As you may recall from some of my earlier posts, I had very low expectations coming into our China trip. I thought it would be dirty, I thought it would be crowded, I thought the people wouldn’t be very nice, and most of my worries lied in the fact that overall, I just thought it would be very difficult to travel around because of the language barrier and lack of help from the locals. Though my expectations were low coming into this trip, after 5 weeks of traveling (longer than I’ve ever traveled anywhere) to about 15 different cities in many different provinces, I have to say that China really did surpass my expectations overall. There were many surprises along the way and our time there was certainly not always easy or fun, but it was interesting in so many different ways and I have to say that generally, Ileft with very fond memories of a place that still after 5 weeks I don’t think I completely figured out. I think the best way to describe my feelings about China, is like this: It’s like that guy or girl that all of us, at some point or another, have had a crush on or even fallen in love with. That person who forgets to call you back, who isn’t always very reliable, and who most of all is sometimes just so frustrating and so confusing. There are so many times that you tell yourself that you’re done with this person. They’re not worth it. They suck, you hate them. But then, just as you’re about to give up, they do something so wonderful, so amazing, so unexpected that it makes you forget about all the bad and frustrating times and fall in love all over again. That sounds just like my relationship with China. There were many frustrations, but after you got through the frustrating parts, you usually ended up with something that made it all worth it (usually).
It’s so hard to judge China because it’s just so big and one city or province is usually completely different from the next. Pretty much each time we took a long train from one place to another, we found ourselves in a completely different world. In some places, every street sign and restaurant menu was in English and we had no problems finding people who could help us get to where we needed to go or do what we needed to do. Then, 5 hours on a train later, and there’s not a stitch of English anywhere in sight. You say “how much” or “toilet” (words that pretty much everywhere, everyone recognizes/understands) and you get looks like you are an alien from outer space. You are in one place and it’s hot and sunny and then the next thing you know, you’re wearing hats, gloves, and ponchos for a week straight. You can never quite get your bearings because traveling from one city or province to the next is like traveling to two completely different countries. There were, however, several constants that I noticed throughout our time here, which I’ll discuss in more detail:
The Food: No matter where you are in China, you will be eating well. We had so many different types of cuisines and types of dishes, we hardly had time to go back to our favorites because there were always so many new things to try. There’s so much variety and just such an abundance of food, you never have to worry about getting a good meal (my dream come true). We were in China for 5 weeks and I don’t think we had one bad meal. In fact, we could hardly even keep track of our favorites because one meal was literally better than the next. Even in Thailand, we like to get Western food once a week or so, so that we don’t get sick of Thai food. In China though, we didn’t really have any cravings for Western food and we never seemed to get sick of the local cuisine. You can eat cheap and well anywhere you are in this country. And when you have a frustrating or tough day, which sometimes you do here, it really does make it better to be able to at least know you’ll get a good meal at the end of it. Here’s a sampling of what we got in all of the various cities/provinces:
- Beijing: Peking Duck (carved table-side with pancakes/crepes and all the fillings), Dan Dan Noodles, Kung Pao chicken, fried string beans with minced pork, Chinese ribs
- Shanghai: Braised pork, egg and tomato, bull frog in cast iron pot, soup dumplings
- Hong Kong: dim sum (dumplings, buns, spring rolls, chicken feet, and other Chinese apps), pig intestines with chilis, peking duck (again)
- Macau: Portuguese food (steak, fish,chorizo), fried pork cutlet sandwich
- Guanxi: stuffed snails, beer fish, Chinese hamburger, Guilin rice noodles, rice in bamboo, braised taro
- Yunnan: Cross-the-bridge rice noodles, cumin dusted pork skewers, fried goat cheese, all types of potatoes (French fries, roasted, mashed) seasoned with chili pepper, fried (deep and pan) tofu, som tam (papaya salad) with chicken feet, all kinds of yak jerky, sliced beef in chili sauce, Tibetan food in Shangrila (yak momos, chow mein)
- Sichuan: Chengdu hot pot (meat and veggie skewers cooked in spicy broth), pork belly with sliced potatoes, tofu in spicy sauce (mapu dofu)
- Shanxi: lamb kebabs with baked, spicy pita bread, meat skewers
The Local Chinese People: I can hardly even count the number of times a local went out of their way to help us, see if we were ok, or just chat with us. It seemed as though anyone who could speak even a little bit of English tried to talk to us, and in many cases, help us out when we needed. Whether it was the worker at our guesthouse walking down the street to the motorbike shop with us to help translate our breakdown/hitchhiking situation, or someone stopping us on the street to ask us if we’re lost, or even someone on the street or in a restaurant saying “hello” or “where are you from” (probably the only English words they know), I found mostly all of the locals extremely friendly and helpful. When we were walking around restaurants with no English or pictures, they would help us out by pointing to their favorites on their table so we could order those. If we were stopped and looking at a map, someone would come up to us and ask us what we needed or where we wanted to go. Riding buses, we’d show the drivers where we needed to go and they would find us and tell us when we needed to get off. I’m always so amazed when people go out of their way like this, especially when they have to go out of their comfort zone to speak a language they don’t know in order to do so. These people were anything but rude or unfriendly and I’m so glad that my expectations were proven wrong in this respect.
The Chinese Tourists: As great as the Chinese locals were, the Chinese tourists were a whole different story. All over China, you don’t see very many Westerners traveling around, but you do see tons and tons and tons of Chinese tourists. Mostly, they are in large tour groups with the leader holding a huge colored flag for her group to follow. And at a tourist site (or even checking-in at the airport), this leader will even go up to the ticket counter to purchase 30 tickets (or remarkably to check-in 30 passengers, which we didn’t even realize was possible) for their group – you think you’re in line behind one person but really, there’s 30 people in front of you. Needless to say this can be very frustrating and frankly seems unfair. These tourists made some of our more touristy activities that we did (Hua Shan, Dali, Terracotta Warriors, etc.) sometimes very unenjoyable by literally pushing us in line, cutting us in line, and screaming to their neighbors or on their cell phones on all kinds of public transport (literally screaming instead of talking like a normal person – though the locals do this too). They are very loud, they let their kids run wild (and pee pretty much anywhere, even in public), and just overall are not very good or respectful travelers. I think the main problem was that everywhere we went there were just so many of them that it was overwhelming and so crowded. Unfortunately, there were a lot of places that were tainted by these huge tour groups, which are simply unavoidable when traveling to all of the major tourist sites in China.
The Prices: Once we got out of the big cities of China, we saw all of the prices for the big sightseeing spots spike to crazy, almost laughable numbers. Twenty dollars to get into the Great Wall of China? Yes, 100% worth it. But $20per person to get into a park or to see a temple or pagoda you’ve never even heard of which will probably take you less than an hour or sometimes even only 15-20 minutes to see, $50 or $100 to go to a mountain for a day, $10 for a bus that you HAVE to take to get to one of the activities you’ve already paid for? Many times the prices just seemed unnecessarily and unreasonably high. Maybe they do this to limit the number of visitors to places (there are so many as it is, I can’t imagine if these attractions were a few dollars or even free), but it seems almost like they are punishing you for being a tourist and for wanting to see China’s famous sights. It was very frustrating at times when we felt like we couldn’t do something we wanted to do, not because we didn’t have enough time or couldn’t afford it, but just because the price was so crazy (especially when looking at it from a cost to value/time spent perspective) we’d have felt like we were being robbed and taken advantage of had we paid for it. This was one thing that really rubbed us the wrong way during our trip.
Our five weeks in China was full of ups and downs, which I think still in the end balanced out to an overall great trip. Right before writing this post, we looked through all of our photos and realized how much we saw and experienced during this time. From historic to modern cities to mountains to lakes to old towns and everything in between, we really felt like we saw a little of everything and got a good taste of what China was all about. Sometimes there were days that were more frustrating than they needed to or should have been, but sometimes we had days that were much better than we expected. We left China with great memories after a really unforgettable trip…but at the same time, when we left (especially after standing behind a tour guide in the check-in line at the airport with her 30 passports), we were more than ready to go.