If you're thinking about including a Tibet tour in your China vacation then you'll probably be looking for a reading list that gives you some insight into life in the region. The most popular book ever written about Tibetan culture is “The Third Eye” by Lobsang Rampa. The big question when it comes to this novel is; “is it worth a trip to the bookstore for?” We've reserved final judgment but you should know a little more before deciding whether to take this strange tome on your flight to China.
The novel is set in the period of the 13th Dalai Lama; Thubten Gyatso. It is during this time that Lobasang Rampa is sent by his father (an aristocrat from Lhasa) to study theology. He arrives at the monastery and is quickly praised for his swift thinking and deep understanding of the issues facing the country and his people.
He can supposedly allow his thoughts to travel into the future and in order to develop this capacity his fellow monks drill a hole into his forehead. This “third eye” allows him to visualize people's auras and understand what drives them in reality rather than what they say motivates them. This is done in response to the feat that China will emerge as a stronger power and one day will rule all of Tibet.
Once his third-eye is in place Rampa is sent on a trip to the Dalai Lama's court where he will act as a spy – verifying the intention of each person who travels there. Visitors from China in particular are to be scrutinized and he is to develop closer relationships with visitors from other counties. Rampa remains convinced that China wishes to destroy Tibet.
Things then get a little odd. Rampa encounters the famous Tibetan Yeti as well as his own mummified body before the finale. He also alleges that the Himalayan mountain ranges were caused by the collision of the earth with another planet. If this sounds suspiciously like a load of hokum spoken by someone on a bad trip – you'll need to understand the controversy underpinning this Tibetan classic.
Despite The Third Eye being the most popular work about Tibet in history, there was no such person as Lobsang Rampa. In fact the book may assert that it is “an authentic autobiography” but a little investigation reveals a fake. China may be the home of the copy and the knock off but this ruse was perpetuated a little further afield.
The famous Tibetologist (or as famous as one can be in a field that draws little international attention) is a man called Heinrich Harrer. He is the author of Seven Years in Tibet which was later made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. He saw firsthand Tibet's transition from a colony of Britain to part of China. He also found it impossible to believe that Lobsang Rampa was Tibetan. So he hired a reporter to travel around Europe and investigate the background of this man.
The reporter discovered, Lobsang Rampa to be a man called Cyril Henry Hoskin. Cyril came from the country of Devon in England and had never traveled outside of the country. He'd never seen Tibet, had very little understanding of its culture and certainly didn't speak the language. Cyril would later claim that he was “channeling the spirit of Lobsang Rampa” a claim that remains completely unsubstantiated to this very day.
There's no doubt that The Third Eye is the most popular book of all time about Tibet. It was so popular that despite Cyril's hoax several sequels were commissioned and published too. However, if you're looking to prepare for a Tibet tour as part of your China vacation then there's no doubt at all that Cyril's work won't help you. You might want to read the book for the story which is very readable but take the contents with a pinch of salt.
One of the most famous sites in Hong Kong is the Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery that surrounds it. If your China vacation is going to include a trip to Hong Kong then you'll want to get the low down on what's in store for you there. We recommend making your trip in the early part of the day as the weather in China can get pretty warm by lunchtime and you don't want to end your day's travel exhausted and sweaty.
The Big Buddha was completed in 1993 and it took over 12 years to build. It stands 34 meters high on the top of a hill and looks down over the Chinese people to the North. People travel from all across Asia to get a sight of the Tian Tan Buddha (as it is known in Chinese). It was built from 202 individual bronze mouldings affixed to a major steel framework beneath.
The Altar of Heaven
The base of the Buddha statue is a model of the Altar of Heaven (which is called Tian Tan) and the Buddha is seated on a large throne resembling a lotus plant. There are six smaller statues surrounding him which are called “The Offering of the Six Devas”. They bear gifts for the Buddha; a lamp, flowers, incense, fruit, music and ointment. This is to symbolize the necessary attributes for a Buddhist to achieve nirvana; charity, patience, zeal, meditation, wisdom and morality.
Most visitors will have to travel up 240 steps in order to gain sight of the Buddha. However, if you have mobility issues then please don't think that your China vacation will be impaired by this – there is a small winding road that leads up to the platform which is accessible to wheelchair users. You should take to your China tour representative to get assistance if you need it.
Underneath the Buddha you'll find that there are three halls to be explored; the Hall of Merit, the Hall of Remembrance and the Hall of the Universe. There is supposedly a relic of the Guatama Buddha inside these but you'll only be allowed to see it if you purchase an offering. Watch out for the giant bell which rings 108 times a day in order to represent the release of all the "human vexations".
Once you've finished your tour of the Big Buddha don't forget to stop at the Po Lin Monastery nearby. It is the largest monastery in Hong Kong and one of the largest in China as a whole. There's a very pleasant tea garden to enjoy (the only one in Hong Kong) as well as some wonderful examples of Buddhist art within.
If your China vacation is taking in Hong Kong then the Giant Buddha's probably going to be high on your list of things to do. The complex is open to all and it's well worth taking a trip to see China's most impressive recent addition to its Buddhist heritage.
China's manufacturing sector is the largest in the world. Many of our guests want to know a little more about the sector before the take their China vacation. One thing's for certain is that manufacturing dominates much of the landscape you'll see on your China tour. So let's take a quick trip around the industrial heart of this great nation.
Where did it start?
It's not a destination on your China tour mainly because there's not much to see, but Shenzhen the 4th largest city in China was the beginning of China's rise from an agricultural to an industrialized country. Deng Xiaoping's tour of China culminated in him uttering the words which still drive much of the country today; "It is glorious to be rich."
This led to the opening up of the nation and the development of its first “special economic zone”. Shenzhen, 30 years ago, was a tiny fishing village. It was chosen for expansion because of its proximity to Hong Kong and thus established international trading routes.
Today, rapidly rising wage costs are pushing manufacturing companies out of Shenzhen and further into the interior of China. That doesn't mean that Shenzhen is finished but rather that it is to become the center of a new experiment – one focused on developing China's creative industries.
What does manufacturing mean to the economy?
Today, China's economy is completely dependent on its ability to export goods to the rest of the world. The difficulties facing the population with respect to education, healthcare and retirement mean that the Chinese tend to save all the money they earn and that means that there's still very little internal economy to speak of.
Your China vacation will almost certainly have you importing goods back into China that were made there in the first place. Most people will have clothes that have been made in China, as well as cameras, cellular phones, laptops, luggage, etc.
What's going on now in the manufacturing sector?
Recent news shows that despite the global recession China's manufacturing industry is now beginning to grow again. There was a rocky few months when it looked like the Chinese people might be suffering along with their European and US customer base. However, a determination to push into other developing markets appears to have paid off for China.
The long running Chongqing to Chengdu industrial park project is also nearing completion. This is expected to add a similar amount of manufacturing capacity to the country as already exists between Guangzhou and Shenzhen. This may enable local industry to regain some of its competitive edge when it comes to labor costs. Low cost manufacturing has already begun to make the trip to some of China's neighbors where wage costs are appreciable lower and the government is doing all it can to reverse this trend.
The future of Chinese manufacturing
China is now entering the stage where its economy must move from low cost products at low quality to a quality manufacturing environment. One thing you will notice on your tour is how much effort is being expended to capture high-end manufacturing business and the development of domestic sectors like the car industry reflects this trend.
The big question is can China pull this off on an immense scale? There are no parallels to draw with other developed nations – China must feed over 1 billion people and address concerns of income inequality in order to thrive.
Obviously you don't take a China vacation in order to get involved with manufacturing. However, you won't be able to escape the influence that industry has over the country on your China tour. You can easily support China's development during your trip by buying local and in fact you'll be hard pushed to do otherwise as imports into China in most sectors face substantial “luxury taxes” which often price them out of the market.
If you're taking part in a tour of Tibet as part of your larger China vacation then you'll want the low down on Tibetan cuisine. One thing is for sure; as you travel through Tibet the food will be very different to what you've eaten in China. Food hygiene is still in a state of development though and your best bet to avoiding a bad stomach is to eat at places that are popular and give a wide berth to those places without queues.
In general Tibetan cooking is based around goat, yak or mutton. Potatoes feature more heavily on the menu than they do in China. There is also a reasonable dairy culture though milk, yoghurt, cheese, etc. are more likely to come from a Yak than from a cow. One of the really interesting variations is that spicy food tends to rely on locally produced mustard and much less on chili peppers than anywhere else in the country.
Foods to Watch Out for in Tibet
This is like a pita bread sandwich. The bread is cut to form a pocket and then well-seasoned beef is stuffed into it. The beef may either be deep or shallow fried depending on that exact part of Tibet the cook comes from. This is a Tibet tour favorite as it's a very clearly recognizable concept and the best option if there are no hand washing facilities available (you hold the bread and then dispose of it when you've finished eating the contents).
This is a simple round flat-bread and tends to be one of the staple foods of a Tibetan diet. This is probably due to the simple ingredients and recipe that it uses. It relies on barley flour, water and baking powder only and can be cooked in any frying pan. Balep Korkun is pleasant enough but can be a little dry so make sure you have some bottled water if you're not mixing it up with anything else over breakfast.
This is a variation on a theme you'll already have encountered on your China vacation. Tingmo is like the Chinese Baozi but on steroids. These steamed buns are served with various fillings and it's always a good idea to work out which is which so you can have a meat course prior to a sweet fruity filled bun for dessert. The bread for Tingmo is a good deal heavier than that used in Baozi and you won't need nearly as many to get full.
The more adventurous will want to grab a bowl of De-Thuk on their Tibet tour. This is a warming broth made of either Yak or Mutton stock combined with rice and Tibetan Cheese as well as a Tibetan root vegetable called Droma. It's very filling and a very interesting flavor combination and probably one of the most unique menu items you'll find anywhere on your China vacation.
This is not for the faint-hearted but if you enjoy a good blood sausage then you won't be disappointed with the taste of Gyurma. They are made with either Yak or Sheep's blood and the sausage filler is usually roasted barley flour. We'll admit that not everyone will be queuing up for these on a China tour but they are really good.
If you're feeling adventurous on your Tibet tour there's plenty of interesting local food to be had. Your China vacation will definitely be a richer experience if you take part in local meals. If you find yourself hankering for Chinese or Western food then there are also plenty of options and you can take a trip to any of the many restaurants catering for foreigners around the town. However, you really shouldn't miss out on this unique contribution to China's food culture.
When you plan a China vacation you'll want to get a feel for the culture and people before you leave. One of the best ways to do this is take a virtual tour of China with an old hand. Expatriates and explorers often prove to be the best guides to real life in the country. We've picked 5 books that will you travel through China without leaving your living room – so that when you do arrive, you'll be well prepared for the trip.
The River at the Center of the World – Simon Winchester
If a Yangtze River Cruise is on your list then you ought to grab this wonderful book. Simon takes you on a journey from the mouth of the Yangtze all the way to its source thousands of miles away. It's an immersive study of people and places today and how the rapid change of industrialization is affecting the people of China all along the banks of its longest and most famous river. There are laugh out loud moments; such as his encounter with Dr. Ho and also moments that make you cry; his retelling of the Rape of Nanking is deeply disturbing for example. It's a great piece of travel writing and one that's completely worth your time.
Riding the Iron Rooster – Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux's one of those travel writers you either love or hate. His ability to focus on the detail is fantastic and his China tour by train is one of the more unusual stories of the country. However, he also has a tendency to focus on himself more than other writers and some people can find it a little jarring. He spends nearly a year crossing China, Mongolia and Tibet. There are some real insights into Chinese life but he can be overly critical at times mistaking a traveler’s understanding for full comprehension of a culture. It's a story that really sums up one man's unusual China vacation nothing more.
Country Driving – Peter Hessler
Peter's love for China is well detailed in all of his books but this charming, quirky driving tour across Northern China is perhaps his best effort. He recognizes how the car has led to such a dramatic change in China's psyche and his travel epic is based on coming to understand this properly. He gives an amusing insight into the written (and contrary) Chinese driving test as well as life on the open road. He hires a cottage in the country and works his way into rural life in China. It's a wonderful light read that really brings the warmth of the Chinese people to the fore.
Frontiers of Heaven – Stanley Stewart
This is a lovely book regarding the Great Wall of China and the part it plays in the national culture. It has become almost a psychological barrier. In his efforts to explore China he takes a tour from Shanghai to Xinjiang and beyond to understand the culture and people beyond the wall. It's a very funny, warm and compassionate work with a real affection for China transparent within its pages. It's definitely the perfect book to read just before you set off on your China vacation.
Adrift in China – Simon Myers
If you want belly laughs from your book then this strange account of one student's move to China and getting caught up in the newly emerging capitalist machine is the book for you. Moving from times at university to working for Coca-Cola and taking first hand lessons in “losing face” there's never a dull moment. This is more than a China travel monologue and more an ode to a culture that is both frustrating and fascinating from the writer's perspective. It's a great book for the plane journey to China, you'll start your vacation with a real smile on your face and a real desire to learn more on your China tour.
Many people who are interested in a Yangtze River cruise as part of their China tour package are curious about the environmental impact of the Three Gorges Dam. If this extraordinary feat of engineering is to be part of your China vacation you might like to know both sides of the argument.
One of the first things that anti-dam campaigners like to assert is that projects like this enable China to avoid becoming more energy efficient. Much of the country's industry is based on old high-polluting technology if this were to change – then there would be no need for new energy projects.
They are also concerned that the dam may have unknown effects on the wildlife of the Yangtze River. You may get a glimpse of some of the rare creatures that they are trying to protect on your cruise. However, the evidence so far is that there have not been dramatic effects on the river's fauna and flora from the dam.
One area of particular interest has been the accumulation of garbage behind the dam – this garbage would have been in the water (with or without the dam) but as it is stockpiled behind the barrier it may leach higher concentrations of toxins into the water.
The last major concern of the anti-dam movement is that the use of one dam encourages other projects of a similar nature throughout China. These are likely to be less “high profile” in nature and thus not as well thought out when they are implemented.
So those are the major issues that the environmental lobby has with the dam. Let's travel on a little further and look at the pro-dam arguments and how they address these points.
The Other Side of the Coin
It's worth noting that there are some very strong arguments in favor of the environment when it comes to the Three Gorges Dam project. The first is that this is a fully renewable-energy project. That means no fuel burning, no increased pollution, just lovely clean electricity that doesn't deplete the country's reserves of fossil fuels.
You also won't be disturbed by excess amounts of floating garbage on your Yangtze River Cruise. What might have meant for a memorable stink on your China vacation won't be an issue. The Chinese have invested considerable amounts in clearing garbage as it piles up before the dam. This may actually be of huge benefit to the whole downstream eco-system.
There may be issues regarding water quality for the local wildlife but the flood protection that the dam provides also impacts on local flora and fauna. This is mainly positive as wildlife is just as threatened by flooding as people are.
The main alternative power source is coal. There's absolutely no doubt that coal power is massively polluting and causes not just lung damage in citizens but also acid rain that would eventually spill into the Yangtze.
The concern regarding other projects in China may well be fair. The truth is that China is more like the United States than you might think and each project is managed by state (provincial) rather than federal (central committee) government. There may be some oversight from Beijing but it will be more limited than might be appreciated from outside of China.
The truth is that it may be too early to tell whether the Three Gorges Dam project is a blessing or a curse for the environment. What is absolutely guaranteed is that it will be a highlight on a Yangtze River Cruise, the sheer spectacle of that much water under human control is jaw dropping. As you travel downstream on your tour you'll get some of the greatest photos of your China vacation.
A Tibet tour is not complete without a visit to some of the spectacular Buddhist monasteries. In addition to the Potala Palace, and Norbulingka there are several other sacred sites dotting the landscape of Lhasa. There are three great monasteries for you to see on your Tibet trip and each offers unique insight into the heritage of this unique part of the world.
Ganden is the furthest monastery from Lhasa so you'll need to allow a bit of travel time to get there. It's also the smallest of the monasteries. During the cultural revolution, Ganden was severely damaged but today has mostly been rebuilt. It is home to only 160 monks and that means it offers a slightly more “homely” feel than the other two great monasteries in Tibet.
There are approximately 50 buildings on the site which is quite compact and you should need too much time to travel round them. It's a good idea to talk to the monks to get an insight into life in Tibet but please make sure you remain respectful and do not try and get into a debate on comparative theology.
Sera Monastery in contrast is a massive sprawling complex of nearly 120,000 square meters. There's an awful lot to see there. Start your tour at the Coqen Hall with its five chapels and four storeys full of Buddhist arts and literature. There are some of the oldest and finest books in Tibet to be found within the walls of the Coqen Hall.
There's also a major Buddhist college within Sera's grounds and the Zhacang is a good place to see trainee monks hard at work. At around 3 p.m. each day you'll find some of Tibet's most intellectual monks debating good naturedly over the principles of Buddhism. This is usually accompanied by some interesting ceremony so if you can time your trip to Sera for the right time, you'll be rewarded with a little extra show.
There is a major festival celebrated on the grounds celebrating the unfolding of the Buddha in the first week of July and tourists are encouraged to spend some of their Tibet vacation time participating if they can.
One of the most interesting things about Sera is that “sky burial” is performed here. This is the ancient Tibetan custom of offering the deceased to vultures for consumption. This tradition is dying out slowly as increased numbers of the dead have not been met with a similar rise in vulture population. It's definitely not for the squeamish but this might be the only place on a China tour where you can see the practice.
Drepung is the largest monastery you'll see on your Tibet Tour, it covers over twice the area of Sera. At a distance the white buildings are reminiscent of grains of rice and Drepung; means "Rice Collection" in Tibetan.
In some ways the buildings themselves are so impressive that the interiors are a little disappointing. The wood-carved sutras in the Coqen Hall are worth tracking down though.
The four colleges are each dedicated to a slightly different path of Buddhism and debates are only hosted during the time when monks compete for the right to test for “Geshi” (a senior rank).
Take a trip round each of the halls to admire the statues of many aspects of Tibet's culture and enjoy the warmth of a spiritual place.
A tour of Tibet's monasteries is one of the finest ways to understand the culture of this enigmatic country.
Last week we looked at the spectacle of Chinese Opera, this week we're going to travel in a different musical direction – pop music. One thing you're guaranteed to be exposed to on your China tour is the local equivalent of the top 40. In fact by the time you finish your China vacation you'll either be in love with it or you'll never want to hear it again.
A Little History
Pop music in Mandarin (Mandopop) has its roots in the 1920s and Shanghai. Unsurprisingly the country's most open city (from a cultural perspective) enabled artists to cooperate with foreign musicians and begin to develop their own sound. The first great star was a chap called Li Jinhui who is revered as the “Father of Chinese Popular Music”.
The 1930's and 40's were the time of the “Seven Great Singing Stars” of China. These 7 artists completely dominated the country's music scene. Their voices and songs arrived at the same time as the nascent Chinese film industry and their art would be incorporated in many of China's earliest movies.
The 1950’s and 1960's saw the temporary end of pop music in China. The post-cultural revolution regime decided to replace all pop with revolutionary epic music instead. Mandopop survived in Taiwan but at the expense of Tawainese pop which was suppressed by the Chinese Nationalists who took over the island.
Deng Xiaoping's tour of China in the 1980's which ended with his famous speech; “it is glorious to become rich” didn't just open up China's economy it also saw a gradual acceptance of previously banned art forms. Mandopop once more became the order of the day for Chinese youth. It also found a new home when Singapore decided to promote Mandarin as the national language. Mandopop stars would travel to the island state and record songs to promote the unification of a single Chinese tongue.
In the 1990's Mandopop stars would begin to be heard by wider audiences across Asia. Strangely very few of these were from the mainland. The most notable Chinese singer from this period is Faye Wong who would become the first Chinese pop star to travel to Japan and perform at the Budokan.
It wasn't until the millennium that mainland artists began to emerge from the shadows of their more successful Hong Kong and Taiwanese counterparts. Given the challenges faced by the Chinese music industry of piracy it is perhaps unsurprising that it was the Chinese Film and Television industry that enabled these artists to become stars.
So what does it sound like?
You can find plenty of Chinese pop on YouTube but be warned the vast majority consists of syrupy love ballads in the style of the worst excesses of Celine Dion or has the same beat as most Europop. It's a love it or hate it moment for most Westerners. You'd either travel a million miles not to hear it or you'll be hoping to catch some of mainland China's finest on tour during your China vacation.
China's pop music is best described as interesting. You certainly won't escape your China tour without hearing some of the best artists in the country. If you'd like some recommendations try Jay Chou and Leehom Wang both of whom combine a certain amount of Western influence with their Chinese pop.
Norbulingka is one of the must see items on a Tibet tour. It was built as the summer palace for the Dalai Lama and is only a stone's throw from that other spectacular site; the Potala Palace. The complex is huge and contains not just the palace but also the largest man-made garden in the whole of Tibet. So make sure you have your walking boots handy for your trip, as you'll be on your feet for a while to make the most of one of China's most beautiful attractions.
Norbulingka – The History
Norbulingka lies on the peak of Parkori, and was constructed around 100 years after work was finished on the Potala Palace. Work began in 1755, and was finished about 30 years late in 1783. It became the official summer palace of the Dalai Lama in the same year.
The reason for the location is a spring that the 7th Dalai Lama felt was beneficial to his health problems and he wanted to be close by. He died prior to the completion of the buildings but the Qing Dynasty of China supposedly gave their blessing to use the palace as resting place for the Dalai Lama. Subsequent Dalai Lamas would travel to the palace to study prior to assuming their full responsibilities. The palace also served as a summer vacation home after their ascension to the throne.
The current exiled Dalai Lama, Tenzing Gyatso, stayed in Norbulingka until he was forced to flee China for India.
Norbulingka – What's There?
Firstly, there's the world's highest garden. The garden covers nearly 4 square kilometers, and consists of sculptured pastoral land and forest. It is considered to be one of the best preserved “ancient” gardens in the world. You'll find thousands of cultural relics within its borders. Your Tibet tour of Norbulingka should enable you to see art from all the indigenous cultures of Tibet in the form of sculptures in the gardens.
There are three palaces within the grounds; the Kelsang Palace, the Lake Palace, and the New Palace. The first of these, Kelsang Palace, is an example of Tibet's “Yellow Hat” style of architecture. It was to be the palace of the 7th Dalai Lama and includes space for festivals and opera singing. The finest room is the now completely restored throne room. From here your trip should take you on to the Lake Palace.
The Lake Palace, is perhaps the most pleasing of all the palaces. It's dramatically situated in the center of the lake with bridges connecting it to the islands around it and the shore. Tibet travel offers some remarkable photo opportunities and this competes with the best of them. It's surrounded by houses that would once have hosted visiting dignitaries on tour in Tibet. There's also an impressive stable.
The New Palace was begun by the current Dalai Lama, it took two years to build and was finished in 1956. It's an extremely modern Tibetan building but the levels of complex decoration make it visually appealing nonetheless. You'll find an interesting picture on your tour of the upper levels of the day the Dalai Lama met Chairman Mao.
Norbulingka is an absolute essential on a Tibet trip. It's here that the Dalai Lama made his home before fleeing the country, and despite the damage done to the site during the cultural revolution it has been fully restored to its original glory. You'll never forget the haunting beauty of this place.
Nearly everyone who takes a China vacation wants to know a little bit more about their host country. Today we're going to take a tour of China's real estate sector and see how the emerging middle and upper class are driving a property boom. We'll travel to Inner Mongolia to see how the excesses of this boom may have possible long-term consequences for China.
Most developed nations are urban in nature. That means the vast majority of people live in cities with a healthy percentage living in the country supporting agriculture. China is different, the vast majority of the population still live in the countryside. This isn't good for the nation as there's a growing gulf between richer city dwellers and their farming counterparts.
So China has embarked on a building program like no other in the history of the world. Their aim is to match the urbanization of developed nations by 2025. That means 100's of millions of people coming to live in cities.
This means there's enormous pressure to build new homes for these people. After all if they travel from the countryside for work, there had better be somewhere for them to live right? This is good news for China's internal economy as the current economy is too dependent on exports for long-term stability so a construction boom will begin to generate spending within China.
At least this is the theory. Let's take a quick look at whether the Chinese people are benefiting as they're supposed to be.
One thing you'll notice during your China vacation is the extent of the investment in modern China. As your tour takes you through Beijing or Shanghai you'll see modern tower blocks as far as the eye can see. Even travel in the central regions in places like Chongqing and Chengdu will offer a view of endless new apartment blocks.
The trouble is that the property boom has driven inflation. House prices in much of China are now so far out of reach of the people they were supposed to benefit that dozens of these apartment blocks remain empty. What's happened? Well, the Chinese don't trust the banking system as much as they might. So when they have the opportunity to tie their money up in other physical objects like property – they take it.
Much of the consumption of new property has been by the emerging elite and some of the upper echelons of the new middle class. They've been buying up as much of the housing stock as they can get their hands on and as renting offers minimal returns (rents are much lower than the mortgage payments on most city properties) they've been leaving them empty.
The government is now taking strong action to limit the number of apartment purchases per family in many of the country's largest cities. However, they've taken no steps to compel the sale of property and the main impact has been to stabilize rather than reduce pricing.
Taken to Extremes
If your China tour were to take you to Inner Mongolia you'd be able to witness an extreme example of this. Ordos is a ghost town. The idea was to build a shiny new city down the road from an existing city and for 5 million people to live there. Today nearly 5 years after the initial construction – the city still lies empty. Yet, everywhere you travel within the confines of the city – there's more building going on!
In fact property prices in Ordos are still reported to be rising, despite the fact that only 10,000 people have moved in. The whole city has been bought and paid for by China's emerging elite as a form of savings bond.
Should I buy property in the boom?
If even empty cities can bring paper returns, then maybe it's time to buy property in China? The answer to this is probably not. If you're tempted on your China vacation you'll probably want to know that foreign property ownership is usually only possible after an extended period of residency in China. You may also find that travel back and forth from your new home isn't as simple in the future – particularly if the government begins to enforce local residency requirements more strictly than today.
It's also worth noting that there aren't great returns from renting out properties in China and you'll have to keep paying the mortgage over and above the rent.
It's better to enjoy the spectacle as part of a China vacation rather than to get too involved in an unusual market. There have been predictions of a collapse in real-estate value for a long time but so far these have yet to materialize. It's better not to have your money involved when it does.
Travel in China offers you some unique cultural opportunities. One thing you might want to see on your China tour is some Chinese Opera. While once this form of opera was performed around the world in recent years it has become very much a “China only” art form. That means you might not get another chance to participate after your vacation.
The History of Chinese Opera
Chinese Opera can be traced back to the “Three Kingdoms” period of Chinese history but it began to become a formalized expression of art around 700 A.D. The Tang Dynasty was the first to have an imperial troupe; “the Pear Garden”. They played for the pleasure of Emperor Xuanzong. Those who work in opera in China today are still known as; “disciples of the Pear Garden”.
As the years progressed opera evolved to include particular roles, such as the clown and the “painted-face”. In the Song Dynasty rhyming couplets were introduced into speech. Then in the Yuan Dynasty there was a relaxing of rules that had insisted that all opera be performed in classical Chinese to a more informal use of local dialects.
Opera maintained its popularity through the Ming and Qing dynasties (that's right up to 1911) and continued to evolve into a longer form of stage play. It was during this period that Sichuan Opera began to differ significantly from Beijing opera.
Many Chinese returned from overseas travel during the early part of the 20th Century, with ideas that they had found in foreign theaters. They would return from their tours of distant parts and begin to incorporate new ideas into the opera. China's most famous playwright from this time is Cao Yu and if you're luck you might catch a performance of Thunderstorm (his best known work) on your China vacation.
During the cultural revolution the opera fell into disfavor and many of the most famous plays were banned outright. There were only eight “model operas” allowed throughout the country; from 1965 until 1976 when the “gang of four” were finally out of office. New operas have been developed since but some have fallen victim of censorship when they have been too critical of the party.
If your China travel takes you to Beijing then you may have the chance to see one of over 1,000 operas that may still be performed in the city. The musical accompaniment tends to be Chinese string instruments combined with a percussion section.
Acting is mainly expressive and the body is used to paint a picture of the action, so for example a character that travels on horseback will pantomime the action. Serious characters in the action still speak in classical Chinese, those that are introduced for the purposes of humor speak a more colloquial dialect. One of the highlights of the opera in China is the exquisite make-up used to develop the role of the character.
The masks worn by characters express their true nature; white is for villains, green is for impulsive characters, red is for those whose loyalty is beyond doubt, black is for those who are considered fierce, yellow for ambitious people and blue is for those who hold steadfast throughout the opera.
Chinese opera is a unique art form and if you get the opportunity to visit the opera during your China vacation you should seize it. Your China tour will be all the richer for exposure to some of the cultural wonders of the country. Of course we won't pretend that you'll learn enough language on your China travels to understand the whole opera but then we've found that doesn't reduce your enjoyment of the experience.
One of the concerns many people have about taking a vacation in China is the traffic and pollution in Beijing. They want to know if their health is going to be at risk on a China tour and whether travel in China's largest city is going to be a problem.
Pollution in Beijing
There's no getting away from the fact that Beijing's air isn't the best quality. However there's no need to worry unduly if you're on vacation in China. The air isn't going to do any lasting damage to your lungs in the few days you're there. In Summer months you may be more comfortable using a disposable face mask – mainly because Beijing gets dusty at this time of year as winds blow in from across the Gobi desert. Asthmatics should also keep their inhalers handy.
In winter the pollution's much less noticeable and you'll probably be OK to travel without a mask. The best indicator as to the air quality is to scan the crowds for masks – the more there are, the worse the day is predicted to be. The best source of actual data may be the American Embassy rather than the official pollution count in China's daily English language newspapers.
Traffic in Beijing
It's strange that one of the sights that most Westerners associate with China is crowds of bicycles in Beijing. Until relatively recently only the elite could afford any kind of car and traffic wasn't an issue at all. Today things are completely different.
Beijing is one of the most crowded cities on earth and the newly emerging middle class all want a car to confirm their status. That means traffic jams are common and a guarantee during rush hour periods. Sadly bicycles have become a rarity on Beijing's streets too. You don't need to let this ruin your China tour though.
There is a fantastic metro system that spans most of the city, it's cheap and convenient if a little crowded. All announcements are in English as well as Mandarin and the ticket (in fact – token) machines also operate in English. It's a good idea to pack some spare change in the form of small denomination bills and coins for your travel on the network as queues to split larger bills can be quite substantial.
It's worth noting that while Beijing may be polluted and traffic is often hard to bear, things are changing. Whilst this won't be obvious on a short trip – Beijing's investing a lot of money in becoming greener.
The national five year plan for China has a strong focus on improving conditions nation wide and Beijing is the pilot city of a host of green initiatives. You'll find all new lighting systems are based on domestically produced LED systems that use far less electricity than ordinary energy saving bulbs.
They've introduced a number plate lottery and placed a limit on the number of new cars that will be allowed on the road each year. There's also a huge subsidy for electric vehicles available to everyone in the city and a target to have 100,000 battery powered vehicles on the streets in the next 3 years.
Industry has also been given strict instructions to build greener and more environmentally friendly facilities with a target for carbon consumption per unit of work – something that is way ahead of Western countries.
Don't let worries of pollution spoil your China vacation while things are bad in Beijing they're not unmanageable and they certainly won't interfere with your tour of the Great Wall or the Forbidden City.