I had reservations about the three-week tour I planned to end my 10 months of working life in China. In many senses I was tired of the country and there would inevitably be problems with the language and constant hassle. But what followed was a fantastic insight into a stunning country.
In the West we hear of China's problems: mostly the massive gap in wealth between the rich and the poor, and the erosion of rural life as people move to cities in search of the 'economic miracle'. Evidence for both is obvious as you move round, but I didn't travel as a journalist or researcher. I was a simple tourist, and in that sense saw a beautiful and varied country, not an economic giant suffering growth pains.
It wasn't all good. One perception, and one that I will remember for a long time, is China's ability to spoil its best-known tourist sites. The Terracotta Army is incredible and one of the most exciting archaeological finds ever. However, the army's surroundings made me think that it could all have been fabricated by the government to celebrate, as our tour guide continually reminded us, 'the first Chinese emperor to achieve cultural and military centralization'. Something Beijing aspires to on a daily basis.
The warriors are enclosed by three 1970s aircraft hanger-like structures but beyond the basic facts there is little information. Propaganda is prevalent, however. One notice board revealed that the technology on the warriors' weaponry showed that China had mastered chrome-plating millennia before the Americans! Directions round the site came courtesy of KFC, Subway or Kung Fu (the Chinese fast food chain adorned with likenesses of Bruce Lee), rather diminishing the spectacle.
The Great Wall is similarly over developed. There are so-called 'tourist' areas where the wall has been renovated to allow easy walking. There are chairlifts, cable cars, 'toboggans' down from the wall, coach car parks and restaurants. One expects people to hawk tacky souvenirs and expensive beverages, but everything combines to detract from the most important thing, the wall itself. You can explore the 'non-tourist' areas, but the description itself implies danger and invokes images of the very barbarians the wall was designed to keep out in the first place!
My second main perception was that, while the West bangs on about the lack of human rights in China, the people seem overwhelmingly satisfied with their lot. We can't imagine that a population can be happy when they don't have equal rights or a free press. The Chinese may not yet know any better, but even so the government, like any dictatorship, knows that to ensure stability peoples' lives must keep improving.
Huge gaps in wealth are particularly clear in the countryside. Towns and villages are made up of old people and children as adults have been drawn to the cities where they can earn more. The rural population is passive to the regime in Beijing; Mao still adorns most house walls. Around Yangshuo life is medieval compared to the big cities, but, most importantly, a farm worker is now better off than he was under Deng Xiaoping, and life is incomparable to Mao's regime. Now at least farmers can grow what they want rather than being forced to grow unfamiliar crops whilst being helped by banished 'radical' thinkers.
Additionally rural areas have been aided both by tourism and the infrastructure it brings. The government have built large motorways to aid tour buses, vastly improved communication and made education freely available. The private sector has helped, too. In some regions China Telecom has pioneered a rural mobile phone network at discounted rates. This allows farmers to communicate with each other about the best time or place to sell their produce.
The influx of tourists has brought increased income to more commercially aware locals. I did not mind buying an overpriced bottle of water from the front of a small house. In Tiger Leaping Gorge men follow you offering a horse ride along the path, and in the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces near Guilin local people offer to guide you. I didn't take up these offers because it felt rather colonial, but many Chinese people do and their money helps the locals, despite the inevitable feelings of inferiority.
It can be annoying, as the business savvy peasant has fully cashed in. All around the world tourists are ripped off, but in China it seems more extreme. For every two locals who offer something kindly, there is one who charges through the roof. When I got lost I had to pay £5 to cross a river 10m wide on a bamboo raft. Taxis refused to pick me up outside the Forbidden City and charge me by the meter. They offered me a rate of about £30 for a ten-minute journey. It's hard to bare these annoyances, but begrudgingly one has to admit that without tourism many of these locals would have nothing.
Generally, though, the Chinese are overwhelmingly kind. In Xian a family I had never met before chauffeured me around. They were family friends of one of my students. A boy with limited English, who I met on a train, emails me pictures of Michael Jordan and asks how I am every day. And when my internal flight was cancelled, I was helped by a family with fluent English.
China may be a country full of problems. But overall it's a wonderful place filled with a kind and curious population. China has faults and many things frustrated me, but I will remember my time there and the people I met forever.