In Pursuit of the Real China

Backpackers – it seem – love to hate people who merely go on vacation. Tourists. Holiday makers. Whatever. The kind of people who go to Rome and see the Colosseum, who see the Pantheon, who eat gelato and pizza in expensive restaurants and take an excessive amount of photographs to upload to Facebook, and then go home and return to the grind of real life, ultimately avoiding an experience of  ‘the real country.’

But what does this even mean? What, or even who, defines the ‘real’ country? Lonely Planet? That obscure blog you stumbled across a year ago? The locals? The locals seems the most logical, of course… but this is problematic to say the least.

I have been in China for the past two and a half weeks. Everything has been organised by SPAR China – our train tickets, our five star hotels, our amazing lunches, dinners, sightseeing. Everything. This experience for me has been a brilliant, yet overwhelming one. I have repeatedly cursed my luck of being in this incredible country and not seeing the real China. The real China doesn’t consist of shopping trips and excessive lunches, right?

Well, wrong. For many in China, this is real life. My business lunches and meetings have all been with those all important locals… directors and associates of international companies but locals nonetheless. This has shown a part of Chinese culture that many backpackers will never experience, but which is an increasingly integral part of life in China. Chinese hospitality has been incomparable to anything I’ve personally ever experienced anywhere in the world, and an experience I will never forget.

Shanghai, Beijing, Taiyuan and Dongguan. Each of the destinations I’ve visited have been built up areas, and most of the people we have been in contact with have been of the successful business type – probably quite different to the Western idealisation of the ‘real’ China… something along the lines of the rural poor slogging away 16 hours a day in paddy fields a few hundred kilometers away from the nearest McDonalds. But China is a developing country. Clearly many aspects of the Western image of China is underestimated, flawed and stuck firmly in the past. Perhaps it’s time to embrace the present, and start enjoying China – and the rest of the world, for that matter – for it’s reality, not the picture painted in Western travelers expectations.



  1. marble

    Gemma great little thought provoking blog!
    How about some more detail of what you did whilst in China and what life is like for the avaerage Chinese worker?

  2. janeisawake

    Interesting post. I had a similar experience in China – visiting it as part of a political exchange – so lots of “business” meetings and banquets, with sight seeing thrown in as a way our delegation being shown the best of China. The most interesting part is the way we got to know our local hosts, learn about their politics, and ask questions to real Chinese political insiders – and get real answers. I think the way we were treated, with such respect, inclusion and hospitality actually says a lot about the Chinese culture, and I too, would never had seen this side on a backpacking trip.

    1. gemmafottles

      I totally agree. The insight to real Chinese hospitality was incredible, if not a little intense. Would love to experience a different ‘backpacker’ side to China, but thoroughly enjoyed the business side!

  3. pommepal

    Thank you for your interesting view of the modern China. You are right we do tend to still think of China in the past. At least I do. It has changed so rapidly. It was only 22 years ago when I was there and back then it was mainly bikes on the roads and Mao suites was the fashion for male and female. Beijing was the only exception with some. western fashion on the streets and one Mcdonalds just opened it’s doors to long queues

  4. Martin Geber

    Hm, so Hilton is local? Just kidding. I am amused to see, well read, how you seem to change over time. “Change” is the wrong word – “how your character refines” (not sure if that works in English, point is: you are not changing in a drastic way, just some views, opinions, etc. Ultimately become (even more) open-minded.)

    When I’d have asked you, before your first trip during the SPAR-thing, what do you think of people staying in expensive restaurants, dining in the most chic restaurants… Would you’d have answered in any way remotely related to the words written above? So what is the lesson here? People: Travel! (I guess, no explanation is required at that point anymore.)

  5. gemmafottles

    It certainly does work in English, Martin, and you’re right. No matter how much you travel, I guess it never stops changing you in small ways over time. Four months ago I would have been pretty outraged at the thought of five star hotels being akin to a ‘real’ experience of a country, but once I’ve experienced it for myself you come to realise not everything is so black and white.

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