An Ode to the 21st Century City – Why Describing Rural Areas as More “Culturally Authentic” Makes No Sense in 2017

29 Jun

The modern, cosmopolitan city is one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, and its increasingly the environment in which much of our species lives. In 2017, its time to push back against this narrative that the rural areas of a country are more “authentic”.

In recent years of politics in the west and elsewhere, it has become trendy among the right-wing to bemoan, fear, demonize, and lament the influence of the “Cosmopolitan Global Elite”. Perhaps this is most evident in the current political climate of the United States, but elements of the rhetoric are present all over the world, both in western and non-western countries. It is a trend that has accelerated and become more clear with recent years, and received a lot of journalistic coverage after Donald Trump was elected to the US Presidency.

I’m not one to argue that people in liberal-minded people cities should ignore the rural working class, as some have suggested. Because in a functioning world, there must be a healthy sense of trust between urban and rural folk. A society cannot function if the different places that are of importance to it are taught to despise one anothers’ way of life. And in no way am I suggesting the struggles of anybody in rural regions of the world should be ignored, or that rural areas are not worthy of respect. Quite the opposite. I have tremendous appreciation for rural areas, where nature is accessible and the pace of life is slower. But I also have respect for these “elite” cities that the political right seems so intent on demonizing.

Here’s the thing – the populations, tourist numbers, GDP percentages and numbers of great educational institutions say it like it is – cities are awesome. Let’s face it, for all the struggles that certain cities have had, whether it be pollution, poverty, or education systems – the 21st century big city is a beautiful, functioning, and complex organism of civilization, which, in most of human history, would have seemed like a science fiction dream. Many people are choosing to live in cities for good reason. The majority of people now live in cities, and they generate the majority of many countries’ GDP. The young folks, patriotic or not, who want to work for their country’s biggest companies or work in their nations’ governments don’t stay in small towns, they often move to cities.

Cities’ greatness can be summarized in far more depth than what is offered by just GDP percentages. Every great global city is a distinct microcosm of a society, a group of people living and working in close proximity for each others’, and thus their nations’, and the world’s benefit. A truly great city is a forge of great architecture, arts, cuisine, and learning. And despite their commonalities, the way many cities are built can reflect the unique history and values of the civilization that built it. European cities reflect what is great about Europe, with their densely populated historic districts, public infrastructure and sense of togetherness. The office parks and private suburban cul-de-sacs of US cities may be ugly and wasteful, but they are home to many of the world’s most important businesses, and like anywhere, they reflect what their society values – privacy, prioritization of work ethic, and convenience for the individual. The neon-lit megacities of East Asia may seem on the surface like the cliche of cities from a science-fiction film, but in the way their streets retain older patterns despite needing rebuilding, and there are the ancient principles of Feng Shui that still influence Chinese construction, these cities too show what is valued in their societies. Urban Planning also reflects history. Cities with eventful histories show it in their variety of architecture, street planning, and usually both of these things. There’s the multi-layered and culturally complex cities of India such as Chennai, where colonial forts lie alongside neighborhoods were some of the oldest civilizations in Asia existed. Point is – cities arguably reflect a culture just as much as any rural area. But in a different sort of way.

Even so, In a lot of discourse surrounding the state of the world today, there’s an undertone that the rural area of any country has more of its “true authentic culture”. This idea that the rural regions are the true soul of a country is still implied and sometimes openly stated, including in travel literature, and the thing is that it’s simply wrong. It also embraces the notion all culture worth understanading comes from these rural, conservative regions we see as time-capsules to the past. At its best it is naive and ignorant, and at its worst, it is dangerously nationalistic.

Sheer numbers alone show it to be false in many cases. The majority of Americans (80%) and citizens of many European countries live in cities, and increasingly, more and more people in the developing world do too. So, cultural values non-withstanding, if so many more of a country’s people live in cities, why is there still this undertone that the rural folk are more representative of the culture?

It often goes along with anti-immigrant rhetoric. The idea that a white guy who works on a farm in Missouri is more “American” than a second generation hispanic immigrant is based on a racist notion of “Real America”, as if the popular perception of the “good old days” is the basis of America’s national identity, and any major changes since the “good old days”, whenever they may be, is a betrayal of that “culture of real America”. Also, this mentality erases the long histories of immigrant communities that go back longer than right-wing media would have one believe. Islam in Europe as well as Latin-American and Asian cultures in the United States have long histories which have impacted their continents in far more ways than one would assume. They also were, in some cases, the original creators of what we consider to be western cultural icons. You know the classic rugged individual All-American cowboy? Mexicans were the first people in North America to have that lifestyle and culture. And most likely, a large number of white Americans who wear cowboy hats don’t know this. Filipino and Chinese communities have been in America since the mid 19th century. In post-Medieval Europe, a large number of mathematical and scientific advancements were built on, or heavily influenced by, the tools developed in the Arab World (such as algebra). That’s not to say that any Western cultural Identity is completely unoriginal. But it’s important that we acknowledge the contributions of immigrants to our icons of “real” national identity, be it in lifestyle, arts, education systems, and cuisine. And where do many of these newcomers move to nowadays? The cities.

Sometimes I am challenged back by someone saying rural areas are more culturally distinctive, and that it is more common for people to eat tradtional food, wear tradttional dress, and go to church/temple/mosque/shrine in a rural area of a country, and therefore a rural area is more “in-touch” with its national identity. This often is coupled with an argument implying that, because western fast-food joints and famous chain hotels dominate parts of many cities, that urban areas all over the world may as well be one “elite” culture.

On a surface level, yes the main boulevards of many western cities may look similar. Yes, you can find McDonalds in many places, as well as lines of storefronts selling well-known clothing brands. But to judge the whole culture of modern cities by stores a tourist may observe on the surface is a big leap. Each city’s distinct layouts and street pattern arguably has a far bigger effect on lifestyle and tourist experience than the fact that many cities have McDonalds. These deeper differences go beyond the types of historic sites. Cities’ traditional identities have long legacies which affect their economies today. Sure, San Francisco may now have more chain stores and bland condos than it did in the 60s. But in the way of the fast-growing tech industry, attracting optimistic young people who hope to change the world with their apps, its legacy is one of social disruption and boundary-pushing as much as it ever has been. It just takes on a different form than it did in the 60s and 70s. Even if a adventurous traveler tourist may bemoan the fact that a McDonalds is right next to the main train station in Florence, the fact remains that many students from across the world go to Florence to study art. Cities’ economies also are very different, and if anything, industry clustering has increased in recent years, not decreased. Cities are not the same. And it is not just economic. Far from being a homogenizing force, multiculturalism arguably makes cities more distinctive. Turkish Immigrants growing up in London have a different culture and different experience than Turkish immigrants growing up in Berlin. The diversity of ethnicities in cosmopolitan cities varies tremendously from city to city. To look at Paris and London as being the same (besides the obvious difference in language), due to both of them having McDonalds and both having a number of ethnic enclaves, is a notion that does the inhabitants of those cities a huge disservice.

Ultimately, the divisive politics that have dominated the US and Europe boil down largely to geographic divides, and one of the strongest is the urban-rural divide, perhaps most obviously in the US. Even if rural and urban folks don’t agree with one anothers’ values, lets be sure that we don’t let them define the other by a cultural reputation they don’t deserve. Just as rural places are not entirely made up of dumb hicks, cities are not full of scheming elitists who think that everyone else is below them. In our world, we need to do a better job at giving other living environments the respect they deserve, even if we don’t always share compassion. Cities do not get a lot of respect in American political discourse these days, and when we write about cultures and travel, perhaps its time to stop enabling the “rural areas are more authentic” narrative. Both urban and rural environments are representative of their national culture in their own ways. So let’s stop acknowledging the “authentic culture” in just the latter.

Brief Update on my Travels and Blog

2 Jun

Let’s get the basics out of the way first – I have not forgotten about this blog. I am doing plenty of travel. In 2017 I have visited India, Japan, and Indonesia, and will be visiting India again as well as Poland and Wales later this summer.

The last half year or so I have been more focused on developing career skills than reading about places to visit. My travel style has changed. This summer, I am being a “Digital Nomad”, or at least thats what many people call it. It is a growing lifestyle among tech-savvy millennials, and the practice has a growing number of online communities. Digital nomads typically have freelance, contract, or full-time software development work (although there are non-tech digital nomads as well). Being a digital nomad is making money while traveling, spending more time than a backpacker would in each place, doing work during much of the day and doing side trips or visits to tourist sights on the side.

So far I have greatly enjoyed the experience. I am currently in a town called Yogyakarta, in Indonesia where I’m staying at an airbnb for almost 30 days with some very kind hosts, and doing some side trips with hostel stays to Java’s most well-known areas. I have met some awesome people on tours and at this airbnb, from other parts of Indonesia, other Asian countries, and the West. In ways that go beyond my job, I often am more motivated to be productive than I am at university.

I plan to get back into blogging at some point. I have pondered rebranding my blog and giving it a more distinct, but still broad focus. I have developed a much stronger interest in present day politics of the countries I visit, as well as doing more reading about places to get context beyond just what is written in travel guides.

There are numerous posts I have planned for the summer. I cannot guarantee anything. But I can assure that the focus of my blog will definitely change, beyond just travel advice and more towards practical long term advice for those who want to travel a lot in their life. I also plan to write more articles based on a deeper understanding of places, history, current events, and culture.

A reason I am strongly moving toward focusing on current politics is that a lot of travel writing, too much, deals with places in terms of their past. But there’s a lot to gain from understanding the present trends that the past shaped. Too often, travel writing assumes in the traveler a sense of being a neutral outsider, exploring a country that has been shaped by “what happened”, but not having any reason to think about broader trends in its present. This is something that needs to change. You cannot, and I mean cannot, separate politics from travel. Ever.

There’s a lot thats gone on since Trump came into office, and these days, the right-wing wave of nationalist populism has been spreading across the world with varying degrees of success, and not just in the US and Europe. Increasingly, left-leaning people who care strongly about human rights and see themselves as global citizens are seen as “out of touch”. This is perhaps most obvious in the growing urban-rural divide in the USA, but the reality is that these perceptions are growing in many places. I do not believe this is justified, but the fact is that this perception did not just happen ina  vacuum. People like myself who travel frequently and appreciate multicultural environments should take time to examine their understanding of the world. There are many thoughts, observations, and viewpoints I have on these things that I am interested to incorporate into my blog.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

On Trump, “Elitism”, and “Living in a Bubble”

25 Nov

Donald Trump’s victory in the US election was an event that shattered our perceptions of political reality. In addition, it has led to a lot of unfriending on facebook, debates about how progressives should move forward, and a lot of articles about the concept of “living in a bubble”. I wrote this post about how “cosmopolitan” liberals (including myself many times in the past) can often hypocritically criticize those who “live in a bubble”, and how we must try to move forward.

Some time ago, I traveled in Southeast Asia, and one of the places I went was Chiang Rai, Thailand. While in Chiang Rai, I went on a tour to some of the hill-tribe villages that was run by a member of the community who had grown up in one of the villages. This man was great at what he did, and he posts many pictures from his farming life on facebook. He spends a good amount of time in the year farming, and another time in the year running tours so he can make money from an exchange with tourists, and use the money to benefit his community. He was always curious to get to know his customers, and the countries they were from. Because he was poor, he had never been outside of Northern Thailand. He had spent most of his life surrounded by people who lived like him and looked like him. By any standard of any so-called cosmopolitan liberal, he would have been seen as “living in a bubble”. Even so, tourists were curious about his life. They loved learning about his culture and seeing how he lived, and knew he made a good living from this.

Now, imagine that this man is a white man who lives in a farmland area in Indiana, and has never been outside of Indiana. He makes a living farming, and sells corn-maze tickets at a county fair some times in the year to make money. He exchanges friendly chit-chat with his customers, some of whom are “cosmopolitan elitists” from Chicago, but for the most part, unlike the man from Northern Thailand, his customers are people who live like him and look like him. He knows and resents that the big city types don’t want to connect with people in rural Northern Indiana. That part of America, they say, is full of backwards, racist Trump supporters who want to go back to the 1950s and hate black people. They want to travel to someplace more “exotic”, and “get out of their bubble!” Never mind that hill tribes in Thailand can also have some traditions that are backwards by western liberal standards! It’s okay to learn from these “noble savages”, they are more “exotic” and “different”.

Meanwhile, at a tech startup in Boston, a savvy young programmer who had a 3-week trip to Thailand shares photos of his tour run by the man in Northern Thailand. The same day, he buries his mind in disbelief that the same country running his startup could possibly elect someone like Donald Trump for president, and then goes on to sneer at those backwards farm people who live in “rural America”.

This brings me to my point. Many wealthy world travelers who criticize people for “living in a bubble” are perfectly happy living in a bubble themselves, as well as learning from people abroad whose lives, if in America, would be seen as leading them to “living in a bubble”.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t go abroad and learn about cultures in places like Thailand. But my point is that we can’t apply double standards. I’m also not saying that marginalized people who feel unsafe after Trump’s victory should go backpacking in Northern Indiana. I’m aiming this at the coastal class of people who are white, liberal, and can afford to visit lots of places. Too often, world-travelers treat their “going out of their bubble” as if it is a contest, to see who can be most different from those “redneck” folks in rural Indiana. We cannot escape the circumstances we grew up in and worldviews we shaped, but we can attempt to connect better with those who are different than us, especially those close to us, where it matters to us most.

We shouldn’t overtly sympathize with Trump supporters. What they have done is racist, despicable, and normalizes hatred. We shouldn’t let them dictate our nation’s future. But we also shoudn’t unfriend them on social media, or block them out of our lives. Many times, trying to persuade people who have different views than us will fail. But it definitely can’t succeed unless we try. And try. And try. And keep trying.

Defying Potential Expectations, Study Shows Millennials Still Drink Water When Thirsty

19 Sep
water

Perhaps millennials drink water not in spite of the changes in society and technology usage but because of them?

 

Millennials, the latest generation to have fully come of age in America, have proven doubtlessly puzzling and fascinating to researchers for various reasons. Much has been made about the habits of this unique generation and how they have developed over the years. They are a truly one-of-a-kind generation in American history, as, despite coming of age under in a time of technological advancement, their living preferences and habits contradict each other in such a strangely human manner.

Some who can’t afford to live in cities are actually living away from cities. Others prefer suburbs.  They also love cities somehow. This paradox endlessly troubles those who try to characterize this weird generation. How can a whole generation, especially one that loves diversity, love cities and simultaneously stay away from them?

While the snapchat generation may be very digital, they do actually seem to be able to talk face-to-face as well. They also sometimes buy cars.

Now, there is another trend among millennials which puzzles researchers. They drink water. Researchers at University of Middleburg, Pennsylvania have discovered that water consumption, contrary to what one may think, is still going strong among this diverse generation of Americans.

Tom Smithburg, a sociologist specializing in youth culture states – “We believed the combination of technological change and financial uncertainty of America today would possibly lead to a potential decline in water consumption among those who are thirsty, but puzzlingly, the human method of water-drinking still is going strong among this generation”.

Fascinatingly, millennials don’t just drink water at home. They drink it when they are out and about in the town. Smithburg states his 20 year old son, who is at college in New York City, sometimes needs to drink water when he’s out with his friends on a hot day. This ritual of needing to go somewhere to find water perhaps is an enigmatic way millennials bond in the human sense, despite being obsessed with snapchat, facebook and instagram, and despite the uncertainties of the time period. While water drinking has been a human activity for generations, millennials have not brought about its decline. It remains a quintessential part of human life, despite the changing times.

 

(Yes, this is a satirical parody)

 

 

Memories of Travel, and coming to terms with the end of a long-term backpacking trip

6 Aug
We can look out of the window of this train again, but we can't live the exact same experience we lived the first time.

We can look out of the window of this train again, but we can’t live the exact same experience we lived the first time.

Whoever we are, there are occasional stretches of time one experiences, where there are certain moments in life that give us strange emotional epiphanies, and thoughts swirling in our heads that we can’t really put into words. As if, deep down you feel a certain way, but you can’t really describe how. For me, it is hard to understand what it’s like before and after these times, but it is one of those times now.

For the past three months, from May Third of 2016 until now, I’ve been backpacking around Asia. I plan to devote several future blog posts to travel advice, but today I’m going to talk about emotions, and coping with the end of a trip. I spent two months in China, and one in Southeast Asia, divided among Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. And the moment of a realization that I’d known all along, yet never truly thought about, brought a feeling upon me that I can’t quite put into words, as I sat in my hostel dorm room in Phnom Penh with my brother, trying to figure out when we would pack for our overnight bus to Siem Reap. This was the end. It was over. After one more stop in Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, it’s done. Gone. Me and my brother will be flying to Manchester, England where we will see our family. And even if I do the same backpacking itinerary again, it will never be the same.

By this, I’m not saying that I’m assuming every place I visited is going to change drastically, although, this is Asia and very rapidly changing. I’m saying that I will change in ways that will mean I can’t experience the trip the same way again – I will never be able to go back to the point in my life in May 2016, where I stepped off that plane in Beijing Capital Airport, ready for the greatest adventure of my life. I will never have those exact same thoughts, same anticipations, and same feelings that I did when I landed in Beijing that night. I think future trips will be valuable too if I backpack this region again (which I definitely hope to do). But I will not be the same me. This trip has created a treasure trove of memories, which I must hold onto and cherish, as the Cambodian nation has done with its ruins of Angkor.

I doubt I’m the only one who has had these thoughts at the end of a major trip. To those who have struggled with a feeling similar to mine, here’s my advice: Plan future trips, because the travel bug never goes away once you’ve caught it. But also, embrace the fleetingness of your memories. Know that you’ve had a collection of experiences that you will never have again, but you can remember fondly. And if you do similar trips, remember that you will have whole new experiences then too. Just because travel isn’t new to me anymore doesn’t mean it’s any less exciting.

Maybe you can’t travel abroad again in the near future due to various circumstances. Maybe this is your rare chance in a long time, and you loved every minute of it. In that case, still, cherish your memories. Your trip may not last your whole life, but if you keep reminding yourself of them, the memories of it should.

I’m also looking forward to embracing new classes in my life at home, reuniting with my college pals, and just seeing how things go. There will be times of stress, in which I want to go back to the younger me, before my trip, that didn’t ever see an inch of 2016 China, and had no idea of the extent to which I’d appreciate the great places I’d go and people I’d meet. Once those moments pass though, they pass forever. Let’s cherish them while we can, and remember them fondly for the rest of our lives.

 

Six Tips for First-Time Visitors to China

28 Jun
IMG_3647

The newly futuristic city of Guiyang

For the past two months I have been traveling around China, and it is my favorite country that I’ve traveled in as a tourist. From when I first touched down in Beijing to when I got on my last bullet train ride back to Beijing, I had so many incredible experiences backpacking in more than 10 different Chinese provinces. I met friendly people who I will stay in touch with, I ate tons of amazing food, and the historic and architectural sites I saw were stellar. Most interesting to me was the extent to which China’s provinces feel very different from one another, despite the Han Chinese “cultural glue”.

Due to the langauge barriers, traveling here as an English-Speaker is not a chill, relaxing walk in the park, but it is very engaging and encourages you to learn. Here are six tips to make your trip to China more enjoyable and rewarding.

Read about the history and culture of China before you go.

This should be done wherever you go, but I would argue that in China it is deserves even more attention. Chinese culture is thousands of years old, not hundreds. There is such a huge diversity of traditions and ideas that have developed over the years. With the oldest continuous civilization that exists today and a ton of regional variation, you are bound to find aspects of Chinese culture that interest you. There’s no way anyone, especially a tourist on a visit, can learn everything about a culture, but it is very important to understand the basics. So read the pages in the back of the Lonely Planet book about the culture of China as a whole, and then go online (or if you’re at college, take an elective) to learn in more detail about specific elements of the culture that interest you. For me, it was the Buddhist sculpture and architecture that I found the most interesting.

Especially outside the biggest cities, you are likely to get stared at or asked questions if you don’t look Chinese. Get used to it.

Inland China does not have an established western backpacker trail. Whether it’s in the restaurant cars of the K-class intercity trains or those hole in the wall restaurants in the alleyways behind the office buildings, there will be plenty of times outside the big cities when being a foreigner (laowai, or the Cantonese term, gweilo) gets you attention. From my experience, older people were more likely to just stare, and the younger people are often keen to practice English. Try not to take it as a bad, uncomfortable, or offensive thing. You may be one of the only westerners they’ll ever see in that vicinity.

Travel by train in the hard seat or sleeper carriage-. It’s affordable, and a great way to get to know the locals.

Even if you don’t speak Chinese, the trains in China are easy to use once if you do advance research and you get the hang of it. Buy your tickets in advance online and pick them up at the station, because you never know if it may be fully booked. Also, get to the station at least 40 minutes in advance, so there is time to wait in line and go through security. If you don’t speak mandarin well, research the train schedule beforehand so that you know how long it should take before you reach your destination, as announcements on older trains are not in english often. Also, memorize the chinese characters for your destination. But all of this is worth it. On the hard-seat and sleeper carriages, travel is cheap, and you will meet many locals, some of whom will be keen to practice English, share snacks with you, or just be curious about you. You should also converse with them in their native language, and demonstrate your Mandarin or Cantonese knowledge.

Accept that you aren’t going to see everything.

Trying to visit every cool highlight in every region of China would be as time consuming as trying to do the same in all of Europe. China is extremely diverse and gargantuan, and should be treated as a contiennt when planning trips. It’s not like Vietnam or Thailand, where there are well-defined tourist trails with easy-to-name highlights along the way. So choose several provinces of the country, and see the “must sees” or whatever you are most interested to see in those provinces. You’ll never be able to see it all.

Learn basic mandarin. Even a little effort goes a long way.

Outside of the most touristy areas in big cities, you will need a little bit of mandarin knowledge. But it’s a huge misconception to say that this means you need to be fluent in mandarin. From my experience, newer backpackers often over-estimate the difficulties posed by language barriers, and the more experienced ones who continue to do so are generally the ones who don’t make any effort whatsoever to speak the language. Folks, do the world a favor and learn at least a bit of langauge, and try to use it as much as you can. In China, it is a necessity, and even if a non-english-speaking chinese-speaker will try to understand an english-speaker, they will be far more polite and receptive if you make just the slightest little bit of effort. Sometimes nowadays, service people will have guests type in english in phones so that they can use translator apps to figure out what tourists want. But don’t be demanding. They are under no obligation to speak english, and shouldn’t feel that they are so.

Avoid “Laowai-passing”

Laowai passing (or as it is known in Japan, Gaijin-passing) is when you use your status as an ignorant foreigner to get away with things you aren’t allowed to do, since you know that officials (who possibly dont speak english) may avoid confronting you. An example would be if, say, you don’t have enough money on your subway ticket to be able to leave at the station you get off at, and the staff don’t speak english and aren’t able to explain how to use the subway properly. And so they’d just let you through the side gate. While many foreigners get away with this sort of thing, it really isn’t cool. You may well be the only foreigner someone on that subway line sees that day, and if you make a bad impression by doing this sort of thing, you are collectively hurting the reputation of foreigners in the local area. Learn how to do basic things that may be different from at home, like paying for the bus or subway. Learn the Chinese characters for ‘entrance” and “exit”, or “male” and “female” (for toilets). Also, if you’re going to be talking to locals (which you should), make sure to learn Chinese etiquette around gift-giving, meals out, and asking about things. There are many online resources that can help with that. Don’t be overly anxious about it, if you mess a few things up they will understand. But you need to show that you care about trying to fit in with etiquette. Also, know that 4 and 7 are unlucky numbers (which is why this post has six tips instead of seven). 

Beyond Europe and Southeast Asia – 6 Reasons China is Well Worth Backpacking

19 Jun

IMG_4029

I’ve been traveling around China for the past 6 weeks, and it has been a delightful experience. China is my favorite country I have visited so far.

It is hard to overstate the scale of China’s size and history, as the Chinese civilization is the oldest society on earth that exists as a nation today. It has been through countless golden ages, dynasties, internal divisions, and wars throughout its thousands of years of existence. In regards to food, traditions, dialects, architecture, and landscapes, each region almost feels like a different country. A foreigner could spend five years traveling in China and still only scratch the surface of this complex and rapidly changing society. Basically, based on the desires of most backpackers, China is worth visiting.

But compared to Europe and Southeast Asia, China isn’t nearly as heavily backpacked, at least, by westerners. There are several reasons why this may be, from the language barrier, to the intimidating size, to the portrayal of China in western media as being an urban, dystopian, polluted wasteland. But language barriers can be overcome more easily than some expect, and outside of a few urban areas, this media narrative is misleading and false. China is well-worth backpacking, and here are six reasons why:

The country is massive and diverse, with large differences between the provinces

China is more than just a big country. It is a complex civilization with a level of regional variation like that of Western Civilization. While 93% of the population is Han Chinese, this statistic is misleading, becuase there are huge variations in Han Chinese culture between the different regions. Going from Henan to Hunan, or from Sichuan to Yunnan is to cross into what feels like a whole different version of China, like crossing from France to Germany within Western Europe. The differences are not just in a few things like local food specialties or obscure slang – there are different cuisines, traditional festivals, major dialects, architecture styles, and levels of economic development in each region.

Outside the coastal cities, it is affordable to visit

The coastal cities of China, like Hong Kong (its own autonomous zone) and Shanghai can be as expensive as world-class cities anywhere. But if you maximize your time inland and spend less time in these major cities, a trip to China can be very affordable. In Yunnan, it is more than possible to get by on around $45 a day, but you may struggle to get by on twice that in Shanghai.

The historic sites are massive and distinctive

When you sightsee in Beijing or Xi’an, you’ll realize that this isn’t a country where you can meander through alleyways that have loads of smaller landmarks or museums. In comparison to Europe, think fewer but better sights. Chinese cities typically have a few really, really big tourist sites and maybe one or two smaller museums. While there isn’t history at every turn, the individual sights in each region are large and take time to see. The Great Wall near Beijing, and the Terracotta Warriors near Xi’an are two famous examples, but what about the Mu Family Mansion in Lijiang, or the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall in Guangzhou?

The countryside is very scenic and dramatic in certain regions

The countryside of China is dramatic if you go to the right places. Head Southwest to see the Karst peaks of Guangxi, the Miao villages in the hills of Guizhou, or the dramatic mountain ranges of Western Sichuan. Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan is rightfully considered to be one of Asia’s greatest treks. Also, the mountains and deserts in the Northwest are their own type of beautiful environment.

The food is excellent wherever you go

I have had one or two bad meals in China. As long as you don’t eat unsafe buffet food or street food, you’re good. The specialties in each region are very distinct, but within big cities, food from most regions is represented. Trying famous regional specialties in their regions for the first time, like Peking Duck, Xiaolongbao, or Crossing-the-Bridge Noodles is an experience you’ll always remember fondly.

The public transportation is increasingly extensive and easy to use

While New York City can’t stop delaying the date of opening for its Second Avenue Subway Line, China has already built the world’s largest network of high speed trains in the years since 2007. But High Speed Trains arent the only vehicles that make Chinese transportation great. There are sleeper trains, new metro systems in cities, buses, sleeper buses, and a variety of airline options that all make getting around China a breeze. Just make sure that for longer routes, you buy your train tickets in advance. Also, it helps to know when your stop is on the train timetables for your route, since english announcements are not common on the trains that aren’t bullet trains. Check out rail.assistanceinchina.com for route schedules and maps. chinahighlights.com is a great place to buy tickets.