China Travel Tidbits
In the previous post, I shared my food and wine experiences in China. In this post, I want to inundate you with pictures, and also share a bit of the first-hand advice. I had certain level of expectations, but those were no match to the actual experiences, hence the post.
One important disclaimer is that while I was traveling on business, I was all on my own, without any arrangements made, outside of having a visa and having the hotel room reservation. I had company for most of the business activities, but overall coming in and out, and moving around for the sightseeing was all by myself. Another important “disclaimer” – I only visited Beijing – your experience in the other cities might be quite different, so keep that in mind.
I will not be trying to recount the daily activities, as this would be boring and long, but instead, here are my main takeaways regarding travel to China.
Language barrier: yes, I expected it, but it was much more than I expected. Absolute majority of the people don’t speak or understand English (duh). That includes taxi drivers. Yes, there are signs in English, but it doesn’t help you if your taxi driver doesn’t understand a word of what you are saying. Even in hotels, lots of service personnel don’t speak English. The places which offer welcome relief? Anywhere someone wants to sell you something – from Pearl Market to the little street shops by the Great Wall, all sellers are very proficient with “how much” and “tell me your price”.
What exacerbates the language problem is the sheer size (huge!) of the city and everything in it. Let me explain with the simplest, but probably the most critical for any visitor, example – hotels. New York City has around 470 hotels. Seoul has roughly 430 hotels. Beijing has more than 5,500 hotels. 5,500! Do you think any of the taxi drivers had any idea where Sheraton Great Wall is located? No, they didn’t! Even when you have a special card from the hotel where the address is written in Chinese, and the driver speaks decent English – all I got was a smile and “I don’t know where it is”. Keep that in mind. If you have to, have hotel’s number on a speed dial – the taxi driver at the airport called hotel to find out where to go (works at the airport, doesn’t work that well on the street).
Subway is your friend. I can’t give enough praise to the Beijing subway. Not only it is clean, spacious and all the trains are brand spanking new, but all the signs are bi-lingual. As long as you know where do you need to go, you can buy a ticket from the machine, which can be easily switched into all English prompts with one button. All the fares are distance based, with I think 5 yuan been the most within most areas in Beijing, so it is very inexpensive. Not that the taxi cost a lot – the taxi fares in Beijing are only distance based, independent from the time – which is vital considering insurmountable traffic in Beijing at any time (for sure during the day). The starting fare in taxi is 13 yuan, and you can drive quite a distance before the meter will advance – but then you might be able to walk faster…
Bargaining. Just a little note here, as I really don’t enjoy the process, but bargaining is unavoidable if you want to buy anything on the street or at any of the tourist-focused shops (which are lots). Two small examples. When visiting pearl market (went there with friends), I didn’t need pearls, but wanted to buy two small key chains. I found some little wooden key chains, and lady asked me for 230 yuan (about $40 for two tiny pieces of wood!). I said “20”, and simply started to walk away. The lady screamed at me to come back, and with the face expression showing that I just offended her beyond belief, asked me to give her the money. So I bought 2 key chains for about $3 each, which I think is a fair price (instead of $20 as requested originally). Thus I recommend that 10% is what you need to start from if you want to buy something from the street vendors. One more example – I was looking at the small pendant with the one single pearl in it. The lady asked the same 230 yuan for it (must be the day, huh). Native speaking colleague standing next to me, quickly found exact same pendant for 19 yuan on Ali-Baba – it is all made in China after all, right?
I’m almost ready to talk about sightseeing I was able to do in Beijing, but before we get there, one more important note – a bit out of place, as it concerns my experience at the airport, but I want to mention it as it might save you some aggravation. It appears the Chinese security at the airport has particular admiration for the power charging sticks, a portable batteries in any forms. They request you to take it out of your carry on and put it through the X-ray machine. What they are actually looking for is the capacity (1 Ah, 2.8 Ah, 3.7 Ah, anything of this kind) written on the battery pack. My battery stick, which saved me countless number of times for the last year, didn’t have the capacity written on it, as I got it at one of the conferences as a present, and therefore, it was confiscated. I tried to argue, but you know how much you can argue with airport security, especially in China… Therefore, if you plan to travel to China, check that your power stick has the capacity written on it, to avoid any unpleasant experiences (those little things get you…).
Now, it is the time for a barrage of pictures (almost). I was able to visit Great Wall and Forbidden City, which are probably what any tourist would want to see. There are few locations to get on top of the Great Wall – I chose the place called Mutianyu, which is about 1.5 hours away from Beijing, and it is less crowded than the others. Take a look at the pictures below – while it was extremely foggy, the experience was still magnificent. If you will go there, make sure you would wear something very comfortable, both shoes and clothes – going up and down on the little stairs is quite a strenuous workout.
The Forbidden City, which is located right in the center of Beijing and is the largest wooden structure of this kind in the world, is interesting to see, but I would honestly say that it is not a “must see” type. Colorful, yes, but in the end of the day, it is just a bunch of buildings… Anyway, the rest of my China travel expressions are below in the form of the pictures – I also will include comments where possible. By the way, there is a mini-quiz there – scroll through slowly, so you will see the quiz and the answer should be somewhere there as well. Cheers!
And now, The Forbidden City:
Not that this is anything special, but here is the China Airline birdy which took me to Seoul…