Saturday, April 13, 2013

First time traveler's guide to China


On your first trip to China, be prepared for a totally fascinating but different culture. And be warned, they will be equally fascinated by you. I like to think that I'm a pretty normal kind of guy and fit into society nicely. I was not prepared to be stared at in the way that I was. I soon learned that it was fascination by the Chinese seeing round blue eyes. I'm sure their fascination will fade as more and more round blue eyes appear in their country.

When you decide to go, the first thing to do is contact the Chinese Embassy or visit their website to get the appropriate forms for your visa. This will give you all the information you will need of what to bring with you to the Embassy when applying for your visa, and the costs.

My wife and I had to go to London (England) for our visas. Get there early and be prepared for a long wait. They will take your passports and then mail them to you in due course. It's scary leaving your passport in the hands of communists, but that is the norm and we had no trouble. They have a pretty no nonsense approach at the embassy in London so don't expect any chit chat. They did bark at us like drill instructors.

You cannot buy Chinese Yuan, or RMB as the Chinese refer to it, currency outside of China. So be prepared to change up some currency at the airport. The current exchange rate is
14 Yuan to the British pound or 7 to the U.S. dollar. That hasn't changed much over the past few years and is unlikely to have any dramatic changes as the Chinese government controls the rate of exchange. Three years ago, it was 15 and 8, respectively. So you needn't shop around for the best rate of exchange. It is the same everywhere.

I was a bit nervous going through customs and immigration. Not because I have criminal tendencies - but because I had never been to a communist country before. It was uneventful. The officer looked at my, and my wife's passports and visas, stamped it and we were away without a word spoken. We cashed up about 50 pounds at the airport and then outside to catch a taxi.

One should always try to travel around China with your destination written in Chinese characters. Believe me, you will find very little English spoken. The concierge at the hotel will be your best bet. Tell him where you want to go, have him write it out in Chinese characters, and then you can show it to the taxi driver. We always carried a card with the name of the hotel with us in Chinese just so we could always hop in a taxi and show the card to the driver.

Before we went, I tried, but failed, to get our hotel name converted into Chinese characters. But I did run off a picture of our hotel. We were staying at the J. W. Marriott at Tomorrow Square. I might add that it was one of the best hotels I have ever stayed at in my life. Fortunately, it is a very unusual looking building. We got into the taxi at the airport and I showed the taxi driver the picture. We sat there for ages while our driver studied the picture intently letting out the odd "Uhmmmm". And then it began.

If you have ever wondered what the term "bat out of hell" would feel like, get in the back of a Shanghai taxi. For the next 45 minutes we got to know what it would be like to be a passenger in a formula one car. Charging at 90 miles per hour into the back of a parked bus, three inches from impact, phew, our driver would then swerve into the next lane while avoiding the 50 cyclists by millimeters. We traveled so close to the cars next to us I would have struggled to get a cigarette paper between the cars. Shanghai taxis are not for the faint hearted; but they are cheap and a good way to get around. Just make sure you have used the facilities before you climb aboard for the ride of your life.

Because we were touring on our own, I did plenty of research on the internet before we went. I stumbled upon an article describing how there were different colored taxis in Shanghai. This article recommended the turquoise taxis. I can't comment on any of the other colored taxis because we always managed to get a turquoise one. Even at our hotel, turquoise were the only color they used.

In addition to changing money for RMB at the hotel, I took $500 cash. They did come in handy as I used them to bargain at the market and I bought a set of golf clubs in Shanghai as well. I told the concierge that I wanted a set of golf clubs. He wrote down an address in Chinese and said "They give you good deal". We went there and when it came time to pay, the lady said "No VISA and no RMB. U. S. dollars only". Luckily I had them. The clubs cost $200. Of course they were fakes. But I got the bag, airport bag and shoe bag. The clubs lasted about a year but I am still using the carry bag, the shoe bag and four of the clubs. Well worth two hundred dollars.

Virtually anything you buy in the market will be a knock off so don't expect it to last. And be prepared to haggle. Hard. The Chinese will start very high, so you must start very low. The calculator will come out and you take turns punching in numbers. When I bought a two "Rolex" watches for 300 RMB, I punched in 250 about 10 times in a row while he would slowly come down. He knew I was coming up much more. When you're close to your top, keep putting in the same number time and again.

The alternative to the market is the designer shops. There are plenty of them but they are very expensive. Gucci in Shanghai is more expensive than Gucci in London.

When we looked up the weather before we went in April, the forecast was 50F and rainy. When we got there it was 80F and dry. Take your own clothes for varied weather conditions and don't think, as we did, that you will just buy clothes there. Chinese sizes do not fit western women. My wife was not impressed when she wanted a size ten outfit for the heat but had to by XX Large. The Chinese are not big people hence small clothes. It does nothing for a woman's ego to buy XXL, so bring your own clothes.

The food is very good in the hotels and the western restaurants, but not particularly cheap. The food in the local restaurants is cheap but it is not good. We tried to go local but the food was not to our taste at all. In fact, it was dire.

All in all, China was a wonderful experience and well worth the trip. I would highly recommend it for anyone who wants a vastly different holiday.

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