Tuesday, May 5, 2015

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

No, the Forbidden City isn't forbidden any longer
We’ve had the privilege of traveling a lot, but nowhere was harder for us to wrap our brains around than China. My wife Caryl and I were invited to spend two weeks in The Middle Kingdom (China’s own self-description). All we had to do was pack, and be where we were told when we were told. And smile. And promote my two recent books. And begin work on one more.

In advance of the trip, we studied the history and geography of places we would visit. The “why” seems obvious; can you imagine traveling to Texas, seeing the Alamo, but not understanding its place in Lone Star history? A completely wasted experience.

But China’s history dates back to the Xia Dynasty, around 2700 B.C. That’s about the time that Abraham and Sarah were begatting Isaac. In addition to that, if you go to China and ask about the Zia Dynasty, people will look at you funny.

X is pronounced sh, not zzz. So it’s the Shea (sort of) Dynasty. Likewise, the city of Xi’an, where you can see the terracotta warriors, is pronounced more like Cheyenne (as in Wyoming) than anything else I can think of (Shee-ahn).

After months of investigation, followed by two weeks of travel covering over four thousand miles, here’s what we learned that may make China a lot more accessible to you:

If you want to read up on China before you go, start with the history of The Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Genghis Khan, The Three Kingdoms, and Mao. That will give you a good beginner-level handle on China.
Other basics:

Chinese money is known by three terms: RMB, yuan (u-ahn), and quai (kwy). The last term is the least formal. Stick to RMB or yuan.

Change your money at the airport. It is fast, easy, and of minimal expense. Changing it at banks in China involves a mountain of paperwork and took us at least two hours each time, if you can get them to change it. The further you get from Beijing and Hong Kong, the more trouble you’re likely to have.

The exchange rate is extremely favorable right now for Americans, around sixteen to one.

American credit cards are not accepted in many smaller cities (those under five million people). They’re not trying to be obstinate or anti-American. It’s just that the bank card processing software often isn’t in place.

China has one hundred and forty-five cities with more than a million people. The largest is Guangzhou (say Gwan-joe and people will know what you mean) with a metropolitan statistical area of roughly forty-four million people. Just because you haven’t previously heard of a city in China doesn’t mean it isn’t of major importance. There’s a lot more to China than Beijing, Hong Kong, Macau, and Shanghai.

China is both a world power and a developing country. It is not usual to see beautiful skyscrapers and hovels in the same neighborhood.

A traditional neighborhood in
the foreground and the new apartments
to which the residents will soon be "relocated"
in the background
Hotels in China must be certified to accept foreign tourists. Therefore, you can’t just stay anywhere. We typically paid about $50USD per night for a decent hotel. Most Holiday Inn hotels in China cost less than $68USD per night, according to Expedia.com. Luxury hotels shouldn’t cost more than $150 a night USD. Just make sure they have western/Muslim toilets.

Most cities in China are gigantic and the traffic is unbelievable. Stay in hotels close to the attractions you want to see and walk everywhere possible.

Sleeping on a Chinese bed is different, like sleeping on box springs in the US. Seriously.

"Non-free" accessories
A “Business Hotel” in China doesn't necessarily mean Courtyard by Marriott. It usually means it also features an hourly rate so people can go there to do their “business,” if you get my drift. That doesn't mean it isn't a reputable hotel; it’s just multi-functional. And there may be “non-free” prophylactics waiting for you on the bedside table, along with some "non-free" toiletries to help you freshen up before your "date." In a country where multiple generations live in the same small houses, sometimes people rent their privacy by the hour. These are called “micro-stays.” Also, people traveling long distances can use these hotels to take naps before their journey. Pretty nifty.

Most things in China are identified by where they are in relation to the “ring roads.” Ring roads are equivalent to our loops. If something is inside the first ring road, it’s near the center of town. Something outside the sixth ring road (if the city has that many) is out in the boondocks. Plan accordingly.

If you are trying to find the name of a tourist attraction, the best way we’ve found is to start your search on Google (if you’re not yet in China) or Yahoo (if you are). Sometimes places can have multiple names. For example, you can simply Google “Beijing Night Market” and learn that the real name of the place is Dong Hua Men Night Market. Now you can ask your hotel to write it down in Chinese, along with the address, for the taxi driver. Some places have multiple names, and the name can vary from guide book to guide book. Using Google to start your search allows you to figure out which multiple names refer
The welcoming committee at Zhangjiajie
to the same location. We found that in Hunan Province (a province is like a state in the US), the names Zhangjiajie, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Wulingyuan, Wulingyuan Scenic Area, and Baofong Lake all refer to roughly the same area. One guidebook listed it as Zhangjiajie, another as Wulingyuan. Without Google to sort it all out, we wouldn’t have had a clue.

China is one of the most polluted countries on earth. However, because of their political system, the factories can be turned off anytime the government says so. Hence, if the prime minister of Pakistan or trade officials from Australia are coming to town, suddenly the sky is crystal clear. If you can find a time when important people are heading to the city you want to visit, go then.

If you get lost in an airport, start asking for someone who speaks English. Often, the person who shows up will offers to walk you to where you need to be, including getting you through security in record time. Just don’t be surprised if he expects a couple of hundred RMB for his trouble (about $32 USD). Compare that to missing your flight and it seems like a pretty good deal.

Our guide at Zhangjiajie
Speaking of guides, you can book a guide in advance, but you’ll pay prime price. Most tourist venues have English speaking guides wandering about listening and looking for lost Americans (of course, so are the pickpockets and scam artists). You can hire these impromptu guides for much less than you pay online. Use your own judgement.

People in China eat at round tables with Lazy Susans in the middle. The food is placed on the glass Lazy Susan and rotated. You don’t load up your plate. You take a bit with your chop sticks, hold your small bowl under the food to keep from dropping it, and take it to your mouth. Everyone at the table is doing the same. Hence, double-dipping with your chopsticks is the norm. When you go, take antibiotics. Strong antibiotics. And Imodium.

Canadian pharmacies sell an excellent OTC anti-nausea medication called Gravol. We tried it after some bad food in China and found it worked like a charm. In the US, the same active ingredient at the same strength is sold as Dramamine. We just take one Dramamine, instead of two, for the Gravol effect.

Spitting, slurping, and nose picking are not social faux pas in China. Get used to it.

A formal setting with Lazy Susan
When you check into your hotel, you will see business cards for the establishment resting on the counter. Take several. They usually list the name of the hotel, the address, and directions regarding how to get back. Simply give one to your taxi driver when returning from sightseeing.

Have your hotel write down the name of the places you want to sightsee in Chinese, along with the address, so you can give the information to the taxi driver. Have them write it in English so you can keep it all straight.

People in China aren’t big on standing in lines. Go with the flow; don’t get mad, and don’t wait for people to let you in front of them. You have to gently, but persistently, nudge your way onto subways, into queues for places you want to visit, etc. When in Rome…

Subways are busy, even when
it's not rush hour
You are a guest in their country. Always assume that people around you understand English. Talk nice.

Chinese LOVE getting their pictures taken with westerners. They assume if you can afford to come to China, you must be rich-rich-rich. Who doesn’t want their picture taken with a super wealthy person?  You might be famous, too. Who knows? China is very good for the self-esteem of western tourists.

If you travel by train (which I highly recommend), make sure you book a “soft” sleeper. That means you are staying four to a compartment and your bed will be the most comfortable you sleep on while visiting the country. Take your own food, as selections on the train are expensive and limited. If you accidentally book a “hard” sleeper, you are in for an experience: Six people to a compartment, beds like rocks, and people who can’t read no-smoking signs in any language. By the way, if there are only two of you in a soft sleeper, that means you are sharing the compartment with two strangers. The only way around that is to book all four beds. However, if you only have two passports, that might be a nifty trick. Let me know how it works.

I was always a sucker for the upper berth

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