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The Great Book Mound Of China

wallThey say you can see the Great Wall of China from the moon, it’s one of those myths that is continually perpetuated and which overshadows an actual fact-you can see all the travel books and articles detailing China from the moon! Seriously if ever there was an oversaturated market in need of de-cluttering then this is it. This, however, is not an article preening with historical goodies or political commentary and it is certainly not intended to add to the already stupendous pile of encyclopaedia like travel guides on China. Rather this is a short list of unusual, everyday things that you can expect to find when you visit China and yet somehow, regardless of the volume of guide books that you consume, they are things which you are never really told to expect! They are extraordinarily varied and not altogether pleasant but at least you will have more of an idea of what to expect, saving you valuable time which you would otherwise have spent picking your jaw off the pavement.

The first thing I learnt about China is that the Chinese like their food-all of it; and by that I don’t mean that they overindulge what I mean is that they eat ALL of it. We’re talking all the undesirables-the fat, the grizzle, the bone, even the heads. When it comes to consuming animal parts no-one can ever accuse the Chinese of discriminating. They love fat, bone, heads etc basically any part of the animal that can be eaten will be eaten so dissecting your food or not looking too closely at it before you eat it will become a necessity. Say goodbye to food that is lean and grizzle free because it simply does not exist here. Eating in China is oftentimes not for the faint of heart and on my weekly expeditions to various supermarkets I encountered everything from cockroaches and chickens with their heads still attached to crocodiles and dog meat. Finding food that is palatable, or even recognisable, will be a source of daily concern for many so be prepared to either enjoy or simply pack enough cereal bars for the duration of your intended stay and never, ever stray from these. Weird food is par for the course so seeing a young boy gnaw vigorously on squid tentacles will be nothing new to the observant traveller. They love peas. No seriously this is true, they have pea ice-cream, yoghurt, crisps and even biscuits. If they can have it in pea flavour they will. They also love corn and it’s to be seen everywhere from KFC to stalls in the street. They don’t do canned food. You can buy it in a glass jar, vacuum packed or fresh but, for the most part, be prepared to say goodbye to prising your food from a tin. Also wave goodbye to beans because they just don’t seem to see the appeal in the little orange, tomato covered buggers. Oh sure you can buy soya beans in sauce but they are not the same so invest wisely in Heinz before you leave. If you are lucky enough to find a restaurant or fast food establishment (McDonalds doesn’t count) that serves burgers then have the name and address of the place tattooed on some vital part of your body, trust me you will thank me for this later. Milk is rarely to be found in the fridge section so get used to seeing it in little plastic sachets near the juices. It will never sit right with those of us who have grown up in a world where milk is a staple resident of fridges but try and resist the urge to place every milk sachet you see into the fridge section of the supermarket as they don’t seem to appreciate you trying to help in this manner! Real chocoholics should know that you will suffer and suffer greatly. Most of the chocolate biscuits and cakes are filled with what can only be described as watered down chocolate. Even if you do manage to get your hands on some normal looking chocolate it will either (a) taste nothing like it does back home, (b) taste of a ridiculous flavour (Cadbury’s blueberry éclairs I’m talking about you) or (c) be outrageously expensive. Bread is also another item that can be hit or miss in this country. The problem lies in the fact that when the bread is not sweet it’s invariably filled with some unnecessary filling like red bean paste-I have no idea why anyone would do this unless as a form of punishment. Oh and forget about pastries and doughnuts because apparently they have yet to reach the East. Yes you will come across things that look like they are cakes or doughnuts but please do not be fooled they are simply masquerading as such and are lying in wait, ready to sicken the unsuspecting traveller.

Be prepared to see men with their t-shirts up over their belly-why I have no idea but it’s widespread so however illogical it may seem get used to it! If your male then allowing the nail on your small fingers to grow to Guinness World Record proportions seems to be expected so try not to be grossed out by this, I’m not saying you’ll succeed I’m just saying try! Spitting…….the Chinese seem to take great pride in clearing their throat very loudly and then spitting in out in full view of everyone and anyone. You will cringe and possibly gag, they will look at you funny-it will be hauntingly awkward. People hold hands-a lot. It just seems to be the way of things here so no giving people strange looks just for doing it. Despite the fact that some of their best known popstars cannot hold a note to save their lives the Chinese are very good at singing so never go up against them in Karaoke-you will lose as unlike us they actually attempt to sing the notes as opposed to screaming them drunkenly. In every photo you take with a Chinese person expect them to give the peace sign (or the sign of victory as one Chinese person called it) it’s their stable pose and everyone from children to old people use it so don’t expect variety in your photos. A quick crash course in photo shopping is probably the best way to solve the permanent V sign from cropping up like an unwanted ‘where’s wally’ in all your favourite pictures.

Beijing-China

The Chinese obsession with having white skin means that you should be prepared never to buy any moisturising lotion here. Do not be alarmed either by the fact that they will walk around in umbrellas and special sleeves that appear to be made from shower curtains when the sun is at its full strength. It looks like something out of the twilight zone but it happens. They take looking white very seriously so expect to get some weird looks when your walking around in your tank top proudly sporting a very impressive sun burn! This is an important one so be sure to highlight this next bit. I don’t know if anyone has told you this but you will look different to them so you will get stared at. No if, buts, ands, or maybes it will happen so get used to it. Most of it is done in a nice way and can be quite humours when people almost walk or drive into things because they are so busy staring at you they have forgotten to pay attention to what they are doing. You will need to try and figure out a way to make having your legs covered in mosquito bites look good….if you succeed in this please let me know.

Don’t ask taxi drivers how much a fare is because they will invariably try and rip you off. Simply get in and wait for the meter to be turned on, it’s a set charge per distance so don’t be caught out by this. If you need to give taxi drivers hand gestures to indicate your destination always sit in the front to avoid being obscured by the metal grill that separates the back of the taxi from the front. It will remind you of every horror film you’ve ever seen but realistically it’s just there to get in everyone’s way. The Chinese don’t use seatbelts; no I couldn’t understand this one either. Not only do they not use them, to the point where they become buried in dust and rust, they even go so far as to buy a device which is shaped like the metal end bit of a seatbelt and which they place into the belt holder to silence the alert noises cars emit to warn you that you have not fastened your essential, possibly life saving belt! Oh and forget what you learnt in the rules of the road book and close your eyes when being driven anywhere. This is a necessity for your continuing mental stability as they drive like maniacs with sporadic usage of indicators and blatant disregard for road markings. Taxi drivers love to cut red lights so try to keep your gasp of alarm to yourself when they cross over to the other side of the road just to skip having to sit at traffic lights. Speaking of which whatever you do, do not place any faith in traffic lights-a green man in China does not mean you can walk across the road safely. In actual fact I’m not sure what it means but it seems to be open to interpretation. As best I can figure it means proceed with extreme caution as you are not the only one whom the green light applies to! Rickety bicycles and carts carrying too many people litter the otherwise extraordinarily modern highways and byways that crisscross the country. Many of them resemble an advanced Jenga tower and look close to collapsing they contain so much rust, but somehow they trudge on regardless. Despite their penchant for driving like absolute maniacs the Chinese drive remarkably new and stylish cars. Few and far between are the bangers that you would see back home, these seem reserved for bicycles only.

English is not widely spoken outside the main cities and even then it can be horribly unreliable so get that Chinese-English dictionary out now and start learning! Get used to hearing people laugh and try, as hard as it might be, not to be offended by it as it is not meant in a malicious way they simply laugh because they are embarrassed so put those frowns away! If you’re from Ireland adapt to the fact that few people will know where the hell you are from and will just automatically refer to you as English. Suppress the urge to hit them and remember that you do not know the geography of China either and everyone makes mistakes. You could also give serious consideration to carrying around a map of the world with you to educate particularly ignorant people with. Always double-check everything as the Chinese will agree with you no matter what so be sure to clarify things when making arrangements. This was a hard learnt lesson so please heed this one as it may save you many hours of pulling your hair out. Things get changed-quite regularly so do not bank on anything being set in stone; everything, and I mean everything, is flexible and set times and dates are mind bogglingly interchangeable. For such a technologically advanced country the internet is sporadic at best so accept that scheduled Skype dates might have to be postponed as you find that your internet has gone MIA-once again. Thanks to the fact that the mobile phone companies are controlled by the government expect to be unable to make or receive any communication once you’ve run out of credit. It always hits at the most inappropriate time and it sucks but it’s just the way things are, venting is cathartic but sadly useless. Changing money is a colossal chore so please do NOT be in a rush when you go to a bank because it takes a very long time. Your details, and disturbingly, your passport will be checked, double checked, photocopied, queried, photocopied again, passed around for inspection again and then quite possibly queried a few more times. It is a long and tedious process in which you will have no idea what is going on and you will just have to trust that they know what they are doing. Oh and a little tip for those of you trying to change the Great British Pound be careful they do not mistake it for the Australian or American Dollar and give you a lousy exchange rate as a result.

Finally the best bit of advice I can give is enjoy it; for unlike those poor souls stuck at home under a mountain of guide books you are actually experiencing the real thing and nothing, not a line or a picture, in any of those books will ever come close to the real thing…….gristle, warm milk, spitting, stares, taxi drivers and all. Oh and when applying for a visa in China save yourself a return trip to the immigration office by checking that they have recorded your place of origin as Ireland and not Iran as apparently they appear rather close to one another alphabetically and therefore are easily mixed-up….regardless of them being thousands of miles apart and as culturally different as night and day…..sigh what was that point I made about being tolerant of people’s lack of geographical understanding, clearly I need to go back and read that one again!

By Kiara Murphy

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