China was not a foreign country high on my list of places for first-time travel. However, since my brother worked there for a while, I availed myself of the chance to visit. I had a remarkable experience, appreciating the history, culture, and food in my first foray to the East.
My brother lived in Shenzhen. Until 1979, Shenzhen was a small fishing village. In 1979, it was designated a Special Economic Zone, and the city grew exponentially. Old Shenzhen still holds the charm of the old way of life. I even bartered on my own to buy a shirt there. New Shenzhen has museums and shopping opportunities worth spending a day or two enjoying.
When my brother asked what else I wanted to see in China, I responded the Great Wall, of course. He groaned, but we flew up to Beijing for a few days. I learned that the Great Wall is not one long wall, but the existing wall has several different access points. Had I to do it again, I would skip the Great Wall, although I did buy a t-shirt that says, “I Climbed the Great Wall.”
Most memorable in Beijing is Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Walking through Tiananmen Square is sobering. It is worth going through Mao’s Tomb to see the respect he is afforded in death. The Forbidden City is intricate. You enter through a series of courtyards. While I appreciate the medieval castles of Europe, sites such as the Forbidden City offer a unique view into Eastern culture. One night, we took in a beguiling performance of Chinese acrobats. And the food! While the Peking duck was scrumptious, real Chinese food is a true culinary adventure. Fortunately, most menus include pictures of the food, so you have few nasty surprises.
WHEN YOU GO
My husband and I will return to China on a combination business and pleasure trip. The following tips apply to anyone planning to visit a foreign country such as China, especially for the first time. Before you do anything else, get your visa application in motion. Several companies will handle the visa process for you, and I strongly recommend this method. You fill out the paperwork, and they deal with the Chinese embassy. I recommend a multiple entry visa, even if you only plan on entering China once within the year allowed. You may get there and decide to take a side trip, so give yourself that flexibility.
Once you have decided on an itinerary, go to cdc.gov to check on medical alerts or suggestions. Basically, as long as your visit is short and you are avoiding small cities or rural areas, you should not need vaccinations. Avoid “adventurous eating,” particularly street vendors, and DRINK ONLY BOTTLED WATER to avoid digestive issues. Regardless, take an anti-diarrheal medicine with you.
China is huge, but the train and bus systems are efficient, so let others do the driving. Drivers in China make up their own rules. When you leave your lodging, take a pre-printed card with the address on it to show to taxi drivers or others if you need directions back. While my brother was our tour guide for the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, he hired an English speaking tour guide to take us to the Great Wall and to other sites around Beijing. I highly recommend this strategy. My husband and I have adopted it for our upcoming visit to Shanghai.
ABOVE AND BEYOND
By American standards, China is not clean. People spit on ground. China is also crowded. The Chinese have little sense of personal space, so don’t take it personally if you are jostled. Learn to be aggressive when forming lines. Always haggle when buying items. Be prepared for the infamous “squatty potties,” holes (sometimes porcelain-lined) in the floor which serve as toilets. The user squats over these holes to “use the bathroom.” You will find western-style toilets in more modern, tourist-oriented places, but chances are you will not be able to avoid having to use a squatty potty. Be sure to carry hand sanitizer. Most importantly, enjoy!