When I was young, my mother told me that if I dug a hole deep enough, I would end up in China, because China was on the other side of the world. I now know that isn’t possible or true. I just returned from an extended trip to China, and I have come to believe that most of what we as Americans are told about China isn’t true.
After a 14-hour direct flight from Dallas to Beijing over the North Pole, we arrived to a fairly flat terrain with large fake-appearing ultra-green spots. These, I came to learn, are coverings that are used throughout China to reduce the pollution from dirt that would otherwise get stirred up by construction projects. There is a widespread effort to reduce China’s air pollution, and it is working. Still, on several days of my visit, I had to wear a face mask outside. When pollution hits, it is usually invisible and undetectable by smell, but it forces you to wheeze, sneeze and cough. It is difficult to breathe.
The ultra-green swatches are everywhere, and cranes dot the landscape, stirring up the dust. China is engaged in a race to keep up with its growth. The principal takeaway from China is how massive everything is. The buildings and highways are huge. The Global Center in Chengdu is the world’s largest building. A domestic airport seemed to be larger than most international airports in the U.S.
Highways are frequently 10 lanes … and this is in a country where cars only came into popular use about seven years ago. This fact is attested to by the cars on the road. None are old. Visit Cuba, and the car stock is mostly antique. In China, you find no old cars around. All the European, Korean and Japanese car brands are here, as well as Ford, Buick and Volvo; but the Chinese don’t need these imports. They have developed their own car brands, which are approaching the reliability of these established lines.
China blocks the common internet and social media platforms we as Americans are accustomed to using, including Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Hotmail, Google and Gmail. You can get around the block by using a VPN — if you don’t know what that is, speak with a tech-savvy teenager. Once in China, it’s too late to get the VPN because the Chinese also block downloads of VPNs. So, you have to prepare before you go if you want to continue to use your typical platforms.
I wasn’t able to update any of my Android apps in China as those downloads are blocked as well as other things that commonly are done in the background by my phone. While China blocks our apps, it has developed apps of its own which I found work much better than ours do. The “WeChat” app, which you can use in the U.S., allows you to do messaging, share photos, bank and call an Uber-like car service (Uber doesn’t exist in China). You can choose your language as English. So, in effect, China has outdone the U.S. in basic technology. China’s version of Google is called Baidu, but it only works in Chinese, meaning without a VPN and access to Google, it is impossible to do searches.
The Chinese rarely use Amazon because they prefer their home-grown equivalents. Alibaba and Tencent seem to be their favorite alternatives. Alibaba even runs neighborhood stores, like Amazon is just starting to do. The Alibaba stores only accept payment on Alibaba and the merchandising is clean, bright and as inviting as the best grocery stores in the U.S. Shopping is much better than in the U.S.
The Chinese have an almost cashless society that makes it difficult for a visiting American to transact. The Chinese pay for everything using WeChat or other equivalent apps using their smartphones. U.S. credit cards are generally not accepted. Without a Chinese bank account to link to WeChat, you can’t use WeChat to pay … and a visitor can’t get (nor would they want) a Chinese bank account. So, the only way to do business is the backup method, using cash, changing dollars to Yuan, the local currency.
When I changed money in the U.S., I was told I could not exchange Chinese coins back to U.S. dollars, only paper currency. Near the end of my trip, I tried to convert the coins I had acquired back to paper money. I was unable to find anyone with small denominations of paper money — even at the hotel — because people simply do not use money. As I said, its society is cashless. In this respect, the U.S. must catch up to China.
Because of this unique cashless society, a visitor needs to plan ahead to get around in China. I relied on friends to pay with their WeChat, and I reimbursed them. But without that, I would not have been able to arrange a ride service because the Uber-like services only accept cashless payment through the app. When I bought something for 2.5 Yuan, the merchant was not able to give me change for the 3 Yuan I presented. I got a lollipop as change.
As a tourist in China, I highly recommend traveling with someone who speaks Chinese or in a group with a Chinese group leader. Relatively few Chinese speak English. They generally see no reason to learn the language. With a population four times the size of ours, 1.3 billion people, they have an internal market sufficient for all their businesses. If someone captures a one percent market share in China, they have a huge number of customers. No need to rely on English to expand their market. It’s the other way around.
Some street signs, subway signs and tourist information is in both Chinese and English. Still, mostly everything is in Chinese. Learning a bit of Chinese is useful.
Getting from one place to another in China is likely to take a long time, especially as a tourist who does not know the way around. Cities are massive. A small city in China still has around 9 million people. Getting from one side to the other may easily take over an hour. Having a local to help organize things so you can bunch attractions to visit in the best possible order and travel at off-peak traffic hours will save a lot of time.
And wherever you visit, you can plan on crowds. With such a large population, all attractions are built on a Las Vegas scale to accommodate the large number of attendees. Even on workdays, the number of visitors is large. Heaven help you if your plan is to visit someplace on a weekend or holiday! So anywhere you go will take a longer time to visit than you expect as you wait for your turn to get close enough to an exhibit in a museum to see the display, for example. Going with a tour group can help eliminate the lines to buy tickets, as most tour groups buy the tickets in advance to save time.
In short, the scale of everything in China will astound and confound the visitor. But it’s important to know the local rules, partially explained in another post. If you don’t plan for delay, you will frustrate your ability to maximize your touring.