China offers a 6 day transit visa if you are making a stop there on your way to another destination, so we made use of this on the way back from the USA to Malaysia. I think it’s excellent, as I believe a normal visa for China is quite expensive and complicated. For this one, there are rules and you need to have everything booked in advance, but it’s free and given on arrival. As far as I know, the transit visa is only available when you fly into certain cities, including Shanghai and Beijing. One of the rules is that you have to remain within a certain distance of the city of arrival, which is not really a drawback, since China is huge and there is only so far you would go in 6 days anyway. We chose to spend time in Shanghai itself and the (relatively) nearby cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou.
China is difficult. Firstly, there’s a huge language barrier. Most people either spoke no English or very little, and why should they? I don’t speak any Chinese languages and still took it upon myself to go there and expected somehow to communicate with people. It’s not that I think the whole world should speak the same language as me, but it was still a shock, because I do find that communicating in English is possible in most countries and it was such a consistent and widespread issue, even in Shanghai, dealing with staff in airports, train stations, restaurants, etc.
Even words that I thought I knew were challenging, because Mandarin is a tonal language, so you can’t just take a stab based on how it looks written in our alphabet. At the immigration counter in the airport I was asked where I was staying and I said Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou. “HANGZHOU?” I thought the lady asked, looking horrified. I timidly confirmed and she told me quite forcefully that I was not allowed to go there. After mild panic and showing her the booking confirmation for our accommodation there, she went “Oh, HANGZHOU” (pronounced seemingly differently from whatever I said the first time) and everything was actually fine.
The real difficulty was the Chinese alphabet, because I couldn’t even attempt to pronounce things or type them into my phone for a translation. Which leads me to the next issue…
No google! This was a wake up call for me, as it made me realise how much I depend upon my phone and google-based apps, like maps, translation, general searches, facebook, WhatsApp, etc. Even with a Chinese SIM card and my Chinese phone, I struggled because almost everything I’ve installed on it was banned in China. I couldn’t even download the China-approved versions from my app store because my app store itself is powered by google, so was banned too and wouldn’t work!
The final general observation is not really necessary, but I feel it’s only fair to mention it because I made a similar point in my posts about India. People took photos of us A LOT. And videos. Again, as in India, I understand that we look different from the locals, and in China people seem very keen on taking lots of photos of themselves so perhaps they see it as less of an issue, but I still really don’t like it. I know I have like 30 followers, but I’m not a real celebrity guys.
We spent our first couple of nights staying in Tianzifang in the French Concession area of Shanghai. It’s a cute and quirky collection of small streets and alleyways with boutique-style shops and restaurants. Fun to wander through and mooch around the shops. We stayed in a very tiny little apartment that ordinarily might be used for storage, but somehow had a small bed, desk, washing machine, toilet and table in it.
On the first day I didn’t wander too far out of the area for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was experiencing the other side of the worst jetlag of my life, having started to adjust to the 13 hour difference in America, then suddenly being thrown 13 hours forward again after another long flight. Secondly, I had no maps available on my phone and was afraid of getting lost on foot with no way to contact Joe (who had to stay in to work remotely) because WhatsApp wouldn’t work on my phone and WeChat (the Chinese equivalent) wouldn’t work on his phone. Maybe this was unadventurous of me, but I was exhausted and happy to spend time around Tianzifang and having a sneaky daytime doze.
On the next day, I was feeling more confident and made my way to the Shanghai Tower on the underground, which was surprisingly easy to navigate. The Tower is amazingly high, which is one of the key things I look for in a tower. This is the second tallest building in the world, so the tallest I’ve ever been in, and has the world’s highest observation deck. The weather was not great when I was there, but the views were still impressive.
One evening we also went to the Bund, which is the waterfront area in the centre of the city. The side that we stood on had some of the more traditional looking government type buildings, and we looked over the water at the skyscrapers, including my old friend the Shanghai Tower. It’s pretty imposing and a fantastic waterfront.
As for the food in Shanghai, honestly, it was not to my liking. Of course I’m an awkward vegetarian but as a former meat-eater, I still understand the appeal of some cuisines which aren’t too vegetarian friendly. But I don’t think the food on offer here would have ever appealed to me. Everything just smelt a bit….intense.
We got to Hangzhou by train from Shanghai, a very pleasant experience once we were actually on the train and through the huge, stressful, airport-like stations and the Hangzhou underground. We stayed near the West Lake, which is so picturesque that it felt like visiting a smaller, rural town, but actually Hangzhou is a city of over 10 million people.
Despite the dreary weather at the time (June), I would still say the West Lake is pretty and peaceful to walk or cycle around. Oh wait, it’s not peaceful at all to cycle around. You’re not allowed to do this, and people will shout, run at you and block your path in outrage if you do. Take it from me, I learned the hard way. The lake has a number of sights around it, including pagodas, bridges and a causeway. You can also rent a little boat and pootle around a small area of the lake. The whole area, apart from the city side, is surrounded by mountains. It’s definitely a beautiful place and I found it a much easier, calmer place to be than Shanghai.
The Lingyin Temple is another of Hangzhou’s highlights. It’s a huge complex on a mountainside just out of the city, apparently one of China’s biggest Buddhist temples. Being here made me really feel like I was in the China of movies and books. It’s surrounded by mountains, which were a bit cloudy and atmospheric, and we witnessed some kind of Buddhist ceremony in one of the temples. I’m pretty confused and upset that I can’t find any photographs from the temple, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it was great.
At this point, I was also running out of clean clothes, having no ability to locate a laundry service with my linguistic and technological shortcomings, so I bought an adorable Buddha t-shirt that you’ll see me wearing in Suzhou below. I’ve since been told by a Chinese friend that the writing on the t-shirt means “stop talking”, which is excellent.
Hangzhou is also where I dropped my phone into water and somehow managed to communicate to a waitress (in a lovely vegetarian restaurant by the lake) that I wanted a bag of uncooked rice to put my phone in. Joe reasoned that they were bound to instantly understand what I was up to, with both rice and technology being well-known “things China is good at”. It wasn’t that simple but we got there in the end, and I’m still using that same heroic phone to this day.
I still wasn’t the world’s greatest fan of the food, but we did eat much better in Hangzhou. It had a few nice vegetarian restaurants, possibly due to the number of Buddhist temples and monks, who are often vegetarian, in the area. My chopstick skills also greatly improved from “atrocious” to “fine”, perfectly demonstrated in this photo of me after awkwardly propelling a sweet and sour mushroom into my mouth.
A lil’ train related drama
After Hangzhou, the plan was to get a train directly to Suzhou and stay for one night there, and then head back to Shanghai for our flight the day after. There was some kind of major mix-up at Hangzhou train station, the details of which I can’t quite remember, possibly as a result of trauma. Basically, we somehow ended up at the gates to get to the platform without tickets, which were in a totally different wing of this huge station. About half an hour before the train was due to leave, Joe went on a mammoth trip across the station to buy tickets from the correct place, which seemingly was a series of machines, with no English language option, behind something like 100 other people waiting to use each one. I didn’t know any of this, because I was minding the bags beside the platform area. So after more than an hour, knowing the train had gone and Joe hadn’t come back, and having no way to contact him (due to the WhatsApp/WeChat issues mentioned above) I started to think about how exactly I was going to live the rest of my life alone in Hangzhou with a handful of cash and no clue about anything. I tried asking a few people for help, but nobody spoke English and as we’ve established, I don’t speak Mandarin either. Eventually Joe did come back with some tickets to Shanghai for one night instead, and new tickets for a day trip to Suzhou the day after that. It was a late train and we could only get standing tickets, but it seemed to be acceptable to sit down as long as you did it on the floor out of everyone’s way.
When we did get to Suzhou, it was quite a charming place. It is described as a water town, because there are lots of little streams and rivers running through it. Suzhou seemed even more like a sweet little rural village, but is also a major city of over 4 million people. I don’t really know how they achieve this, but they must preserve the attractions and historic areas extremely well and protect them from being taken over to build corporate office spaces and other things modern city things.
Anyway, it was very pretty and I enjoyed it. The streets seemed narrow and there are lots of little bridges, tea houses, shops, pagodas and little boats on the water. We went into a silk museum which had traditional outfits from different periods of Chinese history and an area with actual silk worms working their magic, making more silk. We also had time to enjoy the sweetly named Humble Administrator’s Garden.
So, as I said at the beginning, I found China a challenging place to visit and I feel like I would still have that experience if I returned, despite having slightly more knowledge now of how things operate there. It was not my favourite place at the time, but writing this blog has reminded me of the great experiences we had there. Maybe I didn’t understand anything, maybe people pushed me and invaded my personal space every 5 seconds, and maybe I disliked the food and thought I was going to die alone in Hangzhou, but it was a fascinating fun trip. I highly recommend the transit visa for anyone travelling that way (once international travel becomes a viable option again). Stay safe!