Independent Travel in China is Difficult

Time to Tell the Truth – China was the Most Frustrating Travel Experience of My Life

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What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country, we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits…This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in traveling. It is more an occasion for spiritual testing. If we understand by culture the exercise of our most intimate sense – that of eternity – then we travel for culture. Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way as distraction, in Pascal’s use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves.
Albert Camus

If fear lends value to travel, then I have just taken the most valuable journey of my life. I can write about it now, because I’m in Malaysia, sitting on the beach, enjoying the beautiful sunset in the photo below. Today I am calm and serene, but a week ago my confidence was totally shattered.

Sunset,Tanjong Tonkong, Penang

I should have suspected that this would not be a smooth trip, since things began to go wrong even before I left for China. During the two months I was back in the States this summer, I was bombarded with legal, financial, and insurance problems that caused me no end of stress. Every time I worked through one issue, two more would emerge, taunting: You don’t really think you’re going to Asia for six months, now do you? But I decided nothing was going to keep me from going, not even when my bank arbitrarily canceled my debit cards two days before departure. In my gut, I knew these were all signs, but I forged ahead anyway. I finished what I could and hoped I could work on the remainder from the road (fortunately, the debit card issue was resolved prior to leaving, thanks to a wonderful RBC Bank manager at a branch in Smyrna, Georgia.)

As I boarded the plane to Shanghai I breathed a deep sigh of relief and put all the worries behind me. I was finally on my way to China! My euphoria got a quick check on the plane a short while later when the food carts began to roll down the aisle. No, they had no record that I’d ordered a vegetarian meal. It was a very long flight without food. On arrival, I headed for the closest ATM machine to get Chinese Yuan/Reminbi but try as I might it would not accept my debit card. The first fear alarm went off in my head – maybe the bank problems had not been resolved after all. My only backup is my credit card, which would accrue interest from the moment I took a cash withdrawal – horrors! Fortunately, I finally figured it out. Chinese ATM’s have two buttons – one says “Continue,” the other “Correct.” I was putting in the amount I wanted and pressing “Correct” when I needed to press “Continue.” Waves of relief ensued.

Next, I needed a taxi. I let a driver in the arrival hall talk me into going with him rather than finding the real taxi stand. Big mistake. I really should have known better, but I was tired, and hungry. Not only did I pay way too much, he immediately began talking about U.S. money, pulling a $20 bill out of his pocket and indicating it had been a tip. When we arrived at the hostel, he conveniently had no change; oldest trick in the book. I took my luggage without paying him and asked the front desk clerk at the hostel if it was customary to tip taxi drivers in Shanghai. Of course it was not. The hostel gave me change for the taxi driver, who was not a happy camper but I didn’t care; I just wanted to get to my room and lie down.

I have written previously about how difficult it was to work in China with all the Internet sites blocked by the government, how it was impossible to purchase train tickets from Shanghai to Beijing because absolutely no one – from staff in train ticket offices to concierges in international franchise hotels – spoke English, and about the fiasco of redeeming our World Expo tickets. But even more aggravating were the small things: Chinese who speak to one another in the decibel range of screaming; people who turned their back on me and walked away the moment they heard a word of English; being poked in the forehead by Chinese umbrellas, used rain or shine, whenever I waited in line or stood at an intersection waiting for a green light; and the constant shrugging of shoulders, accompanied by the words “mei you” – I don’t have – forevermore indelibly engraved on my mind. My second cousin, Len, claims he can never again order a sandwich with Mayo because it will only remind him of the torturous phrase.

Perhaps my biggest stress was food. Most menus were in Chinese only – even in train stations and airports – but I was prepared. I’d downloaded an English/Chinese translator for my iPhone and was able to show servers the word vegetarian in Chinese characters. Even so, I was frequently served dishes with chicken or pork. Len, genius that he is, finally solved that problem for me. He used Google to translate a sentence into Chinese that explained I did not eat any pork, chicken, etc., did a screen shot of the translation, emailed it to me, and I was able to upload it to my iPhone so that I could show it to wait staff. After that, I never got another dish with meat.

This Google translation saved the day for this vegetarian

Beijing was much better than Shanghai, especially sleeping overnight on the Great Wall of China. People were friendlier and the manager of the hostel, upon hearing we needed train tickets back to Shanghai three days hence, picked up the phone and ordered them for us; the tickets were delivered within the hour. Still, our hotel room flooded due to a clogged bathroom drain and my knee went out, forcing me to limp around for days.

When we returned to Shanghai, the hotel room we reserved for three persons had only two beds neither of which were large enough for two people, so I slept on the floor for five nights. And when it was time to attend the World Expo, not only did we have to fight pouring rain, we had a constant battle with Shanghaiese who forced their way past us in queues or shoved us from behind. They were without a doubt the rudest, pushiest people I have ever encountered in my life.

Finally, it was time to leave for Hong Kong, where I was assured it was more civilized. Indeed, the moment I stepped off the plane I felt a shift. There was no pushing or shoving. People queued up in an orderly fashion, and most everyone spoke some English and seemed happy to help. Once again I hit the ATM machine for Hong Kong Dollars. No go. The HSBC ATM would not accept my card, even though I had withdrawn funds from HSBC all over Mexico. Four subways later, now in the darkness, we arrived at the hostel I had booked; one with seeming good reviews, where I had reserved a four-bed dorm. But when we were led to our room, it had only two beds that were narrower than those at the previous hotel, and this time there was no room to sleep on the floor. We walked. Unfortunately, most other hotels were fully booked and we ended up paying $240 for one night – choke! The following night it was worse, the only available room went for $300 per night. More fear set in – what had I gotten myself into? I simply couldn’t afford these prices.

At this point, my confidence was completely eroded. Maybe I’ve been fooling myself, I thought. Maybe I’m not the savvy, independent traveler I purport to be. I was supposed to go back into China after Hong Kong. The thought of it depressed me, but I’d told my readers I was spending a month or more in China. If I didn’t, would they see me as a failure? Would I be letting them down? I finally decided that when something is this much of a problem, it is not meant to be. Travel is supposed to be fun and I definitely wasn’t having fun.

Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, from the hotel room window

Another view of Victoria Harbour from the hotel room window

Victoria Harbour at night, the only thing I saw of Hong Kong, from the hotel room window

I holed myself up in the hotel room until I found an affordable airfare to somewhere I wanted to visit, Penang, Malaysia, but even that presented problems. Again my debit cards were declined, both online and when I called China Southern airlines. Finally, I relented and used my charge card, despite the 3% foreign transaction fee; it would be worth it just to get out of China. But the enormous relief I felt when my MasterCard was accepted was short lived.

“You have your visa for Malaysia, right?”asked the reservation agent.

“I’m a U.S. citizen, so I don’t need a visa. I can get one for 90 days on arrival.” I explained.

“Oh no, Malaysia is no longer doing visa on arrival. You will not be able to fly there without a visa.”

“But I can’t possibly get a visa before tomorrow morning; can we cancel the ticket?”

“No once the charge is made, we cannot refund.”

More fear. The head banging kind. Still, I did not think she was correct, so I searched the Internet and found conflicting opinions. The Malaysian consulate website was down, and no one was answering their phone, so I had no choice but to jump in a taxi and go to the consulate. Forty minutes and $95 Hong Kong dollars later, I walked into the lobby of the consulate, only to discover that it was closed because it was “Malaysia Day,” a national holiday in Malaysia. During the equally expensive taxi ride back I decided to just take my chances at the airport the next morning.

At the crack of dawn I hugged my cousins and crept out of the room for the 45 minute ride to the airport. Holding my breath, I handed my passport to the ticket agent. Clackety-clack on her keyboard. Pause. Furrowed brow. “Is something wrong?” I asked. I don’t seem to have a reservation for you.” Thank God I’d had the presence of mind to upload the confirmation email to my iPhone; with the locator number she was able to find my reservation. The agent had misspelled my name, which begs the question of how she got my credit card company to authorize the charge, but by this point I was so grateful to have a ticket I didn’t much care.

I struggled through one last attempt (unsuccessful) to find a vegetarian breakfast – have these people never heard of fruit? – and anther plane ride with no food for me, but from the moment I set foot in Malaysia, problems disappeared. I breezed through customs and immigration and was given a 90 day “social visit,” later learning that the term “visa” in Malaysia means people who are moving there permanently to live or work. After a few days, my confidence returned and I am back to being the same old intrepid traveler that I have always been, investigating hidden corners, meeting locals, enjoying my travels immensely.

In retrospect, I realize I did a lot of things wrong. I always travel solo and choose the cheapest accommodations I can find, just to be able to stay on the road longer. Shared bathrooms and showers, squat toilets, no toilet paper or hand soap – none of those things bother me, but not everyone is comfortable with such conditions. Having to look for accommodations for three, in facilities that are out of my normal budget price range, was difficult; I simply don’t like making those decisions for others. I also agreed to go places that would not normally interest me (Hong Kong and Macau), because that’s where my cousins wanted to go, never considering that I detest large crowds. My preference is the countryside, National Parks, and homestays in small villages. I had also forgotten what it was like to rush around seeing all the sights during a two week vacation. My travels are slow and are getting slower all the time; with a luxury of time I can spend days sitting in local coffee shops or strolling the streets with no plans, absorbing the culture. In short, I was doing everything the exact opposite to my preferred manner of traveling.

In the future I must be true to myself in travels, the same way that I learned to be true to myself when I abandoned corporate life to pursue a career as a travel writer and photographer. So even though independent Travel in China way beyond difficult, I don’t consider my experience a waste of time, as it taught me valuable lessons. As Camus so succinctly put it, “Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves.”

This article is part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Blog Carnival, where this week’s topic is “regrettable travel experiences.” If you wish to read about other Blogsherpa travel nightmare stories, cruise on over to The Turkish Life, travel blog of Jennifer Hattam, who is hosting this week’s carnival.

115 Comments on “Time to Tell the Truth – China was the Most Frustrating Travel Experience of My Life

  1. What a horrible mess of bad luck you had that trip … while there were things you might not have thought of, all hell seemed to strike on that journey. At least you can laugh about it now!

  2. Hi Barbara,
    it’s my new year’s time, I just back China for my new year with parents. I am Chinese.
    funny to say, I can’t fall sleep at night so I browse internet to see how people feel of their trip, then I found your page.
    I’m Chinese, girl 😉 I lived in England last year and I just left. thinking what I had in the past year, I was thinking in midnight should I do good to those British who r in China to help them, or should I do revenge (forgive my dark thought). because I also suffered a lot when staying in England, many places rip me off. the Windsor Castle coffee shop, no lisence taxi driver, the hotel manager, and airway companies. travel agencies. they tried to get away your lunch, while your booking has two meals a day. and airway companies overbooked then i am the first choice to be kicked off…. no idea why… but…. stress :( …. in a foreign airport…. until 9pm when the sky is dark…. it doesn’t look decent. I can’t expect much….
    at least you are a white girl, you don’t need to think of racist reason. I have more reasons to doubt, to self exam…. stress…

    after I read your whole paragraph here, I feel sorry to see your pain. but think of the reason…. I found sth. similiar as me…
    that is: maybe the mood. or the mind.
    when I’m stuck in a specific stage of life, my mind is kind of like this…. I think things complicated, and negative…. we smart girls think too much….obsess too much….have too much worry…..

    travel in China isn’t that complicated actually. you should have relaxed.
    just like the above comment, when u buy a train ticket, u can just write down basic info in a note, hand to the desk, then u will get ya train ticket~~ relax, it’s easy

    living in a young hostel isn’t that complicated. u just book online, then arrive to check in.
    order a street food isn’t that difficult, u just point finger to it. there may be several dishes, choose two or three. use a finger, we human understand when people point to it, means we want this one. ha~

    I wish you next trip more smooth, and with relaxed mood.
    or maybe u can explore some more places while most whites haven’t come yet. because the traffic is too local, ppl never speak english, or maybe even can’t speak proper Putonghua, but only dialect. maybe u can find this kind of places of China, enjoy the food and small mountains here. eg: Lanshan Port ?at the borderline of Shandong Province and Jiangsu Province, along the sea?, is a safe, rich and closed place. local ppl do fishing, logistic, wood furniture. but here never had foreign ppl come for travel. no transport speaks english. / but I guess u have to figure out byself how to go here. airport bus, city bus, or three wheels taxi, or a normal taxi.

    enjoy your next adventure.

    • Hi Xue Chen: Thanks so much for your interesting comment. It is true that my mind was in a whirl during that trip. I’d just come off a time of high stress in my life and dealing with the circumstances in China just made me even more stressed out. I just was not in the mental position to handle it at that time. I’d love to go back sometime and visit some of the lesser-known places like those that you suggested.

    • I just spent nearly two months working in China – I can sum it up this way. It was horrible where everyone lies to you and the most selfish people ever you will see any where. They lied about my salary, my benefits and everything you can imagine. Never I will go back to China or even encourage anyone to.

      • So sorry you had to go through that Dr. K. There’s no doubt that independent travel in China is really difficult.

  3. shame you had a bad china experience,i guess travel is what you make of it…
    i backpacked china independently for 3 months as a vegetarian also without speaking any Chinese.honestly i’ve had no problems at all,i always communicated by just pointing at the vegetables noodles rice etc in the kitchen and they would just cook it for me,i was surprised how often i got invited into the kitchen to show them,i always eat at cheap places small restaurants or street food
    im shocked you had troubles getting train tickets,in bought all mine from the ticket office’s just writing down the train number date time and destination on a piece of paper,one they put the info in the system they showed me the screen and i confirmed whether it was correct as it was in english…
    most hostels or hotels can help you write chinese characters too for buying tickets on your own
    buying bus tickets i just used the map on my smartphone with chinese characters,simply pointed at where i wanted to go…

    i found chinese people to be very friendly helpful patient and strangers always willing to help me…
    my china trip was amazing and i was suprised how little the language barrier mattered

    • Hi Harry: I will admit that I liked Beijing much better than Shanghai. I got much more help in Beijing but even the people at the hostel in Shanghai had little interest in helping me. Concierges in three different international hotels were unable to help, and at one of the largest travel agencies in Shanghai I was told it was “not possible” to travel independently to travel in China unless I spoke Mandarin. Even when I gave up on trying to book a train and decided to fly, most of the Chinese booking sites would not accept my credit card. I did finally have success with CTrip, but the entire process was so frustrating. Sometimes, there are just places that don;t resonate with us and China was one of those places for me. Glad you enjoyed it though. I might just take another crack at it some time in the future.

  4. Web based translation have come a long way since the time they first appeared. At the very beginning, they would just translate text word by word, not regard any other aspects, this result in the translated text practically useless. Much of that has been changed with the emergence of the Google translation. It can now hand in pretty good translations of websites. But the web based translations still have some limitations. How should we decide whether we shall do the translation on the web or get a human translator involved?

  5. I can definitely see why your time in China was incredibly frustrating. I have heard that it can be a difficult country to travel through and my friend was recently there for 2 months and said she had a ton of trouble communicating with the people there. My boyfriend and I are starting our backpacking trip in Japan this fall, followed by South Korea and then 6 weeks in China so we’ll see how it goes! Great idea to print out/show the google translate page everywhere – I wouldn’t have thought of that! 

  6. Hi Barbara.  Since I’m going to China in July I’ve just read over this whole blog on your limited experience there.  I was hoping to get a little more insight but I DO love a challenge and I believe China will be a HUGE challenge in terms of navigating solo.  I was going to take a class to learn level 1 Mandarin but decided against it since there are so many dialects that it may not make much of a difference (my terrible pronunciation would be useless). I have read on other sites that Chinese don’t have a “queing” culture and therefore will push and shove their way in front as well as the fact that they spit frequently, which is one of the reasons I will be taking a facemask (crowded places and airborne particles= high risk for infection).  I’m hoping the people who work at the hostels know enough english to assist with helping me use the map to navigate on my own.  What was your experience with chinese hostel staff? Another question I had was whether or not wifi was available everywhere.  Should I buy a bongo wifi subscription for a month?  Navigating will be a little easier using GPS and for using the google translate app.  As far as food goes I’m a little uneasy about eating things if I don’t know more or less what’s in it anyway.  I’m not a vegetarian but I think China is the one place I would oblige to be one.  I actually usually just go to a grocery store and pick up things to munch on since I love to be on the go at all times….picnic somewhere on the fly.  Thailand had lots of 7-elevens where I’d get a croissant and a hot chocolate in the mornings and other snacks throughout the day.  As much as I protected myself I still got an intestinal bug but luckily was able to get antibiotics and loperamide OTC in the pharm.  I don’t know if the pharmacies in China are as lax though and I’m hoping grocery stores are found aplenty.  I do know that cash is pretty much the norm so I don’t even expect to be able to use my credit card much, if any at all.  Have any suggestions as far as good websites to learn more about Chinese cities and what to expect?  (I plan on visiting Hong Kong, Guilin, Yangshuo, Shanghai, Lhasa (Tibet), Chengdu, Xian, Luoyang/ Dengfeng, and Beijing.  On that note….do you have any advice to share on country remedies/prevention for mountain sickness?  Would love to hear from you or other readers =)

    • Hi C_restrepo: I had mixed results at the hostels. The staff at the one in Shanghai was totally indifferent and not inclined to help any more than they had to; the one in Beijing was much better, even ordering train tickets for us and having them delivered to the hostel. Wifi is readily available in the hostels, so you should have no problem there. However keep in mind that China’s firewall blocks Facebook, Twitter, and now even Google – so Gmail is out. The only way around this is to sign up with a VPN network that connects the local network to a server somewhere else in the world. Then you can access all the blocked sites. Though I have not researched them, I understand that there are some GPS/mapping programs that let you download the maps onto your iPhone, however they still would not be real time; not sure what would be the best option because I have no idea how widespread Boingo is in China. Don’t know any websites for China research, sorry. As for altitude sickness, I just went ito a pharmacy in Peru and got some pills for it – they worked like a charm. I know the same kind of pills are available in Asia, but have no idea if you’d need a prescription in China or what the name of the pill would be. Local remedies for altitude include ginger tea and garlic soup. Hope that helps.

  7. Wow, that was some ordeal! Doesn’t it seem sometimes that bad things just tumble on like dominoes once it starts? I frequently have frustrations in China and after about 6 months, for whatever reason, I feel a bit better and can’t help but go back. It sure is a mixed bag there sometimes. My last disappointment there was visiting Xi’an and getting a raw deal: 

    • I liked your blog Kevin!  “smell my finger little man”  LOL.

  8. Yes it is right that travelling independently is very hard and most hard is travelling with huge family. you can move so limited while with family. China is very large and full of people. because it is greatest in population in all over the world. My last trip of London was awesome because i got some cheap travelling for Europe by this Company. Hope you also like it.

    China has a lot of Places worth visiting. like Great wall of China. 

  9. I like to travel china Specially I want to see its Great Wall. which is also visible on moon if you look back to work. I like to visit with Family so Maybe you are right about this topic. But My last travel of London Was Awesome. I enjoyed food and staying there and also I capture My memories via my HD Camera. I am not a nomadic but I found good services from a company for staying in London.

    Its has cheapest rates and best apartments rental. I enjoyed my living in London. Soon I will plan my holidays for travelling with my family to China.

  10. Just came across your blog through Raveable – I hope I’m eventually able to visit as many countries as you have! I currently live in Saigon, and Vietnam is home to similar anti-social behavior, but eventually you have to try your best to adjust to it, I guess. I invite you to check out my blog about life in Vietnam and the Asian traveling I’ve done:

  11. In Turkey, there is scam that has been going on for a while. Some scammers take advantage and abuse the Turkish hospitality reputation and try to have a conversation with a foreigner. Then they suggest you have a drink, and strongly suggest you go to a bar he knows. Few drinks later, you get a bill for $500 or more and some surly thug tries to threaten you to pay or else. Some times the locals who can speak fluent English is not necessarily a good thing. Many lone travelers fall for this scam.

  12. Can’t help but to comment on your article. China has many shock factors for visitors especially from wealthy, developed countries. While some of the negative experience are well-known among Chinese and foreigners who visited here – like the disorderly conduct at Shanghai Expo, also keep in mind that most people who visited Shanghai Expo were not from Shanghai and most of them never had the chance to see any of those countries presented. Chinese are known for not respecting the queue, but that is improving. You picked the worst time to visit Shanghai due to the large influx of crowd from all over China.

    Not to criticize you, but a true savvy world traveler, even when exhausted, would have known better not to go with someone who is not an official taxi guide. You made the mistake of many naive western travelers to use an unlicensed taxi. 

    Your attitude to expect many people to speak English again shows you are not really a savvy traveler. The world may use English as a business language, but doesn’t mean most of its population will realistically be able to converse with foreigners. 

    Third, if you have trouble finding vegetarian food in China, you must really not be trying. Chinese cuisine is so vast that the variety of vegetable dishes are endless. Most restaurants now have menus with photos. A savvy traveler also understands the limit of what she can have and prepare in advance to communicate any special requests.

    In Beijing, you can easy find a very decent three star hotel for 300yuan per night (~30 euros), that sleeps two.
    Same thing for Shanghai, but during the world expo, the demand was high, so you have to pay more.
    Hong Kong is notoriously expensive, though using priceline could help you to save up to 60% off the retail hotel price, making such stay almost competitive with hostel when you factor the much higher quality. In the end, it’s better to travel in more comfort than to travel for the sake of traveling and return home with a negative experience.

    • Wow. “Not to criticize you, but here, let me criticize and insult you over the course of the following paragraphs.”

      Let’s keep in mind here who has a successful career in travel-writing and photography, and who is so insecure in his opinion that he must use an alias to comment on this blog.

      • Lugubrious: Thanks so much for your support. I had exactly the same reaction to the post and thought about deleting it but then decided against it. I also opted not to reply because I have no need to get into a debate – just a waste of time & energy. But I appreciate you pointing out the “not to criticize you” comment. I sometimes wonder how we will ever find world peace when we can’t even allow someone to have an opinion that is different from our own with going on the attack. Sad, really.

    • Well said. I was thinking the same thing. I was looking at this blog deciding whether to go to China independently next year after I had an amazing time on a cheap (and I mean cheap) tour in 2009. I found food and taxis and accommodation easy (I spent 10 days there without tour). Shanghai is amazing and while you can feel like a walking ATM sometimes it’s just people trying to make a living and touts exist in the West too.

      Here’s some warning signs that people are not really travelers:
      – expecting people speak English (do you speak Mandarin or Korea or Kiswahili to tourists in your home country)
      – expecting to be able to find vegetarian food everywhere they go when in some places just having food might be a luxury and complaining when they can’t recognize it
      – expecting to be served meat with meals in vegetarian countries
      – not stopping and smelling the roses when things get rough or tiring … If you are unhappy traveling stop in the tow you are in and take rest days until you can see the wood for the trees again.

      • Been on the road independently for eight years, Andrew, which more than qualifies me as a traveler. No, I don’t speak Mandarin, nor did I expect everyone to speak English. I was there during the World Expo, an international event during which one might expect that the country would make available some folks who speak all the major languages, if they expect to attract international travelers. I note on your blog that you stated the following: “I communicated with sign language and a few rudimentary Korean words with locals and shop keepers in rural towns.” So obviously, you also don’t speak the language of every country you visit. As for the vegetarian food, I carried a card with a Mandarin translation about my food requirements – I certainly don’t think I was not out of line for being aggravated when people lied to me about what the food contained. Your point about stopping and resting is well taken. I was exhausted and stressed out from what was going on in my personal life, and that made things worse. I’ll go back someday and try again.

  13. I have been to Hong Kong 2 years ago and I liked it. Maybe not the tourism part but the shopping part. Everything was sooo cheap. I have bought bags of items that I didn’t really need :)

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