Today we reached China, and for the first time in my life I set foot in an actual communist country. We were in Russia earlier on the trip, but Russia isn't communist any more. China is. We were in Dalian for all of six hours, which is a ridiculously short amount of time. Tomorrow we're in Tianjin (near Beijing) for three days, which is not quite so ridiculous. Even so, we're on a whirlwind tour of the Great Wall and Beijing proper. Not much blogging for the next few days.
The difference between China and Korea/Japan is palpable. Korea is clean and Japan is immaculate. Both countries are thoroughly modern and westernized. China, by contrast, feels very much like a third-world country. Parts of Dalian are clean and modern, but big chunks are dirty and run down. We took a "Dalian highlights" tour, which took us, among other places, to the local fish market. Tsukiji it ain't. It wasn't quite as bad as some fish markets I've seen in Mumbai and a few other places, where the fish is not even refrigerated. Here at least most of the stock was on ice. But the floor was littered with fish bits, and it smelled very fishy. Still, next door at the meat market, the chickens (with heads and feet still attached of course) and other dead critters were at room temperature.
The most remarkable part of the tour was a visit to an actual Chinese family's "house", by which is meant in China "apartment". It was one of the smallest apartments I've ever seen, maybe 300 square feet or so, and I'm sure this is one of the nicer places in town. Twenty or so tourists squeezed into this place and spoke for half an hour, via an interpreter, to the seventy year old woman who lives there. It was mostly smalltalk. Nobody was willing to broach touchy subjects like how much the government controls their lives. I did get a chance to ask our interpreter, a 19-year-old student from a nearby university (studying English) if Chinese people still need permission from the government to travel outside the country. I honestly didn't know. I thought that some of the recent economic reforms may have included easing restrictions on travel, but apparently they haven't. Her answer was, "Of course." When I told her that we American's don't need permission from our government to travel outside the U.S. she seemed genuinely surprised. I wonder how many Chinese people don't know that needing permission from your government to travel is not necessarily part of the natural order of things.
I really wonder what would happen if I brought up the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. If you never hear from me again it may well be because I decided to conduct this experiment.
(I wonder, is anyone from China reading this blog? Could you admit it without putting yourself in danger? As far as I can tell I have not been banned by the Great Firewall, but that's probably only because I haven't registered on the Chinese government radar. Yet.)