Sunday, October 5, 2008

Days 33-44: Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing, CHINA

Having last been to China just over a year ago, I didn't expect many changes. However, perhaps because of the Olympic Games and/or other reasons, the changes are plenty--and much for the better.

There is still the incessant queue-cutting and spitting, but aside from that, everything feels different. The locals are more friendly. The food is great. The air and streets are much cleaner. Chinglish, the usually humurous but at times confusing jibberish when translating directly from Chinese to English, is rarely seen. Prices are still low, even with a rapidly appreciating Chinese yuan. Beijing's Tiananmen Square, hitherto swarmed by beggars, is now empty of them.

Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that last time when I was in China, it was on a tour. This year, however, I am alone. I definitely feel the difference. China is most enjoyable when explored at your own pace. There are more opportunities to try the local cuisine, which is usually great. Alas, at the tour last year, we were, generally speaking, fed the same bland Chinese food for 12 days straight. No Friendship Store visits either. Now I don't have to endure any of this--and the streets also seem void of the erstwhile ubiquitous sexworkers, too, which is a pleasant surprise. In short, my experience this time in China is many, many times better, as are my impressions of the country and the people.

For a short list of what to do and not to do in China, read below:

1.) DO bring an English-Chinese phrasebook with the Chinese characters included next to the translation. Pointing to something in the book is a great way to get by, since many Chinese don't understand English or a foreigner's pronunciation of their language.
2.) DO NOT go for a massage for 100 yuan. First, there's a massage and a "massage." For the record, I went for the real massage. But in any case it's a scam! There are mandatory drinks that are not included for the price. The massage girl begs for tips and says she'll give a bad massage if she doesn't get any. Then she orders more drinks without telling the payer the price, which are priced exorbitantly. And then there is a room charge. It comes out to more like 500 yuan (about $73) when this is taken into account. Luckily, I only had to pay $42 because I got a better deal with no room charge once I saw that on the menu in fairly small letters on the bottom and negotiated an opt-out, but it's best to avoid these places regardless.
3.) NEVER agree to go to a hotel if you only know the name and not the address! I was taken to three different Bai Yun Hotels in Guangzhou because I told the driver "Bai Yun Hotel." Apparently, in Guangzhou everything is "Bai Yun": Bai Yun Airport, Bai Yun Hotel, Bai Yun International Hotel, Bai Yun City Hotel. Heh, only the last one--and some $30 later--my hotel was found.
4.) ALWAYS make the taxi drivers use the meter. Taxis are very cheap in China, but if they don't use a meter, it may be a scam or they will ask for too much money outright. And always ask for a receipt in case something was forgotten in the car... not that this is guarantee of getting the item back. Not by a long shot. But it's worth a try.
5.) TAKING a digital photo of an address or street is a smart way to get by. If ones gets lost, he/she can always walk up to a local and point to the picture with the address and they'll point you in the direction. But keep in mind that it might not be the right direction. ;)
6.) JUST accept the fact that China is different. It'll make for a much more pleasant experience. Comparing things and being disgusted by some things that are different than back home will not make the experience any more pleasurable.

This list will be continued in one of my future posts... Many, many more things have been left out. In short, China is a terrific place to go for vacation. In Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou it is very, very hot and humid. Hangzhou and Shanghai, in central China, are best visited in October, right around the time I was there. The temperature is great--not hot and not humid, but not cold either. Beijing, north of Shanghai and not too far from Mongolia, was noticeably colder, but this was a small anomoly, so to speak, according to locals. Today it'll be warmer by 5 degrees Celcius, so it should be very good weather.

China was celebrating its National Day: the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People's Republic of China. What this means is as follows: one week off for many Chinese, which means travel, travel, travel within their country. Sightseeing, visiting relatives, etc. Train tickets on certain routes, such as Shanghai-Beijing, are very hard to come by. They are usually sold out days in advance. Crowds are massive nearly everywhere in the cities I visited. In Hangzhou it took me over an hour to catch a cab; Shanghai's population seemed to soar from 18 million to 40 million overnight--without exaggeration. It seemed 2-3 times more crowded than a year ago, owing to the holiday. In any case, this can be a great or horrible time to sightsee, depending on how one views this. I actually like it, aside from the one hour wait for a cab. It is a great experience and opportunity to meet many Chinese people from all over the country, most of whom speak their own distinct languages but also know Mandarin.

People, in short, are very curious and friendly to foreigners. Sure, there are the scam artists everywhere, but it's not that much different from, say, scammers in other places. They exist everywhere. A prudent traveler should never be put off by them or fall for their tourist traps. Indeed, even I have fallen twice for a scam (the massage and an expensive taxi ride), but I was fairly lucky. It's best to avoid these people and to sightsee smartly.

At least I've been very lucky this year never to have gotten, to the best of my knowledge, a forged 100 yuan ($14) banknote. Last year they were ubiquitous and people always check their authenticity in stores, but I have had no problem using mine. Probably that's because I never bought a souvenir from a street seller, who oftentimes swap a real 100-yuan banknote for a fake to an oblivious foreigner.

I didn't have much time to sightsee in Shenzhen... I didn't even see the city center. It's a city literally right across from Hong Kong. Set up as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in the late 1970s or 80s, it has grown to a city of about 10 million people with few tourist sites, but a lot of money. It is a dangerous city, too, for about half of the population, if not more, are migrant workers. Guangzhou is also a rich city, but smaller--"only" about 3-4 million people. Nevertheless, it is a great city with a lot of shopping (especially leather) and pedestrian streets. The food in Guangzhou (Cantonese cuisine, which is sweet) is terrific. Hangzhou has about 6 million people and is a very enjoyable city. Many Chinese go there for their honeymoon, since it is a very romantic place with a placid and beautiful West Lake. There are about 40 West Lakes in China, but this is the original one. Shanghai is only about 1 hour on a fast train or 2 hours on a bus from Shanghai, China's version of Tokyo, with neon lights, more shopping, and a plethora of skyscrapers. And now I am in Beijing, China's capital, with numerous historical landmarks, the Olympic stadium which is now open to the public for 50 yuan, and many other things to do.

Sorry for not updating this blog for a week. I'll try to update it more regularly henceforth.

Tomorrow I am going to Dandong, a city many Chinese have never heard of in Lioning Province. Dandong, a city of about 640,000 people (a village by Chinese standards, since the country has more than 150 cities with populations of 1 million of more), borders North Korea--in fact, the North Korean village of Sinuiju can be seen from across the Yalu River and the Friendship Bridge linking the two countries. I can't wait to catch a glimpse of the "Hermit Kingdom," as Americans are not usually allowed to visit North Korea, so this will be like tasting a bit of the forbidden fruit. And I'll be sure to take many pics.

In the meantime, enjoy these pictures from the aforementioned cities. And please do comment! I read them all. :)

1 comment:

Faina said...

Great and very detailed observations. Enjoy your trip! Will be waiting for more ...