Get a Headstart
No two travelers experience a country the same way. One sees a pile of rocks and a semi-dilapidated building, the other sees an ancient fortress where thousands died defending their homeland and an early temple of worship that held the moral fibers of an early civilization together. The difference is usually what you know before you go.
To get you geared up for your next venture into the Middle Kingdom, we have updated our list of recommended books, films, and websites. We have added/deleted to present what we believe to be the best of what is out there. We even added a whole new section of China blogs. You can check it out by clicking here.
Hey! That's My Bag!
If you were sitting in the Guangzhou East train station last week, you saw a tape playing over and over again on the television monitors. This tape showed a man sitting down to wait for his train. He sat his bag down in the seat next to him. He got up to use the toilet. When he returned, his bag was gone. The man was unhappy, as would be anybody. It's just that most people are not quite that stupid. But there's a little bit more to the story of the stupid Guangzhou train passenger. And it's happening all over the mainland. Read more...
China is a safe country and its large cities have to be among the safest in the world. Muggings and other violent crimes involving foreigners are extremely rare. But petty theft is on the rise and unfortunately foreigners are not exempt. That was the underlying message of the train station tape. Purse snatchers, pickpockets, razor artists, and other lowlifes have become such an irritant that the city of Guangzhou, in response to public pressure, recently enacted a new set of statutes to deal with it. The maximum penalty now is death, the single-bullet-to-the- back-of-the-head type of death. The citizens of Hangzhou, southwest of Shanghai, have published their own tourist map. But this map is not the scenic spots sort of thing. The "people's" map shows the favorite locations of thieves around town. Front desk clerks in the cute southern town of Yangshuo remind their guests to be on the lookout for pickpockets when strolling down West Street.
It is rare to find a local, including your writer, who doesn't have a first-hand account of a pickpocket, a bag-snatcher, a cell phone thief, etc. But forewarned is forearmed and that is what this piece is all about. Here are some practical tips on avoiding losses and if they do happen, how to minimize your losses.
First, know where the thieves work. Crowded markets, bus stations, train stations, subway exits, tourist sites, and crowded bars are their favorite spots. When you are in one of these situations, your antennae should be on full alert.
Second, most pickpockets and bag snatchers work in teams. One creates a diversion; someone drops an ice cream cone on your shoe, a cyclist hits the person in front of you, or the subway door is blocked. Once your attention is diverted, the partner goes to work on your wallet, bag, or pockets.
Your best defense is to not make yourself an easy target. To wit:
To minimize losses even should you be the target, take the following suggestions into consideration:
We bring this subject up not to scare you into thinking the mainland is a beehive of petty thieves. But rather to honestly address an issue that really wasn't such an issue five years ago. A little common sense and simple precautions will make your trip to China safe and hassle-free.
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Small Town Does Good
Ten years ago, the small town of Pingyao garnered all of one line in what many consider to be the "bible" for independent travelers, the Lonely Planet. Eight years later, in the 2003 edition, it was touted as a "must-see" attraction of China. So what transformed this impoverished town in the dusty flatlands of Shanxi Province almost overnight? It's an interesting story. Read more...
Pingyao, about 400 miles southwest of Beijing, is a small town by Chinese measures. The population is listed as 40,000 but as with many villages, towns, and cities in China, no one seems to know for sure. It is located along the old capital route, from the present-day capital of Beijing to former capitals of Xi'An, Luoyang, and Kaifeng. It was settled over 2,000 years ago, but little is known or recorded until the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The county in which it sits was the home of many wealthy merchant families who had built their trading businesses generation upon generation. A few of these families built what one could consider Chinese "castles", massive courtyard homes with literally scores of courtyards and hundreds of rooms. Two of these complexes have been restored and converted into public museums. One, the Qiao family courtyard was the backdrop for the 1992 movie, "Raise the Red Lantern".
As the merchants expanded their business across the mainland, transporting the silver coins (the legal tender at that time) became increasingly risky. They developed a set of paper instruments to handle the debits and credits among their customers. Thus, the first modern banking system of China was born. Pingyao became the banking center of China. Local tour guides will tell you in the late Qing Dynasty, there were 50-some banks in China and over 40 of them were in Pingyao. (Shanghai had yet to be invented.) It is said that even the Emperor used the banks in Pingyao. Many of these old banks have been restored and are open to the public.
Pingyao's fortunes rose with the Qing Dynasty, reaching its apogee in the 19th century. But as the Qing period ended in 1908, it looked as if that might be the end of Pingyao. Over the next half century, Pingyao reverted into just another poor town in a poor province. It suffered during the Japanese occupation of 1937-1945 (artillery damage is still visible on the south wall) and again during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's.
But things started looking up when in 1986, the central government designated Pingyao as a Chinese Historic and Cultural City. In 1999, the town was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And the rest, as they say, is history. The latter event transformed this sleepy provincial backwater into a favorite of domestic and foreign travelers alike.
It hasn't happened without a cost. The town has at times resembled a madhouse of touts, hawkers, motor bikes, tractors, cars, golf carts, peddlers, and local tour guides with bullhorns cranked up for maximum decibel production. It was difficult to get that "Qing Dynasty" feel. A couple of years ago the old section was made pedestrian-only and some older "factories" have been relocated to the newer section of town. It seems the tide has turned as Pingyao feels its way toward sustainable tourism.
The town is most famous for the city walls built over 600 years ago. The government touts them as the best preserved Ming Dynasty walls in China and we wouldn't disagree. The city is more than its walls however. The most famous street, South Street, looks as if it had just been constructed for a period soap opera shown on Chinese TV. The shops, restaurants, and guesthouses still retain their historical appearance. There are literally scores of the traditional Chinese courtyard homes to see, some small and untouched, some beautifully refurbished. More than one visitor has commented they felt as if they were seeing the "real" China upon entering the old city.
Pingyao is famous for its hand-stitched shoes (you can literally watch your pair being made) that wear like iron, and its beef. We feature Pingyao on our Many Faces of China tour. It's a town we never tire of visiting.
See it for yourself sometime.
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Film at 11
In our December 2005 newsletter, we touched on Beijing's preparations for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. We glossed over the many infrastructure projects and looked at the cultural changes taking place. Since then, we've noticed a glut of articles in the mainstream media talking about the same subject. (Okay, so they're better-written. Those guys get paid to do this.)
We recently came across a great little short video highlighting a few of the major construction projects currently underway in the capital. You can access it by clicking here. It is courtesy of one of our favorite China blogs, Danwie, run by Jeremy Goldkorn. Check it out sometime.