China: Journey to a whole new world

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A hot air balloon drifts over China’s mountains. (Photo by Martine McKenzie)

From glitzy cities to fields still plowed with water buffalo, China has a lot to offer.

By Martine McKenzie

China: a land of loogies, tainted milk and “poisoned” gyoza, rapid development, crowded streets and pollution…the list goes on and on. Everyone has stereotypes about China, but it is best to experience this special place firsthand. With all of the changes taking place, China is an exciting place to visit. Whether you are in search of some of the most modern cities in the world or years of history, China has it all!

From the time you first arrive in China, you will notice how incredibly kind the Chinese people are. On the ferry ride to China, I met a nice Chinese family who helped me buy my first train ticket in China, exchange money and find a hotel room before they began their six-hour drive home. They continued to e-mail me for the remainder of my trip to make sure I was enjoying their country. Hands-down some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met!

Going through customs can be a little intimidating. I never imagined that my suitcase would be searched for “inappropriate” books, as well as the usual drugs or dangerous items. The custom’s official tore the maps out of two of my books, including my Lonely Planet guide, because the maps illustrated Taiwan as a separate country!

One of the pluses about traveling in China is that you can do so very cheaply. Most of my favorite meals were served by street vendors or small hole-in-the-wall restaurants. If you love seafood, Qingdao is full of delicious, mom-and-pop seafood restaurants. The fish, clams, crabs, and other live seafood sit in buckets in front of the restaurants, and you just point and choose what you want. Not to mention the extremely cheap Qingdao beer brewed right in the city. Also, a popular street vendor food in China consists of a thin egg pancake wrapped around chopped spring onions, fried wontons, and sometimes a sausage. Simple, cheap, and savory!

China is extremely easy to get around without purchasing expensive tours. However, you might find yourself wanting to do a tour at some of the more historical sites or just to take a break from planning. Beware of “tours.” Make sure you have the opportunity to speak with your tour guide prior to signing up, as many of the recruiters for tours have much better English than their actual guides. I hired a tour guide at the Terracotta Warriors in Shaanxi Province, and we were stuck with a three-hour tour that included about 10 minutes of actual information. Our tour guide began every sentence with “Beautiful Madam and Clever Gentleman” and had to write down many words in English because he had forgotten their pronunciation. Nice guy, terrible tour! Many tours will also take you to places that were not on the itinerary or try to charge you hidden fees. Buyers beware…

Don’t be afraid to branch out from the major cities that fall on everyone’s itinerary. There’s a lot to see and do in the Chinese inaka. Renting a bicycle or motorbike can be a great way to enjoy the countryside and experience an older way of life, where the farmers still plant rice by hand and plow their fields with water buffalo as they have done for centuries. One of my highlights from China was biking alongside the karst mountains in Yangshuo County in Guangxi Province. I always thought that the oddly shaped mountains in Chinese art were an artistic expression. However, they do exist, and it is something you have to see to believe!

Living in Japan, you have the perfect opportunity to visit China. There are things to do to match everyone’s budget and so much to see! So, pack your tissues and sneakers, but stay away from the milk, and enjoy the trip of a lifetime.

TRAVEL TIPS

  • If you have the time and want to save money, there are several ferry options from Japan (Shimonoseki – Qingdao, Osaka – Shanghai).
  • The Web site http://www.ctrip.com/ provides great discounts for hotels and hostels in major cities and can be convenient if you are traveling during a busy season. Free transportation from the airport to your hotel can be arranged through this Web site. Also, you can book discounted domestic flights on the Web site.
  • Check into getting your visa well in advance because tighter restrictions sometimes cause delays.
  • Remember when buying train tickets, it is best to buy them a day or so in advance, as they do tend to fill up quickly. You can purchase them online, although I just purchased them at the train station.
  • When traveling in China, try to keep an open mind!