It would be foolish from us to try to describe or even evaluate modern China based on our only visit. However, we can write down what we saw and what we went through within the month and something. Even as tourists without a deep background in politics and Chinese history we could understand why this country cause so much controversy, emotions and various opinions. In fact, we don’t think that China differs so much from other countries in the region – for an ordinary observer. What makes the difference is its size, population and (not only economic) power.
We just wanted to write that the best way to explore real China is to take a regular train and get out of main and well-known cities. But what is the real China? Aren’t the big cities China’s today’s reality?
Anyway, China is changing and developing quickly. So if you want to have fun, see how ordinary people live or used to live, be embraced by their hospitality, vitality and curiosity, just take any slow and ideally night train and head for north or west. But think twice and plan well. Looking back, I feel we spent most of the time on trains or buses 🙂
Every part of China that we visited has its character and say something in general, could be very tricky. Liveable and clean capital, with its parks, great transport options, historical and modern buildings, still keeping its character. Contradictory Datong with an almost incredible combination of dirty industrial city (it is not really dirty these days) and half revitalised (or rebuilt) city centre. Everything is done rather chaotically. With the rest of the city also under construction. Touristy Xi-an, Guilin, Shangri-la or Lijiang. Relaxed and also very liveable Chengdu. And once charming Litang and Xingping (before excavators got to the first one, and tourists to the second one).
Our impression and memories also affected by the fact that the visit happened in summer. Making crowds and heat sometimes unbearable. It was a stupid idea, and we knew that, but it was the only way that fit our schedule.
China is worth a visit and nothing can describe it better than a few weeks in there.
Where we’ve been:
For me, people were the best part of China and reason why to potentially come again. Everybody told us that people in China are not very nice. In one way it is maybe true – see our Cons. Nevertheless, we have almost only positive experiences from interaction with people. In every part of China. Always trying to help us even though we know (literally) two Chinese words. Always curious to talk to us. Smiling and asking for selfies with us (we felt like celebrities 🙂 ). We did not encounter any overcharge or bothering for being tourists. Apart from taxi drivers. Why on Earth, taxi drivers must always be the same assholes almost everywhere?
Cheap, clean, comfortable and efficient, what else we could wish for. Well, taking a bullet train may not be cheap, but given the speed and comfort, it can be the best choice. And, well, some trains may not be so clean and comfortable – on regular trains, seats are quite hard and upright for a long trip, and people are still used to smoke in corridors and dropping trash on the floor.
What was also important for us as tourists, that with Ctrip.com you can search for all trains in English and if you want, you can also book it directly (of course for a fee). So this site was our daily bread and would be much more difficult to plan anything without it. Some trains can get quickly sold out, and at a ticket counter you can buy tickets only three days in advance – this limitation does not seem to apply to Ctrip so twice we use that service for booking as well.
Nature and culture
China is enormous, and you can see so many different landscapes, temples, museums, cities and whatever else you can imagine that you had will turn around. Just pick any part of the country, and there will be countless things to see or do around. Just try to avoid summer peak or the most known tourist spots to have the best-rewarded visit. 1,5 billion of potential travellers is too much even for China 🙂
Not all Chinese food is tasty, of course. Especially if you are not a big fan of inners or similar delicates. But food can be considered as great in general and one of the highlights of any visit. Variety of dishes and an enormous amount of food stalls, restaurants or 7-11-like stores don’t let you starve. Price is always substantially low or at least affordable.
It is maybe weird to mention this as a separate point, however, apples were so good in China. And cheap, unlike other fruits.
I am sorry for that, but we had to put this into both pros and cons. People here can be very annoying, loud-speaking, shouting, yelling. Constantly using a phone with a loudspeaker. Skipping in lines. Smoking in trains, buses, restrooms, even they are not supposed to do it. Littering in nature and generally not caring about the pleasant living environment. But, you can see this much less in developed areas and big cities.
Checkpoints and cameras
They are everywhere, you need to prove your identity for important cultural sites, museums, various public buildings. You cannot access any train or bus station without proper screening. There are various checkpoints on roads in certain parts of the country. It always surprised us to see cameras in a remote area where other, much more basic, infrastructure was missing.
Used to have everything on Google? Without VPN (that is not officially allowed and cannot be downloaded in China) you are screwed. Many internet services are blocked, and we were not able to access even Czech websites. Wifi is not so common in public areas, so it is better to buy a data SIM card. It was pretty easy. We visited China Mobile and purchased a prepaid card for 20 CNY. There was probably some confusion about how much data is included. Lady told us it is 10 GB. We run out of data in 14 days, just a day day or two we left to Hong Kong. So I guess it was about 1 or 2GB included, but who cares for that price.
It made us almost cry to see how people were getting rid of their litters. In public transport and big cities, there are plenty of trash bins, or there is always someone who cleans trash constantly. But once you get into the ”wild”, you cannot believe it. We, e.g. saw a river running from mountains before reaching any big city full of plastic bottles. The bus driver was throwing bottles out of the window. Narrow pathway inside rice field literally covered by plastic packagings etc…
It is less comfy and can be more expensive than a train travel. But sometimes it is the only option. Either there is no rail or train is sold out.
Once I read that Chinese toilets are the worst thing in the world. I strongly disagreed until we took a bus first to Litang and then to Yunan. I am not going to write details but it was disgusting, and you have absolutely zero privacy, no walls, no doors. Trust me.
Taking into account the price level of anything else, entrance fees can be extremely expensive. Even in comparison to prices in Europe, the US or Japan. On top of it, you are required to pay for everything. Nothing is ever for free. It is fair to say that even Chinese citizens (those not living in the respective area) are supposed to pay the same price.
Our costs for more than a month in China
China is neither cheap nor expensive. Everything depends on your budget and what you want to do and see. Anyway, a significant part of the cost is to get there.
Chinese visa: 72 USD pp
One way air ticket from Prague to Beijing: 360 USD pp
It depends on the area, but cheap double room to be around 100 CNY = 15 USD, apart from Beijing where we had one dorm bed for that price.
City public transport bus around 1 to 2 CNY
Subway around 5 CNY = less than 1 USD
Hard-seat train (1,5 hour) 25 CNY = 4 USD
Overnight hard-sleep train 200 CNY = 30 USD
Bullet train (4 hours, 800 km) circa 260 CNY = 38 USD
Main dish – If street food or cheap eateries are OK for you, you can eat between 10 to 20 CNY = 1,5 – 3 USD. In restaurants, the price would double.
Coffee – as anywhere in Asia, it is expensive and not always good or available at all. Unfortunately, It seems price level was set by Starbucks. Milk tea, bubble tea or similar drinks can be bought everywhere for around 10 to 20 CNY = 1,5 – 3 USD (sometimes even more).
Grocery – European style selection is somewhat limited and some Chinese goods very specific. Since we always ate out, we limited our purchases to water (around 5 CNY = less than 1 USD) and Snickers or Oreo style sweet treat (5 to 10 CNY)
In total, without flight tickets, visas, insurance etc. for our 36 days in China, we spent 14,200 CNY = 2,054 USD. That makes daily average per person equal to 197 CNY = 29 USD. Need to mention, we didn’t pay accommodation for 7 nights.
Not bad considering the amount of travel we made. But we tried hard to stay on budget.