My China Travel Hacks: Part 4

In three other installments of this series, I talked about how to travel cheap when considering transportation, lodging, sight-seeing, and food. This time, I’m going to share a bunch of miscellaneous stuff I’ve picked up from the road that would benefit any solo traveler trying to stretch those RMB notes as long as possible.

**NOTE: If you have anything you’d like to add, comment and let me know! I’m always happy to learn more hacks. After all, I still have 4 provinces to explore!

  • Save plastic baggies and wash them. (I learned this one from my mom, actually).
  • Bring laundry detergent. Laundry service is not free in Chinese hostels. Be prepared to sink-wash things.
  • BARGAIN BARGAIN BARGAIN. It’s expected of you to bargain. In a market? Cut the price in half and start there. In a tourist area? Be fierce. I have many tactics, but one that seems to work best is what I call my “Great Wall” Technique: choose a price you want to pay, and then don’t budge. If the vendor gets within 5-10RMB of your price, start saying “Aww, it’s just a couple RMB cheaper! Aren’t we friends?” Offer to buy more than one for a discount. Consider it, walk away, and see if the vendor has a change of heart when he/she sees you disappear. Think a driver is ripping you off? Bargain! Make sure he/she uses a meter if in a taxi. (Note: this does not work for high-end places…but really, if you’re reading this post, you’re probably not planning on going there anyway.)
  • Bring your own thermos. Clean hot water is available everywhere (but not clean cold water, alas. That you have to buy.)
  • Be kind. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but I can’t count how many times I’ve had cabbies or even hostel workers knock off a few RMB because they just thought I was nice. (Though this should not be your sole motivation for being nice).
  • Don’t forget things. You’ll end up having to buy them on the road. My friend Maeva and I used to do a check every time we left the door: phone, wallet, passport, camera (now kind of lumps in with phone). Chargers are big culprits, too.
  • Take napkins and toilet paper from anywhere you can get them. Chinese bathrooms do not offer toilet paper, and so you have to supply it yourself. KFC’s, McDonalds, and most fast food places are great for swiping napkins.
  • ALWAYS take free hotel water bottles (no free cold water in China), but make sure they’re free first.
  • ALWAYS accept free samples and other freebies. No joke, I once had a lunch made entirely out of grocery store samples.
  • Bring gifts from your hometown (postcards are big ones) to share with people you like on the road. Never underestimate the power of kind gestures, especially when the travel/expat community in China is comparatively small to other countries. Locals, too, are extraordinarily sweet, but only if you’re sweet, too.
  • If money is VERY tight, then don’t use the bowls and cups that come prepackaged on restaurant tables or the packets of napkins. They cost about 2-3 RMB. There are almost always bowls/utensils on the drying rack, which is free.
  • If in possession of a SIM card, or if armed with capable Chinese, download apps like 滴滴打车 (di di da che) for cheaper taxi rides. (At the time of writing this, Uber was bought out by the latter company, so…that’s a pity.)
  • Bring your own instant noodles/snacks for long train rides because food on trains will be pricey. Same goes for food/water on top of mountains and in scenic sites. (As for the mountains, this is largely because coolies have to carry heavy loads of supplies all the way up the mountain, so as much as I hate the extra prices, in that case it makes sense).
  • In most big cities (definitely in Hangzhou) there are free public bikes. If you get a public bike card from any metro station, you’ll pay a refundable 200 RMB deposit, and then can take out a bike all day. Be sure to switch out your bike every hour at bike stations to avoid charges. ( 1 RMB after the first hour, and then it creeps up little by little. BUT if you think “Aw, that’s not so much” and decide to just keep it overnight, DON’T. A friend of mine did exactly this and had a massive, emptied-her-transit-card fee the following morning. 2-3 hour fees aren’t so bad, though).
  • Check our tourist centers for free maps. I’m not sure about other places, but Hangzhou has a lot of free ENGLISH maps for tourists.
  • Walk. If you’re in a tourist area and things aren’t so far apart, just walk it. Be warned, though, many directions you get from passersby might not have accurate distances. Sometimes “Oh, it’ll take about half an hour by foot” will actually mean 2 hours of walking. Download Chinese map apps: 百度地图 (bai du di tu) and 高德地图 (gao de di tu) since Google products are blocked in China (unless you have a VPN). That, or ask your hostel for good walking routes.
  • Bring 2 books with you to participate in FREE hostel book swaps. (Only if you’re doing a longer trip, though).
  • Be chatty. I don’t mean “talk incessantly” or “talk even if you hate people” but striking up conversations with hostel people or random people on the street often lead to the most interesting and unexpected parts of any travel experience. Use good judgment, but also be open.
  • Turn your phone on airplane mode. (This one I learned from my former roommate, and yes, it’s not terribly related to cost, but is worth a mention). Many travelers don’t want to be distracted by text messages or social media while on the road, but also want to use their phones as cameras so can’t just turn them off. Easy: put your phone on airplane mode, so that Wifi, 4G, and your phone number are all temporarily disabled at your command.

Did I miss anything? Feel free to comment if you have anything to add!

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My China Travel Hacks: Part 3

(I know it’s been a while since I’ve updated this series. See my previous post to learn why).

In previous posts (like this one and this one), I’ve talked about how to tighten one’s china travel budget when it comes to transportation and lodging. This time, I’m going to look at sight-seeing and food.

The Impossible Situation: Sight-Seeing

Why it’s impossible:

Just about all sights in China have tickets (and this includes mountains, most parks, lakes, and anything natural that is remotely scenic), and all such tickets cost money. Obviously, if you’re already taking the trouble to come to China in the first place, you will want to see some of the sights, and so these costs pile up quickly. (Though, compared to the overall cost of transportation and lodging, this one is not as bad…more annoying, really.)

Why it’s actually not:

While for the most part, sight-seeing costs are unavoidable, there are definitely ways to make for a better budget. The first, most obvious choice, is to just be pickier about what you’re actually going to see. I’m not saying that you should stop seeing things, but not every “sight” in China is worth seeing. Sometimes an old temple is actually just a dilapidated home that has some Buddha statues in it. Sometimes, the lake is just a pond (and I say this after having seen everything ranging from incredible temples and lakes, TO getting duped into spending unnecessary rmb to see a sludgy pond with lotus statues creaking nearby). Do your research, decide on what you really want to see, and then just focus on that. (Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor are great resources with forums from other travelers, and Atlas Obscura is a great source for finding more unusual and interesting sights). Wandering is of course totally acceptable, and sometimes those asides are the best part. But, if you want to get more bang for your buck, just prioritize.

A less-known and INCREDIBLY useful hack is to BRING YOUR STUDENT ID. If you are even in your mid-30s and could even remotely pass for a 20-something, bring your old, battered college/university student ID. Mine should barely count, but if you look earnest and insistent enough, you can get half of your ticket price knocked off.

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THIS ACTUALLY WORKS

It doesn’t work every time, but when it does, it’s a beautiful thing. And if you’re thinking “That’s cheating!” you should know that when I went on a tour to the Terra Cotta Warriors, the guide actually brought along fake student IDs for everyone, so. Waste not!

The (other) Impossible Situation: Food

Why it’s impossible:

Obvious. Food is survival. Survival is being able to lope around one more paved stairway up sand dunes (for real, these exist in Dunhuang).

Why it’s actually not:

I will preface this by saying that food in China is very cheap compared to other countries. There are night markets, there are street vendors, and most sit-down restaurants are quite affordable, especially when you eat in groups. (Plus, there’s no tipping in China, so that helps).

A general tip for anywhere you travel in terms of food: go to a grocery store and buy some staples to use during your time. A loaf of bread, some peanut butter (though be warned that peanut butter in China is not a fine affair) and some fruit will shave off a couple meals and in turn, money. If you want to eat some local food (and you definitely should, because it’s a) delicious, and b) the thing that Chinese people are most proud of in their culture) you should try to eat in a group. Most Chinese food is meant to be eaten with a couple people sharing from several dishes (plus, it means that you can try a bigger variety of foods!)

If you are a solo traveler, however, and you just want something both CHEAP AND CLEAN (and I put that in caps because there are definitely iffy vendors in China, which I think most people have heard about), go to this chain restaurant that every city/small town has: 兰州拉面 (lan zhou la mian). 

Whatever variation the store name has (be it the type of meat, or the particular province), 拉面 (la mian) is basically the patron saint of solo travelers in China. One bowl is very filling, and it’s usually somewhere between 6-15 RMB per bowl. AND, the meat is quite clean. (Plus, it’s fun to watch how it’s prepared, so you’ll still get a cultural experience: see this video to watch!)  Another one is any variation of 麻辣烫 (ma la tang) which is a kind of personal hot pot in which you can select by hand your ingredients (though be sure to specify if you don’t want it to be spicy!)

In short, there are many ways to budget travel in China. But what about random tidbits? Stay tuned for more.

Forget the Thesis, Let’s Do the Time Warp!

I think it was fair to say that when I checked the thermostat and discovered that my hometown Lakeville in Minnesota was colder than Antarctica, I felt formally welcomed into a totally different world. (And despite friends’ claims that “Well, Antarctica is in the middle of summer and WELL it has been sunny for a couple of months straight…” it does not change the fact that MN is COLDER THAN FREAKING ANTARCTICA…and the surface of Mars, incidentally).

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You cannot deny the facts, sir!

Ice is everywhere, and though our local weatherman Paul Douglas said such cold is “like being dipped in battery acid” I did feel a distinct glee in every exclamation-point breath I took in the arctic land. It’s bracing. It hurts your face. It’s that elusive slice of home.

But wait…you might be thinking. Aren’t you in China?

Yeah.

In fact, I’m just in Minnesota for the holidays since for once, my schedule is open enough to take Christmas off. It was a decision that made me happy when I bought the plane tickets to make the journey, and then filled with downright manic joy the closer the date came to leave. But in between that time I bought the plane ticket and now, breathing in the ice cube air around me and marveling at our Christmas tree and shimmying to holiday tunes, stuff did happen. China stuff. Stuff not related to Christmas in the slightest.

Thesis stuff.

See, the thing I learned about getting a masters is that you go in thinking “All right, I’m going to LEARN!” and by the end you’re hunched over your computer trying to wrangle footnotes and cite things you might not have alluded to exactly, but sort of have an affinity for and why not have longer footnotes? And then, you have to do it all in Chinese.

Had I mentioned that before? Yes. I’m writing my thesis in Mandarin Chinese. That’s part of the deal with having a China Government Scholarship, though I’ve talked to plenty of international students who give up and write it in English anyway. (But I’m just too damn stubborn to do anything of the sort.)

I mean, I haven’t even written the thesis yet of course. These past couple of months were all about the thesis PROPOSAL, which sounds deceptively simple, and in fact took me a solid month of endless writing to complete a single draft. First, I wrote it myself. Then I brought it to my Chinese tutor, Flora, who was very kind, but also ripped it to shreds to fix grammar and awkward word choice. THEN I brought it to a doctorate classmate of mine who checked for logic/layout/content, and THEN I brought it before my professors to discuss and tell me how I ought to do it instead. On top of that, no one in the department really tells you what you have to do and when, and also neglects to mention what’s supposed to be in the damn proposal, so half of my time was spent bothering that poor doctorate student who probably thought “Are all foreigners this clueless?”

The actual proposal was a bit nerve-wracking because I had to regurgitate the painstakingly-wrought proposal and tell professors in a logical, composed and adult way what I planned to do. Naturally, I panicked and spouted a bunch of machine-gun-speed Chinese that mercifully ended and segued into their critique.

“Aw, don’t worry about it,” a Malaysian student told me before. “They don’t even read the proposals, and if yours is long, they’ll just trust what you’re saying.”

“Ehn, they let us foreign students get away with anything because they’re impressed enough that we speak Chinese,” an Italian student told me.

Both, in the end, were wrong. My professors had both read the proposal and had pointed critiques to make. To be honest, I was grateful, since it meant that I wouldn’t be coddled for mediocrity and would instead be pushed to be better.

So. All that happened. If it sounds time consuming, that’s because it is. As a result, I don’t properly remember the past month or so, though when I look at the facts of what I did, I realize that, empirically, other things did happen, whether or not I recall. It’s an instance of the Time Warp where the days blur and both feel eternally long, but also as if they’re shooting past, where time scrunches like an accordion, and it’s like those long flights I’m accustomed to, when you’re handed food when hungry and told “It’s night now. Try to sleep.”

Stuff happened: Poetry slams, my birthday, a photo shoot for professional head-shots, a music gig, tutoring two children, and oh so much more.

For now though, I’m just going to do the Time Warp and enjoy the fact that it’s now nearing the end of December, that I’m drinking my father’s drink “The Buddy Manhattan” which includes a pickle narwhal (inspired by the movie “Elf”), and that every time I step outside I can think both “Wow!” and “Ai ya!” when the battery-acid air decides to stop on by.

Merry Christmas.