South African's first impressions of China

2016-09-06 21:00 - Marc Dinkelmann
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South African Marc Dinkelmann had a rather close encounter with a tumour named Franked - read his full story here... How a brain tumour made one South African change his life and travel the world...  These are his ensuing Dinks in Transit adventures.

"It has taken me a while to formulate this post. China is one of those countries that is easy to love, but just as easy to hate for me.

On the one hand, you have some phenomenal UNESCO heritage sites, national parks and a rich history spanning centuries; and on the other hand you have some of the world’s worst air pollution, the largest tourist crowds known to man and in July through August – stifling heat! 

All in all though, I’ve been here for a month now, with another month to go and I think I’ve figured out the place and am making sense of the madness! As a South African, here are some impressions that could come in handy if you’re thinking about venturing to the far East.

1. Forget what you think a big city is

Johannesburg is what I thought a big city was. I remember dreading the drive from the North to the West – those 40kms seemed like a monumental task. I was wrong. China's cities makes Johannesburg look like a weekend getaway spot similar to Clarens! 

Beijing alone has nearly 22 million inhabitants! Almost every city I’ve been to after Beijing has millions of citizens. I don’t think small cities exist in China. Even the smaller ‘tourist towns’ are massive and have expansive public transport networks.

My point to the above is: pack your patience.

The cities are swollen with people and the touristy places as well as public transport networks (which are excellent) are taking strain everyday. Be clever when you plan your day to try and minimize the struggle. South Africans like their personal space.

Unless you’re hiking in China, you can say goodbye to this!

2. The sites are expensive

Although food, accommodation and transport tend to be reasonable, the entrance fares to the various parks and sites are extortionate. This is something that annoys me a little – I almost get the feeling that the national parks are run like corporations. In fact, some of them even disclose their financial information. Jiuzhai Valley National Park made $90-million alone last year!

3. The Hong Kong conundrum

As South Africans, you do not need a visa for Hong Kong but don’t let this kid you into thinking you don’t need a visa for Mainland China – you definitely do.

Getting a Chinese visa varies in terms of difficulty depending on how long you want to go to China for. If it’s 30 days or less, it’s pretty straight forward but if you want to spend longer than 30 days, or require a dual/multiple entry visa (exiting to Hong Kong and returning to Mainland China counts as an exit and entry), the process becomes more complex. You will need to provide an itinerary, accommodation bookings and up to 6 months’ bank statements to support your application. I found that this wasn’t widely communicated on the visa website sadly.

4. The food

If you’re a foodie, this is the place to be. You’ll definitely find a variety of crazy things like scorpions, centipedes and starfish but this is more of a gimmick. The real treasures lie in street food markets where you’ll find some of the most delicious food out there. As the quantity of food consumed every day in China is so great, the food is generally fresh. As a rule of thumb, always go to the stalls that are busy and avoid the ones that don’t have a queue.

5. Cash is King

Paying with a credit card isn’t widely accepted in China, and where there are credit card facilities, you’ll be charged commissions north of 3%. As a result, cash is king. There are numerous ATMs everywhere so don’t worry too much about this.

6. The Great Firewall of China

China doesn’t like the internet. In particular, it hates all things Google. The theories surrounding this all involve either censorship or promoting various Chinese competitors to Google.

All hope isn’t lost, however.

Make sure you download a VPN app to your phone that ‘masks’ where you’re accessing the internet from. Once you have a VPN, you are able to access your social media platforms and Google with no hassle. Make sure you get your VPN app before entering China as it’s almost impossible to download whilst here.

It’s easy to get frustrated with China. I find I have to remind myself that the reason one travels is to experience a new culture, no matter how different or strange it may be to what one is familiar with. China is a classic example of this. Once you reach this level of acceptance, you’ll find it to be an amazing place brimming with some of the most fascinating history and sites the world has to offer!

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