The China of our imagination is gone replaced with acres of condominiums, multi-decker super highways crowded with foreign-made cars, ultra-modern skyscrapers, fashion-conscious urbanites, KFC restaurants and Starbucks.
For Canadians, China has always been a mysterious place that we first discover when we study the adventures of Marco Polo in grade school. After the revolution in 1949, China was locked behind an iron curtain until 1978 when it established “an open door” policy. The country of 1.3 billion people has made a giant leap forward in one generation to become the second largest economy in the world.
I was one of about 160 people lucky enough to go to China on a tour hosted by the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce this fall. The trip was organized by Merit Travel in co-operation with Citlinc International. My group went in early October returning Oct. 17, and a second group left Oct. 20 for 10 days.
Most of the people I spoke with on the trip said they hadn’t expected to ever visit China, which at one time for Westerners was as remote as the moon. Nor had they expected to find such a beautiful, modern country that appears to be meeting the challenges of its large population in progressive ways.
Still in this ancient country that historians claim dates back to at least 6000 BC, I found it surprising I could use my cell phone to call Canada, take money out of an ATM, watch CNN in my hotel room and take a ride on an train that went more than 400 km/h.
Retired teacher Judi Straughan summed up her experience this way. “I was told China would be dirty. Not so. I was told the food would be bland. Not so. I expected to feel the people were unhappily suppressed. Not so. Everyone we met seemed quite happy with life—but then the country would not let us see otherwise. The school kids appeared joyful.”
Businessman Gerry Rouleau joked he didn’t enjoy his trip to China because he kept running into people he knew from Sudbury. They were everywhere. In The Forbidden City, at the Great Wall, at the jade factory, even at the Temple of Heaven. And a group of Canadian tourists really stands out. Many Chinese are not accustomed to seeing us. They are amused by Westerners just as we were when Japanese and Chinese tourists first started to visit Canada. Some would ask us to pose for photographs. Rouleau caused a mini sensation when he wore his red and white Canadian “jester” hat.
Kidding aside, Rouleau said he and his wife Jeannine enjoyed travelling with people they knew and sharing their experiences. He was one of 32 members of Sudbury’s Club Richelieu that went on the Oct. 6 trip.
We spent four days in Beijing, then the group flew south to Shanghai and visited the nearby cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou, which are on the Grand Canal. Built 2,000 years ago, the canal connects the south to Beijing.
Leah Miller, general manager of Merit Travel Group in Sudbury, said her favourite adventure was the boat trip down part of the canal in the heart of the old city.
“Our trip was a short one in Suzhou, known as the Venice of China. The canal was once a 1,000-mile link between Beijing to Hangzhou. Much of the canal is overgrown or neglected, but there’s potential for more recreational use in the future,” she said.
Melanie Smith also enjoyed Suzhou, an ancient city of four million people surrounded by a “modern” region of another six million.
“It was a nice escape from the large city of Beijing. The lanterns along the buildings lit at night were beautiful. Being in the market and seeing how the locals buy their food made me forget that we were on a tour,” said Smith.
The traditional market area in Suzhou is “old China,” but our guide Eric told us the Chinese, who are becoming increasingly conscious about food safety and hygiene, would rather shop at Wal-Mart and the markets could eventually disappear.
According to the Walmart website, Walmart has 370 stores in China and has created more than 106,000 jobs there.
There is a Sudbury connection to Hangzhou, a region of about eight million people north of Shanghai. A new agreement with Laurentian University and Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics (ZUFE) in Hangzhou will bring as many as 100 Chinese students to Sudbury to take third-year accounting degree courses starting in January 2015.
Marco Polo described Hangzhou as “the most beautiful and elegant city in the world,” and it was recently voted the best place to retire in China. In 1972, American president Richard Nixon visited Hangzhou when he made his historic trip to China.
Its West Lake is a favourite resort area and both Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek, the two most well-known Chinese leaders of the 20th century, had summer homes there.
The West Lake Cultural Landscape is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The lake, pictured on the back of the one yaun bill, has inspired poets and painters for centuries.
As we took a boat trip around the lake, which is a little smaller than Ramsey Lake, I thought how spoiled we are with our city of lakes.
The tea fields area of Hangzhou are lushand peaceful. The most famous plantations there produces Dragon Well tea, which is available at several specialized tea shops in Sudbury.
We were invited to a tasting where we learned that boiled water kills the health beneficial agents in green tea. Best to let the water cool for three minutes before adding tea.
Our final stop was Shanghai, the largest city in China with a population of 23 million people. The skyline of the Pudong area with its incredible futuristic architecture is across the Huangpu River from the historic cosmopolitan city and featured in the new James Bond movie Skyfall.
The skyline described by tour books, “as a shrine to international finance,” and “as what the Chinese want China to become,” was built in the past 30 years on former rice fields.
Stephanie Piche, owner of Legacy Catering, travelled to China with her husband and son. Naturally, she took notes on the food.
“I was especially excited to taste China’s locally-produced dishes. Every dish presented to us on our Lazy Susan contained only two or three ingredients. It was not only easy to identify each ingredient, but it was evident that the menu was designed to be able to produce large amounts of food very quickly.
“Sautéed eggplant in a spicy broth, baked fish in a zesty sauce or simply-steamed sticky rice–all dishes worked together in whatever combination each guest desired. China may be booming with flash and a futurist outlook, but their food style seems to be staying closer to home.”
Not everyone enjoyed the food and a few went to McDonalds or Starbucks for a taste of home. On my last night in Shanghai, I ordered an enjoyable Australian beef burger and a Heineken in the hotel restaurant, but I certainly liked all the Chinese dishes I tried.
Since I have been back, I have been trying to read more about China and watch for reports in the news. Someday I may return.
Merit Travel is collecting photographs from the people who went on the China Tour for its website. Photographs can be emailed to [email protected].