Perhaps you’d like to check out the Tianjin aquarium fish scene for yourself? Well, it would be nice if traveling to China was as easy as catching a LA-to-NY flight or cross-border travel to Canada or Mexico, but it’s a bit more involved than any of these.
My recent trip to China to visit the Tianjin Ornamental Fish Science and Technology Center was so alien to me in almost every way — from “relearning” how to make a telephone call to speaking in clipped English with lots of gesticulation to food with eyes and faces — that I must describe it as being of a “near-interplanetary” nature. But keep in mind that as far as international traveling goes I’m still in training pants, so take any exclamatory statements from me for what they are: semi-insane ravings of the easily impressed.
The devil is in the details when heading off to the Middle Kingdom. Good planning goes a long ways toward making a visit pleasurable and memorable for all the right reasons.
Here are some tips to take to heart if you think you might want to head to China to visit the epicenter of an emerging ornamental fish industry as well as to walk along the crest of the Great Wall:
Visas: All U.S. visitors to China must have both a U.S. passport as well as a Chinese Visa, which is affixed to one of the blank pages in the passport. Allow at least five business days to visit the Chinese consulate in your area for visa processing and pick up. My processing fee was $140.
Vaccinations: Whenever traveling internationally it is always a good idea to call your healthcare provider to see what the disease du jour is where you’ll be traveling. I was encouraged to get a seasonal influenza vaccine and a hepatitis A vaccine. I was also given some pills to staunch severe diarrhea; healthcare pros are in the know when it comes to the gastro-intestinal adventure that is China.
Money: The Chinese currency is called RMB (renminbi), or yuan, and is about 15 cents to the dollar, or a ratio of about 7-1. It is easiest to convert your dollars to yuan while stateside, but you can exchange money at the major airports in China, too. Many of the major hotels, eateries and gift shops accepted major credit cards; however, there is an additional 3 percent charge on all credit card purchases made in China. ATMs are also common.
Cell phones: A working cell phone can be a real lifesaver, especially in a land where English is spoken in short bursts and usually only at the promptings of flustered English-speakers. I was told that there’s a number in Shanghai (I don’t know about other areas) that visitors can dial and an English-speaking operator picks up, thus allowing one to hand off their cell phone as a kind of international translator. I made a similar move on numerous occasions as I got my host on the line and asked him to convey messages to taxi drivers, hotel personnel and others.
You’ll want to contact your cell phone provider to make sure your phone is able to make and accept calls in China. Also, temporarily add whatever international services you need to get the least-expensive rates possible, or you might be surprised with a very steep phone bill on your return. Regular cell phone rates in China are $2.99 per minute.
Airlines: There are many well-known airlines that fly to major Chinese destinations, such as Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. The leanest round-trip fares from the West Coast to China are running between $800 and $900.
My flight there ran 13-plus hours; my return was in the neighborhood of 10 hours. Why the discrepancy? Going there the plane fights against 100-mile-per-hour headwinds, while on the way back there was a hefty tailwind pushing us along at ground speeds of more than 700 miles per hour (I wasn’t even aware a commercial jetliner could travel this fast).
Hotels: Many cities in China offer more upscale hotels that can run up to $100 or more per night. There are also more economical chains that run around $35 and less a night. Be aware that the lower-budget places can be a long ways off the beaten path, while many of the more expensive places are near downtowns and in the tourist areas. I stayed at both; the hallway of the low-budget place I stayed at was littered with “calling cards.”
Transportation: In city areas, the best way around is by taxi. Hailing a cab in Beijing is as easy as standing curbside and flagging one down. Look for licensed cabs with red oval stickers in their rear passenger windows. In English, these stickers let passengers know what to expect for the duration of their cab ride, including a 10-yuan (about $1.50) base rate to start. Major cities also offer inexpensive state-of-the-art subway systems that make getting around congested metropolitan areas easy.
Between cities one of the best ways to travel is by bullet train. These trains can exceed speeds of 250 miles per hour and are inexpensive to ride. The train I took on the 85-mile trip between Tianjin and Beijing took just 30 minutes at speeds of up to 196 miles per hour. Passengers hardly notice the smooth, speedy ride of these Maglev trains (magnetic levitation) because they don’t even touch the tracks. A one-way train fare between Tianjin and Beijing is 58 RMB, or about $9. The bullet train between the Shanghai airport and the city’s downtown is said to take just seven minutes.
Eating out: China has some 200,000 hot pot restaurants and counting, and they represent one of the most popular forms of dining out. A cauldron of boiling stock is brought to your table, as are plates of thinly sliced meats, seafood, vegetables and mushrooms. Diners pick up morsels with chopsticks and plop them into the boiling broth to cook. Cooked items are then removed and dipped into flavorful sauces.
For more westernized taste buds, major fast-food chains like McDonalds, Pizza Hut, etc., have become common in many areas.
Of all of the trips, foreign and domestic, I’ve been fortunate enough to take through the years, my recent trip to China is the one I will have the strongest recollections of in the years to come. Yes, it is the freshest chronologically, but I think it has more to do with the fact that almost everything, from simple tasks (showers, phone calls, ordering from a menu, etc.) to the sublime (standing atop the Great Wall), was either a new experience or had a new wrinkle to it. I hope that you can someday make it to Tianjin, Beijing, the Great Wall and other places in China. In the meantime, you can get a vicarious fix by viewing this slide show of my “Fishing Trip to China.”