Agricultural economist Ikageng Maluleka spent three weeks in China earlier this year on a study trip, getting the opportunity to immerse herself in the local culture. We asked her to share some of her impressions of the three cities she visited.
I recently had the pleasure of spending some time in China while attending a course on food safety for developing countries.
We were based in Beijing and had the opportunity to visit two other cities. Our visit in July coincided with the hottest 40 days of the year, with temperatures ranging from 30-40 degrees and humidity going up to 60%!
We arrived at Beijing International Airport, which is the second busiest in the world by passenger traffic, while the city’s subway network is the busiest and second longest in the world.
Beijing is a megacity, and one of the world’s leading centres for culture, diplomacy, politics and business. It is the second largest Chinese city by urban population after Shanghai. It is also a major hub for the national highway, expressway, railway, and high-speed rail networks.
The city has a combination of both modern and traditional architecture. As one of the oldest cities in the world it has a rich history dating back three millennia. The architecture ranges from traditional architecture like the Tian’anmen, temple of heaven and the Imperial Ancestral Temple, to much more modern buildings like Beijing National Stadium and six story shopping malls like Jinyuan Yansha Shopping Mall.
Beijing is also home to part of the Great Wall, which is a world UNESCO heritage site we had the privilege of visiting and managed to get to the peak. The city has some amazing parks with remarkable scenery, which are great places to visit after a long working day.
We took a four hour flight from Beijing to Chengdu, which is now one of the most important economic hubs in western China. It has a diverse economy characterized by the machinery, automobile, medicine, food, and information technology industries.
We visited the giant panda, a Chinese national symbol, which inhabits the area of Sichuan. The city is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
Changsha, the capital of central China’s Hunan province, is a large city with a history dating to the Zhou dynasty. The city is popularly known for its rare collection of excavated Western Han dynasty tombs, known as the Mawangdui. We visited the likes of Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Hunan Grain Group and Changsha Jiajia Food Group Co., Ltd.
Traveling through the different cities by air, road and rail, we experienced breathtaking scenery, especially the rural parts of Changsha, which had a lot of rice plantations and other grain crops. However, there were very few animals in sight.
In a nutshell
On the streets, many people still wear masks and mainly because of the air quality, which had apparently become better in the time of our visit. Chinese people are so friendly! However, they generally do not speak English, which poses a barrier if you need directions or something in the shops. Google does not operate in the country, so you rely on translator apps and paper maps.
Walking around the city is an adventure and most people do it; however, you constantly have to navigate between other pedestrians, cyclists, motor bikes, cars and busses that seem to pop out of nowhere and literally make U-turns everywhere. The result is that one is constantly on guard for hooting, which is a way to alert you of danger. Most of the streets are quite narrow and two cars can hardly pass at one go. Additionally, the streets are very clean, you even find someone sweeping at 11 pm and there is mopping of pavements twice a day.
Chinese people do not sleep. Walking around at midnight is quite common, the streets are usually buzzing and construction work goes on for 24 hours straight. The Chinese work ethic is quite fascinating – we would usually start the course at 8 am or earlier and finish at 5.30 pm and sometimes go up to 10 pm, depending on the schedule.
We visited during school holidays, but an ordinary school day is said to start at 8 am, with a maximum 3-hour lunch break where kids are encouraged to nap. School then recommences until about 5 pm for primary school kids and 6.30 pm for high schools. For most of the working class, work starts at 8 am until 9 or 10 pm. Most markets close at 10 pm, while food outlets close at the same time or are open 24 hours.
Travelling by public transport in China is quite interesting and cheap. Getting to one destination could require you to change trains or busses two to three times, while trying to read signs and stops in Chinese and navigating through crowds. There are always the awkward stares and stealing of pictures, since we looked different from everyone else. A local bus ride is 1 RMB (which is the equivalent of R2) and a train ride is about 3 RMB (about R6).
Food has to be the most important part of Chinese culture. Peking roast duck is perhaps the best-known dish. The food was by far the most interesting part of my visit. The snacks range anything from vacuum-sealed chicken feet and duck necks, to oriental cherry milk potato chips. It has been alleged that Chinese people eat everything, and I am more convinced than ever now. Street vendors sell all sorts of food, including a small hint amphibians and reptiles.
Because of various things that happened in the past that affected food security in the country, one of our course speakers made a joke and said: “Back in the day, Chinese people basically ate everything with four legs, except a table and everything with wings except a plane”. The people enjoy spicy food – a meal is not complete without something spicy and everything is soaked or fried in oil. An average Chinese person consumes about 100 g of oil per day. McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut are quite popular western franchises in China, however the taste is rather different to what South Africa is used to. The menus are also quite customised, including a beef burger at KFC and soup at Pizza Hut.
Pickling food is a big part of Chinese history. They even have a city named “Pokai City’’, meaning Pickle City, which has a pickle museum and research institutes for pickles. Weirdly enough, they pickle everything but the pickles that we are familiar with! Fermentation is also an age-old tradition that they still use today to preserve and process food.
Shopping was definitely one of my highlights. Markets are the best places to find affordable clothes, shoes, accessories and gadgets. However, you need to bargain, which I was never ready for, but after two days, we got the hang of things. The market environment is quite intimidating at first, with sales people trying to force you to buy something just because you asked for the price. The only issue is that items would move from 2500 RMB to 50 RMB, so you never know the real value, which means you try to push the price as low as you possibly can.
Being in a different country always gives one a new perspective on life. It opens your eyes to how the other half of the world lives. The people, the food and being immersed in the culture gives you an appreciation of other nations and certainly helps you appreciate your own even more.