China has been for us, for many years, a faraway dream, difficult to bring to life, without knowing exactly why. When we decided we needed a vacation we had to choose between a week in India, during the Holi festival, and nearly two weeks in China. Both seemed so unreal, so different from anything we experienced before, but the decision was a no-brainer: China. And this only because it was almost a week longer, far way from home, from the familiar, but most important of all, from work.
We were fully aware that planning this trip on our own will be a serious challenge, so this time we decided to ask for help from a tourism agency to handle our visas, local English-speaking guides and accommodation. We are very grateful to them because they were the deciding factor between a successful vacation and one where you can’t wait to get home from.
Getting ready for the trip
At least for us, the visa for China was nothing to worry about. The visit to their embassy is a short one and if their forms are filled in correctly and you have all the documents detailing your trip (flights, bookings for every night you are going to spend in China), your presence is necessary only for them to get a good look at your face.
We did not get any vaccines because it was not necessary for the areas we were going to visit. If you’re going to spend significant time in the Chinese countryside you should check what kind of endemic diseases there are in the area, but usually in the urban areas there is no need for a westerner to vaccinate, provided that basic hygiene rules are followed. We do recommend however, taking plenty of medicines for your stomach and antibiotics to cover your stay there. When we left home, my boyfriend was fairly ill with a common cold, but after two days his cold turned into something else, including some fever, chills, an incredibly sore throat and greeny looking nasal secretions. Following a discussion with a doctor back home we decided it was time to use the antibiotics considering we did not have an alternative handy. The reason why I recommend taking the antibiotics with you is that, apparently, each continent has its own line of antibiotics so what you might find in every pharmacy in Europe or the US, you won’t find in Asia. Myself, I was fighting with an allergy and the air pollution in China, especially Beijing, did not help at all.
Another piece of advice we can give is to always check the weather forecast before leaving for China and packing accordingly. The temperatures seemed pretty high for the first half of March so we packed mostly springtime clothes. We suffered a great deal of cold in this vacation, although the thermometer showed 17-18 degrees Celsius, due to the constant clouds and pollution, the sun was permanently covered and that coupled with the wind makes the weather feel a looot colder.
An excellent reason to do some shopping, right? Well, not really, not in China where the sizes are very different from the European ones, where a size S from Europe is an XL in their shopping centers, where a 36 for footwear “translates” to a size about 10 centimeters long. Will you take up the challenge to do some shopping in these conditions? I’m warning you that it will be difficult, from the first moment you will suffer a communication breakdown, you’ll learn to communicate by gesturing with your hands, pointing and nodding and your patience will be permanently tested. However, it’s part of the adventure!
The flight from Bucharest to Doha with Qatar Airways
6 months earlier, when we were planning our China vacation, we decided we wanted a long layover in Doha so we could visit the Qatari capital. Qatar Airways were claiming all over their website and promotional materials that they offer a complimentary city tour and even hotel accommodation for layovers longer than 8 hours. Sounds great, right? Our alternative was a Lufthansa flight with a shorter layover, but the city tour definitely pushed the balance towards Qatar.
Said and done. Unmarried couple, 9 hour layover in Doha, applying for the Qatari 1 day tourist visa. Just that reality decided to give us a nasty surprise 3 days before leaving Bucharest: he got the visa and I didn’t, and there will be no accommodation because they only offer it to travelers based on the value of the purchased ticket. Of course this was specified in their promotional materials only in the fine print. So he was outraged and angry at them, I was trying to put myself in the Qataris shoes and find excuses as to why they would reject my visa.
In moments like these, when the travel bug bites you, you’re trying to find a solution. Our solution? Once we landed to quickly make our way to the airport city tour desk, next to the big yellow bear sculpture and use our charm trying to obtain some seats in the last tour for that day. I was hoping that I might be receiving the visa that way. Unfortunately, it was fully booked. Bummer.
So for the next 8 hours, we rode the train connecting two of the airport’s terminals, dined at one of the restaurants, abused the free airport wifi to buzz the people back at home and eventually fell asleep with my head over the luggage.
Trying to stay positive, we were happy that at least we were able, from the runway, to see their skyscrapers in the red light of the sunset. We boarded the Beijing flight, enjoyed the usual hospitality of Qatar Airways but then we are surprised to hear a message on the PA we had not heard before on their flights: that if we do go to sleep to guard our personal belongings and that they are not responsible for any thefts. Okay, that was weird. If we add to this the fact that after landing in China the passengers were already up on their feet and removing their luggage from the overhead compartments over the desperate calls from the flight crew (although we were set to roll on the runway for another 20 minutes), we had the first signs of a real adventure!
In the huge, but worn down Beijing airport, while waiting for the document check we were happy for the adventure set to begin. We wanted to get to China for so long and we were finally there. Half a world away, plunging into the unknown, in a dream that was starting to become real.
To be continued.