A Journey to the East – My Trip to China
What you should know before going to China
I’ve got some exciting news today – we’ve officially started our new brand – Eco Bravo.
Being the eco-minded enthusiast that I am, I had already done most of the research, I had the website and development parts at the ready. But I was missing one crucial detail a few months ago – the products. Operating an eco-friendly store is quite the task and one that I take very seriously. I wanted to ensure that everything related to my brand is not only 100% safe, but also made according to the highest standards. That meant doing some travelling and meeting with suppliers face-to-face.
We branched out, looking for suppliers all across the globe – we got in touch with some local companies in the UK, and reached out to Bulgarian companies back at home, contacted some people in India, and so on. But our product lists were still lacking. That’s when I decided that we should give China a try. I’ve always had a lot of respect for traditional Chinese practices and their holistic approaches, so I was really happy at the opportunity of seeing their country first-hand. We scheduled a two-week trip – one week to see the sights and one week to visit the business exhibition in Canton.
Part 1 – Traveling Preparations
I did a lot of reading and research before we went on our trip and still, we were unprepared. If you’re considering a trip to China, here’s a couple of things that you should keep in mind if you want to avoid ending up in awkward situations:
Always do your research
As most of my regular readers know by now, I love telling people to do their research before taking any significant action. And with good reason! If you neglect research, especially when it comes to travelling and vacations, you’re very likely to have a bad time. Here’s a book I would recommend reading before you head to China.
And I don’t mean the dress code, but the weather here. China tends to be very hot and humid for most of the year – from April, all the way to October-November. Pack accordingly.
Furthermore, you’ll want to make sure that you’ve got an easy way to carry bag for your ID, as you’ll have a very difficult time getting anywhere without having your passport with you at all times.
For my trip to China, I used Boxiki Money Belt, if you want to have a look at it, or get one for yourself, please click here.
Internet and connectivity
The Internet in China is very different from what we’ve got here in the UK. There, you won’t normally have access to things like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and so on. There are, of course, ways to circumvent that, especially for casual visitors and tourists. Look into VPNs and TOR before your trip and set things up well in advance. You’ll thank me later! I would recommend Express VPN.
Speaking of connectivity, you’ll also need to make sure that your phone is fitted with a Chinese SIM card if you want to be able to use it. You can get one from here.
Before we left for China, we were advised to exchange all our pounds to dollars. The idea behind it was simple – Chinese people, they said, won’t want to work with pounds and you’ll have a hard time finding a place to exchange pounds for Yen. Well, as it turned out, that was completely wrong. As soon as we arrived, we realised that you can easily exchange not just pounds, but most other currencies as well, at pretty much any bank or hotel meant for foreigners. So, don’t fall in the same trap as me and waste money on pointlessly exchanging pounds to Yen! This and many other tips I learned from Josh Summers’ book about preparation prior to vacationing in China.
You could (or rather – should) get a travel card and charge it with some money. But don’t put all of your funds in there! Even though most of the hotels and some of the restaurants are going to accept it, you’ll still need to bring cash along.
When you first get started with your planning, I’d suggest that you look for a good hotel. Tempting as it might be, please avoid picking anything below four stars – the amount of money that you’d save isn’t worth all the hassles that you’ll go through. We picked a 4-star place as well, and we were quite happy with our choice. We were well taken care of, and even though most of the personnel couldn’t speak English, they were all making a conscious effort to communicate with us to the best of their ability. Everyone was friendly, helpful and equipped with translation apps, allowing us to get our questions and requests through with minimal hassle.
Picking a cheaper hotel might allow you to save up a few pounds here and there, but they most certainly wouldn’t be able to offer you this quality of service and you’re going to have a really hard time communicating with the locals.
Speaking of preparations, I’d advise you to put quite a bit of thought into ensuring that everything is prepared well in advance. If you’re like us and haven’t been to China before, you don’t know the language and you’ve got no idea where to go or what to look for, definitely make sure that you’ve got a good travel agency and a travel guide.
We hired a travel agent to arrange everything for us. I won’t go into details about how much it cost us (I’m going to give you a hint – it wasn’t cheap!) but we felt like we really found someone familiar with the local situation. We’ve never been to China before and we wanted to make sure that everything would go smoothly!
We ended up choosing Absolute Lifestyle Travel. Everything was organised beforehand and we were taken care of really well. We had a private guide, along with a driver waiting for us as soon as we set foot on the ground. Without them, I have no idea how we would’ve managed.
A friend of mine, however, went on a different trip. Not only did she end up spending a lot more money than us to even get to her hotel, but she also missed out on a ton of quality of life benefits that we hadn’t even thought about!
The first (and only) really bad experience that we had with our trip was on the flight there. Not only was our flight delayed by a couple of hours, but we also had to spend a couple of extremely stressful hours at Dubai airport. There we were, in the middle of the night, at this absolutely huge airport, worried about our luggage and belongings, having to run through the entire place just to get to our flight in time!
After living through this horrible experience, I’ve vowed to never rely on flight transfers, ever again. Unfortunately, we had already booked our return trip and this meant the possibility of going through the whole ordeal once more!
The hotel’s name was Howard Johnson paragon hotel Beijing. And while it wasn’t the most luxurious of places that I’ve stayed at, it was very convenient. On the way from the airport to the hotel, we were amazed by the enormous buildings all around us. Everything was very modern, very clean and really well taken care of.
There were also cars. Saying “a lot of cars” doesn’t really do it justice – there were way more vehicles than what we were used to seeing in London. We spent a considerable amount of time stuck in traffic, which our guide used to illustrate the importance of patience in Beijing. While being a huge city with numerous opportunities, it also means that getting from point A to point B can take multiple hours. This book will help you go through the traffic and what to avoid.
The Language Barrier
Be prepared for the language barrier and load up a good translation app. We used Google’s translation features, as did a lot of staff in the local establishments.
When it comes to languages, the Chinese mindset is very different from what you’d see in the west. In London, for example, everyone expects people to speak at least a bit of English. In China, most people don’t really care about foreign languages. This means that you’ll be hard-pressed to find people fluent in English, and so having a good dictionary app will save you a ton of headaches!
Dealing with local Manners and Customs
Being a foreigner in China
There aren’t a lot of foreigners in China, but the locals definitely respect foreigners. As a matter of fact, I’ve been told that in general, they want more foreigners to visit their country so they make sure that nothing bad happens to visitors. The law is really protective of foreigners. I’ve never seen a lot of tourists in one place. But here’s the catch – 99% of them were actually Chinese. It was native Chinese people, going on tours across their own country. And can you blame them, really? China is a magnificent place, with countless of breath-taking sights and, if you are a fan of their cuisine – I’d bet a lot of amazing food to be had all over the place! I’ve been amazed by their appreciation for their country.
One odd thing that I immediately noticed about China was the difference in acceptable behaviour. You could say that the locals aren’t the politest people around, and you’d be understating it. And while the younger generation is much nicer than the older people, you’d be hard-pressed to find people who act like the ones back at home.
If you’re in an elevator and someone wants to get off or come in, they’ll do just that … with no regards of who they’ll need to push or bump on their way. If they could, they’d probably walk directly through you to save a bit of time… Don’t expect to be asked to step aside nicely, or hear someone asking you to move. As a matter of fact, you’d be lucky to get a tap on the shoulder as a warning before someone decides that they have somewhere to be and rudely pushes you to the side, nearly trampling you.
Don’t get me wrong here – I know that when I’m visiting a foreign country without knowing the language, I can’t expect everyone to know my language just to talk to me. But, even if you can’t speak English, you could at least tap me on the shoulder if you need me to move instead of straight up shoving me aside, right?
Being so obviously foreign, even in a busy city, brimming with tourists also meant that we got quite a few looks. Some locals would go as far as just walking up to us and taking selfies, without even bothering to ask for permission! At one point in time, our tour guide mentioned that most young men seem to really fancy my daughter – they were all talking about her and saying how pretty she is.
As you can probably imagine, Chinese food is nothing like what we’re used to in London. As a matter of fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find any dish that tastes like what we’ve got in the UK – neither in their local places, nor in the designated “foreigner” restaurants. Our travel agent warned us about this and suggested that, if we don’t think we can stomach their local food, we should stick to things like biscuits, chocolate, dried fruits and soups. And so we did.
Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not trying to bash Chinese cuisine – I’m sure that if you’re used to the taste, it’s great. My friend, for example, instantly fell in love with the local kitchen. For us, however, it was way too strange. We opted for the more familiar food – soups, noodles, dried fruits and biscuits.
There is one fact about their restaurants, however, that I really, really disliked. You have to pay not only for the meals, but for everything on the table, no matter whether you want it or not. In the first restaurant we went to in Beijing, they brought us some tea along with our order, which had us pleasantly surprised at first. But when we had to pay the bill, we realised that something was off. It said that we owe more money than what we had calculated looking at the menu. But since we couldn’t speak a word of Chinese, we couldn’t figure out where the extra charge is coming from. Later on, we realised that it was expected of us to cover not just the food and the tea (which we didn’t order), but also the napkins and wet tissues that came with our order!
You can go there thinking “oh great, they’re treating me with tea on the house!”. Well, tough luck – you’re paying for everything that ends up on your table, whether you like it or not! Maybe it’s because it was so painfully obvious that we were foreigners.
As we kept visiting different restaurants, we noticed that they all seem to follow the same pattern. They’ll pretty much sell you whatever they want, and you’ve got little say in it. Tea, juice, soft drinks, appetizers, tissues, napkins – paying the service charge is never optional.
Even though this is probably just how things operate over there, it left me with a sour taste in my mouth. If you ever go to China, be careful what you order, and be prepared to pay for all of the things that will miraculously appear on your bill.
We also encountered some familiar fast-food restaurants and coffee stores. We ended up having some really nice pizza at a German pub. We also saw a couple of McDonald’s’ restaurants as well as a couple of Starbucks. The locals, however, don’t seem very keen on any of these foreign brands – they’ve got their own Chinese counterparts that they would rather visit. And, on top of all that, everything in Starbucks was incredibly overpriced – a simple order of 3 coffees ended up costing more than a dinner for three at the local restaurant! Add to that their obvious disdain for disposable items and throw-away plastics, it’s not really all that hard to see why western food chains aren’t popular in China.
The Bathrooms in Beijing
During our visits to the ladies’ rooms in Beijing, we noticed a very peculiar detail – the way in which they handled toilet paper. You have to either bring your own paper, or, if you want to use the one provided by the facility, you need to have a special mobile app on your phone. If you’re unable to do either of those things, well … you’re out of luck! There’s practically no other way to get any paper at their bathrooms! And, even though this might sound strange and impractical to some of you, I actually liked it very much. It’s an exceptionally streamlined and a quite convenient system!
All of the toilets that we visited were also really clean, which, as a leader of a cleaning company, I can most certainly appreciate. Each and every single one of the public toilets that we’ve been to, has been very clean and they have cleaners to keep them clean at all the time.
Transportation in China
During our stay in Beijing, we used the underground quite a few times. It was, just like everything else in the capital, very modern, clean and secure. There was security at every entry point, which makes sure that everything is kept safe and orderly – you can’t even get on without going through a quick security check.The staff, however, were very friendly and helpful.
The trains themselves were exceptional. Everything was made out of metal and there was a complete lack of fabrics. Naturally, this meant that everything was much cleaner than what we’ve got here in the UK. Fully equipped with TV screens and easy-to-read signs in multiple languages, their underground is miles ahead of ours.
China’s Stance on Eco-Friendliness
While we were in China, I noticed something that really surprised me and brought a smile to my face – everyone we met was carrying a reusable bottle of water. We’ve all heard how bad the pollution is over there (and I saw some of that with my own eyes), but evidently, they’re all trying to work through the problem! People over there seem a lot more mindful of protecting the environment and are trying really hard to avoid causing more problems. Chinese people are very big on rubbish disposal and recycling everything that isn’t biodegradable.
Another really great thing that I noticed was the complete lack of gas and petrol motorbikes. Naturally, in a place as densely populated as Beijing, there were many cars. The more cars you have, however, the slower (and harder) it becomes to navigate the streets and avoid traffic jams. So, a lot of the local population has turned to bikes. But here’s the thing – they’re all using electric models! This means that, if you want to get somewhere quickly, you’re going to have to choose an eco-friendly method of transportation!
China is very, very beautiful. That’s why even though we mainly went there on business, we made sure that we had enough time to take in the sights. We visited:
- The Great Wall
- The rice fields
- The Summer Palace
- Along the Li river
- A couple of local parks
The Great Wall
The Great Wall is simply … amazing. Yes, there are plenty of pictures online, but in my opinion, they really don’t do it justice! We dedicated an entire afternoon to our trip to the wall, went up by lift and took lots and lots of pictures (which you can see below). It was breath-taking!
Actually, the name “Great Wall” is a tad misleading, as it’s not a singular structure, but rather a series of fortifications, that the Chinese people have built over the centuries to protect themselves from various outside groups. With some parts of it dating as far back as the 7th century BC, the current monument spans over nearly 21,196 km! Obviously, during our trip, we only had the pleasure of seeing a tiny section of one the more modern parts of the Wall, but it truly was a sight to behold!
Summer Palace in Beijing and parks
During our stay in China, we had the pleasure to visit a couple of public parks, and let me tell you – they’re nothing like the ones we’ve got in the UK. Not that our public spaces aren’t maintained at all, but theirs are something else entirely. I’ve never before in my life seen a public space – a park of all things – in such a pristine condition as they have in Beijing. Everything was exceptionally clean and every little detail was incredibly well taken care of.
Before you set off to China, however, there’s one thing that you should know about the parks in Beijing. A lot of their parks (or at least all that we’ve managed to visit) require you to pay an entrance fee. That’s right – if you don’t buy a ticket, you aren’t allowed to get into the park. On one hand, this type of control encourages people to try and keep everything clean – if you can’t be bothered buying a park ticket, you probably wouldn’t care too much about keeping the place clean anyway. But there’s another side to this – there is no entry fee for the elderly. This creates a very peculiar situation for the retired Chinese, as they get to go to their parks however many times they want, at no added cost. The parks were absolutely packed with older people – they were getting together to hang out, play cards or board games, exercise, dance, and, all in all, just having a great time!
Speaking of exercise – there were huge parts of the parks that we visited, dedicated entirely to exercise and physical fitness activities. We saw workout equipment, machines, parallettes, pull-up barks, monkey bars, game courts – you name it!
We were told that its customary for the younger Chinese to live separately from their parents. This means that the older population doesn’t have all that much to do with their time once they’re retired, but go to the parks and have fun together
We also stumbled upon a couple of areas where people were dancing. Most of the practitioners there were focused on their own traditional Chinese dances, but we also found some people who were into foreign moves – there were tango, waltz and salsa dancers! And you know me and salsa music – I immediately had to go check it out. I ended up dancing with the loveliest Chinese retiree for a couple of songs and he really knew his moves! I had a great time dancing with him.
We also saw the palace where the emperors and empresses of old would spend their time. We dedicated an entire afternoon to walking down the amazing walkways and took a ton of pictures! It was all incredibly pretty, clean and well taken care of.
The Rice Fields close to Guilin
We also wanted to visit one of the dedicated rice cultivation areas. As we were leaving our hotel, it was pouring outside, which got us pretty annoyed – we didn’t want to spend the entire day trudging through the mud, being unable to truly appreciate the experience. We also had a 1200-meters climb ahead of us, and the prospect of doing that in the rain was … off-putting to say the least. However, we were determined to see the rice fields that we had heard so much about, and we decided that we aren’t going to let some rain get in our way! Kitted out with special shoes to make dealing with the mud easier, we grabbed our raincoats and headed out. As we approached the area, however, the clouds suddenly went away and we found ourselves in the middle of an amazingly picturesque area!
During our trip to the rice fields, we got to experience the most picturesque parts of China – we went through small villages, ate at family-owned restaurants, had a look at handmade souvenirs and items and got to see Chinese farmers donned in traditional clothing, going about their daily lives.
If there was one thing I disliked about this part, it was the way the restaurants were handling their animals. You’d go by many of these places and see animal cages lined up right along the outside wall, with chickens sitting there, waiting to be slaughtered. Not only was their treatment of animals incredibly off-putting for me (it completely killed my appetite), but this also made the outside of these restaurants very, very messy.
Along the Li River
Our tour guide also took us on a boat trip along the river Li. It was very beautiful and amazing. Naturally, we took a whole ton of pictures (as you can see below). The area had a lot of hills, all in different shapes and sizes, and there was a special story behind each of them! If you look behind each hill, you could see a different shape – we saw sheep, fish, horses, dragons and monsters!
During our trip, we had the pleasure of attending a couple of stage performances – we saw a Kung-Fu musical as well as a couple of Chinese-only plays.
The musical was great. There were real monks there, playing on the stage, demonstrating their skills and telling the audience amazing stories. I’ve been to quite a few live performances – both in London and back in Bulgaria – but I’ve never seen anything quite like this.
The Chinese plays, however, were a whole different deal. Originally, our tour guide was supposed to take us to an open-air theatre, but seeing as how the weather had been pretty horrible over the last few days, the performances were all cancelled. Our tour guide, however, wasn’t going to give up. She’d promised us that we’ll get to see some amazing plays and she was determined to keep her word. She quickly made some arrangements and got us tickets to Liu San Jie Impression Light Show in Yangshuo. The performance was to take place in a leisure centre-like building. From the entrance, we could see people hanging out, playing various games and there were a few doors leading to various stages. As with everything else in China, this building too was very secure – with guards stationed at all entrances – and very clean.
Despite the amazing environment, however, we were a tad worried. After all, if this was a Chinese-only play, how were we going to understand anything? Was there even a point to us attending?
Deciding that we’d just leave if we aren’t enjoying ourselves, we stepped into the room and sat down.
As soon as the performance started, we were hooked! It was unbelievable. The screenplay, the special effects, the body language. Even though we could not understand a single word of what was being said, we felt completely engaged with what was happening on the stage!
From what we gathered, the story was about different parts of the traditional Chinese lifestyle, about their history and ideals. There were stories about rice – how they came up with the idea for rice noodles in the first place, and how they perfected them to the dish that we’ve got today. There were also stories about people travelling through the country – southerners going up north and northerners travelling down. It was a marvellous performance!
We are definitely glad that we stayed!
China Import and Export Fair (Canton Fair)
As our week for sightseeing was at its end, we sadly had to remember why we went to China in the first place – our business. Having recently launched our new eco-friendly brand Eco Bravo, we needed to find reliable suppliers. And, if being a business leader has taught me anything, it’s that you can only really judge people face-to-face. Naturally, this meant that we’d need to go to conventions, trying to meet with as many potential suppliers as possible before making our choice.
We went to the Canton fair in Guangzhou. It was a truly marvellous place, packed full of people. Throughout my career, I’ve been to countless expos – in London, Manchester, and even back in Bulgaria. But China managed to surprise me yet again, by presenting me with yet another entirely new experience.
First – the place was absolutely huge. If I called it a convention or an exhibition, I’d be underselling it. It was more like a whole city, with a life of its own!
Just like everything else in China, the Canton fair had really tight security and there were always helpful staff to be found if you needed something. But what really surprised me was just how well organised everything was.
Starting back at our hotel, we boarded a special bus, dedicated to convention visitors, which took us straight to the exhibition. We spent 5 whole days there and we still didn’t manage to see everything that we wanted. Because there were way too many things for me to go into every little detail, I’ll just give you a quick summary instead.
- Everyone was really friendly
- We’d constantly get invited to stands that we passed by
- Few people could actually understand English. Well, I’m not sure what I had expected, given that we’d already spent an entire week in China and I saw that most of the locals have little love for the English language. Still, this soured our experience at the convention, as we couldn’t get any good conversations going.
- Even though everyone is friendly and helpful, most of the people there won’t offer you samples. Brochures and business cards – sure, you could get heaps of those. But if you wanted to get any actual samples, you’d best be prepared to talk business!
- Everything was very commercialised. No matter how friendly and helpful people are, you can always tell when they don’t really put their heart and soul into what they’re doing. And since pretty much everyone at the convention was there for the money, there were quite a few mess-ups. This was mostly evident in the restaurants – there were quite a few mixed up, or straight-up missed orders.
Eventually, we walked away from the convention, our bags full of business cards and brochures, our phones loaded up with the contact details of our new suppliers and our minds brimming with ideas for new and exciting products!
Being in the curious person that I am, I took every opportunity to ask our guide questions about the Chinese culture and way of life. I really wanted to learn more about the way people did things in China and, given how limited my personal time usually is, this seemed like the perfect chance. Thanks to my questions, I learned quite a few small details about China. For example, I found out that, much like in the west, doctors and lawyers are extremely well-paid, but they often need to work really long hours. As a matter of fact, most people in China work long hours – they’re a really hard-working nation as a whole.
There are also barely any bars and clubs in China. There are, of course, some night clubs here and there, but the majority of the “party” spots can be found in Shanghai. Our tour guide pointed out that, even if there were more night clubs around, most people wouldn’t bother going anyway – they’d be way too exhausted to deal with this sort of social interaction after so much work. Not only that, but the “digital age” lifestyle had apparently taken root in China as well. Most people would rather spend time on their phones or computers than deal with the hassles of going out most evenings, she told me.
Now that I think of it, pretty much everyone I saw was completely devoted to their work. The people at the hotel, the restaurant personnel, the security guards, the shopkeepers – they all worked really hard. The only real “slow” period of China was during the winter, when tourism slowed down. For the rest of the year, however, most people would work six days a week! I’m amazed and humbled by how hard Chinese people can work.
But that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. When I think about it – their situation is pretty good. They’re really well protected at all times, everything is very clean and pretty, and they’re provided with countless opportunities for safe leisure time activities.
I could keep going on and on about my experience in China, but this has gotten much longer than I anticipated. In closing, I’d like to leave you with one last tip – always do your research!
Before you decide to travel abroad (and this applies to any country, not just China), please read up on the local customs, look up some comments from people who’ve already been there and make sure that you prepare everything in advance. Being ready with things like appropriate clothing, food, internet connectivity and necessary apps will make your trip much easier and way more enjoyable!
What about you – which countries have you visited? Have you ever been to China? If you’ve got any questions, or if you’d like to share some of your own travelling tips and tricks, please leave me a comment below! I’ll also be preparing a short video about my experience in China, where’ I’ll show you my footage of the performances that we’ve been to, our journey down the Li River, and more – stay tuned!