Traveling in China was amongst the most difficult things I’ve done. Not because I felt unsafe, nor because I was harassed. I just really didn’t like the locals. Perhaps this is a bit controversial to say, but this was the main reason why I was counting down the days until I could leave China.
First of all, I was supposed to travel with two of my friends. They convinced me that we had to add China to our list of countries to visit in Asia and it did sound tempting to me back then. The visa cost me about €200 and it was a pain in the ass to get it. I should’ve known then that this was a sign for what was about to come. But still, China has always fascinated me and I was determined to know what was going on in one of the world’s biggest and most influential countries.
My first impressions of China
We first landed in Beijing after having spent some incredible days in Seoul. My expectations were low but I have to say, I was fascinated by Beijing. Not always in a good way. I didn’t like it to be honest, but I have never been to a city like it. First of all, you could really feel the communist presence there, and the smog is quite bad (not as bad as I imagined though). The city itself isn’t beautiful either, it was like a mix of very traditional meets ultra modern. Confusing and bizarre… But it all makes for quite the interesting place. We got to visit the Great Wall of China, Summer Palace and the Forbidden City during our stay in Beijing. All of them were absolutely breathtaking! I loved the Great Wall and that was one of my best days in China. But it still didn’t salvage my experience there.
Everything felt a bit fake to me. And rushed. The people didn’t give two cents about you either and this is not the country to travel in if you want friendly and warm locals. There’s not a lot of tourists there either, and China is HUGE so you’ll feel a bit lonely. At least that’s what I did.
I split from my two friends after Beijing and started to travel alone because we wanted to do separate things, and that’s when I started noticing how few tourists there are. There were times when I was the only foreigner in a hostel. Shanghai was probably the most touristic city, and it wasn’t even a lot of foreigners there. But that’s one thing I could’ve lived without, if only the locals were at least nice.
My issue with the locals
Okey, I know there’s millions and millions of Chinese and perhaps it’s not fair of me to judge everyone by my 3-week experience. But I’ve also met Chinese tourists abroad and I think they too act the same. I quickly found out that the Chinese are RUDE. And they spit. All.. The… Time. But not in the discreet way. No no, they make sure that you hear it. Remember that scene in Titanic with Jack and Rose? Yeah. Just like that but they do it 24/7. This drove me crazy because not only did I find it nasty, it made me lose my appetite – not that the food was anything spectacular. It baffled me how much the locals just didn’t seem to care about anything! They didn’t have any manners at all. I have never encountered so many rude people in those weeks I was there. I mean, pros are that they really don’t give a F about you and they’ll leave you alone (a.k.a no harassments so totally safe to travel as a solo female traveler). Cons is that they don’t give a F about you, so if you ask them about directions, you can forget about getting a reply. Okey, this was also due to language barriers, but still. They just looked at me like I was an alien and said something in Chinese (albeit not nice words).
But I have some redeeming words as well. I did meet some locals that were very helpful towards me and tried their best to help me when I was lost. The hostel staff were usually friendly too so there are some exceptions. But they were few.
The distances are insane
This is not the country’s fault or the locals (obviously), but daaaayummm. The distances in this country is insane, and I, as usual, underestimated it. My butt has never hurt as much as when I took a train for 12 hours and shared a bench(!!!) with a big Chinese family. I like traveling but not when I always have to be in long transits every time I want to go somewhere. Shanghai – Hangshuo was the shortest trip I did, with a 1 hour bullet train ride. My ass was thankful for that.
Google Maps? Nope. Not here.
As with a lot of apps in China, Google Maps was blocked. For someone who always relies on Google Maps, I was panicking. I could survive without Facebook, Instagram, Google, etc, but Maps? That’s how I navigate, how I find hostels, restaurants and other important places. Add unfriendly locals to that and you are in for a tough ride. But somehow I managed and I’m alive, so if I can do it, you can too. As for the other apps, you just need to download a VPN app. Some cost money, but I got mine for free. I don’t remember what it was called unfortunately. I think I’ve blocked some memories from my trip to China (baha).
There’s no denying that the country is beautiful
As much as I “hated” it, I also loved it. There was a ton of frustration during my trip, but it was compensated with some of the most incredible sites and landscapes. My hellish train ride to Zhangjiajie was so worth it when I finally got to the national park. The only thing I knew about it was that it was the inspiration for the floating mountains in the Avatar movie, but I would’ve never guessed how insanely beautiful it would be. It’s also one of my fondest memories from my Asia trip, when I finally met another traveler who asked me if he could hike with me. This cute Argentinian guy told me he had also been struggling to meet other travellers so he was really happy when he saw me. I asked him how he knew I was not Chinese and he just laughed and said “Come on, I know better”, indeed you do, I thought as I was looking at him with hearts in my eyes. Bless him.
There wasn’t really a place in China that I didn’t find beautiful though. I was especially happy when I arrived to Yangshuo in the south and the landscape started to remind me of Vietnam. I also noticed that the further south I went, the more liberal people seemed to be. I was finally starting to enjoy my trip in China. Too bad it was too late then.
Will I go back?
To be honest, when I was there, all I could think about was how I could get out. I know I sound dramatic, but traveling solo was challenging because I wasn’t meeting many other travellers, I felt lonely, there were no locals I could hang out with and they were still so ill-mannered wherever I went. I wasn’t a big fan of the food either, although it was way cheaper than I expected it to be.
I was tired of traveling long distances, tired of listening to people spit all the time, tired of always having to rely on my VPN for me to feel connected to the outside world, and I was craving some beach time, instead of freezing my ass off. But there’s still a ton of cities, little towns, national parks, etc, that I want to visit in China. I’m still sad I didn’t go to Chengdu, which is apparently one of the more liberal cities, and I would love to see the colourful “rainbow” cliffs in Zhangye National Geopark. There’s also Fenghuang, Lijiang and Dali that I’ve heard so many good things of. So yes, I do think that I will go back one day, even though the visa cost me a bunch and I am still a bit traumatised.
Do I recommend it?
Yes and no. But mostly yes. I think us humans have a fun way of always remembering the positive parts when we leave a place. But I think either you love it or you hate it. I honestly hated it when I was there, but I slowly learnt to love it, to embrace the craziness, to enjoy it for what it is. I think these three weeks made me way tougher and patient. I learnt how to navigate without Google Maps, which is probably the biggest accomplishment of my life. I got to spend a lot of time with me, myself and my thoughts, which is always needed. And I also appreciate this experience because how many people get to travel solo in China?
Traveling isn’t all about beaches, pink sunsets, deciding on which smoothie bowl you’re getting or staying in party hostels. It’s, perhaps most importantly, learning about different cultures, customs, traditions and also be willing to adapt to them. I wouldn’t change one bit because everything happened the way it was supposed to. Traveling is meant to open up your eyes, to make you feel something, to educate you and make you part of someone else’s reality. And that’s why traveling never fails me.
China is raw, authentic, dirty, beautiful, bizarre and quite amazing. There’s really no place like China. Which I’m actually, quite happy about.