China Travel Story - Fun and Exciting
China Travel Tips
Embassy & Visa
Fun and Exciting? Yes. Slow and Relaxing? No
Obviously, China is huge, and the extent of my travels are limited to the Eastern Half, in a "travel for as little as possible" mode. So, please understand that my opinions are limited to my own personal experiences, and yours may differ based on yours, especially if you went on some sort of tour group.
In general, China is a fascinating place to just people watch, especially after visiting more Westernized Chinese places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Singapore (I know, it's not 100% Chinese there...). It becomes very clear that the population density and political environment have a strong impact on how the society has evolved.
For instance, in a bank, don't be surprised if you have to talk to multiple people for one simple transaction (one person takes the traveler's check, to give to another person whose job is to stamp the check, who then fills out a slip for you to give to a cashier...).
In one humourous episode, the check-stamping lady was in the bathroom, and EVERYTHING stopped. It's not always like this, but get used to encountering ridiculously inefficient processes like this, and rolling your eyes a bit.
Basic transportation infrastructure is adequate, but not a cakewalk to deal with. Trains are often crowded and late, with people spitting their chicken bones onto the floor. Boats are much the same way. The farther you go from the big cites, the worse the infrastructure seems to get.
The other phenomenon is the "local price". Basically, you don't get it, unless you can fake being of Chinese Nationality. There are no hard rules for foreigners of Chinese descent, but if you can speak decent Chinese (Mandarin, or the local dialect), you can negotiate and convince them that because you are of Chinese descent, you should get the Chinese rate. You can also try to fake being a Chinese National, and just say your accent is because you're from far-away province.
It's important to know that China is not cheap. Sure, the food on the street is cheap, but unless you are an exchange student and have a government-issued card verifying this, you will for the most part only be allowed to stay at the more expensive hotels, and sometimes pay higher fares for transportation (on the order of 10x sometimes!). Again, your ability to negotiate depends solely on the person you are negotiating with. There are no written rules about discriminate pricing criteria.
Once you decide you can deal with the poor infrastructure, the shoving and pushing in lines, standing for 12 hours wedged into a crowded train, and all the other inconveniences, you'll have a great time. The sites are incredible, and the people are fascinating. Some of the sites I enjoyed most were:
The three gorges - Take the boat cruise from Chung-King (Chong Qing) to Wuhan (DO NOT GO ALL THE WAY TO SHANGHAI, unless you enjoy spending three extra days on a boat with nothing to do, and boring scenery). You must catch the three gorges before they complete the dam which they are building, which may threaten to put the magnificent gorges underwater in the name of "progress". Yes, all the villages and people you see living along the coast of the river are going to be forced to move! Chung-King is pretty boring, by the way.
Guilin area - OK, touristy, but really cool scenery. The town is pretty much like any other town in Southern China, but the steep hills are really cool! Impress the locals by saying (spelled phenoetically), "Guay- Lin Saan Shuay, Ja Tyen Sha!", which is an ancient saying that means something to the effect of "Guilin's scenery is the best under the sky (or heavens)". They'll smile, and maybe give you a better deal when buying from them. (They're overcharging you by 3 times, so make them smile and maybe they'll only overcharge you by 2x).
Beijing - Obligatory. See all the famous sites.
Xian - See the catacombs.. blah blah... on every tour package, but still cool to see.
I've heard that heading westward into Xin-Jiang is really cool (but rugged. you may not see people for days at a time) if you can take it.
The bottom line: The question is not whether you should go. The answer is yes. The question is, can you handle the daily inconveniences and do it on a shoestring, or should you just join a tour group and let the tour operators shield you from it all. In my epinion, you haven't seen what China is really like unless you live (and deal) alongside the locals.
Story Courtesy to Jhong