Ampersand's Travels...

Reasons why I never wanted to visit China, and how wrong I was...

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By Ellie Boulstridge, China Specialist

Before joining Ampersand, I never had any desire to go to India. My first visit turned into a full blown love affair and I'm currently planning my fifth trip in just over three years. Interestingly, when it was decided that I would go to China I recognised the same feelings that I had felt before my first journey to India. As I had turned out to be so wrong the first time, I wondered whether China would be a similar situation; would I come back equally infatuated?

James set Rosie and me an exercise before our trip - we had to pinpoint what it was about this nation, so great, grand and influential, that had in turn not yet captured our imaginations.

Notes I made from the plane, London Heathrow – Beijing:

Reasons I have never wanted to visit China / current perceptions / images:

*  Busy, crowded, claustrophobic and dirty
*  Wide roads clogged with endless people, motorbikes and cars
*  People everywhere - jostling, pushing, crowding
*  Enormous, endless cities stretching in all directions - full of pollution and noise
*  Negative political connotations; corruption, communism, lack of freedom of
   speech, breaches of human rights
*  A vast country that I can't even begin to comprehend
*  Foreign, alien, so different from the west in terms of etiquette / values / culture

Reasons I did want to visit China:

*  Historic richness – I imagine a fascinating, complex and rich ancient world of
   which I am currently ignorant
*  Curiosity about food - everyone says Chinese food is nothing like what we think it
   is in the west
*  Different / exotic aesthetic
*  Witnessing what it is like to live in a country with the biggest population and
   fastest growing economy


Notes I made from the plane, Hong Kong – London Heathrow:

Things that made me giggle / I liked in China:

1.  At Aman Summer Palace they serve cherry tomatoes in display bowls throughout the hotel… They didn't understand why we thought it was funny, because to them it's a fruit, and factually they are correct!

2.  People walking down 'Walk Street' in Beijing eating fried octopus on a stick as if it is the most normal thing in the world. A snack bar we walked past proudly offered what was described as “gold knee cartilage”…

3.  The scale of the cultural sites - breathtaking. The Summer Palace being my absolute favourite.

4.  The people are mostly very kind and gentle. Also I was surprised by how tactile people are in China, especially loved up young couples in the street - kissing, holding hands and touching. Seems unusual for Asia and is surprisingly heart-warming!

5.  In Beijing the food is exactly like Chinese take away. It starts to get more interesting once you're in the provinces - especially Sichuan.

6.  Beijing is enormous and makes London seem like a suburb. The scale of it, and how it looks in the fog is like somethings out if Blade Runner - it felt as though we were in the future but one with an amazing past. Two different worlds blended together in one city.

7.  The activities going on in the parks (countrywide) is hilarious. Amateur bands (i.e. three pensioners) playing the saxophone really loudly and not in unison, big choirs singing party songs, the “over left” meat market (a concept for parents to match make their ‘elderly’ and single offspring!), tennis ball dancing and hakasack.

8.  How caring the hotel and restaurant staff are – I wasn't expecting this. Hotels are stocked with adaptors, every toiletry you could ever have forgotten, staff at restaurants shine your shoes and offer you wipes to clean your glasses… they even give you plastic covers so that your phone doesn't get splashed with hot pot and hair ties so you don't run the risk of dipping your hair in your food!

9.  The landscape in Yunnan province was completely unexpected – it is vast and the polar opposite to Beijing. It was a breath of fresh air and a much needed rural window. Combined with Shangri La it is perfect for more rural travellers. People are laid back, tribal, indigenous - soft and welcoming. Feels very remote but not in a negative way - just completely different to Beijing, like going back in time.

10.  Chengdu was the biggest surprise of all - so much going for it but hard to do justice. The city is enormous but fun and pleasant with a mixture of old and new, communist and capitalist. Pandas, food, opera, tea, shopping and nice people. There is lots to do here. The food on offer in the markets is fun and delicious.

11.  Ear cleaning!!

12.  The concept of saying thank you – it is quite possible for the Chinese to view a ‘thank you’ as an insult, it is rarely used in their language.

13.  Chinese numbers and letters - the logic framework is completely different to the west. Sun and Moon = Clear?!

14.  Children, especially the very young, love waving and practising their English. I was surprised by the very low level of people who spoke English in Chengdu.

15.  People often take photos of you or selfies with you and they openly laugh at you, in a kind way. It is obvious that they find us as crazy as we find them…

For more information or to start planning your tailor-made holiday to China, please get in touch with Ellie:

ellie@ampersandtravel.com   /  +44 (0) 207 819 9770