China is by no means monotonous. As you take a stroll in its streets, a typical Chinese city presents you with a unique, contradictory experience. The ‘old’ and the ‘new’ is intricately interwoven into the landscape and architecture. On the one hand, there are breathtaking historical sites that attest to the country’s majestic imperial past. Palaces, temples, monuments compete with each other for tourist attention. On the other hand, there are Soviet-style block-panel houses that resemble matchboxes. These shabby looking residential buildings are unbecomingly ‘adorned’ with air conditioning units on the outside and colorful clothes hanging out of windows and balconies. A few neighborhoods past and you find yourself surrounded by modern, high-tech buildings, glitzy skyscrapers, and a myriad of urban architectural marvels.
Shopping experience was equally paradoxical. The traditional Chinese local markets resemble a typical Middle Eastern ‘bazaar’ or ‘souk’, while western-style massive shopping centers are also in abundance. As I was walking nonchalantly in the streets of Guangzhou, I passed by a local meat market that immediately caught my attention. For a moment, I thought I stepped into a ‘time-machine’ and was taken back to my childhood in my hometown. Now a reminiscent of the Soviet past, meat markets in my country used to be an open-air display, where butchers would sell freshly-cut meat on the hanging racks, fully exposed and coveting for the attention of flies. It is near-impossible to witness such an experience in the United States, where meat is usually sold in a refrigerated form in air-conditioned supermarkets. Although the range of meat that are sold in Chinese meat markets is definitely broader than those in my childhood hometown, the external resemblance of the market stalls and displays was quite striking. On the same day, just a few blocks away, I came across a modern food supermarket that looked like an exact copy of Trader Joe’s.
Finally, a word about Chinese restaurants. Chinese people seem to be very fond of U.S. fast-food chains, like McDonalds, KFC, and Burger King. Not only were they located in every corner, local people treated an outing to a fast-food place as an invitation to a fancy dinner at a glamorous restaurant. For the very first few days spent in Beijing, I started to think fast food chains were the only place people went to grab a bite. My thirst for a nice dinner at a ‘real’ restaurant was finally quenched when one evening a group of us decided to explore a different neighborhood for better tasting options. Chaoyang District of Beijing and the Sanlitun area offered a vast array of dining options along with entertainment.
The night before leaving China, we took an unforgettable night boat tour in Guangzhou. As I stared at the calming waters of the Pearl River at night, I thought of the two weeks spent in China and how I could cap it in a few words. Unexpectedly, in the murky water I saw the reflection of the magnificent Canton Tower and a barely noticeable silhouette of an enormous block building. As I said, ‘a country of contrasts and contradictions…’