Was China How I Expected?


A Follow-up to My Expectations for a First-Time trip to China

A few weeks ago, I returned from my first solo trip to Beijing, Datong, Xi’an and Shanghai. It was an incredible experience that changed me in so many ways. Before my trip, I wrote here on College Tourist about some of the things I was expecting to encounter, and I’m back today to tell you whether my expectations turned out to be true or not!


I was worried about encountering very high levels of air pollution, especially in Beijing. This turned out to be pretty accurate: the levels were crazy high when I was there, but got even higher once I left! I take beautiful blue skies for granted in Canada, but pictures like this (taken on a day with NO clouds) show just how serious the environmental situation in China has become:

Feeling like a Westerner.

As a petite brunette, I wasn’t expecting to be the object of too much fascination in China, but it turns out I’m still pretty interesting! At one point a 6 foot guy was mobbed by Chinese girls, so he was definitely more of an attraction than me, but I was asked for a surprising number of pictures. My very first day in Beijing, a middle-aged man took about 10 FLASH pictures of me while I was standing on the subway…without asking. I felt highly uncomfortable! This whole picture-taking thing was very new to me, and it got way easier to deal with as time went on.

Squat toilets

Ah, squat toilets. Horrible, horrible, horrible.

In my original post I said there must be a certain art that you have to master quickly, and I must say I never mastered that art. I was generally able to find Western toilets in the cities, but on sleeper trains there were only squat toilets – I once put off using the bathroom for my entire (overnight) train ride because I hate them so much.

Jawdropping sights

It’s true – China’s sights will blow your mind. The Great Wall of China was a particularly unbelievable experience, but the Forbidden City, Yungang Grottoes, Terracotta Warriors and Shanghai’s skyline were also fantastic. Everywhere you go there’s another example of gorgeous Chinese architecture, so even a walk down the street is like being immersed in an ancient world.

Terrifying & amazing food

I talked about how picky I am in my expectations post, but I’m happy to say that China helped me get over some of my food fears. The cuisine there was seriously amazing and I’ve discovered a newfound obsession with dumplings! My biggest problem with the food in China was worry that I’d be served meat, since I’m a vegetarian. This kept me from just pointing randomly at dishes, but the restaurants with English menus are just as authentic.

Noodles covered in sugar at Feeling Restaurant in Datong
Xialongbao at Din Tai Fung in Shanghai
Egg Tarts from a street vendor in Shanghai

Crowds everywhere

There were dozens of people everywhere I went in China. This, in my eyes, is a good thing – even if I was walking down a hutong (alley) at 10PM, there were tons of other tourists and locals alike to make me feel safe. As a paranoid solo traveler, I never felt in danger! I also never felt overwhelmed by crowds at major attractions or busy intersections. Although sometimes lines were long, they were always quite orderly and I have no complaints!

Getting lost

I am not even exaggerating when I said I got lost at least three times a day in China. The problem with getting lost in a country where you don’t speak the language is that you can’t really ask for help! In somewhere like New York I can ask anybody, but in China getting directions was an elaborate process involving my guidebook, dramatic gestures, and sometimes some tears of frustration. I managed to find my way almost every time, so that’s a plus.



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