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November 7, 2005 – A journey to General Tips, China in Asia

A Few Tips For Traveling China

I found traveling in China to be quite rough, so my advice is best to be prepared. A lot of it was due to traveling in an environment that is bombarded with pollution (smog, smokers, other colorful chemicals that I can't possibly pronounce, an example article), unhygienic filthiness (the constant spitting or loogie-hawking by a great majority of the population, not covering one's mouth when coughing, the sneezing, the blowing one's nose without using tissue, standing or sitting in filth on local train rides, waiting for the local train by train tracks dotted with human excrement, littering everywhere even on national treasures like the Great Wall, etc.), and aggression (getting pushed around, shoved into transportation, the cutting in lines [actually there weren't any lines most of the time - even at domestic flights], being surrounded, hounded, or chased by touts once they find out you're from out of town). Note that not everyone may encounter these experiences, but should be prepared to face them.

It's fairly easy to get sick in this country, unfortunately, unless if you have an immunity made of steel. I got sick twice - once a bronchial bug caught in Beijing and another time from some bad food (bring some cipro when pepto and immodium advanced aren't doing the job). Rick was sick mostly the entire time, mainly from the bronchial bugs. And yes, we were very careful in trying not to get sick (i.e., using handwipes before meals and after trips to the bathroom, alcohol swabs on utensils/cups/bowls/plates, not touching our faces after touching anything public, turning our faces from sneezers/coughers/spitters/etc., taking thorough showers, eating well-cooked food, etc.). Or you can just stay in your hotel/hostel room. Just kidding. Seriously, getting sick is pretty high on the list there in China, unless if you go on a luxury tour of some sort of course (but then again, I still got sick when I took one on a family vacation to China in my teens).

If you can't read or speak Mandarin Chinese (at least 6th grade level), I highly recommend going with some kind of grassroots group (such as Intrepid Travel), or go with someone who can read and speak and is comfortable in rough traveling conditions in order to see China.

Tips only for the brave and relentless:
- If you can speak, understand and read Mandarin Chinese, and have a high tolerance for rough travels, you'll be able to maneuver around China just fine. Very few people speak English here, unless if you're at the major tourist spots.
- Flip your aggression switch on, but remember to switch it back off when you go to a less-aggressive area/country. You'll need to be aggressive 99% of the time here – meaning you should cut in line and push and shove like everyone else. Bargain hard too (walk away, don't look interested, compare prices next door, etc.), especially if the prices sound ridiculously high (e.g., someone tried to sell us a fake copy of a famous painting for 2000 yuan, which is equivalent to $250 USD). I didn't do too much shopping but I heard 60% off is ideal to start with.
- In terms of crossing the street, do what the locals do - just go with the flow. Initially, you'd want to follow the crowds at first to practice. But sometimes, you'll need to be able to cross a street on your own. If you stop at any time, you're bound to get runned over, whether it'd be a bike, car, moped/motorcycle or bus. They slow down a little but do not come to a full stop. They even come within centimeters of you. Obviously, you definitely do not want to cross when any moving vehicle looks like it's going on a rampage. For instance, I wasn't being too wary and was about to step off the curb onto the street when this car comes screaming forward with horns blasting. I get back onto the curb, looked at the driver, and noticed that he was a foreigner! Even foreigners living there have assimilated to the cultural practices of traffic in China. You'd expect that they would stop or slow down for you, but no.
- Most scary traffic: Shanghai; most spitters: Beijing; most unhygienic condition you may encounter: local trains and train tracks (unless if you fall into a sewage pond by chance).
- Seems like China is under one big fog/smog(?) cloud, as viewed from the plane as well as from land. Oct-Nov supposedly has nice days, but it's very rare to encounter a blue-sky and sunshiny day. So everything looks gray and pretty colorless (except for the under construction buildings that are being painted in Beijing).
- Many public phones only accept IP or IC cards, which you'll need to purchase beforehand. For example, I needed to make a phone call one early morning and could not find any public phone that was coin-operated. After asking a dozen or so people, I finally located one in a small newsstand. Quite random.

the small newsstand that hosts a public phone where you pay after making a call

- Buy train tickets in advance as much as possible, especially if they are short train rides (unless if you don't mind paying a scalper a high price for what could be false tickets). If you can afford it, it is better to buy the better seat (chances of getting sick or contracting some kind of weird illness like avian flu are much higher if you decide to take a local train with a standing ticket - a risk you don't really want to take, unless, like I said before, if you have an immunity of steel).

what a soft sleeper looks like inside - you share this room with 3 others

- Found that buses stop at many major sites at all the cities we've been to in China. The bus stop signs also tell you, but it's in Chinese. If you can't read, you can try matching the Chinese characters from your guide book with the Chinese characters on the bus stop signs. Or just show the bus driver where you want to go and he may tell you which bus to get on (i.e., by pointing at a bus number on the bus stop sign). You can also try this with any local waiting for a bus.

if you can read this, you're good to go

- When you take a taxi, make sure it's on a meter, else you'll definitely be getting ripped off. It's also helpful to know the general area/streets that you'll be going through to get to your destination.
- The metro is a good option to take, too. Many stops are close to sites. Sometimes it's a faster and cheaper option.
- Go with a reputable air carrier, especially ones with tour groups and many foreigners on it (i.e., tour groups are on a set schedule). There will be less of a chance of flight cancellations and delays.
- If you can be mistaken for a local and you run into any trouble, such as having your flight cancelled, do not tag along with the big angry local mob. Instead, find the foreigners and tag along with them to get somewhere.
- Dress down unless if you want to get ripped off, have touts and beggars follow you, etc. If you can dress like a student, even better. One time, the train security baggage person didn't believe I was from America (thought I was a local at first, and then an immigrant to America) - mission accomplished in localizing oneself (maybe too well during the cancelled flight incident).
- Get and use your student ID card – tickets are usually cut in half (especially in Beijing and Xian, but not really in Suzhou).
- Keep your valuables safe and in a hard-to-reach position from pickpockets.
- Make sure you have enough change for the taxi ride (bus, too) so you don't need to fuss with taking out your wallet and so forth, especially if you're in a hurry. Keep everything safe and secure during the ride (means no taking the camera out to take a shot). This is how I lost my camera full of pictoral memories.
- Bring antiobiotics and traveler's diarrhea pills such as Cipro. Use them only when you have no other choice.
- Bring alcohol swabs or own utensils that you can clean – note that a high percentage of the population have hepatitis.
- Street food is okay to try just as long as it's piping hot.
- If you're a non-smoker or sensitive to cigarette smoke, ask for non-smoking (rooms, sleepers, etc.). But expect that it sometimes may not come through.
- Do not hop onto local tours – they spend less time at the main sites, and more time at souvenir shops, unless if you want to experience what a local tour geared towards foreigners is like.
- Ignore touts. Do not look or even say a word to them. Walk quickly away.
- Don't give to beggars unless if you want to be followed and hounded by a whole gang of them.

Again, these tips come from our experiences. Not everyone may encounter what we've seen and been through. Also, note that I've written downs tips that may sound negative or harsh. China was rough but full of wondrous experiences too, which are noted in some of my previous blog entries.

This was my third visit to China. The first time I was there, I was on a tour as a teen. The second time was only for a short stay. I'm calling this particular visit, "Historical China," since we went to the cities that seemed to have retained much Chinese history (Shanghai, Beijing, Xian, Nanjing, Suzhou). This was Rick's first visit, and it was truly an eye-opening experience for both him and I. I must give Rick props for traveling in such conditions and maneuvering us around China - without him, I'd probably go through many more "eye-opening" experiences.

Even though China was rough travels, it was definitely worth it. China has so much for the outsider to see and observe in terms of historical relics and sites, the environment and surroundings, and the modern-day culture. Unless if you only care about the major sites and tourist stops, you definitely won't be able to see much of what China is really like, especially if you go on a luxury tour.

China is one complicated country with one very complex society. Truthfully speaking, it's really hard to generalize anything. Changes come swift and by the second in this overpopulated, expansive country.

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