Overall, a lot of the things people had told me about China were untrue and made me unnecessarily nervous before my visit so this blog post is to help set the record straight, speaking from my two weeks experience of Beijing and Shanghai.
1. Its not as bad as you've heard
Before I came to China I heard three things from people that chilled me to the bone: that people spit everywhere, it’s overcrowded and the pollution is terrible.
Expecting the floor to be a sea of saliva and paranoid someone would hack up onto my sandaled foot, I was pleasantly surprised to only see/hear about 5 people spit during my whole two weeks, and only ever outdoors.
I hate crowds so the thought of being sardined in with a lot of people was one of my main anxieties before coming to China. Imagine my surprise to find Beijing and Shanghai less crowded than London. Yes, Chinese people on the subway do push unnecessarily, and no they don’t let passengers off the train first, and yes they do stand on the right of the escalator. But the carriages are not as crowded as the Tube plus they have air conditioning!
As for the pollution, not once did I experience the black-bogies phenomenon I get after a day out in central London. The view of Shanghai was pretty misty but Beijing was fine, although to be fair we were told that only half the usual amount of cars were allowed to circulate the city at that time due an upcoming military event. Which brings me onto another myth: that everyone smokes. As someone who hacks up blood if I've been exposed to smoke for too long, I was pleased to see only the occasional smoker in China.
2. You will get bitten
No, I'm not talking about the scams that seem to terrify most Tripadvisor reviewers (the basic advice is don't trust strangers) - I'm talking about mosquitoes. I got bitten 5 times on my legs over the two weeks in both cities, one bite escalated to enormous. Apparently, eating Marmite helps repel insects from your skin so I might try this out next time!
3. Plan your journeys beforehand
You should research and print out detailed maps and directions for places you want to visit as there is no Google in China and street signage is poor. The Chinese search engine is Baidu.com which I personally found to be a quite unhelpful when searching in English (baiduinenglish.com wouldn't load for me). Tourist maps are not very detailed and so you can get lost easily as there are numerous smaller roads unmarked. Tripadvisor.com maps are based on Google so these will not load for you if you use it in China.
Also brace yourself for no Twitter, Facebook or email for the duration of your stay! On the plus side, Whatsapp is still good to go.
4. There is a big police presence
Perhaps the illusion of crowds in China is due to the fact everyone is subjected to a bag scan every time they go into the subway or enter certain areas such as Tiananmen Square. Everywhere we turned there seem to be Army, Police and Security personnel. Add that to the all the volunteers wearing red armbands and you get the feeling that everyone works for the government! But I suppose that’s what you get with Communism. The benefit for tourists is that you feel quite safe in most places.
Despite the authoritarian undercurrent, to me the people seemed happy in Beijing: old people dancing in the park, mums going for walks with their child and not many Western faces to be seen.
5. Know your cost of living
I didn’t know how much things would cost in China and made some assumptions based on some American’s bloggers costings – which in hindsight was stupid as their idea of spending $20 per meal is ridiculous. 1 Chinese Yuan = 10p and things are pretty cheap in China. Icecream 10 yuan, water 1.5 Tesco Value, cheap restaurant noodles 20 yuan, main dish 60-80 yuan in a mid-tier restaurant, subway one journey 3 yuan, transport/tour to Great Wall (Mutianyu part) with no lunch 290 yuan, entrance to tourist attractions 20-40 yuan.
Remember to change your money in England before you go to China or at least inform your bank so your card doesn’t get blocked like mine did! Knowing how much you are going to spend will minimize the amount of money you have to withdraw from ATMs while abroad so could save you money in the long run. Remember most companies won’t exchange your Chinese coins back to pounds so try to use these up on the subway before you leave; note subway machines don’t take 1 yuan notes so you might end up with a bunch of those too.
When bargaining in the market, it is true what the blogosphere says about starting your offer at about an eighth of the stated price. I was too embarrassed to haggle that much so I usually got about a third knocked off. The dance goes like this: you say a price, they lower it a bit, you say a more reasonable price, they say no, you walk away and they run after you and say yes.
I hope this post has helped prepare you and alleviate some uncertainties. One thing people were right about is that English is not widely spoken. Other than the staff at our four star hotel in Beijing and tourist attraction ticket offices, we struggled to make ourselves understood any further than pointing at menus, so I'd advise you carry around a translation book. Happy holidays!
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