By Katheen Yam, EF Student Ambassador
October 1st, China’s National Day, is the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It’s similar to America’s Independence Day and Canada’s Canada Day. Typically, this means that most people get a week off school and work (restaurant workers and some other industries get different days off). Most people in China use it to travel or spend time with family. I traveled. I’ll post in more detail about what I did and where I went a little later, but first, I’ll share some of what I learned. Hopefully your travel experience will be less stressful, but just as fun as mine!
Traveling during a national holiday means that everyone else is traveling too. Book your tickets early, and make sure you have a return trip too! Train tickets tend to go on sale 8-10 days before the date of the trip, and tickets to popular places sell out within hours. Unless your trip is relatively short, buying same-day tickets during holiday season is close to impossible. You can get them online, at a travel agency, or directly from the train station. If you want to return tickets, train stations will give a refund of 90%. We got stuck in Zheng Zhou for about five hours because we couldn’t manage to buy a return train ticket. We ended up taking a car with a local driver, but I wouldn’t recommend that unless your Chinese is good enough to haggle with the driver.
The most expensive train, the bullet train, is the fastest, and probably the most comfortable. Then there is the fast train (usually any train that starts with the letter ‘D’), which we took. To our amazement, half-way through our trip, everyone got up and swiveled whole rows of seats 180 degrees. Then the train reversed directions and went onto a different track. It was amazing how organized and efficient everyone was. The slow train has five options: standing, hard seating, soft seating, hard sleeping, and soft sleeping, in order of least expensive to most expensive.
If you want to get the most cultural immersion out of your experience, and aren’t afraid to practice a bit of Chinese, I’d recommend hard seating. I met so many interesting people from so many different walks of life over my week-long trip! The seats themselves aren’t that bad- about the same level of comfort as economy seating on a plane. One passenger told me that twenty years ago, hard seating was just rows of plastic benches. But that’s not taking into account the amount of people that can be squeezed into a train car. People will sit in your seat if you’re too afraid to step up and show them your ticket. And the amount of trash that accumulates during a long trip is amazing.
Bring your own food- there is hot water available for instant noodles. There are also carts that go down the aisles, but they can be pricey. The fruit, however, will decrease in price as the ride goes on. Another option is to take the bus for shorter distances, or a plane, if you’re willing to spend a bit more money and save on time. And like in most places in China, toilets are squat toilets, and don’t come with toilet paper, so be prepared and bring your own.
As for the air quality, if you’re sensitive to the pollution, consider investing in some masks. Looking like you’re impersonating a doctor is better than feeling the way I did after a few days in Xi’an. If you’re traveling to some of the more polluted places in China, the mucus your body produces when you sneeze will turn a grey or black color. Your voice may lower, and your throat will feel scratchy, like you’re on the verge of catching a cold. Your sweat will be truly disgusting. Some stores sell some rather fashionable lacy masks, but I settled for some plain drugstore ones at about 1RMB apiece.
I also learned that most places close by 7:30pm. If you’re from a city, like me, that will seem really early. I would suggest finishing all planed activities by then, then settling down for dinner at a restaurant (restaurants tend to close at around 9-10pm) and then enjoying a relaxing evening before the next day’s activities.
First Hostel (1)
If you want to save money, don’t have relatives in the area, and aren’t afraid to “rough it” a bit, hostels are the way to go. They’re often closer to the main attractions of a city, and even offer tours or tips to get to places. The bathrooms may be lackluster, but unless you plan on camping outside, it’s hard to beat their prices. Our first hostel in Kaifeng, dorm room style, was only 188RMB per person for 3 nights, including the 20RMB down payment. The staff was amazing, and we had lockers, but our toilet didn’t work. Our second hostel in Xi’an was twice the price for the same amount of time, but offered a cleaning service, a bar with food until 11:00pm, access to washers, pool tables, and computers with wifi. But both were much cheaper than the hotel alternative, which would have been at least five times the price of our first hostel.
Mildly-spicy Hot Pot
This is my favorite part of any trip. If you have a strong stomach and no dietary restrictions, try everything. The night market in Kaifeng offered some truly interesting, but delicious and cheap food options. So did the Muslim quarters in Xi’an, and the random restaurants we walked into. (Candied skewers, a strange yoghurt dessert, jellied rice cakes, fried bananas, smelly tofu, GIANT pita bread-like pastries, the list goes on…) However, if you do end up trying street food, be sure to go to places that have longer lines or are recommended by the locals. No one wants to have to cut a vacation short with a trip to the hospital for food poisoning.
If you’re vegetarian, ask a local for a recommendation, or tell the server that you only chi su, 吃素. That means you’re a vegetarian. However, some restaurants assume that this does not include seafood, so be sure to stress that you bu chi rou, 不吃肉。Or don’t eat meat. But many menus have pictures in them, and you can just point and pay for street food. In my experience, food in China doesn’t seem to cost very much, so if you’re adventurous, with a bit of luck, you can get a great meal for very little.
I’m ashamed to say that I literally took 1,160 pictures on my week-long trip, so I’ll be choosing more of my favorites to share with you in my next post. Until then, good luck on your travels!
Kathleen Yam is our EF Student Ambassador. Check out her travel blog here.