What did you expect? I certainly did not expect to fall so far behind in keeping the blog up to date. While in South Korea and Japan I might have been behind 1-2 cities, in China it’s more about 8 by now. One reason for this is that China is certainly the most adventurous countries I visited in this period and thus also the most tiering one. Tiering, because there are small things which add up.
One of them is the massive amount of people. While there were also many people in South Korea and Japan, it’s not the same as in China. At times there is a complete lack of personal space and at certain sights you have to push yourself through the crowds in order to get a good spot and see something. Another item is the constant level of noise. As soon as I leave the hotel room, I hear music from shops or vendors from stalls selling their products. They have a megaphone which plays a pre-recorded script at maximum volume on loop (horrible!). Generally, the locals speak a bit louder (if very loud, some might call it screaming). When you visit tourist attractions, the tour guides usually carry their own voice amplifier which boosts their message to the group and anybody else within proximity.
Besides the at times lack of personal space and high noise level, I get a lot of attention as I seem to be one of the few foreigners here (blonde hair also does not seem to help). Being a foreigner is also commented on by people who pass by, as they might say 老外 (lǎowài – foreigner) or 外国人(wàiguórén – foreigner). Many people say “hello”, which can be nice if I get to exchange a smile or a few words, but also strange if they simply walk on and just tried to catch my attention. At the same time, I get to meet many people and am grateful for all of the help and kind words I receive.
Another difficulty I encountered is paying (yes, paying!). In one of my earlier posts I mentioned two apps, which are widely used here. One of them is WeChat (微信 – Wēixìn) and the other one is Alipay (支付宝 – zhīfùbǎo). I did manage to register my credit cards within the apps, but as they are foreign credit cards, at times it still does not work and I have to pay in cash. They seldomly directly accept foreign credit cards, and if they do, I get a surcharge of 3%. WeChat is generously skipping the 3% until ¥200 (around CHF 24). As most people use these apps for paying, at times when I pay cash I have to wait for my change as they need to ask another person for it. I also always try to make sure that I carry enough ¥5 or ¥10 bills, as I need them to pay for my metro tickets. Sometimes a bill is not accepted by the metro ticket machine, so I need to keep multiple and try them out until the machine is happy with one. To make sure I have enough small bills, I end up paying regularly a ¥2 water with a ¥100 bill, because the ATM only provides me with ¥100 bills. A bit strange, but at least I can pay and get on the metro.
I took me more than a week to getting my card linked in WeChat and being able to pay with it (I cannot use it at the metro stations but at most shops). Once that worked, life became easier and more comfortable, because with the Chinese version of WeChat (which you only get with a Chinese bank account or Chinese phone number) can do many things. Besides being a messenger, social media and paying app, WeChat provides a platform for so called “mini-programs” from vendors and service provides to sell their goods and services. This basically means by using WeChat’s scan functionality, scanning a QR-code opens a new “programme” within the app. This allows the user to order a drink within the programme and directly pay for it via WeChat. In certain restaurants most people seem to order via WeChat. Visiting a museum or a historic sights? Scan the QR-code and get your ticket on WeChat. Going to the movies? Scan the QR-code and get your ticket on WeChat.
If you have the app and it works, it’s great. If not, there is usually still a counter and you can get around without it (major exception to this one: the forbidden city in Beijing – there are apparently no longer any ticket counters but as a foreign tourist you can get a ticket by visiting the official website and sending an email). However, I did have two experiences which I found to be a bit strange. When I was in Xi’an, I wanted to walk the city walls and the lady at the entrance seemed to be annoyed that I was not able to get the ticket on WeChat. Then, at one of the movie theatres the ticket was half the price on WeChat than if you payed at the counter. I was not able to get the ticket via WeChat, but the person at the counter was very nice and gave me a discount – so I ended up paying a bit more than if I had been able to get the ticket on WeChat. With regards to WeChat, I want to point out two additional things:
- The additional features only become visible once a Chinese phone number is registered. I guess the full set of features and functionalities are available if you also have a Chinese bank account. While WeChat was not properly working, at times I felt a bit “excluded”.
- While you can set WeChat to be in English, most of it and all of the mini-programmes will be in Mandarin. So either you are fluent in Mandarin and know tons of characters, or you trust the UX-designer, as mostly what you should click on next is highlighted in color.
When I arrived in China, I was not really prepared for all of this – neither did I expect something like this. Yes, I expected the heat and a lot of people, but my expectations were far off from what it turned out to be – which is okay. At times it was quite a struggle, but once I managed to accept and adjust, I was able to enjoy myself (with the occasional break in-between).
P.S: This post was actually written two weeks ago, I just did not get around to publish it.
P.P.S: Major exception to the paying issue is Shanghai, as I could get a metro ticket with WeChat and there was no surcharge when using my credit card. Probably because in Shanghai you meet most foreigners (but two thirds seem to have left during the last 2-3 years).