. . . AROUND THE WORLD 2001/02
Africa 1999
Around-the-World 2001/02

The Team

Jeff Willner
1. Start: Recipe for Adventure
2. Zimbabwe: Hyperinflation
3. Namibia: Southern Circuit
4. South Africa: Circuit 2
5. Zambia/Malawi: Sketches
7. Kenya: Bandit Country
8. Ethiopia: Diary
9. Ethiopia: Border Run
10. Sudan: Across the Sahara
11. Egypt: Cape to Cairo
12. Jordan/Syria: Sept. 11th
13. Turkey: Hospitality
14. Bulgaria/Romania/ Hungary
15. Slovakia/Austria/Poland
16. The Baltics & Russia
17. Scandinavia
18. Western Europe
19. Brazil: Clearning Customs
20. Argentina: Revolution
21. Argentina: To Ushuaia
22. Patagonia Disaster
23. Buenos Aires Beautiful
24. Uruguay: Beaches
25. Chile: Expedition Life
26. Bolivia: Atacama
27. Peru: Transit
28. Galapagos: Gorgeous
29. Ecuador: Jungle Run
30. Knifepoint
31. Dubai: Lay over
32. Singapore/Malaysia
33. Thailand: Hospitality
34. Cambodia: Ankor Wat
35. Vietnam: Hanoi & Halong
36. Laos: Back to Basics
37. China: Beijing Tour
38. China: Shanxi
39. China: Western Province
40. China: Tibet
41: Nepal: Mountains
42. India: Driving Struggle
43. Pakistan: Dodging War
44. Iran: Overcharging
45. End: One Last Laugh

Sally DeFina
1. Cape Town: Robben Island
2. Zanzibar: Mike & I
3. Kenya: African Driving School
4. Sudan: Mud Crossing
5. Patagonia: Goodbye Max
6. Malaysia: Mike Update
7. Thailand: Ko Phangan
8. Cambodia: Phnom Penh
9. Vietnam: By Train
10. Laos: Vang Vieng
11. China: Meet Mr. Chen

Jody Finver
1. Start: Surreal Solipse
2. Great Zimbabwe
3. Brokedown in Kenyan Desert
4. Egypt: So Should I Hyphenate
5. Poland: Home is Where the Truck Is

Gulin Akoz
1. Start: Bits and Pieces
2. Zambia: Diaries
3. Egypt: Africa Memories
4. Turkey: For Your Information
5. The Team and The Bean
6. Somebody Else's Child
7. On My Own
8. Long Lost Memories of Childhood
9. The Tree and the Boy
10. Jealous
11. The Aftermath


Panamerican 2003
Various Trips
Planning an Expedition


Kensington Tours can help you plan your own expedition anywhere in the world.




#37 - Beijing
Jeff Willner - 19 April 2002

(Beijing, CHINA) – Reading the Lonely Planet prior to visiting China is a daunting experience... Facts for the Visitor: Travelers should be aware of the following diseases they may pick up while visiting China: 
Cholera, Diptheria, Hepatitis, Japanese B Encephalitis, Polio, Rabies, Tuberculosis, Typhoid, Malaria, Altitude sickness, Fungal infections, Heatstroke, Hypothermia, Prickly heat, Upper respiratory tract infections, Amoebic dysentery, Giardiasis, Intestinal worms, Schistosomiasis, Bedbug/Tick infection, Dengue fever, Filariasis, Leishmaniasis, and Typhus. Also watch for unsanitary toilets, robbers with knives on trains, crime, noise, pollution, and uncontrolled spitting. Population growth, untrammelled industrialisation and poor resource management have had devastating effects on the environment. And the Chinese have invaded and currently occupy Tibet. In short I had the full western set of preconceived notions about the world's most populous and enigmatic country, I assumed it was a third-world, oppressive regime.

It was with some foreboding that I landed in Beijing. We piled into a van to drive to Tianjin, several hours east, to get our Chinese drivers licenses but there was a problem at the station. All applicants must pass a computerized driving test - in Chinese. Sally and I looked at each other then at the officials. In Chinese? No problem, money changed hands and pretty soon we were seated in front of two computer terminals in a deserted testing room. Multiple choice questions would pop up in pictographs and the supervisor standing behind us would lean forward and mutter, "Number 3 Mr. Jeff. Number 1 Miss. Sally." Needless to say, we passed with flying colors (Sally's 99 trumped my 98). Arriving late in the port city of Tangu we referred to our guide book and selected an inexpensive hotel where we ran headlong into the two curses that would plague us for the rest of the trip - filthy carpets with spit all over them (vacuum cleaners don't seem to exist), and bathrooms that go beyond the definition of filthy (imagine a public toilet in constant use being flushed once a day with a bucket of water). We went next door to get some food and were overcharged for some bland fare in a filthy (have I used that word too many times) restaurant. And stopping into the Sailor's Club for a drink found to our consternation that it was a hostess club. By the time I went to bed I was dreading the next month. Four weeks of this? 

My first intimation that China was something different was on the drive into Beijing after our three day struggle to free the Land Rover from the port authorities. Highways. Four lane, computerized toll card, swept median, signs in English highways. Well there was certainly enough hype in the press about China's booming economy (11% annual growth for the last decade according to the gov't figures) so they should be able to afford a couple of highways. But Beijing was yet another eye opener. Since the city successfully bid for the 2008 Olympics, coal cooking fires were being replaced with natural gas and the air quality was pretty decent. Orderly streets, parks, thriving stores, and plenty of western chain restaurants lent the impression of being in a European city (though the Chinese signs brought me back to reality pretty quick). Even so, I was guarded. This was the capitol. Of course things would be better.

It's About the Kids
It was the Chinese children that really made me stop and reconsider my entire perspective. A lot has been made of the inhumane government policy of limiting family size and I will not even attempt to justify the means, but the result has been vital to China's future. You see, what I noticed was that virtually every child had at least one or two adults in attendance. They were well dressed, loved, and coddled. And according to a Chinese friend all that attention turned into high expectations when they hit school. "You may have noticed" he said, "at university in the US when many of the rest of the students went out to have fun the Chinese students are still studying to get perfect marks and this is because their parents, their wife's parents, their grandparents on both sides - everyone is pushing them to be a success." I did notice. Tao was a Chinese student in my cohort at Wharton, very likable but seldom at the parties - and he finished with a perfect GPA. Hat's off to you Tao, now I understand.


All right the children are loved and well educated, 'so what' you may say. The 'so what' is in population growth, China is 0.88% per year. To quote professor Pack from school, any country with a population growth rate above 1% a year has no chance of investing in the infrastructure necessary to support economic growth, the budget is consumed by healthcare, education, and housing - that is if there is a decent budget to begin with. Africa is a prime example. Countries like Kenya with a 3.5% population growth rate into the '90s (the highest in the world) can't even keep up with demographic demands never mind infrastructure investment (though population growth is only one of a myriad of problems that has crippled Kenya). Take away population control and away go most of the new highways, pipelines, train tracks, and ports. Think India (1.55% growth rate).

And the Chinese kids are polite. In many of the towns in western China we were some of the first white people they had seen so a crowd formed pretty quickly, yet almost every time when I bought some extra candy from a street vendor and tried to hand it out they would politely decline. That hasn't happened to me before. I thought maybe it was the lack of showers but our guide set me straight, "They are too polite to take it you see." Wow. Educated, nurtured, proud, polite, happy - I was very impressed with the kids. In the vernacular of emerging economies research, several factors have emerged as statistically significant contributors to fast economic growth and one of the biggest is literacy. China: 99%. India: 74%. Add it all up and you have a very impressive set of future citizens. I began to realize that China's emergence as a world power might be for real despite the terrible toilets.

70% Right, 30% Wrong
Our first night in Beijing we hopped a cab to Tiananmen Square to see the heart of the city. It was pushing 9pm by the time we got out of our Beijing Opera performance but we figured there was still time to walk the famous square. Sally, Kathryn and I walked through the underground street crossings to cross Beijing's six and eight lane thoroughfares and arrived at the square. Deserted in the dark. Cool. We hopped over the shin high chain barrier and started walking past the building that houses Mao's preserved corpse. "Look at the soldiers," said Kathryn, "I think they are on parade." A line of six soldiers marched precisely in the distance. We noticed guards at attention near the central monument and others scattered around the 'Mao'soleum. "Umm, are they coming toward us?", Sal asked. "Oh they are just changing the guards" I said breezily. The lead soldier in the line of troops called an order and the six headed directly at us. We realized at that moment that the largest square in Beijing was completely empty of any non-military personnel. "Crap! It's closed. We are going to be anti-democracyd! Run for it." The three of us waved as stupidly as we could manage (don't blame us we are idiots), ran for the chain fence waded across the six lane road and stopped to breathe on the opposite sidewalk. Nice way to start the tour of Beijing. "Yeah," said Sally, "but now I really want to see that 'Mao'soleum." 

Even the official communist literature admits that Mao made mistakes in his rule of China, the party line is that he was 70% right and 30% wrong. I figured out the wrong parts; the purges of intellectuals, the Great Leap Forward (where Mao forced millions back to the farm with inspirational slogans to grow food for the country - resulted in a famine that claimed 30-60 million lives), and the Cultural Revolution (where thousands of suspected anti-Mao people were imprisoned or killed). But I was hard pressed to understand why he was still so beloved by the population. What was the 70% right? To find the answer you must go back two centuries. 

In the late 18th century the Qing (pronounced Ching) Dynasty had grudgingly accepted commercial relations with Britain and other Western countries though trade was confined to the port of Guangzhou, and foreign merchants were required to conduct trade through a limited number of Chinese merchants. Initially, the balance of trade was in China's favour, as Britain and other countries paid for huge quantities of tea not with British goods but with money in the form of silver. Seeking to level the balance of trade, the British merchants during the 1780's introduced Indian opium to China. Addiction spread and soon the balance of trade had shifted in favour of Britain - even though trade in opium was illegal in China. By the 1830's the problem of opium addiction, increasingly corrupt officials, and the outflow of silver was becoming a problem for the Qing and they appointed a senior official to shut down the trade. Using this as a pretext, the British government sent 42 warships to blockade Chinese ports and force the government to sign the Treaty of Nanjing. This opened five ports to foreign trade and residence and established large areas known as concessions that were leased in perpetuity to foreign powers. In 1856-60, Britain aided by France renewed hostilities in the second Opium War to secure even more favourable trading advantages. By the 1860s there were 14 treaty ports. Because the foreigners had demanded the right to impose their own laws instead of obeying Chinese laws, the concessions, especially those in Shanghai, came to resemble international cities. Foreigners in China sold imported manufactured goods that competed with Chinese products, but the treaties prohibited China from setting tariffs to protect its industries. (Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2002)

It was unfortunate that during this critical time in China's history the emperors of the Qing Dynasty were of mediocre calibre, and in fact were completely out of touch with anything happening outside of the Forbidden City. Most real power was exercised by the eunuchs who surrounded the emperor, and from 1875 to 1908 the Dowager Empress, Cixi, was the power behind the throne. She resisted any attempt to reform the ancient institutions of the empire because she was worried about undermining her power base, so China was ill-equipped to deal with aggressive western powers. Gradually China lost it's colonial holdings, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to France, Britain occupied Burma, Japan forced China out of Korea and made them cede Taiwan, Germany and Russia demanded and received mineral and railway construction rights.  

It was almost inevitable that after so many humiliations, internal resentment would lead to a drive to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and in 1911 after several uprisings the last emperor abdicated the throne. It was over. China would be split into rival factions, dominated by regional warlords for decades, invaded by Japan and pushed around by western powers through two world wars, until finally Mao Zedong captured the hearts of the masses and unified the country in an epic struggle. On October 1, 1949, Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China from the emperor's platform of the Forbidden City to the masses assembled in Tiananmen Square - and for the first time in a hundred years China was again one country in control of it's own destiny. For that, the people would be prepared to forgive a lot. And that is why Mao is still 70% right. 

The nice thing about preconceived notions is they make things really easy. China is communist therefore it is evil. When you start doing some digging, read the history, and look behind the propaganda (both eastern and western) the reality is a bit more complex. Yes the Chinese citizen loves the communist party for reuniting the country, but also the Chinese citizen has been oppressed by that same government and wishes for the same set of freedoms that we hold dear in the west. On one hand the ethnic Chinese are smart business people and highly motivated to be successful (witness Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore) - but they are also used to thousands of years of central rule and inbred corruption. It's a country of contrasts. Superhighways and soiled carpets, an economic growth rate that is the envy of the world and an environmental record that is a shame. 

One thing is clear through. This massive giant has only just decided to join the rest of the modern world and in a few short decades has made astounding progress. For those who would be too critical remember the growing pains of the US half a century ago, progress can be a jerky affair and it isn't always neat. Viewing the country's progress in perspective is impressive and you can believe the hype about this emerging super power - China is definitely for real. 

Saturday morning we loaded up the Land Rover and headed north to see the Great Wall, the first day of a three week odyssey westward across the length of the country and out Tibet. Wet fog blanketed the mountains and despite hiking upward for over an hour all we ever saw of the thousand kilometre rampart were the few feet immediately around us. A pretty fitting analogy for my own perception of China prior to the trip. I hope that the next three weeks prove to be more illuminating!



Copyright January 1999-2011
All rights reserved - Jeff Willner
Contact: jeffwillner@yahoo.com