Saturday, 16 November 2019

China: Overview

China was a lot different from what I had expected and in a good way! I had heard quite polarising views from people who had previously visited and, admittedly, was a little apprehensive on what to expect.

The common complaints centred around air pollution, the dirtiness of the cities and the behaviour of individuals. Yes, the air quality is not the best in some cities (i.e. Beijing) however I feel that it is a bit of unfair criticism. I've also commonly heard about the brusque nature of the people, however, that wasn't something I noticed. More importantly, it's all down to culture. This was something I was, and have always been, fully aware of; the traits I possess are purely a product of growing up in a specific environment and how I interact is not better than others, it's just different.

Things that I noticed:
  • As expected, cameras are everywhere.
  • People are on their phones. All. The. Time.
  • At each train / subway station, there is security and your bags need to be x-rayed, similar to the airport. Although I am unsure of what they are checking exactly since no one seems to be paying attention.
  • There are so many people on the streets cleaning, including people who are sweeping leaves which is such a never-ending task in autumn.
  • The trains are awesome and it is incredible to think the high-speed network was built over the last 12 years. Um, Australia... where is that Sydney → Canberra train that has been harped on about for the last 50,000 years?
  • There are so many high rise apartment blocks in the middle of nowhere.
  • Cheap and tasty baos!
  • As expected, Alipay and WeChat pay is everywhere, but cash is still used. Albeit, sometimes a little inconvenient when queuing at the 1 lone register at the supermarket whilst everyone is using self-service.

General Overview

When: Friday 11th October 2019 - Sunday 27th October 2019

Transportation: Air China from SYD - CTU and PEK - SYD. All internal travel was via high-speed trains. Train tickets were purchased using China DIY with the code "Seat61". This reduced the agent fee from $10USD per ticket to $5USD. In addition, they had an Australian bank account therefore I didn't need to pay any other additional fees (i.e. credit card or Paypal).

Weather: October marks the transition into cooler weather for most parts of China. We intentionally picked this period (and post the National holiday) to avoid the hot and humid weather as well as the peak travel season. As expected, Shanghai had the warmest weather whilst Harbin had the coolest.

Itinerary: Map of our journey. Detailed posts are linked below.

Chengdu (i) (ii) ▻ Xi'an (i) (ii) ▻ Shanghai ▻ Beijing (i) (ii) ▻ Harbin

Language: Although I have been to many countries where I don't speak the local language, I was quite nervous about not knowing Mandarin (apart from numbers and a few phrases). This was largely attributable to my colleagues who gave the impression that I would struggle. Cue the stress. And I did struggle. However, I wouldn't say it was more challenging than in other countries. Navigating transportation was relatively straightforward however the language barrier was only most evident when visiting small eateries as we couldn't read the menu. Picture menus are the best or simply pointing at someone else's meal.

Expenses: I have always struggled to answer when people ask me whether X country is expensive to travel around. Well, the exception is Switzerland because yes it is bloody expensive. China is arguably cheap but only because of the currency I am converting from.

Everyone spends their money differently and overall cost depends on a myriad of personal choices. This includes airline, accommodation, getting around the city (taxi, public transport, rideshare) and choosing where to eat.

I am fairly frugal in my everyday life and this shapes my travelling style. I am quite selective about which paid attractions I visit, I always catch public transport or walk (free!) and try to eat at small local eateries. For this trip, we stayed at private rooms in hostels (bar the last night). Note: hostels in China are completely different from my experiences of hostels in North America and Europe.

Perhaps some might find this useful or you may be a little bit of a sticky beak (I definitely am one at times) but my rough expenses for the trip broken down:

Flights: $750
Visa + travel insurance: $150
Intercity travel: $500
Accommodation: $300 ($40 pp/night)
Spending money: $270
Total: ~$2000 AUD

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