Even before I started my trip, I was prepared to have the most challenging time in China. It has definitely been pretty challenging and exhausting at times but not to the extent I expected it to be. Getting around, for instance, was actually quite easy. I was very positively surprised on how well organised the public transportation system is. Even if you don’t speak Mandarin, it’s fairly easy to get around by subway, train or bus. I don’t deny that it requires some nerves and a lot of patience, but once you get the hang out of it, it is fairly easy. Getting a taxi is another story though. In order to get a taxi, you better have the directions ready in Mandarin as the vast majority of taxi drivers don’t speak English. In the cities, I mainly walked and only used the subway/bus for extremely long distances as walking allows you to get a more authentic experience of a place and to delve into their culture. Since the Chinese cities are very extensive, I did a lot of kilometres (average 20km/day). I love walking though, as you might have noticed in previous blog posts!
A lot of Chinese people commute by rental bikes. There are several different rental stations. People pick them up and drop them whenever they don’t need them anymore. It’s a very neat and comfortable way of commuting and is managed by an app. Unfortunately, it only works when you’ve got a Chinese bank account. Actually, paying by card is rarely an option as many places only accept Chinese credit cards.
I started my trip in Beijing where I stayed for three full days. I expected a chaotic, dusty and smoggy city, and was thus extremely positively surprised how well maintained, organised and clean the city is. I was lucky enough that there was no smog. Apparently, it had been pretty bad the previous week due to storms.
Apart from the must-do’s, which are the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and the Great Wall, I can highly recommend to visit the different parks of the city. I went to Jingshan Park and the park surrounding Qiongdao Island, which were both picturesque and very well maintained! It felt as if I was far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Be aware of tea scams though! Unfortunately, I fell for it in the Jingshan Park and only realised it after I left the tea house. The worst thing about it is that I was warned beforehand. However, they do such a good job in acting their role that I didn’t doubt their sincerity for a second. In my case, two women approached me and pretended to be tourists from Xi’an. They introduced themselves and we started talking and after some time, they asked me if I want to join them for a walk and some tea. They seemed really nice and open, something I haven’t experienced so far with Chinese people. I had been walking for a while and wanted to get a drink anyways so I accepted the invite gratefully. We walked for a bit and then went to one of the park’s tea houses. I left the ordering part to them as I thought that they would know best. I only started becoming suspicious when it was time to settle the bill. For me, it was obvious that we would divide by three as we were three people, but one of the two women just said: “Let’s just divide it by two.” I thought my part but didn’t object. When I saw the total, it seemed very high but I’d just arrived from Sri Lanka the previous night and wasn’t used to the Chinese currency yet, so I didn’t really question it. However, after we’d left the tea house and I’d said goodbye to them, I took my phone and converted the amount I’d spent into EUR. And I was shocked! I realised that I’d just spent 50 EUR on tea. Until then, I still didn’t want to acknowledge that I’d become subject of a tea scam. I simply couldn’t believe it! They seemed so nice and innocent. First, I thought that it must have been a misunderstanding but the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced about the scam. I was so mad at the women but mostly at myself for having fallen for their scheme! Funny thing is that the next day when I went on the Great Wall Hiking Tour, I met a French guy, Rudy, and exactly the same thing had happened to him; the same women, the same tea house but he had paid even more than I did. We told our hiking guide and he laughed and said that this happens several times a day. He advised us to go back to the tea house and reclaim our money. I had read about people doing that on a travel blog and they had been successful in reclaiming their money. However, they had paid by credit card and had proof that they’d been there. I didn’t have a receipt or anything as I’d paid cash. A picture was the only proof that I’d been there. Nevertheless, Rudy and I decided to go back the next morning. We had nothing to lose, right? Well, we paid once again the entry fee just to find out that the tea house was closed. We walked around for half an hour and asked people if they knew when the tea house would open, but nobody knew. So we decided to give up and accept our fate. I learnt my lesson and will definitely be more careful in the future even though this means that you start questioning everyone that approaches you, which is really quite sad. At least the ladies showed me how to count in Chinese and elaborated on my questions about Chinese culture. They also discerned my animal year. Apparently, I was born in the year of the snake and my boyfriend in the year of the rabbit. According to them, we have a very rich future as the rabbit and the snake go very well together. Not sure how much of it is true though, ha!
Although my China trip didn’t start off that well, the rest of my time in Beijing was great. My highlights were definitely the Summer Palace and the Great Wall Hiking Tour.
The feeling you experience when you finally set foot on the Great Wall is simply indescribable! If you do a Great Wall tour (which you definitely should if you’re in Beijing), I can highly recommend the tour that I’ve done as the guide takes you to a part of the wall that is much less touristic.
I loved the hiking part as well. We were a great bunch of people on the tour and had a lot of fun. We had such a great time that we decided to have dinner together after the tour. We ended this fabulous day with a delicious dinner in one of the hutongs close to the metro station Nanluoguxiang. We came across it by accident and had the best time! The ordering part was a bit difficult as the owner spoke only little English and had only Chinese menus. Normally, I’m not a fan of menus with pictures, but in China, this has come in super handy and was often a life saver! Even though their menus didn’t have pictures, we figured it out somehow and got what we wanted.
Xi’an was my next destination after Beijing and I was super excited to get to the city by highspeed train, ha! For a distance of 1’200km, the train ride took only five hours, including several stops on the way. To be honest, in terms of speed and comfort, the experience was very similar to the one I’ve had in the TGVs, but the Chinese Railway is doing a much better job in terms of cleanliness. Every hour, women scrubbed the floor and collected rubbish and other ladies passed by with food and drinks. It was quite impressive!
Getting around in Xi’an was as easy as in Beijing. I think that was quite different a few years ago. Even now, they are still developing and extending the subway system. I did all the classics, including the Terra-Cotta Army, City Wall, Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, Bell Tower and Muslim Quarter, among which the City Wall was by far my favourite. If you have time, rent a bike and cycle the whole wall (approx. 14km) as I did. It does not only show you the grandeur of the City Wall but also gives you a glimpse of the different neighbourhoods of Xi’an.
It is interesting to see the contrast between old and new as you see the skyscrapers outside the wall.
Even though the Terra-Cotta Army was pretty expensive and touristic, I would do it again because it is very impressive. Especially when one considers that the terra-cotta soldiers were only detected in 1974!
The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is a nice addition to your sightseeing list, but if you’re short on time, I would skip it and do the rest first. If you go there, check out the hours for the water show, which is a nice extra for free.
I had very good but also very bad food experiences in Xi’an. On my first day, I was desperately trying to find some vegetarian food and was already getting really “hangry”. I’m usually a very friendly and patient person, but when I am hungry and don’t get food, I can get really grumpy. My friends can confirm that! So, when I finally found this noodle soup shop in one of the busy streets around the Bell Tower, I went for it! The fact that the shop was fully occupied seemed to be a good sign. Also, it looked really interesting how they prepared the noodle bowls. They were demonstrating how they make the noodles and how they cook them afterwards. You could add the toppings of your choice, which I liked! Yet, the taste of the noodle soup was not what I expected! The noodles looked like worms as they had become transparent-ish. They had a very strange taste and felt really slimy. I had maybe two bites before I finally gave up! In retrospect, this was definitely the worst food experience on my whole trip – thankfully the only one. Otherwise, I have had amazing food without any other negative experience. My favourite restaurant in Xi’an was “First Noodle under the Sun”. A friend of mine recommended it to me and it was definitely a great place! I had noodles with spinach and tofu. It was super yummy and very cheap for the portions you get!
After two full days in Xi’an, I took an afternoon flight to Chengdu where I was about to celebrate my birthday! I was super excited to spend it at the Panda Research Centre, the biggest in the world! Apart from that, I had no other plans for my birthday and no expectations whatsoever. Little did I know by then that this birthday would be one of the most wonderful I’ve ever had!
When I arrived in Chengdu the night before my birthday, I met Yana at the reception of the hostel. She was also traveling on her own and planned to go to the pandas the following day. We started talking and connected immediately, which is why I suggested to visit the pandas together. Yana is the best person you can imagine spending your birthday with when you’re away from your home. She did everything to make my birthday as special as possible, which was super sweet of her. We started the day with the visit of the Panda Research Centre, which was absolutely amazing! We were both like children and couldn’t believe that we were actually observing pandas, one of the clumsiest and cutest animals I know! It was magical!
I had mixed feelings towards their keeping though because the Research Centre felt like a zoo to me and I generally don’t support zoos as the animals are usually kept in cages or territories that are too small. Also, in a zoo, the animals live in a surrounding that often differs considerably from their natural habitat. Yet, the exhibitions in the Research Centre proved my doubts to be unjustified. They do a great job in keeping the pandas healthy and ensuring that they are not subject to extinction. After the visit of the pandas, Yana and I went back to the city centre to look for a lunch place when we came across a street market. We both love street markets so we decided to stroll through it and check it out. They had literally everything! From dumplings, to fruit, veggies, meat, fish, handmade noodles, spices – everything! Since I hadn’t tried dumplings yet, we had some dumplings (I had spinach dumplings and Yana’s were filled with meat) as our appetizer at the street market for almost no money. Afterwards, we walked a little further down the street and found a crowded place where a lot of people were queuing. It reminded me a bit of the Thali that I had in India except that it was served on a silver plate. Basically, you got rice as a base and then several gravies, veggies or meat as sides. Yana and I looked at each other and decided that we had to try it! There were only locals, which made the experience even more authentic. We paid as little as 10 yen and it was not only the cheapest but also the best thing I’ve eaten in China! So tasty!
After lunch, I checked out of the hostel as I’d booked a night at the St Regis
as a birthday treat for myself. If I knew that I’d meet Yana, I might have stayed at the hostel, but it was already booked. When I entered the lobby they looked at me as if I must have mistaken them for another hotel. As soon as they checked their system and noticed that I was a SPG Platinum member, their tone and attitude towards me totally changed. That’s always a bit annoying, but I didn’t let that damp my spirits! In the end, they really did their best to make my birthday as memorable as possible. They gave me an amazing suite on the 24th floor and even delivered a birthday cake to my room. As a Platinum member, you always get a lot of benefits, but this was the best room I’ve ever had! The suite was huge and I did feel like a princess. After check in and a session at the gym, I went back to the hostel as Yana and I had decided to go to a Sichuan opera in the evening to round off this amazing day. It was totally different to what I’d expected, but it was definitely an experience! The performers’ voices were a bit squeaky and strident at times, and overall, it felt more like a cirque du soleil performance than an opera as there was a lot of acrobatics and theatre involved. Yet, we were glad we had the chance to experience this spectacle! After the opera, we wanted to get some dinner to finish off the day in a nice and cosy way. It turned out to be quite an endeavour to find a place to eat. The first restaurant we went to looked very nice as it was an outdoor place and they had set up a nice buffet. We communicated with the manager by Google Translate as there was no English menu and nobody in the restaurant spoke any English. I just wanted to check with her if there were any vegetarian options. When she read my text, she looked astonished and then typed again on her phone. We couldn’t stop laughing when she showed us the translation, which was “It’s not good to be vegetarian!”. The seriousness with which she was showing us the translation made the situation even more hilarious. I assume she meant to say that it’s difficult to find vegetarian options in her restaurant as they had mainly fish or meat dishes. Anyways, we thanked her and said goodbye as we knew that we should better look for another option. The manager of the second restaurant we went to didn’t even let us in. She crossed her hands as if to tell us that the restaurant was closed. However, there were other people entering the restaurant and some were still eating. We assume that she feared to be unable to interact with us as she clearly didn’t speak any English. Anyways, we finally found a little restaurant close-by. It was a success and the perfect finish to a truly wonderful day!
I really had an amazing birthday and was spoilt with lovely messages from all over the world! My boyfriend was the first one who texted me and later on, I even got to speak to him on the phone. My family was super sweet and sent me the loveliest messages. Apart from dozens of text messages from friends all over the world, a very special friend from Switzerland had recorded several video messages from other friends who wished me all the best! It showed me in a very sweet way how many people are on this journey with me. Even though I was on the other side of the world, I felt so loved and blessed that day! Even though I was occupied with a lot of fun stuff, it was quite an emotional day for me too. Birthdays are usually an occasion to reflect and reminisce on the previous year, or life in general. I suddenly felt so grateful for my life, this trip – my journey, i.e. the path that I’d chosen to take two years ago and the pain that I’d decided to leave behind. For those who don’t know (most likely the majority of my readers), I suffered from anorexia for 11 years. I spent the majority of my teenage years in hospital for treatments. My only pursuit in life was to write good grades and lose weight. I neglected my family, my friends, and I stopped listening to what they said. I was suicidal and didn’t really see the beauty in life anymore. I was drip-feeded several times because I refused to eat and care for my body. In my view, I was doing the right thing. This is not only extremely hard but also extremely surreal for me now. Only years later I learnt what kind of damage I did to my body, my psyche and my social environment. My family and friends went through the worst eleven years with me. They didn’t leave my side once and never gave up hope that I would eventually find the right path. This is why my family and also my friends are everything for me. I owe them my life! I’m not talking about this in order to evoke empathy but because I want you to fully understand what this trip means to me! Three years ago, this trip was still utopia. I’ve always had the dream to travel the world, but this was absolutely impossible for eleven years as I was anything but independent. I wasn’t able to look after myself. I lived in the illusion that I was totally fine and that I was doing the right thing. I became only fully aware of the extent and repercussions of my anorexia when I was diagnosed with osteoporosis in 2014. It was diagnosed after I broke my pelvis due to excessive work outs. Only then I realised that I had to change my life completely not only to survive but also to do something with my life. I knew that the change would be hurtful, and it definitely was. It was a struggle and it needed a whole lot of patience and strength. There were times when I wasn’t sure if the fight was worth it. Now, three years later, I’m more sure than ever that all the tears, the pain and the frustration were worth it because I am finally living my dream – to the fullest! I have never been happier than I am now and I know that I wouldn’t be on this trip if it wasn’t for my loving family, especially my mum and my grandparents, my angels, who have guided and supported me through the worst times towards the right path! On my birthday, I reflected on all of the above and I started crying because I am so thankful for the life I am living right now and all the people who are thinking of me and are with me in spirit. I want all of these people to know that I appreciate it extremely much! Thank you, thank you, thank you! When I look back, I am certain that everything happened for a reason. I am the person that I am today because of what happened. I appreciate life and all its treasures so much more. I am still struggling at times and part of the anorexia will probably always remain, but I am confident enough to accept that and live with it! I have ice cream, I have chocolate, I have cheese and other things that I didn’t eat for over 11 years and I can enjoy it now because I know that one is meant to enjoy these things. Food is such a big part of life and everyone should be able to live life to the fullest! Everyone is worthy and supposed to enjoy life! According to contemporary beauty standards, I may not have the perfect body anymore, but I am giving my body what it needs. I wish I could say that I have stopped worrying about beauty standards, but that would be an illusion. I don’t put any pressure on me anymore though because I know that the so-called beauty standards are a social construct. They are extremely powerful and damaging when they are used as a comparative tool. Every body is different and there should not be a standard body to which all other bodies are compared. You might have seen some of my posts on instagram or facebook that deal with this topic. I want society, magazines, shops etc. to stop propagating one type of body image. Every person and every body is worthy regardless of shape, colour, size or race! So I want people to stop judging or putting pressure on other people. Every person should feel loved and worthy! There is a very long way to go in terms of body positivity, but I am not going to stop propagating body positivity and self-confidence because I know what it means to give up everything in order to achieve a certain body type. Also, this excerpt should encourage everyone to fight for their dreams because, as my example shows, dreams can come true!
So after this lengthy excerpt on my anorexia history that I reflected on again on my birthday, and on my attitude towards so-called beauty standards, I want to tell you more about the rest of my China trip. After two amazing days in Chengdu, I flew to Shanghai. I was very curious about Shanghai because I’d heard so many different opinions about it. Unfortunately, out of two days in the business metropolis of China, I spent one day entirely in the hotel. When I woke up the first day, I noticed immediately how tired and exhausted I was. Even though I really wanted to go out and explore, I knew that my body didn’t have the strength to do so. I decided to listen to my body and give it the relaxation it needs and stay in bed in order to be more energised the next day. And it worked! I felt so much better on my second day even though I was still a bit ailing. My highlights in Shanghai were The Bund, the beautiful skyline along the river, the suburbs neighbouring The Bund and Yu Garden.
I had originally planned to go to Suzhou, but since I had only one full day in Shanghai in the end, I decided to take it easy and leave it out.
From Shanghai I took the high speed train to Guilin from where I embarked to Yangshuo the following day. The 9-hour train ride itself was very picturesque because we passed a lot of rice fields. However, my seat neighbours weren’t the best ones. The first one was a very heavy smoker and smelled of extremely strong tobacco. I’m used to the smell of tobacco because my boyfriend smokes, but this experience was totally different. The second seat neighbour was acting super nervous. He was looking at me all the time, sweating and playing with his legs, as if he was on drugs. Well, it’s fair to say that I was more than relieved when we finally arrived in Guilin. At that point, I had no idea that I would receive the news that I’d always feared the most, namely that someone close dies. When I read the text messages from my family that my granddad had died the previous night, I was devastated. Yes, he was in the old people’s home and yes, he was weak, but his death came as a big surprise. I had the immediate urge to call my mum and check how everybody was doing, especially my dad and my grandma. First, I was planning to go to Switzerland for the funeral, but my family convinced me to stay and continue my trip. It was not an easy decision, but I finally realised that it was probably the best thing in the given situation. If I would have gone home, then only for three days and I would have had to leave right after the funeral since I had a flight from Hong Kong to Japan on Monday morning. It was definitely the saddest moment on my trip so far and I wish I could have been with my family. Talking to them on the phone helped a little. I was still in tears when I met two Dutch guys in the hostel living room. They were very sweet and supported me in my decision making process. We had a good chat before I finally went to bed.
The next day I wanted to catch an early bus to Yangshuo. I had checked the weather forecast the previous night and it didn’t look very promising. It turned out that the weather forecast was right because it was raining very heavily. Nevertheless, I decided to leave early and see what the day would bring. After a 1.5-hour bus ride to Yangshuo, it was clearing up and my hopes rose. Well, I just checked in and left the hostel for a stroll when it started raining very heavily again. I decided to return to the hostel, take it easy and relax in the hostel instead of continue walking and looking like a drowned rat. In the end, I slept for a few hours before I woke up again and noticed that the rain had stopped. I decided to go for a walk and look for a dinner place. I had read about the vegetarian restaurant Lotus Pure Vegetarian
and was lucky enough to come across it on my stroll. Although there are technically vegetarian options in almost every Chinese restaurant, it’s not that easy to find them on the menu. The Lotus Pure Vegetarian was thus heaven for me, which is also why I went back there the following day. After a very delicious meal, I joined the crowds in West Street, a very lively street with lots of shops and tourist attractions.
On the following day I decided to go to Xingpong where the spot pictured on the 20 yuan bill can be found. The weather was very cloudy, but at least it was not raining. The scenery in Xingpong was breathtaking! It’s such a magical place with all the wonderfully shaped mountains and the manifold boats on the river.
After two hours in Xingpong I took the bus back to Yangshuo where I wanted to go for a hike. However, as soon as we entered the city of Yangshuo, it started raining again. Since I was told that it’s too dangerous for hikes in Yangshuo when it’s raining, I just went for a long walk and went up one hill to get the view over Yangshuo City.
Yangshuo has an energy that is hard to explain. It was so different to any other place I’ve been to in China. It’s the place that calmed me down the most in China and gave me new energy. I wish I could have done some proper hikes but it was nevertheless a very nice stay!
After almost three weeks in China, I ended my China trip in Guangzhou, from where I took a train to Hong Kong the following day. China has been exciting, beautiful, but also challenging. As mentioned before, getting around in China is fairly easy. Yet, I faced other challenges during my three-week stay. Probably the biggest challenge for me was the language. It is very hard to find a Chinese person who speaks English. Ordering food or asking for directions can thus be a hard endeavour. As a foreigner, it has been really hard to become a part of Chinese culture. Generally, it has turned out to be rather hard to interact in any kind of way with Chinese people. I guess the language barrier is one obstacle whereas another one is the respect of the “other” or the unknown. I’ve made the experience that if Chinese people don’t speak English, they are usually very reserved or even repellent. However, if they speak English, they are generally more open and willing to help. Google Translate helps sometimes but it can also be misleading. Once, for instance, it translated a dish into tofu soup and in the end, it turned out to be boiled leek.
Another big challenge was definitely the habits and behaviour of Chinese people. Munching, spitting and burping is something I will never get used to! If there was a spitting championship, they would win it without a doubt. They are also pretty loud in many ways. For instance, when they call someone, they speak very loudly regardless of how many other people are in the bus/train and they don’t always use earphones but instead just make the whole bus listen to their music. I know that all of the points mentioned above are part of their culture and I truly respect that. I don’t mean to be judgemental. I just aim to demonstrate my point of view.
What really annoyed me is that most people don’t queue. They don’t seem to care if you’ve been there before. Instead, they fight for the first spot. Also, they don’t really care if you’re carrying a big, heavy backpack. Even though I didn’t expect them to give up their seats, I expected them at least to be respectful. However, instead, I was often laughed at because of my big backpack.
China is the country of selfies (even though Rudy told me that Thai people are even worse). They love pictures and selfies which can get quite annoying when you’re at a sight and want to pass them. They often obstructed the whole way. Many people, instead of just asking me, tried to unsuspiciously take pictures of me, which was quite hilarious.
Something that really struck me was the Chinese people’s obsession with security measures. To be honest, it felt more like paranoia than security. Just to give you a few examples, there is a security check every time you enter the metro or the train station. If you have water with you, you need to take a sip in front of the security guards in order to prove that it’s not toxic and that you’re not actually trying to smuggle illegal liquids. I also had to throw away my deodorant because – I quote – “it could explode”. Furthermore, in a plane, you’re not allowed to have your phone in flight mode. Instead, you have to switch it off during the whole flight. Also, people were wearing masks or gloves even though pollution really wasn’t that bad. These are just a few examples that I noticed in terms of national paranoia.
In relation to paranoia I would also like to broach the topic of regulation. There are so many of them! The ones that affect tourists the most are probably the restrictions in terms of apps and websites. So be prepared that Google (any kind of Google product), THE search engine in the “Western” world, does not work in China! Neither do Facebook, Instagram, and wordpress. VPN is thus a neccessity if you want to stay connected! I didn’t have a VPN for the first few days and the absence of Google was definitely the hardest part for me. I use Google for almost everything and being unable to just make a quick query about a sight or a restaurant was thus really hard! Maps.me saved my life as it is available offline as long as you download the maps in advance. I actually prefer it to Google Maps as it is more user friendly in my view.
The fact that there are a ton of American food chains and supermarkets even though the Chinese Government bans major American websites and apps was quite a surprise for me. There are Walmarts, 7Eleven, McDonalds, KFCs, Subways, Dairy Queens and Starbucks at literally every corner. Even though it doesn’t concern data security, I’d have expected them to restrict these things as well, but they seem to love it too much.
Another thing that surprised me was that there were no nail studios! I actually wanted to get my nails done and expected to find a nail studio very easily as a lot of the nail studios in Europe are managed by Chinese women. Yet, I didn’t come across one until the end.
Coming towards the end of this blog post, I would like to talk about something very positive, namely community spirit. This is a big part of Chinese people’s lives. When wandering the streets of China, you often find groups of people chatting, playing cards or dancing. It’s a really wonderful thing to see! They might not be that open towards foreigners, but they do love to strengthen their community and interact with each other.
Despite all the challenges, I am grateful for all experiences in China. It is a beautiful country with so many interesting sights to explore. I thus left China with a smile, full with gratitude and love.