I am finally back in Brussels, but to be honest I would rather have stayed in China. It was my first trip to this country and it was an instant love story. Having already traveled to Asia several times in the past, I knew this region fitted me a lot in terms of weather, food and lifestyle but China exceeded my expectations!
I stayed in China for only 19 days but I got to see a good chunk of it: Shanghai, Wuxi, Suzhou, Changzhou, Nanjing and Hangzhou...Enough to give me an idea of what the country is like and yet leaving room for imagination and dreams. I started in Shanghai where I walked my first kilometers, it is also where I got my first realizations:
China = huge crowds, crazy traffic and tall buildings;
The pollution is everywhere;
Chinese cities are a mix of old and new with temples hidden among skyscrapers;
Speaking Mandarin is a key asset, even just a few words can get you a long way!;
Getting a local phone number is a great idea and super easy!;
Opening a bank account and linking it to your Wechat will ease your life in so many ways;
The best food is often found in the street;
You will find malls everywhere in Shanghai!!;
Never drink tap water or use ice;
Shanghai is also where I realized that China is stunning and complex in many ways: it has a very old history, specific traditions and beliefs, social disparities and yet the willingness to move forward fast and to develop. This is why in a single city you can still find a mix of super modern malls and skyscrapers, temples from older dynasties as well as poorer neighborhoods from when the country wasn't as open as it is today. This history and the social differences are still very much palpable when you explore a Chinese city, it is probably clearer in China than in any European country. It is one of these aspects of traveling that I enjoy most because there is a lot to learn from observing people, their habits and the streets you walk: history and culture are everywhere.
Fortunately enough, I was accompanied by my Chinese in-laws which made everything a lot simpler than if I had to figure it all out. I could be carefree and let myself live and enjoy the experience. I believe I saw almost everything a tour operator would recommend at my own pace which was really satisfying. I also experienced the hospitality of the locals and was amazed by how nice and welcoming everyone was...and how enthusiastic people were at the idea of taking pictures with me in the street! ^^'
An another impressive aspect of China is people's dedication to work! Can you believe that I opened a bank account at ICBC at 7PM on a Sunday in the metro? Or that I got a phone subscription from China Mobile also on a Sunday around 5PM within 10 minutes? Service and hard work are traits that characterize the country. No matter the day you will be able to do everything you want: from the most basic things like grocery shopping to more difficult ones like legal or financial matters. Another incredible thing about China is that it feels like you can do anything if you work hard! You can try, fail, get back up and continue....A bit like Jack Ma did. It is a cool feeling however you also see people working 15 hours every day and earning only 3500-5000RMB/month. They struggle every day and yet still manage to send some money home to support their family.
All in all, it is a life changing experience that reminds you of the essential values in life: Family and Friendship...Even if today, we are more focused on the material aspects of life which are actually of less importance [I wanted in some way to refer to phones that cut us from real life and being more social but in China a mobile is kind of essential because it's your way of communicating, ordering food or a taxi, taking the metro and paying for it all^^']. Traveling to China is a mind opening experience, it sets your priorities back in the right order and shows you how you can still with less and still be happy! It also shows you the possibilities in life and the simple pleasures: outdoor gym with the neighbors, a game of mahjong or cards, climbing a mountain, seeing nature, enjoying food together, etc.
Reading all of this you may be wondering, what did she like best or saw? Or what should I visit if I ever set foot in China?
I strongly suggest to start with a city like Shanghai or Beijing in order to see what a big modern city is like: the skyscrapers, the malls, the way of living of the modern China, get souvenirs, see your first template, try out street food and if not, find cool restaurants. Then I would leave the city and explore older/less developed towns and sights to be seen like the Great Wall or Xi'an if you have the time.
I didn't actually visit the Great Wall or Xi'an but my trip followed logic: Starting in Shanghai and then visiting cities around it, starting with the farthest ones before going back to Shanghai to take my flight home: Changzhou, Hanghzhou, Nanjing, Wuxi, Suzhou.
What's nice about Suzhou and Wuxi is that they still have old quarters on the water, Nanjing too and an evening boat ride is a must! You will also be able to wander into charming ancient streets and discover authentic craft and bring back souvenirs. But that is not all:
If you really like green cities then you should definitely visit Hangzhou! So far it is my favorite city because of its stunning lake, almost clean air, the sights to see, the good food and lovely people. You will find huge parks everywhere and be able to enjoy yourself! Note: You must visit the Buddha Carvings, if you do not I can assure you you're missing out on something really amazing!
Nanjing has an amazing old quarter with typical Chinese Architecture...Everything is beautiful and even more by night!
If like me, you enjoy spending time in temples then you must make a stop in Wuxi! Not only do you have a lot of pagodas to explore but you will be able to visit the Mt. Lingshan Grand Buddha Scenic Area. Not only will you see a Buddha and pray but you will be in awe before the Nine Dragons Bathing Sakyamuni and Brahma Palace....You will also be able to enjoy nature in the Bamboo Forest/Park in Jiangsu!
Changzhou is a nice city to stay-in and explore surroundings like the Loazi temple on the mountain or the Tao temple.
The best way to go from a city to another if you do not have someone driving you around would be the bus or the train. Since you are probably a foreigner, you will need to go to the station to buy your tickets, it might take a while though depending on which day of the week you are traveling (weekends are crowded). Tickets are usually cheap and you can choose the type of seat you would like: Business, Business Premium, 1st Class, etc. Make sure to take you passport with you when buying the tickets, they are nominative, then keep your ticket at all time and come early to the station as they're huge and you need to find your way.
When visiting one city, do not be afraid to use the taxi or the bicycles. The later requires a QR code scan and WePay but you can probably rent some at your hotel. The taxi may seem expensive but honestly I don't mind paying 21 RMB (3€ +/-) for a ride. Note that in China, taxis are ordered via an App so often even though you hale a free taxi, it won't stop....Be patient!
Food wise, here are a few advice to not be sick:
Do not drink or wash you teeth with tap water or use ice cubes, always use bottled water bought in store or drink tea;
Beware of sushis or raw fish presented on ice;
Do not eat raw veggies, make sure they're cooked [no salad unless boiled etc];
Peel your fruits, rinsing them might not be enough;
Checkout popular places = eat where a lot of locals eat (kids, mothers, old people), quality often follows and freshness too;
Eat food freshly and thoroughly cooked, if it comes to your table steaming it is better;
Be smart! I ate in shady restaurants but I always checked if the food was fresh, cooked on the spot and whether the plates and cutlery were clean/boiled. When you see a grandma preparing wantans in the street check the meat, the water she uses and how often she gets customers and it will be ok ^^ Usually, locals make sure you're not sick by boiling everything but still, Be smart!
Do you have questions about China? Ways to travel? Or fears? Drop me a comment below and I'll come back to you!