I went to China as a relatively experienced independent traveler with a western-cultural-view of China. A few things stood out to me as being quite different to the current prevailing western perception of China:
- China isn't one unified country. China is only slightly smaller than the US, and 1.24x the size of Australia - plenty of room for variance. There are regions of conflict (e.g. Tibet, Xinjiang Uighur, etc.) and there is a massive diversity in the people, cultures, and languages. 'One country, two systems' (e.g. Hong Kong) gives a bit of an indication of the diversity within China. I'm not sure there is another country with this range of diversity.
- There are plenty of rich people in China (According to some (dubious) sources, there are more billionaires in China than the US. In any case, there are plenty of Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC restaurants!). Especially in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. China's GDP and PPP have increased significantly in recent years, and in urban areas people are much better off than the western perception which is based on historical figures. There are obviously still a great number of poor people too.
- I found the level of censorship is not as great as western sources report. It seems to be a 'work in progress', but people appear to have a fair amount of freedom of expression (compared to the perception presented by western media on communist nations). There were people on Chinese TV openly complaining about government corruption, housing problems, etc.
|Temple of Heaven|
- China changes rapidly. Take an up to date travel guide.
- Booking flights, accommodation, etc. can be quite difficult. Ctrip is a very helpful website.
- Take a print out of your accommodations address in mandarin, phone number, and a map. This will increase the probability of you arriving at your destination.
- Avoid getting scammed with travel bookings by asking any decent hotel to help in booking anything from tours to transport to taxis. You will always pay a surcharge, but never get ripped off.
- There can be a large cultural barrier. I've traveled to countries with significant language barriers, but have always been able to explain myself via gestures and drawing pictures. I guess the cultural barrier made it difficult to explain myself!
- When asking for directions ask multiple people. Often someone who doesn't know will just make something up.
- Be careful when haggling, often the "pay half" rule doesn't apply, and "pay 1/10th" is more appropriate.
- There is a lot of internal tourism in China. Don't expect to see many foreigners. Expect to draw a fair bit of attention from the locals.
- Take a print-out of a few key phrases in mandarin. I found this particularly helpful in deciphering menus and ordering food.
Expect a return to technical topics soon!