As I move on to Vietnam, I have been recapping my experience in China. It has been an interesting few weeks! Being from the U.S., I was curious what it would be like to travel to China alone. I have to say that the language barrier was the hardest aspect. The intonations in their speech are tough! They also don’t do enough to cater to english speakers in terms of signage, menus, and product labeling. That being said, once you get accustomed to the China, it has so much to offer! I would recommend anyone with an adventurous spirit to give China a go! There is something for everyone, and you never know what you’re going to see around every corner!
Like I said, getting situated in China is difficult. Generally, when the Chinese learn english in school, which all of them are required to do, they are taught with a direct approach to language, most likely not by an English native speaker. So when you meet a Chinese person who does speak English, it can still be quite difficult for them to come up with the words to converse. The Chinese can be as unpredictable as an American in terms of making conversation. Sometimes they want to talk to you. Sometimes they will brush you off, possible because of a lack of English. China is a country of 1. 4 billion people. In some places, especially the rural villages, they don’t see too many caucasians. This is similar to India. So you may catch them secretly trying to get a picture of you if your appearance is a stark contrast to their’s. Sometimes I would catch someone trying to get a blurry picture of me, pretending to take one of a friend. I liked to just A. Photobomb it. or B. Ask them if I could take a photo with them on my camera too. They were very happy to oblige, and I got a great mini memory out of it. I met a traveler who pinned a sign to his shirt that said in Mandarin, “Picture of me: 5 juan. Picture with me: 15 juan.”
But, China taught me a lot about my own culture. U.S. Citizens can be quite rude! We can get junkyard nasty if you make us stand in line at Target too long. So when I went to a country of 1.4 Billion people who are exactly the same, I was overwhelmed at people’s lack of civility. Chivalry might be dead, but… well, what’s the opposite of chivalry? That’s what China is. Until you meet an exception does China seem to grow on you. I met some wonderful people on the way, especially in the small villages, who will restore your faith in humanity. One day I helped an 80 something year old woman onto a busy subway train. I had to put my arms around her so no one ran her over. She kissed my hands after I slow-danced her to safety. I don’t fixate on the bad things to scare people away. I say them to prepare one for the type of interactions that will potentially ruin the day if you let them. In Hong Kong there’s an infamous homeless lady that lives under a bridge. If you pay her $50 HKD she will curse your enemies by pounding her fists on their written names. I had a particular train ticket counter lady from Shanghai in mind and some change burning a hole in my pocket.
My trip: 26 days August 13th – September 7th 2013
- Beijing & The Great Wall
Besides the people having an occasional sharp edge, China is a beautiful country with sights around every corner! Whether it was watching women play mahjong in the Hutong, the smell of water buffalo romping in the Yangshou mud, or the Hustle and Bustle of Hong Kong, there’s something exciting about China. I cannot wait to go back with a friend. Here’s a list of my favorite things about my time in China & Hong Kong:
#1: The Great Wall
It IS everything it’s cracked up to be and more. I hiked to part of the wall that was unrestored and it was totally worth the hastle. You don’t realize how captivating this Ming Dynasty Structure is until you see it for yourself! It is a truly breath taking.
#2: Rock Climbing in Yanghsou
Yangshou, south of Guilin, is known for rock climbing and so much more! I spent a morning climbing and spent the afternoon riding motorbikes around the small villages. Xingping is nearby and you can hike to the Peace Pavilion for magnificent views of the Li River. Yangshou also has a great nightlife for tourists. It might not be you’re thing, but fun times can be had none-the-less.
#3: Hong Kong
Hong Kong is so different than mainland China, as it should be. It was controlled by the U.K. until 1997. When returned to the Chinese, it was settled that the British would receive easy immigration and free trade with Hong Kong until 2047. However, the citizens of Hong Kong often feud with Mainlanders over their cultural differences. None-the-less, here you will find a very diverse city that is a shopper’s mecca. The actual city of Hong Kong is crammed up against the hills of Hong Kong Island. So the buildings are very tall and dense. Hong Kong was much cleaner than the rest of mainland China and pretty much everyone speaks some English.
I loved Hong Kong. It has a unique infusion of Cantonese and European influence. There are plenty of places to hike, beaches, and ferry boats galore. I enjoyed the British characteristics of it as well. The double decker trolly’s are the last in the world. The street curbs say “Look Left” and “Look Right.” And you can pretty much get Milk Tea anywhere. The restaurants are a lot cleaner in general in Hong Kong and you can drink the tap water. So I did a lot of my food experimenting here. Dim Sum is a must! Hong Kong also has several restaurants with Michelin stars! Don’t miss this amazing city!
#4: The Bund in Shanghai
The bund is a sight to see. Giving you a view of Pudong, one of the most famous skylines in Asia, the bund is a nice place to relax and stroll. There is a free museum of the bund that is pretty uniquely designed, making you walk in a circle. So you come out where you started, not realizing how much time you spent reading every detail about the colonialist past of Shanghai. Examine the architecture, take a stroll, and grab a coffee before settling in to watch the nightfall on the Pudong Skyline.
#5: The Forbidden City
Prepare to spend a full day here! The Forbidden City has one famous central structure, but you will want to take a photo of everything! The smaller buildings are filled with art galleries, gift shops, and different exhibits. It is full of small alleys, enclosed courtyards, and private gardens. You can lose the tourists by escaping to a quiet corner in a secluded garden. This is a great place to sit under a tree and relax. I could have wondered around this city all day. Have lunch here and stay through the afternoon. Then climb to the highest pavilion at the park north of the city and watch the sunset.
#6: The City Walls in Xi’an
Xi’an has a lot cooler things to see than the terra-cotta warriors. Archaeology is fascinating… in small doses. But the living architecture that exists today fascinates me much more. It’s awesome to see how this modern city revolves around these medieval walls. Traffic gets congested at the 6 entry points and people have to make special trips around the walls just to get into the old city, within the walls. I biked around the top of the walls and got great views of the city.
#7: The Hutong
This is the “old quarter” of Bejing. Here you can wander through backstreets and see the traditional style of courtyard houses that used to cover Beijing. The people still live very simply, and you can watch them play mahjong in the afternoons. Some of the streets have been gentrified and this is a great place for young people to visit.
#8: The Dumplings!
Technically a breakfast dish, I ate them all day long. The dumplings never get old. They are usually boiled flour with a mix of pork and chives in the middle, but they can be totally different everywhere you go! I watched a woman make them for me every morning and put them in a soup. The soup was a grand total of $1.4 USD.
#9: Playing “Ultimate Subway”
In Japan and India, I rode some pretty packed subways. But China takes the cake. My first day in Beijing, I watched people push a guy onto the platform after the he tried to cram into the train at the last second. He fell into a crowd of people who had thrown in the towel and were waiting for next one. It was insane! On my train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, you have to clear customs. So the second the doors open, everyone takes off in a dead sprint to avoid waiting 3 hours in line to clear. I decided my American Gladiator name would be “Wonton Crusher” and I sprinted my ass off to end up third in line (a valiant effort, if I do say so myself.) BUT no one told me that they take a plastic gun shaped devices and hold it to your forehead to scan you for fever by infared light (H1N1 quarantine checkpoint.) I nearly lost my shit as I came sprinting at a guy in a hazmat suit pointing a gun at my head!
#10: The Back Streets
Every place is cooler on the backstreets. Here, everything is quieter. You get a real sense of the way people live on the backstreets. Sometimes this is where the oldest architecture is, worn by time and environment. You might get some interesting looks here. But you have to wander the backstreets to understand what happens when the people are not working.
Things you probably didn’t know about the Chinese & their culture
- The Chinese don’t have access to Facebook, Youtube, Snapchat, or several U.S. News sites. They have their own version of Facebook that let’s them communicate intra-China style. The format is extremely similar to Facebook, but not as blue.
- Several English teachers I met have told me the same story: When you ask the students to discuss what happened in Tiananmen Square, they flat-out refuse. They are aware of the events that took place there, but they will not discuss it with a foreigner.
- The Chinese women wear red wedding dresses.
- From what I’ve seen, most of China would rather go to a place where they can mix their own perfume than buy a designer brand. These places are everywhere.
- In Hong Kong, all of the tables in restaurants have drawers underneath, housing utensils and napkins. They also have a slot that hold the ticket, so the customer can grab it when they go to pay at the counter.
- The Chinese police are not required to tuck in their shirts. As stupid of a fact as this is, in my western mind it seems very inappropriate. I had to question the validity of their position at first.
- Many workplaces will allow it’s staff to text on the job in front of customers. This also seems inappropriate.
- The Chinese have a lot of habits that have deemed them very “Weird” in western opinion.
As I said, China is definitely worth seeing! It is a little weirder than other places. The people could potentially piss you off. But the rewards are worth it! I loved the time I spent in China. Going to China taught me that I want to go back to again and see the western part of the nation. I didn’t get to go to Tibet, but it’s on my list now more than ever! Hong Kong is a city that I could live in! It’s not like China at all, but the contrasts between there and the mainland are great to see! Prepare yourself mentally to the adversity you’ll experience in China. It was a cheap-ish location for a great trip! Go with a friend. Hike the Great Wall! See the Pandas in Chengdu! Take pictures of your feet at the top of the Pearl Tower. Love China! I did.
Helpful tips for travelers:
Booking Train Tickets. I found this to be SO difficult.
- There are several classes of trains you can take in China. I took T-class trains which are the slowest, oldest, and most crowded. They are also the cheapest. I don’t recommend taking these unless you have a REALLY adventurous mentality!
- There are several types of seats and sleepers you can get on a train. Google pictures to make sure the one you want is right for you. I took hard sleepers, but I think it’s a drastic difference in quality to the soft sleepers.
- Don’t bother trying to get train tickets around Chinese New Years. It’s not going to happen unless you book way in advance.
- Buy your tickets with a travel agent before you go, or buy them online while in China. I tried to book in person at both a station and a booking office. The hostel receptionists took my train information from me in English, translated it to Mandarin, and sent me with a piece of paper saying what I wanted. One booking office woman flat out refused to help me because I didn’t speak her language, even though I had a paper saying in Mandarin what I wanted. BUT if you book online with an agency, you can go to the nearest train ticket office with a reservation number and have the ticket printed for 5 juan (less than $1 USD.) This saves you time at the station.
- The lines to pick up your tickets are awful, so get to the stations early. Even if you have your tickets in hand already, you will still have to clear a security checkpoint as well.
- Fly if possible. I had to take a couple of flights before I figured out the train purchasing system, and also because my trains seemed to always be booked up. It was $80 to fly from Beijing to Xi’an, and another $80 to fly from Xi’an to Shanghai. I suggest taking a flight over a sleeper train. A two hour flight can turn into a 24 hour train. I saw a sign in a bathroom that said, “You aren’t a man until you take a 58 hour standing seat from Kunming to Shanghai.” I don’t want to be a man, I guess.
Visas: Americans, get your visas before you go! To get a visa, you have to pay a service online or go in person to the consulate in your jurisdiction. I went to Chicago, submitted my application and picked it up the next day (They no longer have one day service). You have to submit a “letter of invitation.” This is void if you are applying for a tourist visa and you submit a copy of your plane ticket in, your first night hostel reservation, and a copy of your plane ticket out. My ticket out showed me leaving from Hong Kong and I still got the visa. I was told by everyone in the U.S. that I had to submit my full itinerary for the duration of the trip in China. I didn’t do this and I was fine. I had no problem entering the country with my visa. Many people try to get visas in SE Asia and Hong Kong. I’ve heard that the process is easy, but you only get a single entry 1 month visa. I got a 90 day multiple tourist entry visa by applying in my home country. Prepare to pay $140 USD for your visa.
- Make a plan before you go. This limits your spontaneity, but it makes things cheaper and easier.
- Take toilet paper with you when you leave the hostel in the morning.
- Take the metro over a bus. It’s a little bit more money, but the metro doesn’t hit traffic. Also you can stand on the metro. In a bus, you may have to be smashed between people.
- Prepare your phone for texts. To access the internet in public places, the Chinese government requires a password. So many places send you a text with a password that you have to punch into their network for access. I found the internet to be really slow everywhere in China.
- Greet people with their own language. They will be kinder to you if you make even the slightest effort.
- Use your student I.D. at museums. Try a driver’s license… well any card that doesn’t say Visa/Mastercard. They don’t know the difference.
- When you are approached by people who want to be your private tour guide, know that they are working for the museum/venue. They are legitimate, but they will rush you. You are not obligated to take their services. When one approached me, I grabbed my phone to answer my imaginary phone call.
- Take deodorant if you don’t like roll on.
- Be careful booking sleeper buses in China. A lot of them have bad safety records!
- Book with Hostel World and get the best rated hostel in every city. It’s so cheap that I did this. I LOVED my China hostels!
- Get your immunizations before you go. Dengue, Hep A, and Malaria are all present in parts of China! To avoid Malaria, you need bug repellent (Lotion for with 30% or more Deet.) Sprays are shit.
China is worth the hassle!