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The Fun of Walking the Streets in China

Reprinted by permission: Qin and Larry Herzberg, authors of "China Survival Guide: How to Avoid Travel Troubles and Mortifying Mishaps"

The fun of walking around a Chinese city is that so much life takes place out on the streets. In a developed nation like the US, most life takes place behind closed doors. In a society steeped in history and tradition like China, much more happens right out in the open – that's simply the way it's been for centuries. For one thing, most Chinese still don't own a car. They walk or take a bicycle or a bus to where they need to go, instead of each being encased in their own little bubble, out of touch with other people. For another, Chinese homes and apartments are much small than those in developed countries. Activities like washing clothes or cleaning vegetables, reading the newspaper, or even brushing one's teeth are often done right out in public in full view of passersby.

One more big reason why so much of daily life can be glimpsed outdoors is that in China there have been as many as two hundred million people who left their homes in small towns or the countryside to try to make a better life in the large cities. That means there is a sizeable population in every major city total on the streets. In addition, Chinese cities are a giant collection of a myriad small shops and vendor stalls and eateries are often right on the street or at the major tourist sites in any Chinese city. It behooves any foreign tourist to wander the streets and see how the Chinese really lives. It's a feast for the senses and a photographer's delight. There are two problems that a foreigner faces, however, when walking the streets of a Chinese city that one does not encounter in a country like the U. S. Neither has to do with personal safety. As we keep insisting, you are much safer walking the streets of Beijing or Shanghai, even at midnight, than you are walking at midday in your hometown in the U.S. whether that town is New York City, or Pella, Iowa. No one has a gun, the police are everywhere, albeit often undercover, and serious crime in still a fraction of what it is in America. No, the two problems you face are ones for which most Americans are unprepared.

People, People, Everywhere

The first difficulty in walking down the street in China is the sea of humanity through which you must wade in order to get where you're going. Unless you spend a good deal of time in downtown Manhattan or Chicago, chances are you aren't used to walking much. And when you do walk, you're used to being able to walk pretty much as fast as you'd like. In a Chinese city you have to learn to slow your pace because there will always be hundreds of people in front of you, behind you, and alongside of you.

Imagine the most popular store in your hometown the day before Christmas when shoppers are knocking each other over to get to last minute presents for friend and family. Now picture the density of people at a hundred times that of the store on Christmas Eve. Finally, multiply the number of people by ten thousand. Place them out on the main street of your hometown and imagine them all trying to get somewhere at the same time. You now have some idea of what it's like on a typical Chinese city street at almost any time of the day or night. You're just not going to go anywhere very fast. The only way for you and your companion to walk side by side is for you to do what the Chinese do, which is to hold each other tightly by the hand or preferably, link arms.

The crowded streets of Chinese cities, however, are only a minor inconvenience compared to the other problem faced by tourists when walking around a Chinese city. This is a problem that endangers your life almost every minute. We refer, of course, to crossing the street. Here you are taking your life in your hands unless you realize that the Chinese operate under a completely difference set of rules when it comes to things like "right of way." Crossing the street in China requires the watchfulness of an eagle, the agility of a mountain lion, the guide of a fox, and the luck of the Irish to make it across safely. If however, you pay attention to the simple rules below, you may make it across the street and live to tell about it. Skip this section and you may end up spending the rest of your China trip learning more than you ever wanted to know about Chinese hospitals.

Crossing the Street

In the U.S. the pedestrian has the right of way. When the walk light comes on, the pedistrian may usually safely cross the street, checking briefly to see that all traffic has come to a halt. In China, the pedestrian NEVER has the right of way. In fact, the right of way goes to the biggest and fastest vehicle. There's no written law that states this. Everyone just seems to understand. It's simple logic, really. Big trucks and buses take right of way over smaller buses, which lord it over taxis, which bully private cars. Taxis hold sway over other cars because owners of private cars don't want to damage their shiny new treasure, whereas most taxi drivers in China seem to have definite suicidal tendencies more asking to those of "kamikaze" pilots. Any motorized vehicle, including motorcycles, have the right of way over bicycles, who riders will not hesitate to run over a pedestrian who dares question the vehicular pecking order by walking in front of them. While most vehicles do obey the stop and go lights, the millions of bicycle riders in China never worry about a little thing like a traffic light. Those, it seems, are just for cars and buses. Bicyclists may cross your path whether you have the walk light or not. The pedestrian is the low man or woman on the totem pole of Chinese traffic, the lowest link on the transportation evolutionary scale. Crossing a street is like playing a real life game of "Frogger."

How to cross the road when there are made bicyclists coming at you from every direction and a constant stream of cars and buses? Learn from herds of wildebeest or antelope in the Serengeti. They know there is safety in numbers. Those that stray from the herd are the ones that usually end up getting eaten. So do what the Chinese do: Never cross the street alone, or even in pairs. Wait for a small group of local Chinese people who want to cross the street in the same direction you wish to go. Position yourself, if possible, in the middle of this pack of people. Watch for them to make the move and then go with them.

What can happen when a lone foreign pedestrian bravely tries to cross the street on his own? Let us give you the sad example of Larry when he tried to lead the way across a street in downtown Shanghai at rush hour. Having located a crosswalk, albeit with no walk light, he started across the street, constantly looking left and right for oncoming vehicles. There was such a pile of cars and buses that traffic had come to a standstill. It seemed like an easy task to make it across. When he had reached the middle of the street, he turned and took a step back to beckon on Qin to follow him. Just then a young woman on a bicycle came out of nowhere and ran right over his foot. The bicycles had precisely planned her move through the thick traffic based on Larry continuing to walk forward. But Larry crossed her up by turning back. He fell hard on the pavement, scraping both of his knees, which were bleeding profusely. Later that day he realized that his foot was broken and that it had to set in a cast, which ended the trip a week early.

Essentials for Walking

Besides carrying some water with you as you wander through the streets of a Chinese city it is highly suggested that you also have with you at all times the following equipment: earplugs.

Earplugs will be necessary to defend yourself from all the noise pollution you will encounter in a typical Chinese city. There is, of course, the constant stream of traffic that is a wondrous mix of buses, trucks, cars, taxis, motorcycles, and sometimes donkey-drawn carts. All of these vehicles, except the donkey carts, are equipped with horns. The Chinese driver would not be able to drive without constantly sounding the horn. It seems that in the driver's training manual in China the words for "clutch" and "horn" were inadvertently switched. The constant sounding of the horn by the Chinese driver alerts the thousands of people around him that he's in the vicinity and they better get out of his way if they know what is good for them. Unfortunately since everyone is trying to pass everyone ALL the time, everyone is always sounding his horn. We recommend industrial-strength earplugs with a minimal rating of a hundred decibels. Then, let the horns blow away.

Another reason for the earplugs is the quaint Chinese custom regarding garbage trucks. In China, there are a lot of people. These people produce a lot of garbage. Someone needs to be constantly removing that garbage. So the trucks come around at all hours to pick up the trash in the different neighborhoods. There's no place for dumpsters in most of China. The store and restaurant owners in shopping area, for instance, have to bring their trash out to the truck when it drives by. In order to alert everyone to the fact that the garbage truck has arrived, the trucks are programmed to play a tune very loudly to announce their presence. It's a lot like the Good Humor ice cream truck that still comes to our suburban neighborhood in Michigan. But instead of carrying a yummy chocolate fudge bar, it's there to pick up your trash. And instead of playing something really rousing and lovely, like "Popeye the Sailorman", it plays something really annoying like "Rubber Ducky".

Right in front of our hotel in the picturesque ancient mountain village of Dalit, a garbage truck came by every day in the late afternoon to serenade us with "Happy Birthday to You" over and over and over again. The truck usually stayed there for five very slow minutes blaring out "Happy Birthday to You" as if it were the Chinese National Anthem and this was "National Day" in China. Without earplugs we would surely have strangled someone. Our earplugs definitely kept us from being involved in an international incident that would have included some major jail time.
For more reading beyond this excerpt you can obtain your own copy of the book at:

Encountering Beggars

At this point, remove your funny bone and set it aside. We need to talk about begging and it's hard to find any humor in the misery of others. When you walk the streets of most counties in the world you will encounter beggars and in many developing countries you will sometimes be mobbed by them. Even in the U.S., we have people begging and in a comparatively economically poorer nation like India or China you can expect to see a lot more of it. When you consider how wealthy we Americans are compared to most people in the world, it's only natural that the impoverished in developing countries might expect us to toss a few coins their way. The problem in more and more people is thinking this way and many Chinese cities have become magnets for a wave of human misery, and sadly, those who profit from it. There is no point in ignoring it since you will not be able to avoid seeing these people on the street, but it's best to understand as much as you can before seeing any unpleasant surprises.

China is doing a whole lot better economically than most other developing nations. There has been a tremendous rise in the standard of living for a large percentage of Chinese in the past few decades. Part of China's economic miracle in the past thirty years is that country has managed to move four hundred million people out of poverty and increased the average person's income more than eightfold in less than one generaration. Nevertheless, the average yearly income of a Chinese person today is still only around US $3,000 compared to around $32,000 for the average American. But that is just the average Chinese income. There are huge, even staggering, gaps in wealth – stark reminders of China's free-for-all economy that is churning out more millionaires at a breakneck pace.
Since China has the greatest disparity of wealth of any nation now, a large number of Chinese live on the equivalent of a few hundred U.S. dollars per year. Most Chinese do think of all Americans as wealthy. After all, we had the money to fly half-way around the world to make it to China, so you figure that at least some Chinese will view us foreign tourists as walking wallets and ask for a handout.
Actually, one of the impressive things about China is that, relatively speaking, there are so few people begging in the streets compared to most other developing nations. Most of the 1.3 billion Chinese people have adequate shelter, food, and clothing. You really won't be accosted in China by a great number of people begging. Though they are there and you need to be prepared. Beggars in China may not be many, but there are quite a variety of them. You might be approached by a young boy of five with a dirty face and tattered clothing, who will follow you around with his hand out. Or, there might be an elderly woman who seizes you by the arm and doesn't let go, expecting you to give her money. Or, you may see someone with his legs bent under him in a shabby clothing sitting in the middle of the walkway with a curb in front of him, prostrating himself to passersbys on a piece of cardboard.

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