It’s time to leave China

Learning Chinese
April 24, 2012
What I love about China (it’s not what you think)
May 2, 2012

It’s time to leave China

smoking on the train

For a balanced view of China I’ve published this post simultaneously along with the more positive: What I love about China (it’s not what You Think

Not that I have to. But want to.

More than once I’ve had this feeling: I just want to move on; want to go to another country. Want to be in a place that I’m excited to be in each morning; a place I want to explore more in-depth.

I’ve lost that feeling about China.

Sometimes it comes after a smoky and vomit-filled bus ride; sometimes when I’m choking on the bad air of another polluted Chinese city; sometimes when I’m caught in the bustle of another huge city that appeared to be a small town on the map.

The thing that I’ve had the most trouble coming to terms with is the fact that China is just not as  interesting as I thought it would be. I’m mostly at fault for building such romantic notions about the place.

Hong Kong was interesting because they’ve preserved their traditions despite modernization. A fresh fish and meat market has sprung up on the sidewalks of Shau Kei Wan under the high-rises of Hong Kong Island. You’ll notice more old-world charm after exploring Hong Kong more in depth.

China has not. In China there is a big push from the central government to “develop” at all costs. This means out with the old (interesting) and in with the new (lacking any character). What is most apparent is that the mentality of the people has not caught up with the modernization of infrastructure. You’ll see modern traffic patterns and well-built roads, but neither cars, bikes, nor people know how to use them properly.

Many of the historic buildings were lost in the Cultural Revolution, so the architecture most places is recently built, drab, and not interesting. Historical artifacts were destroyed and cultural and religious sites were sacked.

Cities are not as I read them in the guidebook, places are not like the pictures in magazines, and experiences are not like I imagined them to be. There is little life besides on the streets beyond lots of pedestrians and the hustle and bustle of buying and selling.

People’s Behavior

I could go on and on about people’s behavior. Smoking excessively in every conceivable space—on windowless buses, closed train carriages, offices, restaurants, next to children. Spitting—not only outside, but indoors as well. It’s not just a subtle spit—it’s an enormous, deep throat-clearing hawk.    And don’t get me started on the boisterous and immature behavior of China’s New Rich—they are among the least cultured people I have seen anywhere in the world. They are type that would throw stuff on the ground just to have it picked up by someone else or would pay to have someone carry them up a mountain in a chair.

Yes, it is bad for me to judge. It’s not my culture, country or people. I shouldn’t be doing it. But I want to. I wouldn’t feel the need to if China stopped proclaiming how much of a modern and developed country they are.

I don’t remember the last time I was so negative about a place.

It’s good to cool down after some bad experiences before writing about it. I’ve done that. I’ve let this settle. I’m not going to tell you I hate China. I’m not going to recommend that you don’t visit. I’m just going to say that traveling independently in China is a lot of hassle, inconvenience, and annoyance for little gain. And I’m wondering if three months was too much to time to spend there.

And besides all this, the beer is weak and served warm.

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Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world and writing about it for the better part of 20 years. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He blogs at Bohemian Traveler and edits the independent travel magazine He most recently set up a tour company offering authentic, small group tours at Unquote Travel. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


  1. Stephen Bugno says:

    Hi Scott, Thanks for adding that. Yes, it’s definitely better not to have any expectations, but that’s easier said than done, especially when you’ve been reading and looking of pictures of a place since you were a child. Anyhow, there were some great experiences in China, that’s why I wrote the other post. Would have been cool to see the place in ’85 though.

  2. Scott says:

    Stephen . . . I’ve “been there” . . . many times . . . China was, for me, the most difficult travel . . . was there for over three months in ’85 . . . I went, as I do – and this isn’t/hasn’t been a “conscious thing”, just my own personal thing/standard equipment – without expectation . . . not much at that time to set me up to expect anything . . . some stunning experiences, to be sure, too many to share here . . . yeah, Go before it heads south any more . . . in time perhaps – as has been my own experience with travel – the chafe will drop, the wheat will come to the top . . . Safe travels to your next destination 🙂 Peace. Scott

  3. Scott says:

    Yes, Stephen . . . aren’t so many things “easier said than done” 🙂 . . . though I had no Lonely Planet, no Rough Guides to pave my own way in China, I was weaned on National Geographic . . . as I alluded to – “no expectations” came on me as Standard Equipment . . . and has only been bolstered by my readings into Eastern philosophy (my minor in college) . . . Keep an eye out on FB . . . will be posting a photo I took in China (maybe Shanghai?) from my trip in ’85 . . .

  4. Ayngelina says:

    Where are you heading next?

  5. Noel says:

    I hear you Stephen. I guess now you know why I declined joining you in China. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see China but all the reasons you mentioned just make me want to put it off, again. lol 😛

  6. Stephen Bugno says:

    Hey Ayngelina, in Vietnam now, which is much different than China…enjoying it so far.

  7. Stephen Bugno says:

    Well Noel, There are extremely few foreign tourists in China, so I guess that’s a plus.

  8. Stephen Bugno says:

    Hey Jerod,

    Thanks for stopping to comment. Good to hear from you. I guess one “good” thing about traveling in China is that the “challenge” is still there (little English) where much of the rest of the world is changing and adapting for foreigners, many places in China haven’t seen foreigners. Which also makes a foreigner special. So at times, I was treated “specially” by Chinese for being the lone westerner in so many out-of-the-way destinations. But, you’re right, most of China was very uninspirational.

  9. Jerod says:

    Hey Stephen, we met in Shaxi (which ended up being my favorite place in China – no crowds!). I agree with pretty much everything you wrote here: I too have never been so negative about a place. Independent travel there is an exercise in frustration. There are few places where you want to linger, and god forbid you should miss your connection and be stuck in one of the eyesores they call cities. There is no escaping its many varieties of pollution — odors, noise (hacks, honks, and hammers), stares, eyesores, crowds. And, as you suggested, it’s sights underwhelm. Highlights for me were the pandas, Yungang grottoes, cormorant fishing, and Shaxi. And that’s about it, out of two months.

    Thanks for letting me vent!

  10. Vicky says:

    VERY refreshing to read this as we are currently in China (have been here for over a month) and are experiencing basically everything you mention in this post. This is just the beginning of our trip (2 months in) so at times we are starting to doubt even how much we like traveling so it’s definitely encouraging to see we are not the only ones struggling in China! Heading to Vietnam next so hoping for a new adventure there in a few weeks!

  11. Stephen Bugno says:

    I also went to Vietnam after China. Eventhough Vietnam is more aggressive (bad thing), it is in many ways a refreshing change from China. But you’ll notice there are lots of foreign travelers in Vietnam and you’re probably the only one in China…

  12. Jenna says:

    This just sounds awful. I used to want to go to China, but I have changed my mind after reading many stories like this of uncomfortable travels there. I wonder what the causes of some of these problems are; I guess many relate to the country’s too-huge population and the fact that it is basically a developing country. I have many students who have come from China as immigrants in the U.S., and it is hard for me to imagine any of them would live living in a place with all the smoking, spitting, etc. They are all so sweet!

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