Going to China has been my long wish; learning from that ancient society, walking down history on the massive Great Wall and just generally getting in touch with locals. In this article I would like to share the experiences I made while I lived in the capital of this mysterious country.
I am coming to China by train from Russia, which is an awesome adventure altogether. After visiting Mongolia for a few days I board the Trans-Siberian Railway which brings me all the way to Beijing, China, from Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. After a few hours of travelling – it is raining heavily – they make an announcement that the whole train has to be evacuated. The reason is that the train before us derailed, hence the railway is blocked. Luckily there are no fatal injuries but chaos rules and a lot of people have to be admitted to nearby hospitals. All the passengers of my train are being evacuated: first we are put on a bus and then on a very nice, brand new, Mongolian train, which brings us all the way to the Chinese border and then to Beijing. I must say that for an emergency situation everything was handled very well. When we arrive at the Chinese-Mongolian border everything goes quite smoothly, we have to wait for some time and then are allowed to board our train again.
After 24 hours of travelling I finally reach Beijing. Mixed feelings are arising in me and at first I feel a little strange and helpless as nobody really speaks English and everything is written in a language I do not understand. The air pollution is so high that it seems like it is already night, even though it´s just 4 pm in the afternoon. First I need to find an ATM where my card is working and that is already taking a long time. Then, due to tiredness and not looking properly I end up blocking my ATM card as well (in China the numbers on the ATM plate are in a different order!) but luckily I have a second card with me. The next big challenge is trying to get a taxi which brings me to my hotel, it seems like no driver wants to take me for reasons I don´t understand. After a very long “sign language discussion” finally someone agrees to take me. The hotel is in the centre, actually a nice area, where many foreigners live; although for what the hotel is offering the price is quite high.
The initial days are quite hard for me, getting used to the people and their way of handling things and behaviour, as well as not being able to communicate, is a challenge. For example every time I go to buy fruits and vegetables the lady of the shop shouts at me. I obviously don´t understand anything and get quite upset and hesitate every time I have to go back there. After some time although, I figure out that she isn’t really shouting, but that speaking very fast, loud, and in a high pitched voice is a very normal thing in China. Isn´t it funny that how we perceive things and how things actually are is very different? In the end, we even became quite good friends and had awesome conversations using both our languages and not really understanding much, but anyways we enjoyed it.
After a few days I have to leave the hotel and I am looking for a room in a shared apartment. It is really difficult to find anything suitable in the centre for less then six months and most of the places are around 700-800 Euro and more, for only one room. Therefore for two weeks I end up staying in a room in the 19th floor, without any windows and hence no feeling for day or night. It was tough; considering that there was no air, it was hot and I don´t have such a friendly relationship with elevators. Luckily after some days I finally find an appropriate appartment and I naturally ask the agent if I can meet my room-mate; suddenly the agent gets upset and declines renting the room to me (apparently meeting the room-mate before moving in is not so common in Beijing, as different rooms are managed by different agencies). Again, after a long discussion she agrees and things turn out well, and I shift to the new location.
VPN & Google
In China I am always struggling with Google Maps as well as Facebook, WhatsApp etc. as these sites ONLY work if you have installed a VPN (Virtual Private Network; I recommend Express VPN for approx. 12 Euro a month); but actually using Google Maps is not a good idea as it isn´t very accurate and I had a lot of problems with it. You have to install a different map, e.g. Baidu Maps. Also it is very important to install your VPN ahead of your visit to China, otherwise it will not be possible anymore. Occasionally it can happen that the VPN doesn´t work anymore for a few days and then, oh well, you just need to wait it out! Therefore I recommend having another browser besides Google on your phone/computer so that you can still look things up even though the VPN doens´t work.
Communication & Food
Thankfully of this new age and all the technology we are having nowadays, communication isn’t really an issue, as long as you have some electric device with you, with an easy translation app like Google Translate: by downloading the correct languages you can literally speak to everyone as long as you have enough battery. It is really a great tool and I use it on a daily basis as it makes things A LOT easier!
Regarding food, the most difficult thing is to find something WITHOUT MEAT, as they have meat in literally every dish, even if it is just a few pieces. One time my roomate gave me some pastries, some traditional cookie called “Moon cake”, it looked like something sweet, so I didn´t expect the taste of ham in my mouth when I took the first bite. I really couldn´t believe it and so I asked the person next to me and she confirmed that it is pork meat mixed with pineapple. So, yes, even when something looks “sweet” be cautious, because it might have some meat hidden in it. Even the red chilly sauce which you can find in restaurants and you use with your meal e.g. with rice or noodles, sometimes has meat (e.g. beef) in it. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you really should be prepared to eat meat in one or the other way when dining outside.
You know how in Europe the Chinese shops always have cheap products? Well, in Beijing, if you want to buy something in a shop, from my experience it is very expensive; it is literally cheaper to buy something in the Chinese shops in Europe. Actually Chinese people don’t really buy things in shops, maybe because of a lack of time or the increased price, they actually prefer buying things online, e.g. on TAOBAO. TAOBAO is a great website as you can literally find everything you need, they deliver it in just a few days right to your doorstep and the prices are much much cheaper than in the shop. I actually bought a Chinese dress in Hong Kong and a Chinese tea cup in Sikkim (north-east India), for a better price then I could ever find in Beijing. Even the popular markets in Beijing, like the Pearl and Silk market are very touristy and overpriced, it is difficult to bargain and hence get a good deal. I personally find it to be much easier and cheaper to get things like electronics, sunglasses etc. in India. In China they do have some hidden “black markets”, also so called “Knock Knock” markets, which are a little difficult to find, where you can buy certain branded products for a good rate, but I have only heard from those and no personal experience. But then again the question arises “Do you even want to buy e.g. a fake branded Moncler jacket after you know the reality of the shocking Chinese fur industry?”
In China, and probably in many more countries in the world, many animals are breaded and captivated in order to be exploited; mostly because of their fur but also in order to make medicine for TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). In TCM, bones, as well as bile, the penis, the horn etc. of many different animals are used. This is apparently the main cause that more than 90% of the rhinos died in the last 40 years.
During my time in China I never saw anyone selling dog meat but people do eat it, not only in China, but in different parts of the world, e.g. north-east India, as well as north Vietnam – let´s say in colder places – as it is a meat that gives a lot of heat to the body.
Opposing to the view that we have in the West, e.g. that Chinese people eat all the animals, on the other hand, they are also animal loving. The common man and woman in Beijing has dogs, cats, turtles and even birds as pets. I did notice that no one has a non bread dog; most people have a big beautiful dog, e.g. Husky, Siberian Malamute etc. – the bigger the better – even though most people in the city live in apartments. The same thing I also noticed in Mumbai, India; so I wondered, has the dog become something like a “show off” for people? Also, in Beijing, they have a lot of dog saloons where dogs can get a “cool” haircut and where one can buy different outfits for their pet, like coats, pullovers, shoes etc. I found it very amusing to see how the little dog is running around with his shoes! Another interesting fact is that many people keep a tortoise in front of their house; later I found out that a tortoise at the back door of a house or in the backyard by a pond, is said to attract good fortune and many blessings in China. On the other hand the controversy is that Chinese people do love to eat softshell turtles.
To be continued…
All pictures: CC BY SA 4.0, Isabel Scharrer, except:
** CC BY SA 4.0, Doreen Ullrich