It was my first time in China. Many years ago, I had gone as far as Singapore for a business opportunity that never took off. Back then, I was impressed by the tall, shiny skyscrapers, the smells and the colour of a modern far east. I tasted food I had no idea what it was, I walked in exotic places and I saw things completely new to me. I also experienced the exhausting humidity of the tropicals and the extreme difference between indoor and outdoor climate. No wonder they call it the air-conditioned nation.
Last month, more than 15 years after that first encounter I found myself wandering in Beijing. The journey to arrive there involved 3 different planes, one delay, a missed flight, 4 airports, a car, a train and 2 taxis. Cut the long story short I arrived at my hotel exhausted after a journey that lasted more than 24 endless hours.
I stayed 4 days in Beijing and another 4 days in Chengdu. Chengdu is one of those cities you probably never heard, but apparently are quite large business hubs. Obviously this trip does not make me an expert in China (very far from it). Nevertheless, for what is worth I put together a few tips for any Westerner that plans to visit China either for business or for pleasure:
- Pollution levels are beyond imagination. Be prepared to feel like a firefighter. You may want to consider to buy a mask (I did not, but probably I should have).
- Forget about not smoking indoors. Chinese people are smoking everywhere, out in the streets (no problem) and everywhere inside restaurants, bars, hotels, you name it.
- Traffic jams are everywhere. If you’ll get in the car, chances are you’ll be stuck in traffic for at least 10-15′ minutes regardless the distance you want to travel.
- Communication is a continuous struggle. Very few people speak English and those who do, do it quite poorly. Took me 5′ to explain I wanted the bill and not another menu and I was in the hotel restaurant.
- If you don’t know the language, you’d better find somebody who does. Otherwise stick to the prearranged programs and sightseeing tours. If you finally manage to find someone to understand you, make sure you tell them explicitly what you DO want and what you DON’T. Forget your elaborate and polite English. Speak with small sentences and avoid idiomatic expressions.
- If you plan to go outside for running, you may want to reconsider. The air is so heavy, that affects your breathing. If you want to train, make sure your hotel has a gym and stick to it.
- Chinese food is nothing like what you eat in European Chinese Restaurants. In China they eat everything, snails (ok), eels, chicken feet, ants, scorpions, snakes, turtles. And food often is more spicy than a European can stand.
- Do take the Metro. In Beijing and Chengdu it is excellently signed in English, with very informative maps and signs everywhere.
- Be patient and be prepared for long travels. The drive to the Great wall for instance from Beijing will take you 1,5 – 2 hours depending on the specific area you plan to visit. Traffic jams are common and the driving conditions are “adventurous” to say the least.
- Time does not count the same for Chinese. They do not perceive it the way a westerner does. Remember this.
China is a not a country. It’s a continent. It is an ancient civilisation that went from the feudal and Imperial political state, straight to communism and now to a very unique “state controlled capitalism”. It’s complex, fascinating, rapidly changing and expanding. Handle with care.