Joined: 19-September 10
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Thank you for the great information. I am planning to travel to Beijing and Lhasa next Spring and have a couple of questions.
From the research I have done so far, it seems that a permit into Tibet can be a little tricky. Is that the case, and if so, can you recommend the best way to go about it?
I am looking at tour groups to book a trip through with a guide and was wondering if there were any you could recommend or that I should avoid.
Thanks for your time and any information you can provide is appreciated.
When it comes to China, I don’t even know where to begin. Basically I love this country! I was born in the U.S. of European decent, but have lived in China for almost five years. I came to China on a tour and just couldn’t leave. I have not been back to the States since I arrived here, and probably never will. I am a travelholic and have traveled extensively throughout China. I have visited all of the major sites, as well as many small places rarely visited by Westerners. My favorite places are the little out of the way places that nobody but the locals seem to know about. When I travel I usually try to get lost. I always find time to just wander around. I find that whenever I don’t know where I am, I discover something amazing that I wouldn’t have otherwise known existed.
When you come to China you will experience culture shock. There is no way around it. Culture Shock can be as trivial as Chinese toilets, or is such a huge problem that your entire tour is a horrid experience. I have seen two divorces and one heart attack brought on by culture shock. There is only one way to fight culture shock and it works incredibly well, and that is research. Read a book, read blogs, and feel free to send me questions. I’ve experienced it all and am more than happy to help. The most important thing to remember about China is that it is not a Western country. They do not do things the same as you may be used to. That doesn’t mean it is wrong, it just means it is different. Many times I hear visitors griping about how they do things in China. China is an ancient country and everything that they do has a history behind it. They’re not about to change, so don’t try to “educate” them on how to do it. Try to look at it as part of the adventure. If everything in China was the same as your home, why come to China.
The language barrier will definitely be an inconvenience, but it is not impossible to communicate. Every hotel has someone that can speak English and most of the larger restaurants have English menus. Shopping is pretty easy to because body gestures go an amazingly long way and shop clerks are able to write prices on paper or on a calculator. I once bought a shower head, pipe fittings, electrical tape, and a wrench using nothing but body gestures. It can be done. If you have a tour guide, you will have little problems because they can translate for you. Every salesperson wants to sell their items. They will be patient and understanding and will work with you. If you want to buy a bus or train ticket, it can be tricky. If you can get someone to write the name of the destination you want to go on a piece of paper, you can just hand it to the person at the window and they will take care of it for you. Some of the larger stations have English windows for foreigners. If you don’t have anyone to write the information down for you, just step into a hotel and ask the desk worker to do it for you. They will undoubtedly speak English and will assume you are a guest, so they will help you. It is important to write the name of the destination, the time you want to go, the type of seat or bed you wish to have, and also have them right that if they cannot give you exactly what you want to give you the closest thing. It will keep them from having to talk to you and ask you questions in Chinese that you cannot understand. For example if you want a soft sleeper and only hard sleepers are available, they will give you that without having to discuss it with you.
Getting around China:
Once in China, getting around is extremely easy, and at the same time mind numbingly difficult. If you know where you want to go and have a knowledgeable source, getting around couldn’t be easier. If you don’t, well you never know where you might end up. Ask five locals for directions and you’ll probably get five different answers. A good idea is to buy a map when you arrive at the destination and you can take it to the front desk of a hotel, even a hotel you are not staying at and ask directions. They can point it out on the map for you. It is difficult sometimes to find a knowledgeable person. Fortunately for you, I just might be that knowledgeable source. I have friends throughout China and if I don’t know how to get somewhere I will undoubtedly know someone who does. Send me a post and I’ll do my best to help out. Of course if you are on a tour, you won’t have any problems. Your guide will escort you through every step of the way, so don’t let me scare you.
What to pack:
When taking a trip to China it is very important to consider what to bring, especially with the new luggage rules recently established. A good rule to follow is, if you don’t absolutely need it, leave it. Of course there are many items which you must bring to China to make your trip a more enjoyable one. One of the most essential items for a trip anywhere, is a good camera and the necessary accessories. Cameras and camera equipment can be purchased in China, but it is generally more expensive than in the west. Film and batteries are inexpensive, but it is important to pick brand names you recognize to ensure quality. Items such as toiletries, towels, umbrellas and raincoats, bags, batteries, and film can be purchased in China normally very near to your hotel, and at much cheaper prices than you would buy them for at home. The same name brand items you can find at home can be found in China, so why add the extra weight to your luggage by bringing them. You’ll probably need that space for souvenirs. If you are from a country that uses 110v in your home remember that China uses 220v and quite a few items might blow up if you try to use them, so a good converter is essential. Buy a good one. The cheap ones usually don’t last for more than a few days before burning out and have been known to burst into flame on occasion. Carefully considering what clothing to bring to China is essential. The weather in China varies greatly in different parts of the country. Do a bit of research ahead of time on the weather of the destinations you will visit before choosing what clothing to bring. Sites like Huangshan might be very hot at the base, but quite chilly on the top. Most Chinese people wear modest clothing. Don’t bring anything too daring to wear or you will probably attract quite a bit of unwanted attention, especially outside of the major cities. It is imperative that you bring a good and comfortable pair of shoes. You will be doing a great deal of walking and hiking and without comfortable shoes, your trip will not be nearly as enjoyable as it could be. Sunscreen is another item that is very important to bring. It is sometimes difficult to find in China. It is important to plan your clothing well to get the most out of your tour.
Foreign currency is generally not accepted in China. There are some hotels who might accept it, but even that is uncommon. The best way to exchange money is either at the airport, although the exchange rates are not as good, or in your hotel. You can exchange money in one of China’s banks, or at a money exchange. The rates are better, but the bank usually takes a long time and sometimes the money exchanges try to pass off counterfeit money. China works off the Renminbi (RMB), which is also called “Yuan”, or “Kuai”. There are ten jiao in one RMB, also called “Mao”. There are ten fen in one jiao, although fen is no longer used. The currency comes in paper bills, or coins. There are paper bills in 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 1, .50, .20, .10, .05, .02, .01. There are coins in 1, .5, .1, .05, .02, .01. All of the currency has roman numerals on them so it is pretty easy to figure them out. The current currency used is the fifth series, but occasionally the fourth series currency can be found. The fifth series currency has Chairman Mao on each bill and the fourth series currency has ethnic minorities on the bills. The fourth series is usually not accepted at smaller restaurants and shops and it is best to request the new money. Most places who have the older currency will try to pass it off on the tourists so they don’t have to take it to the bank to exchange it for newer money.
When shopping in China, remember bargaining is the name of the game. The actual price is rarely, if ever given. You are expected to bargain, it is normal business practice. Restaurants, large shops and supermarkets will not bargain however. The best way I have found to bargain is to decide what an object is worth to me. I will then offer much less than that and work my way up to it. Try to read the seller. I can usually tell when I have reached their lowest price. A good rule of thumb is to assume that they will take half of what they ask for an item. If they say 100rmb, they’ll probably take 50rmb or somewhere around there. If they won’t go down, keep trying. If that still doesn’t work, try walking out of the store. They’ll probably call you back in and agree with the price. If that doesn't work, don't fret because you can probably find the same item, or a similar one in a shop down the street. The best advice I can give about shopping in China is buy a lot of stuff. I don’t know how many times I have heard “gosh, I wish I bought more stuff”. Items are very cheap here and you’ll undoubtedly wish you bought more.
The best time to visit:
That is sort of a tricky question. People always say visit in the spring and fall because the weather is nicer, which is true, but since everybody is told that, everybody travels at that time and every site is packed. I find that traveling just before spring, or just after fall is the best time. Granted it might be a bit chillier, but there will be a whole lot less people at each site you visit. Every season has its benefits though. Visiting the Great Wall covered with a thick blanket of snow is breathtaking. Cold, but breathtaking. Of course visiting Tibet in the winter or the south in the middle of summer is generally not a good idea. The weather is just too severe.
Oh, the food! The food in China is amazing! Every area has its own unique dishes which for the most part cannot be purchased anywhere else. There are a lot of things eaten in China which most foreign visitors will not find particularly appealing, but if it didn’t taste good, the Chinese wouldn’t eat it. Be courageous and try things. You might be amazed at what you like. When I first came to China I tried dog hotpot. I just wanted to be able to say I had eaten dog. I had no intention of ever eating it again. I just wanted to have a little bit. I absolutely became addicted to it. I eat it whenever I get the chance, which fortunately is quite often, because the county near where I live is famous for it. China has so many wonderful vegetables that we do not eat in the west and that I find I cannot live without. Things like zucchini vines and mustard greens have become a normal part of my diet. A word of caution…. Make sure where you are eating is clean. It will not be as clean as what you find in the west, but eat carefully. Remember, only drink bottled water and stay away from ice cubes. Another bit of advice is to bring anti-diarrhea medicine with you. It can make a very unpleasant experience much more bearable.
Just remember to be smart. A trip to China is a life changing experience. Even with all of its problems, it is an amazing country filled with unbelievable things and fantastic people. Come to China with an open mind, and a lot of film. You’ll never forget it.
Please feel free to ask me any questions. I love this country and am happy to discuss it with others.