Indie Travel Update: Surviving China

20180804_204240China must be single-handedly keeping the Lonely Planet franchise in business, you know: they of the 5-pound, 50-dollar, 500-page ‘survival’ guides, most of which is largely obsolete, simply the idea that ‘survival’ is an issue in most of the world, unless you’re talking about survival of traditional cultures, languages and tribal peoples in a world increasingly homogenous, and frankly, pretty friggin’ boring. The only thing in danger of survival are reasons for travel itself…

Except for China. This is the one country where you can actually use a little help from your friends, they of the world’s only non-alphabetic language, which makes Greek look like a weekend at the beach. Hey, I learned the Greek alphabet, but not the language, of course, in four days of reading road signs in Athens (and we thought all of our vocabulary came from Latin, haha. Tell that to the Russians)…

20180803_090547Not that I’ve ever actually owned a Lonely Planet ‘survival guide’, mind you, except for the first one, ‘Southeast Asia on a Shoe-string’, penned by the venerable Tony Wheeler himself, and still interesting as a period piece, which is the reason I bought it, at a bargain price, some twenty years after the fact…

But I did carry a borrowed copy with me on my first trip to China in 1997. And the big issue of course, is the ‘instant illiteracy’ of being in a country with no Western language in common use, and apparently unconcerned about that fact, which is still largely true BTW. But back then there were also challenges of FEC’s (foreign exchange certificates) vs. currency, and entire zones of the country still ‘off-limits’ to foreigners…

20180806_142556Not much has changed, really, except the barriers are now horizontal instead of vertical, defining strata which are largely psychological, not physical. So the FEC’s are long gone, the only irony being that they’ve largely gone from one sort of cashless economy—communism—to another, Alipay, i.e. by smartphone. And most of the country is open for travel, except for Tibet, which is open for guided tours only, BUT…

Most Western social media is off-limits, hotel addresses are cryptic—English name optional—and many hotels are not allowed to take foreigners, for whatever reason. I wish I knew the reason, but I don’t. I only know that it is largely a deal-killer, especially for a budget traveler. Unfortunately hotel booking sites don’t help much, apparently enforcing no penalties on member hotels that fail to notify you at the time of booking that foreigners are not allowed…

20180807_075940So you show up, IF you can find the place (not only are addresses cryptic, but names in Roman alphabet are scarce), and you have no room ready and waiting, as already booked, simply because you’re a foreigner—ouch. For many people in many situations, that would be panic time, so hopefully it’s not midnight, on a Saturday, and hopefully you have no screaming kids in tow, because the only solution is to make the rounds, and hope for better, price going up with each attempt, and the taxi meter running—double ouch…

This is not cool, and frankly I could easily forego all the PR in my inbox from hotel booking sites, if they would only enforce some standards upon their member hotels instead. In some cases rooms were even paid in advance. So this is essentially a breach of contract by hotel, whether paid in advance or not. If I don’t show up, they expect compensation. But they can cancel me with impunity after no advance warning? WTF? Conversations with Agoda ongoing…

20180807_085846And many of them want some advance payment, by methods unspecified, or sometimes specified as a bank transfer (yeah, right), all discovered after the booking in the fine print at the bottom of the page. Why don’t they just take a credit card as guarantee, and charge it if you default? You tell me…

Now here’s a new one, in the latest swing of my trip into the southern reaches of Yunnan province: the hotel indicates that check-in time is 8a.m. (yes, morning) until 6p.m. In the evening (WTF?), so when I show up at 7p.m. (on a slow bus), the place is locked up tight—ouch again. Now I’m stuck outside the fence, so there is no banging on the window, and I decide against climbing the fence, figuring that can’t end well. Wow, they really take their check-in times seriously…

20180807_080416Moral of the story: China is a m*therf*cker. But there are things I like about it, for instance: my T-Mobile SIM card from the US works fine, 3G included (I know 4G exists, but T-M only promises 2, so I’m splitting the difference. Of course you have to have a VPN to do anything with Google or social media, but that’s still not a bad trade-off, considering that 3G doesn’t work at all in Thailand or Laos on the T-M plan); and then there are the water kettles for boiling water in every hotel room in China, and sometimes even tea, definitely appreciated…

And last but not least, there is the contrariness syndrome: the very fact that China is a merciless beast is one of the very attractions of it, the fact that it and it almost alone in the world, is on its own path, not integrated into the Western system of influence and largely independent of it. Few others can make that claim, maybe only Russia and possibly Brazil are truly independent in this world. And they know that. If you want them then you take them on their own terms, not yours…

So to ‘own’ China would be a nice feather in my cap, as my final traveler’s task and trophy, to be able to call it my own, a cherry for the pluck, to have and to hold. Now whether I’ve got the stamina in my old age to actually pull that off is another question. Time will soon tell. This part of trip is over, and this part of my life is over. Travel is supposed to be lah dee freakin’ dah, but it doesn’t always have to be that way—we’ll see…

p.s. I forgot to mention that, even with a VPN Internet is slow as Sunday, whether or not routed through the censors in Beijing, BUT… I do have a 10-year visa @ no extra charge, and trains like greased lightning, and even had a meal for less than a dollar in Xishuangbanna, so not such a bad deal, thinking thinking…

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