My travel through China has come to an end, for now. I came back to Beijing to begin my journey north to Mongolia.
I remember going to the Great Wall on my first day. That was the face of China to me then: the Great Wall. But it is more than that to me now. It is the dumplings and spices, freshly fried youtiao bread and warm soya for breakfast, pandas and buddhas, sharing food with people I just met, the jostling and elbowing of people impatient to form queues, the smog and the mountains, the kindness I received from strangers….
Beijing is the quintessential big chinese city. Chaotic roads and massive building blocks strewn everywhere as if they were haphazardy built by a 2-year-old playing legos. All these bedlam intermingled with historic and local hutongs. I love wandering through these narrow alleyways and observe everyone go about their daily activities. Here in this city you will find art, culture, religion and history in every district. And more importantly, here you can get the Beijing yogurt for just 3 yuan (in other cities this yogurt sells for 10-15 yuan). This city has a lot of character.
Beijing is my favourite city in China.
Here are more pictures from my time in Beijing: Beijing Facebook photos
From Shanghai I splurged on a fast train and reached Beijing in 4 1/2 hrs. The common fast trains are designated with the letters D and G. These trains can travel at around 300 km/hr and they are niiice. You get your own seat with ample leg room, there’s a food tray and a power outlet. They even have a western toilet on board with free toilet paper to boot! Someone cleans the aisle every 30 minutes and picks up accumulated trash from food stuff (people here are constantly snacking, no joke).
I’ve been using the K-trains on my journeys. These are the slower, cheaper trains that most locals and people on a budget use — cramped spaces, hard seats, chairs are facing each other, squat toilets only, you provide your own toilet paper. Dirty. Ever wonder what a squat toilet is like after 7 hours of use by people who are constantly snacking and drinking tea? You don’t want to know. But it’s cheap and therefore a more sustainable mode of journey for long term travel when time is not really an issue. And being face to face with your Chinese seat mates forces you to communicate with them. Everyone thinks I’m Chinese and talks to me in Mandarin.
Night journeys on sleeper trains are also useful. You get a choice of hard seat, hard sleeper, or soft sleeper. This is what a hard sleeper looks like inside: (“hard” because of lack of cushion and yes, your back will hurt)
As a price comparison, when I took a hard sleeper from Beijing to Dàtóng (6 1/2 hours) the hard seat cost $7, the hard sleeper $14, and the soft sleeper $24. I know it seems silly not to choose the soft sleeper for just $10 more. But all those extra dollars add up when traveling long term.
When I arrived in Beijing I took the subway to my hostel and was greeted by the familiar lullaby that plays in the vicinity of the subway stairs. Hearing that tune brought back memories from my first week in China, in Beijing.
I remembered complete dissonance: unfamiliar language and letters, and the sounds: loud speakers belting out advertisements in store fronts (at least I thought they were advertising something, I didn’t understand anything), and the constant clearing of throat, hacking of lungs and spitting everywhere (I noticed this is more common here than in the mountains down south— could be due to the air quality?)
The language barrier was the most mentally challenging. China have signs everywhere in big, bold, in-your-face characters. Letters that I do not understand. No one speaks or understand English (to be expected, I am in China after all). And surprisingly, there weren’t a lot of foreigners. Majority of travellers here are Chinese tourists traveling in big groups. In some towns I have visited I could count the number of non-Chinese tourists I have encountered in one hand.
To be surrounded by meaningless letters and sounds is mentally taxing. This was my feeling during my first days in China. Now, 5 weeks later, I still don’t understand them. Sure, I’ve picked up a few words (mostly numbers and common phrases) and I can make out a few letters. But, I have been desensitised to the chaos. I have come to expect the different sounds and the unfamiliar Chinese characters to be just there. Just go with the flow.
I met a guy from Spain who complained of the lack of english in food places so he’s been eating his meals in hotels. Really? You’re in food heaven (in my opinion) and you’ve been eating boring western food in hotels? Just go out in the street and point to some food that looks good. You don’t need an english translation when you can see the food right in front of you. (Well, I said it much nicer.)
The one time when I did enter a restaurant with english translations on the menu, I didn’t think the translation helped much… I can’t imagine “Pull out bad child” sounds appetizing or even informative to anyone.
My point is, don’t let the language barrier or fear of the unfamiliar isolate you.
I would say that my most important possession right now is my smartphone. Take everything else from me just leave me my phone (and maybe my passport because it would be a hassle to get a replacement.) I use it on wifi to look things up, figure out logistics, and take pictures of the Chinese names of the places I need to go to.
I have added a few apps that I rely on heavily: Microsoft Translate, Maps.me, and WeChat.
Here in China, everyone and their grandmother is on WeChat. I eventually had to get this to keep in touch with people I have met along the way. And one cool thing about WeChat is that it is linked to their bank account and they use it to pay for everything by scanning a QR code. It’s sorta like Paypal, or Apple Pay, only everyone and their grandmother uses it. No one forks out cash around here, they just whip out their phone. They use it to pay for food, a haircut, grocery, renting bikes… Even a street vendor selling 5-cent popsicles in a small ice box uses a QR code. It’s brilliant! We need to have this in the U.S.
Of course, the best parts of these past few weeks were the bits and pieces in between. The moments that I cannot capture in photographs, the people that I have met in my journey, and those who have shared my journey.
Damn, I really like this country.
Spiderman likes China too.