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

Economic growth was all around. In some ways, China even felt more developed than America. The high speed rails. Factory after factory. Apartment buildings after apartment buildings. Fancy car dealerships, rows of glass panes going up–Audi, Volkswagon, Hyundai. In order to support that growth, everywhere you saw the mountains carved out for soil and rocks. China all of a sudden seemed to be the epitome of abundance.

It was all a striking contrast from Mongolia. Mongolia was the place of vast untouched landscapes still much the same as it was a thousand years ago when Ghenghis Khan roamed. People still lived their sustainable, traditional, nomadic lives. They got their water from wells or streams. They still live in traditional yurts with their families. They herded goats, sheep, and cow. They still wore traditional robes. Life was simple. But their roads were terrible and they relied heavily on China for everything else besides mutton soup. I loved the romance of Mongolia, but still couldn’t imagine how I could survive if I had to eat only mutton soup for the rest of my life.

Below are some photos from Beijing, Suzhou, and Hong Kong during the last month of my trip (without the bicycle). After I finished cycling, I stayed in Beijing for a week, visiting the Great Wall with my brother. Afterwards, I left my bike with a friend in Beijing, and took the train to Suzhou where I spent a week with former MITOCer Blaise. Finally I took the train to Shenzhen and hopped over the border to Hong Kong to meet with the rest of my family, who flew from the US and Canada.

You ask, well what happened to the bike in Beijing? Two weeks later, my flight from Hong Kong to New York had a 24 hour layover in Beijing. So after I landed in Beijing in the afternoon, I stopped by a local bike shop on the way to my friend’s apartment, paid 20 yuan for a bike box and took it home where I then strapped it to my bike. In the morning, I woke up at 6am to allow ample time to bike to the airport 30km away (my flight was at 1pm). The most interesting part of that bike ride was biking through the financial district at rush hour with the super wide bike box. Lots of honking, electric scooters, cars and carts later, I was on a good road out to the airport. Whew! Nothing like arriving at a departures terminal on a bike!

1417648_10100702545430249_303385085_o1401450_10100702543678759_1714838831_o Climbing the Great Wall

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P1040088 obligatory Peking Duck to celebrate arrival in Beijing! P1040090 P1040091 Beijing 2008 Olympic Dolls and Birds Nest Stadium

P1040093Ulugbek had a layover in Beijing while flying from Uzbekistan to Chengdu to go back to school in China

P1040098 P1040101 P1040110 P1040120 Suzhou shenanigans with Blaise (hotpot!) and visiting the Suzhou Gardens

P1040122 P1040124 taking the bullet train from Suzhou to Shenzhen

P1040125 P1040127 from Shenzhen, a hop over the border to Hong Kong to reunite with my parents who flew from the US. From sea to shining sea! P1040219 P1040195 working on the regatta boat with old windsurfing teammates in Hong Kong for the Asian Championships raceP1040286 P1040287 P1040291 P1040292 the last hurrah–24 hour layover in Beijing allows me to get a bike box from a bike shop, pick up my bike at my friend’s house, and bike to the airport. Tada!

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