Oh, China. I loved you - but you were no walk in the park. Once we overcame the intimidating and scary ‘I’m-in-a-foreign-land-and-don’t-speak-the-language’ factor, the fun ‘I’m-in-a-foreign-land-and-don’t-speak-the-language’ began. This primarily involves situations like this one:
Most of my exploring-joy comes from food. I love food and have no shame when I say that I'm a food snob. This doesn't mean that I'm picky about price or how fancy something is - I'm only a snob when it comes to flavor. It's got to be delicious.
Our first experience with Jianbing was because we were hungry and couldn’t find a restaurant with pictures. We didn’t need a photo-menu to know we wanted one of whatever this lady was selling. 45 seconds and 7 yuan later, we had one of the most surprisingly delicious things we ate the whole trip.
Jianbing represents one of my absolute favorite parts of traveling: discovering new food. I am thoroughly surprised that I’ve never had one of these (or even heard of them) before in my life. All anybody wanted to tell us to try when we were headed to Beijing was Peking duck. We did – and I liked Jianbing more. The Peking duck dinner cost us $80 USD - including two glasses of red wine and a side dish of eggplant sautéed with garlic. Jianbing costs $1 - $2 USD, and one was more than enough to fill me up.
Our two other favorites we had: dumplings and steam buns. The steam buns were typically filled with what I assume was pork. Served in a hot, steamy, woven basket 8 at a time, these were the perfect breakfast on the go item. The dumplings we had in all shapes, sizes and fillings. (Funny language barrier repercussion here: Thought we ordered 15 dumplings for breakfast one day. Actually ordered fifty.)
The most famous monuments in China - Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Lama Temple – we found to be a little bit disappointing. They are far more interesting because of their history and significance than because of their appearance. I cannot see how children or people uninterested in historically significant locations are even remotely entertained here. I loved it for the history, the stories, the thought of the millions who had been here previously - but I can be nostalgic in places such as this. Otherwise, The Forbidden City is extremely large, relatively empty, and on a bad-smog day, overly gray and dirty.
The Lama Temple was more interesting to us. Incense burning, mumbled prayers everywhere, the largest carved Buddha, beautiful gingko trees.
Far and away the coolest thing we saw was, you guessed it, the Great Wall.
Due to the fact that we were there in late November and it was around 20F outside, we mostly had the Wall to ourselves. It was windy and extremely cold. Most of the ground (even on the wall) was covered with ice. So we bundled up best we could, took our cameras out and climbed it anyway.
China was hard. Amazing, enlightening, full of delicious food, but not relaxing.
Disclaimer: I spent my entire 9 days in and around Beijing, which is a tiny part of an enormous country. Summing the entirety of China up in one blog post when I’ve only been to Beijing is like writing a book on America when you have only been to New York City.
But I’m not sure how else to describe it. We didn’t go on a tour or a pre-planned trip (I’ve never been on one but they don’t appeal to me in the slightest). We booked tickets in Beijing and I planned on doing what I’ve always done – light research and a little bit of winging it. Here’s a tip that I wish I had received before I went:
You cannot ‘wing it’ in China. Not even a little bit.
The taxi drivers don’t speak English, the waiters don’t speak English, venders don’t speak English, almost nobody speaks English. Use Google Translate? Nope! China blocks Google. No Google Maps, No Gmail access, No Googling. Turns out China blocks a large majority of the websites that I use frequently while traveling. There was practically no information on TripAdvisor or Yelp either. I would estimate that 90% of the street signs or maps have no English on them, not even hidden in a tiny corner somewhere.
Well, duh, you say. They speak Chinese there! Yes, I know, thank you. But at major tourist attractions (even in America, which is notoriously un-welcoming to other languages), there is usually at least ONE sign with multiple languages on it indicating where you are. Not in Beijing. Even in other places that are difficult for English speakers, you have access to the internet to help you communicate. I’m not coming down on them for prioritizing their native language at all – I’m just saying that it’s difficult for tourists and to be prepared if you are going there, so you can enjoy your time as much as possible.
If you want to get around, you need to have your desired address written down in Chinese. Since your taxi driver can’t communicate with you, if they don’t know where it is, they typically just shove the paper back in your hand and drive away. Try to get your feet out of the way in time. This happened to us multiple times. Luckily, once, the traveler’s best friend – a friendly, helpful local - stepped in for us and wisely used a Chinese-government-approved translating app to help us tell the Taxi where we were going.
The best part about traveling is when people are super excited to meet a foreigner. A lot of people we encountered in China ignored us completely, even when we were trying to communicate with them. I don’t find this dichotomy exclusive to China – I think this is a difference in people all over the world. Some people avoid others whom are different, or act like they aren’t there. They are uncomfortable, they aren’t sure how to communicate, don’t want to deal with the hassle of somebody who doesn’t speak their language, or want to try but don’t want to look dumb – I don’t know.
Then you meet somebody who is so kind, it doesn’t seem like an annoyance to them that you don’t speak their language. Again their reasons are unknown; They were grateful for a local’s assistance once, they like to meet humans who lead different lives than them, or maybe they are simply friendly, outgoing, uninhibited people. All I know is that I appreciate and love them and feel closer to humanity as a whole every time I meet somebody like this. And I try my hardest to return the favor and be that kind, patient person that I love, to all travelers in my homeland.