Some final thoughts...
Our bags are more or less packed. We've an early start in the morning and just some time to reflect and think back over an eventful (almost) 3 weeks.
So what have we learned...
First of all I've realised, and probably even John has a bit too, that our thinking about China was at least 20, maybe 30 years out of date. Coming here has been such an eye opener. I thought it would be like India but it is nothing like that! This is a throughly modern country, more tech savvy than most of us in the UK I would say. It's a country that does everything on it's phones - QR codes are everything - we even have a QR code for our thumb prints taken on the way into a building in Shanghai! They are in a frenzy about 5G which is imminent, across the country - the next step on from their electronic loos!
What really stands out is the consistency of approach across such a big country. Yes, there are differences in geography and population - something like 80% of the population live in the North and East. However, the reality is that wherever you go in China you will have access to great roads, transportation and infrastructure and you will have no difficulty accessing a mobile signal whether you're on top of a mountain or in the most remote countryside! Having done whistle stop tours of the history, this 'one country' approach has been a feature right back to Qin dynasty - one language, one people, a united approach etc.
This is a country that is recognisable as thoroughly embracing capitalism - everyone aspires to have a job, then a better job, to be able to buy a house, to be able to afford child care and education (which is expensive) and health care which is paid for through insurance. The principle of families sticking together applies and many generations do live together for traditional as well as practical reasons of saving money and having child care on tap. We have driven down roads that are reminiscent of Park Lane in London - huge multi-national hotels, high end car dealers, exclusive shops. Interestingly, today we saw the one and only person begging on the street we have come across and yesterday watched a chap checking through the bins to find discarded Starbucks coffee to drink.
We are convinced there is no steel left for the rest of the world because China needs it ALL - they are building so much and at pace, they must be consuming all the steel there is! As well as having a beautiful view of the main sights of Shanghai we haven't told you that our hotel window also overlooks a building site! Initially we were thoroughly annoyed, but it has grown on us and we have to have regular updates on progress with pile driving, trench dredging, the essential hosing to keep the dust down and tea break times.
They build cars here - Range Rovers, BMWs, Fords, VWs, Buicks - anything you fancy, there will be an assembly plant for it probably in northern China. Of course there are Chinese models too - usually taxis, but most cars on the road are new, modern and high tech including electric. When we were in Xi'an we learned that it is the home of Volvo and VW plants and a huge Lenovo computer production centre. Of course the most ubiquitous road vehicle is the electric scooter - everyone has one. In the old days we all held images of people riding bikes in China - well they still do but those that aren't electric are hired via an app from bike 'pools' that are available in every town.
More than anything this is a country FULL of people - millions and millions of them. We've come to understand the implications of that, particularly in Beijing. Alice, our guide told us that Chinese people generally shout because it's so noisy in most houses and public spaces, simply because there are so many people around! If you don't shout you won't get heard!
Jo, our guide in Xi'an told us that most people live in high rise appartments which is great in terms of access to housing...until it comes to parkng. In the mornding, she says it's wise to allow at least a couple of hours to get your car out because everyone just parks where they can and you have no guarantee that your strategic parking for a fast get away will achieve anything!
But they're all very patient with the queuing and jostling that comes with being so many people. It's probably why chinese people don't queue (unless it's to see Chairman Mao in his tomb or if there's a guard organising the toilet queue). If you do queue, you'll never get anywhere! While we were walking though the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and being carried along by the crowd, Alice described the phenomenon as the chinese Sea of People - you just get carried along by the flow - you may get bumped and jostled a bit but generally you'll end up where most people are going! That's a lovely idea - there is a real sense of this being a country of people who have learned how to move together with all their differences but with a powerful sense of unity.
Our observation from our young guides is that young people love being part of China - they love their country. They love President Xi who they see as a reformer who is making life better for them. That's completely different from the old days of the Communist Party - You don't get a sense of compulsion now but a genuine pride in their country. People can and do watch the BBC and CNN - they use it to practice their English! They know plenty about what's going on in the world, they know what's happening in Hong Kong. They have technology and they use it. They would love to have access to Iphones - there are Apple shops but the phones are so expensive - it's actually worth going on holiday outside the country to buy an Iphone!
We have been rubbish at eating out and ordering food in local restaurants. We have a fundamental flaw in that neither of us like dumplings or noodles. It is fair to say that most chinese people would happily live on these two staples. Chinese people love to snack so many places are dedicated to one particular sort of food, so for us, to get a decent meal we'd probabaly have to go to several different places.
Our hotel rankings - we have to differentiate between 'chain' and boutique hotels:
Cote Cour Beijing - quirky being in the Hutong - but fabulous food and, of course, we had the joy of Tao Tao, the hotel cat as our welcome to china house guest
Jings Residence - Pingyao - also quirky - amazingly attentive staff who left us little gifts of hand sewn bags to put things in
Hilton - Xi'an - has to be our number one 'chain' hotel - definitely for food - the buffet was amazing! Somehow they made a huge hotel personal.
MGM Diayutai - Chengdu - the most eye popping high tech, massive room with every facility possible, but a very strange restuarant and empty bar - we can forgive them anything because of the pandas!
Shangri-La in Guilin - huge, impersonal....but had shops!
Li River Resort - Yangshuo - our favourite! We loved the staff, the food, the hospitality, the complete remoteness of it all
Hyatt on the Bund - can't help feeling our first choice of the Peace Hotel would have been better, more central for some of the sights (thanks Chinese government for bumping us out!) but then we would have missed out on watching the river, the building site...
As for our guides - they have all done their job well, but some are way more outstanding than others.
Our favourite has to be Alice in Beijing - for her sense of fun, for sharing so much of herself with us and for really thinking hard about treats to bring us every day (i'm still eating her stash of seed bars she found me!) This girl is amazing - anyone who can do a few kilometres along the Great Wall every few days is a fit as a flea, but she was very tolerant of our various aches and pains and found us every sort of work-around to experience as much as possible.
Jo, in Xi'an runs a close second - amazing knowledge of the Terracotta Warriers and the history. She has a rare gift in a tour guide - she's been doing it so long that she's realised it can be more interesting to listen rather than just to talk. She asked us about ourselves and our lives and was inquisitive about the world. She's off to Peru for a holiday soon!
Probably equal second is Irene in Guilin and Yangshuo - she seems very young but has a little girl aged 3 who loves Peppa Pig! She is so passionate about her part of the country, the fruit and vegetables - she's got a cure for everything that grows in someone's garden or on the side of a mountain. She also loves her food!
No one knows more about pandas than Danna, but she was rubbish at treats! (I should explain that part of the package with Audley is 'daily treats' - this is usually fruit or some sort of snack plus water, of course) Danna's treats were packets of what seemed to be crushed biscuits. However, Danna just loves pandas and even though she visits them several times a week, she is such a fan - she knows where they sleep, she knows the short cuts around the reservation and gets ridiculously excited about them.
Lele was the historian amongst our guides - in Pingyao. She is one of those who starts from the moment you get in the car, while you're still reeling from finding your way out of station and navigating car park traffic and can't concentrate and she's off on dynasties and meanings of symbols! What can I say, she was probably the least empathetic of our guides!
Kathy in Shanghai (also very young) has been very focused on the specifics of the visits we have done. We were astounded to learn more about the city in an hour on a Big Bus Tour this morning than we've picked up from Kathy in 3 days!
Finally, I ought to say something about toilets. There's work to do China! The range is too great at the moment. I love your high tech loos, i get that squatting is a much more 'natural' approach, but I do like a choice and I hate your occasional foul smelling, offensive shockers! Sort it out!
It's been an amazing 20 days - it seems like months! We've done so much and got so much to think back on. By the time the jet lag gets us over the weekend, we'll lose our relaxed and chilled out current state but hopefully the improvements to us - whether in John's back or my sense of perspective in life will hopefully stick with us!