‘Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go’: Interview With Josh Summers

Years ago before my first foray into China, I agonized over exactly what to pack for the year of work there that loomed ahead of me. I had studied every guidebook, primer and even memoir I could get my hands on about the country. Yet none of them seemed to answer certain nagging concerns about what I should make of my precious, and very limited, luggage space.

Could I purchase the feminine products I needed there? Would I still find contact lens solution if I needed it? Should I bring a year’s supply of vitamins, just in case? And what about deodorant?

As trivial as these questions might seem in retrospect, details matter when you’re planning for a trip or, in my case, a long-haul adventure of work overseas. And newcomers to China who sift through the usual titles on the country — such as the Lonely Planet China Guide (at the time, the most definitive and trusted guidebook) — may find themselves disappointed on small details that, nevertheless, make a big difference in travel.

That’s why “Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go” by Josh Summers, which truly lives up to its title, offers a welcome addition to the world of guidebooks about China.

From basics such as visas, documents, money, packing and accommodations down to transportation of all kinds, staying connected, the Chinese language and keeping healthy, the book covers almost every issue a traveler might have and steers you toward the best choices for a smooth journey in China. It even includes a sample packing list to simplify your decisions on what to put in that suitcase (if only I had possessed that years ago!).

Essentially, it’s chock full of all the practical tips you’d need to know from a travel insider, and will easily pay for itself by saving you time and money. I recommend this guide to anyone either planning or considering travel to China (there’s even a chapter actually addressed to travelers on the fence about visiting the country).

It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to “Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go”  through this interview with Josh Summers.

Here’s Josh’s bio from Amazon:

Josh Summers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas and never considered the idea of writing until he started traveling the world. In 2006, he and his wife set off for an adventure around Asia that aroused a passion for photography, filmography and, of course…writing. Over time, Josh has become known for a unique style of travel writing that is extremely personal, empathetic to the reader and very easy to follow. His blogs and videos reach millions of travelers each year and have inspired countless travelers to venture out beyond their comfort zone.

You can learn more about Josh and his book at his website Travel China Cheaper. “Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go” is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.

What sparked the publication of this book?

I get over a thousand emails every month from travelers that run across TravelChinaCheaper while planning for their trip. As much as I try to respond to these emails, it has just become too much for me to handle. What I wanted to do was create a concise, low-cost resource that I could point people to not as a way to make tons of money, but rather as a way to provide help to as many of these people as possible.

Unlike most guidebooks, which usually assume you’re planning to head to China because you purchased them, yours has a chapter titled, “Should I travel to China?” Why did you decide to include this in the book?

You’re right: a number of the questions that I hear from travelers center around their fear of the unknown. They have a desire to travel to China and they’re making the necessary steps to get there, but they’re not 100% convinced. Will they be able to get around using only English? Will they have to use a squatty potty? I wanted to be realistic about the challenges of China but also erase any unnecessary fears from the equation.

Tell us something from your book that you’ve found travelers are surprised to learn about China.

People are generally surprised to learn that China has surpassed most of the world when it comes to the adoption of mobile payment systems. As most expats in China know, we rarely walk around with cash anymore! What’s equally frustrating for tourists to learn, though, is that these mobile payment systems (WeChat, Alipay, etc.) are not geared toward short-term travelers and are pretty much impossible to set up without a Chinese bank account. So, like it or not, cash is still king if you’re walking around China as a traveler. This is the type of information that most travel guides don’t/can’t cover.

Could you share with us a few of the great tips from your book that travelers might not glean from a typical guidebook?

Sure! There’s an entire chapter dedicated to staying connected while in China. For many of us, that means finding a way to connect our mobile devices to the internet while we’re traveling. Most guidebooks will tell you that the internet in China is censored and that WiFi is ubiquitous around most major Chinese cities. It’s very generic and obvious information. What they don’t tell you is that often times these WiFi hotspots are locked behind a text-verification wall, which means that if you don’t have a Chinese phone number, you can’t use the WiFi. This is the case for most airports, shopping areas and even some coffee shops. My guidebook gives simple tips on how to prepare your phone to connect to the Chinese network or how to access global WiFi easily without the need for text verification.

How have readers responded to your guidebook?

So far the reception has been great! I’m so encouraged when I receive emails from people telling me that reading the book was like sitting down with me to chat about my experiences in China. Whereas most emails I used to receive ended with a travel question requiring an answer, nowadays I’m getting more and more emails that are simply a “thank you for your help”. It’s genuinely satisfying.

What do you hope readers gain from your book?

In the end, my desire is that readers will walk away with a confidence that even as a first-time traveler with no Chinese language skills, they could enter China and easily travel around. The world – not just China – is a much friendlier place if you know what to expect before you arrive.

Many thanks to Josh Summers for this interview! You can learn more about Josh and his book at his website Travel China Cheaper. “Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go” is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.

“A Geek in China” by Matthew Christensen – an Interview

Many years ago, when I first stepped foot into that Beijing airport, there was one thing I desperately longed for. Something that, no matter how hard I tried, it could never fit into my luggage.

A better understanding of China.

I had spent the previous months that summer on a crash-course in all things China. It was a frantic attempt to fill in the gaps that my educational background – a newly graduated environmental biology major – didn’t begin to cover. I read stacks of books and every news story I could find about China. I reached out to Americans who had lived there and peppered them with all sorts of questions about the country. I even talked to students from China.

But despite all of that, I felt woefully uninformed about China as I took those first tentative steps there as a foreigner. It wasn’t easy to find a book that encompassed everything I wanted to know about the country – the culture, literature and history, as well as the people, places and even guidance for foreigners new to China.

If only A Geek in China, the new book by Dr. Matthew Christensen, had been around then.

A Geek in China is the perfect book for anyone who wants to be culturally savvy about China, fast. In 150 pages that make for terrific reading, you can quickly transcend the usual travel guide stuff on China and really delve into the intricacies of the country.

You’ll find out who is Li Bai and why everyone loves the Monkey King. You’ll meet the butterfly lovers, China’s version of Romeo and Juliet, and get a rundown on how to order Chinese food and where to find the best eats, wherever you are. You’ll read about the meaning of a “harmonious society”, how Chinese date and marry, and many popular slang terms, including diaosi. You can discover why more people in China own dogs, what it’s like working in a Chinese office, and how to make the most of your study abroad experience in China. You’ll learn about the growth in Chinese overseas tourism, superstar singers such as Faye Wong and Teresa Teng, and talented artists beyond Ai Weiwei (such as Ding Yi). You’ll get a rundown on the best movies, TV shows and actors today. You’ll also find recommendations for where to travel, from Beijing’s Great Wall to Xinjiang’s ancient desert oasis of Tuyoq.

By the time you finish A Geek in China, you’ll gain a more nuanced, comprehensive understanding of China – and also have all the basics to talk intelligently about the country with average people. I’ve met many foreigners who have been here for years and still don’t know a lot of the information in this book. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to be more knowledgeable about China, especially when it comes to basic cultural literacy.

Dr. Matthew Christensen

I’m honored to introduce A Geek in China and Dr. Matthew B. Christensen through this interview.

Here is Dr. Christensen’s bio from his publisher:

Dr. Matthew B. Christensen holds degrees in Chinese, international relations, and Chinese linguistics. He is Professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian & Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University where he has been teaching for the past twenty years. His research interests include Chinese language and culture, Chinese poetry, Chinese culinary culture, and teaching Chinese as a foreign language. He blogs about his adventures exploring China at intothemiddlekingdom.com.

You can learn more about A Geek in China at Tuttle Publishing, and follow Dr. Christensen on his blog. A Geek in China is available at Amazon.com, where your purchases help support this blog.


Tell us how you came to write this book.

I have been interested in cultural literacy for quite some time now. By cultural literacy I mean the kinds of everyday knowledge that kids in China grow up with, like who Confucius was, the importance of face in Chinese culture, and the Chinese obsession with food and eating. I teach Chinese at the university level and it is disheartening to see students with good language skills but have never heard of the famous poets Li Bai or Du Fu. It would be like someone in the West who had never heard of Shakespeare. With this book I wanted to provide short essays on the many cultural references that come up in everyday speech, in the news, literature, film and so on. If you don’t understand something about Chinese history and culture, you miss an awful lot in everyday conversations and in the media.

Could you talk about how you approached the research for this guide?

The research for this book was a combination of several things, including books from my own library, Internet sources, previous research for other projects (my previous book Decoding China), first-hand experience, as well as native Chinese colleagues and students. Some of the topics I am quite familiar with, such as the sections on the Chinese language, Chinese food, communication, history and so on. However, there were sections that took a great deal more work. Being at a University, I was also able to get feedback from colleagues as well. For example, the section on Chinese history was fact-checked by a colleague in the Department of History, and the sections dealing with politics were reviewed by a colleague in political science who specializes in Chinese politics.

I am not too big on popular culture so I had to rely on native Chinese colleagues and Chinese students for the sections on television, film, and pop music. For those sections I would do some research, then have native Chinese review it and give me some feedback and suggestions. When I did use the Internet I tried to focus on academic-oriented websites and always double and triple checked all my information for accuracy.

You cover so much information in this book. Was it difficult deciding what to include — and conversely, what to leave out?

Yes, it was difficult. Obviously, one could write volumes about China and the Chinese. I wanted this book to be accessible to a broad audience. The biggest challenge was to keep the essays succinct, especially in areas that I found most interesting. What I find interesting may not be of that much interest to the general reader, so I had to keep things broad and general. In the end, I was thinking about my students and others who plan to go to China and the kinds of information that would be most valuable for them to know.

What was your favorite section or chapter to write, and why?

I’m pretty passionate about Chinese food so that was a fun chapter to work on. I’m actually working on a book about Chinese culinary culture so I really had to cut back on this section of the book. Chinese food is so varied and complex and over my career I have been exploring all the different varieties around China.

Your guide includes an entire section just about the experience of being a foreigner in China, including a helpful list of dos and don’ts. Could you share with us some of the tips you wish you had read when you were first coming to China?

When I first went to China in the early 1980’s there was very little written about visiting China. There were lots of history books about China but most things were academic in nature and did not deal with encountering the Chinese at the street level. Most of that section would have been very valuable for me to have. Instead I had to learn mostly through experience, trial and error, and so on. I did do some reading about Chinese philosophy which was helpful in understanding how the Chinese view the world, and how their behavior is a reflection of their world view.

You recommend a number of off-the-beaten path destinations in China. Could you share with us one of your personal favorites and tell us why you love it?

I’m quite fond of Tibetan culture, but it is expensive and more difficult to travel in Tibet proper. Yunnan Province, particularly the northwest part of the province that borders Tibet and Sichuan Province, is a great place to visit Tibetan communities without the hassle of getting the permits and guides to travel in Tibet. The city of Shangrila is a great jumping off point to exploring the surrounding mountainous area that is full of Tibetan villages. I did a few posts on my blog (intothemiddlekingdom.com) about this area.

Trekking in Shangri-la: Songzanlin Monastery

Trekking in Shangri-la: Up a remote river valley

Trekking in Shangri-la: Niru Village

Trekking in Shangri-la: Over the pass to Shudu Lake

A big thank you to Dr. Matthew Christensen for this interview! You can learn more about A Geek in China at Tuttle Publishing, and follow Dr. Christensen on his blog. A Geek in China is available at Amazon.com, where your purchases help support this blog.

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Getting Beyond the “Postcard China”

John and I cooking Chinese food during Chinese New Year
Sometimes, it's the ordinary moments in travel that can make China come alive. Here are a few ideas to help you get beyond the glossy "postcard China"

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. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Getting Beyond the “Postcard China””

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Mao Zedong’s Childhood House, Shaoshan, Hunan

Mao Zedong's Childhood Home, Shaoshan, Hunan Province
Chairman Mao's Childhood Home in Shaoshan, Hunan is a delightful pastoral retreat from the city.

Nestled in the sun-kissed hills of central Hunan, there’s an ordinary yellow mud-brick peasant house with a not-so-ordinary neighbor — a permanent People’s Liberation Army guard station.

That humble — and now fortified — abode was laojia (老家, home) to one of China’s most commanding (and controversial) figures of the 20th century: Mao Zedong.

In a China hell-bent on modernization and the the whole idea of “out with the old, and in with the new” (旧的不去,新的不来), Mao’s home offers a delightful respite from the usual concrete-block urban depression. Yes, delightful — even if you’ve sworn off the Chairman for personal reasons, or after reading Wild Swans (or, more likely, Mao: The Unknown Story).

That might be hard to believe when you’re touring his home. People’s Liberation Army soldiers had us bustle through in a neverending line of tourists, leaving no more than a moment or two to admire the wooden canopy beds, or imagine the fiery aroma of local Hunan dishes being cooked over the old-style hearth. (At the very least, the privilege of gazing upon the humble home of Chairman Mao comes gratis, in a China where, nowadays, there’s a price on everything.)

But then John and I rambled up a dusty trail above Mao’s home, between the terraced ponds and the fringe of forest beside us. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Mao Zedong’s Childhood House, Shaoshan, Hunan”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: The Spooky Sanxingdui Museum, Guanghan, Sichuan

Sanxingdui mask plated in gold foil
It's a haunted house mask...no! It's one of the bronze masks on display at the mysterious Sanxingdui Museum.

Spooky masks with bulging eyes and bulbous noses. A creepy shamanic figure with an exaggerated face, and giant hands. A towering tree with serpentine branches.

I’m not talking about a haunted house — I’m talking about Sanxingdui, the Sichuan mystery that forever shook up Chinese history as we know it.

If the Yellow River is the so-called cradle of civilization, then how do we explain a cache of bronzes and other artifacts contemporary with the Shang, but worlds away from Shang style?

Archeologists called the 1986 find Sanxingdui, because there were three mounds, each resembling a star, and linked it with the Shu culture that historically teamed up with the Zhou state to eventually topple the Shang.

But there’s a problem — Sanxingdui yielded no written records. Unlike the Shang, which offered a window into their world through oracle bones, scientists can only guess the meaning in Sanxingdui artifacts. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: The Spooky Sanxingdui Museum, Guanghan, Sichuan”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Mawangdui, Hunan Museum, Changsha

mawangdui mummy
The over 2,000-year-old Mawangdui mummy is amazing, but it's not the only amazing thing on display at this special exhibit at the Hunan Provincial Museum (image from http://www.goutx.com/)

There’s something so fascinating about mummies, allowing human corpses to (no pun intended) survive for thousands of years.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Hunan Museum continues to pack in the visitors, with the body of Lady Dai — dating back more than 2,000 years ago — on display as part of the Mawangdui exhibit.

Of course, you won’t see the body right upon entering the exhibit. They’ve made it the climax, letting visitors, at last, see Lady Dai lay to rest safely beneath protective glass. And it’s just as well. In life, the journey itself is often as valuable as the destination — and in the Mawangdui exhibit, the artifacts are as curious and spectacular as Lady Dai’s mummy.

The Chinese discovered the Western Han Dynasty Mawangdui (translated as “horse king mound,” a reference to the saddle-like hills where the tombs lay) tombs in 1972 around Changsha, Hunan Province. While one (Tomb 2) had fallen prey to tomb robbers, Tombs 1 and 3 rewarded archeologists with a rich collection of historical artifacts, including lacquerware, silk texts and, of course, one amazing ancient corpse.

Besides the mummy, what makes the collection so special? Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Mawangdui, Hunan Museum, Changsha”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Yuanmingyuan Park (the Old Summer Palace)

Labyrinth, Xiyang Lou, Yuanmingyuan Park, Old Summer Palace
Xiyang Lou, Yuanmingyuan Park, the Old Summer Palace
Yuanmingyuan Park, or the Old Summer Palace, is a living symbol of foreign aggression against China

Just across from the Western gate of Tsinghua University, one of China’s proudest institutions, sits a quiet reminder of foreign aggression on China and past humiliation — Yuanmingyuan Park (圆明园遗址), or the Old Summer Palace.

The Qing Dynasty royal family lived and handled government affairs from Yuanmingyuan for more than 100 years, using the Forbidden City for ceremonial purposes. But, during the Second Opium War, British and French troops stormed into Beijing, destroying the buildings and plundering their valuable treasures. The devastation left only a few token Chinese structures intact, but even those were later burned down during the Boxer Rebellion. The barbaric destruction by foreigners inflicted more than enough destruction, and things went downhill from there — the land was abandoned by the end of the Qing Dynasty, and even, for a period of time, used by local farmers for agricultural land. Fortunately, the Chinese governmental finally reclaimed the place in the 1980s as a historical site, and visitors have trickled in ever since. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Yuanmingyuan Park (the Old Summer Palace)”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Longmen Grottoes, Luoyang, Henan Province

The 10,000 Buddha cave
Longmen Grottoes, Luoyang, Henan Province
The Longmen Grottoes are Buddhist art on a grand scale

When we think of China’s great statuesque artwork, the Terracotta Warriors come to mind. They’ve become the awe-inducing, must-see of China, second only to the Forbidden City.

Yet, just East of Xi’an, four hours up the railway line to Beijing, is another grand cache of art that stands in the Warriors’ shadows, but delivers almost as many “wow” moments. I’m talking Luoyang’s Longmen Grottoes — a string of over 100,000 Buddhist images and statues carved into a hillside during China’s Wei and Tang Dynasties.

Luoyang’s Longmen Grottoes are one of several sites in China for viewing ancient Buddhist cave art — besides the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, the Yungang Grottoes near Datong, and Bingling Si near Lanzhou. Mogao and Yungang are more famous (and, arguably, colorful), and Bingling Si, with its sheer cliffs by the reservoir and a huge 27-meter-high Buddha, more breathtaking. But Luoyang is just four hours from Xi’an, right on that train line from Beijing, so you can easily take in a little ancient cave art before heading to that more famous tourist attraction.

And, believe me, even if they’re not number one, the Longmen Grottoes are worth the visit. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Longmen Grottoes, Luoyang, Henan Province”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Shang Dynasty Wall Ruins, Zhengzhou, China

Walking next to the mounds that mark the Shang Dynasty Wall Ruins
Men sitting on the Shang Dynasty
It's not just a mound -- it marks the spot where the walls of an ancient Shang Dynasty town once stood...in a place that doubles as a park and, for the men featured, a place to squat and talk.

It’s one thing to see China’s history in a museum, and another to walk on it.

In Zhengzhou’s Eastern city outskirts, you’ll find a curious mound of earth that runs through a park — the kind of park in China filled with Tai Chi practitioners, grandparents tending children in crotchless pants, inflatable play areas, and neat tiled squares and walkways. But you shouldn’t let the surroundings fool you. This is not just another park, and that’s not just another grass-covered mound. That mound marks the the site of where walls around a Shang Dynasty city once stood. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Shang Dynasty Wall Ruins, Zhengzhou, China”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Suzhou’s Wedding Gown Street

Trying on a wedding gown in on Suzhou's wedding gown street
Are you engaged in China? Consider a visit to Suzhou’s Wedding Gown Street, where bridal beauty of your dreams is a bargain. My tailor-made dress, pictured above, cost only 400 RMB, including a bridal veil and gloves.

When you’re engaged and in China, thoughts of fancy might turn to, well, Suzhou. Not for the traditional Chinese gardens or homes. And not even for photo ops at the pagoda or Tiger Hill. You want Suzhou, because Suzhou is home to a fantastic wedding gown street (苏州婚纱一条街) — where you can get a tailor-made dream for less.

Located on a sprawling block within walking distance of Tiger Hill, Suzhou’s Wedding Gown street has none of the grace of its more famous neighboring attraction. It’s a depressing conglomeration of one- and two-story concrete stores with photoshopped signs and dresses that look dull under cheap fluorescent lighting — almost as if it were the wedding village for jilted fiancees. Yet, there are treasures behind those doors for the patient and persistent bride-to-be — with bargains that’ll have you saying a resounding “I do.”

So, what are your options? Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Suzhou’s Wedding Gown Street”