A burning desire to visit the world’s most populous country and a bargain airline ticket brought me to China in October 2018. While I’ve been to Hong Kong in the past, this was my first trip to the mainland, where I visited Beijing and Zhangjiajie.
During this 8-day solo adventure, I had a chance to reflect and learn more about myself, push personal boundaries and get my patience tested several times. Along the way, I had a great time, met awesome people and ate delicious food. This trip was successful by all measures, and I attribute its success to planning and setting realistic expectations.
But, why China? I got this question often from family and friends. To be precise, about two years ago I came across incredible photos, on Instagram, of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park; China has been on my bucket list ever since. However, I have also been curious about China’s history and culture, what it stands for, and what it has been able to achieve in recent years.
Earlier in 2018, I started planning after receiving an alert from Secret Flying of a return economy airfare from Phoenix to Beijing for $514 on American Airlines. I just couldn’t pass on this deal, knowing that it may be possible to use miles to upgrade the long-haul legs of Los Angeles/Beijing/Los Angeles.
1. Preparation for Trip to China
US citizens are required to obtain a visa before showing up at the airport. Mainland China is one of the countries that doesn’t offer US citizens a visa upon arrival. However, the process is straight forward and painless, if you follow the instructions. US Citizens are granted a multiple-entry visa valid for 10 years with the ability to stay up to 60 days on each visit.
The visa is not cheap, and if you don’t live in a city where there is a Chinese consulate, you may have to use a third party agent. I submitted my application and supporting documents four weeks prior to my scheduled departure, and since I live in Arizona, I had to process my visa through the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles. The application process took 5 working days, and I used VisaHQ.com. I give them five stars for their service; they kept me informed every step of the way via email. I knew exactly when and where my passport and visa stood in the process. And, when I received my passport, it was delivered in a RFID resistant sleeve, which I thought was a nice touch.
1.2 Where to Stay
There are many options to choose from: international chain hotels, local hotels, hostels and Airbnb. My choice was less complicated since I had planned to use hotel or credit card points to minimize my out-of-pocket expenses. Three out of four hotels I stayed in exceeded my exceptions; customer service was superior to what I have become used to from the same brands in the US.
Be advised that foreigners are required to register with the Public Security Bureau (PSB) within 24 hours of arrival. If you stay at a hotel, they will take care of the registration for you. Airbnb has recently agreed to comply with these regulations as well. However, if you stay with a friend you must do it yourself.
1.3 Social Media
In addition to all Google products, the Chinese government blocks social media apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
First, make sure your Internet carrier works in China and that you have an adequate data plan. Second, if you want to use Google apps or stay connected to social media, you need to install a VPN on your phone and enable it prior to arriving in China – choose one that works. Apparently the Chinese government implements changes frequently and VPN providers aren’t able to keep up. During this trip, I have used ExpressVPN, and it worked reliably. DISCLAIMER: the use of VPN in China is illegal, tread with caution and use it at your own risk.
1.4 Mobile Apps
In addition to my apps that I can’t travel without, my research led me to several apps to download and provision before arrival. However, I opted for these three:
- MetroMan: I relied on this app extensively in Beijing. Enter the origin and destination subway stations and the app will offer reliable route options, train schedule times and fare information.
- WeChat: This social media app is widely used in China and it has saved me several times. I used it mostly to communicate with locals via text messaging. Unfortunately one of its most valuable features, the Wallet, doesn’t work for international travelers, yet. It requires locally issued bank cards linked to it. Even though it allowed me to link my US issued credit cards, they were not supported for payment. At the consumer level, China is a cash economy, and this app comes very handy. I ended up giving the hotel concierge cash and he made a transfer into my WeChat Wallet.
- DiDi: This is the Chinese equivalent of Uber or Lyft. While I only used it once, it is very slick.
2. What to Expect while in China
In my book, knowing what to expect when visiting a foreign country for the first time is vital. Otherwise, one may be in for a disappointment and possibly an unpleasant experience.
Here are a few topics, in no particular order, I thought of highlighting based on my limited firsthand experience.
2.1 Money Exchange
In China cash is king. If you haven’t gotten Chinese ¥ prior to your arrival, unless it is an emergency, don’t exchange money at the airport. The exchange rate is a rip-off.
Once you are in town, you can go to any bank branch and exchange your money. Just know that it will take time. I went to a Bank of China branch across the street from my hotel. The teller took my passport to an office for inspection, and I had to wait 15 minutes. I was told they need to check my passport to make sure it is “good” and not “fake”. I had to remain calm and go with the flow.
2.2 Language Barrier
Yes, the average Chinese doesn’t speak English. But, should they?
To those tourists who are flooding travel sites and social media with low ratings because the hotel or restaurant they stayed or dinned in, doesn’t have English speaking staff, I say STOP IT! If being able to communicate in English is so important to you, consider restricting your travel to one of the top countries on the EF Proficiency Index, which ranks countries by their English speaking skills.
I must give credit to the Chinese for trying hard and providing English translation on street and public signs. In addition, all tourist attractions provide instructions in English. Sometimes though the translation is just hilarious. Like this one, leaving no doubt that this is where a “man” goes for his toilet needs.
Google Translate was my friend, and it came handy on several occasions – it is not free of funny interpretation either. The language barrier can be irritating; don’t get frustrated and take it lightly. It is part of the overall experience.
2.3 Domestic Air Travel
Let me just start by saying that both China Southern and Air China have exceeded my expectations. I am now a raving fan of both!
From the two domestic trips I had, my observation is that airports are not as crowded as I expected them to be. However, you must allow ample time to go through security and passport check. Security is tight, I must say. In addition to getting my laptop out, I had to remove the following items from my backpack and put them on bins: computer charging cable, camera, camera lenses, camera batteries, external charging batteries, cell phone and umbrella.
2.4 Beijing Subway
The subway in Beijing is clean, efficient and reliable. It is also easy to navigate with all maps, signs and announcements in both Mandarin and English. However, it does get really busy during rush hour.
Upon arrival at the Beijing airport, I got a Beijing Transportation Smart Card (Yikatong Card). The card requires a refundable deposit of ¥20, and I topped it with ¥100, which was more than enough for the duration of my stay. I returned the card, prior to departing, at the airport and got the deposit and the remaining balance refunded.
2.5 Beijing’s Air Quality
Beijing’s air quality is not the best, especially for those with respiratory problems.
You will encounter many people on the street and subway wearing masks. However, should you wear one? Use your judgement, I bought one in the US but never had to use it. I was lucky that during my stay in Beijing, air quality never got to a level where I felt a mask was needed.
To monitor the air quality, the US Embassy in Beijing has a tracking website, that provides Air Quality Index (AQI) hourly.
2.6 Tourist Attractions and Chinese Crowds
Let me start by saying, your patience will be tested, and you need to remain calm and collected. Chinese tourists come in large groups and are persistent in pushing their way through. This creates long lines, pushing and shoving, and personal space violations. At times you may need to be assertive and stand your ground.
There are a couple of things worth mentioning here:
- Chinese tourists are loud, and tour guides have handheld speakers. Stay focused on enjoying the moment and don’t let this ruin your experience.
- Clearing one’s throat and spitting in public is common. Don’t judge! Yes, I know this goes against personal hygiene practices we have come to expect. As gross as this is, don’t let it affect your perception. Likewise, I think they find it unthinkable that we blow our noses in a napkin and keep it, until we throw it way.
2.6 Toilets & Showers
The availability of public toilets surprised me. Most stalls have squatting floor fixtures, however some provide western toilet seat options. Be aware that facilities in older neighborhoods may not have dividing partitions. Toilet paper, paper towels and soap are rarely provided in public bathrooms. Bring your own!
Unless you stay in a large chain hotel, the concept of a separate shower enclosure doesn’t exist. The shower is part of the bathroom and water drains directly into a floor drain or a floor squatting toilet seat.
Food is simply amazing – just keep an open mind to trying new things. You will find whatever you fancy, from the sophisticated and complex to exotic and out right bizarre.
I will let the photos speak for themselves.
2.8 People are People, Treat them with Kindness and Respect
In Zhangjiajie, I veered off the beaten path and found myself in a local market. I encountered a street vendor selling oranges. His grim look struck me, and so I approached him with a smile and politely asked if I could take his photo. His face lit up, and he wore a big smile expressing his surprise that I was interested in taking his photo. He gleefully accepted and posed for the camera, and then surprised me by offering an orange as a token of appreciation. All I did is express interest in him as a human being and respected his right to refuse.
This encounter restored my faith in humanity. At the core, we are all the same. Treating people with kindness and respect is a currency we should give away generously, it is free!
China pleasantly surprised me. It definitely deserves another visit for a longer period, probably 6 weeks, to explore its natural beauty and cultural diversity. Not sure I can pull it off though, I may have to settle for two weeks at a time.
While traveling, I enjoy stepping out of my comfort zone and pushing myself to do and try new things – and China delivered. If you can see beyond the language barrier, pollution in large cities and tourist crowds, you are in for an amazing experience.
A sign at the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park caught my attention, it goes something like this: “Don’t leave anything behind; don’t take anything with you but pleasant memories.” And great memories are what I brought back from China. Oh, I also brought some loose leaf green tea 碧螺春 – pronounced Bi Luo Chun.
Here are a few photos from this trip. However, I continue to share more on my Instagram page.