I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to China a couple of years ago, and I absolutely loved it. I keep dreaming about going back and would love to perhaps spend a year or two working there in the future, though I have no real idea about how that would happen. Whether you’re interested in spending a few days in China or a few years, I’m sure it will be a phenomenal experience.
When I went, I visited Beijing, Suzhou, and Shanghai. There are many other travel sites that will tell you the best places to visit (Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall, the many gardens of Suzhou, the Bund, the Jin Mao Tower, and many, many more), but that’s not what this article is about. I loved visiting the many tourist attractions, cultural exhibits, and exploring historic places, but there were many even more valuable—and very unexpected—experiences.
Being a Foreigner
Before travelling to China, I had never before been so conscious of my looks. As one of the few white people at many of these tourist attractions, and even just walking down the street, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Many Chinese would come up to me wanting their pictures taken with me, not by me. (I stopped offering to take their pictures in front of the beautiful historic sites after the first few times I was approached, and gave a half-hearted smile instead as they took a photo of me.) Other natives offered to help me find my way, or asked me how I was, as an opportunity to practice their English on a real person. While this was very daunting for the somewhat shy person I am, everyone was remarkably friendly and helpful, and I’m actually still in touch with a few of the people I met on my travels!
Lessons on Bargaining
Part of being recognizable as a foreigner means storekeepers and those who market their wares know that you have money to spend. This means they will often expect you to pay more than someone who looks Chinese, and some may be unhappy to sell to you at all. However, you can often pay a more reasonable price for what you want by evaluating the price of an item at a few different places, or by simply writing a number you’re willing to pay and walking away if they don’t meet that number. You might be surprised how many people are willing to sell by the time you’re turning to leave. In some places, though, it’s much harder to bargain. The price of a Starbucks latte is practically the same whether you buy it inside the Forbidden City or in your favorite US Barnes and Noble.
Check Your Bed Carefully
Maybe I’m just paranoid, but it’s not a myth that bed bugs are drastically on the rise, and bringing home these critters is NOT the right souvenir to bring back from China, or anywhere else. So do your homework on any hotel you visit. Did any reviewers mention anything that might indicate the presence of bed bugs, like itching, bumps, or actual sightings? You do NOT want to stay at a place like this. If you are worried once you arrive at the hotel, do a very careful bed bug search of all bedding, including pillows, blankets, the mattress and even box spring. Look for small dark rusty smears, shed exoskeletons, or even bed bugs themselves. If you do find any signs of bed bugs in the hotel, or are worried it could be a serious issue, it’s best to find another hotel rather than risk bringing bed bugs back to your home.
Explore like a Native
Some of the most fun experiences you might have in China, regardless of which city you’re in, is just walking around. The architecture is both so different and very similar, with elegant classical buildings abutting American franchises like KFC. I loved seeing all the growth everywhere – lots of construction, new buildings, and tremendous bustle of young people in the main cities – as I sipped on a delicious and mysterious bottled green tea drink that was available everywhere.
The subways and trains I rode (like the Shanghai Maglev) were nicer than many in US cities – cleaner, cooler, and much more punctual. It’s an ongoing clash of times and transformation that is absolutely incredible to witness and—sort of— be a part of.
I never felt unsafe or nervous in China, but like anywhere, it is important to be careful. Store your valuables and important contact information in a safe place, even in a hidden pouch that you strap to yourself underneath your clothes, and stay in populated, well-lit areas. Before you go (and while you’re there) use a guidebook that you like. I never used to be a guidebook fan, but using a good one will tell you all the good places to visit, and won’t take you anywhere dangerous.
I adored my visit to China and would love to see more of its rising cities, get to know more people, and learn more than just the very basics of Mandarin. I hope you enjoy your time in China as much as I did, and maybe take me with you (if you’ve got room in your suitcase)!