A World within a World

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The ancient Chinese once had the misconception that China was the entire world. Once you set foot on China, you will realize how this perception has been central to the Chinese identity. The insular environment is exemplified by how the Chinese do not speak English and those who can, are reluctant to do so. Names of shops, streets, movie theaters, restaurants and menus – things that foreigners require to read – are all in Chinese. They do not even use Facebook or Google – two of the absolute necessities of current times. My trip to China has given me so many unique experiences that I could have never experienced elsewhere as a traveler. I felt stonewalled on a number of occasions, yet I somehow fell in love with the quirkiness of this country.

How to Get There
China Eastern and China Southern are two airlines that go directly from Dhaka to China within a few hours at a decent airfare. However, the in-flight experience was not pleasant – food was not palatable according to my taste; no in-flight entertainment; uncomfortable seats with very little leg space; and last but not the least, nerve-wrecking turbulence. If you are in no rush and willing to spend some extra bucks, choose Singapore Airlines or Malaysian Airlines that transit through their respective countries to China.
The in-flight experience, however, had nothing on the domestic airports in China, which can be extremely frustrating for foreigners. I reached the airport on time for my Guangzhou to Shanghai flight. Turns out, the flight was delayed which is a very regular thing. What worked my nerves was none of the airport staff spoke English and I was not being updated regarding the flight as I waited cluelessly at the airport. All announcements were made only once and that too in local language. Every now and then, a person who spoke English would show up but they had to go from counter to counter so it was hard to get to one of them. I was the only one panicking and everyone else was calm, occupied with his or her trolley. I have never seen such high-tech trolleys in my life, with tablets attached to them containing entertainment, an earphone jack and a charging port. Of course it was all in Chinese, so I only managed to charge my phone. After 7 hours, I finally managed to get on the plane with the help of a kind gentleman who spoke little English. My woes did not end there. After getting aboard, the plane zipped around the runway for an hour, delayed further by bad weather, and they started serving food in the middle of it. While we were eating, the plane took off and I scrambled to keep a hold of everything. This entire experience was just incredibly unsettling.

travel

travel-03GUANGZHOU
It is the industrial hub of China. A visit to this city is mandatory for every entrepreneur aiming to start a trading or manufacturing business. However, rapid industrialization has led to the presence of heavy smog all over the city and is considered hazardous for one’s health. The city center is well organized, nice and clean, with futuristic bridges and high-rises including the Canton Tower. The best view of the skyline can be enjoyed from cruise ships on the Pearl River, even though the skyline does look slightly hazy due to the infamous smog.
The Chimelong International Circus is highly entertaining with animals such as elephants and bears dancing to upbeat songs. However, the thought of the sufferings that the animals had to go through for our “entertainment” made me get up and leave halfway through the performance. The Chimelong Hotel, right next to the circus, is one of a kind – there is a caged lion in the lobby!

travel-05SHANGHAI
Shanghai is indeed the New York of the East – people are posh and fashion forward; streets bursting with life; city center filled with shopping malls and eateries; an area called the French Concession dotted with clubs and pubs; and of course, the magnificent skyline that very few cities can match (the Bund provides a great opportunity for a photo op). Expats who live there find ways of extending their stay for the wonderful opportunities that Shanghai offers.

traveltravel-07BEIJING
Beijing is currently one of my favorite cities in the world with its perfect blend of history and modernity. Out of the three cities that I visited in China, Beijing is the most tourist-friendly. The city center is absolutely marvelous with numerous large, well-maintained parks as well as stunning works of architecture that include the CCTV Tower, the Bird’s Nest (where the 2008 Summer Olympics took place), Giant Egg (National Centre for Performing Arts) and many more. Among the parks, my favorite remains the Summer Palace – a retreat for the royal families. It is the largest royal park in China.
An entire day should be spent at the Great Wall of China. It stretches some 21,000 kilometers and is therefore impossible to see in its entirety. The steep stairs climb from the base to the top is not easy. I experienced mountain sickness and was out of breath, more often than not. Even during summer, the temperature is low and that makes the climb slightly less strenuous. The Great Wall winds its way through greenery and passes over the horizon. It is an experience that can barely be conveyed through words once you reach the top.
Another historical highlight is the Forbidden City, an enormous compound spanning 180 acres built by the Ming Dynasty. During their reign, no one could enter or leave without the Emperor’s permission. Ironically, now it is a hot tourist spot and a UNESCO World Heritage Site holding the world’s largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures. Once you get on top of Jingshan Park, the view of the entire Forbidden City comes into focus along with the traditional Chinese roofing, and makes you realize exactly how much you have walked because it does not feel that way — fatigue sort of slips because of the wonderful experience.

travel-08FOOD
Most restaurants have their menus written entirely in Chinese. Having no idea what the dishes were, I relied on my adventurous spirit and pretty much ordered off the pictures. Rarely was I disappointed; Chinese food is just too good. It even felt familiar to the food I eat back home, making me wonder at times how much Chinese influence we have. One issue though is that there is pork in almost all foods, even in some vegetarian dishes. It appears as if pork is a staple of Chinese food.
For a meal to remember, the roasted “Peking Duck” in Da Dong Beijing Restaurant is perfect. They bring the whole duck, and cut only the best lean meat and skin for you. The price for a meal that spectacular seemed justified.

travel-09DO’S
• First thing you should do upon landing: get a SIM from the airport and install VPN, otherwise you will not have access to blocked sites such as Google or Facebook. Even though you will get a VPN, do know that the internet in China is extremely slow and takes ages for these blocked sites to load.
• Stay at an international chain hotel like Radisson/Westin/Marriott/Sofitel/etc. Even though they are pricey (about USD $150-200 a night), you will find staff who can speak English. I made the grave mistake of checking in to a regional 5 stars hotel in Guangzhou. It looked quite impressive with a line of expensive cars parked outside, but I later figured those were permanent fixtures to attract guests. Neither the receptionist nor the concierge spoke English. I asked for a pair of scissors to cut my luggage’s bubble wrap. At first, they brought a spoon for me. Helpless, I gestured for it again, explaining that I needed scissors. They nodded and kept saying okay. Thinking that the problem was solved, I waited and the response was that I got a screwdriver this time. So of course, I asked again and this time they did not even bother. For a small fee, I checked out of the hotel. The same thing happened in Shanghai. There was heavy rain outside and I asked for in-room dining but nothing happened. I went to the reception and gestured yet again but still failed to make them understand. I starved until the rain subsided.
• Before you leave the hotel, get the concierge to call for a taxi and keep the hotel’s business card that has the name and address both in Chinese. Wherever you intend to go, get the Chinese names of those places for the cab drivers to understand. There was this one time I got into a taxi and it was raining outside. There was no way for me to know that it was going to rain because the weather is unpredictable like that. Google Maps was not loading through the VPN. After 40 minutes of driving in circles, it finally loaded and I got to my destination.

travel-04DON’TS
• Upon landing, do not take the taxis right outside the airport. They charge triple the price.
• Do not try to imitate or speak Chinese language unless you are fluent in it. It is undoubtedly one of the most difficult languages since the tone affects the meaning of the word. For instance, the word “Ma” has multiple meanings ranging from “mother” to “horse” depending on how it is said.

* Words & Photographs By Saadat Chowdhury

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