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 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.


120 thoughts 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 🙂

  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.

    • 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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?

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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!

  13. 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.

    • 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.

  14. 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.

  15. Hi Barbara,

    I might be headed to China next month. It still sounds amazing. Sorry you had such a hard time though.

    • 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.

  16. 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?

  17. 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!

  18. 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.

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  20. 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: http://www.facebook.com/grandamericantravelsThis 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.


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