Long Walls and Short Urinals

Observations from a first visit to China by Adrian Ferraro

If I’m honest, China has never been particularly high on my bucket list. Sounds terrible, but it’s true. So when the possibility of a work trip came up, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit. But I was intrigued. How could I pass up a first-hand experience of this country we hear so much about? 

 For over 15 years, when selling school expeditions and educational tours to China, I’ve described it as "the ultimate combination of ancient and modern". Now, having visited China for the first time, I can confirm this is true. But it’s only half the story. What this description doesn't tell you, and what I believe you can only understand by visiting China in person, is the scale of the place. That’s scale in terms of the country, but also in terms of the pace of change it’s experiencing. This is why a school trip to China is such an education. And something every self-respecting geography or business/economics department should have on their educational-tour tick list. In the west, we're never shy of promoting the virtues of democracy while crying communism foul. But visit China and it's plain to see that a one-party system has benefits. While the US struggles with the fallout from President Trump's twitter account, and the UK endlessly debates Brexit, China marches onward to its own beat. A single vision with a billion people working towards a common goal: you might not agree with the politics, but there’s no denying things get done. 

High-Speed Development

Chinese dynasties were building epic cities around the same time as the pharaohs were building pyramids. Fast forward a few thousand years and things aren’t that different – China is still leading the way. The speed of development, and in particular infrastructure building, is mind boggling and frightening at the same time. If you want to get rich quick, buy some shares in a Chinese concrete company. Because in China, concrete is king. New, three-lane motorways blast through the wilderness with barely a car on them; multiple high-rise apartment buildings appear on the edge of rapidly expanding mega-cities; high-speed rail networks with vast, brand-new state-of-the-art stations serve every medium-sized city. The high-speed rail network in China may be relatively new, but it’s expanding at bewildering speed and is revolutionising travel across the country. Bullet trains mean journeys that used to take over 10 hours overnight can now be done in three hours or less. It's cheap, easy and very comfortable.

It seems China is at the cutting edge of pretty much everything, except perhaps recognising the need for quality living environments. The economics of big-city life mean the only option for workers is living in identikit high-rise apartment buildings. Architecture that improves space, well-being and health has only reached the airports and train stations, as far as I can see. It certainly hasn’t found its way into residential city living. But with the opportunities capitalism is bringing, I'm not sure anyone minds. Food, glorious food. The logistics of putting food on the tables of a billion people is frankly mind boggling. Yet it's accomplished with apparent ease. Whatever you want, you can have it now. Over-ordering is commonplace and food waste a clear reality. Is it a problem? The Chinese don't seem to think so. They’re making the most of newfound wealth and colossal consumer opportunity, whether that’s food or the latest global brands. I saw very little rubbish, but wondered what happens to all the plastic. China uses a lot of plastic. 

The Social Thing

Google. Facebook. Instagram. Twitter: China doesn’t have them and doesn’t miss them. WeChat is what the social-media savvy use. Plus, money transfer is big business. You can send money to an individual or a group of friends. Shares can be equally allocated or you can make it into a game: whoever opens the message first gets the biggest share. Mobile payment is the norm. Simply scan a QR code and you're done. Cash is dying pretty quickly. Karaoke is a national obsession, whether it’s a big night out or a post-work wind down. Like everything in China, it's not done by halves. It makes our Tuesday night karaoke down the local look frankly feeble. Karaoke bars are the size of cinema complexes with multiple private rooms. It's something our school groups should definitely experience. There is a friendliness to the country that took me by surprise. I can't think of many countries that deny a warm welcome to foreigners, but for some reason I thought China would be the exception. Perhaps being 6ft 3 and totally unable to blend in boosted my popularity? #celebritystatus. 

Long Walls and Short Urinals

Everyone wants to see the big sites, including the Chinese locals, so don’t expect to have anywhere to yourself. A lifetime would be too short to see China’s vast collection of cultural, historical and geographical sites. The diversity is spellbinding, covering so many religions, dynasties and political movements that it’s hard to comprehend. Of course, I’d seen countless pictures of the things that define China: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and Kung Fu displays. But being there and soaking it up in person was every bit as good as I hoped it might be. And as for the old cliché of ‘ancient meets modern’? Now that I understand what it actually means I can confirm it’s not really a cliché at all.  

As a school trip destination, China has incredible ‘wow’ factor. I’d encourage you to go. One word of caution for men-folk like me, though: Chinese urinals are not designed for those of us over six feet tall. My quads got a good workout every time I needed the loo…


P.S. For the record, I wasn’t just there on a jolly. I went to do an operational audit of our team in country and to deliver some training to our fantastic tour leaders. I would like to thank Angie, Stella and Emily for looking after me so well and taking me behind the scenes of an altogether fascinating country. I know I'll be back.