Fact or Fiction V: The Glenpire Strikes Back

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Welcome back one and all to the April edition of Fact or Fiction. Those of you who read either of the last three will know, every edition I will have a guest and we will discuss a few of the big issues in China of the day. Every answer will have a “Fact” or a “Fiction” and some justification to go along with it.

Today my guest is Rebekah Pothaar, the former editor of Ctrip and Chinatravel.net and former Shanghaiist and CNNGo contributor. She always dreamed of being a travel writer until she discovered through experience that writing is one of the most badly paid “glam” jobs on earth. So in 2009, she tossed her old dreams out the window and chose a life of corporate advertising in Shanghai. Since then she has what they call “career prospects” but rarely has time to write. Lonely Planet and The Telegraph phone her from time to time asking for her work, but she disdainfully asks them to show her the money. So far, they haven’t coughed up anything worth rolling out of bed for. She dreams that one day writers will be paid enough so she can leave the advertising business and return to writing again. In her spare time, she still enjoys traveling in China and lists camping on the Great Wall and running the Great Wall Marathon as her most unique China experiences.  With the May Holiday coming up, Rebekah and I will be discussing several travel issues in this crazy country of ours.

So join us for Fact or Fiction 5:  The Glenpire Strikes Back!!  (…I’ve seriously been waiting four issues of this to use that title)

Welcome back one and all to the April edition of Fact or Fiction. Those of you who read either of the last three will know, every edition I will have a guest and we will discuss a few of the big issues in China of the day. Every answer will have a “Fact” or a “Fiction” and some justification to go along with it.

Today my guest is Rebekah Pothaar, the former editor of Ctrip and Chinatravel.net and former Shanghaiist and CNNGo contributor. She always dreamed of being a travel writer until she discovered through experience that writing is one of the most badly paid “glam” jobs on earth. So in 2009, she tossed her old dreams out the window and chose a life of corporate advertising in Shanghai. Since then she has what they call “career prospects” but rarely has time to write. Lonely Planet and The Telegraph phone her from time to time asking for her work, but she disdainfully asks them to show her the money. So far, they haven’t coughed up anything worth rolling out of bed for. She dreams that one day writers will be paid enough so she can leave the advertising business and return to writing again. In her spare time, she still enjoys traveling in China and lists camping on the Great Wall and running the Great Wall Marathon as her most unique China experiences.  With the May Holiday coming up, Rebekah and I will be discussing several travel issues in this crazy country of ours.

So join us for Fact or Fiction 5:  The Glenpire Strikes Back!!  (…I’ve seriously been waiting four issues of this to use that title)

Fact or Fiction

1. China is a difficult place to travel

Glen: FACT

That is with a caveat of course. The only other places that I have traveled to aside from China are North America, Western Europe, and Southeast Asia, and compared to any country in those regions, China is rather difficult. If you add in the difficult language, the very difficult writing system, 1.3 billion people all trying to bump into you, and the very different culture, and you have a trip that is an adventure, but a slightly more challenging one than I had been previously used to.

Rebekah: FACT

I can’t disagree. China is undeniably more tough than most places, but it just means you need to do your research before you go. It also depends where you go and by what mode. It depends on why you came here to begin with. You need a lot of patience and energy to travel in China and you also need to be really curious and open-minded. You can’t expect the same comforts of home, and things don’t fall into your lap as easily as elsewhere. My advice is DO YOUR HOMEWORK BEFORE you travel in China – and I don’t mean just carrying a guidebook. The best travel advice is on forums like Lonely Planet’s Thorntree and for sure TripAdvisor is one of the best resources available. Also the advice of your friends. If they aren’t raving about it, don’t go. If they’re raving…go. I don’t usually research before traveling…except in China. Now I’m obsessed with it – a total control freak.

Well that’s a nice polite start.  How very Canadian of them.  1 for 1.

2. Beijing is a better tourist destination than Shanghai.

Glen: FACT

And may I add: fact FACT, a ZILLION times FACT!!! Now I certainly have as oft spot for Shanghai, living so close to it, but Beijing is well…Beijing. Shanghai is a city that I feel has more to do than the capital, but less to see. Add in the fact that there is no Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, or Temple of Heaven in Shanghai and it’s a pretty easy distinction from my vantage point.

Rebekah: FICTION

Hmmmm, depends on how you define “better.” The first thing I did on arriving in Beijing was hiding out on the nearest Starbucks and cursing the godawful cold. The two cities are night and day. While Beijing will get you more interesting photos, Shanghai will get you more interesting memories. Shanghai has a dirty, sexy soul and sort of aloof coldness that makes you wish you could understand “better.” Shanghai also treats backpackers like homeless people – so don’t expect anyone to help you. As a visitor, you might be able to understand Beijing a bit better at a glance, but Shanghai… well, I have lived here for three years and still don’t get it. Beijing is kind of “what you see is what you get” and Shanghai will forever play games with you and then spit you out, just as soon as you thought you’d made friends.

Hmmm….so if they were both lovers, would Beijing be the one that you should want, but Shanghai be the one that you keep chasing?  I’ve never been more intrigued by the Whore of the Orient… 1 for 2.

3. Chinese Tour Groups are the worst part of traveling in China.

Glen: FACT

I was all set to say Fiction, thinking about the urinating in the streets or the internet issues, but upon some reflection I changed my mind. I remember this summer, when I was in Qinghai province, I went to Ta’er Si, a very holy Buddhist Temple outside of Xinning. I was very excited to be in this sacred place and have some moments of solitude, but all of the pushing, smoking, spitting and “wei ni hao”ing really hurt my chance of attaining inner peace. I know that there are lots of cultural and social reasons for the tour groups to behave the way they do, but I don’t have to like it.

Rebekah: FICTION

I’d say its Chinese tourism that’s the worst, rather than tour groups per se. It’s the concept of having to own nature in a lot of these tourist spots that is often positively vulgar, more so than the crowds – or perhaps it’s a type of kitsch that I just don’t understand. It’s knowing there is one “photo taking spot” and it’s more about proving “I was there” than actually being there and enjoying the experience. The hawkers and crap sold all over the place, animals on site like ponies and camels for you to get your photo taken on top of – this is the most tacky. I’ve gotten to the point where I avoid popular tourist destinations because the more popular – the more likely you are to be disappointed. I have never been to the Terracotta Warriors and have no intention of going for this reason – I am sure the photos are better than the actual “experience.”

Seems like they agree on a macro but not micro level.  Interesting.  1 for 3. Time to switch things up!

4. It is impossible to get “Off the Beaten Path” in China.

Rebekah: FICTION

China is a big country and there are off the beaten track places, and there are also many places that appeal more to Westerners than Chinese – like Xinjiang for example. Westerners love Xinjiang, but most Chinese would not put this top on their list. Xinjiang has all the attractions of the Stan countries but with more infrastructure. Also Yunnan and Guangxi provinces have off the beaten track destinations – I was very impressed by the pristine quality of Tiger Leaping Gorge despite its fame as long as you take the high road; Chinese tourists all take the low road.

Glen: FICTION

Only because I used the word “impossible”, and technically nothing is impossible, but it sure is difficult.  I found some places in Xinjiang to be pretty quiet, and some places to be pretty quiet.  Even my aforementioned trip to Qinghai was far more crowded than I thought it would be.  There are over a billion people in this country, plus millions of foreign tourists, so it’s hard to find any path that has yet to be beaten, but it is still doable with some effort.

Some agreement about finding your own moment of solitude here.  2 for 4.

5. It is very naive for any traveler to say that they have “Done China”

Rebekah: FICTION

Having “done” China, means you’ve experienced an open-faced squat toilet – in other words, you’ve left your comfort zone, you’ve eaten many things without knowing what they were, you’ve recognized the enduring beauty of neon lights, you’ve had an old lady push in front of you in the queue, you’ve ridden a bicycle with the masses, you’ve haggled and won, you’ve learned to stop taking “Mei you” for an answer, and you have developed a grudging respect for the tenacity and perseverance of Chinese people. You don’t have to go far or many different places to have experienced all of the above, so you’re not naïve; you’ve done China when China’s done you.

Glen: FACT

First off:  “you’ve done China when China’s done you” may be the greatest line in the history of not only this website, but possibly in the history of the entire internet.  Who do I compose a strongly worded e-mail to in order to get it recognized?

Oh right, the topic at hand.  I think that China is one of the countries in the word that is most difficult to effectively “do”.  It is the third largest country in the world, with the largest population, the longest history, and one of the most varied landscapes.  To say that it is “done” is either pretty darned close to impossible or very naive.  I lived in Canada for 25 years, and I don’t think that I’ve properly done it, so I doubt I could “do” China in that amount of time.

Interesting disagreement.  2 for 5.  One last chance to go halfsies.

6. Your agree with the Lonely Planet Top 5 Places in China: The Forbidden City, The Terracotta Warriors, The Bund, The Great Wall, and The Li River.

Rebekah: HALF AND HALF

I have been to all of those places, except the Terracotta Warriors (which I have no intention of visiting because have heard from multiple friends that it’s a horrid gong-show). The Great Wall is amazing (not Badaling, but Jinshanling to Simatai). The Li River (especially around Yangshuo is incredible). The Bund is stunning with its combination of classical European buildings on one side of the river and skyscrapers on the other – and you gotta love the Pearl Tower – the most gayest, most phallic, most fabulous building on earth! I never get sick of staring out over the Bund with a glass of champagne. The Forbidden City is boring, to be honest – it’s one of those “must see places” that’s forced on you and you can’t escape. I’d have to say that Tiger Leaping Gorge was really great, better than the Forbidden City. And having watched Avatar, I’m dying to visit Zhangjiajie in Hunan province: exchange that for the Terracotta Warriors.

Glen: FICTION

No love for the Terracotta Warriors eh?  Well I think that they belong in that pretty elite category.  However, I would ditch The Bund for sure.  It’s cool and all, but I don’t think that it’s anywhere near the Karakoram Pass, Xiahe, Dali, or Xishuangbanna.  As for the others, I think that the Great Wall is absolutely spectacular, especially the Huanghuacheng section, and The Li River was straight out of a fairytale, and I really dug the Forbidden City.  However, something has to go to make room for my places.  I’d have my Top 5 be:  The Great Wall, Karakoram, The Terracotta Warriors, The Li River and Xishuangbanna with all of the other places mentioned rounding out the Top 10.

Well they may not agree technically, they certainly agree in spirit.  I’m counting it!  3 for 6.

So that about does it for this edition of the program, for Rebekah, I’m Glen,  thanks for reading!  As always we’d love to hear your thoughts/opinions on the issues out there in commentland.

Talk on Fact or Fiction V: The Glenpire Strikes Back


14 Comments
  1. Profile photo of Ericka

    I agree with Glen on #3, tour groups are horrible. They may be a cheap way to travel but you don’t get much of an experience, just taking the “I was there” photos. I’ve gone to popular destinations and done fine on my own, but when you go with tour groups, they don’t let you wander and you go when sites are most crowded.

    • Tour groups may be horrible, but I think it is best to start with them. Then wander off on your own once you get a general idea. And obviously, if you don’t know the language, they’re generally a big help.

      However, I have to agree that Lonely Planet is not really so lonely. It’s so commercialized.

  2. Glen, I like your addition of Karakoram for a Top 5 spot! The thing I don’t like about the Lonely Planet list is that they don’t go beyond the big cities. Each one of those places listed is a no-brainer and not really worth calling a “list”.

    • Second that, the karokorum and villages in northern Pakistan, and of course Kashgar (KaShi) in Xinjiang were amazing! That trip along with doing the TLG in Yunnan are by far my favourite places thus far for spectacular scenery, CGI couldn’t do better.

  3. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  4. Profile photo of

    Shanghai has a dirty, sexy soul and sort of aloof coldness that makes you wish you could understand “better.” Shanghai also treats backpackers like homeless people.

    Possibly one of the best descriptions of Shanghai I’ve ever read.

    Kudos Glen and Rebekah — I think that was the best FoF yet (and, really, I’ve liked them all). Rebekah, nice to finally have you on the blog! Incidentally, I found the same thing out about (travel) writing — journalism in general, really. It’s why I now do what I do, and no longer edit or chase editors for a living.

    • Thanks Ryan, my pleasure to finally be on this blog…god knows how many of your writers I’ve been trying to poach in the past ;-)

      But yes… they never tell you in journalism school that journalists will never have nice shoes…guess we are all idealists, eh.

  5. I have to say, I really do enjoying your “Fact or Fiction” blogs.

    When you are speaking about “off the beaten track” would you be referring to Laowai’s beaten track or Chinese. Two different places here.

    My husband and I traveled in some towns that even the Chinese didn’t know existed, so there are definitely remote places,.and yes to your point, the toilets are nothing to rave about. I would have preferred the back of a tree in some cases. But the local food is extremely tasty.

    There are also places that the Chinese are very familiar with but Westerners aren’t aware of it yet, which is nice.

    As for Thorn Tree I have found in many cases it’s main stream. If you want interesting places, go online, read blogs, and talk to Chinese. Most of the places we visited were from Chinese friends, blogs, my taiji instructor, and basic 101 internet.

    We love China, and have seen more than most, but merely a drop in the bucket.

  6. @everyone, thanks for your good words about it. I was pretty happy with this issue. But Ryan, you are too modest, here I thought you would have liked edition 1 the best :)

    @Josh, I LOVE Karakoram! My biggest China travel regret is that I only went as far as Karakul lake. I wish that I had the time to go all the way into Pakistan, it was simply amazing. Ah well, there’s always next time, right?

    @Tina, I agree the Laowai and the Chinese paths are rather different, and I guess I meant both of them. While it is great to get off of the Laowai path, it tends to mean that there are more tour groups, and as I said in #3 (and thanks for agreeing Ericka) that’s the worst thing to encounter :)

  7. Great list guys, and I agree with Ryan that this is the best FoF ever. I’m particularly pleased that both Rebekah and Glen cited Yunnan destinations as missing in the LP list. I’d add the Tibetan parts of Western Sichuan in, as well- they’re as authentically Tibetan as in any part of the TAR and reachable without the dreaded permit.

    I do want to comment on the Chinese tour group phenomenon. Like many readers of this blog, I suspect, I’d hate to actually be on one of these tours what with the silly pink hats and flags and buses with creaky PA systems. But these groups are so predominant and have such narrow itineraries that they hardly touch what’s actually interesting about various places in China.

    Take Dali, for instance. Tour groups in Dali literally restrict themselves to walking up Fuxing Lu and down Renmin Lu, merely two streets in the center of Old Town. Travelers who are prepared to walk 500 meters out of the way can find the authentic Bai villages and streetlife that the tour groups purportedly offer. Chinese tourists are happy to spend 100 RMB on fake ethnic minority ‘festivals’ rather than seeing the exact same thing happening in the same town that isn’t organized.

    So for the adventurous traveler, tour groups are actually a blessing because they funnel the masses away from the actual interesting, authentic things to see in China.

    Great post!

    • I did consider adding both Xiahe and Tongren in Gansu and Qinghai provinces respectively. They, like Western Sichuan are also Tibetan in the truest sense, but not the most technical sense, and are well worth the time.

      Interesting point about the red hats, I still can’t stand them though :)

  8. I detest the ‘i’ve done…’ line and believe it to mainly be said out of arrogance. It’s very difficult to have experienced everything a single place has to offer, whether historical sites, tacky tourist traps (which occasionally can be a laugh) or connected with the locals, in a single place let alone an entire country!

    As for the terracotta army, I agree not the most authentic experience in China, but theres ample other places in Xian and the surrounding areas to compensate. I recommend the grand buddha grotto on the outskirts of nearby Binxian. When I went there the roads were being rebuilt so it was a 6 hour dusty local bus ride, but we had the place to ourselves- ticket lady and guys sweepig the path not included!

  9. Pingback: Giving Thanks To China: Part II | Lost Laowai China Blog

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