Two years ago I went on a wonderful six-month trip around Asia. But I didn’t like China. It was a huge disappointment for me. I think it’s okay not to like a place, though. In fact, maybe it’s good not to like some things. We live in an online world where we “like” things at just a click of a button and without much thought and where we crave “likes” in return. We document our lives for public approval and we want to give the impression that we are all leading fabulously exciting lives. This is certainly true of travel writing and blogs. After all, we’ve sometimes paid a lot of money for that airfare and visa, so we’re going to make sure we like it. Even if we don’t.
I have visited over 60 countries and spent months on the road at a time and I haven’t enjoyed every place and I have certainly had some bad days along the way. But surely that’s normal? If we simply like everything and everywhere, then doesn’t it just devalue the “like”. It’s good to have a bad day – chances are the next day will feel so much better. It’s normal to dislike a place for whatever reason – we are all different and have different tastes.
I have lost count of the number of times I have arrived in a place, lured by hyperbolic descriptions in the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, only to discover after half a day that it’s really not that great and there’s not a lot to do. Of course, that’s only my opinion. Conversely, I have often gone to a place I didn’t intend to visit with little in the way of write-ups and discovered a gem. And that’s what makes travelling such fun. The thrill of the unexpected.
The very name Bali conjures up images of an exotic paradise, but for me the reality was dirty beaches, being blatantly ripped off and hassled. However, the next door island of Lombok was relaxing and beautiful. I arrived on Gili Air planning to stay a few days and stayed a week.
Twelve years ago when I was taking a boat down the Amazon from Manaus to Santarem I had no plans to visit Alter do Chão, a small town on the Rio Tapajós, as it was barely mentioned in my guidebook. Two fellow passengers told me they were going so I joined them and discovered a thrilling off-the-beaten-track destination, very laid back with seductive beaches.
Nowadays, it’s one of Lonely Planet’s Top 20 Things to Do in Brazil. It’s probably very different. Time changes places and it also changes us. We can have different reactions to places depending on when we go.
I also find that, as I get older, I am not drawn so much to the buzz of cities, but want to spend more time in the countryside. And that may be one of the mistakes I made with China. I had a month there and spent too much time in the cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an. Maybe if I’d gone further south or west I would have seen a different China, but the one I experienced was not pleasant. The pollution was as bad you have probably seen on the television. In four weeks I barely saw the sun as it remained hidden behind a sickly grey haze. I felt like I was travelling in a gigantic building site. As you travel by train, you look out not onto the idyllic landscapes the guidebooks show, but cooling towers belching smoke into the air. In the cities you can smell the new concrete dust as the government rushes not to restore historic buildings and sites but demolish them and rebuild them in the ‘original style’.
China is also not cheap and you can spend much more than you planned. The ancient city of Pingyao, for example, charges £15 to visit the old houses and temples. In other cities you may pay £5 or more per site. In Beijing I simply couldn’t afford to visit all the attractions and so was left disappointed. The crowds you encounter at just about every tourist attraction can be unbearable. And then there’s the food. One of the things I love about travelling is experiencing the cuisine, but I found the food in China horrendous, so much so that I frequently ended up at fast food joints which I never go to anywhere else. But they were the only places I could find anything remotely edible. If you get hungry at tourist sites or on trains, you need to develop a taste for hotdogs and pot-noodles. Of course, if I had been able to read the menu in Mandarin or had had more money, then maybe I would have had a different experience.
China wasn’t all bad, though. I found it fascinating as well as challenging. The people on an individual level were always friendly and sometimes went out of their way to guide me as I struggled to find my hostel. The Terracotta Warriors are amazing, even though I had to strain to see them through crowds 5 people deep and was frequently pushed out of the way. At Luoyang I decided to visit the Longmen Caves at dusk. The crowds were smaller and it proved to be a very different experience. On my way to the Great Wall I met a local guy who was also going to hike there and he invited me to join him on a part officially closed to tourists. It had not been restored and was free to access. This proved to be one of the highlights of China for me.
So I don’t regret going to China, but I have to admit I won’t be rushing back soon. Travelling is a very subjective experience and we can’t all like everything all the time. But it’s always fun making up your own mind. Let’s just not pretend we “like” everything.