We’ve been in mainland China for the past seven weeks, navigating our way from Shenzhen to Chengdu, with several stops along the way. While I’ve wanted to write more about this experience, it’s been hard to find any singular topic – for me, so much of the experience has been mixed. I’ve had some of my most fun moments of travel – zipping through the countryside on an electric scooter, snuggling baby kittens, going to an incredible hot pot restaurant – as well as my least fun – mosquito attacks, losing half of our clothing, food poisoning (ugh). I’m also nothing close to an expert on China’s politics, history, and cultures, so am I even qualified to write this? Here goes:
By the time we got to Hong Kong, Ethan and I had started feeling incredibly tired. After some doubt about our own abilities to undertake long-term travel, we found that it’s not uncommon for such people to experience travel fatigue (check out articles here and here). Often, people refer to our trip as a “vacation” or something else flippant, and I begin to bristle. Sure, we recognize that we have a level of privilege that allows us to do this, but the lifestyle is anything but relaxing. And China has certainly tested the level of discomfort I’ve experienced as a Westerner.
The Guangzhou train station is by far the most chaotic environment I’ve ever experienced – we missed our train the first time we tried to catch it, and ended up coming back the next day (two hours early). I’ve found that many bus/train/subway stations aren’t much more organized, and that quite a few Chinese citizens haven’t embraced the concept of “lining up.” Most “tourist information centers” don’t have English-speaking staff, either. While the buses between cities are fairly regular, it’s incredibly hard to figure out where the bus stations are, as well as how to buy tickets for them.
After getting spoiled in Japan, we’ve been confronted by wooden beds (without mattresses/pads), squat toilets (my least favorite thing in the world), and a lack of available drinking water. Public urination and/or defecation isn’t uncommon either, especially among young children (at least THEY have an excuse). While I was warned about all of this ahead of time, getting used to it has been… hard.
The Awkward Parts:
You know how you felt as a teenager, that everyone was staring at you all the time and judging you? Well, that actually happens to us. I’ve never been stared at as much as I have in this country. At first, it was funny, but after people started taking my picture (or video) without my consent, it got annoying. Just ask, people! I’ve asked locals why it is that I get more stares than Ethan, and I’ve gotten a few answers – “Because you are tall” (I am usually the tallest woman in my line of sight) or “Because you are beautiful” among them. While I appreciate the flattery, it’s hard to believe that my beauty is potent enough to affect small children – who frequently point and yell “WAI GUO REN” (“foreigners”) at us. I’ve responded to this by waving, winking, or pointing at those I catch staring, which usually surprises them. Quite a few other travelers (especially women) have mentioned this phenomenon as well, and while the staring doesn’t usually lead to a come-on or even a conversation, it’s certainly unnerving.
It’s been much harder to communicate with people as well. While Ethan is making great headway in his Mandarin practice, asking questions beyond a few words is very difficult. We’ve responded to this by typing into Google Translate and holding up the results, or using a very complicated gesturing system. Usually, Chinese speakers have a decent sense of humor about our ineptitude, but we’ve been in quite a few uncomfortable situations in which the language barrier seemed particularly acute.
While we have driven motor scooters and the like through the countryside, we have yet to get behind the wheel of a car. Part of this is trepidation about driving in China, where the two rules of the road seem to be “Drive aggressively” and “Always be beeping.” As a Californian, I adhere to the policy that using one’s horn for anything other than a near-fatal accident is unnecessary. But here, horns are for communication – honk when you drive by another car, honk when you’re behind someone, honk if no one is around but you feel like making your presence known. Also, lines on the road are more suggestions than rules – many of our taxi drivers have spent at least half their routes driving against the traffic flow.
When Things Are Good, They’re Really Good:
Even with us lao wai (slang for “foreign”) tourists, so many people in China have been incredibly friendly. We’ve been challenged to ping-pong matches, offered free food and drinks, and generally helped by locals in every city. I’ve seen many more smiles here than in Japan, and received quite a few enthusiastic “Hello’s!” from strangers and passers-by. It’s nice to feel as though you’re in a safe community no matter where you are, and that people are aware of one another.
To continue that, China has felt very safe the entire time I’ve been in the country. Before we left the US, one of the more common questions we got was “China? Are you sure it’s safe?” The fact is, average citizens don’t have access to guns (the local police don’t even carry them), the city streets are well lit, and since people are always outside, hanging out or walking around, you never feel like you’re going to get snuck up on or even bothered. The United States is far more dangerous than anywhere I’ve been in China (especially recently), and one of the more common questions I’ve gotten from Chinese citizens is “America? Is it safe?”
Let’s move on to something we can all agree on – FOOD. Every single meal I’ve had has been awesome, and I don’t regret a single one (okay, maybe whatever gave me food poisoning, but other than that…) I enjoyed Japanese cuisine, but their favorite spice appears to be salt. Here in Sichuan, every meal has at least 20 different spices thrown in, plus garlic, onions, and all kinds of flavors. We were both challenged by hot pot – in Chongqing, it’s not just a meal, it’s a lifestyle – and the traditional ingredients – goose guts, chicken feet, beef stomach. Still, we persevered, because anything cooked in a Sichuan sauce is worth eating.
Bright Lights Big Cities
Here are some highlights from each city – if it’s mentioned, it’s recommended!
- Lazy Gaga Hostel – One of the best hostels we’ve stayed at thus far. Excellent facilities, super clean, reliable wifi, socializing space, and even a few groceries.
- Tristan’s Tex-Mex – We Californians were dying for anything resembling Mexican food, and we found a restaurant run by an American expat! The burritos were heavenly, and Ethan nearly cried when Tristan himself brought out Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas beer from behind the counter.
- Sun Yat-sen Memorial Museum – Beautiful architecture houses a near-complete history of Sun Yat-sen’s contributions to the forming of modern China, as well as a history of the building itself.
- Zhujiang New Town – Really cool plaza in the middle of the city, with gardens, art pieces, and tons of people watching. It’s especially lovely at night, when all of the surrounding skyscrapers are lit up.
- Zhujiang River Cruise – We were lucky to be with a Guangzhou local (shoutout to Annie!) who brought us on this fabulous cruise up and down the Zhujiang River. While it was cool watching the city at night, I’d go back for the daytime cruise, too.
- West Street – Very touristy, but it had quite a few interesting shops and services (We had our toes nibbled by fish. Best $4 I’ve ever spent). At night, it’s PACKED with people, but that’s when the local restaurants and bars come alive…
- Mojo Bar – A paradise for expats, Mojo is owned and operated by newbies to China. Great drinks, free video games, and friendly staff.
- Qianximen Bridge – In a world full of phallic buildings, yonic architecture is hard to find. This bridge is visually compelling and fun to walk across – during our stroll, we watched a wedding photo shoot happening on the median while cars rushed past!
- Three Gorges Museum – This huge museum holds a ton of exhibits, both temporary and permanent, and focuses especially on the construction of the Three Gorges Dam (a marvel or a fiasco, depending on who you talk to).
- Hot Pot Cultural Promenade Yingbin – Just over the hill from the city, hot pot restaurants spread for miles. According to our AirBnB host (shoutout to Coco!) who brought us to this culinary delight, the locals of Chongqing celebrate everything by eating hot pot.
- Ciqikou – An adorable winding path lined with shops and eateries, Ciqikou has been a shopper’s paradise for centuries. Today, the wares are mostly plastic (or fidget spinners), but we did come across some cool antique kiosks full of Cultural Revolution memorabilia.
- Giant Panda Research Base – WE SAW PANDAS PLAYING TOGETHER AND EATING BAMBOO. AND RED PANDAS. SO MANY PANDAS.
- Jinsha Site Museum – Amazing preserved archaeological dig, plus a museum of the items found and their historical significance. The park around it is beautiful and pleasant to walk through as well.
- Mrs Panda Hostel – Another highlight of our Journey of a Thousand Hostels, Mrs Panda Hostel is super clean, inexpensive, and all of their food is tasty. Extra points for having the board games Set and Carcassonne, which we’ve missed dearly.
- Sichuan Museum – This enormous building houses quite a few exhibits on regional history, highlighting all sorts of arts, crafts, and more. My favorite section focused on traditional embroidery and brocade – the fabrics were incredible.
Ethan and I were lucky to be granted ten-year visas, allowing us to enter and exit China without issue for the next decade (for 60 days at a time maximum). And after spending a month and a half in the southwest, I can say that I’ll be looking forward to more Chinese travel experiences in the future. Though I’ll bring my own supply of DEET next time.