China is a fascinating country with such a rich history. I don’t think a human could go through life and not have any influence from China. When I first visited I really didn’t know what to expect and I heard stories but nothing really prepared me for what I encountered. It’s crowded and full of centuries of old Chinese building. And another tiny thing is… China is massive! You will never get to experience all of it’s great landscapes and people in one visit. China for me is full of hypocrisy and which is kind of a shame. Don’t believe for one second that China is a full communist state… there is capitalism everywhere. If you look different from the people you will be stared out and ask questions (that never gets old). And for a while you might even feel like you’re always being watched by the government. But like most places I’ve traveled to, China surprised me. People, especially in Beijing, are fashion forward… usually nice (although I found Chinese to be pushy and somewhat vocal) and the landscapes of China are like nothing you’ve ever seen in this world.
(click on a topic to skip to that section)
Getting to/around China
Breakdown of Costs
Definitely Do’s and Don’ts
From Splurging to Saving
Good for Gay Lifestyle?
Noteworthy Places I’ve Been To
Beijing – Undoubtedly the capital of China, you definitely feel that this is the center of China for all Chinese. Beijing is modern, the people are fashionable, and the city is huge. One of the best things you could do here is visit the Forbidden City… an imperial fortress with roots as far back as 1400’s (it’s quite impressive). Not to far off to the north lies the Great Wall… one of mans best creations and a must visit if you’re visiting the area. The city is dotted with monuments like the Summer Palace, Beihai Palace, Temple of Heaven as well as modern structures like the Olympic Stadium and the National Grand Theater.
Pingyao – One of China’s gems located southwest of Beijing. Pingyao is one of the best preserved wall cities in the world and dates back 2700 years ago. Really I would spend around 2 days here as there isn’t much to do but tour the city itself. One of the most fascinating things are of course the history of the city but also the contrast of the city from the outside. It’s modern on the outside and once you go inside the fortress… you feel like you’re stepping back in time. Most Westerners don’t travel here which is strange as well. Stay in a traditional Chinese hotel!!!
Taiyuan – Taiyan isn’t really known for much and honestly I didn’t see this city. It’s a modern city and you can get from Taiyuan to Beijing on a bullet train! (Taiyuan is kind of the gateway to Pingyao).
Getting to/around China
By Plane – More than likely you will be flying to China. China is very easy to get to with major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Taiyuan, and Chengdu. Most major airlines fly to China like… American Airlines, Air Canada, Air China, Air France, JAL, Austrian, China Airlines, Cathay Pacific, China Eastern, China Southern, Finnair, KLM, Korean, Swiss Airlines, etc… It can be pricey in the summer months and if you’re paying with your own money… expect to pay around 1,000 to 1,5000 dollars for a round trip flight. (remember you need a visa if you’re an American to visit China).
By Bus – Bus is possible to do from 14 countries surrounding China. If you’re an adventurous type of person and would like to take the bus… the option is there but remember the trek will be long and some times dangerous. The most common crossing is from Vietnam.
By Train – Trains are reached from Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railways between Moscow and Beijing. the Trans-Mongolian runs through Ulaanbaatar. If you’re coming from Kazakhstan you will have to endure long waits for the train to switch it’s wheelbase as well check over all documents. You can also come from Hong Kong, Vietnam via the Friendship Pass and North Korea… (although if you’re an American traveling in North Korea… you will not be coming on a train from North Korea).
Getting around China is actually not as bad as it seems. The main problems are the trains because most of the population rely on the trains to get home during holidays, etc… So if you’re traveling to/in China on Chinese New Year… trains tickets are very difficult to get. Everywhere I went train stations where always packed and crowded. Another problem is that you can only book your tickets 10 days in advanced. So sometimes it’s better to show up and just buy your tickets at the train station. Of course the option to fly to other destinations but that will be a lot more money than just taking a train. Then again China is huge so if you’re trekking the entire country you might want to consider domestic flights. One of the highlights while I was in China was when I rode a bullet train from Taiyuan to Beijing. Bullet trains are becoming more common and it’s possible to cover vast distances in a short time. (A good thing to note is that there are different types of Classes on trains; Soft Sleeper, Hard Sleeper, Soft Seat, Hard Seat… Soft Sleeper is the most expensive but even by western standards its not that expensive… I would consider this for long treks…) Some major cities will have subways like Beijing and Shanghai. Buses are a great option if you know what you are doing when you’re buying a ticket at a Bus Station (that can be very confusing). I took a bus from Taiyuan to Pingyao but had to get someone to translate and buy the ticket for me. Anyway you travel you will probably be alright… just do a little research on the destinations you would like to travel to and what are the options to get there. (sites like wiki-travel or just Google). The reason this part is so long is there are many ways to get to any destination in China and China can sometimes be a very confusing country… especially at places like train and bus stations. Stay calm and ask for help if confused!
Breakdown of Costs
Hotels – I payed quite a range while staying in China. For a hotel in Pingyao it was very cheap and cozy, only around 20 US dollars. But that is because Pingyao is relatively unknown. In Beijing I stayed at the Park Plaza Beijing West and it was an amazing hotel. I used some Radisson points to stay there for 4 nights. Currently the rate is as low as 100 US dollars a night. In major cities like Beijing and Shanghai expect to pay a little less than you would pay in the west and for great value. China is modernizing quickly and so more and more western style hotels are going up (as well as the price). For the amount you will be paying you can actually get a really nice hotel. (The Park Plaza Beijing West was a 4 star and the rates are pretty good… only thing was it was a little further from the city center… but it was close to a red line to commute in the city). Rule of thumb is you’re going to pay more in the big cities… almost as much as the west… while in lesser known cities or in the country… considerably less.
Food – Food is relatively cheap in mainland China, maybe Hong Kong is the only place where prices could be about the same but then I heard there are street vendors there (and sell cheap food). Ordering food is very difficult in China… Most Chinese do not speak English but luckily, in touristy places, they usually have pictures of the food (so you just point). Ask for one of these menus and hopefully you can pick right… I found that, in cities like Pingyao, the prices are high and that they never tell you the price up front. Make sure you get a menu with prices to know what you are paying upfront… I got up charged a lot and I had feeling that it was because I didn’t speak Chinese or see the price on the menu. Make sure to try whatever the region is known for…
Other Activities – China, outside of the major cities, is relatively cheap country to travel in. Of course watch out for touristy destinations because they will charge you way way more (like Pingyao had ridiculously overpriced food… walked outside the city walls to eat). But even Beijing there are plenty of options for good hearty meals that will not cost you very much. (Go to places like Hutongs in Beijing to get authentic Chinese food that won’t cost you too much). It would not be advisable to not eat anything made off the streets (sometimes this will make you very sick)… but if you’re interested, China is known for selling crazy food items. As a whole, tickets to do things are never really that expensive compared to the west and this will probably not be a major cost. Souvenirs are usually pretty low in price as well… Souvenirs that are authentic like tea pots, etc… will cost you western prices. Do not fall into the scams of taxis (all official taxi’s start with 京B). Other scams that exist are tea ceremony scams, buying jade, or buying authentic porcelain… don’t buy these things off the streets and if they are relatively low prices… it’s a scam. Don’t be paranoid all the time and use your reasoning in a situation… if it seems fishy… it probably is. Bargaining for things are a Chinese staple!! Be prepared to bargain your life away for all goods… if you’re not a good bargainer… they will take advantage of you.
To westerners Chinese people will seem worlds apart. Their customs are vastly different from the west and sometimes you will feel so out of place. China has 56 different cultures which is not very surprising since it’s such a big country (Han Chinese make up most of the population). Here is what common in China: Spitting, Smoking, Saying “hello” in broken English, Staring, Pushing and Shoving (this happened at the train stations and bus stations… pretty much anywhere you wanted to buy a ticket), loud conversations, and a “do whatever I want” attitude. Most Americans will be shocked by all the above but remember it’s culture and nothing against you! Now most Chinese are helpful but remember that some are looking for money from you. Be wise and don’t get yourself into a situation that will be hard to get out of.
Mandarin is the main language of China and Cantonese follows behind (spoken in Hong Kong). Chinese is tough… and the language barrier is very hard. I didn’t really speak any Chinese or learn any Chinese before I left and I wish I had. You will be pointing a lot and trying to figure out why someone is yelling at you (this happen to me on a bus to the Great Wall). You will be confused most of the time you’re there. But that’s okay… this is part of China and part of the journey.
Definitely Do’s and Don’ts
Do understand that the Chinese people are vastly different from you. If you go to China expecting westernized people… You will definitely not find it.
Don’t get scammed. This is so important… Make sure you are not overpaying for anything. If a vendor is selling jade or what appears to be authentic porcelain… and you notice the price to be really cheap… walk away it’s a scam… then again if they are selling for a high price doesn’t mean it’s real as well. What sucks is that sometimes you will never know if you were scammed or not but things like jade and porcelain or incredibly expensive… no street vendor will probably have something so valuable.
Do try the food… Sometimes you will have no idea what you are trying but it’s part of the venture. China is a culinary dream and has so many regional foods. And Chinese food is better in China.
Don’t drink the water… seriously… you might get sick as what happened to me. I’m not sure why I was sick during the trip but it’s possible I had some of the water in the fruit, etc….
Do get a visa!! If you’re American you need a visa… and that shit is expensive…
Don’t be surprised if you meet a squat toilet while in China… this the old way of going to the bathroom.
Do expect to be stared at if you’re tall and American looking… this just part of being and China and yes it does get old but sometimes you feel like a celebrity lol.
From Splurging to Saving
China’s cost are rising because of the emerging middle class. But in general everything will be less than it will be in the States or Europe. Of course if you’re going to the major cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong don’t be surprised to see girls wearing Chanel, Gucci, Prada, etc… and see the men all dressed up. There is always something expensive to buy. Hotels will cost you more and food will cost you more although expect the prices to be a little less than western cities in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai (Shanghai I heard has some of the highest prices).
Other than that it is really easy to have a budget in China… that is if you can afford the visa and ticket to get to China (seriously it is expensive at around 150 dollars for a visa). Food is relatively cheap everywhere you go and so are most accommodations. You can find a decent hotel for under 100 dollars a night easily. Travel is relatively cheap and the most you are going to pay are for flights. That can be pricey depending on when you go so be aware.
Good for Gay Lifestyle?
Although China has had homosexuality for centuries… China is not what I would classically consider a gay friendly country. Since 1840 with western influences (way to go guys), China considered homosexuality actually normal (homosexuality was perfectly accepted back in ancient China). China has officially removed homosexuality off their list of mental illnesses. Be aware that attitudes are still changing and the government still guards gay lifestyle from the public.
In Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong you will find the majority of gay activity and most if not all the gay bars. Ever since the 2008 Olympics attitudes are shifting but it’s still probably practical to not flaunt homosexuality in public. China is not a gay destination by any means and there is more to do here than visit the gay bars.
Be careful about what you’re eating… Most of the time I pointed to things that looked desirable on the menu and went with it.
I think it’s a good idea to bring cash and a credit card. Use your credit card for things like the hotel and cash for food, etc…
Please don’t bring anything that says Tibet or Free Tibet. That is just asking for trouble.
Maybe learn a little Mandarin or Cantonese before you visit!
Always barter! That is just how things are done in China!
Take a bullet train.. that was kind of fun!
images by: Peter, shawnvoyage