Explore the World: China, First Impressions

In November 2009 Beaker and I traveled what seemed a million miles away to China.  One day I saw a trip being advertised on one of the travel websites and the price was incredible. It was $900 per person, and it included air tickets from San Francisco to Beijing, air from Beijing to Shanghai and back to San Francisco. The price also included hotels in both cities, airport transfers and daily breakfast. The dates were in late November which was all right with us. We consider off season the best time to travel: the prices are cheaper, you encounter less crowds and you are able to take advantage of travel opportunities.

When reading my new series of articles about China, please keep in mind that China has the most amazing contrastbetween modern and traditional, rural and new, communism and capitalism.

Air China
My pre-trip research told me that Air China is not a good airline to travel. People on the Internet complained about small leg space, tiny TVs that show movies in Chinese with English subtitles, horrible, smelly food and not enough place for the overhead luggage.

When we boarded the Air China plane in San Francisco, we were prepared for the worst. What we experienced was not bad at all. Our luggage fit in a overheard compartment just fine. The leg room was decent. Beaker is over six feet tall and I am 5’10″, so we do need some leg room. The food was bad but have you ever had a delicious meal on a plane?

The flight was a 12-hour non-stop direct flight from San Francisco to Beijing. TVs  indeed turned out to be small and were located only in the front section. Most of the films were in Chinese with English subtitles. If you didn’t have a portable DVD player, you pretty much had to entertain yourself.

Your entertainment options were not too bad. You could read, listen to your Ipod or go to the end of the plane and get to know some travelers over a drink or do some tai chi with Chinese folks. Chinese people know that it is important to move around during long flights, and indeed they do move around a lot.

Like most people I hate airplanes bathrooms: claustrophobic small rooms with dirty, smelly toilets that threaten to suck you in when you flush them. Now imagine about four hundred people on the big plane using a very few bathrooms over the period of twelve hours. You probably don’t want to imagine it, right? Air China had the cleanest bathrooms I ever saw. In fact, later on, I was impressed with the cleanness of all public bathrooms in China. I think Chinese make a point to clean their bathrooms. Some of us need to learn this from them.

It was bad. As soon as we were outside and started walking to our tour bus, I smelled something metallic in the air. This metallic taste slowly moved into my throat and settled there for the next ten days. Mistakenly I thought that something was burning. Finally, I realize that it was the infamous Chinese pollution.

The pollution was thick, heavy and had a life of its own. Early morning you could see blue sky but by noon all you could see was grey polluted air embracing the city. You could feel its metallic taste in your throat.

We noticed that a lot of Chinese people coughed a lot. They also hacked a lot. In fact, you had to be careful when someone hacked close to you. If you stood too close, some hacks may end up on your shoes. Not on purpose, and it would be your fault because you were not watching.

Chinese people didn’t say “excuse me”, “I am sorry”, “I didn’t mean to.” If you were in their way, they would push you, move you and would not look back to check if you are okay. In the airport when I was pushed aside, and Beaker almost got run over by a cart loaded with luggage, I felt like I was back home in the good old Soviet Union. More of this resemblance will come later.

Yes, you have read it right. In spite of the horrible pollution and traffic you could not possibly imagine, China is very conscious about their open space and … sustainability. For example, in Beijing we discovered that hotels in China make sure you don’t leave your room lights on when you leave your room. Your room key serves as a power trigger. You open your door, you put your room key in an allocated power pocket and the lights come on. You leave your room, you take out your key from the power pocket and your lights go off. Simple? Yes. Great? Absolutely.

29 thoughts on “Explore the World: China, First Impressions

  1. MoneyCone

    The pictures are gorgeous Aloysa! I love pictures that show life as is!

    Haven’t been to China, but heard wonderful stories from my friends! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Get Happy Life

    The way you described it, I think I would never go to China. :S Especially that pollution in the air you mentioned. .. aghh … no, thanks, not for me.

    1. Aloysa

      Pollution should not stop you from going to China. It is an amazing country with incredible history. We have pollution in the states too, don’t we? Maybe it doesn’t have a metallic taste but it is here.

  3. retirebyforty

    China is great! I love it and would like to explore more. Yes the pollution is terrible, but it’s only for a few days/weeks, we can handle it. The thing I hate most about air pollution is how it is destroying great sites like the Buddha grotto at Yungang Cave. $900 for a China tour is awesome BTW.
    I think they are getting better at the whole spitting thing. We saw more on mainland, but in Hong Kong most younger people don’t do that anymore. Most hotel in Asia has the auto electric saving system like what you described.

    1. Aloysa

      I wish we would have more time to explore China not just ten days! We will be back. Hong Kong is on our list. Spitting thing was really odd. But you get used to it. Man… just talking about China make me want to go back right away…

  4. Buck

    Awesome post! Loved your descriptions and pictures. Was waiting to hear about your China adventure. I need to get cracking on my Shanghai trip. Similar experience, didn’t notice the pollution that much though, but did see a few people hacking away. I think the government tried cracking down on this behavior for the Olympics. It’s gonna be tough changing the habits of over a billion people. Slowly, but surely.

    1. Aloysa

      Hahaha! I wonder if the government actually accomplished anything in regard to hacking for Olympics. I will write about Shanghai later on. Pollution was less there, I agree. But Shanghai is a totally different city. In fact, it is almost a different country.

  5. Sandy @ yesiamcheap

    I loved your description! In fact, I was waiting to read more! Going to china is on my bucket list, so I’m really interested in what you have to say. More please.

  6. Melissa

    I went to China in December 1997. From watching the news, I assummed China now is very different than it was then, but your descriptions brought back all sorts of memories.

    Gross as it is, our socks would often be black from the pollution.

    We went to Harbin and got to visit the ice sculptures; I have never seen anything so amazing and beautiful. They built buildings out of blocks of ice that people could walk through! It was soooooo cold though. When all the people spit, it crackled when it hit the ground. (As you mention, there was alot of spitting going on!)

    Thanks for refreshing my memories. I can’t wait to read more.

    1. Aloysa

      I don’t think China changed too much since 1997. It will be interesting to find out how your experience differs from mine as the story unveils…

  7. LifeAndMyFinances

    I would love to do this someday! My wife would go ballistic with excitement if I said we were traveling to China for a week. Thanks for sharing the experience of your trip!

    So, did you feel extremely tall in China? I’m 6’8″ and feel like a giant wherever I go anyway; I wonder what that would feel like in China!?

    1. Aloysa

      Good Lord, man. You are tall!!! People probably would have asked to take pictures with you. They did it to us a lot. LOL There is more to come of my trip, so stay tuned.

  8. The Biz of Life

    It’s nice to read first hand accounts and impressions of places like China. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Jessica07

    My dad always told me I should check out China one day. After reading your post, I think I’m going to check that off my list. Great job describing your experience. It must be awful to live in all that pollution. However, so many people continue to go, the culture must truly supersede any physical discomforts. I hope you threw away those shoes, though–ewww!

    1. Aloysa

      You forget about pollution when you are there and see China’s history, architecture, people. China has A LOT to offer. Pollution should not scare anyone. We are definitely going back one day.

  10. Lindy Mint

    I’ve been working over the past year with some Chinese clients. It’s been so fun to learn about their culture, though a few of the times they’ve taken us out for traditional food have left my stomach turning (I’m guessing you will be sharing some food stories!).

    1. Aloysa

      My relationship with Chinese food is very simple. I don’t like it. And Good Lord (not to offend anyone) it was horrible in China. I might dedicate a post just to food.

  11. Kay Lynn @ Bucksome Boomer

    So far the description doesn’t entice me and I feel like I’m the only one! It sounds gross, dirty and full of rude people.

    I’m looking forward to the next part as there’s got to be good points.

    1. Aloysa

      Hahaha… I did not try to make it dirty and gross. But those were my first impressions… Stay tuned…

  12. Jim

    I always love going to China – the place is so vibrant and the contrasts are amazing. I love the Chinese way of just pushing through. I’m a bit over 6ft and weight just on 100kg (of muscle, I do work out ) and simply refuse to move. I’ve had little ladies pushing and pushing against me, without the slightest hope of budging me. Its really quite funny.

    1. Aloysa

      China indeed is a country of contrasts. I can’t wait to go back. Did Chinese ask you to take pictures with you? They did ask me. I wondered if it was because of my height.

      1. Jim

        Only once. But I think that was more because I was travelling with a girl with blond hair rather than me. I only spent time in the big cities.

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