My trip to China was over four years ago and pre-Olympic games, it was noticeable at the time that the government had already started initiatives to ready the nation for an influx of international visitors. For example there was a daily TV program to teach the English language.
Nevertheless the language and cultural barriers were as large as I have ever faced. It was hard to get used to the Chinese habit of spitting, although this was one of those practices that the government had already started to discourage in anticipation of increased visitors in 2008, so no spitting signs were found in many places.
I have noted in my journal that I did not see a single other westerner on my first day in China. It surprised me that I continued to see very few westerners as the days progressed as I have never thought China to be a particularly obscure holiday destination. I believe the explanation is simply that the tourists are spectacularly outnumbered by the Chinese population.
I was stared at nearly everywhere I went, I have lost count of how many Chinese wanted to take a photograph of me or with me. My face must adorn many a mantlepiece across China. Most would ask (or gesture) for permission, but I remember once whilst sitting outside and taking a break that a small group were surreptitiously trying to capture me on camera. I had read this might happen in guidebooks, which spoke of this as if it were a problem. Indeed it may be for some people, but I only ever found it amusing and it did not annoy me at all.
On the other hand I was annoyed on many occasions when I would be queuing to buy an entry ticket or underground ticket and a local would just step in front of me. However they are not meaning to be rude, a tap on the shoulder and an "I’m next" type of gesture would rectify the situation immediately. Well you know how the English feel about queuing.
Finally, a few words about the cuisine. Well I thought it was pretty dreadful and woefully behind the standard in your average Chinese restaurant in the UK. A lot of the food was really greasy and unpleasant, I quickly learned to opt for vegetable based dishes and when I found somewhere bearable then I would repeat visit. Definitely not somewhere to experience gastronomic delights and wine is ghastly too.
The phrase I have most often used to describe my trip to China in the subsequent four years is undoubtedly "hard work". I will probably continue to use this phrase for a long time to come. It is difficult for me to really say how much of this was due to me travelling independently and by myself for much of the time, but that is definitely part of it as I think the lack of even basic conversation for this length of time and the difficulties in communication just about everywhere was draining after three weeks. I hope I don’t sound like an insufferable English woman abroad, because I have travelled reasonably widely and don’t want to bring England with me when I go away and I don’t expect everybody in the world to speak English either, but China was like being on another planet at times.
Looking back at my four month trip, I would say that China (excluding Hong Kong) was easily the most challenging country I visited, and I would even go so far as to say it was the least enjoyable country as well. Strangely though, I have come to realise that be that as it may, it was also the most memorable and thankfully, mainly for the good reasons.