China is the largest country we plan on visiting. We spent a full month (exactly) in China. The country is vast and there are entire regions that we didn't explore, but we were in China long enough to get a feel for the country.
China was a more challenging country to get around without Chinese than Japan was without Japanese, but the task was not insurmountable. Most days, we found our way around using a combination of instructions from our Lonely Planet, instructions (like transportation information or menu orders) written in Chinese from staff at our hostel, visual markers of buildings we knew to be near desired locations, Chinese number hand signals to show prices, and the smartphones of random salespeople for emergency translation. Finding our way around usually involved not only more patience, but greater emotional willingness to put ourselves in unknown or unfamiliar situations time and again. That said, it is 100% possible to travel with little or no Chinese in China as long as you are flexible, open minded, and willing to make some wrong turns. We never once felt unsafe, significantly cheated, or served fried monkey liver (ok I don't think they do that, but you get the point) by accident.
Chinese Street Barbecue
Our favorite repeat dinner in China was Chinese street barbecue. We were introduced to this cuisine by a couple that hosted us in their home in Tianjin and we were hooked for the rest of our time in China. Originally from far West China (the part with considerable Muslim/Middle Eastern influence), vendors sit in the street with their grills and a selection of raw meats and vegetables already on skewers. Our favorite skewer types included lamb, chicken wings, green onion, tofu skin, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, and mushrooms. There was also usually a variety of chicken parts, squid, and fish cakes.
To begin, you take a tray from the grill master and pile on your choice of skewers and then hand the tray back. The grill master grills the food expertly, dousing it heavily in various spices stored in plastic soda bottles with holes poked in the cap for easy shaking. The entire experience is capped off when you ask for your bill at the end of the experience and pleasantly find that your enormous meal for two was about $10.
Our choice each night as we chose among the many street barbecue vendors was usually entirely dependent on them having Kelsi's #1 favorite food item in all of China: enoki mushrooms. Once cooked, they become warm, stringy, and spicy with the gentle flavor of mushroom and the delightful chewyness of noodles. You can be sure that we will be grilling these mushrooms back home upon our return.
Days in China: 32
Number of cities/locations visited: 10
Number of different accommodations: 15 (8 hostels, 2 couch surfs, 3 overnight trains)
Average daily spending: $96.82 (includes all lodging and domestic transportation, including one domestic flight)
Max spending in one day without a flight: $153.76 (day trip to Great Wall from Beijing)
Min spending in one day, excluding free-accommodation days due to couchsurfing: $50.88
We still intend on open sourcing our spending, but have decided to wait until wecan put together interesting statistics with it. Hang tight!
Comparing China and the United States
Like Japan, we have compiled a list of things that were notable differences between China and the United States.
- People in China spit everywhere. Usually outside. Never taking the time to walk over to the tree or bush nearby, but right on the sidewalk. Almost universally preceded by a giant hacking sound. As a visitor it was very off putting.
We heard two stories about spitting from other travelers that I cannot vouch for, but are interesting enough to share. 1) Apparently as bad as the spitting is today, it was 100x worse before the Beijing Olympics when the government went on a massive campaign to curb spitting. 2) Back in the pre-CPC days, only the elite were allowed to spit. Mao wanted to equalize everyone, so he proposed that everyone spit as there were to be no more elite people in China. The story says that he was a big spitter and encouraged everyone to do it.
If you can vouch for the veracity of either of these stories, please leave a comment.
- Lots of neighborhoods we visited, especially in the larger cities, had public toilets used by local residents. Kelsi and I took that to mean that many people didn't have a toilet in their own house, but without visiting the houses we can't confirm.
- There are many bikes, scooters, and motorbikes in China, but what I really noticed was the large number of motorized bikes. That is, bikes with engines on them.
- In some cities, like Chengdu, motorbikes were such a huge part of road traffic that they were given their own lanes.
- Breakfast from small noodle shops is very common and a part of the culture Kelsi and I enjoyed. Noodle bowls can be deceiving though; just because something looks well spiced and contains many ingredients, that doesn't mean the flavor isn't actually bland and unintesting, which happened about 1/3 of the time.
- Much of the internet is blocked (Google, Facebook, YouTube, a bunch of other websites), but with some technical preparation before arriving a VPN will work well and allow you access to entire internet. Using a VPN can be a huge pain after a while, especially when your hostel's internet connection is iffy.
- Staring at people is not really rude. If people find something curious, they will usually stare right at it/you. If you catch them staring at you, they may smile but will likely not turn away.
- Like Japan, China is not a culture in which you tip, something Kelsi and I quite enjoyed
- Personal space isn't such a big deal in China. We quickly got used to pushing our way through the big group at the subway doors to get on, not really worrying about jostling people in the process.
- Squat toilets. Kelsi and I did prep reading before arriving and it prepared us well.
- Chinese toilet paper is terrible. This is important because its used not only for its traditional function, but as napkins, paper towels, and tissues all over the country. The problem is that its really thin and insufficiently perforated, so you try to rip a small piece but it shreds up the whole thing by going up the roll instead of across the sheet. It sounds silly, but its actually super aggravating.
- We were prepared for various scams/hustlers/pickpockets, but encountered none. That we know of.
- Almost every place of business we visited, even the old, large, established ones, did not have cash drawers. All money was deposited and stored in a box with the bills crumpled and mixed together. There were no stacks of 10s or 20s, just a big mess. When you made a purchase, it may take a few seconds for the shopkeeper to make change from the random box of bills.
Kelsi and I really enjoyed China, but as we admitted in our Detour post, the smog and all around dirt feel became a bit old after a while. The Philippines are sure to be a welcome break.
That said, Kelsi and I have already talked about the parts of China we would visit on "Asia Trip 2", our (as of right now) mythical second trip to this part of the world to visit countries we are missing this time, like South Korea and Taiwan. That trip would likely include a tour of the coast of China, starting in Shanghai and roughly following the coast down to Vietnam.
Or maybe someday we'll visit rarely-visited far West China and experience the Arab/Chinese hybrid culture that has developed there. There is all too much to see and a month wasn't nearly enough.
But for now, heading off for beaches, swimming, and sun is a welcome change.