Monday, October 18, 2010

CHINA or ME FIRST: Adjusting to the “every man, woman & child for themselves” mentality of a fascinating & challenging country

I wanted to briefly summarize my thoughts about China before continuing with my next post (on Hong Kong) and moving on to the Middle East region of the world. As mentioned throughout my five posts on China, Greg found this complex & massive country to be the most challenging yet. You can read his (very) long blog post to find out why:

Because I had previously visited Beijing in 2005, I really wanted to focus on more rural China. When Greg & I were planning our RTW trip, we each made a list of all the places we wanted to visit without any limitations. Then we went back and edited our lists based on cost, feasibility, geography, climate, etc. and combined them to make one master list which we then used to plan our itinerary. As Greg’s only specific requests for China were the Imperial Palace/Forbidden City and the Great Wall, the remainder of our time there was pretty much left to me to decide. I reached out to friends who had either lived in China, had family there, or had traveled there extensively to get some personalized recommendations on places not to miss. Of course, I also read other traveler’s blog posts and message boards for the latest info & tips.

The cities/sights that were recommended most often, excluding Beijing & the Great Wall, were Xian (Terracotta Warriors), Huangshan (Yellow Mountain scenery & hiking opportunities), Suzhou (the “Venice of the East”), Chengdu (panda reserves), Three Rivers Gorge cruise, and Guilin (limestone peaks). I personally would have loved to visit Mongolia or Tibet, but the logistics for getting to those regions and our general time limit for the trip immediately excluded those options.

We didn’t actually start planning beyond Beijing until we reached the city on 23SEP. As we had booked five nights at our Beijing hotel in order to allow extra downtime for trip research, we thought it wouldn’t be a problem. However, we had not taken into account a number of factors that made the overall planning process more challenging and time-consuming than we expected: China’s National Week holiday from 01-07OCT when the whole country was on vacation; limited internet connectivity at the hotel (the only place we could access free wifi was in the hotel’s lobby, a busy, noisy, smoky and uncomfortable area to spend more than a few minutes much less several hours a day); restricted internet access (all social networks & many travel blogs were blocked as well as our pre-trip research which was stored online on Google Docs); and lack of English-speaking staff who could help us purchase train tickets or were far more interested in selling us packaged tours.

The holiday threw the first curveball as we tried to purchase our overnight train tickets from Beijing to Shanghai and quickly found out that all trains, day or night, were booked for the next 3-4 days. Of course, we could have gone directly to Xian, but based on some of the blogs I read, while the warriors are impressive, the whole experience of seeing them from above versus walking amongst them is a bit anticlimactic. I’m sure it still would have been “worth it” but it wasn’t a top priority for me anyway. So we ended up flying to Shanghai.

The bottom line is that as I looked into the practicalities for getting to & from each place on my list, it quickly became apparent that some places would be far more challenging than others. If I had been traveling by myself, I probably would have gone anyway, but when you are traveling as a pair, you always have to consider the other person’s well-being.

We ultimately balanced our time in China with a mix of big cities, smaller cities with notable scenery, and a few more rural areas. While it was definitely more expensive to sleep in Shanghai versus Guilin, for example, we ended up spending more money on sightseeing when we were “out in the country“. Still, our overall costs were minimal compared to everywhere else we’ve traveled so far. As always, we could have traveled even more cheaply by opting for hard instead of soft sleepers on the overnight trains, sleeping in dorms at the hostels instead of private rooms, and eating fast food instead of sit down meals most evenings. But the trade offs in peace of mind and possibly even overall health for a few dollars here & there are just not worth it for us.

We got lucky with the weather being not too hot and not rainy, but it was extremely hazy pretty much the entire 3 weeks we were in the country which made the sights seem a bit more "dull" in color & contrast. Other than Greg's case of athlete's foot getting worse and both of us having allergy issues in Yangshuo, we did not experience any major health problems despite not shying away from most foods (although I don't recall eating true "street food" at any point).

I am really glad we visited the places in China that we did manage to get to. It is not an easy country to love, but still warrants further exploration. For the budget traveler (ie, backpacker) who is accustomed to dealing with the day-to-day challenges of traveling in many parts of the world, there is no reason not to come (unless you have issues with the Communist government). For the less exposed, it is definitely not one of the first places I'd recommend to broaden your horizons. No matter what your budget, China has something to offer everyone and almost never fails to surprise, for better or worse!

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