We weren't in a tour group and handled all our own transport and accommodation arrangements. We spoke to tourists and locals and these are my observations, thoughts … and tips.
When travelling on a budget packaged sightseeing trips are quite expensive and "unbundled" ... in a way that every organised trip has some added feature which requires an additional payment. Get into the Forbidden City then add a personal guide or an auto guide. Get to the Treasure Gallery and there is another additional charge.
Go to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Here there is a choice and added cost between taking the closed cable car or the open cable car and the toboggan ride down. Go into Golden Goose Pagoda in Xian and there is an extra charge to go up the tower.
There is obviously no shortage of takers but it starts feeling like a rip off.
With day trips there will also be a mandatory stop or two at some factory or for some experience which will involve the offering of “discounted”, but still expensive products.
- There are often undisclosed sightseeing and travel discounts for seniors (those over 60, 65 or 70) so it’s worthwhile asking. Only rarely will they be offered!!
- Try and not visit major sights on the weekend or holidays - they are unpleasantly crowded.
- Never visit China during the Chinese New Year or during their Autumn holiday week. Travel is a nightmare and accommodation costs shoot up!
Access to the internet is inconsistent and frustrating. Many sites like Google, Facebook and Twitter are blocked. At times you can access Instagram and WhatsApp and at other times you can’t.
Getting a SIM card in China is not like getting one in any other country. First, there is the language barrier and then there are the “rules”. You can get a SIM but it seems very petty (or controlling?) to make it such a mission for foreigners to get one.
A basic VPN can make one’s life a little more “normal” but VPN restrictions will be intensified in 2018.
In September 2017 new rules were implemented regarding the shutting down of VPN’s and there was also clamping down on certain WeChat groups. The legislation is vague but threatening and it is apparent that the government does not want any opposition groups developing through social media, like they did in the Arab Spring.
With a repressive regime this type of response is to be expected. But it will not result in their issues going away. Look back at the South African situation. A powerful and controlling regime can not hold back inevitable social change for ever.
Another area that creates confusion is food. It's difficult to know what you could be eating when you are looking at a picture. Here it is useful to use either Google translate or a local app (like Baidu translate) to try and get some clarification.
In Pingyao the restaurant owner had another plan. She would run into the street and find a young Chinese person who knew enough English to help us with the ordering!
All said, we loved the food. The vegetables are not over cooked. The meals are freshly prepared, delicious, reasonably priced and served promptly. Although occasionally there may be a “strange” tasting vegetable or spice.
Beer is cheap and readily available. Wine is either Chinese (rice wine based, very strong and reasonably priced) or imported (taste as expected but VERY expensive).
Travelling by Train
The network of express trains is impressive and we used them for trips varying from a few hours to over 8 hours. They travel fast (up to 300 kph!) and are well organized and comfortable.
The stations in the major cities are challenging. They are not always well organized and one may have to walk the full length of the station to get a ticket just to have to walk all the way back to get to the platform where the train is leaving.
The stops en route are short and efficient and little time is wasted getting people off and on the train. Big luggage can be a hassle as some trains have limited storage space and also one is not always sure if the storage is located at the front or back of the coach.
However, like all things in China “there is always a way”.
The metro systems in China are easy to navigate and works well. In virtually every city we visited there was a brand-new metro system. All announcements are in English as well as Chinese and the moving maps are easy to follow.
Getting metro maps online in places like Hangzhou is not easy. Sometimes the maps are out of date due to the speed that new lines are built. Best option: when arriving in a city find the nearest metro station and take a photograph of the latest map.
At times the trains are quite crowded but with a squash we never had a problem of not being able to fit in - even with large luggage.
- When booking accommodation, ask for the nearest metro route as it is often quicker and more convenient than using a taxi.
China has adopted and embellished every negative, disruptive and unnecessary control and inconvenience introduced by the Department of Home Security, the CIA, the FBI and whatever other paranoiac, bureaucratic department in the US.
Security and checks abound. Ridiculous to the extent that in Xian airport we were subject to a behind door security check for a pair of nail clippers and a multi-tool that were going as checked baggage.
Suitcases and bags are sent through X-ray machines and body scans are cursorily conducted.
These security interventions are often conducted by officious and humourless agents who seem to revel in their authority.
From my visit in 1994 I had memories of disgusting toilets. Except the odd ones for the “oldy and weakly” or in the newly built hotels most were squat toilets. They stank. A pungent acrid smell. As if they had never been cleaned.
Also as I can’t squat and stay balanced … so I always face a visit with lots of angst! Since then these were my bleak memories of Chinese toilets.
Returning over twenty years later I expected a major improvement. In many places there is. But vestiges of the “old” system persist. There are still many squat toilets but usually at least one sit down version.
The smell … hasn’t changed. A nose assaulting stink!
However there are some pleasant exceptions. The condition of the public toilet in Pingyao was pleasantly surprising. As I went through a curtained door expecting the worst there was this pleasant smelling, absolutely spotless facility.
Others like the squat toilets on the bullet train are places to avoid. They are horrible!
Construction and Derelict Abandoned Buildings
It is very difficult to get used to the concept of the never-ending rows of high-rise apartment buildings. Often with more under construction.
When travelling from Shanghai to Hangzhou the horizon was filled for the full 1 1/2 hours with these buildings. The urbanisation of China is very apparent and has obviously made a major contribution to the very high GDP growth figures for the last 20 years.
Cities with names like Jiangxi, Hunan and dozens of others way out in the country are vast building sites.
Contrasting these miles and miles of apartment blocks there are many small villages that have been abandoned. Empty and desolate one after another. In many cases they look like erstwhile farming villages. One assumes that the people have been relocated, or displaced.
Is this an economic miracle or economic illusion?
Coffee and Tea
China is not a coffee drinking nation so many coffee shops price their products at a “super” Starbucks price … without providing the super quality!!
I have never paid so much for coffee. In many cases 3 cups of coffee are more expensive than a meal … even with a few beers.
Tea is an institution but like the coffee shops, tea shops deal in premium brands at premium prices. The teas vary from normal to exotic but the more exotic the more expensive. Tea House scams abound so be aware.
Beijing has a well-deserved reputation as a scam city. But many other tourist spots can also elicit unpleasant experiences.
We were scammed In Beijing and it leaves an unpleasant taste. This city is renowned for rickshaw scams, English speaking tourist guide scams and fake note scams. Just be aware … as a non-Chinese speaking foreigner you are a target!
China to Hong Kong
As you get off the train in Shenzhen there are signs. There are information kiosks and information people but it is “every man for himself”. The long walk and the not always clear directions. Added to the hassle of two immigration procedures ... in one country.
Conclusion and Thoughts
While the industrialisation and urbanisation has had a major impact I left with more questions than answers.
GDP growth cannot be sustained by infrastructure spending and fuelling consumer spending with cheap money. Also the country has incurred massive debt to get this far.
- The growth has created a picture (illusion?) of wealth and positive change but how will it be sustained?
- What is the planned end game?
- How will their social relocation experiment end?
- Is the digitisation of the countries finance through apps like AliPay and Wechat going to improve the life of the people or increase government control through social profiling?
- Will the Chinese tourism industry grow or will it shrink as it becomes more and more exclusive and expensive?
- Will China try and grow to number of foreign tourists? As this will make the country more susceptible to outside influences?
- Is there growing discontent or will China manage to morph itself into a country that balances central control and personal freedom in some utopian way?