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Travel: What it’s like to visit China – General Observations

This is part of the Travel: What it’s like to visit each city series I’m doing, to talk about what it’s like to see each city I’ve been through, from a foreigner’s perspective.


Beijing was the first city I had ever been to in China, in 2011.

Shanghai, was immediately after.


When I stepped off the plane, I really wasn’t quite sure what I’d find, having been to many Chinatowns in Europe, Canada and the U.S., but not China, itself.

I was told it would be super cheap, louder, dirtier, more Chinese.


 Photograph of signs at night in Beijing China, near Dongzhimen Lantern Alley

As it turns out, people are (generally) utterly useless in describing how it would actually be, because they don’t pay attention and understand the way others live.

People generally don’t want to bother with acting like a local such as taking the subway or the bus, immersing yourself deep into the actual heart of a city.

Seeing is one thing, observing is another.

From my experience, people just go there, check out the big sights, take taxicabs, and stay at very Western-nized hotels in “safe” areas of the city.

Worse, is if they’re on a walled-off, gun-protected resorts that are so popular in sun-filled destinations.

Or maybe they just didn’t want to scare me off with the details 😉


Hong Kong, and Macau, the other two cities I will cover in this Travel: What it’s like to visit each city series, are not considered to really be part of China for me.

There is a difference between mainland China (e.g. Beijing and Shanghai), and “Not China” (Hong Kong, and Macau).

Taiwan, is also another country I don’t recognize as being under mainland China, either.

..oh and you can also forget about talking about how since Mongola is filled with ethnic Chinese, and is therefore should be rightfully under “China”.

With that logic, half of Vancouver should also become part of China.

As a side note, even traveling to Hong Kong and Macau, everyone had different passports and even their currencies are different.

…and can we really call that a unified country? Not in my books.


They’re both very modern cities compared to the rest of China, or so I’m told.

(I haven’t been to the countryside, but I am constantly reminded that Beijing is the capital and headquarters of the People’s Republic of China, with 19 million folk crammed into there.)


Photograph of a monk at a holy temple in Beijing

Beijing is for the politically-minded, as it is the seat of power, and it’s like the Washington D.C. of the U.S., or Ottawa in Canada.


Photograph of sculpture in the Shanghai Airport, which speaks to their “modern” style

Shanghai, is for those who are richer, and want to do business. It’s like the New York City of China, or the Toronto in Canada.

Beijing, offers glimpses of the way the country used to be in the past.

You can sell see traces of their old neighbourhoods and way of life, like this free-standing, dilapidated (still in business!) restaurant right right beside the largest, most modern malls you can imagine.


Photograph of a very old restaurant and the way China was in the past, beside very modern trappings

Shanghai, is very modern (by Chinese standards), and is full of interesting (read: odd) skyscrapers, and offers the view of the Bund, which is where you can find many Chinese tourists gathering to ooh and aah over all the colours.


Shanghai’s The Bund skyline pictured

Being farmers and peasants from the country, they probably have never seen such beautiful, awe-inspiring skyscrapers in their lives.


They also have a different accent and dialect in Shanghai, but to be frank, I can’t really hear the difference between Shanghainese and Mandarin.

Shanghainese sounds prettier from what I’m told.

I just know that they don’t sound the same or use the same words.

Cantonese versus Mandarin however, is another story, as it is easier to hear the guttural, slurred sounds of Cantonese versus the sharper sounds of Mandarin.

I am also told by a few Chinese friends that Mandarin is what “all the cool kids speak”.


For a foreigner who grew up in North America, it was less impressive to see something like the Bund in Shanghai, or all of their skyscrapers.


Photograph of one of the more “normal” looking skyscrapers in Shanghai

Don’t get me wrong, it was cool to see that skyscape, but it wasn’t something that blew my mind other than the colours, and their odd choices for topping these skyscrapers:


Photograph of one of the more interesting skyscrapers in Shanghai

Another one that is a little more out there was this bizarre spaceship topper…


I also found it rather gaudy, over-the-top, excessive and loud, but then again, that’s my North American sensibility coming through.


Shanghai’s The Bund skyline from the back

(via the view from the appropriately “Can Opener” skyscraper)

We don’t really have skylines that flash colours, play music and otherwise sing and dance.

As a foreigner, I was more interested in understanding their old way of living in China, and their past. I wasn’t afraid to peek around the corners, and try to uncover via observation (without knowing any Chinese or speaking to any locals) what it must be like to live there.


The pollution really is as bad as everyone says it is, as well.


There is a perpetual smog that you can taste (as disgusting as that sounds), and after about 2 days of being in Beijing, in the heart of the pollution, I developed a pretty bad sore throat and a cough.


 Photograph of the Bund in Shanghai, with pollution coating the whole city

I’ve tried my best to show you how smoggy it is, but you don’t really feel it until you’re there.


I can understand why (rich) Chinese people flee overseas to escape all of this environmental nastiness.



I think to go back, I’d have to really want to see something there, or have no choice in the matter.

Aside from the pollution, the general vibe of China is not conducive to my ever desiring to visit again. I didn’t feel uncomfortable there, but it’s not my style of country.

Perhaps if I went in the fields in the countryside, it would be different and interesting, but it’s not on my Travel list as a Must other than to visit as an experience.


  • SarahN

    I’ve never been to China (though I have been to HK), and don’t have much interest in visiting. It is a little strange, given that it’s the source of most people’s everything (not you of course!). There’s also a huge population of students in Sydney from all over Asia, so it does feel like you get a small slither of China/all Asian countries, and I think that’s enough. It’s such a different language too, which I think can create a barrier when travelling.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • dunny

    I am very interested in your comments, as I am going to China in May, starting off in Beijing, then travelling the Silk Road across China and into Central Asia. I am dreading the pollution having barely recovered from dust and pollution induced cough from my trip to Ethiopia in January. However, I have some masks from Shoppers, and am only spending a day and a half in Beijing. Lately I have been attending some seminars about BRIC economies, the military history of China (The Art of War, etc.) and current military build-up in China here at UBC so that may give me a bit of context.

    I have reached financial independence and am living on passive income (fabulous). Travelling as much as possible. It’s never enough — as soon as I get home, I get restless.

    I have been to India twice and loved it, especially Rajasthan, which is beautiful. My only Africa trip so far has been Ethiopia and, while interesting archeologically/politically, did not make me eager to experience more of that culture (exception, the music). I too am not interested in any northern or southern (freezing) places or cruises.

    LIke you, I love anywhere in Europe. I am planning a month in northern Italy in fall.

    For next winter, I want to explore South America — just researching that now. I don’t plan to hit the major tourist hot spots, just want to see history and architecture in a hot place.

    I really enjoy your blog, the finance and the fashion. Such a great idea.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      To cut a long story short, I hated visiting China but the experience was worth it. It’s really another universe to be honest, and if you’ve only been in Westernized countries or Western countries like I have, then it is something totally alien…

      If you liked India maybe China will be fine for you then 🙂 My Indian friend says that China is WAY more developed than India.. !!

  • Morgaine

    China isn’t really on my list of places to travel either. Maybe the dynastic stuff like Emperor palaces and the Great Wall but that’s it. Living in Toronto, I see enough skyscrapers (aka condos) everyday.

  • Sarah

    Oh man, I wouldn’t last a day in China! Well, the larger, polluted cities anyway. I had a sore throat and cough from New York! I am used to pretty clean air I guess. It is on my “must” list, but I think for me it’s more of a “do once for the experience”, like you.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      New York has VERY clean air compared to China. It was disgusting, tasting the pollution. They even have state-wide warnings sometimes to tell people to stay inside because the pollution is so bad.

  • jane savers @ solving the money puzzle

    I don’t have money yet so I don’t travel but China is not on my list of places I want to visit. Every time I see a reporter on the news and the hazy air, or what passes for air, I know there are many other places I would rather visit.

  • Heather

    I went to both Shanghai and Beijing just over a year ago and agree with much of your description. The culture and history fascinated me but the vibe and pollution weren’t for me. Definitely glad I went, but I will probably explore somewhere new next time.

  • GirlinaTrenchcoat

    I visited China before and I found their old structures from the Dynastic period to be much more fascinating than the modern cityscapes (again just because we’re used to skyscrapers). I was in AWE however of their ginormous freeways and the superfast Maglev train in Shanghai. Agree about the pollution, I was perpetually blowing my nose on the trip from all the irritants in the air.

  • Riky N

    I have so much to say on this, but I’ll refrain from most of it and still have a long response. Don’t take this as an attack, but as a bit of info.
    The biggest issue with your trips is that you only went to Beijing and Shanghai. You must go elsewhere in China. Those cities are the most western and very changed from what Chinese society was and still is in places. I’ve lived there, traveled there, and dreamed of returning because of the small villages, experiences, and people I was able to see while I was venturing across that huge country.

    It is polluted, but so is LA. I enjoy travel to China so much that I try to go every four years. However, I stay far away from Beijing and Shanghai. Once you’ve seen the buildings and great wall you don’t need to return. Unless you want to repeatedly go down the toboggan at the great wall.

    Don’t say you’ll never go back. Check out Chengdu or the Northwest. Enjoy the real street food, not just the tourist trap crazy meats on a stick. It’s not for everyone to enjoy, but just like everywhere, there are multiple sides to the experience and I think you may not have gotten the best of it.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      Yes I know.. I mentioned in the other comments that if I went back, I’d go to the countryside. It was really not a pleasant experience being in China.

      L.A. is nowhere as polluted as in Beijing or Shanghai. I could actually breathe in L.A.

      I doubt I will go back unless it’s to an amazing place in the countryside for photos.. otherwise, I’d rather go to southeast Asia like to Thailand.

      Without a doubt, BF will never step foot in China again. We liked Hong Kong very much but the pollution was also pretty bad there.

  • Alicia @ Financial Diffraction

    I think I’d like to go to China once, but I wouldn’t want to be in the cities… honestly, I don’t really like cities much in North America either. Toronto… meh(sorry!). Same for New York City. I like smaller, laid back cities – one of my favourites is Vienna.

  • debT debS

    I have traveled to Shanghai 4 times on business. I never was able to go to Bejing. I was in Hong Kong also on business many years ago.

    Like you, I enjoyed my trips but can’t say that I loved the city because it’s so big and smoggy. I just enjoyed experiencing the people and seeing how other parts of the world live. In many ways the same and in many ways different.

    Funny memory: queueing in lines at the world Expo 2011 and being stared at (because I’m white) while I’m staring at people chewing chicken feet for a snack.

  • eemusings

    Zero desire to visit China myself, it’s just never held any interest for me (along with India, Africa as a whole, Alaska…) Thanks for this, interesting to hear about the differences between Beijing and Shanghai.

    I do want to visit HK and maybe Macau one day. Taiwan has never been on my radar but definitely wouldn’t say no if the opportunity came up…

    • save. spend. splurge.

      India is out for me as well, as is Africa, Alaska.. all the same places you wouldn’t go, I wouldn’t either. 🙂

      HK and Macau was great however! Taiwan would be interesting to visit, and Korea.. but not more interesting than Japan for me.

  • Stephanie

    You should try visiting Taiwan (my family’s homeland)! It’s far less polluted, both modern and traditional, and a view of China minus the communism and their current game communism. I quite like Kaohsiung, though I should mention that I haven’t been to Taipei, which is currently the place to be.

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