The National Geographic China of my childhood still exists in the countryside perhaps, however it’s far from today’s reality of China’s cities that are super clean and ultra-modern with the latest in shopping malls and mega stores.

China prepares for the Olympics in August 2008: Its expressways and turnpikes landscaped to perfection by hand, crane after crane poking long arms into every photo, hectic stretches of midnight construction, dozens and dozens of workers with shovels.

Our guide is Louise, 75 years old and from Gaspé.

She fell in love with China 22 years ago and learned Mandarin. Her passion transforms our trip. “I’m brand new,” she announces. “Both hips replaced last August, and I’m ready to go.” She takes the mike at the front of the bus. She has an opinion: “You’ve come to China and you will return less ignorant,” emphasizing the word ignorant. In French, the word niaiseux rolls off her tongue, rendering the point indelible. The bus driver takes a sip of tea from his Mason jar, screws the lid back on and rests both arms on the wheel, waiting for a circular traffic jam to clear. “Oh, I just love Chinese traffic jams,” Louise swivels back in her seat. “Watch this.

Every pair of eyes in our group of 12 watches. A coterie of ancient army trucks, bicycles, renovated motorcycles, foot carriages and small rust-free cars untangles itself from a knot, slowly and surely. Its 32 degrees out there with a humidity level moving it into the high 30s.

From our seats in an air-conditioned minivan, the scene is more captivating than CSI. We’ve arrived after a 30-hour journey to China to visit its major cities, the so-called Classic China tour, and every minute after only two days brings us closer to sensory overload. We don’t want to miss a thing!

Early the next morning we’re on the Great Wall. It’s the first week of May. China is on holiday. The Wall is packed with us and them. We inch our way up the steps cautiously. They’re stone hard and inconsistent in size. We keep our eyes on our shoes.

I feel that I’m being watched, rather, stared at. Eyes bore holes through my body. What are they looking at? I’m one of hundreds of tourists; no different, taller perhaps, blue eyes, brown hair. During a break on another section of the Wall, a teenager approaches with a certain boldness. She’d like her friend to take a picture of the two of us.

I gaze obligingly into the camera and notice the lens focused on my shoes! Of course! My shoes are red, and the Chinese love red. Aha!

As we trek across Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Sky Temple, the Ming tombs, and the Lama Temple, my red shoes are it!

Travelling with a group and the guides

The days fly by and I’m getting into the luxuries of my first guided tour: Restaurants, hotels and flights booked and paid for in advance, the drivers knowing whether to turn left or right, and local guides arranging entrance tickets. Our Beijing guide focuses on ancient Chinese history, barely mentioning China’s turbulent 20th century, including the Cultural Revolution. Louise explains that many people still find it hard to discuss what happened then as families were torn apart and a country of which the people are very proud was deeply divided and lost much economic ground.

The Chinese sense of identity is fuelled by their country’s massive economic and cultural progress over the last 25 years. Many work more than one job, earning less in a year than the average Canadian in a month. The more fortunate few drive BMWs, Mercedes and Volvos. They live in mansions with a second generation growing up thoroughly spoiled and little incentive to work like their parents. Sound familiar?

We learn how the one-child per family policy railroaded into effect in 1979 has many unintended effects. It’s expensive and intrusive. Only rural families and minorities are allowed two children, however, some have more who are unreported and therefore receive no education. A preference for males has created a generation of little spoiled boys who are treated as “little emperors”. They are ill prepared for adult life and the competition for a female mate, hence a source for social tension.

What we take for granted

I buy several postcards from pushy street vendors who mob us each time we step out of the bus. Envelopes from our hotels are printed without adhesive and I’m hardly reassured that they’ll be properly closed when handed in at the hotel reception. Once I ask to shut them myself, however, I only get so far as to watch the clerk glue stick the envelope, a poignant reminder of censorship. We learn later that citizens wishing to stage a protest must register their intent in advance with the authorities, as in Canada. Public demonstrations in China, however, give officials the opportunity to take pictures. If you’ve marched in a demonstration and decide weeks or months later to take a little trip, you may find your plans foiled by security officials at the border who recall your participation with proof of their pictures.

And then, there’s the food!
The first week we eat like kings and queens! Every morning, the hotels’ fancy spread includes four kinds of zhou or porridge (bean, rice, curd and oatmeal), dim sum of all sorts, cold cuts, salads, dumplings, fried tofu, noodles, sticky rice, pork squares and meat balls, egg and meat rolls, sponge and gingeli cakes, soups, steamed sweet buns, croissants, Danish, scrambled and boiled eggs, cereals and tailor-made omelettes. “What is that?” I asked after consulting the label that read se la mi. It looks like round pieces of a cold cut. “Salami, silly,” comes the retort, quickly.

Chinese restaurants handle crowds with aplomb and upon sitting down for lunch, plates of vegetable rice, beef with onions, chicken cubes with tofu, whole fish (yes the head came with the eyes intact), hand-pulled noodles, minced pork, a variety of tasty vegetables and flavourful soups covers the table. Red, green and white melons are desserts. Sometimes we ask the servers what we’re being served and the answer is “Don’t know.”

My clothes tighten rather quickly despite hours of daily walking. The second week we eat less and by the third week, we’ve calmed down to notice that we’ve never seen salt and pepper, bread and butter, red wine, coffee or sweet desserts! With each meal, we’re offered one glass of light beer and green tea. I find a small bottle of ginseng wine, root included, in a 7-11 in Hong Kong for $2. Medicinal and rough, I thought it would taste lovely if I were ill. (Apparently it was wise, I was told later, to have turned down the opportunity to taste a pickled snake spirit served directly from a large jar, snake still very visible.)

Entertainment, the arts and leisure
We’re treated to spectacular Beijing opera with its colourful costumes and squeaky pitches. Shanghai acrobats dazzle us with balancing acts. The Xian Dynasty dinner theatre is awesome. Brush and black ink artists paint our names on home-made paper and on traditional Chinese seals weighing a ton. We visit traditional Chinese pharmacists who weigh and dispense herbs, roots and all sorts of concoctions from a dizzying display of boxes. We tour Suzhou’s world-famous gardens created on the principles of feng (wind) and shui (water). We watch porcelain, ceramics, sculpture, bronze, jade, calligraphy and embroidery in the making. China’s art scene is flourishing and a recent article in The Economist discusses how the number of museums is “really getting out of hand!”

My ignorance of China quickly disappears. The National Geographic China of my childhood still exists in the countryside perhaps, however it’s far from today’s reality. China’s cities are super clean (they sweep the rain!) and ultra-modern with the latest in shopping malls and mega stores. Xian for example, home of the Army of Terracotta Warriors, is a city of seven million. It plans to build a subway system in less than two years. “You’ve come in order to understand China,” our local guide at Guilin begins. “Instead you experience a headlong rush into the future, a hectic rapidly growing country that is bewildering, dynamic and colourful. We are 1.3 billion people and we are everywhere, no?”

Peace and quiet
It is at Guilin where we find at last what most Westerners still think of China: endless rice paddies, peasants shouldering loads of produce, side-street mechanical repair shops and of course, the straw hats.

Say the word Guilin and watch the looks of rapture and pride on the faces of Chinese people. Thousands of little hills composed of bizarre limestone up thrusts grace the Li River, their images transposed on traditional Chinese calligraphy, bamboo artwork and poetry books. Last year’s release of The Painted Veil with Edward Norton was filmed here. Painters and poets have celebrated the area for centuries. It is postcard perfect, in rain or sun.

A lesson
Louise gives us a few lessons in vocabulary and more than one on simple practicalities, such as crossing the street. “Watch how the traffic and the people flow,” she said. “There are very few accidents despite a population of one bicycle for every two people. And I’ll give you $100 if you see a helmet!” I spend hours watching the traffic that slides in and out like water, finding its own way. “When crossing a street,” she adds, “keep walking. Don’t run and don’t stop.” I remember this a little too late the next day when the thunder of thousands of bicycles roar closer and closer. “This must be what Formula One sounds like,” I’m thinking, “and I’m dead,” reaching the sidewalk just in the nick of time. Whew!

Experience China and the numbers
It is said that numbers are only numbers, yet it’s difficult not to be impressed by them over and over again. During our 23 days, I experienced about six seconds’ daytime silence. We see the sun twice for less than a minute each time. One third of the population smokes – everywhere. Shanghai is New York 12 times over. It has grown to 17 million people in 20 years, give or take 3 million. It stretches 50 by 45 miles, the distance from Montreal to Granby. The tallest building in China is 660 meters high. There’s a crane on the top because they’re adding another 10 meters. The foundation for a 1,200-meter high building has been laid. There are hundreds of temples and few churches. According to the local newspaper The China Daily, China expects to build 750 cities over the next 15 years.

As Louise says, you cannot simply read about China, you must GO and experience it. There is so much, so much.

Getting there: Air Canada to Vancouver, then 9 hours direct to Beijing, crossing the dateline into the next day. Coming back from Hong Kong is 11 hours to Vancouver, then 5 back to Montreal. We travelled with Club Voyages, who arranged everything for $5,700, flight, accommodations, transfers, taxes, tips and entry fees. It pays to shop around.

Entry Requirements: A Chinese visa obtained at least 3 months prior to departure, usually arranged for by the travel agency. Be prepared to part with your passport for several weeks or go to the Chinese embassy yourself for the visa (roughly $90).

Vaccinations: Medisys will roll out the carpet on vaccinations! The list is long, particularly if you’re planning to stay in the countryside. Our vaccinations took place over 3 visits and cost between $300 and $400. Some members of our group choose not to have any vaccinations. Imodium is a must.

Climate: May and October are the best months to go. Even so, be prepared for extreme fluctuations in temperature (e.g., 35C in May and 10C in October). Very little rain and too much smog to see the sun.

Language: Mandarin. Very few people, even in hotels, speak English although some Chinese signs are translated loosely into English. Learn a few symbols and basic words, brush up on sign language. Make sure your national tour guide speaks at least some Chinese as some local guides are difficult to understand.

Currency: Divide the Yuan by 7 to give yourself an approximate C$ or U$ equivalent. When bargaining, start with 75% less than what you’re initially offered. It’s fun!

Editor’s Note: Adena Franz is an avid traveller, and a successful financial advisor associated with MacDougall, MacDougall and MacTier.

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