Exploring China

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Over the semester so far, I’ve been lucky enough to travel around to a few different cities including Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Sanya, Xi’An, and a bunch in Yunnan province.

My first trip was to Beijing after only two weeks in China. My biggest hurdle for the entire journey was figuring out the train station. I arrived at the station ahead of my friends since we were all coming from different locations, so I had to figure out everything on my own. Digital tickets do not exist in China. You need to buy them online, then pick up a physical copy in person. The concept of “the customer is always right” also doesn’t exist, so customer service can be verrryyy minimal.  I kept asking different workers where to go to pick up my ticket and each person would look blankly at me and point vaguely in different directions. I ended up wandering around the train station for a solid 25 minutes until I stumbled upon the right booth. It was extremely frustrating, but my struggle paid off when my friends arrived and I could show them where to go. For all my trips after that, I knew what to do right away!

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My favorite destination was Yunnan province by far. I loved every city I visited, which includes Dali, Kunming, Lijiang, Shaxi, Shangri-La, and Mapingguan. Yunnan is in the southwest of China and is much more rural than Shanghai or any of the other places I’ve visited. There is very little to no pollution so the sky is actually a true blue, with sunlight and stars- something that I haven’t seen too much of in the last few months. My favorite part was staying in Mapingguan, a small, Bai minority village with only 20 families, on top of a remote mountain. Villagers hosted a village-wide bonfire and taught us traditional dancing.

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You may notice all of these are domestic cities within mainland China. Within the last seven months, China has gotten stricter with what kind of visas they grant foreigners. It’s very difficult to get more than a single-entry visa, meaning that international travel is generally a no-go. You can get around this by getting a visa change once you’ve already arrived in China, but that’ll set you back by about RMB950 or $150 for every entry you add, making it a pricey endeavor. Furthermore, if you do an internship in China like me, you aren’t permitted to add any extra entries.

Learning this was disappointing at first, but I’ve come to appreciate the fact that international travel isn’t on the table. If I had been allowed to go to all the countries bordering the middle kingdom, I don’t think I would have explored China itself to the extent that I have. China is a giant country with so many different landscapes, geographies, cultures, and histories to offer and I would have missed out on so much.

While I’ve enjoyed every second, not every moment of my travels has been smooth sailing. I have a few tips to follow in order to make the most of a weekend trip:

  1. Plan ahead and do thorough research- Pick out what activities and sites you want to visit before you arrive at a destination, otherwise you’ll waste time and maybe even miss out on a really cool experience just because you didn’t know it was an option.
  2. Be open to new things- Going into the experience with a closed mind will limit how much you enjoy yourself. Don’t just get the same dish at every restaurant. Don’t stay in your hostel for hours. Whether trying funky foods or partaking in new activities, the unfamiliar is what makes a location worth visiting.
  3. Double- no TRIPLE- check your destinations- Especially if you’re in a country that generally speaks a different language, there can be gaps in the local name for a place and the English name. While in Xi’An, there was a second hostel with the same English name as the one I was staying at. My friends and I didn’t know that beforehand and we accidentally went to the wrong one, which was a major bummer after already traveling for six hours. Extra care will go a long way to making the most of your time.

I feel very grateful for the travel opportunities I’ve experienced thus far in my semester. Every country has more to offer than just the one city you study abroad in and I think that not taking advantage of that limits one’s ability to fully assimilate with the country as a whole. I look forward to planning a couple more trips this semester to get to know China even better!