One of the reasons I think people travel, is to get out of their comfort zone. There is no place better to do this than China.
I’ve been to China on numerous occasions, and it has never failed to show me something new and exotic. It certainly was a lesson in our travel evolution. Very much like the U.S., China is so big that you cannot really get a sense of it unless you travel further than just Beijing. Like in most capital cities, Beijing is crowded, busy, and used to seeing foreigners. There is plenty to see and do there, but getting out and meeting the people will make all the difference in a trip.
First Impressions of China
The first time I went to China, I went with my two teenage daughters, and really had to do some travel soul-searching beforehand trying to determine whether or not I should take a tour to this scary communist country. Three females traveling alone, without much of an itinerary, playing it by feel, or taking the easy route and have someone else do all of my planning; I argued both sides for a couple of days before realizing that stopping longer at the cloisonne factory than at the Temple of Sun would just about kill me. We delved into the unknown once again and booked our tickets. We stayed in Beijing for a week, then onto Xian for four days. We liked it so much that we’ve been back a number of times to other parts of the country, but there is still so much more to see.
We wouldn’t be the tourists we are unless we visited as many tourist sights as we could in the time allotted, and for the most part China does not dissappoint. The temples are ornately decorated, well-attended, and serene. The museums exhibits are large, interesting, and usually have English placards. The Great Wall is, well, great! We didn’t go to the busier site, Badaling, but instead to Mutianyu. You can definitley get a feeling of the length and impact a wall like this would have on an enemy. Hiking the wall will keep you in good shape as well. The shopping is a blast. There are plenty of opportunities to make a good deal. Buying pearls, shoes, knock-offs, food, just about anything is a way to hone our bartering skills. I think we did pretty good, too. So, as a tourist destination, it’s a must.
Other Thoughts on China
Taxi drivers can be a challenge in just about any country, more so before they started putting GPS systems in cabs, but no taxi drivers can compare with those in China. We had one who refused to take us where we were going. We had numerous ones that just like the Amazing Race were empty, but didn’t stop to pick us up. We had some that took us only so far towards our destination, then kicked us out. And we had many that not only didn’t understand our English (this I can forgive), but could not make heads or tails out of the tourist maps with pictures of the sights that we wanted to see. I’m not kidding.
We would pull out our trusty map, point to something like the Summer Palace, and the taxi driver would suck in his teeth and rock his head back and forth making a huge show out of how hard it was to understand us. We also had many, whether they spoke English or not, laugh with us and try to do as much as they could to help us out.
You often hear about the excruciating foot massage. I’ve had a few; in fact, I search them out as often as I can. I love them! One time, we were ushered into a room and given green tea and cherry tomatoes to snack on while a Chinese rendition of Beauty and the Beast was on TV. The attendants came in as a well-trained army to take us on.
At one point, after much conferring and intakes of raspy breaths, I was informed of the “bad things” on my feet. Would I like them to use a (very scary, handmade, Neanderthal-looking) knife to fix it? Um, no. They pleaded, and swore it wouldn’t hurt. I buckled. It didn’t (hurt) and my feet were much more soft and supple than they had been for years.
Another time, after our foot massage, we were laid down on a massage table and for the feng shui of it, got to watch our very own goldfish swimming under the table and they during that one, they beat us to a pulp. Oh, how I love it!
People as Numbers, Not Names
While traveling, we try to be as friendly and open to people as we can, especially to wait staff or hotel staff, people that we easily come in contact with. At one cafe, we were enjoying a cup of coffee and started talking to the waitress. We tried to read her “name” tag, but could not figure it out. It only had a number 18 on it. We asked her what it was and she said that all workers went by numbers, not names. We started looking around and found that everyone was “tagged” with a number.
Chinese cuisine is touted to be one of the best in the world. There are all types of regional dishes as well as a long list of food items that I would never have thought to include in my kitchen repertoire. We tried many new things, but the food we enjoyed the most was Peking Duck. All over the city, there are restaurants and hotels that specialize in it. It was an amazing experience, watching the cook cut and prepare the bird at our table, then show us how to eat it. Delicious!
Here I have to mention that western and eastern cultures may differ in things we eat. We did a podcast with Jennifer Lloyd on volunteering to save dogs from the Chinese meat trade. If you are interested, please check it out: Travel to Volunteer with Animals
The Love of Red Bean Paste
After living in Japan, we were well-versed on red bean paste as a sweet. I’ve never really been a fan, but I don’t have an aversion to it either. One of our best experiences was in Xian where, after having run out of tourist sights, we girls decided to get pedicures. In the beauty shop we met two college professors and their daughters. Only one of them spoke English, but we spent the next few hours having a great time discussing children, education and the differences in our two systems.
At one point the non-English speaker ran out of the shop and came back about five minutes later proudly offering us red bean popsicles. She had gone to so much trouble! Yes, we ate them, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them. I like my popsicles to be something like orange or lime.
Pollution can be a huge problem in many parts of China, and it has gotten worse and worse. Over the five year span that I had been visiting China, I was also living in Korea for most of that time. Both places have a very big pollution problem. Call it “yellow dust” or “Gobi dust” or whatever; it is pollution. On most days, you cannot see any color in the sky, and some days it is a disgusting yellow turning to brown. It just can’t be healthy. I have also seen numerous television broadcasts and newspaper articles about the pollution. I think they know they have to do something, but is it too late? I really hope they can get this fixed…and in the not-too-distant future.
Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.