Sunday, November 27, 2011

Getting to Know China Without Actually Speaking Chinese

[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 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.

First off, we actually prepared a lot. We were very lucky to get into Professor Madeleine Dong's History of Modern China class during the Spring Quarter at the University of Washington, where we audit classes through the Access Program for senior citizens when we are not on the road -- we get to enjoy the readings and lectures without all those annoying term papers, midterms and finals! We constantly found references in places visited to topics from that class, from the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions to the foreign concessions imposed by western countries on the Chinese to the Cultural Revolution, and to people studied, from the Qing emperors to Sun Yat-sen to Mao and Deng Xiaopeng.

Besides the books for Dr. Dong's class, we also read much more. Jeff focused on travel guides, Louise on personal narratives and novels. Before our prior visit to China we had both read Jan Wong's Red China Blues, an amazingly perceptive and sometimes painful view of life in China from the tumultuous late '60s to the '80s by one of the few westerners present in those xenophobic times. This time around we both read A Traveller's History of China for an overview of the full span of Chinese history. We like this series, and have used other books from it for New Zealand, Southeast Asia and Japan. In addition to 4 or 5 books about China read in the prior two years, Louise read over a dozen more just before or during the trip, the best of which were Peter Hessler's three memoirs of his Peace Corps experiences in China and subsequent adventures around the country, Jonathan Watts' ecological view of China in When A Billion Chinese Jump, and Lisa See's novel Dreams of Joy. There are many more good ones, just ask Louise and she'll give you a list with a month's worth of great reading.

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, 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.

Finding lodging was of course a big challenge, but made quite manageable by the wonders of the world wide web. We chose three hotels based on recommendations in guidebooks supplemented by checking out their own web pages and Expedia. We selected 2 or 3 more through Expedia, always looking not only at prices but also at other travelers' reviews. But over half we selected through, a Chinese equivalent to Expedia, which links very smoothly to reviews on plus also had more listings and sometimes better prices than Expedia. Elong's biggest plus, however, was the email confirmation they send you with your hotel's name and address both in English and in Chinese. Chinese characters are often identical to Japanese kanji characters Louise was familiar with, so she became our amanuensis, transcribing these to paper since we never had access to a printer when we were on the web. Finally, once at a hotel we always picked up its business card, a standard traveler's trick in China, as it always had the precious name and address in Chinese, and almost as often a map to help you or a taxi driver navigate back 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 toilets was surprisingly easy, they were well marked and never once did Jeff have to recall which of those characters meant "men" and which "women," as they were always marked in English or with the universal symbols. What you found in the restrooms, once you found them, was another matter. For guys, it's not a problem most of the time as there were always urinals. But for those special moments, or for any visit by a western woman, there's always the question of "throne" or "squatter." On rare occasions you were given a choice, but only once, in S. Korea actually, did we find it marked. If it mattered to you, you pushed on doors and checked each stall.

Not counting hotels, where there was always a western-style toilet, Louise found herself using a squat toilet about 3/4 of the time. Having used them often in her years in Japan, she wasn't as taken aback as most Westerners are by them, and she actually prefers one to a wet toilet seat 10 times out of 10. We found that public toilets provide toilet paper maybe 1 time in 10, so never left the hotel without packages of Kleenex. There was almost always a sink, but rarely soap, so we carried along a little bottle of "body wash" liquid soap picked up at a hotel, which lasted the whole trip. Paper towels are virtually unheard of, but some places had hand blowers, and Louise carried her owncloth towel for convenience. Last but not least is the smell. It's a familiar one to be sure, but truly rank public restrooms were several times more common than we've found in our travels in the U.S., and Jeff found that about a quarter of the ones he visited were also fairly thick with the smell of cigarettes.

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.

It also didn't help that many of the menu choices were . . . uh . . . strange. A few were just bad translations, such as the buffet we went to one morning at our hotel which had an item called "breakfast bowel." Louise persuaded the manager to change the spelling, on the spot. Some were ambiguous, even with a photo. Other items were, shall we say, an acquired taste we didn't care to acquire, such as chicken feet. Then there were the ones that just puzzled, such as "Pork colon in oyster sauce." "That's just a bad translation, right? They don't really eat . . . Well, let's see what's on the next page of the menu." With the help of guidebooks we did find a handful of very good places, but frankly we found ourselves in McDonalds, Subway and KFC more often than we like to admit, so tired did we get with the effort of finding enticing meals in the local cuisine. But the more gastronomic among you are invited to drool over a few of Pingyao's local specialties in the next photo. We actually ate at this place, but skipped the "Cosmetic Meat" and the "Fries Pulls Out the Rotten Child." Don't know, guess we just weren't in the right mood for those particular local treats that day.

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.

As mentioned earlier, Louise does know quite a few words of written Chinese thanks to her knowledge of Japanese kanji. Numbers are identical, for example. But her kanji vocabulary was never enormous and is slipping through nonuse -- it's been 17 years since she left -- and there are two huge caveats. One is that the Communist Party of China decided in the early '50s to simplify a number of characters, e.g. taking one with 9 strokes and making it over with 6. We both eventually got to know the character for gate, but it was a stranger the first time Louise saw it. They took out the doors in the kanji version, leaving only the frame and a new short stroke. The second and far, far bigger limitation on Louise's knowledge was that the Japanese had borrowed the characters and (usually) the meaning, but not the pronunciation. So she could sometimes tell what something was, but had no clue how to say it.

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.

In our travels we saw relatively few Westerners, and in fact extremely few Americans. From our few encounters, we think the reason is that very few venture off on their own as we did. When we did meet them, they almost always had a private guide nearby, taking them from place to place, finding them restaurants and getting them to hotels that cater to such arrangements, and giving them commentary on what they were seeing.

Our system was no better or worse than theirs (though vastly less expensive), just different. For someone who doesn't want to take courses in Chinese history or to read a shelffull of books, a guide is invaluable, and there are certainly many insights we missed as we visited historic places without one. We did do one full day guided tour to the famous Terra Cotta Warriors near Xi'an, and we're very glad we did.

What we gained, of course, was flexibility to see what we wanted, for as short or as long as we chose. We saw far fewer temples per day than almost any guided tourist would experience. Been there, done that, let's just visit these three or four outstanding ones during our six week visit. Other places saw us look at every item, read every sign, we couldn't get enough of this amazing history or art or culture. And of course we had spontaneity galore.

What we lost, besides the guides' knowledge of the places they knew well, was the chance to actually talk to our Chinese hosts. Regrettably, we encountered very few who had the time and the English language skills to chat with us about what their lives were like, or how they perceived the changes taking place in their cities and in their country, or what they would like to know about our lives and our country. Perhaps that's why Louise read so many books about China, particularly memoirs, to have those conversations vicariously through her authors. In some ways we were like archaeologists studying the culture through its artifacts. Like them we indeed learned a lot, even without actually talking to the folks living amidst all that we were taking note of. But our trip lacked a fullness that we missed at times.

One final word about prices in China, and we'll sign off and start working on the blogs to come, the ones with the stories and photos you really come here to read. Not counting our cruise to get here or our air fare to get home, our daily expenses were about $175/day combined, for the two of us. Had we not taken a three day boat cruise down the Yangtze through the Three Gorges, which was quite pricey, the average would have been more like $160/day, comparable to what we often spend on our bike trips in the U.S.

We mostly stayed at 4 star hotels, which in America would be considered 2 star places, though we did splurge it Tianjin and got triple our money's worth in historical payback, as we'll tell you in an upcoming blog. Our average night cost under $90, and we were as comfortable as we needed to be, or could be with China's notoriously hard beds under our tired bodies. Meals were far cheaper than in the U.S., by 30-40%. The biggest exception was Starbucks, which Jeff patronized twice, paying just over $4 for a grande mocha, about the same as in Seattle. At the other end of the scale, there was the baozi stand in Suzhou (here's a photo of a similar though smaller one in Pingyao) where awoman had two tall stacks of wooden trays with a different kind of steamed dumpling on each tray, some meat- and others vegetable-filled, and each one going for 5 cents apiece! We were stuffed long before we could get even close to $1.

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.

Intercity travel by train was fast, comfortable and reasonable, about $35 for two for one trip we did that was about the same distance as from Seattle to Portland or NYC to Washington DC. Had we taken the slow train, it would have been about half that cost. How fast are the fast trains? As fast as Japan's famous Shinkansen, or "bullet trains." We'll say much more as we describe the rides in later posts. In all, we took 14 different train rides for a total of almost 3,000 miles.

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 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.

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