“You know, I don’t think it’s actually the end of the Great Wall,” my couchsurfing host in Changchun said when I told her my next stop during my trip. “It’s the beginning. “Longtou” means “dragon head,” which would be the beginning, right? It’s not the tail.”
I had to pause to take it all in.
I had planned for my last stop on this final backpacking trip to be at Shanhaiguan’s Laolongtou (老龙头) Great Wall portion. It seemed metaphorically correct: to end at the end of the Great Wall, where it met the sea, and where I would at last have accomplished visiting all of China’s Provinces. It seemed backwards in a way, for me to have traveled all these five years to only end up at the beginning, like a lost child who ran toward an exit, only to crash into the entrance instead.
But then, since I find meaning in dust motes and can poeticize anything, I thought “isn’t it fitting, to have an end be yet another beginning?”
I walked along the stone crenelations days later, having reached this end of the Great Wall. I once looked out at the other end, which faced a vast and harsh desert that was part of the Silk Road. I had tried to put myself in the boots of those sentinels who watched that gaping desert, watching the sand swirl into the sky. Since the time I went to Jiayuguan and the time I stood here at Shanhaiguan, I’d seen a lot in between. But now, I was at the end, listening to the waves roll along the shore and crash against the stone wall jutting into the sea. It was as different a scene as I could possibly find from the other side of the Wall all those years ago. And yet, looking out into the vast expanse of seawater, I took in the horizon like a blank page.
Yes, I had reached the end of something grand, and every inch of it along the way had been exhilarating. Yes, things would be different after this, as I would no longer be scheduling in as many China backpacking trips as I once had before. Yes, I would walk in a different direction now, with new boots and a smile.
But no, I don’t think things at are an end. Why, I’ve only begun.
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!
Last post I talked about how to trim the fat for transportation when traveling in China. However, there are other expenses other than the road that can add up, such as lodging.
Why it’s impossible
No matter what you tell yourself, after a long day of traveling, you do actually need a bed to crash into.
When I calculated travel costs, lodging came up as the second-highest spending culprit (right after Transportation, which I already covered). I anticipated the cost and made arrangements to volunteer in a village for a while (among other reasons, too). That being said, this one is unavoidable.
Why it’s not impossible
Let’s go through some of the options here. You can and should use the extensive hostel network in China (check out this website), as it’s a great place to meet travelers and get travel advice. I have done trips before where I’ve done as little as configure transportation, book a hostel, and arrive. Most hostels have information about places to go, and are great places to get travel buddies.
They are not as cheap as you can get in China, though.
Aside from doing home-stays or walking about and comparing hotel prices, you can almost always go to the nice hotel in the middle of town and ask for a room without windows or a computer. It’s usually not advertised, and few customers opt for it, but most nice hotels have them, and if you are with a travel partner, can be as cheap as 50 RMB/person, which is about what you might pay for a hostel bed.
There are other options, such as AirBnB and Couchsurfing. I have not tried AirBnB myself, but have done couchsurfing and have had (mostly) good experiences. (And as a single female traveler, I’m just saying that it’s very doable, so long as you use good judgment by reading references). If you are going to do CS, be sure that you bring gifts for your hosts and are willing to be chatty. Although it’s free to stay with the hosts, you should never treat it like a hotel (though this is more a polite gesture and is not a hard rule). If you are not feeling social or talkative, consider just paying for a hotel room.
You can also consider volunteering, if you are in no hurry and also want to give back to the community. There is a WWOOFing (Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms) China program, which I did while in Shanxi. I will say this: it is not the same as WWOOFing outside of China, in that I ended up not working on an organic farm at all (surprise!), but teaching English classes for kids (but mostly lying around a house full of weird baby pictures). I also found a volunteering opportunity through Couchsurfing, which gave me the chance to work in a hostel in Sanya, a beach town in Southern China, for several weeks. As you might expect, knowing Chinese helps, though if you don’t know Chinese, don’t let that stop you!
But what if you’re truly truly I-might-sleep-in-the-curb-broke?
The absolute bare-bottom tactic you can do is to just bring your own tent and supplies when you travel and be prepared to camp out on the road. There are campsites in China, though not all places welcome tents. I did meet a traveler who got lost and just slept on a bench for the night — do me a favor, dear reader, and find yourself anywhere other than a random bench! I think tents are good, though of course, having one means having to buy one along with the supplies before heading out. Think of it as a long-term investment.
The two biggest spending culprits have been tackled, but there are so many other ways to whittle down expenses in China. Stay tuned for Scenic Spots and Food. And, if you read this and have other suggestions, please comment and let me know! I’m always happy to learn more.
In my previous post, I included a link for a video that I got to film with a Zhejiang TV station around the province. The end product captures the range and human stories in each village, but many people have been asking me: How did this come about? What exactly was it for?
As many know, the G20 came to Hangzhou, and the city did a lot to prepare for it. On top of security measures, Hangzhou has also been striving to improve its tourism industry, as well as promote its local heritage and prestige in the line of Chinese history. I was in a promotional video for Hangzhou in June (which my friend wrote about in her blog here). I also won an essay contest (link here for full essay), and ended up in a short video called “48 Hours” in which the host led expats to different travel locations.
The thing about Hangzhou is that the expat community is relatively small, and so when photographers see a Chinese-speaking blonde, they remember her.So it was that the same company that did “48 Hours” approached me for another project.
We met up for coffee one day, me being a bit wary to accept what he said would be a week of filming. I was in the midst of a writing project, and hadn’t been totally floored by “48 Hours,” since the video hosts spoke rapid-fire Chinese and expected me to act like a ditz. The one before that had me doing generic “wow” faces as I walked through a silk shop with my friend.
This project, however, proved to be different.
As we met for coffee, the director, Gao Feng, explained how they were in charge of four videos to promote different aspects of Zhejiang culture. One was food, one tea, and…I don’t remember the other one (I’m the worst). Mine was “Ancient Villages.” For each one, an expat would lead viewers through their own experiences with the theme. I immediately imagined something like the G20 silk museum video I had done and shuddered.
“We want this to be very real and personal,” Gao Feng said. “I want to know what you are like, what interests you, what you think about when you see pictures of these places.I mean, if we wanted someone to just look pretty, we could hire a model. But that’s not real.”
He gave me a packet of the places they had in mind, and after chatting and getting to know me for a while, I went back to look over the choices. There was Ningjing, a village home to the She ethinic minority; Qingyang, a village with over 50 generations of people surnamed Mao; Digang, a village along the Yunhe Grand Canal, with an active and ancient tea house; and then the abandoned village in Gouqi Island. I scribbled down some first impressions and then contacted him. I was on board.
In total, we had a small film crew: 8 people. We were piled into a small van and drove all around Zhejiang to catch these villages. Gao Feng wasn’t kidding: it was a tight schedule. We had a day in each village, and each day was jam-packed to get as much material as possible. We woke up early, one day at 3 am so as to catch the elderly who met at the aforementioned tea house. Usually, we took a break in the middle of the day because it was just too hot to do anything. One of the workers would be on hand just to dab sweat off of my made-up face. The photographers had it hardest, I think, because they had to carry all of the equipment with them, up small paths, down stairs, and even into the sea when they wanted footage of me playing and enjoying myself (my pleasure!) All the while, I jotted down impressions and notes in my phone (since carrying a notebook wasn’t convenient). Hearing mountain songs from She minority villagers as they snuck in selfies with me. Making a sticky-rice treat and then being surprised when the whole village showed up to bag some up and enjoy it. Walking through an ancient home with Mr. Mao, who then gave me a wooden pendent he’d carved himself. Racing against rain to get a panoramic shot of me hiking in a field. Leaning over a table drinking coffee while others drank tea. Learning some Tai Chi. Standing alone (or pretending that I was) in an abandoned village.
Essentially, they wanted me to be curious about stuff and then write about it, which is what I do anyway, really. I chatted with locals, got to play my violin in the park, and then shared a meal with a family.
Of course, there was editing afterward, and then I had to go in with my voice-over. (I’d written a version in English that they translated into Chinese, edited much shorter, and then asked me to translate back into English…in a very panic-inducing 15 minutes before recording…I’m only *slightly* bitter about that point).
The thing that really stuck with me about the trip though, was how it felt like a combination of everything in all my four years of China that I liked best. Sharing meals with people, chatting with interesting locals, playing music in the park, traveling. And then there was the fact that Gao Feng really wanted to inspire me, and so would always pop up sometimes to tell me more about something or to suggest another thought avenue.
Does this mean I’m going into acting? No, I don’t think so. Though the video makes it look relaxing and such, it really is hard work! I do hope I can collaborate with them more in the future, though.
As in, an international summit on economic matters taking place in Hangzhou in September. I’ve been told Obama will be there. I’ve also been told that the entire city will shut down to make sure that when Obama (and many others) are there, nothing bad happens.
The city must take certain measures to ensure safety. What with terrible things happening around the world, it’s absolutely important to make sure that Hangzhou doesn’t become the next infamous Scene of the Crime.
But…it can be a bit overwhelming at times.
Factories have been shut down to ensure blue, blue skies. Major road construction took place to repave ALL ROADS AT THE SAME TIME. Bars now close at midnight to avoid…not sure actually. There are four policemen at every intersection to enforce traffic rules. We can’t order liquids online anymore. If you carry liquids onto the bus, the driver makes you sip it first before boarding.
And it’s just the beginning of August.
Most people I know have gone back to their home countries during this time. Chinese classmates are all encouraged to just go to their hometowns.
I’ll be getting a fridge stocked up with food for the week, I’ll have movies ready, and I will not leave the apartment if I can help it.
I mean, Hangzhou in the summer is nasty hot, it’s true, and it would be the perfect time to go back to Minnesota and jump in a series of lakes. But a part of me is morbidly curious about the G20 and the changes brought on by it. (Also, after paying rent on an apartment, I’d better actually be living in it!)
Don’t get me wrong: there are definitely positive changes. You can walk along a crosswalk and cars actually stop! The sky is very blue. Infrastructure is improving. English signage is also getting a facelift (much to the chagrin of us expats who like bad translations for a laugh).
But…in the end, no matter how safe the city is in every way in September, we’ll still grumble about it, and we’ll still gather in coffee shops and on street corners to gossip about the latest changes.
I asked a friend to read over a part of a paper for class. She got into the first section, and then I saw her eyebrows shoot up as if she was reading a pop-up book about male anatomy.
“What is this?!” she said.
I looked over her shoulder, and saw, in very clear Chinese characters: “The penguin escaped from the household in search of sexual independence.”
“What penguin??” she said, beginning to laugh.
See, it’s an honest mistake. The character input for ‘penguin’ and ‘concubine’ is very similar. Penguin (企鹅 qi’e) and concubine (妾 qie). See? Easy mistake. (Still, it’s fun to imagine a sexually-liberated penguin running from a Qing Dynasty household. I imagine a Charlie Chaplin-style waddle down the path with a Daoist priest in tow).
Believe it or not, these problems happen more than you’d think. I once mistook the poet Homer for a Hippo God because a) it was an awesome image, and b) they are pronounced the same and I got confused. (And I spent an hour in class fuming about how I’d never been taught about Hippo God in my own American schooling). Another time, I thought a teacher was talking about the Samba, when really he was talking about a scar on a character’s leg. Best of all was when a classmate was complaining about all of the things his girlfriend could fit in her purse, including what sounded like “a whole turkey” when really he was saying “a lighter.”
It’s good for a laugh, which I’ve learned to do often. A friend told me that you have to learn to love losing face to make it in the world. I think that’s true. (Or, at least I hope it is, considering that I do it so much.) Every time I open my mouth, it’s a gamble whether or not I’ll say something coherent.
But to try is to dance with failure, and to stay light on your feet as the tempo picks up.
So yes, I may have created a sexually-charged-penguin monstrosity, but it’s all part of the learning process.
Or so I tell myself as I go back and edit that penguin out of my essay.