The People’s Republic of China is the world’s most populous country with more than 1.4 billion inhabitants. It’s slightly larger in land space than the United States, surpassed only by Russia and Canada in size. China has 33 administrative units, including 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin), and two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau). It also has one controversial claim to territory (Taiwan, otherwise known as the Republic of China) that has been independent for 109 years.
Given its geographic size, no surprise, China has the highest and lowest places on earth. It is partly home to Mount Everest (it straddles Nepal), the world’s tallest mountain, and includes the Tibet Autonomous Region, where an area called Qiangtang has an average height of 16,500 feet (5,000 meters). No wonder it’s called the “roof of the world.” China’s climate ranges from desert-like conditions in the northwest to that of a tropical monsoon in the southeast – the greatest contrast in temperature within any country in the world.
With more than 4,000 years of recorded history, China was a pioneer of human civilization yet had many social and political setbacks over time. Culturally, it has always been a destination of fascination, particularly because it developed with relatively little outside influence (except Buddhism came from India) in spite of bordering 14 countries. But this quasi-isolation left China ill-prepared to cope with technologically superior countries from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. This sparked an internal revolution in the early 1900s against the old regime, culminating in a dominant communist government in 1949. Today, it is making a comeback as one of the world’s superpowers.
China’s burgeoning middle class has opened up the world to many of them who are now traveling abroad – a luxury their parents may have dreamed of, but their grandparents never even thought about. The country’s economy is developing so fast among the hard-working Chinese that luxuries from meat, vegetable oil, chocolate and Bordeaux wine to international travel are becoming accessible to the masses. That’s why you see more and more Chinese tourists all over the world, replacing the Japanese, and increasing demand for western imports. For example, when I attended an industry wine expo in Paris in 2015, the only other foreigners there were Chinese. (FYI, Bordeaux wines appeal to them due to high tannins and a bitter taste, which aligns with the tea-drinking Chinese palate. Plus, these wines are a symbol of prestige.)
Seizing the moment of the evolving Chinese palate, I had the good fortune of traveling to China six times in the last decade to promote heart-smart canola oil for a Canadian client. The first time was at the World Expo in Shanghai in June 2010, when China wowed the world with its high-tech pavilion. I was working in the Canadian pavilion to promote its healthy oil in the high oil-consuming country rife with heart disease. (That’s largely due to the heavy smoking habits of Chinese men.) Canada’s “log cabin” pavilion paled in size to China’s massive, inverted pagoda with a roller coaster.
Also that year, I went to Hong Kong for the first time. It was already back in China’s hands, so it was an interesting mix of mainland and former British influence. As the international financial capital of China, Hong Kong is teeming with ex-pats. You can’t go wrong in the neighborhoods of Kowloon by day and Lan Kwai Fong at night. The nightly “symphony of lights” when buildings light up and lasers of light shoot around them is a must-see.
From 2013 to 2016, I made annual trips to Beijing and Shanghai and the occasional extra trip such as to a dairy farm or traditional village like Zhujiajiao (note a “village” is sometimes defined as 1 million people). Traveling with my tall, gray-haired Canadian colleague Bruce was always amusing as the two of us stood out like skyscrapers. Often Chinese girls wanted their photo taken with us, so we felt like tourist attractions while seeing cities ourselves.
Must-sees in Shanghai are both sides of the Bund River (older Puxi and modern Pudong), the nightly light show over the Bund, Yu Garden and Bazaar, People’s Square and French Concession neighborhood. In Beijing, every visitor should see the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace and Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium. The Great Wall, accessible from Beijing, is an absolute must.
Food-wise, China is interesting with significant differences in regional cuisines from hot pot and stir-fries to spicy Sichuan and mild Cantonese. But there were some foods that challenged our palates.
“Angela, I don’t feel well,” Bruce said upon meeting me in Beijing for a business trip. “I ate a duck foot at dinner last night and I think it’s still lodged in my throat.”
I looked at his neck for signs of an internal bowtie. “I don’t see anything but there are webs growing in between your fingers,” I joked.
Our Chinese colleague, Jackie, ate duck feet like popcorn. Ironically, he was astonished by me eating whole red grapes.
“You eat the skin of grapes?!” he asked in horror.
“You peel them?” I asked back in a similar way, wondering if I just ate an unacceptable amount of pesticide residue.
On a farm, I was served snake, which was in season at the time. Like alligator, the snake tasted like rubber chicken so it was palatable, but one piece was enough. Some of my colleagues washed it down with shots of grain alcohol called baijiu. (One of our Chinese hosts had so many that he fell asleep during our subsequent meeting.)
Of course, eating funky food was less of a concern than the “pea soup” outside during times of high pollution. On one visit to Beijing, we could not see the buildings across the street! It was then that I realized a monogrammed, velvet bag in my hotel bathroom contained a ventilator and not a hair dryer.
Traveling in China is also challenging due to human and automobile traffic and substandard cleanliness in many public places (Buddha forbid, do not use a public toilet if you can avoid it). For example, I once saw dishes at a Hong Kong restaurant piled up in the bathroom sink! I was told by a local to pour hot tea over my utensils before eating to sanitize them.
On the other hand, China’s mega cities have luxury akin to the great dynasties and modern millionaires. In 2020, Beijing overtook New York City as the city with the most billionaires and China is now home to five of the top 10 billionaire cities. That says a lot for a country that was rife with famine, poverty, war lords and civil strife just 100 years ago. You can find fabulous restaurants (tasting Peking duck is a must), swanky nightlife venues, high-end hotels and shops and cool karaoke clubs (Jackie always organized a karaoke night out for us and rivaled Adele) in the cultural capital of Shanghai, government and business hub of Beijing and ex-pat mecca of Hong Kong.
The years I went to China, I felt like a lucky duck. But thankfully I managed to “duck” eating the bird’s feet.
Lucky Symbols in China
- In Mandarin, the character for six (liu) sounds like lu, which means prosperity, so this number is associated with wealth. But eight is more auspicious because it rhymes with fa, which means to prosper. Four is considered unlucky because it is nearly homophonous to the word death.
- The Chinese character for bat is phonetically the same as the word for good fortune: fu. So when multiple bats appear, it signifies prosperity and good fortune.
- An endless knot is one of eight auspicious signs of Buddhism, representing the eight-fold paths of the religion, plus eternity and unity. It is known as the “mystic dragon.”
- Double fish, especially carp, symbolize love, harmony, abundance and fertility (carp eggs are plentiful). The word for goldfish, jin yu, is identical in sound to “abundance of gold.”
- Firecrackers are related to a mythical creature Nian, who used to terrorize people every new year until they realized he could be scared away by noise, light and the color red. Hence, fireworks on New Year’s Eve scare away the beast.
- Necklaces of coins strung together with red thread, called lian qian, represent a cascade of wealth, bringing luck to the wearer and protecting her from evil spirits. The circular shape represents heaven and the square center symbolizes earth.
- Ru yi represents a scepter which is derived from ling zhi, a magic fungus of immortality, which looks similar. The characters are homophonous to the Chinese phrase “everything as you wish.” Hence, ru yi symbolizes good fortune and prosperity.
Lucky source: Shanghai Tang