Strictly Subjective – A Photo Journey through China

By - November 20, 2012 (Updated: November 19, 2014)

China Red BannersChina – mysterious, intimidating, overwhelming. It’s a country I’m fascinated by and also terrified to visit. That’s why today we are thrilled to have this beautiful guest post by Vi Proskurovska, a Latvian expat in Brussels.

This was Vi’s first visit beyond the great firewall of China and she expresses her mixed emotions at the assault on her senses brilliantly, through her words and photos. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did. 

Close your eyes.

Imagine a vast open space around you.

Great Wall of China

Then, imagine over a billion people filling that space. These people, they all shout incomprehensibly with different pitches and intonations, they elbow you, they touch you to ask you to buy a good or a service from them. They cough up and spit from the bottom of their hearts. They smell of sweat and more. They throw waste directly on the floor (on the street, in a train station, inside the bus, in a restaurant, etc). They push you around to get in front of you, oftentimes without a specific reason and rendering no apology.

Crowds in China

Imagine skyscrapers and high-end fashion stores. Imagine mules pulling the plough and a man in a round straw hat behind it. Imagine green mountains and tea plantations. Imagine small villages and rice terraces. Imagine cities of tens of millions of inhabitants equipped with excellent roads, train connections and cheating taxi drivers.

China Cityscape

Imagine the effects of the excessive industrial production (serving the entire world) without sufficient environmental protection, leading to smog and fog everywhere you go.

Shanghai China

Imagine thousands of kilometres of a massive stone wall to fence at least part of the country from its enemies. Imagine catching your breath as you walk along that wall, seeing it snaking into the distance, towards the sky.

Great Wall of China

Imagine an enormous underground army of terracotta soldiers, constructed over two thousand years ago, by people who were killed afterwards for the sole purpose of keeping the entire affair a secret. Imagine that today archaeological works are still ongoing, every day.

Terracotta Warriors China

Imagine standing at an elevated position on a mountain range, and watching patches of fog shifting across the valley, occasionally revealing stone riffs of mountains en face.

Mountainscape in China

Imagine high-pitch slow-paced singing in every second restaurant. Imagine local cuisine being based on cooking anything that moves, and eating that with a lot of spices at every meal of the day. Imagine eating rice or noodles every morning. Imagine decapitation of a live fish being performed right before your very eyes on a market street. Imagine the smell of meat that makes you want to throw up. Imagine tomato served with sugar, because tomato is, in fact, a fruit. Imagine chicken (or fish) being served chopped into small pieces, together with bones.

Market in China

Imagine having to pay for your meal directly after having ordered, but not getting the main course.

Imagine people who invented silk production, trying to sell fake silk to you.

Shop in China

Imagine that in the most populous country of the world there is a one-child policy, and yet human rights are not respected, and the value of a life is negligible.

Chinese soldiers

Imagine a shower being installed in the same cabin with the Turkish toilet. Imagine having to brush your teeth in the morning over a sink partly filled with someone else’s vomit.

China street Scene

Imagine being caught in the middle of your trip without any cash, and ATMs unwilling to cooperate.

Imagine the experience of the metro being comparable to a digestive system of a dragon: sucking you in, mashing you around, and spitting you out.

Imagine that you have to explain to a non-English speaking receptionist how to use the credit card (POS) machine to pay for your stay at their hotel.

Imagine the frustration of not being able to speak or read / write the local language while the taxi driver is unable to speak / read your language.

Taxi and Public toilettes in China

Imagine that a string of taxi drivers refuse to drive you anywhere because they are ‘out of time’.  Imagine that the taxi driver agrees to drive you where you asked, but then leaves you in a different place, and makes you pay for the extra service you did not ask for.

Imagine travelling for 19 hours in a train and not crossing even 1/5th of the diagonal of the country. Imagine having your passport number being printed on every train ticket you buy.

Train station in China

Imagine that satellite town of a megapolis actually being a home for 4 million people.

Imagine being ripped off for every purchase you make simply because (a) you have a Caucasian face, and (b) you feel uncomfortable to bargain hard.

Imagine that the best coffee is served at the top of a mountain by a local.

All this is China.

Woman in China

(You may open your eyes now).

If you like this, you might like:

Viktorija Proskurovska is all about finding new ways of showing the beauty of people, places and things that surround her through photography. Her passion started in late 2000, when she took off from her homeland of Latvia to Denmark and then to Belgium. Living abroad, where everything is new and different from home, set in a new and everlasting wave of inspiration and attentiveness to the world around her and freedom of visual expression. Outside her passion, she is a full-time economist, a keen walker and a true gourmand for good wine and good cuisine.

Latest posts by Viktorija (see all)


  1. Comment by ilze sb


    ilze sb November 20, 2012 at 12:27

    Well, i got the taste… beautifully written, and the photos! Thanks, Vi!

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison November 20, 2012 at 12:32

      Agreed Ilze! Vi did a great job bringing the sights to life!

    • Comment by Vi


      Vi November 21, 2012 at 11:38

      My pleasure, dear Ilze 🙂

  2. Comment by Kelly


    Kelly November 20, 2012 at 17:34

    Certainly the sights were brought to life, in a negative way at almost every opportunity. I am a (Caucasian) Canadian expat who lived and traveled for a year in China (as an expat). I’m now an expat in Scotland. While I appreciated our time in China was eye-opening, I think that Viktorija’s perception is skewed with under-preparation.

    There are small pocketbooks with many popular sights shown in these photos in both English and Chinese to show to taxi drivers before you get in. Prices are dirt cheap, even after you think you’ve been “ripped off”, her own fault for not being willing to bargain. I was never asked to pay for a meal after ordering while I lived there.

    While I wouldn’t move back, mainly due to pollution, I would love to visit again. Don’t worry Alison, no need to be terrified.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison November 20, 2012 at 19:52

      It’s interesting that you found the perception as negative, because I didn’t find it read that way. I also think there is a big difference between spending a year living in a country and just visiting it as a tourist. I have no doubt you experienced a much deeper cultural awareness over the time you were there, as opposed to visiting over a couple of weeks. For that matter I hated Brussels the first time I visited it as a tourist but grew to love it as we lived here. There will always be good and bad travel experiences and places that resonate with some and not with others. I know lots of folks who think I’m crazy for my love affair with India. 🙂

  3. Comment by michelle


    michelle November 20, 2012 at 18:33

    Wow. What an astonishing post. I need to walk away and digest it, it was that powerful. Thank you!

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison November 20, 2012 at 20:12

      I agree! The writing, emotion, and definitely the photos are powerful indeed.

  4. Comment by Evelyn


    Evelyn November 20, 2012 at 18:37

    The photos are great but sadly the accompanying article does a great job of conveying the negatives at the expense of the many positives. Yes China is vast, dirty, loud, different and personal freedoms are lacking – it’s easy to pick on the bad stuff but China is culturally fascinating and diverse. Despite the pollution and chaos, there are so many beautiful and interesting places to visit. I lived in Shanghai for three years and was lucky enough to travel to many other parts of China. It was a tough adjustment but it broadened my outlook, and enriched my worldview. I can only encourage you to embrace your fascination, move past your fear of going there and take a trip (I have lots of recommendations). You won’t be disappointed.
    Imagine walking for three days in a country of 1.2 billion and seeing only 10 people (Tiger Leaping Gorge)
    Imagine living in a city which has the same population as Australia (Shanghai) where traditional long tan houses still nestle between the shining skyscrapers
    Imagine seeing and experiencing things that are far outside your own cultural frame of reference – every day
    Imagine standing on the only man-made structure which can be seen from space
    Imagine being surrounded by a thousands of years of history

    I could go on and on but hopefully one day you’ll see it for yourself.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison November 20, 2012 at 20:01

      As I replied in to Kelly’s comment, I’m really surprised people read this as negative. I felt it was a powerful piece of personal experience and I certainly didn’t take it as picking on bad stuff. To be fair, visiting a country with such a different culture is going to be an assault on the senses and emotions. As I have not yet visited China, I can only relate it to my own experience of India. I loved it and yet hated it at the same time, and I definitely want to go back. That’s what I felt with this piece – It’s a tough place that will throw everything you thought you knew into question but there is beauty there if you look for it – so well expressed in the photos. And I’m sure we will get there one day 🙂

  5. Comment by Evelyn


    Evelyn November 21, 2012 at 00:31

    I think you might have hit the nail on the head when you say that its a difference between being a tourist and living somewhere – you develop a different relationship with the place and its interesting that the two of us who found the post negative have lived in China. Will have to give it more thought. You’re right that its a tough place to travel to and live in but the rewards are more than worth it.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison November 21, 2012 at 09:38

      Certainly it takes time to get beyond the initial culture-shock of a place that is so vastly different from what we are used to. And while I didn’t read this particular piece as negative, I think there are certainly places that inspire a ‘love it or hate it’ sort of reaction: China, India … Paris 🙂 Any of the reactions I’ve ever heard to China have been strong – either for or against, and I find that fascinating. I guess that’s why I loved this post so much.

  6. Comment by Vi


    Vi November 21, 2012 at 10:15

    If I may make a clarifying comment to this post:) then I would like to say: its not by chance that the title of the post is “Strictly Subjective”. I was quite aware of the fact that the contents of the post won’t be glorifying the country on every line. My aim was to share the feeling I had when I just returned from my trip. That said, I do not think that I am 100% negative in the post: if you read the lines more carefully you will see that I was indeed fascinated with a number of things in China.

    Kelly makes a point by saying that I was not well prepared. But it was more lack of psychological preparation than material/book/guidance one. I was going to China full of anticipation and fascination with this country: a place on earth with a longest history, a country of many inventions, a country that is gradually taking over the world economy. My expectations were probably idealising the place, and I spent there way too little time to explore it as those of you who lived there for an extended period of time. One thing about traveling in China is that one spends a lot of time moving from one place to the next; so the two weeks that I spent there are really not sufficient to truly get acquainted with the country.

    When I actually arrived there, all my senses were sort of ‘aggressed’: I was not prepared to see people who are not all Confucius-like, if you see what I mean 🙂 Its my own fault, of course, but that does not mean that I should refrain from sharing my sentiment!

    This text was written the day after I came back to Europe (which is my comfort zone, compared to China, you see?). With time, the memory of the trip turns more and more positive, and all the ‘sensory’ discomfort that I had while traveling is kind of falling off me like leaves in autumn. Probably that means that I would even go back to China one day. I will be better prepared psychologically, and will most surely enjoy it to a greater extent 🙂

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison November 21, 2012 at 10:30

      You make a great point about expectations. I think there are definitely places we build up in our minds with a lot of preconceived ideas – either negative or positive. Even if we know on an intellectual level that we harbour stereotypes, it doesn’t make it any easier when those illusions are shattered. It’s a jarring experience.

  7. Comment by Sue Mills


    Sue Mills November 22, 2012 at 14:48

    I think this was a fair account of someone experiencing culture shock head on. There is nothing here that I haven’t heard before and I believe her personal experiences and discomfort were well described. I enjoyed this piece and her perspective. and it doesn’t mean that I believe I would have a similar experience. Each of us has our own comfort zones to deal with. Certainly the longer you stay anywhere, the more open your eyes become. Great article and I do not think any the less of China for it.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison November 22, 2012 at 15:32

      Glad you enjoyed it Sue and you make a good point that everyone’s personal comfort zones are different and length of stay plays a big role in our perceptions of a place.

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