There is something surreal about eating dinner at Outback Steakhouse in Beijing, high above the street overlooking the Tiananmen Square complex at 10 p.m. at night. (In China the good restaurants are on the 2nd floor or above.) The city below sparkles like polished marble as thousands of young people wander late at night. Everywhere there are bright lights; animated street noise causes a slight rumble as though the infamous past were forgotten forever. One can wish. I dig into my unfamiliar American meal, including the real romaine Caesar salad.
On the very day our visas ran out, after 10 days of being told “we are handling everything” suddenly we must travel to Beijing and then Hong Kong for visa extensions. For some unknown reason one of the largest companies in China can’t keep up with the bureaucratic paperwork involved in 4 visas.
It has cost them $1,000 each for us to return to Hong Kong for nearly a week to complete what should have been a relatively easy task had it been done previously. We were able to justify the trip in our minds because we brought back 400 additional bilingual Bibles for distribution to the students. And yes –I was able to get several hot showers in the process. Plus cheese, peanut butter, and some Folger’s coffee.
That fact that everyone is nice and kind hardly salvages the mess at all -and of course we missed a whole week of school. And in addition it appears that someone will need to go through this nonsense again in a few months in order to stay until Christmas.
If you have a college degree that is all you need to teach English. American school certification is not required, and anyway, these are college level students. Now that we have local living pretty well stabilized I need to describe travel preparations.
What to pack and what not to pack. The nice little razor with the soap inside will not survive this trip where temperatures are 58 below zero at 35,000 feet. Cans under pressure need to go in your in flight luggage, and my container of hair spray –not under pressure – collapsed anyway. China has some of these products but not many. Oriental men have little facial hair and many prefer, when they do, to let it grow. Orientals have stick-straight hair which is thick. We found a terrific barber here, dirt cheap. You will be stared at wherever you go. Most of the 800,000 people here have never seen a Westerner in their lives.
If you need any dental work get it done before you come, and buy enough prescription medicine for the duration. Bring along your printout as well to justify having medicines that might be considered “street drugs.” Mine were not checked but I was prepared. Drugs are available here but communication can be a hassle. And they have no FDA to guarantee the product.
Toilets are stand-up affairs for all sexes, toilet paper is YOUR responsibility, and I found my most valuable possession is baby wipes! If you like sugar it is hard to find. Makes no sense to me, after all Cuba is another communist country – you’d think China could import some. Specialty items, like turbinado sugar, are available only in the big cities, and at a price – IF you can locate them at all. Salt is not found on the tables but Chinese food is quite salty anyway. I brought along a peppermill.
Any size larger than XL for women may not be around. We did find many 42 long jackets for men, but that is about the biggest size. Even if you can get your size here it may be too small as the population is generally short as well as thin. One wash cloth per person is a must. As you prepare to pack make a note of everything you use in about 4 weeks time; if it is essential bring it.
A word about luggage. If you have old luggage keep it at home. For $120 or so you should be able to get 3 bags that can be fully packed and joined together. If you have anything to carry outside of the packed luggage – don’t. Pack the handbag, a raincoat, laptop and reading material, and then be sure everything goes together. You will have escalators to traverse with all this and you need your hands for other things. Include a complete change of clothes in your overnight bag in case something major is lost. In that bag place anything under pressure, or liquid. Some new laptop cases have a large band on the side allowing you to slip it over your main luggage handle. Put some identifying mark on your luggage, like a big, pink yarn bow so that when all the identical gear rides off the carousel, you won’t be held up checking others’ bags.
Purchase a Velcro neck wallet for your passport, tickets and all IDs, credit cards and cash! I cannot emphasize this enough. Pack all liquids in double Ziploc baggies but do not tighten the bottles in the bags; they need expansion room. Buy a small hand sanitizer bottle to keep on you at all times. Hang on to all plastic utensils. Chopsticks are easy to use but you will want American silverware as well.
Look online for the weights and measurements for each airline you take. United had one overseas rule but Dragon Air, a very nice Chinese airline, said the wheels on my smallest case were too long for permission to go aboard. A device at boarding measures your piece and if it does not fit it, presumably you must repack everything or possibly throw it away. Any hassle at Customs is one problem too many. They are not known for patience anyway. Our steely-eyed Sherpa, Nelson, managed to sweet-talk his way around Customs and we got through. Airports have many English speaking people but if you get in a mess, all the pilots and stewards from all airlines are proficient in English. Hong Kong knows English but Beijing is largely clueless. You may need to act out your request, like brushing your teeth to find a bathroom.
For Customs you must take off your hat. Sensors in the ceiling read your temperature and if you have a fever you are quarantined. SARS, bird flu, and other diseases have panicked the Far East for the past decade. Then there were the tsunami diseases too. Here is a photo of a group of us at a highly rated hotel. The men clearly are Mongolian – look at their jaw lines.
Sidewalks are slippery and dusty. Sneakers or shoes with a good grip on the bottom are essential for traveling. Local women wear high heels everywhere, esp. on their motor bikes, and fly around on them as though they were Nikes, but we had problems with the stairs, many flights, many times a day, with no elevators, escalators that don’t work and broken pavement and stair risers almost everywhere we went.
If your shoe size is 8 or smaller for women you will have a million well priced shoes to choose from. You cannot order from American companies as the shipping is too high – up to $100 for a $40.00 item. But you can order it online, have it sent to your home, and then your relatives can mail it to you. Allow a month for mail to get through. Don’t buy reading glasses, unless you have a weird prescription; glasses, esp. nice dark ones are cheap and plentiful.
Be prepared to say goodbye to all cheese, pizza (we have a Pizza Hut here but it is anyone’s guess what is on the pies), peanut butter, butter from real cows, diet drinks, strawberry jams and jellies. However, the ice cream is terrific and cheap too. I bought 4 oz. of cheese which had the consistency of hardened library paste, and finally threw it out. Even a nuking with the microwave helped little. Yogurt as we have it in the states in little cups is terrific and cheap. Emergency American food is available at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Water in airports, better hotels etc. is pure (you should ask the desk about this in any case) but you may want to buy water along the way. China has flavored water which is tasty. Cokes are pricey, usually have too much sugar and are not as good as at home. Orange juice is plentiful. I packed anti-bacterial soap which has helped all 4 of us with clothes although we found a good laundry and now send everything out. It’s cheap too. Dishes are washed in cold water without soap. You will pray over your food with zeal and conviction.
Sign up for the frequent flyer program no matter what airline you take. These long flights add benefits quickly. We learned to not take no for an answer. If someone said it was impossible we asked for the supervisor, or in one case, from Greenville to Chicago, we simply asked at another airport. Same stuff in Hong Kong going to Beijing. Perhaps it is the oriental aversion to ever making a mistake.
Out of Chicago we flew over the Hudson Bay, the Baffin Islands, and directly over the North Pole. A little TV screen occasionally came on showing the pattern of the plane as it flew. Or you could look out the window. The ice floes for hours and hours gave new meaning to “trackless wastes.” It was 15 long hours indeed. But a better trip is to go straight to Beijing, or perhaps have a change over in Korea, which would be nice too. After that it is on to Inner Mongolia by car or overnight train. This is a “classless society” you know, so there is no first class. If you want something nice you ask for “soft mattress” and if not you get the hard one! If you do want to come we will take care of the transportation from Beijing in any event. Travel is better for more than one person but you can survive alone.
Our 500 passenger 747 crew was able to produce 2 really hot meals for us all plus 2 major snacks. I chose to stay awake much of the night so I would adjust to local time better by watching the movies. Airlines have cleaned-up movies of recent vintage to accommodate children. Bring along some simple card games for the kids which they can play on their pull down trays.
My economy class was cramped. If I had the money I would much prefer Business Class which allows recliners for semi-sleep. We followed the sun so we saw no nighttime at all. We flew over Siberia, Outer Mongolia, and most of China to Hong Kong. The airports in these major cities are nearly as clean as hospitals. It is amazing. Be sure to use those commodes when you find them – you may have few future options.
Hong Kong and China are having problems with their currency. What spends in one area does not spend in the other. This means you must change from American dollars to Hong Kong dollars and then when you go into the rest of the nation, yet another currency. Shylocks could fleece you at every turn. (The government knows this is a bummer and will no doubt have things changed by the 2008 Olympics.) But at the Salisbury YMCA in Kowloon we were able to change all sorts of money with only bank penalties. The showers worked, the rates were economical, and the food was nice. There was even an internet area where you could pay to check your email. At a Christian organization we were happy to hear Maranatha tunes played in the public areas at all times. There was a nice Christian bookstore with postcards and reasonably priced goods, gifts, and reading material. In China I have yet to see a postcard.
We were told that photo cell phones were not permitted. However, no one inspected our phones (they call them mobile phones) when we arrived. If you want to bring one Verizon is the choice. But you must make the switch to international use BEFORE you leave town. Doing it over here did not work, and our friends had to send their phone back to NC and then have it return mailed all for about $40 and the loss of time. However, we were issued a local cell phone which we use to call each other and our interpreter. We assume you’ll get one too.
Finally get a visa for absolutely as long a time as you possibly can. Renewal of Visas is expensive and time consuming.
Now that you know there are rotten toilets and no cheese, will you still come?