On the Emptiest Country in the World
The first time I visited China, I entered through the Boten-Mohan border cross, the Laotian backdoor to the Middle Kingdom. From there I advanced northwards through Sichuan and eventually reached the far west. Urumqi and Kashgar provided unforgettable views.
China turned out being empty. In the most populous country in the world, the population was concentrated along the coast; the inner parts of the country were empty.
On an Even Emptier Country
The first time I visited the US, I entered overland from Mexico through El Paso, Texas and crossed – all the time overland – New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. I wrote about parts of this trip in several journals published here. With the exception of two metropolitan areas – San Francisco and Los Angeles – this country was obviously empty. I knew that from the statistics, but seeing it was by far more impressive.
The altitude desert of New Mexico was a wasteland; people in Eldorado - near Santa Fe - were afraid of growing vegetables due to radioactive waste in the ground. Arizona was a low desert; in the way down from New Mexico it featured lush and unexpected forests. I didn’t stop long enough in LA during this trip to get any durable expression, thus San Francisco provided the first close look of an American metropolis. I wasn’t impressed. Downtown San Francisco housed a large financial center, but beyond it, the remaining of the city, Oakland, Berkeley, Freemont and the other towns composing the metropolitan area where quasi-rural.
In Nevada, Utah and Wyoming I became extremely worried. Where were all the people? By the end of this trip I was convinced the US could be defined as a "better-watered-Sahara." There were forests and many signs warning of wild animals, but few people. I had a strange feeling of being in a northwestern version of an African safari.
When waking up in Europe or in Asia, one look out of the window is enough to recognize the city I'm visiting. Amsterdam is Amsterdam, Rome is Rome and Vientiane is unforgettable. However, in the USA, Berkeley reminds vaguely of Albuquerque and Oakland of Phoenix. The places seem to differ only in the way they mark their streets; in this trip, Sacramento won the insipidity contest with plain numbers and letters naming its perfect grid. Cities had a downtown area with skyscrapers and no people living in it and many suburbs with nothing but low houses.
On Countries and Counties
In later trips I identified a more complex reality. Miami looked more like cities I have seen in other countries; people actually lived in the downtown area. Los Angeles turned out being a big city with several, scattered centers. Then, serendipity took me to Long Beach and I discovered the Los Angeles County.
Reality was different here. This large county is the most populous in the US, with well over ten million people living in it. In size and population, the county is larger than many countries. It includes 88 cities. One of them – Los Angeles – is the second largest in the US and it looks itself as a conglomerate of smaller towns. Long Beach is the second largest city in the county and among the forty largest in the country. The county is part of the Greater Los Angeles Area, which encompasses five counties – LA and parts of Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties, the four ones surrounding it. Hollywood, the main route connecting the US with China and many corporations operate from here.
The traveler meets here a large city of roughly 13 million people with downtown LA acting as the main financial and commercial center. In the first entry of this journal, I described my surprise in this trip, when I left downtown LA in what seemed to be a regular subway and found myself a few minutes later in Anaheim – a place I knew was a different city and then in yet another city – Long Beach – which I thought it was just one of LA beaches.
But this differentiation between cities could be done only by looking at the street signs. Once out of downtown LA, the train travelled overland and offered views of a continuous urban area – albeit one composed mainly of very low structures. The Long Beach waterfront was another clear center; the second largest port in the US and adjacent commercial and leisure areas transformed it into another attractive part of this metropolis. The cleanliness of the port and the awesome park surrounding it were remarkable; I have seen nothing similar elsewhere.
An important part of any trip is meeting the local people and culture. In my first trips, the US turned out being quite frustrating. People were scarce and were constantly enclosed inside bubbles; they seldom left their cars. Los Angeles County provided the opportunity to see – and meet – a more human America, despite the "Curfew" signs seen there.