Oh, China. We were so excited for you. When making a rough itinerary for the trip, we even nixed Myanmar so that we could visit you. We figured that, if we’d already be so close to you while in Hanoi, we might as well take the flight up. Little did we know how challenging travel through China can be!
Before I even left the U.S., China was kind of already a pain. The plane tickets from Hanoi to Beijing weren’t as cheap as I would have preferred, and the visa process was tedious and expensive. I won’t get into the visa process here (read this post to learn how to apply for one) but just know that American citizens get a ten year multiple entry visa, meaning that I can come and go into China as I please until 2025.
Even with the expenses and the annoyances of getting the visa and flight, I was still SO excited to visit the country. Visions of powerful emperors and elaborate palaces danced in my head. I was certain that I would tear up while walking along the Great Wall. I was prepared to want to eat everything in sight. China is the first country I’ve been to that was truly difficult to travel through. Now I can look back and see what an adventure it was!
The night before our flight, Paige was so excited she literally could not sleep. I came back late from a Tinder date, so I was able to easily fall asleep before our 5:30 AM wake up call. At the airport, we were like two kids on Christmas Eve. When the flight attendant announced it was time for our zone to board, we ran down the ramp to the gate.
Our issues in China began shortly after we landed in Beijing. We learned pretty quickly that no one speaks English, not even people in the service industries (this is an exaggeration, but not by much). When our taxi driver learned that our Couchsurfing host’s apartment was close to the airport and that he wouldn’t be making much money with this fare, he started screaming at us in Mandarin and driving very erratically and aggressively. I ripped out a piece of paper from the dashboard that I had thought was the receipt and he had such a look of pure anger on his face that I thought for a second he might hit me. Fortunately, our Couchsurfing host was the complete opposite of the driver! He was super sweet and helpful, assisting us with everything from booking train tickets to finding an ATM in his neighborhood.
To show our appreciation for his kindness and hospitality, we decided to cook him a meal. And when I say “we”, I mean Paige, because yours truly can barely fry an egg. She made the backpacker’s alternative to a traditional English roast dinner. The meal came out exceptionally well, considering we didn’t have an oven. Our host did not know what an oven was, so I’m assuming they don’t really exist there, which makes sense as most Chinese cuisine is prepared on the stove top.
It was in Beijing that we first experienced people wanting to take our pictures. Now, Chinese people, perhaps with the exception of those in Shanghai, see very, very few foreigners, so I completely understand their curiosity at my brown and Paige’s white skin. I was perfectly happy to smile for a picture when someone would tap me on the shoulder and point to their phone or try some equally pleasant gesture to convey what they wanted.
What I didn’t like was when people would shove their phones in my face, or point and laugh at me like I was some sort of circus freak. It was the “funniest” when people would try to hide the fact that they were clearly taking my picture. It was frustrating and sometimes lead to bursting into tears on already challenging travel days, but I understand the curiosity behind their actions.
One afternoon, Paige and I were sitting in a park near Tiananmen Square eating Oreos (comfort food was necessary by this point) when we first saw that the young children don’t wear diapers. Instead, they have a slit in the front and the back of their pants. The children also go to the bathroom on the street. Their parents hold them above a grate on the sidewalk and let them do their business. Paige was walking home barefoot one day and almost stepped in human feces, which, in my opinion, would have been ten times worse than stepping in animal feces.
Obviously, we’d be remiss to visit Beijing and not hit up the Great Wall! It was as impressive as I thought it would be, but I would recommend skipping Badaling section of the Wall in favor of a less touristed section. There were just way, way too many people here and it can impact the experience.
We were told that we’d have an easier time communicating with the locals in Xian because it was a university town with more English speakers. That wasn’t the case. In fact, I’d say that Xian was the hardest city to travel in in China for us. Xian as a city, to me, left a lot to be desired: it was dull, gray, industrial, and, well, Communist looking. We did meet a couple locals there who could speak English, and they all said that they did not like the city and were looking to move away.
One of the things about China that gave me the most culture shock was the constant hacking and spitting by the people around me. Spitting is considered a pretty rude act in the West, so this was hard to get used to. Plus, the constant hacking noise made me feel like I was on the pulmonary (lung) floor at the hospital. The most WTF moment I had throughout the entire trip happened in Xian. We were at the ticket counter in the train station, almost in tears, attempting to buy tickets to Shanghai when an elderly woman came up to up and told us through gesturing that she wanted us to give her money. When we said no, she literally spat at our feet.
Coming up in part two: More of Xian, the Terracotta Army, Shanghai, train travel, and being held in the Shanghai airport for over 20 hours
Were you as culturally shocked in mainland China as I was?