China Travel: Lessons Learned

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This is my list of “epiphanies” — things I learned thru our five-city China trip. Some were things I didn’t do and wished I did.

  1. Prior to the actual trip, research two to three alternative transportation options from one site to another. In some part of Beijing, hailing a cab is more inconvenient that the long walk to the subway station. Sometimes, taking the bus means less walking, compared with taking the subway.

    early morning subway ride to the railway station

    early morning subway ride to the railway station

  2. Bring photos of specific things you are looking for. If you have plans to buy specific things, showing pictures to sellers is the simplest way to ask for what you need. Similarly, writing down the name and address in its local dialect is the easiest way to communicate with cab drivers, subway ticket booth personnel, etc.

    Pages captured from the booklet I gave my travel companions

    Pages captured from the booklet I gave my travel companions

  3. Bring matchsticks. If you are travelling to primitive places, locations with cool climate, or lots of shared toilets, lighting up a match after you poop will take away the smell. Enough said.

    water closet and bath area sharing one sliding door in Mehood Hotel, Xian

    water closet and bath area sharing one sliding door in Mehood Hotel, Xian

  4. For the ladies, colored lip gloss is the way to go. If you are a vain yet aiming to travel light, skip the lipstick and stick to your tinted lip gloss or lip balm. This will not only replace your lipstick color, but it will also keep your lips moist and prevent windburn.
  5. If possible, avoid talking using your native language. This was an advice given by a local acquaintance, specifically when taking cabs around town. If they know you are not local, they will more likely take the scenic route to reach your destination.

    Advice came in too late. We kept on talking, thus, were often taking the scenic route :/

    Advice came in too late. We kept on talking, thus, were often taking the scenic route :/

  6. Bring disposable plastic knife, and baking soda. This is for those who love to buy local fruits and share with companions. You can wash the fruits using the baking soda and cut them to small pieces using the plastic knife. Bringing real metal knife is a no-no, especially during train rides.

    It was strawberry season, and we finished two kilos of strawberry during the trip.

    It was strawberry season, and we finished two kilos of strawberries during the trip.

  7. Use disposable hotel slippers for overnight train rides. This is extremely convenient for midnight trips to the rest room.

    compartment for soft sleeper

    compartment for soft sleeper

  8. Do not include breakfast when booking hotel online. Sometimes, hotels will give it to you when you check in for free. In cases when it is not free, you still have the option to simply add it on or scout around your hotel vicinity for options.

    free breakfast buffet

    free breakfast buffet

  9. For thrifty travellers, boil water in your hotel room at night. In most places, you can use the water heater provided on each room to make tap water safe to drink. Boil the water at night, and by morning, it will be cool enough to pour in your handy water bottles. I recommend (again) Vapur’s foldable water container.

    water container clipped outside Fil's Bag

    water container clipped outside Fil’s Bag

  10. Have extra cash for security deposits. Most hotels we stayed at asked for cny200 to 400 security deposit per room. Although this will be returned fully when you check out, sometimes, it will ruin your budget calculations for the day.
  11. Travel in fours. Four is a nice number when travelling. Sharing a cab is no problem, sharing a sleeper train is no problem. When dining in restaurants, one small table is enough. In addition, Dishes are usually good to share with three to four people.

    most tables are good for four

    most tables are good for four

  12. If you have researched well, you can skip hiring a tour guide for your whole stay. The internet has endless materials, and you can simply distribute research tasks among travel companions. There are also audio guides available for rent on most of the sites that are easy to use and available in almost all major languages. You can also opt to hire a guide only for really important places. Most sites offer guide services near the entrances.
    Guide services offered in Imperial Palace, Beijing

    Guide services offered in Imperial Palace, Beijing

    Jane, our guide for zhangbi underground castle

    Jane, our guide for zhangbi underground castle

  13. Two small bags is better than one large bag. I have to thank Dr. Cathy Chong, my dermatologist, for this advice. Two small bags are easier to carry, easier to fit in small compartments.

    Big bags had to be placed somewhere else.

    Big bags had to be placed somewhere else.

  14. Foreigners cannot buy SIM cards in China. Initially, our plan was to buy SIM cards as soon as we arrive, but locals were confused as to where we could buy one. We went to China Mobile, and they refused to sell to us even when we were willing to provide proper identification. Apparently a recent rule, (each cell number corresponds now to one registered local citizen/person, similar with Taiwan), and SIM cards have become a commodity and they were unwilling to part with it even for paying transient tourists like us.
  15. Lighter and powerbank are not allowed to be checked in plane rides. Throw your lighters away, and put your powerbank in your hand carry.

To read about our China adventures, start here: Five-City China Adventure

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