China is a great country to travel and explore and we made many great memories on the trip. This was my first trip to this great and diverse country and we got to experience some new cultures, way of life and cuisines. China has rich past and a highly developed language that has been used since ancient history.
Chinese population converses in Mandarin and Cantonese along with many other dialects and English is not a popular language which is cause for many adventurous for the English speaking traveler when traveling in China. Since I did not find a comprehensive list of tips before traveling to China, I decided to jot down some of my recommendations from my experiences in traversing this great and unique country.
Forward your emails– Google and Facebook do not work in China hence forward your emails from Gmail to your other accounts such as outlook, yahoo, etc. if you would like to keep in touch. Viber and WhatsApp and good ways to connect or call folks back home. Baidu is the search engine that is popularly used in China.
Use the metro – Most major cities in China have a well-connected metro system which you can navigate without learning mandarin. Many of the signs are in English as well and you can purchase tickets from a kiosk at the station.
Click pictures of the taxi card– Chinese streets and address have an English name and completely different Chinese name. So if you want to travel by cab to a particular place ask your hotel to write it down for you or search online for the place and keep pictures of the place with the Chinese names prominently mentioned.
Make a friend who knows the language– This tip comes handy when the taxi driver is hurtling the cab in the opposite direction from the one intended by you shaking his head and saying No, No, No quite empathetically. A call to a friend who can converse with the driver and explain to him exactly where you want to go comes as a God send in such situations.
Use a tour company or tour guide–
If like me you can’t make local friends on such short notices it is a good idea to travel with a tour guide or go with a tour company. Most tour companies in China can provide you an English speaking tour guide and a driver with a car. Traveling with a tour guide is great especially if you want to explore places that are outside the city limits.
Try the local cuisine– Each province in China has different dishes and entirely different cuisines, eat local cuisines and try new places as much as you can. For example one can sample a variety of bamboo dishes in Sichuan and Muslim influenced food in the north west of China. Most of the cities and restaurants prepare beef, pork, chicken, lamb and of course vegetables, it is rare to find places that have other forms of meat contrary to the popular stereotype.
Ordering at restaurants– Most restaurants in the city have a picture menu which you can point and order. In case you want to order something specific ask your friend, concierge or tour guide to write down a few safe options for you in Mandarin.
Bargaining in China–
Chinese markets are a great place to shop. There are all types of markets in China from high end malls to flea markets and fake merchandise markets. Most of the merchandise you can get are good quality too. Bargaining in local markets happens over the calculator where the shop keeper would enter their price and you are expected to key in the amount you are willing to pay. There are apps available that can be downloaded which give the correct price that you can pay at a fake market.
Say no to Touts – Resist the urge to buy that good looking phone which a stranger wants to sell to you at the departure gate at the airport. There are all sorts of scams that you can imagine and some that you can’t. Be on your guard and be mindful of the local laws.
Paying the uninformed tourist price– This is one lesson I learnt the hard way. The concierge at my hotel sold me tickets for a hop on hop off bus tour in Shanghai for my toddler and me. Half way through the tour I realized that there weren’t many Chinese tourists on the bus which was not the case at all the major attractions that day. As luck would have it I lost my ticket and the tour operator at the hop on site would not let me on without me buying another ticket for a 100 RMB. As I contemplated my next move in order to reach the hotel with my toddler I chanced upon another tour bus that was operating on the same route also with English and French sound tracks which cost only 30 RMB. Hence the day was saved and a precious lesson learnt to research the different options available before approaching the hotel for advice.
Be prepared for security checks– Metro stations and other tourist attractions in China have security checks hence it is advisable to not lug metal around when traveling in China especially if you have a lot of attractions to cover in a day.
Smog is a serious issue in China– Major cities in China like Beijing and Shanghai grapple with pollution and smog advisories are issued. It is advisable to limit travel on such days and/ or wear masks and protective glasses. We were pretty lucky not to have got stuck with smog when we were in China.
The Temple of Heaven and Earth in the center of Beijing city was once a forbidden part of the city exclusive for the imperial crown. The area around the temple which was the tallest building in China at that point in time was surrounded by thick forests. In present day China the area around the temple is a huge recreational park where people come everyday to exercise, meet, gossip and socialize.
The gardens themselves are tranquil and enticing but its the people who bring the gardens to life. We reached the Temple of Heaven around nine in the morning and the gardens leading to the temple were bursting with activity. People were exercising on cycles, on jungle bars and doing push ups. There were groups learning ball room dancing or dancing traditionally Chinese dances with props such as ribbons. The most interesting part was that all these people who were engaged in such robust activities were all old, the average age being 60 years or more.
Groups of people were playing a unique game with a feather weighted down by a ball or steel rings. It required some crazy football skills as it needed to be kicked and passed to each other. Each group was a mix of men and women equally enthusiastic about being alive and kicking (quite literally). There were choir groups, people playing Chinese checkers, people knitting, gossiping and even practicing Tai Chi.
The park was predominantly populated by older men and women only because the younger folks were away working as it was a week day. Another striking aspect was that the women were as involved in playing or exercise as much as the men quite contrary to what older folks in India are expected to do. Which is shuffle along on morning walks and participate in religious activities. I have seen older people exercise in U.S too but there would be one or two odd older folks in a majority of young enthusiasts. The older folks are stereotyped as restrained to sunning themselves on rocking chairs on the porch.
This sight of people enjoying themselves in the outdoors in such numbers was truly amazing. There were old men upside down on the jungle gym, there were folks playing badminton with two bats and folks in traditional costumes dancing or learning to dance impromptu. Some of the games being played were ones that we knew but then there some that were so unique. These spaces provided people a chance to form friendships along with being physically active at an age where people in other countries were withdrawing themselves from active life.
Each city in China is divided into districts and each district has an exercise area complete with exercise bikes which are soldered to the ground. Thus making it accessible for anyone who wants to use them. Old, young, men, women and children seem to use these spaces in equal numbers. This was one major distinction that I found in China vis a vis any other country I have been to. China’s infrastructure amazed me but along with creating new buildings and roads enough thought was given to create such spaces which allowed people to breathe. We were quite blown away by what we saw in China as it broke many stereotypes of what people think China is about.
In the center of Beijing near the famous palaces of Forbidden city lies a complex of marvelous architecture, deep history and cultural impact. This complex is proof enough of the great civilization that ruled the far-east. The temple of heaven is an intact and formidable complex which played a primary role as the site of imperial sacrifices.
The Temple of Heaven was built according to the knowledge and the relationship that the ancient Chinese had with nature and their understanding of the universe. The complex has two main structures, one is the altar for sacrifice for the heavens known as the temple for heaven and the other sacrificial altar is the temple for earth. The complex is so awe inspiring that it is difficult to imagine that this was a structure constructed in the 15th century.
The Temple of Heaven is constructed on four levels, the first three levels are representative of the different stages the universe is divided into before reaching the heavens. The first stage is the clouds, the second stage is of the phoenix, the third stage is the dragon and the last circular stage is of the heavens. The emperors of the Ming and Qin dynasties used to offer sacrifices at the altar every year to ensure good crops and good fortune.
The colors of the Temple have been restored to the brightness of its hay days. The complex consists of some 90 buildings all required for the elaborate ritualistic yearly sacrifice. This complex of the temple of heaven and earth is amazing because it is one of the few complete and maintained building from the imperial period.
The Temple of Earth is a short walk away from the Temple of Heaven. This structure mainly comprises of a circular mound on top of a elaborate steps leading to it. This circular mound is said to be a very powerful point on earth. It is also constructed in such a way that the voice of whoever speaks while on this mound resonates.
The ritual for the sacrifice was exclusive and elaborate. The emperor was required to be in the proper attire and carried in a procession to the temple which was built on an incline. The Temple of Heaven and Earth was surrounded by a thick cover of trees to keep it exclusive to the imperial crown. The sacrifice consisted of bulls and other materials that were thought to be important to appease the Gods of Heaven and Earth respectively. The bull was then beaten to death and then the sacrifice would be burned in the different cauldrons with the emperor overseeing the ritual.
Each motif, sculpture, building and object within the complex has great meaning and purpose. It was very important for the emperor to complete this ritual for the whole country to have an abundant harvest. The Temple of Heaven and Earth is a major part of Chinese history. For most part when we think of history, it happens to be dominated by events that transpired in Europe and the west while equally important events were being written in Asia and elsewhere. China is one country where history was well documented and many artifacts and monuments have stood the test of time and seen the world change around them.