Rural Hunan. Mao Zedong still watches over...

So, You Want to Travel to China? Prepare and Expect This…

Big problem when you have gone somewhere – even lived there – often and long as I have with China?

You forget what it is like when you have decided to go to that strange exotic place for the first time and don’t really know what to expect…

China has become a second home to me, challenging as it tends to be.
So, in typical #GetAtHome fashion, it took talks with others with no China travel experience to make me realize that no, not everyone would know what to expect.

Hell, I had focused a lot of my studies at university towards, and been interested even longer in, East Asia. And still, when I went to China to teach German at a local university, I had no idea what would expect me.

So, let me break the rule that people who’ve been in China for longer don’t write anything about it anymore.

(The joke goes that this is what happens to them, while those who’ve been there for a little while write an article, those who just paid a visit write a book.)

China definitely is a country (and travel destination) you better prepare for, and expect certain things from, if you are thinking of traveling there…

1: Don’t Fear the Party

China does tend to make foreign (Western) visitors think of its authoritarian single party, human rights abuses, what-not. Having read enough of that in the media makes for a bit of concern even just when applying for the tourist visa.

Now, you will notice something of how China is different in heavy police presence and security checkpoints in certain places.
Go to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and you will definitely notice.

Being concerned about that would be a lot like going to the Washington DC mall, strolling around the White House, and not expecting police to be there.
After all, there is not just a (to most people, especially in China, ancient) history with Tiananmen Square, there is also the literal ancient history of that area of Beijing, and the immediate vicinity of the government seat in Zhongnanhai (just at the Northwestern corner of the square).

Even before coming, many people get concerned about potential visa (application) problems.

Neither in China, nor in applying for a visa (and I have applied for tourist, work, and visit-to-relatives visas for China) have I ever had any problems.

The only people I know who have had issues with visas are either journalists or other rather public figures; the only situations I know of where encounters with authorities were not cordial (more so than with tense TSA border agents or having-to-joke Austrians, certainly) came about when people did things not supposed to happen.

Yes, that can include trying to go to Tibet as an individual tourist already, but that’s a bit of a different story…

2: Decide Which China To See

Talking of traveling to particular regions: The time you have and the places you go will shape what China you see.

China is simply big enough, and also diverse enough, that you’ll better decide which China you want to see or you will only ever stick to the surface.
But this is the blog telling you to #GetAtHome, so I want you to consider going deeper, experiencing more.

Starry Jiankou Great Wall
Starry Jiankou Great Wall from below Beijingjie towards the North (Jiuyanlou)

Simple example:
Many people say that they’ve seen China and now they know all about it – and they only ever visited Beijing, Shanghai, and perhaps Hong Kong.

Well, if you only go to those most-developed cities, you will only ever see one China.

In fact, though, you could see various Chinas even within those cities.

Students paying respect, Beijing Confucius Temple

You’d just have to get up a bit earlier and go into a local park, cliché as it is, to have seen a China that looks more traditional (and stereotypical), with old people doing Taijiquan or exercising by dancing. Or nowadays, seeing people of all different kinds go jogging.
Stay up longer and go to where the glitter and glimmer in those big cities is, and you’ll see a modern and exuberant China that parties like there’s no tomorrow.

Go down some back alleys and food streets, and there’s tradition again in the small restaurants, hustle and bustle – and perhaps, calm and quiet.
Stay on the thoroughfares, see a China that looks like traffic chaos and few pedestrians, developing too fast for its own good.

And we still haven’t even considered cities that are not first-tier, let alone the countryside. All you’d need to do to get a glimpse of that is take a high-speed railway train from one city to the next. Immediately, you’d be thrust into the full diversity of people from young-and-hip to country bumpkin to modern and educated – all while landscapes of ugly sprawl and beautiful mountains, serene countryside and back-breaking manual agriculture whiz past outside.

3: Get (It) Organized, Expect Surprises

One big part of the problem with seeing more of China comes up here, though:

China is not a particularly easy country to travel.

Don’t get me wrong; there are unlikely to be major problems.

Like pretty much anywhere, you could encounter pickpockets; there are some famous scams against tourists; but the country tends to be safe. Or as safe as you can get where there are problems with air and soil pollution…

Outside of the cities, however, travel does become more difficult.

Where the subways in the big cities have announcements and station name signs also in English, you only need to try to get on a bus going outside a bit, and finding the booth for the ticket, communicating where you want to go, and then finding the right bus to take if you don’t speak and read Chinese will be a challenge.

Chances are you will find some helpful people and manage, as long as you can take your time and are up for surprises. Surprises will happen, though, both good and bad.

Count on it – and book a complete tour from a reputed travel organization if you don’t have the time or don’t want the hassle, frustration… and serendipity.

You might still end up somewhere rural where the toilets are basically just places to squat over a trough flushing everything away, with nary a partition between the ‘stalls’.

4: Manage Your Expectations

Aside from all the practical considerations that are always a travel consideration, what I have found perhaps the most difficult and overlooked aspect of China (and other) travel are the attitudes and expectations we bring to it.

China, in all its diversity and difference, with everything we hear about it in the news and seem to know about, is particularly prone to this problem.

Wangfujing, Beijing, "International Brand Festival" 2014

If all you ever heard about and were lead to expect are high-rises in pollution, there is a good chance that will be what you see and notice.
If you come expecting a populace that is being kept down by authoritarian one-party rule, chances are every single security checkpoint in a subway will reinforce that preconceived notion even as the security theater on your flight to China was just normal to you.
Expect tradition and a big difference from ‘the West’, and you will likely notice quite a bit of that. But, you might not notice the modernity in the midst of it, the similarities – or notice them as disturbances that you find frustrating and a great pity.

In China, as in other parts of East Asia, it is good to remember that these parts of the world are the home to Buddhist equanimity, and a Zen attitude of non-thinking would be good to practice indeed.

Expect this: All your expectations will be fulfilled. And completely shattered if you also notice other things than those the blinders you put on yourself want you to.

There is everything here, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the surprising and the same-old, the different and the same, the modern and the backwards, the repressed and the exuberant.

All at the same time.

Like life.

And since it is true that, in many places here, a lot of life takes place outside in the open, you will see much of it. Oftentimes, more than you might like to; often enough, more and more interesting than you might have expected.

5: Remember the Basics

It should not be necessary to say this, but I don’t want to write about China and give four pieces of advice (since the number 4 is considered unlucky), so here goes…

Organize what needs organizing in good time, inform yourself, maybe try and learn a few phrases of the language (and for China, yes, do bring something where the names and addresses you need to go are written down in Chinese), keep your documents and finances safe and in order, get your vaccinations, pack appropriately – and #GetAtHome in this world.

Or that very different world that is China.

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