Winter in North China

Jan 25th, 2013, 07:11 AM
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Join Date: May 2011
Posts: 57
And finally, impressions. For those who haven’t yet been to China, or those who are considering a trip without an organized tour but are unsure of what to expect, I wanted to give our impressions as first-time visitors. Until two years ago, I was afraid that I would never get to China myself because I had heard so much about it being a difficult country to travel and I was basically afraid of trying. Taking Mandarin really helped me get over some of my concerns, although to be honest, I have such a low level of proficiency that it didn’t seem to make a difference in the amount of time I spent completely bewildered by what was happening around me! I am so grateful that I put my fears aside because I really found something to love in China and cannot wait for the chance to return.

Even if you are used to winter, you may not be so used to spending several hours at a time out in the weather, especially at an activity so sedate as sightseeing. We packed without considering how cold can leech under your layers after hours of exposure and found ourselves layering practically every item in our suitcases on some cold days! I am grateful that we went to China during the winter, however, and consider it a terrific option for people like us who really love to escape the crowds. I am sure that my enjoyment of the Great Wall, for instance, would have been diminished were I being jostled by crowds and unable to envision it as a lonely and desolate place. Only, be prepared for the cold, this is one instance where I would even say pack more than you think you need as long as those items are thick long underwear and socks, and make sure you’ve got insulated shoes. It will make a huge difference in making the most of your trip.

Normally I am an almost obsessive planner. This time around we basically knew that we were flying into Beijing and that we wanted to visit Huangshan. I was relieved to have our first few nights of lodging reserved so that we could head straight from our 12-hour flight to our hotel, but the rest of the trip was basically a huge blank. It was a strange sensation to be so unprepared but because it was winter we moved at a much slower pace than normal and had downtime each evening to plan our next moves. Many of our favorite experiences came about through talking to people around us, and although I wouldn’t make a habit of it, for this trip our lack of planning worked out nicely. However, I would most definitely suggest that anyone who can’t read or speak Mandarin plan out at least to the extent of having possible destinations written down, along with a good map showing both pinyin and characters. In Beijing it was easy to bypass the language barrier but in the countryside travel can definitely be stressful. With a good sense of humor and extra time budgeted into the day for misunderstandings, however, I think that China can be a very forgiving place to travel aimlessly!

I cannot say enough about the kind-heartedness of the people we met along our journey. So many people seemed to show a genuine concern for us and sent us away with a feeling so much better than the joy of seeing famous sites. I think many people took pity on us for wandering around with confused looks on our faces; even a soldier at Tiananmen Square left formation to tell us where to line up for the flag-raising ceremony! I highly recommend learning at least a few key phrases as it seems that many people are genuinely happy to see even the smallest effort, and their happiness translates into your own. As far as pictures go – yes, we were stopped often to take pictures with strangers, especially my tall, bearded husband. We had a great sense of humor about this and would often make them take a picture with our camera as well. What I liked less were the surreptitious photos that people would take thinking that we didn’t notice. It was fun to either ham it up or simply say “Nihao” to those people to let them know, in a friendly manner, that they weren’t being sneaky. Queues, also, were sometimes a trying experience, but I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining a good sense of humor. As long as we kept in mind that we were invading their culture for the purpose of sight-seeing, we were able to stay calm and, we hope, leave a good impression on the people we met.

It is a blast to barter, so much so that I think I wound up getting almost everyone I know some souvenir just because I was so addicted to trying to obtain the best price! Of course this means that everything takes a lot longer, so although shopping trips can be a super experience, they can also eat up a lot more of your time than you might expect. My only regret was that I started out feeling a little hesitant about bartering and so passed up some items that I would have loved to at least TRY to buy. Different people state different rules of thumb, so you can hear that the right price is anything from 1/10th to ½ the stated cost. I lean more towards about 1/3rd, but the real rule is that you should consider how much you’d like to buy it for and walk away from it if they won’t come down to your best price. If you aren’t being unreasonable they won’t let you walk away, and you’ll get a sense of worth in no time if you just keep trying.

Enjoy the English where you find it because so many translations are riotously funny. I love the phrase “English with Chinese characteristics” and I understand it so well now. On a serious note, language here was no more of a barrier than in any other country we’ve traveled (less so for me, but my husband had little problem expressing himself with a combination of his four known Mandarin words, sign language, and a big smile). However I most definitely recommend learning a few basic phrases, and for those who don’t have the time to travel in a cloud of confusion, find a translation device to bring along. My Verizon phone for some reason never was able to connect to the 3G network, and the one program I had that didn’t need a connection could only do one word at a time. A few times confusion was happily cleared up by some helpful Chinese person with a translator, even in one memorable case, when I thought I was in perfect understanding with a hotel clerk, who then led me to another hotel simply because he knew that she had a translation device.
partmtn is offline  
Jan 25th, 2013, 07:21 AM
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Join Date: May 2011
Posts: 57
I know that this trip report has been a little bit different in format but my hope was that this would help those looking for specific information. I wrote this because our China experience was truly a dream come true, and because only a few years ago when traveling around Europe I declared that I believed I would never make it to China as it would be too "hard". I don't want anyone who is truly passionate about seeing this wonderful country to be held back by lack of information, or fear. I hope that my information is useful and that my long-windedness doesn't make this too boring to be a good resource!

Our China experience was full of surprises at every turn, random kindness from strangers, and beauty that I am still trying to process. I often felt that I was wandering around inside a dream. I hope that I've conveyed a bit of the wonder and excitement of seeing China during the off season.
partmtn is offline  
Mar 21st, 2013, 08:51 AM
Join Date: Apr 2008
Posts: 15
Thank you for posting this
JuliannPM is offline  
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