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Changing Lifestyles : China Is Now the Wild East for Many Travelers : Highway robbery, prostitution and crooked cops are more common as totalitarian control fades fast.


SHENZHEN, China — On a recent trip here in China's deep south, the American found himself in a taxi traveling at night between Guangzhou and the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone on the border with Hong Kong.

Giant seafood restaurants, lit up like Las Vegas casinos, lined the route. In the shadows between the neon islands moved tides of slumping migrant laborers who had come south to get rich, traveling by foot at night to avoid the overbearing heat and humidity of the day.

It should have been a routine trip of 100 miles in the fast, imported Japanese car. But the taxi driver, a handsome hipster in his early 30s who chain-smoked Marlboros and tapped his gloved fingers on the steering wheel to the pulsing beat of a Hong Kong rock station, had a problem.

His young girlfriend, sitting beside him, lacked the appropriate papers to get through the police checkpoint outside Shenzhen, which requires special work documents for Chinese citizens.

The foreign guest had already refused the girlfriend's company, offered for a price. So there was no chance getting her through the checkpoint as the special friend of the gweilo , local slang for foreigner.

Solution: The girlfriend went in the trunk. Once clear of the checkpoint, the driver pulled over and let her out. After a few straightening tugs on her miniskirt and pats to shake the dust, she was back in the front seat, smiling conspiratorially.

Travel in China used to be a staged and choreographed affair. Foreign visitors, especially official guests and journalists, were kept to rigid agendas featuring visits to model factories, model schools and model families. Official escorts dogged every step and monitored every bite in dreary restaurants "approved for foreign guests."

Not anymore. Today's China can be a wild ride.

The economic "opening up" of China initiated by 90-year-old leader Deng Xiaoping brought in waves of foreign visitors, both business people and tourists, making it virtually impossible for the government to track their activities. The virtual elimination of the local work permit system in most urban areas has created a huge, floating population of as many as 100 million Chinese migrants, mostly from the impoverished interior.

The result is a country, once the paradigm of totalitarian control, where almost anything goes. "I call it Dodge City," said one American journalist, who on a recent trip to Sichuan province was shocked to see the body of a laborer on the roadside attracting scant notice. When he brought it to the attention of his taxi driver, the man shrugged. "He has no family here," he explained.

It is not yet the wild China of the late 18th Century--when pirates ruled the rivers, and gangs of secret-society bandits sometimes led by women, terrorized the land. But in just the past few years, travel here has become increasing adventurous and, in some cases, dangerous.

On a trip to the Chinese northeast, in Jilin province along the border with North Korea, two American journalists and several South Korean businessmen found themselves guests of a narcotics cop nicknamed "Nobody"--shorthand for "Nobody messes with me."

Although he had a reputation as a tough guy, the burly cop was attempting to be a cordial ideal host for his foreign guests.

There was plenty of beer, served in champagne glasses, and fresh fruit and dried squid as they watched the floor show at a funky '30s-era nightclub at the White Mountain Hotel. Female singers wearing slinky sequined gowns belted North Korean love songs as young men in tuxedos did Fred Astaire dance routines.

Just to make sure his guests were completely happy, the cop made a quick phone call. Ten minutes later, attractive female escorts sidled up to the table, one for each American guest, courtesy of the local P.D.

In a Tibetan area of Qinghai province in far western China--an area known for the practice of mystical Tantric rites--an American traveler witnessed a local photo studio engaging in a thriving trade in pornographic movies. They were being rented by young Tibetan priests.

In Qingdao, the picturesque former German treaty port on the Yellow Sea, a visitor spent the evening in the company of waterfront petty criminals running a small-scale protection racket. Up the coast in the beach town of Yantai, he entered a casino supposedly for "foreigners only." But most of the expensive imported cars parked outside bore military license plates, and the big winner of the night was a local official, peering down at the crap table over a stack of 1,000 yuan chips (about $114).

By American standards, China remains a fairly safe place to travel. In its latest travel advisory, the U.S. State Department states that "China has a low crime rate; however, crime has increased in the past few years, principally in the major cities."

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