Time to Tell the Truth – China was the Most Frustrating Travel Experience of My Life
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.
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.
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.
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. I decided it would be better to come back at some later date to see more of the sights of Hong Kong and China.
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.”
Author’s note: 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.