Category Archives: China

Red China Blues

“Living in China has made me appreciate my own country, with its tiny, ethnically diverse population of unassuming donut-eaters.”- Jan Wong, Red China Blues (book)

Being in China this time was very different from times before; I noticed issues that I hadn’t before. In my life, I never really paid attention to Chinese politics much. I am, afterall, an American, having lived here practically all my life. But a few issues struck my attention on this visit.

The first issue was China’s censorship. I now realize the extent to which the Chinese people live in a very insular bubble. Because of the censorship, China has created its own social media outlets such as QQ, WeChat, and weibo. With everyone in China glued to these social media channels, everyone there believes that the way the world works is the way China works. When I met the Chinese road workers in Mongolia, they could not understand how I didn’t have QQ.  “But everyone has QQ!” they said. I tried to explain that China, and only China, has QQ. I wrote down my email address for them and they stared at it as if they had never seen an email address before. Maybe ignorance is bliss?

The omnipresent control was evident in the internet cafe system too. In order to use a computer, you must swipe a Chinese ID card into the system. Because I don’t have a Chinese ID card, often I wouldn’t be allowed to use the computer. Only if I were lucky could I get the internet cafe worker to use their own ID cards to turn on a computer for me to use. It was frustrating when there were a million internet cafes in town, but I couldn’t use a single one. So, note to foreign travelers in China thinking they can use internet cafes–not an easy endeavor!

The second issue that I could not escape was the pollution. Looking out the window in Beijing and Suzhou, the high-rises just across the street were hard to see through the haze. Just a 30-minute run in Suzhou, and I could feel my lungs burning by the end of it. The air pollution wasn’t even considered too bad at the time by locals. It got worse in the summer months; people said when the pollution was really high, the sky was yellow. Besides air pollution, I stopped drinking boiled tap water (what locals drink) because I realized that though the tap water would not kill me tomorrow, it might have heavy metals and god-knows-what-else to cause health problems in the long term. I started drinking bottled water, but even that, who knows where the bottled water came from?

P1040094 air pollution in Suzhou

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China – It All Ends With Mao

***As promised, the final chapters of the journey.

The train from left Ulaanbataar at 6pm and before I knew it, I woke up 13 hours later just as the train was pulling into the border town Zamiin-Uud. The train arrived at 7am and I was eager to get across the border to China early. But my hopes sank when I found out that the luggage department where my bike was didn’t open until 9am. Even until my last moment in Mongolia, it was true: things never happen quickly in Mongolia.

The border crossing into China was a slow process. I was not allowed to ride my bike across the border area, so I had to find a jeep to take me and my bike. People were friendly though and before long, a Mongolian woman and her son took me in their jeep. We went from the border checkpoint across some no-man’s land, then through a Chinese drug test drive-through that was much like a car wash, before arriving at the immigration building.

The funny thing about being Chinese-American in China is getting treated differently depending on whether you are Chinese or whether you are a foreigner. At first when the Chinese border officials saw me wandering around at immigration not sure where to go, they would yell at me “What are you doing”! But after they looked at my passport and saw that I was American, they gave me special privileges like getting moved to the front of the line, or letting me pass through the border area on my bike instead of getting in a jeep. Time and time again in China, I encountered this double standard. If others knew I was a foreigner, I would be treated like a special guest. But more often people just ignored me since, at first glance, I was just another one of the billion Chinese people in this country.

There are some borders that simply lie in a field and change nothing; other borders are thresholds to a whole new world. I first experienced the latter a couple of years ago cycling through the Ethiopia-Sudan border at Metema. Now I experienced it again at the Mongolia-China border.  On the Mongolian side, the town of Zamiin-Uud was only one small street with a couple of small buildings and the train station. You hardly saw anybody on the streets, except for the jeep taxi drivers who lingered by the train station hoping to grab customers while smoking their cigarettes. But upon entering China, I was greeted by not just a border town, but a border city. Here in Erlian, China, though on the edge of Gobi Desert, there were things–lots of things–including a KFC! The experience was both dazzling and dizzying. It was immensely comforting to see the KFC logo with Colonel Sanders smiling down on me. Gone were the terrible roads in Mongolia. In China, the streets were covered with endless smooth pavement, exceptionally wide bike lanes, signs to tell you where you were supposed to go, and bike-lane traffic lights to tell you when to stop. The streets were bustling with people, shops, scooters, and electric bikes. There were large commercial banks, furniture showrooms, fancy lobbies, cosmetic shops, and shopping malls.

But the best of all was that there were so many places to eat. Oh, the sweet aroma of noodles, steamed buns, dumplings, congee, hot soy milk, and fried pancakes! The food of my childhood and the food of my dreams! No more Mongolian mutton soup! The side streets were filled with the brilliant colors of all the fresh fruit and vegetables you could think of. I could not help but stop at every food stand. Needless to say, I didn’t bike very far that day.

China border city Erlian (Erenhot) on Mongolia-China border

P1030916P1030915In the province of Inner Mongolia, road signs are in Chinese characters and Mongolian script. The road signs also sounded like propaganda slogans. “Protect the road, everyone has responsibility!” and “Please don’t drive when drowsy!”

P1030922P1030919Dinosaur fossils were found nearby Erlian in the Gobi Desert, so the Chinese decided to build giant dinosaurs to attract tourists.

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