Some Thoughts on My Way Back From China

I spent a few weeks in China... mainly visiting the Shaolin temple, but seeing other sites as well. I have some thoughts.

Very Western

I traveled in Shanghai, Dengfeng, and Beijing. All were far more western than I expected. Advertisements were everywhere. In the larger cities, the ads were for luxury items (watches, perfumes, cars) and in Dengfeng, there were a ton of ads for real estate.

English was everywhere. I expected English in Shanghai as it is one of the Capitalist experiment zones in China. I understand why there's English in Beijing as they hosted the 2008 Olympics. But out in the middle of the country... in Dengfeng... there are plenty of signs in English.

There are ATMs everywhere. Almost every store takes Visa and Mastercard and a fair number to Amex and Discover... which I found weird because Discover is not accepted in Europe.

Wealth Schism

The restaurant we ate at in Dengfeng (I was with a tour group of 200+ people, so there were very few restaurants that could server 200+ people in under an hour) paid their workers 6 yuan per day. That's about $1 per day. In the big cities, government workers get paid 6,000 yuan per month... that's about $1,000 per month.

Yet in Shanghai and Beijing, apartments sell for $400+ per square foot and that average apartment size is 500 sq. ft. That means that on $1,000 folks are supposed to afford a $200,000 apartment. And the apartments are not sold as they are in the US... they are sold as 70 year leases from the government.

So, there's a class of people in China making $5,000+ per month that can afford western cars and western priced apartments. And there's a class of folks who are making communism-style wages.

Not Not a Bubble

And there's a housing bubble. Much of the very expensive property is unsold/un-used. This includes expensive housing in The Bund in Shanghai (a very expensive part of town), a Soho-style office building in Beijing, and a whole city near Beijing that is patterned after Paris. But the tour guides assured us that property prices never go down so a lot of families are buying what they can so they don't miss out on the increase in housing prices.

One of our tour guides joked that China means: Cheap Housing Is Not Available.

Smartphones Are Everywhere

Many of the Chinese have smartphones. Lots of Android... but the iPhone seems to be the status phone. Smartphone plans are very cheap... about $35 US (200 Yuan) for a month of local calling service.

iPhones were particularly popular among the Shaolin monks... although the older monks all had Blackberries. ;-)

Twitter and Facebook banned

It's not possible to directly connect to Twitter or Facebook from China. Nor the New York Times nor Google. Sigh.

I had to spend $10 on a VPN service so I could access Twitter and the NYT.

Of course, there are ways around these issues in China. Buy a VPN service. Use IFTTT to clip articles out of the New York Times, etc.

I think it's sad and scary that a government is blocking access to information and conversation. And, yes, this applies to any government including the US government.

Lots of Construction

There's construction everywhere. One of the tour guides joked that the construction crane is the national bird of China.

There are plenty of highways. Beijing has a very large subway system and Shanghai has what they claim is the largest subway system in the world.

There's high speed rail between cities. The airports are new and clean. China is taking transportation very seriously.

Beijing and Shanghai each have populations of about 25M people. That means that these two cities alone have 1/6th the population of the United States... and they are more modern than any US city I've been to.

Security State

Air travel in China is less of a hassle than air travel in the US. The security screenings are less intrusive, more complete (there's lots of folks wanding anyone who sets off the metal detectors), faster, and seemingly saner than the US.

One has to get a travel visa to go to China. But this is not much different than non-US traveler who pay money to apply for entry to the US.

China does not finger-print foreign visitors, where the US does.

In China, they x-ray bags before you can enter the subway (I'd hate to see it at rush hour).

There are a similar number of hostile looking paramilitary folks on the street in New York around Times Square as there are near Tianamen Square in China.

All in all, the US seems more foreign hostile and as much of a security state as China... and that makes be both sad and embarrassed.

Mr. Lee

There's a Chinese fast-food chain called Mr. Lee. It's awesome and inexpensive. The western fast food chains charge western prices (62 Yuan for a pizza at Pizza Hut, 10 Yuan for a small chicken sandwich at KFC). A full dinner for two at Mr. Lee including a beer and lots of sides was 78 Yuan. Lunch for two was 36 Yuan (about $6).

Non-Potable Water

I think the most disappointing thing in China is the lack of potable water. Water from facets must be boiled before drinking. This is just strange. And the price of beverages that were not tea was very high. The hotel where we stayed charged 30 yuan ($5) for a 400ml bottle of water and did not make any other water available.

On the other hand, all the hotel rooms had electric water kettles and plenty of tea.

And Coke and Sprite was everywhere. I avoid sugary soda and my son doesn't drink anything with bubbles (strange kid).


To a great degree, I was sad visiting China. I was hoping for something different than the western experience. But for the most part the experience in China was less exotic and more western than I had hoped.