Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A First-Timers Report on Traveling in China, Part II

In a word, steep.
The Great Wall of China is steep terrain. Wear your most comfortable shoes. Badaling is a great access point located just north of Beijing. There’s a gondola/cable car that saves hours of climbing, though you will walk plenty once you’re at the top. Like most places in China, it is not very handicapped accessible.

Having said that, a blind woman from Great Britain said Beijing in the most blind-person-friendly city in the world.

Hotel rooms all feature electric kettles/hot pots that heat water to boiling. Essential for purifying your tap water and making tea, coffee, Raman noodles, etc. Hotels everywhere should have these.

China is known for tea, but they almost never have it in the breakfast areas of hotels. BYOTB (bring your own tea bags).

Same with coffee. A good cup of black coffee is almost impossible to find. We even visited a Starbucks that didn’t have coffee. Whaaat? They make it a pot at a time and were all out for that day. The closest thing you can find in convenience stores is Nescafe packets that also include sugar and creamer. Folgers makes coffee bags that travel well.

Take hand sanitizer and pre-packaged baby wipes. You can use the baby wipes as napkins, to clean surfaces  and chop sticks, and wipe your hands after climbing the Great Wall and other places where millions of other hands have been.

Bottled Cokes, beer, and wine won’t make you sick (depending on how many you drink). Avoid drinks with ice or from dispensers. Bottled water from stores is safe, but if you order a bottle of water from a restaurant, you don’t know but that it was filled there or poured – as a courtesy – into a dirty glass.

My wife reports Chico’s is a great place to buy women’s no-wrinkle travel clothes for your trip.

How NOT to pack
for China
Pack light and carry clothes with lots of polyester or Dacron so you’re not one big wrinkle. Rooms usually don’t have irons. Traveling light is imperative. Getting around with multiple bags is a nightmare. Plus, taxis have very little trunk space for your luggage. If you pack heavy, you will pay for it every day you are there. I even brought socks and underwear that I could discard along the way, so the bags got lighter and there was room for souvenirs.

Speaking of bags, suitcases over forty-four lbs get extra charges that can add up to $100USD on Chinese airlines. Did I mention, “Pack light?”

Make sure that if your passport is expiring within a year, you get it renewed before you apply for a Chinese visa. A ten-year visa is no more expensive than a one-year, but you can’t get one if your passport is expiring.
Certain areas of China have their own visa regulations. If you apply for a visa to Tibet, you probably won’t be approved; it’s a politically- and religiously-sensitive area. Hong Kong and Macau also have their own visa requirements. One size does not fit all when it comes to visas in China.

Beige air in Beijing
Carry sinus pills. The pollution is not your friend.

Ditto for peanut butter crackers and granola bars.

Your new best friend, food-wise, will be the simple, lovely, fried eggs they serve during breakfast at many of the hotel buffets.

I don’t care what the talking heads on TV say about all the exotic foods in China; starfish tastes like crackers and fish oil, and bugs taste like bugs. You’re probably not going to want to eat spicy duck head or chicken feet. And most chicken is cut up with the bones and cartilage included so you get “the good marrow.” Go to China for the history and the beauty, not the cuisine.

Speaking of beauty, take time to explore the parks and natural areas of China. Zhangjiajie National Park is one of the most incredible places on earth (or on Pandora, as seen in the movie Avatar). The city parks in Guangzhou (near Hong Kong) rival any urban green space you could visit.

Plenty of green spaces in Guangzhou
If you are a Christian and want to attend church in China, many large hotels offer an “international service” on Sundays. There are also registered Christian (Three-Self) churches in most cities. Visiting house churches is more problematic, as a westerner’s visit could bring down persecution on them from the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA).

Persecution in China rarely involves throwing someone in jail; too expensive and too much bad press. The most common forms of persecution involve a SARA official visiting a religious person’s work place or landlord and asking if that person is a troublemaker. That will usually be a “word to the wise” for the landlord or boss that it’s time to find a new tenant or employee.

As a visitor, you’d never want to intentionally or unintentionally cost someone their job or their residence. Be careful what you say at all times about religion, the Christians you may have met, etc. (James 1:19, Proverbs 17:28) Taxi cabs are not safe zones. Neither are translators. Just because they speak English doesn't mean they share your values.

China Southern Airlines features some of the nicest planes on which we have ever flown. Air China, not so much.

To understand the Chinese government, don’t compare it with that in the United States, Canada, or Germany. Compare it with Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, or any other large corporation. The citizens are employees. They are there to do a job. You, as a visitor, are on a factory tour. If a Chinese person grouses, but does his job, he is ignored. If someone is impeding productivity, that’s a problem. If Christianity, or any other religion, is thought to be impeding productivity, it gets shut down. If it improves productivity, it is, to a degree, encouraged. (Colossians 3:22-25)

Don’t count on Google, Facebook, or Gmail. They aren't available in China. If you want to communicate with the folks back home, find out the international texting rates (often not as expensive as you’d think. With Verizon, I paid about fifty cents a text, as long as it didn't include pictures). Also, set up a Yahoo or Hotmail e-mail account before you go.

If you like diet drinks, Coke Light is about your only choice, and it’s not widely available.

One of the most insightful things we did before going was to download the podcast Letter From China by Peter James Froning. He was an American teacher at a Beijing university for one year, sending back weekly e-mails on his experiences. Endearing and entertaining…and free, though you are encouraged to make a voluntary contribution if you listen to it.

Inner Mongolia is not the same as Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is part of China. Mongolia is more closely aligned to Russia, but regards itself as an independent country.

In spite of what you’ve heard, China is not free from religion. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Daosm/Taoism are all to be found. One of the most problematic religious groups for the Chinese government is Catholics, because of their loyalty to the pope as the ultimate earthly authority.

Welcome to China
And finally, let’s talk about toilets. Western-style toilets, often called Muslim toilets, can be impossible to come by in public. Even universities and nice businesses feature squat pots, not western toilets. If you don’t have good knees, this is an issue, pure and simple. Spend some time locating western toilets. And BYOTP. Seriously. At all times. Forget and you will be sorry. Yes, sometimes there is one giant roll outside the restroom, but sometimes not. I call it the Roulette Wheel. You guess how much you need, spin the wheel, and hope to get lucky. If you’re wrong, you crap out. (Hotels for foreigners have western toilets, but it never hurts to ask, just to be sure.)

Questions? E-mail me at wwbearmills@gmail.com. Happy travels!

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