Is China really as scary & strange as people think?
Updated: May 16, 2020
In April 2018 I headed to China for the first time. I planned to visit Shanghai for 10 days to experience it. Growing up I had done some traveling but during most of my teenage and adult years I had rarely travelled anywhere considered exotic. Most recent of which was Germany.
While scrolling endlessly through YouTube like I did most days back then I stumbled across some videos on China. One was a travel guide to Shanghai. I was quickly impressed, the catchy music by the Shanghai Restoration Project playing lightly in the background. After only a few weeks I had convinced myself, I went into my kitchen where my parents were sitting along with my girlfriend at the time and announced "I'm going to China!"
The news that I was going to China confused most people, especially those close to me. Having never done any solo traveling previously it was a large leap to make, to almost everyone I spoke to China seemed like a strange, mystical and outright dangerous place to visit. I had people joke that I would be kidnapped or eaten (if I was lucky) but no of them scared me. I found that most people I had a conversation with had preformed thoughts of China in their head without having ever been there. Most believed the Chinese to be strange and often many people believed that they all ate dogs. Even from a young age I've been open to different people and experiences so I decided to wait on my judgment, I would go this country and discover what it was really like and whether people really knew what they were talking about.
I began to prepare for my trip. Getting into China can sometimes be tricky, you must have a letter signed from someone who currently lives in China stating that they support you going to the country and that you are of good intention. Luckily my father had been to China previously with his work and therefore knew someone in Shanghai who could vouch for me. I must commend my father for not finding my desire to suddenly go off on my own to China unusual and not push me away from the idea. Whether this was him trying to vicariously live through my actions thinking back to his university backpacking days or instead having been there before not holding any concern I do not know, but I welcomed his advice and encouragement.
After what seemed to be a very short period of time I was ready. I set off on my journey from the airport, where I headed straight for Shanghai!
I arrived in Shanghai early in the morning, not being able to check into the hostel until much later in the day. With jet lag on my side I headed out to explore and intended to tick off some of the famous sites immediately. I began quickly to be excited by everything that surrounded me, it was a place so vastly different to the place that I grew up in. I came to the conclusion over a year later that countries in Asia and especially populous places such as India and China have the ability to break the traveller. When you first go to one of these places not knowing what to expect you are met with a world of unsleeping persistence. You quickly find yourself engulfed by the sound that rattles its way through the streets, the new sights and smells that overload your senses. You question everything, within all these new experiences you look round desperately for something familiar but it is never there, realising that your normal day to day occurrences are unknown to these people. This is it, your moment has come, as your heart quickens and you try to navigate through streets by unknown squiggles that supposedly resemble language you have a choice. You can either embrace this feeling, allow yourself to be excited and take it all in or let yourself be overwhelmed by the floods of new sensations and ultimately break down, terrified ready to go home.
For me this is where you discover your own limits, and where many can't get their head around China. But for me I was lucky, I found the whole experience humbling and around me were new discoveries to be made. I embraced the challenge and began to explore.
My first day consisted of walking around the city, I spent a long time along the side of the river that runs through the city called the Bund. On the other side through a layer of smog you could see the hazy outlines of huge skyscrapers lifted high over the boats bobbing along the river. Slightly nervous about the idea of figuring out the underground on my first day I took a rather unusual route underneath the river. I found my way to a set of steps that lead into a room full of strange attractions, there was a number of quirky shops and arcades, halls of mirror and all manor of oddities. Managing to blurt out some undecipherable attempts at speaking Chinese the woman at the ticket desk interrupted and began speaking perfect English. She sold me one ticket to the Bund sight seeing tunnel and off I went not knowing how much I had just spent. I looked down a long and dark tunnel which someway down had fabric flaps covering its entrance similar to those you would see at a car wash. From them emerged a small capsule moving slowly along a track towards me. It swung round and I hoped in the only person around.
This alien like pod bobbed along telling me the history of the earth and it began entering different zones of light and dark as the earth was created. It then worked it's way through the animals and fish and so on, bringing us through an array of displays combining light, sounds and scenes suspended from the ceiling. I think in all it took about 20 minutes and by the end I was more confused that anything, wondering what I had just witnessed. But I as I emerged out into the light I quickly got back to the task at hand and headed to the pearl tower...
The next on my list was the pearl tower. Originally the tallest building in Shanghai it was overtaken by a new skyscraper a few years before. In hopes of still receiving as many visitors as before it added a number of new attractions to keep the punters rolling in. I explored the different levels working my way up to the top. I looked out over this my new home for 10 days. Shanghai was immense, you could get a sense of the business of the place, it was without rest like no place I had seen before. It all seemed to move faster, the cars moving quickly along the narrow streets, many moped darting around them with a fearlessness that worried me. Even the people seemed to be moving faster, and these people that were mere dots from the top of the tower were so frequent. So many people busy within their daily lives, it was like peering down onto an ants nest watching it unfold.
I stay here for a while soaking it all in watching the boats move along the Bund before heading down. I walked across the famous glass floor of the tower and took some photos before finding myself at the newest of attractions. A rollercoaster. An indoor virtual reality rollercoaster, it ran inside the shape of the tower and through the VR you were supposed to experience going out of the tower and over the city itself. But it was closed for maintenance so without being that disappointed I moved on. I spent the rest of my day after the sun had set taking a boat along the river and visiting the pearl tower's new enemy, the tallest building in Shanghai. My ears popped as the escalator took me all the way to the top over the city but the view was similar to that of the pearl tower so I spent less time that I thought I would here. I headed back on the boat which quickly became my favourite thing about the day as the city really began to came alive. All the building began to illuminate, with huge florescent signs being turned on. From the river you could see it all begin to unfold and everyone on the boat was filled with excitement rushing to get photos. Then the city began to get louder which I didn't think was possible and all the tourists, the street sellers and young Chinese heading to bars began to appear.
The jet lag was really kicking in now and I had been carrying my backpack for the entire day so it was time to head to my hostel. This was one of the experiences I was most nervous about, I was led to my room which was a room of 36 people. The room was a similar size to other hostels you may have been to but I had never seen this many people in one room. The beds were stacked 4 high with very low ceiling heights. A long and unsteady looking ladder ran up the side of each 4 beds to get up where you would slide into the small space before drawing a little curtain across that ran the entire length of the bed. Luckily for me I got a bottom bunk so didn't have to embarrass myself by struggling to get up the ladder on the first night.
It seemed to me that everyone in there was Chinese and everyone was chatting away in a language I couldn't begin to understand. At this time I was very introverted and hadn't experience making friends in a place like this, I sat in my bed on my phone a little sad hoping that I would get to know some locals on my trip but believed I didn't have the courage to try speak to them. Maybe what everyone said was right? Maybe I was out my depth, maybe I wasn't ready for this place yet? But then from the corner of my eye I saw a Chinese man who looked a little older than I was begin to come down one of the ladders. He had a top bunk bed and took him some time to come down without getting into trouble. He came hastily over to me and I wondered what was about to happen. He got out his phone and began to speak into it in Chinese, after a slight pause a robotic translator app began to talk to me. "Hello, where are you from" it read. We began to slowly have a conversation like this back and forth with me speaking very slowly and loudly for the device to hear me.
After telling him I was from England I decided to say something very generic and nice in order to make my first friend. Into the device I gradually said "It's great to be here in China." After each time I spoke the translator would begin to figure out what I had said and show this text on the screen in English before talking out loud in Chinese from the speaker. I heard the device begin to speak in Mandarin while I slowly read what it said in English to check if it had heard me correctly. To my horror I saw on the screen that it had misheard what I had said and instead hear "I want to bully China." After the mandarin has finished the whole room went silent, all 35 people stopped what they were doing and I thought this what it and then after what seemed like one of the longest pauses of my life they all burst out laughing, the entire room couldn't hold it in at what I had just said and they all believed that I had made a great joke. Many of them got out their beds and came over to start speaking to me and as easy as that I had made my first group of friends. They wanted to take me everywhere, they wanted to show me round the city and take me to try hotpot for the first time. At this moment I realised that I had nothing to worry about, I felt relaxed and excited for the 9 more days I had here. I talked to all of them late into the night, asked many questions and although I didn't know about it yet I had begun to experience the true kindness and beauty of the local Chinese people. Far from the terrible things people had told me about China before going there I had found a new world to explore and it was only going to get more life altering, challenging and astonishing as the days went on.
In my next blog I'm going to talk about my next biggest worry about visiting China. The food! I'm going to talk about the things I ate while being in Shanghai and what got me over the fear of eating street food and what advice you should use when looking to eat in China.
The photo below is of the guy that came over to start talking to me and with the help of his translator app managed to make me many new friends! Until next time keep exploring!