the Olympics.

We loved Xi'an. More on that another day.

We're seriously out of practice with bargaining. We were good at it in the Middle East, but it's been nearly 10 years since we were there. People do bargain in Kyrgyzstan, but not nearly to the same extent. For example, when I bought five pairs of pants for the babies at 35 som each, my Kyrgyz friend had the seller take 5 som off the total price. It's hardly worth bargaining here because so many things are quite inexpensive. We also know a lot of people we are buying from now and I know none of them are well off. That 5 som, or even 100 som, means a lot more to them than it does to me.

But in China! They will quote you an outrageous price and you have to bargain. I'll generally tell them how much I'll pay, show them the money, and leave if they're not interested. I just don't like to play the game anymore. I think that could partly be because I have little children who aren't interested in shopping.

It was interesting comparing flying habits of Central Asians and the Chinese. Central Asians will jump out of their seats as soon as the plane lands and make a dash for the exit. Chinese will wait till the plane has stopped. Chinese are also much less likely to bring shopping bags on board and have actual luggage. I have to say it was much more pleasant flying with Chinese than Central Asians.

We were on a good airline all over the country. I don't have terribly high expectations when it comes to airlines, so someone else might not have been impressed with the airline. But I'm happy when you get a decent meal and several opportunities to get something to drink, even on a flight that's only 90 minutes.

I am sure my impressions of China were different because I was going there after living in Bishkek for several months instead of straight from the US. It seemed like everything was there. Certainly there are many, many people who are very poor in China, but there are also many people who are middle class and reasonably well off. It was very different from Kyrgyzstan.

The boys weren't ready for all the attention they got. People ignore us in Bishkek, or they discreetly look at us. Not so in China. My younger son in particular had people coming up to him and talking to him, asking to take their pictures with him, and in general paying him much more attention than he cared for.

There were so many fruits and vegetables available! Some things were much cheaper than Kyrgyzstan. For example, my husband bought an apple and an banana for 1 yuan. In Kyrgyzstan the same thing would cost nearly the equivalent of 6 yuan. Bananas are quite expensive here. When I went to my little market yesterday and saw the paltry amount of produce, it was sad.

There was plenty of tandoor bread in Urumqi (where we just stayed overnight) and Xi'an. It was very good. It would be interesting to learn more about flatbread in China.

We didn't eat much street food this time. The trip was so short that I didn't want to spend any of it sick, and I didn't want the boys to get sick. My younger son has had trouble with the food. But we'd probably have been fine after Kyrgyzstan.

This was the first time we'd gone somewhere that we really didn't know any of the language. We both knew some Russian when we got here and that made a big difference. I literally don't know how expats who don't learn the language can stand it. It was inconvenient to not be able to say anything besides thank you. I am interested in learning some Chinese now.

There's lots more to say, but I'll save it.


  1. Amira, I can't thank you enough for sharing your photos and writing about some of your traveling experiences! It has really opened my eyes to the world around me!

    The world is really a fascinating place, isn't it? And there are problems and issues, of course, and we should know about them, too.

    China sounds wonderfully interesting.

  2. yeah, me, too. I want to hear more.

    When me and Buttgold went to New York, I had a wonderful time on Canal Street. Sarah was so sick she fell asleep in the McDonald's (and Canal Street was her highlight), but I bargained away. I spent $200 I hadn't even planned on because it was so fun. An Asian woman said, "you hawd (hard) hawd, woman." We laughed together and compromised. It was fun.

  3. Very nice quick synopsis! The haggling thing. Ugh. I cannot stand it. It is the same way in Mexico. I think of how much the cost of something is, then factor in its intrinsic value to me or the merchant. I don't haggle well, as I give in at the top and satisfy the merchant quickly. I have had many spaish speaking firends tell me I've been taken advantage of. Sigh.

    I have been reading with interest about the Chinese governments push to improve the food supply. They have dedicated quite a bit of government money to build grocery stores in rural areas. 80,000 have been built already and they are looking to build a total of 250,000 by the end of 2008. It is a worthy goal, and it seems you have witnessed the benefit of this program.

  4. Ah, I'm jealous. Beijing. I would have never considered going there until I married Russell, but now... now I want to see what's fascinated him intellectually for so long (and amazingly, he's never been either). Your point about not going directly from America is a good one, though. The differences in living standards (and space standards) would definately be a shock.

    Incidently, my girls have always gotten attention from Asians, no matter where we are... when my oldest was a baby, we'd have Japanese tourists stopping us just to take pictures of this red-haired little girl. We always figured it was the hair... maybe it's a cultural thing?

  5. It is very interesting to read about what the Chinese government has done to help the rural areas. However, there are always two ways to look at it. The government can't understand why the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and more aren't more appreciative of all the economic improvments that have been brought to their areas.

    I think it's more an east Asian thing to pay attention to foreigners than generally Asian. We got/get far less attention in the Middle East and Central Asia.

    I have to admit I wasn't all that impressed with Beijing. But really, the parts of China I'm interested in are farther west. I'm not as interested in Han culture, and that's a lot of what you get in the east.

    I think another part of my problem was that two of the biggest attractions in Beijing are Tiannamen Square and the Forbidden City, and both thoroughly represent oppression to me. Usually it doesn't bother me so much (I like the Pyramids and the Great Wall, and they can easily represent oppression), but I couldn't help thinking about the miserable lives so many women lived within the walls of the Forbidden City.

    Thanks for all your comments.

  6. Thanks for sharing about your trip. It sounds like you really had a nice time.

    I can sympathize with some of what you write. For sure the two biggest frustrations for me when I was in China were:
    1) crowds and crowds of people - it seemed I could never just be alone, and I'm a person who likes my own time & space
    2) yet at the same time I felt "alone" a lot of the time because of the language barrier, since I didn't know any Chinese

    My only experience with bargaining was there and it wasn't too bad for the most part but I'm glad that it's not the way I usually have to go.