A Chinese adventure
Like the silkworm discovered by her people, China cocooned itself off from the outside world for decades (centuries, if you factor in its medieval history) and emerged as a global superpower. The mystical Orient, which has fascinated travellers throughout history, remains a modern age marvel. This month, Avenue T hits up two of its major cities to bring you the lowdown on your next great getaway.
When the Chinese capital comes up in conversation in a travel context, you’ll hear about the Beijing bucket list that includes sights like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and so on. While these are certainly not to be missed, what adds colour to the Beijing experience lies in the little cultural quirks and idiosyncrasies of the residents of this great city. Here are five things you’ll find when you visit.
If you’ve already made the obligatory Bangali cultural pilgrimage to Thailand, you’ll know how obsessed the Thai people are with fairness. The proliferation of Fair and Lovely and the recent hallyu of K-Beauty products in our local markets have fed our own fascination for the same. Chinese people, however, take it to even greater lengths. Along with sunscreen, you’ll find them - men, women and children alike - sporting protective sleeves, long socks, and visors, along with umbrellas. This fixation on sun protection extends to special covers fitted on motorcycles to protect the riders from reflected glares. Is this fanaticism amusingly charming or horrifying? The jury is still out on that one.
Travel tip: When booking your trip, consider getting an airport pickup service that you can pay for in Bangladesh. While it might seem like a splurge, you’ll save upwards of $50 in foreign currency when you arrive, by avoiding the cut-rate airport currency exchange and the taxi services that take extortion to the level of art.
Roll with it
When you live in Bangladesh, you become accustomed to the sight of men hitching up their lungis to adjust the waist. Spend a little time in Beijing, you’ll come across a phenomenon known as the ‘Beijing Roll’, where men will randomly roll up their t-shirts to expose and air out their bellies. This can happen anytime and anywhere - in a crowded street or a deserted square, and it’s done with an insouciance that is almost admirable.
She’s always right
The Chinese invented Feng Shui, and have spent centuries perfecting it, so that it seeps into every aspect of their lives. One of the interesting ways this manifests itself is that left and right have gender associations. As a woman, when you’re walking, entering a room, or climbing down the stairs, you lead with the right foot. The opposite applies to men. This might be a small thing that’s hard to spot, but the left-right divide becomes more apparent when you realise that in public restrooms, the women’s toilets are always located on the right side of the building/floor.
Travel tip: Ladies, while we’re on the subject of toilets, if you want a hassle-free experience, you might want to invest in a portable bidet and practice squatting, as most of the public restrooms have pan toilets and no hand shower or accessible TP.
Some like it hot
On a hot summer day, it might seem normal to want to cool off with a nice chilled drink, but that’s not how they do things in China. Even when it’s sweltering outside, be prepared to be welcomed with piping hot tea or lukewarm water. Even their lemonade is basically lukewarm water infused with lemon slices. While this sounds counter-intuitive, once you get used to it, it’s actually surprisingly refreshing.
FC to the rescue
One of the biggest concerns for practicing Muslims visiting China is the prevalence of pork in all the food. With language being a bit of a hurdle, ordering food can feel a lot like playing Russian roulette. Fortunately, the Chinese love their fried chicken, so most dining locales will have an abundance of KFC’s, McDonalds, and local fried chicken fast food outlets like Dico’s. When in doubt, resort to FC magic.
This infamously insular destination packs the double whammy of a language barrier and what is popularly known as the Great Firewall, or the severe internet restrictions put in place by the Chinese government.
If you want to do your own explorations instead of being dependent on a tour guide and translator, here are some must-have apps you need to download before you arrive.
A good VPN
Unless you’re happy with being off Facebook and restricting your online searches to Chinese Bing, a VPN is an absolute must. Hotspotshield is a popular free one.
A translator app
The language problem goes beyond not being able to speak the language; most of the people in the service sector you’ll encounter struggle to read English, and unless you know how to read Mandarin, a simple task such as ordering from the menu will become a major pain in the donkey. Since pretty much everything Google is blocked in the mainland, a translator app like Waygo is your best bet.
An offline map
Navigating a city with indecipherable (to non-speakers) signage is recipe for a lot of hassle, so save yourself the trouble and get an offline map app. There are separate apps available for every city you plan to visit.
Five things to do in China’s biggest city
Its skyline will remind you of every sci-fi movie ever. The global and financial hub of China, Shanghai is a study in contrasts and contradictions – the wide streets and crowded subways, the global brands and insular linguistic barriers, the weight of history and the futuristic buildings. There’s so much to do and see here, we’ve narrowed it down to some not-to-be-missed highlights
Selfies at the Bund
The Bund, or what the locals call the Waitan area, this is a waterfront area set on the west bank of the Huangpo river, and affords the best view of Shanghai’s financial district, Pudong, with its iconic skyscraper, including the Oriental Pearl. If you’re a selfie enthusiast, this location gives you the money shot.
Shopping at Nanjing
Described by many tourists as “Times Square multiplied”, the famous shopping street of East Nanjing Street is a beast unto itself. Best viewed at night when all the popping neon signs come to live, it’s the go-to destination for your fashionable splurges, but even if you’re not buying, the energy of the place, complete with the trams moving over the wide boulevard, the open-air eats, give it an infectious energy.
Chilling at the Yu Garden
If the tall skyscrapers and neon lights are not your thing, there’s a place in this ancient city that still carries the weight of its history, and that is Old Town. Walk past the traditional lacquered wood buildings, where you’ll find weekly open markets and tea houses, until you arrive at this extensive Chinese style garden. With everything from koi ponds to rockeries, this testament of a son’s love is a soothing timeout from the city’s bustle – if you manage to go during off-peak season.
Dining at the French Quarter
Xintiandi, which is close to Shanghai’s Huaihai high-end shopping area, houses a former French locality, with gorgeous Provencal buildings repurposed into form a cosmopolitan fine dining locality. When you want to take a break from flâneuring around designer brands and fashion houses, take a seat and sample from any number of international restaurants, and soak up the ambiance as well as the delectable treats.
Riding the world’s fastest train
The Shanghai Maglev, which is said to hit speeds as high as 430km/h, is the oldest commercial maglev train, and purportedly the world’s fastest. Those who have experienced it’s speed have talked about feeling the G-forces when it takes off. A word of caution though; the train has a special schedule of when it hits top speed, so check out the timings before you shell out the 50RMB for a ride.