I just returned from China on a 33-person tour with a high-end company, and I have some advice for travelers looking to visit the country. First, you must decide whether you want to travel with a group (small or large), or individually (with maybe just one partner). Secondly, you must pay close attention to the hotel star rating!! In China, one star off can mean the difference between not having a toilet in your room, no elevator in the hotel (in China, a building with nine stories or fewer doesn’t warrant an elevator), being too far off the beaten path, sleeping in filthy conditions, or having no air conditioner.
I am older and travel by myself (unless I can get a friend to join me), so I try to travel first class. I like comfort in third-world countries. I want to be on a walking street and near major subway or train lines for my days away from the tour. And since you can’t control the random people joining your tour, you can only hope someone shares your love of food or adventure so that you don’t end up being alone when the group has free time. I do well with going places by myself but I like to go to dinner with others. I like to talk about what I have seen during the day and share ideas and life stories.
Before my trips I tend to avoid researching my destination too much, as I want to learn along the way, and arrive with no preconceived notions. A high-end tour company usually provides so much information that one doesn’t need to study beforehand. It might, however, be beneficial to know some of the restaurants ahead of time, especially if you are a real foodie –but know that the concierge at the better hotels will have lists upon lists of places to dine for all different prices and all different foods.
Once you check in to your hotel in China, discover the hotel’s amenities. Many have free gym facilities, a sauna or spa, or even indoor pools. I found the gyms to be lovely and in top shape. As one who is spending her kids’ inheritance, I tend to leave it to the tour company to make all the arrangements. I just buy my airplane tickets through a travel agent and depend on them to get me the best deal with miles, points, upgrades, and anything else I can use to get into business class. When I was younger I traveled more standard fare, but now I want supreme services, a wonderful bed, and luxurious surroundings.
China has much to offer in the way of sights, so plan your trip to include those you want to see the most. The Great Wall, The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and Terra Cotta Warriors are the main attractions in China. Each one deserves a day –at least –for exploration. Any good tour will include these sights. Then the extras…like good shopping, if that is your thing, and of course, food. My “thing” is to mix with the locals, where they shop, where they eat, where they play (parks, etc.). I like tours that take you to local farmers’ markets, to schools to see how the kids learn, and on walks around older sections of the city. If you have a religious bent you might ask the tour company to get a group together to take you to the area where your religion is followed or was allowed at one time. In Shanghai a group of us went to where the Jewish refugees were allowed to live during WWII. Shanghai was the only place that allowed Jews to emigrate freely. It is always worth checking into temples and monuments that suit your interests.
Unfortunately, my trip to China was not as rewarding as were my trips to Japan, India, Eastern Europe, South America, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. China is being so overbuilt right now. It is like any major city, destroying its history to make way for progress and rapid growth. Even with the one child rule, the country holds 1.3 billion people. (Geographically, it is a little smaller than the US, which only has 250 million.) Chinese farmers have had to move to the city where they have no jobs (job waiting) and where they are not used to living in high-rise buildings with more Western-style amenities. They are missing their connections to the earth and are not faring well in the city. Also, the older sections of the cities that hold the riches in their history are being destroyed.
For me, the country lacked spirit and soul and reminded me everyday that it is communist. Capitalism and graft are alive and well in China. The government owns all the land (even the Starbucks, Dairy Queen and McDonalds share 49% to 51% – Chinese Government owned). I always find that third-world countries love our fast food establishments, which I can’t understand. The people seemed to me spiritless, just going through the motions. The men appeared much more aggressive than the women (like pushing and shoving to get ahead of the women in lines). In airplanes, men and women start moving towards the front, seatbelts unbuckling, clicking everywhere –before the plane has landed. No one waits in a line in the bathroom either but rather in front of a stall. I had to physically move a woman out of my way as she tried to beat me to the squat toilet (which I must admit is not something to rush for).
Gay rights are acknowledged in that they did away, just four years ago, with the declaration that homosexuality was a medical/psychiatric issue. Since so many women hold hands in China, it’s not easy to determine who is gay. But according to our guide there is a gay section in each major city with bars and clubs, but I didn’t have time to check them out.
If I were to compare China to India, I would say that India wins, hands down, as a place to visit. It is colorful, filled with sights and sounds and joyful people. Although the poverty is more prevalent in India, the people are much more spirited. I would recommend India for first-time exposure into a third-world culture. All in all however, because China and its growth will impact our planet in so many ways, visiting it should still be on everyone’s bucket list. Articles in Time and Newsweek state that in a few decades (or in 50 to 100 years), every family will have some type of Chinese facial feature in their families as they start to travel and move around the world. Better start learning Chinese, which has 50,000 characters for words! (You can get by on 3,500 but 10,000 will make you a Chinese scholar.) I feel that with all its rapid growth (building dams and re-routing water has allowed them to make their cities bigger and bigger), China will soon hit a recession like we are feeling. China already doesn’t produce enough food to feed its people and imports almost all of its food, which I find amazing.
China is growing by leaps and bounds and I am lucky enough to have gone, but visiting has caused me to realize even more how great the US is, with not only our many conveniences, but also our ability to prosper, dream, and achieve our goals. Such promise is offered to everyone in the US (albeit for some it is much more difficult), whereas in China only the top government officials and the real estate developers are thriving. Opportunities in China are not endless like they are in the US.
I always love to travel, as exploration is in my soul, but I love to come home. (And I also REALLY missed social networking, which is totally banned in China!)