How China Is Different

July 2, 2013 § 4 Comments

Now that we’ve been here over two months, we can safely say that China provides a very different, and particularly more challenging, travel experience than most other countries we’ve visited. Here we highlight some of the differences, from a traveler perspective:

All the cities here are huge!

Sure, we had read that Shanghai had three times as many people as New York City, but what we didn’t realize was that all the other little dots on the China map are huge cities as well. The US has nine cities with over a million people; China has 171. Chicago, our 3rd largest city, would rank 34th in China (for comparison, our 34th largest city is Fresno, CA).


Shanghai skyscrapers continuing into the horizon

What this means for a traveler is that when you try to escape the big city, you just end up in another city with a couple million people, and then when you try to escape that, you end up somewhere with several hundred-thousand. It takes a bit of work to get to the real villages (e.g. multiple transfers on local buses and sometimes hiking).

It also means that, even on a six-month backpacking trip, you decide to skip some NYC-equivalent destinations. We recently passed through the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, each of which has more people than my entire home state of Michigan. But rather than touring them we chose to merely transfer train/bus stations and to continue on with our travel. Imagine disembarking a train in Grand Central Station, walking around for a few blocks outside, then concluding ‘Nothing to see here in Manhattan… I think I’ll catch a bus to the next city.’ Such is the case in China.

Everywhere is crowded!

Maybe this point is an obvious extension of the previous one. After all, 1 in 5 people on Earth live in China. But we had (incorrectly) expected that with the higher population, there would be proportionally more sites spread over a larger area, so as to disperse the crowds. Nope. Wherever we go, however remote we get, we feel like we can’t turn around without bumping into someone. Hike hours to the top of a mountain only to find masses of Chinese tour groups packed into the summit. Pass through the gate of a historic rural village to be greeted by several thousand other tourists, a horde that outnumbers the population of the village itself. Streets, museums, scenic viewpoints… all feel more congested than in other countries.


Crowds galore! Clockwise from top-left: crossing the street; at top of mountain; in museum; outside train station

Consequently, buses and trains often sell out a day or more in advance — a challenge to our plan-as-you-go travel style. This is exacerbated by the ability of Chinese nationals to book fares online while foreigners must book at the station. During the Chinese Labor Day holiday at the beginning of May we had to reserve accommodation almost a week ahead, and currently I write this post at a hostel while waiting 24 hours for tomorrow’s train since today’s was sold out. This overcrowding was never an issue traveling in South America or Eastern Europe.

A country with its own tourists!

The cause of the omnipresent crowds, aside from population density, is the existence of a Chinese middle class capable of traveling to the same sites as us. Whereas in other (often poorer) countries the majority of tourists are Westerners, in China the domestic tourists outnumber foreigners about 200 to 1. In other places the tourism industry caters to English-speaking travelers, with English signs advertising the sites, English-language descriptions at the attractions themselves, and often English-speaking tour guides. Not true in China; here the focus is on the domestic tourists, and information at sites is predominantly in Chinese. That means even if you can successfully get to the site, you’ll likely miss much of the interesting historical and cultural background.


White tourists are rare; we often get stopped for photo requests

Similarly, the hostels — normally the home-away-from-home for Western backpackers to congregate and make friends — are instead filled with Chinese college students. It’s not uncommon for us to be the only foreigners in the hostel, making it tougher to link up with other English-speaking travelers. While this is a great sign for the progress and development of China, it makes travel all the more difficult for an outsider.

I can’t read!

This was a given. While there’s a language barrier in most countries we visit, in China we can’t even attempt to read and sound out the words. Even when we have the characters written down in front of us (e.g. for the restaurant we’re trying to find), they’re so complex and unfamiliar looking that it’s still tough to recognize them on the signs. And even when we know how to say the word, people can’t understand us because we’re not pronouncing the tones correctly (e.g. first syllable in a high pitch like you’re asking a question, followed by the second syllable which starts high then drops low then rises high again). Other countries like Serbia and Georgia also didn’t use the Roman alphabet, but we could at least memorize the 30 or so characters in their alphabets as a base for sounding out words. Good luck memorizing the 3,000+ characters in Chinese! (Kasey has made some headway though – she currently knows 280 symbols thanks to this book.)


How to figure out what time our bus leaves? Answer: act desperate and ask a random person for help.

Our usual mode of operation here is to have our destination printed in Chinese characters, either from our guidebook or handwritten by the hostel staff. We can then show the characters to bus or taxi drivers, or more commonly to random people on the street. We long ago lost all sense of dignity and don’t hesitate to approach multiple strangers in rapid-fire succession until someone can point us in the right direction.

Plastic slippers with every bathroom!

This is a little off-beat, but worth mentioning since we deal with it every day. First off, most of China uses squat toilets (i.e. holes in the floors). A little uncomfortable but no biggie – they are the standard in many countries, and nicer hostels usually have Western (i.e. sitting) toilets installed anyway. What’s somewhat more peculiar about the bathroom is that the shower is not sectioned off, and the shower-head is often just above the toilet. So the shower water splatters everywhere: down the walls, in the toilet, and most notably across the entire bathroom floor. Since puddles remain on the floor even after showering, every hotel/hostel/guest house (no matter the price point) provides two pairs of Crocs-like plastic slippers so that your bare feet don’t get wet when walking into and out of the bathroom.


Shower over toilet, and the ubiquitous plastic slippers

Another interesting tidbit about bathrooms in China is that public restrooms, while plentiful, do not provide toilet paper. You are expected to carry your own TP at all times, which we happily do. Locals also provide for themselves, in contrast to other countries which utilize a bucket of water for the purpose which is not the case here.


We entered China knowing we’d need to exercise more patience and effort, and while there have certainly been trying times, I think we’ve handled them well. After a couple months, getting around has become second-nature. Now when we arrive in a new city, we quickly navigate using our arsenal of select Chinese words, elbow our way through the crowds if necessary, and settle safely into our hotel room and its plastic slippers.

Spend enough time anywhere and you’ll eventually adapt. In fact, adapting to unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable settings is part of the joy of traveling.


§ 4 Responses to How China Is Different

  • Dawn E Allard says:

    Hey Joe! Its your cousin Dawn. Just wanted to say that I enjoy reading your traveling blogs. Sounds like a lot of fun to me! Happy travels and be safe!

  • Esma says:

    Sounds like you are having a interesting time. Enjoyed your blog – enlightening! Keep safe

  • Barbara says:

    Can’t wait to be there, but wouldn’t mind if our hotels have more western bathrooms.

  • Vinay says:

    Hi Joe, it was interesting reading your blog. A lot of it reminds me of travels/living in Uganda actually. The squat toilets, showers, and plastic slippers at least. The plastic slippers were generally just flip flops though.

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