Our two-week Silk Road trek this month could be considered a trip of a lifetime.
In fact, though, Lief and I are thinking we’d like to plan a Stage 2 of the adventure.
We have 9 years remaining on our 10-year multi-entry China visas… and our son Jackson has 3 years remaining at NYU Shanghai.
We hope to take full advantage of this window of opportunity to continue to discover this part of the world.
This month we traveled from Xi’an to Urumqi. Next year we’re thinking of starting in Urumqi and traveling to Kazakhstan and beyond.
We’ll be better prepared for our next visit to China’s wild west.
Here are the top 10 things we’ve learned about traveling in the Middle Kingdom:
#1: Always carry toilet paper…
Even when using the bathroom in the lobby of a five-star hotel.
Beyond the top-level international-standard hotels, for sure, you will not find toilet paper in the toilet areas. Bring your own.
#2: Download a VPN…
Google, Facebook, Skype, Netflix, and more are banned in China. Meaning you cannot access them…
Unless you download a virtual private network (VPN) onto your devices (laptop, phone, iPad, etc.) before arriving in the country.
Many options are available; we used Express VPN, which worked every time we needed it.
#3: Download a voice translation app…
Outside major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, you’ll find that few people speak English. In rural areas of the country (like the wild west of the Silk Road), no one speaks English.
You can get by (as we did) using hand gestures, pantomime, and lots of smiles and bows.
For numbers, you can use the calculator on your phone.
However, if you need to have a conversation (with a pharmacist, for example, or a clerk in a shop), you can use a voice translation app. Many locals you encounter will have one downloaded on their phones. You should download one, as well. I used iTranslate.
#4: Make sure your taxi driver turns on his meter…
Taxi drivers will try to take you for a ride.
Often, our driver would not drop his flag but quote a flat rate when we’d arrived at our destination. At first, not knowing better, we paid it… overpaying sometimes by 5 or 10 times the actual going rate for the distance traveled.
Then we learned that not turning on the meter is against the law… and the Chinese are very keen not to run afoul of any law. So, if your driver doesn’t flip on his meter, you don’t have to pay. Definitely don’t pay an inflated flat amount. Know what the ride should cost and pay no more than that.
#5: Consider travel health insurance…
I caught a food-borne virus and needed to see a doctor before leaving the country. We were able to make an almost immediate appointment at a private clinic with all English-speaking doctors and staff. The visit was great. Labs were run and prescriptions were filled efficiently on-site.
All great… until the bill was presented. The cost was about US$800.
Public health care is a bargain. If you want to go private, not so much.
If I’d invested in travel health insurance (which can cost just a few dollars a day), I could have submitted these charges for reimbursement.
#6: Your lighter will be confiscated…
If you’re a smoker, carry back-ups. One friend traveling with us lost two or three lighters per day (they’re taken away by security when entering public buildings, museums, shops, etc.). Finally our friend began hiding his lighter in a crevice or crack just before going through security… then retrieving it on the way out.
He worried, though, that his actions might appear suspicious on video…
#7: Cameras, cameras, everywhere…
Which leads to an important point to remember:
Everything you do everywhere is videoed.
#8: CNN, et al., are censored…
Higher-end hotels have cable TV that includes stations like CNN International. However, when an international news station begins to report on a topic or in a manner that the Chinese don’t like… they cut it off.
Don’t be surprised if your television screen suddenly goes dark. This happened during our visit every time the reporting turned to the protests in Hong Kong, for example. As soon as the objectionable reporting is finished… the feed returns.
#9: Tipping is generally considered rude…
Our son finally cued us into this.
#10: Hepatitis vaccines are a good idea…
Especially if you’ll be traveling in remote regions, as we were this month.