China basics -first two weeks
Well, we got pretty much used to China by now, although it took us some time. At first we had some communication issues, but then we are also busy with the short and long term trip planning and by the evening we get tired of the walking.
As for the communication issues, internet connection is often unstable and the Great Firewall blocks a whole bunch of sites and services which we normally use a lot. Facebook and Twitter are often mentioned to be banned in China, but the most important would be to know that Google is blocked as well. This means no Gmail and no Google Maps to start with. To use anything Google, you need an outside VPN but those connections are often unstable as well. Of course if we had more time before leaving we would have been better prepared, but our last two weeks were busy enough already… So instead, Y spent hours to figure out some things and get all our outside world connections in order, including arranging our phone (and understanding the different data plans offered — in Chinese of course).
The other communication issue, which in fact is the most difficult aspect of traveling in China in our experience, is the language barrier. Few people speak English, even in touristic areas (the vast majority of tourists are Chinese themselves and the services are targeted towards them). Not being able the read the script doesn’t help either. Any signs indicating changes in opening hours or showing directions is all Chinese for us :) Occasionally, there is some young person who can speak English who comes to our help, which we appreciate a lot.
About the food: At mealtimes we usually eat in small local street restaurants that have images of the meals on the walls and we order by pointing. We usually skip restaurants which have only written menus. The most difficult meal is breakfast, mostly because finding something ‘breakfasty’ is more challenging (breakfast food in China is very different and is often offered in early morning), especially when the kids are hungry and whining. So what do we eat? As the cuisine varies in different regions in China, it depends on the time and place. Basically there are different noodle soups or noodle dishes with or without meat, dumplings and wontons (A especially likes wontons). The kids really like steam buns as well, which come in different fillings. In Xi’an we got more of sichuanese food, and that was more familiar. We also came to like Chinese Muslim restaurants, which serve large and cheap portions of dishes (vegetables, meat, noodles and rice) quite reminiscent of Middle Eastern cuisine, for us at least. We usually ask to prepare the dishes not spicy for the kids.
We get a lot of stares when we walk about the streets, sites and restaurants. People obviously discuss about us, not necessarily in a bad way, but more as a curiosity. Never felt more alien :) We are often asked to get photographed, especially the kids. We also see people photographing them without asking permission, which we find rather rude (not so much in the large cities though). N especially dislikes it (he’s not very friendly to strangers to start with). A gets a lot of compliments, probably because of his blue eyes. Luckily none of us is blond or red haired, so at least we don’t stand out from too afar…
Well, this was just a general introduction. Some more detailed posts and pictures are coming in a few days about the places we visited so far: Shanghai, Luoyang, Xi’an and now Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. We are leaving for a tour of 4 days to the grasslands and desert of Inner Mongolia, but once back we’ll have a few quiet days to write some more…