Country Review: China
I love to travel! Its so much easier and cheaper than you think it is! This article is the first of many articles of my personal reviews of each country. My hope is that it will give the reader a feel for what the country is like to visit and what you can expect upon your travels there! For the first article, we will be talking about China!
Ah, the Middle Kingdom. Volumes have been written about this enigmatic place. It could take lifetimes to fully understand the complexity and intricacies of this nation. I recall a poignant quote from my Mandarin professor during my undergraduate years. He said "no matter how long you live there, you will never fully understand China. Not even Chinese people fully understand China." This couldn't be more accurate. I learn a new thing everyday about this nation and I have spent a large portion of my life studying the nation's culture, history, geopolitics & language.
China is not for the faint-hearted. It is a VERY different place from anywhere in the US. When you are there, there is no way to hide the fact that you are a foreigner. You stick out like a sore thumb everywhere you go. Especially if you are in a smaller, less traveled cities. Thousands of years have shaped the collective paradigm of this nation, and you will be peppered with quirky cultural idiosyncrasies almost everyday. All part of the fun! The mistranslated signs are always hilarious too.
You will never be able to take all of China in if you visit once. This country always beckons you to come back. If the food doesn't call you back, the natural beauty will. If that doesn't do it for you, the people will call you back. Quite literally. I have not been to China in almost two years and I still have people inviting me back to their homes all the time.
If you are bored in China, you are not doing it right. There are so many things to see and do. Even the simplest things are the most fascinating. The daily interactions with people are so unique and interesting. If you just visit a major city like Shanghai, there are plenty of cultural and historical things to see and experience. There are free museums, parks, tourist streets, gardens and historical buildings everywhere! Every city has its own history and cultural significance.
THE FOOD IS INCREDIBLE!! Real Chinese food is some of the best food you will ever eat in your life. Contrary to popular belief, there is not just one type of Chinese food. Each province of China boasts their own unique style of food. Northern China is known for their noodles and cold dishes, central china is known for their unique spicy hotpot and peppers, western Chinese food cooks with quite a lot of mutton and frequently uses cumin in their cooking and southern china specializes in seafood dishes. This does not even include the incredibly cheap and delicious street food that is ubiquitous throughout all of China.
There are so many historical places and so much natural beauty to be seen throughout the nation. Some of the iconic places to see include The Great Wall of China, the Terracotta Warriors, Tiger Leaping Gorge, The Forbidden City, The Rice Terraces of Guilin & The Yangtze river. However, this just scratches the surface.
Unfortunately, China is not a very tourist friendly country. This is not to say that Chinese folks are not friendly to visitors, I have found that the Chinese are quite friendly to foreigners. It is more to say that it is certainly a challenge for visitors to easily get around the country. Most people do not speak English and their writing system is impossible to decipher to those who don't know Chinese. To make matters worse, the vast majority of Chinese people are absolutely wired to their cellphones. Everything can be done with only a few applications on their phones that most people would never use outside of China. Most visitors never think to download these applications and even if they did, they would not know the first thing to do with them. Cellphone apps like Alipay and Wechat are the fundamental Swiss Army knifes for living and traveling in China. They are used for just about everything. Paying for services, hailing taxis, paying rent, buying movie tickets and communicating. This can be a serious issue for those who want to stay for an extended period of time and lack Mandarin skills.
China is also incredibly crowded. It is the most populated country in the whole world. "Small" cities average around 1 to 2 million people. While mega cities such as Shanghai have well over 22 million people. There is an expression in Chinese referring to the populous "People mountain, people sea." There is another saying that translates to "People go on vacation in China to see other people going on vacation." This being said, you will feel like a sardine in many places. Especially when you are visiting popular and famous places. Be prepared to wait in long lines and be crowed by throngs of tourists.
Unfortunately, the Chinese government is not fond of western media sources such as Facebook, Youtube and Google. All of these websites are blocked by whats called 'The Great Fire Wall." In order to use any of the services Westerners enjoy, you are required to use what is called a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This will allow you to use every website you typically use back home.
Helpful Tips to Travel There:
Bring Cash! Woe to those who say "Oh, I will just pay for it with my card." You should be fine to use a card if you are only staying in major cities and only plan to eat at established restaurants. However, most mom and pop street vendor shops as well as tchotchke stores do not accept cards. Bring a good bit of spending money you will not regret it.
Download a VPN. If you want to be able to talk about your China adventures when you are visiting, this is the only way you will be able to. You will not be able to access any western social media without it.
Stay a few days with an Airbnb host. This is definitely an underrated piece of advice. Most hosts should speak English if they plan to host foreigners. This should allow you to have an in for someone to show you around or at the very least give you pointers as to what to do.
Get a guide! If you are not planning to do Airbnb, I would hire a local guide. Your concierge should be able to get you connected with a local tour guide that can speak English and can show you around. It will help you get your bearings straight and will show you the highlights of the places you are planning to visit.
China is one of the only nations that offers a ten year multi-entry visa for US citizens. This is a wonderful tool that you can use to visit this country plenty of times. You will not have been able to see everything this place has to offer even if you have visited over 5 times.
I would highly recommend going to a major city for your first trip. Beijing and Shanghai are always the best places for first time adventurers to visit. These cities house the most expats and Chinese people that speak English. There is much more infrastructure compared to less developed cities and it will be much easier for you to get around.
Must Sees & Hidden Gems:
Quite honestly, there are too many places to put. The list really goes on and on. When you visit China, you will discover at least three other places you will want to visit. I am one for visiting the places that are much less traveled. If it is your first time visiting China though, I would still recommend going to see all of the "must see places" listed above. However, if you want to go to less traveled places. I would recommend seeing the Potala Palace, Xinjiang Province and, if you are feeling really gutsy, Huashan mountain.
Overall, China is definitely a country you need to visit on your life's journey. It will be unforgettable no matter what way your experience swings.