Fact or Fiction V: The Glenpire Strikes Back

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.