Last week, someone asked me the China travel question. “What’s your favorite place to visit in China?”
Faster than she could say “Terracotta Warriors,” I had just the place in mind: “My husband’s family home in the countryside.”
Okay, yeah, it’s easy for me say that. I’ve bounced around Beijing, sashayed my way through Shanghai, and chilled out in Chengdu. And while I love the allure of the road, I still find myself yearning for those small moments at the family home — whether it’s making dumplings with my mother-in-law or reading my father-in-law’s story about his ancestral village.
The thing is, sometimes it’s the most ordinary things and places that make travel extraordinary — and China is no exception. So, for my last article of the year for “Travel China with the Yangxifu,” I thought I’d help you find more small moments in your own travel — and you don’t need a family home in China to do it.
1. Get a little residential.
You may not live in China, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a feel for daily life in Shanghai or Beijing. Instead of just hitting the Forbidden City or the Bund, immerse yourself in a more everyday, average Chinese residential area — without even having a contact on the ground.
Just ask someone you meet along the way (ask them where they live in the city — as if out of curiosity — and then try to locate it on your map). Or, simply hop on the subway, ride it to the end of the line (where the more affordable real estate — and, thus, more average Chinese in the city — live), and have a look.
Many communities have gates and will question obvious outsiders (i.e. anyone who doesn’t look Chinese), so be careful if you want to walk through a residential community. But you can always wander around the vegetable markets and stores, eat at the restaurants, and see what people like to do there. It’s a great way to see the world outside of the glossy postcard China in our minds, perhaps making new friends and creating some memorable moments along the way.
Best of all, there’s no extra charge. All you need is some free time, and a little sense of adventure.
2. Find a friend in China.
Okay, maybe you don’t have family in China, or even a friend there. But that doesn’t you can’t discover someone through your own network of friends.
Just tell people (who you trust) that you’re visiting the Middle Kingdom, and see if they have friends on the ground you could meet up with. Either Chinese or expats work great, as long as they’re residents of the city you’re visiting — which means more opportunity to discover those cool, off-the-beaten-path places or scenes.
Even if you live in a place so uninterested in China that they dismantled the Chinese language program at your university (that’s me), just ask. I’m always floored by how many people tell me “Oh, my father used to work in China” or “My husband just came back from a trip to China” or “My sister taught English in China” (I heard all of these, and more, just in the past month here). And every one of these people is a potential conduit to an on-the-ground local guide.
Be sure to keep your contact with your potential “local guides” casual. In other words, don’t ask to crash on their sofa. (Unless, of course, you found them on Couchsurfing, and they advertise it.)
Which leads me to another suggestion — search for people on Couchsurfing. Some offer accommodation, but the majority are just offering their time and goodwill to show you around their chosen city. Just a few clicks and the right search could land you an unforgettable local guide, and unforgettable time in China.
3. Do a little “voluntraveling”
Volunteer your time to travel with a purpose (i.e. “voluntraveling”) in China. Spend a little time on the ground, doing good and building relationships, so you can have an even better time traveling around China.
Why better? Because once you get to know people there, they can help you discover places you never would have imagined or even thought of visiting. And if you stay long enough doing the volunteer thing, you might even get a few invitations to visit someone’s home, or even hometown (say “yes” — even if it’s way off the tourist path, you’ll probably have one of the most unique and educational experiences of your entire trip).
The most obvious? Teach English in China. But if teaching isn’t your style, you can do everything from learning about Pandas to helping disabled or orphaned children. Just keep in mind that most, but not all, volunteer opportunities come with a price (which usually includes things such as housing, airport transfers, and possibly meals). Both Volunteers Abroad and Transitions Abroad have listings.
4. Learn something
Yearned to polish your Mandarin beyond that “Ni Hao?” Working on your Yang style Tai Chi? Itching to unleash that hidden calligraphy artist? Wondering how to make the ultimate Kung Pao Chicken? Consider building your trip to China around a class or course, so instead of just admiring the culture, you can discover it yourself. For a price, of course. 😉
For Chinese classes, Lonely Planet suggests checking around the expat magazines — the Beijinger, That’s Shanghai and That’s Guangzhou — to get the scoop on language schools. Additionally, Transitions Abroad offers listings of Chinese language schools.
According to Lonely Planet, the Beijing-based China Culture Center is a popular choice for people wanting a side of culture with their China travel. And it’s no wonder — they offer classes covering pretty much everything within the Middle Kingdom, from Tai Chi to learning how to cook spicy Sichuan to even Beijing Opera Face Painting. Check out their full calendar to see what’s happening during your trip (or try to request a class if it’s not). You can also browse other cultural travel possibilities at Transitions Abroad.
What did I miss? What are some other great ways to get beyond the “postcard China”?
This is the Travel China with the Yangxifu series, which appears every 2nd Wednesday of the month. Thanks to Rich for inspiring me to launch this series.
To read more, visit the Travel China with the Yangxifu archives.