On My Itinerary: CHINA!

My Travel Hats is back from hiatus! It’s been a hectic start to 2011, albeit a good one so far, with many, many, many adventures to come this year. Since we just kicked off the Year of the Rabbit at the start of February, it’s only fitting to write about our upcoming travels to the grand land of China.

We’ll be traveling with my dad, my sister and five-year-old niece, who has been obsesssed with going to China ever since she watched the Kai-lan special about going to China. (You can watch the video where they sing “We’re going to China, we’re going to China, I feel so happy!”) In the Kai-lan special, they make friends with pandas who speak English. I hope my niece isn’t disappointed.

This will be my – I’m not sure, 8th? 10th? 12th? time to China. I was one of few American tourists who headed over there in the late 1970’s and then through the 80’s, 90’s and millenium, watching the country move through post-Maoist era into the consumer capital of the world it is today. It’s an incredible transformation to watch, and every time I go back there’s something very new to see. The last time I went was in 2005 for work and I toured the Birds’ Nest Olympic Stadium with a hard hat as it was being constructed.

Though I’ve been over there several times, this is actually my first time purchasing a guidebook. And boy, there are several. I finally settled on the Eyewitness Guide to China, because it has lots of pictures, and my niece would enjoy the pictures. I forget that China has 5,000 years of history, tons of temples and statues and tombs and summer palaces and winter palaces and gardens and pagodas. Even a small town in the middle of nowhere has so many interesting things to see and do and eat. Beijing alone can take a month to cover. Since we are Americans, we only have two weeks and cramming a whole lot of country into this short time.

Some tips for planning a trip to China.

1. Buy a guidebook with Chinese characters written on the maps. The more Chinese characters in a guidebook, the better. Cab drivers have no idea what you’re referring to when you point to the English version, or even to a map, and if you try to pronounce it (especially if you don’t speak Chinese) you’ll get nowhere. You should also ask your hotel to write down the names of places you’re going to, in Chinese, that you can just hand to the driver.

2. Everyone assumes you can get by with English. Correction: if you’re lucky, you can get by with English. Hotels will speak English (at least major hotels). There will be a lot of pantomime and sign language and a lot of confusion. If you don’t know Chinese and you’re trying to pronounce things out of a phrasebook, you’ll also get nowhere. The best you can do is have as much written out in Chinese as possible, including food allergies and where you’d like to go, and point.

3. There’s too much to see in China. If you’re a first-timer, you cannot miss Beijing. People are very attracted to Shanghai, but bear in mind it is just like a westernized city nowadays, so the real history and gems are in Beijing. I would spend a solid week in Beijing and the outskirts of Beijing, and maybe go to Shanghai, plus the surrounding cities of Shanghai (like Suzhou, Nanjing, and Hangzhou) and check out Xi’an – land of the terracotta soldiers.

4. Get a visa. You’ll need to get a visa, and it only takes about four days (if you have an embassy in town). However, the visa fee has skyrocketed for Americans to $140. (Don’t whine about the Chinese – Tanzania charged Americans $100). If you’re not American, it’s $30!

5. Vaccinations. Unless you’re going farming, and likely you’re sticking to major tourist cities, you won’t need any major vaccines. You should already be up to date with your regular vaccinations (MMR), hepatitis A and B, and polio. Typhoid and rabies only if you plan to be outside hiking or working in fields.

Stay tuned for more updates!

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