[Editorial Note: As we thought might happen, our blog was blocked in China. There is blogging in China, on Chinese websites like Weibo. But the government can't edit out things it doesnt like on blogspot.com or other western sites, so they disappear. Try to go there, and you get a message that looks like the one that pops up when your computer has gone offline. So we're now back in the U.S., trip all done. This and subsequent posts are not as contemporaneous as we like to be, but perhaps will gain something from hindsight.]
Traveling generally requires a good bit of reading and speaking: road signs and maps, menus and train schedules, labels in museums and signs over exit doors, and questions galore for others or questions posed to you. Seeing and understanding a country is a tad challenging when you don't read or speak the language. Which we don't when it comes to Chinese. So how did we do it? And how successful were our efforts?
A lot of our stories will be in the blog posts to follow, but we thought we'd start our exploration of China with a few words on how we prepared for this challenge, and how it worked in practice.
We drew up a tentative itinerary, and for each city on it Jeff found and printed maps, guidebook selections and info from the web, especially from wikitravel.org, where travelers have provided commentary and prices about sightseeing destinations. For 12 of the 15 cities we ended up visiting, this gave us a decent starting point of information and orientation. For the other 3 cities that were added to the itinerary as we went, it was trickier, particularly with no printed map. In Taiyuan, where we found a rudimentary map posted at the train station, we used the trick of taking a photo of it. For Luyuan and Hangzhou, we found maps on the Internet before arrival using wifi with the iPad at our hotels. The problem, never fully solved, was that they usually wouldn't appear unless we were actually on wifi, which we almost never found mid-day, but we managed to navigate to our hotels in both cases and find a free printed map there with sufficient details to suffice. In fact, we always asked for a map at each hotel, and more often than not these maps provided additional info beyond the ones we had found on the Internet.
We both read two additional books of advice for travelers to China. We found we had gleaned most of the advice already from our other wide reading and from our own experience of four days in China during our repositioning cruise from NZ to the West Coast in 2009, though we picked up a few new kernels of wisdom.
The one most important piece of advice we can give to anyone trying our sort of adventure is to do whatever you can to print out, in Chinese, the name and address of your hotel before arriving in a new city. The reason is simple: taxis are amazingly affordable in China (we'll say more about prices further on), but we never met a single taxi driver who could speak, let alone read, a single word of English. But show the driver your little piece of paper, wait for a nod of the head signifying recognition of the place or at least some idea of where it is, and you're as good as there.
In 5 of the 15 cities we used their subways, so often we became quite proficient at it since each system was largely similar to every other one. You found the ticket dispensing machine, you pressed the button for English, you pressed the button for the line your destination was on, found the destination and pressed it on the screen, and it told you the price and asked you how many tickets. Feed the coins or bills and out came your tickets and any change you were due.
What came next was odd. Every subway system but one had an airport-like x-ray machine at every station where we had to put our backpack or any loose bag on for screening. The standards were so loose you'd have to be hauling in a WWII-sized bomb to trigger any reaction, it seemed, but we guess they figure it's somehow worth the manpower to staff these, two people per checkpoint, generally two checkpoints per station.
In any event, subways were easy to figure out, incredibly cheap, and like any subway, the fastest way to get around any large city. Probably more so in China, where street traffic is tremendously congested.
To get from city to city, we used trains for all but one long hop done by air. Trains are fast and relatively inexpensive, but the system for getting tickets takes "quirky" to a whole new universe. Except for the Beijing-Tianjin run and for trains in the Nanjing-Suzhou-Shanghai-Hangzhou triangle, where there are multiple trains per hour and we could go to the station and get a ticket for a train leaving shortly, we used travel agents. In order to visit Pingyao, our travel agent had to use the sort of creativity that among writers wins awards with names you've heard of. Suffice it to say that, except for some angst about getting the tickets, we were very pleased with the train system and the benefits of using it to get around the country. We'll save all the wonderful stories for subsequent blog posts, they'll read better in context.
We did a lot of walking. In almost every city there were moments of disorientation, but we mostly got where we wanted to get, more or less directly. If there was a street sign, it was always in Chinese and in pinyin, the system of writing out Chinese phonetically using the Roman alphabet. Finding those signs was the bigger challenge as they're not at street corners, but usually set back 5-10 meters from the corner. The street names -- in fact many, many place names -- were easy to understand, once you became familiar with some recurring words.
The Chinese are big on directions, and once you learn them, things fall into place. "Bei" is north, as in Beijing, northern capital. Nanjing means "southern capital." The provinces of Hebei and Henan are on either side of the Huang He, which we call the Yellow River in English, while Hubei and Hunan Provinces flank a large lake in central China. Shandong is east of a certain mountain range, Shanxi west of it, so now you know the words for "east," "west" and "mountain." Tiananmen (which can also be written as Tian An Men or as TianAnMen) Square is the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and many cities will have a Nanmen or Dongmen Street, where there is or once was a southern gate or an east gate through the city walls. All streets we encountered were either a "Lu" (road), "Jie" (street) or "Dajie" (big street, i.e. avenue). What gets tricky is that streets change names often, so you might be on Dongmen Nanlu, then a few blocks later on Dongmen Zhonglu, and in another kilometer on Dongmen Beilu, as you've walked down what has gone from South Dongmen Street to Middle Dongmen Street to North Dongmen Street. So, not really all that complicated, once you see the pattern.
Finding restaurants was no harder than in the U.S., but finding ones with English on the menu was trickier, and with appealing choices harder yet. In Seattle and even more so in Vancouver, we can get really good Chinese food. Ironically, in China it was challenging. So much was fairly oily, and we never mastered the art of getting things lightly spiced. We quickly learned to say "bu la" for "no spice," but then Jeff sometimes had to ask for chili peppers (in oil, of course) it would be so bland.
Thanks to guidebooks and our background reading, we did not need local guides either to find interesting places or to put them in their historical and cultural perspective. At most museums and historic sites we found that many signs were labeled both in Chinese and in English, but individual artifacts less commonly so, particularly in the cities less visited by Westerners. If we needed a taxi to get to a more remote attraction, the hotel always had a checklist of place names on the back of their name card to point to, or someone at the desk would write it out for us to hand to the driver. But most places we walked to, using our maps, or got there by subway.
So we worked on our written language skills, Jeff learning his first two dozen characters, Louise learning a few dozen new ones. We both tried to speak Chinese, usually places or streets we were looking for, but mostly got blank stares, like a visitor to Seattle asking for the spice noodle rather than the Space Needle. But the language skill we got best at was sign language. We're sure we left more than one person muttering "strange foreigners" in our wake, but we survived.
Many but not all museums and historic sites charged a fee, but even the most outstanding rarely exceeded $10/person. In six weeks, we spent only $250 combined, plus $125 for two for an all-day excursion to the Terra Cotta Warriors and another historic site en route. In short, we got 6,000 years of Chinese history over a six week period for much less than a pair of 3-day passes to Disneyland.
Transportation was also very cheap. Most subway rides were 32 or 48 cents, a handfull 64 cents, and only one more than that, a 90-minute ride from Shangai to Pudong Airport 46 km away, which cost $1.12. In every city the drop fee for a taxi was $1.45 to $1.90 for the first 3 km, then 9-12 cents per km. Most taxi rides were $3 to $5 for the two of us, a few were just the drop fee.
We can't say much about airplane travel since we only took one flight, but we can say that it was shorter than Seatle to San Francisco but cost 10-20% more than a quick check of Expedia gave us for the latter, but either of those figures could be an anomaly.
If any of our readers would like more info or specific recommendations of hotels we used, just give us an electronic jingle at email@example.com. Otherwise, we think you've gotten enough of the nuts and bolts of how we did it, let's get on with telling you about how it went. We'll post a new episode every few days 'til we get them written, so stay tuned for more.