I spent eight weeks total in Eastern China from October 11 to December 15 (I had the other week in North Korea). With my intensive traveling style, I traveled through or slept in 20 of the 25 provinces in the east including Hong Kong and Macau. Of the five I missed, I plan on seeing three of those when I am tentatively returning to Western China in the fall. I saw a lot. Of the 30 Top Experiences listed in Lonely Planet China, I visited 20 of the 23 in Eastern China. Of the 39 Unesco World Heritage Sites, I saw 23. Eleven of the ones I missed were mountains, usually with temple complexes that I don’t find interesting. Others were simply not convenient to see or didn’t sound that special. There are some spectacular natural areas but all has been tamed to the nth degree with stone walkways everywhere and unnecessary signage usually written in bad English. All the itinerary planning I did at home paid off in spades. I saw virtually everything I wanted to.
I traveled by bus (mostly shorter distances during the day) and by train, only in hard sleeper compartments or high-speed trains. I rode an awful lot of city buses and metros and took few taxi rides. Getting tickets was invariably easy. Everything is remarkably efficient and runs on time. As always, I walked a great deal seeing a more authentic view of China. Accommodation was mostly in dorm rooms in hostels and occasionally cheap hotels. Hostelworld was an invaluable resource. I didn’t enjoy the food that much, but I am not very adventurous in the cuisine department.
Food, accommodation and transportation are cheap but admissions to sites (especially national parks) is unbelievably expensive, usually in the $35 range. Tours are generally to be avoided as they are expensive, guides speak mediocre English at best and are uninspiring. The ones I took dealt with difficult logistics. Otherwise it is much more fun figuring everything out on your own.
Except for being pickpocketed in the Beijing metro and an adventure in Shanghai, it was a safe place to travel. The people are basically honest. Stay away from massage ladies (basically prostitutes) and anyone who seems too friendly as this is not Chinese nature and their motives are not likely honest.
I only learned two Chinese words (hello and thank you) but with a phrase book and the Chinese characters beside the important stuff in the Lonely Planet, I had amazingly few difficulties. Copy and paste directions on your phone or computer for taxi drivers who never speak English. All important signs are in Latin script. Despite my initial apprehensions, it was quite an easy country to travel in. Everywhere is connected so transportation.
They are a lot of people in China and they like to travel. Sometimes the number was overwhelming but I missed the National holidays during the week following May 1st and October 1st when travel here is impossible.
I had very few meaningful interactions with Chinese because of language issues and they are not socially out going with strangers. I found the cultural behavior disturbing and never got used to some of their habits. The loud hork followed by spitting is unpleasant at best. One hand nose clearing is ugh. Eating loudly with their mouth open is difficult for me to deal with. The lack of social space gets frustrating. They are always in your way. On sidewalks they stroll and meander, stop in front of you, turn in front of you, step on your heels, walk abreast and seem to have no awareness of others. But wait to see what happens if there is a seat to be had (the metro and city buses are the worst). It’s a stampede with running, pushing, queue jumping and climbing over seats. Riding escalators and getting on and off subways is something they haven’t figured out. They blame it on having so many people but I have been in almost all the 25 largest cities in the world, and you never see this behavior. I believe it is due to their agrarian, communist past (the Cultural Revolution did them no favours) combined with uneducated ignorance.
After a while you start to think that they are stupid. But I believe it is not intelligence that is lacking but the inability to think intuitively, a product of their rote-learning school system. That also explains the lack of innovation and the lack of English skills. Even though they take several hours per week of English throughout grade school, only those who studied English in university can converse. Only grammar and writing are part of the curriculum. Not being able to practice speaking combined with memorizing and not understanding are major impediments.
But when I needed help finding something especially navigating city buses, there was always someone who came to my rescue. When you smiled at them, you often got a smile back.
It is amazing what they have created in the last twenty years. Construction cranes dot every landscape. The skyscrapers, bridges, highways, high-speed rail lines, and rail stations are like nowhere else in the world. Infrastructure projects are ongoing everywhere. They are an incredibly hard-working people and great entrepreneurs.
Come to China. It is one country with the oldest complex civilization on the planet that you don’t want to miss.