Notes on China 2015-23

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  • 2023: Harder than ever to get a VPN that works in China. You should assume that you'll have no Internet in China, like 40 years ago.
  • 2023: Two ways to go from Shanghai to Pudong airport: 1. Take the bus line 1 from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station (about 1.5 hour); 2. Take metro line 2 tp Longyang Road and then switch to Maglev train for a total of about 1.5 hour (note that when you reach Longyang Rd you have to physically exit the station, then turn left for about 100 meters, then take the escalator to the upper floor).
  • 2023: Increasingly QR codes are used by restaurants, subways, etc. These are fine if you have a Wechat or Alipay account, but very few foreigners do. It is becoming difficult for a foreigner to travel in China because it is becoming difficult to pay with cash.
  • 2012: The visa for mainland China is usually easy to obtain at any embassy. By far the easiest, fastest and cheapest place to apply for a Chinese visa is Hong Kong.
  • 2018: The Chinese love hot drinks, especially hot water, so it is difficult to find cold drinks, especially cold water, and you look really weird if you ask for a cold drink.
  • 2018: China's crowds are rarely scary like they used to be. One problem though is that the Chinese seem to have a passion for bumping into others, even when it would be relatively easy to avoid others.
  • 2018: Eastern China is blessed with a network of excellent high-speed trains and subways.
  • 2018: Crime is rare; violent crime is extremely rare. Passengers leave their luggage unattended on trains. Pedestrians walk around with expensive phones without taking precautions.
  • 2018: English is spoken by an increasing number of young Chinese, and virtually all the important signs in public places (and on buses and trains) are translated into English.
  • 2018: Mainland China bans Google, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, most news media and pretty much all non-Chinese apps. You need a VPN if you want to be able to communicate with your friends and relatives back home. You cannot download a VPN while in China, so make sure you do it before entering China. The VPN will not work all the time, and it will dramatically slow down your online experience. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes to perform a search that elsewhere takes 2 seconds. Being in China is fully equivalent to being in a very poor jungle village with slow erratic Internet.
  • 2018: China has its own search engine (Baidu) and its own social networking (WeChat), but beware that Baidu is possibly the worst search engine ever developed (it won't find most of the pages on the Internet) and that use of Wechat is not recommended by an increasing number of US and European universities and for a good reason.
  • 2018: It is extremely difficult to get on the Internet in train stations and airports. At the least, you need to have a Chinese phone. But even so, you'll find out that WiFi is extremely slow. Most Chinese don't use WiFi, they use their mobile phone service. You may be able to use your foreign phone in China, but VPNs are unlikely to work on phones (the government cracks down on Android and Apple phones a lot more than on desktop computers). Generally speaking, hostels for foreigners have the most reliable Internet connections. Big hotels seem to have the worst, probably because Intenet communications are more controlled in big hotels than small hostels.
  • 2018: US credit cards are de facto not accepted in ordinary stores/restaurants. Most Chinese use the phone to pay.
  • 2018: Prices in big cities are rapidly approaching (even surpassing) prices in Western countries. If you want to have the same food and drinks that you have in your country, you'll pay more, sometimes a lot more. Neighborhood shops and restaurants are still far cheaper but they only speak Chinese and only have signs in Chinese, and only serve Chinese food and drinks.
  • 2018: Tickets for holy mountains (e.g. Emeishan, Wutaishan, etc), ancient towns (e.g. Wuzhen) and large temples (e.g. Shaolin or Lingyin) can easily be $25 and up, among the most expensive in the world.
  • 2018: Crowds in any touristy place during weekends and holidays can be exhausting. Sometimes you can't physically take a picture because you are squeezed by the crowd and countless people bump into you nonstop. It used to be that only foreigners had the money to visit China's monuments. Not anymore: most tourists are Chinese nationals.
  • 2018: The Chinese translitteration that is commonly used is quite confusing. For example, "qianmen" is pronounced "tsianmen" or "chianmen", and "Zhongguancun" should sound like "johnguantsun" and in general "zhou" is "jo" and "c" is "ts". The way in which Chinese words are written in English will not help you: it will greatly confuse both you and your Chinese listener.
  • 2018: Tourist information offices have become totally useless. Many of them are now unmanned, which means that, at best, you can get a tourist map. If there is any staff, they are typically inexperienced young people who cannot answer even the simplest questions about their city: they will pull out their smartphone and search (using the Chinese search engine). A Chinese tourist doesn't need the tourist information office because they can use their search engine, but foreigners cannot use Google and the likes, so de facto the smartphone automation is depriving foreign tourists of tourist information.
  • 2018: Clearly, since the 1990s the Chinese government has invested massively in renovating/rebuilding cultural monuments and museums. However, one gets the feeling that the government simply views them as business opportunities. Many reconstructions are amateurish to say the least. Nobody will ever know how a temple looked like. Ditto for artifacts exhibited in museums that sometimes have been hurriedly glued back in one piece and painted with whatever paint was available. One has to wonder what would happen the day (hopefully purely hypothetical) that all tourists decided not to visit museums anymore: i have the feeling that this regime would simply demolish all museums and replace them with whatever makes money. For now, everything that you see is NOT authentic: it is just a reconstruction that matches what the imagination of the modern designer and what government thinks will attract tourists. All "historical" monuments in China are as "historical" as any amusement park and mostly they all shopping malls. In fact, "historical" monuments are precisely that: overpriced amusement parks with giant shopping malls.
  • 2018: The concept of "ancient ruins" doesn't exist anymore in China. Ancient ruins are routinely bulldozed and rebuilt. In theory, they are rebuilt according to how they looked originally, but in practice it looks like the new look is more inspired by blockbuster Chinese movies than by diligent archeological research. To add insult to injury, the new "ruins" are turned into shopping malls and amusement parks. This process has been executed so methodically all over the country (except Tibet), that ordinary Chinese don't understand the difference between an amusement part and a historical park anymore. A historical park for them must include attractions for children and a shopping experience. If you show them a photograph of real ruins (say, in Greece or Italy), they wonder why it wasn't demolished and rebuilt with annexed shopping mall and amusement park. If they find a real ruin in China, they will probably complain with the manager. The descriptions that accompany these rebuilt "ruins" are no less dubious. They mostly draw from legends and fairy tales, sometimes ancient ones and sometimes newly invented ones. A rock or a tree may get its own label based on the wild assumption that a famous or legendary person touched it or talked about it. Visitors are expected to stop and take a selfie in front of it, and this quickly becomes a tourist attractions as more and more visitors don't want to go back home without that particular picture.
  • 2018: China is becoming an apocalyptic environmental disaster, but not only for the industrial pollution: it is virtually impossible to hike any trail without finding plastic bottles behind every bush
  • 2018: By any world standards, China has food everywhere: grocery stores, restaurants, street vendors. There is no street without 100s of them.
  • 2018: The vast majority of Chinese businesses are related to food. There is food everywhere: restaurants, food stalls, grocery stores, supermarkets...
  • 2018: There is very little non-Chinese cuisine in China (and, if you find it, it's unlikely to be any good). On the other hand, "Chinese cuisine" is really a vast universe of diverse cuisines.
  • 2018: The main problem with Chinese food is that you never really know what they put inside. You may be eating frogs in a dish that is described as vegetarian. There are sweet candies made of walnuts, sesame and jelly that look perfectly harmless... until you learn that the jelly (pronounced "ejiao") is made of donkey skin (donkeys are slaughtered all over the world to feed the Chinese demand for donkey skin, which ancient Chinese medicine recommends for all sorts of ailments, of course with absolutely zero scientific evidence). The only safe restaurants are the vegetarian restaurants. Unfortunately, most of them are difficult to spot because they have the sign written only in Chinese. Every Buddhist temple should have won though.
  • 2018: Table manners are mindboggling. If you are invited by Chinese people, you will be sitting at a very large round table with a very crowded setting in front of you, and people will be coming to toast with you, one by one, plus general toasts. And endless food will rotate around the table.
  • 2018: The Chinese still use chopsticks. You may or may not consider it cool that you have to eat with chopsticks. If not, bring your own fork and spoon because they are not easily available outside of expensive hotel restaurants.
  • 2018: Chinese friends spent years telling me that food eaten with chopsticks tastes different. Eventually they convinced me that it tastes "different": whether better or worse is subjective, but, personally, i now realize that eating with a fork and knife allows the eater a lot more versatility in how to mix food, and this generally translates into tastier food. So much so that now i never use chopsticks. Of course, it could just be that i don't know how to use chopsticks properly (or it could be that the Chinese don't know what they are missing :-).
  • 2018: Almost all trains in China are now high-speed trains. They arrive at giant stations which are generally located outside town. They are connected by fast subways to the center of the city. The only problem is that they are really hard to access if you don't take the subway. For example, taking a hotel bear a train station sounds like a good idea, but you may find out that getting out of the train station to reach your hotel is like finding the exit to a maze. And, once you are out, it is far from trivial to figure out how to cross the street (pedestrians are mostly forbidden from crossing, probably for security reasons). If you take a taxi to get out of the station, you may have to stand one hour in the line. If you are taking a taxi to get into the station, the taxi may leave you outside the station (which may imply a very long walk and, again, a complicated detour to find out how to cross the street) or in the parking lot. The best way to get in and out of train stations is to use the subway to a location near your destination.
  • 2016 (but this is rapidly disappearing in the age of Airbnb and the likes): One advantage of traveling by train is that you are typically welcome at the arrival by scores of people offering their cheap hotel. It is difficult to tell whether the hotel is in the location that you desire, but the pictures are generally reliable about the quality of the room, and the prices are unbeatable.
  • 2016: The Chinese have become more addicted to smartphones than Westerners. They are constantly browsing their social media. The problem, just like in the West, is that sometimes they get dumber. Ask a kid with a smartphone the directions to a museum nearby and the kid will type frantically into his smartphone and then direct you to a bus stop, unaware that the museum is only 200 meters away and for a foreigner it is a lot easier to simply walk 200 meters than walk to the bus station, catch the correct bus in the correct direction, pay the ticket, get off at the first stop and then walk to the entrance.
  • 2016: Chinese cities are mindboggling not only for foreigners but also for local Chinese people. When looking for a hotel, restaurant, store and so on, beware of advice from local people: they most likely will send you in the wrong direction. If you take a taxi or didi/uber, in most cases the driver will not find the exact place and will dump you in the presumed proximity. Best is always to get detailed directions from the business where you are going.
  • 2016: No matter what you do, you cannot avoid the lengthy line at the train station's ticket office. Even if someone buys the ticket for you online, you still need to pick it up in person at the ticket office because China has a paranoid president who wants to see your passport. They give you your ticket only after they see your passport. They will also check your passport when you enter the train station.
  • 2016: Beware of the security check at busy train and subway stations. At every train and subway station the passengers entering the station must put their items into the X-ray machine. It is incredibly easy for a thief to buy a cheap train or subway ticket, walk through the metal detector and simply wait by the machine for an expensive item to steal. You are powerless to defend your briefcase or suitcase because you are in line to get through the metal detector and body scan. The security guards are there to check that you are not carrying any dangerous item. They are not there to protect your belongings as they come out of the machine, and in any case they would have no way of knowing what is yours. There is no videocamera filming who takes what. The thief can simply take your stuff and walk out of the train station. By the time you reach the other side of the X-ray machine, the thief has already disappeared in the crowd.

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