China Trip Report – What we learned, what we wish we had known, and why we’d go again. Three Cities, Two Weeks, and One Amazing Trip!
After accepting an invitation from friends, my wife and I finally packed our bags this past October and travelled to China. We decided to visit three cities requiring multiple plane rides and a four hour journey by bullet train, that would have us seeing the Cliff-Notes version of China’s east coast. We’d start south in Guangzhou visiting our friends, then fly to Shanghai, and end our journey by taking the train north to Beijing. We saw a little bit of everything, collecting photos and memories all along the way to last a lifetime.
First Stop – Guangzhou. The Culture Shock.
I didn’t know a lot about this city when I began my research. Guangzhou is a major port city on the Pearl River. Formerly known as Canton, it is China’s third largest city. The population is estimated to be over fourteen million people. That’s six million people more than New York City! With my friend living just across from Pearl Park and not far from the Pearl River, we knew in advance that we would get the authentic Guangzhou experience.
Arriving in Guangzhou by plane, we saw that the city is sprawling, the buildings are architecturally artistic, and that the stories of intense air pollution and smog are well founded. There was a perpetual haze from the time we arrived until the time we left.
My friend was quick to orient us to Guangzhou and teach us a few key Mandarin phrases (Hello, bathroom, check please, thank you etc.). Street signs, audio messages on the subway, and menus in restaurants were almost always in both Mandarin and English making the city fairly easy to navigate as a foreigner. The people were friendly and many spoke English. People who were hesitant to speak English with us at first soon became disarmed by our surely atrocious attempt to speak Mandarin. They then confidently and with a smile began speaking English. This is a phenomenon we experienced throughout China and is seen many places around the world. Just try… and don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself! We still haven’t figured out, despite asking everyone we could, how exactly to pronounce Guangzhou correctly.
Tip#1 Register at the Police Station
One surprise we didn’t expect was the need to register at the local police station. All foreigners, who are not staying at a hotel, must register at the police station. Our friend, a Canadian citizen living and working in China, had been through the process many times in hosting friends and family from back home so he was able to guide us through it. Even with our application for a Chinese visa many months prior to our visit, our friend was required to write us a letter of invitation. China has strict rules and comprehensive documentation requirements for everything.
Tip#2 Your Money is No Good Here
Instead of exchanging my U.S. Dollars at the airport, I decided to wait and exchange it at a bank in Guangzhou. Do not do that! The bureaucracy and documentation requirements combined with the language challenges will make you wish you had listened to your wife.
The Bank of China were first up; “What do you want to do?
“Exchange dollars for Chinese money.”
“Fill out this form.”
“What’s your account number? Do you have your bank card?”
“What? No. I just want to exchange this cash for Chinese cash.”
“No, you need an account here.”
“I’m a tourist. I’m here for 2 weeks. I don’t have or need an account”
“Then we can’t exchange the money.”
“But it’s cash. It’s good.”
Then my friend volunteered to use his Bank of China account and filled out a couple of long forms. They required additional identification. He didn’t have his passport on him but did have a photocopy of it.
“That’s not good enough.”
“But it’s cash.”
So we go to another bank, the HSBC. My wife and I have an account and a card for them.
“No, you need a Chinese account but they’ll exchange your money around the corner at The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).”
At ICBC, we were met with the same confusion and panic that we had experienced at the other banks. They seemed so bewildered by our request.
“We just want to exchange cash money for Chinese money. Why does that require an account, identification, or paper work?”
So 45 minutes later following the filling out of multiple forms, copies made of every portion of our passport, and an extensive interview process, we were finally able to exchange cash money made of paper for Chinese money made of paper. If that’s exchanging money, how do people get a mortgage or purchase a car? Upon leaving China, we brought our money to an exchange depot at the airport and the transaction was completed before you could say, “What the feng shui?”
Tip #3 Enjoy Guangzhou
Guangzhou is hot and humid. It requires shorts at all times, rain or shine. Despite polluted air, disgusting water ways, and crowded streets, it is a marvellous place to visit. Friendly people, clean streets, beautiful parks, and wonderful architecture give Guangzhou a multi-faceted personality. We were fortunate to have my friend as our own personal tour guide who led us to the best local shops, dim sum eateries, and traditional hutong neighbourhoods that tourists rarely see. We also took in The Canton Tower, Guangzhou’s 595 meter observational tower that despite the foggy haze, gave us amazing views of the city.
Second Stop – Shanghai. There’s how many people?
Shanghai, estimated to be the most populous city in the world with over twenty four million people, is China’s largest city. I was sarcastically sure we could see it all in three days and so that became the plan. We weren’t tricked or forced into it. The Huangpu River flowing through Shanghai accommodates an extraordinary amount of marine traffic. The view from our hotel room gave us a spectacular front seat to observe the city, the river, and the marine activity. Like Guangzhou, the air quality is poor much of the time tainting any spectacular views. Nowhere is this more evident than at 468 meter high Oriental Pearl TV Tower where the often cloudy/smoggy days undoubtedly ruin the potentially fantastic photos that could be taken from its observation deck.
Tip#1: Visit Yu Garden
Don’t confuse the Yu Bizarre with Yu Garden. They are very different. The Yu Bizarre, made up of new buildings made in the traditional old-style Chinese architecture, contain all your traditional Chinese stores and markets. There’s Haagen Dazs, Dairy Queen, McDonald’s, and Starbucks. It’s a tourist goldmine. While the buildings are spectacular, don’t be fooled. There’s more authenticity in your local North American Chinatown than is found in the Yu Bizarre. The Yu Garden however, found just nearby, was built in 1559. It is a tourist attraction requiring payment that actually feels like a real China experience. Yu Garden is a traditional Chinese garden complete with a pond boiling-over with coy fish, traditional architectural structures, and spectacular statues highlighted by the presence of ancient porous stones that give the appearance of being built into or having grown onto wood structures. Yu Garden is a must-do for anyone visiting Shanghai for the first time.
Tip#2: Prepare to be Moved
One major thing we’ve learned in our travels is that different cultures have different views of personal space. Being so populated, the people of Shanghai just seem to expect to be jostled by others. A lesson in patience and tolerance comes from taking the subway at rush hour in Shanghai. We had never seen a train so packed. It was at that moment that I understood why the sardines at the Shanghai Aquarium complained that they were packed in there like Chinese commuters. As the subway train pulled up we saw so many people crammed in the cars and waiting to get on that my wife said we should wait for the next train. I grabbed her hand and pulled her through the people and onto the train. There’s no waiting for a “quieter” time. With us so packed together and my very limited Mandarin, I’m not sure that I didn’t start a couple of new relationships. It was at least a first date.
Beijing. Final Stop. Clichés.
We travelled north by train from Shanghai to China’s capital of Beijing. The trip was marred by heavy pollution, subsequent poor visibility, and the many smoke producing factories that we passed by. As someone not overly environmental, I did find myself asking, “What have we done?” and “Where are we going?” The next day however, we were fortunate to be met with blue skies and the illusion of clean air. We had hired an English speaking guide who could not say enough about seeing this clear and wonderful day. Despite the blue skies, it was noticeably colder in Beijing. China is huge and we had travelled from the hot and humid south to the now-entering-winter north. We were prepared with both our shorts and our winter jackets.
We did all the must-do clichés of Beijing including Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and The Great Wall of China. The next day we continued the traditional tourist role by seeing The Temple of Heaven and attending the night market (complete with crickets, tarantulas, and scorpions for your eating indulgence). Like Shanghai, we had only three days in Beijing to catch all the highlights. With its tiny population estimated at twenty two million, Beijing couldn’t have that much to see, could it? We’ll need to go back several times to see even close to all the attractions, sites, and history. By day two in Beijing, we had mastered using the subway, conversing enough to make purchases, and our money was already exchanged. We were able to relax and enjoy the final leg of our trip.
Touring the east coast of China was an amazing experience. As prepared as we were, there was always something to learn, planned sites to see became adventures, and unexpected excursions came up all along the way. We found picturesque skylines, spectacular walking/running paths by ponds, rivers, and parks, and numerous gracious Chinese people willing to help us on our way. We look forward to maybe one day returning to China but we’ll remember; Exchange money at the airport!
If you go to eastern China:
Exchange your money at the airport!
Accept the subway jostling.
In Guangzhou, check out the Canton Tower.
In Shanghai, visit The Oriental Pearl Tower.
About The Author: Roy G. Mundheim: Norwegian-Canadian freelance writer and Registered Nurse living a New York City lifestyle in Vancouver, Canada with his wife, Lesly. Roy works as an acute care nurse at Vancouver General Hospital while also working at various healthcare sites as a hospice/palliative care nurse. You can find his good advice and ridiculous humour regularly on his blog where he writes about health, fitness, lifestyle, travel, and much more…