I was in China last year on assignment, and if I’m being brutally honest about it: my real mission was to see the pandas up-close, less than one metre away from me! I travelled solo, and for a non-Chinese speaker, it was one hell of an experience. As a member of the media, I was subjected to an unusual scrutiny by the embassy – I had to visit their office three times just to ensure that I brought the correct and complete documents before they issued my visa. They only allowed me to be in the country for nine days, so I sadly scrapped my grand plans of strolling in Jiuzhaigou National Park and wandering around Sichuan’s countryside.
Regardless, it still served as a travel bragging right: I survived China. Alone. On assignment.
And by China, I don’t mean Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou or some bustling touristy metropolis. I meant the never-heard off-the-beaten-track China: Chongqing and Chengdu.
As a solo female traveller, I always get random questions after my trips, mostly about safety and survival.
Here are the FAQs I dealt with after that trip to the Middle Kingdom:
How did you survive alone, you can’t speak Chinese?
I have to admit, those few Mandarin lessons I’d taken in Singapore suddenly materialised in my brain when I was in China. You know how they say your body tends to adapt some inexplicable biological forces when it’s under extreme conditions (such as free diving)? My mind was like that, too. It magically switched on to survival mode, and I found myself asking basic questions and haggling with vendors in Kuanzhai Lane in Mandarin. Seriously, I didn’t know how it happened!
Tell us about the toilets?
Listen, this is not Mao’s era anymore. Stop thinking that China is all grass fields with potholes full of shit. Still, it was something I didn’t want to discover. My bladder might have had a really bad time during that week. I’ve heard of infamous dirty squat toilet stories even before I went on this trip, so I consciously drank less water when I was there, except during those hours I was in the hotel. But I heard McDonald’s loos are well-kept. When in doubt and far from the comfort of your hotel, pick the fanciest shopping mall around and do your business there.
Is it true that people still spit in the streets?
Yes, but to be fair, I only encountered it once. I was sitting in a bench in the parking lot of a huge shopping mall in Chongqing so it’s still a bit shocking. And he’s less than a metre away from me. The best thing and most polite way to do is to slowly walk away; don’t stare, don’t give a grossed-out look; don’t let your OCD override your manners – walk away.
Tell us about the food. Are there a lot of fake stuff?
I’d be lying if I say I don’t like the food. The dumplings are divine, except the ones sold at Chongqing airport that caused my stomachache on my 5-hour flight back. The hotpot is phenomenally tongue-numbing; have some lemon water ready. They say the best drink while having hotpot, aside from Tsingtao beer, is peanut milk. It doesn’t taste like peanut or milk, it tastes like something very artificial. I took a sip from the bottle so as not to offend my photographer, and came out with an excuse that I’m lactose intolerant. He can’t understand complicated English words but I’m sure lactose intolerant sounded very convincing.
In case you are wondering about other things:
The immigration officers in China exude fierce, don’t-mess-with-me vibe, and they speak very good English. Maybe it’s the effect of me being from the media. They kept on asking me if I’m travelling alone or if a friend is waiting for me or what am I going to do in their country. Strange.
There’s a canine unit at the luggage conveyor belt at Chongqing airport. One of them kept barking after every three bags! Made me wonder what those travellers had packed? I’d say some vacuum-sealed durian.
In China, they scan your bag (via a scanning machine like those found in airports) at all MRT stations. Talk about security.
As for the pandas, they are adorable and super cute. Go when the weather is cooler. They are not really sun lovers so make sure you visit during the fall or winter. Definitely worth the trip!