Independent Travel in China is Difficult

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.
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. I decided it would be better to come back at some later date to see more of the sights of Hong Kong and China.

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.”

Author’s note: This article is part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Travel Blog Carnival, where this weekโ€™s topic is “regrettable travel experiences.โ€ 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 weekโ€™s carnival.


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

  1. 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 ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. China is a place where I’ve always toyed with the idea of going but I eventually played it safe and just went to Hong Kong. I’ll probably do the full blown trip one day but I think I’m going to need to plan it very well, especially being a vegetarian! Thanks for the honest article.

  3. I feel your pain…It wore me out! I spent three weeks in China back in 2002. I visited Beijing, Leshan, Chengdu and Yunnan. I had lived in Bangkok for a year and travelled to most of Southeast Asia, but China was the only place I found unpleasant. The xenophobia was palpable, and the rudeness almost universal. It really put me off and I couldn’t wait to get out. The last few days of my trip I didn’t even want to leave the hotel room…and I was a fit military officer and pilot, hardly someone new to travel and adventure.

    • Hi Ponchai: Thanks so much for your comment. I am still perplexed by my
      experience in China. Since leaving I have wondered if much of the problems
      were due to my personal stress level, which was quite high at the time. But
      then I think back to the rude people with a mob mentality, and the wholesale
      unwillingness to help, and I realize that the Chinese are just not that
      interested in attracting tourists from the outside world – they have enough
      people to sustain tourism from within. However, I have come to the
      conclusion that my visit would have been much better i I had skipped
      Shanghai altogether. Appreciate that you had a similar experience; makes me
      think I’m not crazy!

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  5. You saw the real China that even many Chinese in Beijing and Shanghai don’t know exists, or are embarrassed by. Those that tell you they experienced none of what you did likely went with a packaged tour or never left a major city, 5 star hotel with western restaurant, or an air conditioned coach, any longer than necessary. You should feel proud that you’ve experienced the real China, and resist the temptation to speak back to those who would argue with you otherwise. I’ve learned to keep my honest assesment of living 3 years in China to myself, because those that haven’t experienced what we have think we are racist or prudish, when in fact, it’s simply because they never experienced the real China. Thanks for the excellent post. I lived and worked in tourism for 3 years in China and I can honestly and expertly say that you saw all their was to see of ‘Chinese Culture’, food, and social interaction!!

    • Hi Don: Since leaving China, many have told me that my experience would have been much better if I had gone out into the countryside, specifically Yunan province. Wondering your opinion on this?

  6. it is really hard to travel to china if you are white, they will try to take advantage of you (taxi drivers) its also hard to communicate and be understood. its a very different culture. Ive lived in china for 9 months and i understand how you feel but i am a filipino-chinese and still its hard to be understood most of the time.

  7. its sad you had a sucky time in China, i hope when i go there i wont be subjected to the same problems

    • Zablon: I have friends who are traveling there right now and they are with
      Intrepid Travel and having a wonderful time. I think it is all in finding a
      good guide.

  8. Sorry you had a bad experience. China (and Russia) were two of the tougher travel destinations for me on my RTW trip, because of the language issue — compounded by the fact that the written is obviously completely and totally unreadable also. I look forward to going back though. So many interesting things to see and do.

    • Michael: I’ve now had a month to reflect on the China experience and while
      it was terrible, I also realize that I was causing some of it because I was
      in a very stressed-out, negative frame of mind, having just come off two
      very bad months in the U.S. And you know the old saying, we draw to us what
      we put out. Am in a whole different space now and like you, am of the
      opinion I’d like to go back and try again some day. I have also learned that
      Shanghai is famously difficult for independent travelers, which is of course
      where I started my trip.

  9. Hi Barbara

    Not surprised to read that you had a difficult time in China…I have not been there but I have heard from other travelers that it can be somewhat of a nightmare…my opinion is that as travelers we are explorers too and things aren’t always easy as you very well say right? However I am surprised to hear you did not enjoy HK either…I have been there and had a total blast and found plenty of cheap accommodation and cheaper hotels than the one you had to book a room in as well. How many days were you there for?

    Happy travels,

    • Hi Federico. I was only there for 2 days and was focused on getting out of
      China altogether, especially since my bank cards were once again not working
      and I was worried about being stranded, so I probably didn’t gibe HK a good

  10. Apart from not getting vegetarian food and malfunctioning bank cards it appears your travels were fine: you were not robbed, you didn’ t fall ill, you had reasonable weather, no political uprisings, – I mean you have to be flexible: maybe try some fish?

  11. Thank you Tom! Your comment is very much appreciated. I’m not much of a
    complainer, and usually just roll with the punches, but it was just
    overwhelmingly bad in this case and I’m really glad I left.

  12. Barbara, you know what, it was really nice to have met you in person and when you explained this situation to me, I could imagine how frustrating it was to be in your shoes. As we discussed, sometimes a foreigner will always be a foreigner in these cases, just like me, we went through a similar frustration here in China. On the other hand, glad you Loved Malaysia and now having a great time in Nepal! Hope to bump into you again, hopefully soon too.


    • David: So nice to meet you too, and here’s hoping we do bump into each other
      again soon – at the very least I know I will always have a friend in

  13. What a really interesting post, enjoyed reading it. I had a crisis when I was travelling in Turkey this summer, along the “ohmygod what if I’m not the savvy, independent traveller I thought I was” lines. I got sick from tap water, vomited non-stop for 24 hours, and lost 14lbs within a week, not being able to eat more than 1 small meal a day. It was 43C, there were no other travellers around once I’d gotten off the tourist route, and I hadn’t had a conversation in 1 week. My gut told me to go home, so I booked a flight back to the UK and was able to spend a month with my family (including my birthday) before coming back to Korea.

    So the moral……is what you wrote I think, i.e. follow your gut.

    Bravo for your courage in writing this!

  14. A really interesting read. I am so sorry to hear that you had such a rotten time. I still remember my travels through China as some of the best moments of my life and I suppose a part of me really wants to share that joy with you, as ridiculous as that may seem! This post got me thinking – because I had a similar experience in India. A series of problems, several episodes of attempted robbery, hostility…I just didn’t enjoy it and ended up leaving early. It really surprised me because, like you, by that stage I considered myself as quite a seasoned traveller and it shook my confidence. You definitely made the right decision to move on if you weren’t enjoying yourself. It’s not as though you do this everywhere you go (and to be honest, even if you did, so what?!) Congrats as well on writing such an honest post. Here’s to happier travels from now on in! (PS – sorry for the long reply!)

    • Hi abi: The more I travel, the more I realize that not every place is going
      to resonate with every person. Some who have left comments, like you, had
      amazing experiences in China, yet my experience was horrible. I myself had a
      magnificent time in India and would go back in a heartbeat, but others say
      they’ll never go back. So fickle, the travel genies. Who knows why.I’m not
      ruling out China forever, but I definitely will know at least a little
      Mandarin before I go back. Thanks for sharing your positive experience.

      • Yep, I won’t rule out India but if I go back, I’d probably travel with someone who has family there!

  15. Sorry to hear you had such a hard time – We’ve just left after spending 5 weeks there and were a bit upset to leave!

    • Hi Chris: Isn’t it weird how the energy of places resonate differently with
      different people? I just believe China was not the right place for me at
      this precise time. So glad you had a different experience.

  16. What a refreshing, thoroughly honest post. I’m glad you were able to leave China behind; you weren’t letting anybody down. Your next trip is bound to be better.

    • Thanks Ruth. The outpouring of support has been awesome.Just left Malaysia
      for Nepal and things have gotten better some, but still struggling on this
      trip with things just going kaflooey every now and then. Haven’t figured
      what it’s all about yet but I’m sure more will be revealed.

    • Devin: I still think it had a lot to do with some weird energy that’s been swirling around me lately – still isn’t gone! I say go and see how it resonates with you, especially the countryside in Yangon province.

  17. I think you did the right thing by abandoning the rest of your trip to China – more and more I measure things by how happy they make me – what’s the point of travel or anything for that matter, if you’re not having fun?

  18. Wow. Sorry to hear about your bad experience. I hope to visit Shanghai one day. I read about an amazing skatepark they have there and I want to skate it so bad… in addition to seeing all the cool stuff over there as well.

    • Hi Jenny: Hopefully, you’ll have a better experience than I did, or at least
      be better informed of what to expect!

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  20. Aww, I’m sorry about your bad experience in Shanghai, I thought they could have been better. Good thing Bejin was better for you and the iPhone Google screen shot all work out great for you. Great interesting post to read.

    • Thanks Sarah. At the very least, I’m hoping it will provide some info for
      others planning a trip to China.

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  22. I can’t wait to travel to China! Mayhem like that can be fun, after the fact of course. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Hi Matt: Yeah, really amazing how easy it is to laugh about it now that it’s
      over ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • You’re right its fun to visit China, Why not try to visit Shenzhen its a great place to hang out.

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  24. I’m really sorry that you didn’t enjoy your time in China. I guess it’s true what people say that China is a hard place to travel to on your own, especially for the first time. I’ve been to China countless times and work for a tour company specializing in China, so I guess I’m used to all the cultural differences.I’m disappointed that you really didn’t like Shanghai, and surprised at some of the comments that say Shanghainese are perhaps ignorant and rude. Shanghai is basically China’s New York; it has the largest foreign population in a Chinese major city. In my experience I’ve found more people speak English in Shanghai than in Beijing. I’ve found that a lot of younger people speak English, although they are embarrassed to do so (so maybe it’s not as much unwillingness to help, but them trying to “save face” and not embarrass themselves. My cousin who was born and raised in Shanghai learned English in school but is totally embarrassed to speak with me). I find that the idea of a “rude Shanghainese” person is along the same lines as a “rude New Yorker.” They just have a fast paced mentality that comes off as cold. And like New York, Shanghai gets a lot of migrant workers, but in this case from the countryside, where the people don’t understand pushing and shoving is wrong. I read a report that said that the majority of people going to the Shanghai Expo are not Shanghainese themselves, but people from the rural regions of China. The same report said that the “World Expo” was created more for Chinese people than for an international audience, which would explain the lack of English there. Glad you enjoyed Beijing, I was there learning Chinese a few years back and love the city. Though the prevalence of children wearing slit pants so they can pee on the street put me totally off.If you like countryside travelling, I’d recommend going to the Yunnan Province. It’s one of China’s best places to see nature. Plus, it’s also home to over 30 ethnic minorities, so you can totally see another side of what it means to be “Chinese.” I have pictures up on Facebook if you want to check it out: is a really long post. Happy to know you’re in Malaysia. I’ve never been and it’s one of the places I really want to see.

    • Grand American Travels: Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. I hadn’t
      considered the fact that many of the people at the World Expo were from
      rural areas – that could well explain the propensity for pushing and shoving
      and other behavior that came across as “uncivilized.” There was so much
      going on for me – every time I turned around it was another problem, so I
      have to wonder if the Universe simply wanted me out of China at that
      particular time. Who knows, perhaps if I had stayed, something truly
      terrible would have happened. I may never know, but I do know that I needed
      to follow my “gut” as it never lets me down. I have also heard much about
      the Yunnan Province and definitely hope to return to this part of China at
      some point. And do consider coming to Malaysia; the country is wonderful.

  25. I could really feel your pain reading this post. Some places just seem to be a culmination of “things gone wrong” even if it’s not the first time there. I like the critical question you point out – am I having fun – it’s an important one. We don’t have to like each place (although as travel bloggers I think there is some pressure to) and there’s no shame in moving on to something else when things just don’t click.

    • Thanks Anil. Couldn’t agree more. I fled corporate life because I was
      miserable and it was time to do what brought me joy, so if there is no joy,
      I know I must immediately move away from it. I’m not ruling out travel to
      China altogether; in fact, I got the Rosetta Stone for Mandarin and am now
      committed to learning the language enough to make myself understood. Then,
      maybe I’ll go back.

  26. I love your honesty. And don’t think you let anyone down. It’s your trip!
    Reading about your struggles reminded me much of my own experience. Every time I travelled with friends or family – it just didn’t work. I probably tried to hard to please everyone and since non of them were really interested in the way I travel but insisted that I did the planning since I was “the one in the know” – I travel very much the way you do – disaster was programmed. For ex., I had been many times to Morocco alone and never experienced any problems, but when I took friends with me (after they begged for years ;), disaster struck. What ever could go wrong did – it was a great learning experience for me and I finally learned to say no. I am a solo traveller. Period.

    So glad to hear that you feel much better now;)

    • Hi Fida: I really felt for my family, because it made me remember
      (painfully) my corporate life and the days when I had only a two or three
      week vacation and I ran around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying
      to see everything possible in that short amount of time. The slower pace for
      me is crucial. It’s the only way I can tap into the “feel” and culture of a
      place. Then there’s the probem that I take so many photos that I drive
      everyone crazy – and in places with big crowds, like the Forbidden City, it
      was absolutely impossible to stay together. By the time I snapped a few
      photos the crowd had swallowed up my cousins. Fortunately, we had
      anticipated this and had picked a later time and place to meet up, but I see
      them so rarely I would have liked to stay together. Like you, I guess I’m
      just a born solo traveler.

  27. What a wonderful post, Barbara. I loved your sincerity, the powerful description of a long dreamed trip where everything seems to be going wrong.
    You are brave. Because there’s nothing as difficult as admitting having made mistakes.
    Your travel to China has been a painful experience. But you learned something, and we did it too.
    A big hug,

    • Thank you so much Simon. I have felt a wonderful outpouring of support,
      which makes me glad I didn’t try to hide how difficult the experience was.
      Maybe a few of my experiences will help others in their planning for China.
      Big hug right back at ya!

      • I’m tentatively planning a trip to China and this does help with the planning!

        I’ve heard that it can be quite difficult if you don’t have the language, and wondering whether it’s worth taking Mandarin lessons first. However, I do think that when you arrive in a place, especially as a solo traveller, it is a question of luck. While I went on to enjoy the trip, I remember my first night in India being truly horrendous!ย The first part of trip I wanted to leave.ย I thought I’d made a bad decision to travel in Indiaย on my own, a single, 22 year old girl.

        I stuck it out! And it was worth it.

        But these days, I try to plan my trips really well, go to one country or area for one month (August) and figure out as many possible pitfalls in advance!
        ย ย 

  28. Don’t feel that you let your readers down at all. You are absolutely right, travel is supposed to be fun and it sounded like too many things were going wrong. We are going to China in November, but have opted to take a tour for the first couple of weeks. After reading your post, I am glad that we are. We have heard from more than one person how difficult China can be. You are an inspiration to go out there and explore on your own. If you feel that it is time to move on, you are totally allowed. It is your travels after all and I admire you for your honesty. A lot of people never want to admit when things go wrong, but we are all only human and we all have our limits. Your posts have helped us a lot and I think that we are going to have an easier time because we have learned so much from you.
    Have a great time in Malaysia and Thailand and keep enjoying those beautiful sunsets!

    • Thank you, Dave and Deb. Looking forward to reading all about your China
      experience and hoping that it is much better than mine!

  29. Ugh. No wonder Americans have a bad reputation abroad (and, yes, I am an American and have spent many months traveling in China). I think it’s a stretch for this travel writer to describe themselves as “intrepid” and liking “hidden corners”/”meeting locals” when they’re whining about the incredible rudeness and incoveniences and credit fees and the like. Maybe you should stick to 1st-world experiences.

  30. I am sorry you had these experiences. My tip for transport from Shanghai Airport is definitely the Mag-Lev train – it’s completely amazing! Also you can eat awesome vegetarian food at specialist restaurants often attached to temples. If I’d know you were going and didn’t eat meat, I would have recommended one in Shanghai. (It’s proper vegetarian though – no cheating with seafood!).

  31. It’s sounds like you had quite a run of bad luck – the same thing seems to happen to me when I am short of time and trying to cater for other people – 2 factors which mean you are more stressed and can be less flexible than normal. At least it makes a great story and you learnt some lessons! Look forward to hearing more about the Asian adventure.


    • hanks Jayne – and as I’ve said before , it wasn’t for naught; at least it
      gave me fodder for the blog!

  32. True is that China is not as straightforward as other countries, and the first week for me was a real shock. I had already applied (and been accepted) in uni but I didn’t want to stay anymore, and this was due mainly to the burden of the language. Now I’ve been living in Shanghai for two months, started my language course two weeks ago and I’m thinking about extending my visa for other six months.
    Traveling to China without knowing the language (and without being prepared to cultural differences) only for a week or two is very hard, and astonishingly, I’m finding settling in is much easier!
    Thanks to our laoshi (teacher) we are also learning a little about Chinese culture, customs and mores, very little things, but extremely helpful to learn what to expect from people in daily life.
    The first weeks for me were a disaster, but I stuck to my plan, rented a flat and now I live surrounded by Chinese people. Maybe because they see me more confident (I actually am more confident!), they are very friendly and very willing to help, completely the opposite of the first impression I had. I’m just waiting to speak and understand Chinese better and I will go to have a full conversation with our doorman!
    Even before starting the course, I had adopted the “stop thinking European” attitude. China is an independent country, and for independent I mean they don’t care if other countries are better and they don’t care what foreigners think. And don’t care about learning other languages either. Why should they, if they don’t want to travel overseas? True is that Chinese people traveling to Italy make the effort to learn Italian, as in Italy they won’t find anybody who speaks Chinese, and probably Italian for them is as difficult as Chinese for me.
    Like you, the first moments really made me wonder whether I was a confident traveler or not, and maybe the fact that I wasn’t ready to take it as a defeat made me stick to my original plan. Now I’m glad I did, I’m meeting many people and enjoying Shanghai. Annoying episodes are still happening (the umbrella thing!) and they will certainly still happen in a year time, but this applies to every other country I’ve lived in so far.
    If you decide to come back to Shanghai within a year time, would be lovely to finally meet!

    • Thanks for that insightful comment, Angela.So glad to hear that the initial
      shock is wearing off and you are feeling more comfortable. I’ll come back
      someday – after I learn enough Mandarin to get by!

  33. I tip my hat to vegetarians who come to China. I think even most vegetable based meals in China are seasoned in some kind of animal broth. That would be stressful enough just planning what to eat every day.

    • LOL James. You’re probably right – chicken or beef broth no doubt, but I
      decided I didn’t want to know…

  34. See…I told you people would want to hear about your honest experiences in China – and my bet is that you still held back!
    As I said to you before – China isn’t for everyone. I think peoplesimply resonate with certain countries or cultures – for me that’s Asia…for you – it might not be. Not everyone has to like every country!
    I’m just glad you found a place to relax for a bit, recharge and examine the experience and learn from it. After all – life is about learning!
    I have my fingers crossed for Nepal!

    • Hi Sherry – you were so right about the outpouring of support and compassion
      I got in the comments. Makes me feel so much better. Strangely, Asia is one
      of my favorite places, especially Thailand and Cambodia, and now in
      Malaysia, I have to add it as a favorite as well. China was just so
      different from any of my other Asian experiences. I guess if I was
      independently wealthy I could go on a luxury tour and have no worries, but
      then I’d miss out on the “real” China, I suspect. I am definitely excited
      about Nepal. Probably will be leaving on October 5th. Sending you a big hug!

  35. Barbara,
    NIce post, although I have to say it doesn’t surprise me. I spent a month in China in 1986, not long after they opened up to independent travel, and it was (and yes, this is the perfect word…) a “struggle.” I’ve been there twice since and have seen nothing to change my mind.
    Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  36. I am so disappointed to hear of your dramas in China and the resultant disappointment in travelling. I’ve not been to the mainland but love HK where you can escape the hustle and bustle and enjoy fine food and areas of great natural beauty (despite the huge population). Your menu stories always reminds me of my first time in Vietnam in 1992 (way before travelling was advised or easy) where I learned the words for “chicken” and :beef” and used to select either the second or third option on the menu, on the basis that the more exotic and daring dishes were likely to be listed later on the menu. I bit of pointing at other people’s meals helped a bit too though I only experienced people so keen to help and assist there.

    • Hi Mark: I had exactly the same experience in Vietnam. The people were
      wonderfully open and anxious to help in any way they could. Love the idea
      about choosing from the tow two menu items!

  37. Thank you, Barbara, for your honesty. While I can’t agree with Camus — travel to me is a great pleasure — I do know the fear that grabs your stomach when things are going wrong and you feel totally out of your element. I’m glad your trip improved.


    • Thanks Libbie, and everyone, for your support. I also do not agree with
      Camus; almost every other travel experience I have had has been pleasurable,
      but this one definitely was not.

      Soultraveler: I did not expect Chinese to speak English (lol) however one
      would think that at least their volunteers at the World Expo would have had
      some foreign language skills – they did not. I have indeed traveled many
      places in the world where English was not widely spoken and have not had any
      trouble making myself understood through sign language, etc. I had no
      problem, for instance, in Vietnam or Cambodia. What was different in China
      was the frustrating propensity of the people to not want to deal with a
      foreigner in any way, shape, or form, especially in Shanghai. The moment
      they heard English, and saw me start to gesture, they would turn their backs
      and walk away. I also did not try to connect with anyone on Twitter because
      I was traveling with family and had so much to do that I simply felt there
      was no time to meet up with anyone else. It was a crazy schedule, filled
      with running around to see the sights, which just wasn’t my normal style, so
      I was really out of my element. And I did check into tours – the cheapest, I
      think, was $1,300 and I can’t afford that. Besides, talk about being out of
      my element – I like to wander and probably would have felt trapped on a
      tour. But as you say, it’s all about the experience, no? And it certainly
      gave me a good story to write about.

  38. Wow, sorry you had such a rough time. There are so many great China peeps on Twitter, did you connect with any of them before going? Traveling with others, is harder than alone & especially if they have a very different travel style. ( We have done it with 3 generations of family). I much prefer slow travel and countryside too. Why didn’t you think of doing a tour, so you would have a translator for you and your cousins? My mom went to China years ago with a bunch of fussy American seniors and loved it! When you have language problems and high needs ( like vegetarian only) travel is more of a challenge in a place without a heavy tourism structure.

    I am just very surprised about you being surprised that they did not speak English in China!! That sounds so funny and American. Most of the places that we go even in Europe, no one speaks English, ( few Brits & Americans speak any thing but English, so makes sense,no? ). Almost no one spoke any English in Morocco ( or our 2nd language Spanish), though most did speak Arabic and French. I am sure you must have traveled to other places where no one spoke English and no menus were in English. We didn’t even find any English menus or almost anyone who spoke English in Provence this summer. …but then we were with the French mostly or others who could speak French & never saw any Americans. ( Our French is pitiful, LOTS of charades ๐Ÿ˜‰

    In large countries with a dominant language, it is not unusual to travel to places where no one speaks English. Don’t you think it would be funny to hear a traveler from China who comes to the US and complains that no one speaks Chinese? How many American menus are also in Chinese? ( or Spanish, French, German etc).

    It makes it easier when people speak your language, but I find that only in very well worn tourist places or Americanized hotels does one find a lot of English speakers. There is much that I enjoy about being in an area with no English speakers despite the added challenges. When one is dealing with problems, that does make it much harder. When I was hospitalized in Austria, no one spoke English, not even my surgeon! ( Luckily they found one young doctor who did). I’ve had to deal with dental and medical emergencies abroad with non English speakers on our open ended world tour a bunch of times..much scarier & frustrating for sure! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    But then, that comes with the travel lifestyle,eh? Some parts of a trip are better than others and we learn from each one! Glad you love Malaysia, we are headed that way! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  39. Gads, Barbara — I feel like you have barely scratched the surface in the retelling of your stay in China. You are courageous to share that story and rather than letting anyone down, you have enhanced your readers’ knowledge by sharing obstacles that they too might encounter. Your inner knowing was knocking on the inside of your head from the very beginning, but there are times when we can’t listen because other people are with us and they want their kind of trip, not ours. Bless your heart, I hope the finances recover quickly. I can already hear the resiliency returning to you in this post. Keep on being healed by the slower and gentler way of travelling and know that we are wishing you well!

    • Hi Deborah: Thanks so much for your comment. I am finding that the slower I
      travel, the better I like it. I’ve now been in Penang, Malaysia, for about
      10 days. I’ve done some sightseeing, but I’ve also done an equal amount of
      just lounging around with my homestay family, walking around Georgetown with
      no plan or agenda, and sitting in neighborhood cafes or coffee shops. It is
      such a much more rewarding way to travel. And I can definitely feel the
      support pouring out to me!

  40. Ya, in general, Chinese are not known to be the most accommodating people in the world. Comes with the territory, I guess. As far as eating, I had a good time playing menu roulette, whereby I would just point at something random and see what I would get. Of course, with dietary restrictions, that’s not possible. But, I did travel with a vegetarian friend who would tell people that he was Buddhist and that usually conveyed that he could not eat meat as most Chinese do not understand that some people just choose not to eat meat.

    As far as learning Mandarin, I think it’s going to be more difficult than it’s worth to be honest. The dialects are so different in many parts of the country people speaking the same language simply don’t understand each other. Not that it can’t hurt trying, but that’s just my 2 cents.

    Hopefully your continued travels will be better!

    • Hi Kyle: Yes, I’m actually finding that here in Malaysia. They speak
      Hokkien, which bears no resemblance to Mandarin or Cantonese. But I have the
      Rosetta Stone for Mandarin, so it’s worth a try, as you say. Would love to
      go back into the countryside one day.

  41. OMG, Barbara, that trip sounds like an utter nightmare. I’m so glad you left China. I would have done the same thing. Get out while the gettin’s good. And who cares what anyone else thinks about you changing your mind mid-trip? Isn’t that the beauty of living the kind of lifestyle you do–having the freedom to go where you want, when you want? I don’t believe there is anything in the Traveler’s Manual (if there were such a thing) that says you have to like every place you visit.

    • SoloFriendly: And I only really told about half of what really happened in
      the post! But I think I’ll go back some day to see the countryside and
      forget about the cities.

  42. China is indeed tough travel. I remember first arriving and trying to get train tickets. We stood and stared at the board of Chinese characters for a good 15 minutes absolutely clueless as to what to do next. Luckily someone came along to help who spoke English. We are vegetarian and had trouble ordering food as well, particularly on an overnight train journey. They were too frightened to serve us as we did not speak Chinese and we could not explain that we only wanted vegetables. This time an American who spoke fluent Chinese came and rescued us. Apart from this though we had a fantastic time in China. We stayed away from the big cities and went to the more rural areas. Although they were places that get a lot of travelers passing through : Lijiang, Yangshao, Shangrila, Dali and Tiger Leaping Gorge. Language wasn’t such a barrier and the food was divine. I think you really would have loved this places and had a better experience. Truly beautiful.

    • Hi yTravel. I heard about all the other places you listed from a variety of
      people, who all said exactly the same thing and I really, really wanted to
      go. But when crazy things just keep happening, it’s time to listen to what
      the Universe is trying to say. Who knows, had I continued, perhaps something
      worse might have happened to me. I definitely was not meant to be in China
      at that particular time. I feel strongly this is true, especially since
      everything has smoothed out since leaving. However, that doesn’t mean I
      can’t go back – after I learn a little Mandarin.

  43. Wow, I think you just knocked China off my travel wish list. Or at least Shanghai… I have the same hot buttons with people, and getting shoved from behind would have had a fight starting after about the third time. So glad to hear you got to Malaysia after all, and can relax and enjoy yourself again.

    • Hi Jack: Tell you a secret, I hate to admit defeat. I’ve got the Rosetta
      Stone version for Mandarin and I’ve now committed to learn the language and
      go back again. Then we’ll see…

  44. Eeee, Barbara. You weren’t kidding when you hinted that China had been a difficult experience for you…

    Sounds incredibly stressful. And I’m a firm believer in the rule ‘The more people there are in the party, the further you have to plan in advance’. Not that I can see that was really possible here, with everything that went so awry at every turn…

    I’m a little in awe at your ability to look back so clear-sightedly, so soon. ๐Ÿ™‚ But it does indeed sound like you were doing things the non-Barbara way. You have a way of traveling that’s tried & tested, shock-proof and affordable. In a way, this could be an example of the way so many people burn through $thousands by not having a such a method, and therefore being vulnerable. You’ve just proved your system works brilliantly…by briefly not following it. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    But what a tough experience. Ugh.

    But when you plan to go back, let me know. Wouldn’t mind a look myself. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Mike: Loved your last line…we are gulttons for punishment, aren’t we?

  45. I just came back from China 2 weeks ago. We should have meet up then ๐Ÿ˜€

    Yeah, in General China is tough for non-speaker like us. I find that Shanghai people is more rude – ignorant may it be, but the rest of China is not that bad. Just a couple of words (i.e. Chi Na li for asking direction), and the police will gladly point the place on your tourist map. The place name and address written in Chinese would greatly help.

    I also find that most 3-4 stars hotel would be able to book you a ticket for a fee. In fact, in the train station at Hangzhou, I find a counter with the words: “Ticket Office” written on top of it, in English. The lady behind it fortunately speak quite a good English.

    Yeah, a trip will test our fear of uncertainty. But at the end of the day, it will change on how we take risk on life, at work, or anywhere :D. That’s what probably keep me traveling. have a safe journey ahead

    • Hi Scalarae: Wish I’d known you were there! I tried Sofitel, Howard
      Johnsons, and Radisson, all big time high-rise hotels around People’s Square
      and none of the people in their travel departments could speak English well
      enough to understand what I needed. Ugh! I did find one guy at one out of
      three railroad ticket windows who spoke English, but then I discovered they
      only take cash (no credit cards) and I wasn’t carrying that much around, so
      had to hoof it back to the hostel. By the time I returned (3 miles round
      trip), the only remaining tickets had been sold. I ended up flying, but
      that’s another whole nightmare story that I didn’t even include in the post.

      However, you’re right about it making me stronger, now that I have the
      perspective of distance. I’ve even decided to learn Mandarin and go back
      when I can speak a tolerable sentence. Thanks for reading, and for your
      comments – really appreciated.

  46. Barbara: I’m so sorry that your experience in China was so difficult. I can offer help on one front, however. I have a severe reaction to eating onions, and was delighted to discover Select Wisely translation cards. I have written about them at my own blog, and at another blog. They saved my bacon (so to speak in my recent trip to France).
    They are perfect for someone like you, since they come in every language possible and cover every eating (and some other health problems) and they will put it in your own words. You can get laminated cards,or an e-mail to print out. The price is extremely reasonable (not free like Google)–but the company is experienced with dealing with dining challenges and will be sure to get exactly the right translation. Please check them out at
    Better luck on your next trip.
    I have not been to mainland China, but am wary. I have been to both Taiwan and Hong Kong–and loved it. The beautiful Victoria Park in H.K. gets you away from the crowded streets and we stayed at one of three hotels run by YMCA. Not like U.S. YMCAs, more like “real” hotels, but still very reasonable for Hong Kong. Next time, you might want to try Taiwan which is a little more westernized in attitude and has some really beautiful open space in the interior.

    • Thanks Vera:
      I think had I not struggles so with Mainland China, I would have enjoyed
      Hong Kong more, despite the prices. Unfortunately, I am not one of those
      travel writers who has an unlimited trust fund to pay for my travel. When I
      walked away from my corporate career to pursue this life I now love, I lost
      most everything. I’ve been paying my own way for the last four years, using
      what little savings I have left, and going on faith that things will
      eventually work out.

      But I’m afraid that with everything that happened to me in Mainland China,
      and tour companies quoting me anywhere from $1,300 for 5 days to $1,900 for
      a week that didn’t include airfare or hotels, well, in addition to being
      stressed out I also sunk into fear over money. And then HK did not help that

      I’ve come to crossroads before during this journey, when I think I should
      just give up and go get a job, but something always happens to keep me from
      making that move. I continue to follow what the Universe apparently wants me
      to do. Keep your fingers crossed that it all works out for me. And thanks
      for reading and emailing me. Love the tip about the cards; I’ll look into

  47. Barbara, thanks for being honest about your experience and not glossing over it. When I find myself trying to push through to the solution of a problem when obstacles keep popping up, I’ve learned to stop and reconsider. The universe has a way of telling us we’re on the wrong path if we only listen. I hope someday that the time will be right for you to return to China.

    As far as the pushing and shoving, which I’ve experienced in several countries, mostly Asian, I think it comes from living in a densely packed society. They aren’t being rude, this is just the way they have to be to get through life, which I have to remind myself constantly as I’m being shoved. It sort of helps :-).

    • Hi Donna: I’ve also experienced it before and, as you say, always with
      Asians. I was able to keep my cool for about a week, but then started coming
      unraveled every time someone jabbed me with an elbow or deliberately shoved
      past me in a line, or poked me in the forehead with their umbrella. Maybe if
      everythig else hadn’t fallen apart I could have handled it, but the
      cumulative effect finally just drove me out of the country! Probably the
      best thing I could have done.

    • Hi Agiata: Thanks so much for your comment. Most of my travels are exciting,
      interesting and fun. Other than one other time when I was robbed, this was
      the worst, most un-fun travel I ever did (except for sleeping on the Great
      Wall and seeing the sights in Beijing). Glad you liked the piece about Key
      West – it’s one of my favorite places.

    • boomerstraveling: I wish you could have helped me too! It was all so
      bizarre! But I suspect I’ll know the reason why at some point in the future.

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