Published on October 4, 2005

It struck me like a bolt of lightning

Hey, this post is vintage content. It dates back more than 18 years ago: it may contain outdated and inaccurate information.

Something similar had happened to me with other places on other trips, with a couple of cities. But never like this.

Maybe it was the timing, maybe it was Nicola's company, Laura's welcome in Beijing or the total ignorance of the language - which isolates you in curious sensations that are completely new to me - but this trip gave me feelings I had never felt before. And I found myself in the end, as Pecus says, 'with my centre of gravity permanently shifted to the east'.


Beijing is a metropolis in full renewal. Looking at it from above, as you land, it looks like something out of Simcity: brand new or still under construction skyscrapers rise up everywhere, each one surrounded by the newly planted lawn or park; the streets are straight; many are wide and tree-lined. "It's fake" was the first thought that crossed my mind

Walking around Beijing is a good way to get used to China. To its size: little and close are terms to forget. To its pagoda-roofed buildings, which here, in Europe, we only find in books or amusement parks. To the people, willing to give you a tip on which direction to take as soon as you stop on the street with a tourist guide in your hands. To being looked at often as an alien, given the almost total absence of Westerners outside the more explicitly touristy routes.

The renovation of the last few years, in view of the 2008 Olympics, has made Beijing a cosmopolitan_ city: some streets feel like London, others like Los Angeles. Some, at night, are lit up like Las Vegas. To find a little bit of China, you have to wander the neighbourhoods around the Forbidden City, through the hutongs, the alleys that run between the low houses of the centre and in which it is pleasant to get lost. But you only really feel in Beijing when you arrive on Tiananmen SquareSquare: a huge open space where, in the evening, some people fly kites. And many others try to sell them to tourists.

Inside the time machine

That China is an evolving - or at least rapidly changing - country can also be perceived by the music playing on the radio: one can hear indifferently ABBA, The Who, The Beatles, Madonna or Justin Timberlake. It is as if China has suddenly woken up from a deep sleep and is trying to make up for lost time by listening to all the music produced over the last thirty years in the west.

The country of subtitles

If you happen to be in China, turn on the TV: you will hardly not see subtitles.

In fact, all broadcasts are accompanied by ideograms in an attempt to cancel out the language differences that such a large country necessarily faces. Thus, even if an actor has a peculiar accent or incorrect pronunciation, one can follow the broadcast by reading

I, fascinated by the complexity of those signs, often found the subtitles more interesting than the broadcasts themselves, so similar to ours: I even came across CSI. Dubbed by Laurel and Hardy, judging by the voices.

Hangzhou, or heaven on earth

If you're on a trajectory, drop by Hanzhou. "If there is heaven in heaven, there is Hangzhou and Suzhou on earth," say the Chinese. Whether that's true or not, I don't know, but it certainly is China as you might have imagined it sometime.

On one side of a calm lake lies the town (4 million inhabitants, a joke for China); on the other side, gentle hills, dotted with pagodas and Buddhist temples, paint a picture that seems unreal.

If you happen to get into the right taxi, you will receive the taxi driver's free, unsolicited and welcome advice not to visit the local tea museum (a local speciality), but to let him take you to another place: a village of a few houses, lost in the woods, where a kind lady will let you taste different kinds of excellent tea for sale. The doubt arises whether she is the taxi driver's sister-in-law or sister

Guilin, the China you saw in the picture

Guilin was supposed to be a charming little town (just over 1 million inhabitants in 2002) that grew amidst karstic peaks around the Sunny Peak. Not far away are the hills on which rice is cultivated on terraces, as you have probably seen in several photos of China.

The whole river valley on which Guilin lies is an ideal place for tourism. And it didn't take long for the locals and the surrounding areas to realise this: in three years, Guilin has become (according to a local guidebook) a city of four million inhabitants, sprawling without restraint amidst the characteristic peaks.

The city's population has grown to over 1.5 million

And, if you visit a couple of the caves scattered around the region, you will see what Chinese tourism is really like: to make it easier for visitors to get around, the floor of the caves is cemented over. And to avoid annoying drops on the head, the vaults are also covered with concrete. Surviving stalagmites and stalactites pop up here and there from the grey mantle. Add to that the improbably coloured neon lights, the niche with the fake waterfall for the souvenir photo and the guide humming a tune at the end of the visit: it's an experience not to be missed.

Hong Kong, or Jackie Chan's Principality

It is quite remarkable how this hilarious movie man pops out of every wall, billboard, door, advertisement, shop in Hong Kong.

Of course: he is the one who is the most famous man in Hong Kong

Of course: he was born there and the HK film industry has had good success in recent years. And I also like him. But he really pops up everywhere. And on the walk of the stars, right where everyone goes to look at the HK skyline, there are even two shops selling exclusively Jackie Chan signed gadgets and junk.

But do you eat?

During the first few days, my phone calls to Italy to let them know that everything was going splendidly were all marked by the question "... but ... are you eating ... ?". The answer was invariably "no way!": in China you can eat very well. The cuisine is varied, the restaurants have decidedly low prices (a few euros per meal), many have menus in English or with pictures of the dishes, in others someone even explains to you verbally, or with gestures, what it says


Yes, China is close. It is we who are so far away from it...

Go and see it. And realise that it's probably a different place than you expected.

To see from the inside what a country that changes at the speed of light looks like.



August 31, 2005



October 6, 2005

I am Silvano Stralla. I am a developer, I like taking photos and riding bikes.
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