China: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

One of the temples on Emai Shan sacred Buddhist mountain.

By Stephen Bugno

The Good

The sights—Where else can you see the Great Wall of China, panda bears close up in their hometown, or a gorge the likes of Tiger Leaping Gorge? Nowhere. That’s why you come to China, for these heavy hitters. I won’t deny that I’ve seen some cool sights here. Climbing Emei Shan sacred mountain and living temporarily in Dali Old City have been some other personal highlights.

China is still a challenge. Yes, that’s a good thing. It can be frustrating at times, but it’s reassuring to be reminded that you can’t just travel everywhere in this world and people will know English. There is a sense of accomplishment in China doing what in other places is just a simple task—booking a train ticket, checking into a hotel, ordering a meal. It will take a phase book, body language, and two willing partners to communicate if you don’t know Mandarin.

You are special—if you’re a westerner, one of European decent, you are special. Bonus points if you are tall and blond, although then you may get borderline unwanted attention. You will get practiced on (English), you will get photographed, you will get stared at, long and hard. You might expect all these factors should lead to unique cultural experiences, and in theory you’d be right. But many folks are just too shy to approach you, nor do they possess enough English skills.

Inexpensive—this mostly applies to the south and southwest. We’re talking about dorm rooms for the equivalent of $5 US, doubles for $12, a bowl of noodles for $1, a nice meal for $3, inexpensive trains and buses, 50 cent beers. I wrote a post on the expenses for travelers in Yunnan Province. Get here before prices go up (and they will).

The Bad

China can be an annoying place to travel most of the time. You need to adapt and be really good at ignoring things. The overwhelming rule of the road is “conduct yourself whatever way you want and be able to ignore everything around you”. The biggest annoyances are as follows:

Smoking—this is difficult to get used to for those of us who have been living in smoke-free environments for 10+ years. Worst of all, people even smoke in confined areas. What is so mystifying is that there is no concept of smoking is bad, even if you are next to a child in a confined space.

Smoking in Sichuan teahouse

Loud talking—Loud talking I can ignore. But I can still get annoyed by it. Nowhere in the world have I heard people shout for an entire conversation on a cell phone than in China. It doesn’t matter if they are young or old, from the village or city, speak mandarin or an ethnic minority language, people in these parts blast their voice through the phone as if they are not sure if the other end of the line can hear them. It also doesn’t seem to matter if you are in a bus, a restaurant, or a museum—this phone conversation is all that matters and you must deal with it.

Beeping—China is not the worst country with beeping horns. That award may go India. But it is bad. It’s not necessarily the frequency of beeping, but one ear-piercing, brain-penetrating, intense type of bus horn. The screech from this type of horn gives one an immediate headache and if close enough, scares the hell out of you.

The ugly

Toilets—especially those in Yunnan Province have been some of the most revolting I’ve ever seen. But it’s not only the sight of these public toilets; it’s the nauseating smell that goes along with them. I won’t go into too much detail, but a lot of people have missed the targeted area with their warheads and even though there is usually a person on duty to collect a small fee from each user, the toilets are not being adequately cleaned.

A G-Rated toilet with a view in Yunnan Province.

I’m not exaggerating or speaking of isolated cases—nearly every public bathroom in Yunnan I visited was a roll-your-pantleg, hold-your-nose experience. It was almost like you didn’t know whether to laugh out loud at the extreme disgustingness of the situation or be angry that people could tolerate such severe unsanitary conditions.

PollutionWe’ve read about this in the papers and heard the conditions from the Olympics and I’m here to tell you it really is that bad. The air in Chinese cities is deplorably, disgustingly, filthy. It messes your eyes, it hurts your throat, it affects your lungs. The urban areas are horrendous and much of the time, the countryside is bad too—with mega-clouds of smog drifting over from industrial areas.

Pollution in the countryside outside of Chongqing.


Stephen Bugno traveled around south and southwestern China for three months in 2012. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. He blogs at and edits the GoMad Nomad Travel Mag.


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3 thoughts on “China: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

  1. Sharpeshots Photography

    I’ve never really had China on my list of places to visit, but I just had some relatives come back from there and they’ve semi-changed my mind.

    There are still places in asia I want to visit first, but I’m definitely re-considering my position

  2. Great article! I would love to visit the countryside of China and the smaller villages and towns, although I’m not really that keen on the big cities because of the pollution, especially after reading what you wrote about the air hurting your throat and eyes..

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