Growing up, I always heard stories of Family and friends going to "outside countries". This usually meant people were travelling to western countries most notably the U.S, the UK or some exotic country in western Europe. Reasons for travel were varied but the most common is mainly going for further studies or work duty.
Travelling to outside countries has been incredibly hard for most Ugandans. From the notoriously hard to get Visas to prohibitively high travel tickets, you have to be either sponsored by a government entity, private company or family/friend living abroad in order to travel.
At the end of December last year, I travelled to (wait for it) China. Wait, what...China? Yes, you heard me right, China.
China, the land of the dragons and great emperors. The Chinese boast of their 5,000 years history in which they proudly invented Gunpowder, paper, printing, paper money, the compass and built the famous "Great wall of China".
I can't pretend to know much about China until my visit.
My knowledge of the chinese was shaped and framed by the western narrative and a number of Chinese movies starring Kungu Fu or Tai Chi action figures like Jackie Chan, Donnie yen and Jet Li. Those Kungu Fu movies were quite popular when I was growing up as a kid. For me, I was really entertaining to watch those fights and I thought the Chinese made great actors. But as I grew older, I started to read more and not surprisingly, most literature I came across wasn't written by Chinese but by the west.
As a result, my preconceived perception of China was this new rising super power with monumental population of over a billion people governed by an authoritarian government which heavily censors free speech and forces people to have one child.
I thought China was terrible place really. I didn't have anything that would inspire me to even dream about visiting China.
To my surprise, there was a striking contrast between my initial imagination and what really is on ground. This phenomena is certainly not new just like there are several Americans that imagine Africa is a war-ravaged country where millions die of preventable diseases and famine.
I have learnt that to know a place, you really need to visit it first. And I did just that.
The most advanced Infrastructure
The one thing that gets my heart sick about Africa is terrible state of public infrastructure, mainly public transportation. The Chinese government has invested heavily in Airports, High-speed rails, wide roads and even bike lanes.
I can tell you, moving to and around China was a breeze. Once in Beijing, I boarded a flight to Changsha international airport.
From the airport, I got a taxi to Changshana train station and then High-speed train from Changsha to Sansui travelling at 300Km/h top speed.
It took me about two and half hours to travel by High-speed train between Changsha and Sansui which are roughly 600 Km apart for 223 Yuans (~ Ugx 125,000).
Comparatively, Changsha to Sansui is relatively the same distance from Kasese town in the extreme west to Busia Uganda border in the East. It might cost you roughly Ugx 50,000 via a string of Taxi and bus connections, but you'll spend more than 15 hours or more on the road using our public transport system.
From the math, you might pay two and half times less in Uganda for the same distance but you will spend more than 12 hours on the road. This is without factoring in the comfort and safety benefits you would get from a bullet train.
Airports are super efficient
As a lone traveller in a foreigner countr
y where English is not primary language, you must understand how terrified I was. Look, I am not your frequent globetrotter. In fact, I was experiencing many things for the first time.
I was afraid of getting lost, missing flights or getting arrested by security for being in wrong place or doing the wrong thing.
I can tell you I missed just one internal flight, but never got lost or arrested thanks mainly to how efficient chinese airports are.
Most impressive of all is great signature/sign-posts *written both in *Chinese and thankfully in English.
When you have a population of over a billion people, you have to be good at traffic flow and control and boy did they nail that. You want to create a self-organising, self-policing system. You can't believe it, but security personnel or the police are mostly idle in China!
There are directional sign posts and digital billboards everywhere providing all the information you need for your travels with in and outside the airports.
There are information desks, but I never needed to go there at all. I don't recall being in the wrong terminal, boarding gate or flight. Comparatively, I found myself going to information desk and through immigration twice at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi even though I had a flight transfer to Entebbe.
Taxis in China suck
It's not all rosey for transportation in China. I had a very terrible experience with their Taxis as a foreigner. I can confidently say I lost about 800 Yuans (~ Ugx 450,000) to taxi men who took advantage of my unfamiliarity of the system.
The good news is that I have learnt unforgettable lessons because of my experiences with these rogue guys. And the golden rule is -- never ever use Taxis without billing meters in China..
Avoid random guys who approach you for Taxi services. They are the equivalent of "special hire" guys in Kampala. They will often charge exorbitantly. They won't declare the charge to destination until you reach the destination at which point a flat rate card is showed to you with 10-100 times the normal cost you would spend with Taxi company. More so, Chinese smoke a lot. While smoking is prohibited in public places, there's nothing that will stop the driver from smoking while on trip. In one of my trips, the driver actually offered me a cigar to which I declined, but he nevertheless went on to turn me into a secondary smoker. Apparently it's considered polite do offer someone a cigar.
I remember this guy who charged me 580 Yuans although after bargaining, I paid 450 Yuans from Beijing airport to my hotel which is roughly 46 km away. It's ridiculous. When I used the Taxi company the next time, I paid a paltry 75 Yuans.
Now there are a number of taxi companies in major cities. Uber of course doesn't work in China. Most of them have the Taxi signature on top of the car and they usually have metered billing. At the end of your journey, insist on asking for an printed invoice before payment which is done using cash.
So you want to carry with you loose Chinese Yuans like 5, 20, 50, 100 notes at all times so you don't have to get into change issues. Generally you want to avoid a lot of communication with the Taxi driver because most of them don't know English.
Chinese people are warm, polite and friendly
The world is currently going through several turmoils, from terrorism, to unemployment, immigration. People feel terrified by globalization and massive movement of people. They are fearful for their jobs and their lives.
This is the reason for a new wave of so-called "nationalists" and right-wing groups advocating for expulsion of foreigners from their countries. Brexit and "Trumpism" are all inspired by this. It's like we are living in 1930 Germany or 1970s Uganda.
But I was honestly surprised by how friendly and polite the Chinese were to me as a foreigner in their country. People were willing to help when for instance I asked for direction, or when I was struggling to speak to a non-english speaking person. Someone with with the slightest knowledge of English always came to help out with the translation.
While walking on the street, people mind their business. But I remember some locals who wanted to take selfies with me as if I was some celeb. While walking towards the Tiananmen square, I remember someone walking to me for random video interview and wishing me a happy new year.
Security guys at the train station or airport will help out when you stuck for instance when you can't use the automatic checkout gates. I played table tennis and basketball -- both of which I am not nearly good at -- with my hosts.
Food: BullFrog, Dog and Snake are delicacies
You don't want to try me on exotic dishes. I am the worst at trying out new foods I am not used to. My wife meanwhile is the opposite. She's quite adventurous with new foods. I remember one time when we had travelled to Mombasa and she order for a shark. She didn't like it, but apparently it's the "attempt" that counts.
China is an adventure park for all sorts of food and outgoing foodies will be in for a treat. Most restaurants do have Bullfrog, a special delicacy, but if your pockets are fat, you might even be lucky to find restaurants that have dog, snake, crocodile and the like.
Like me, Ugandans find these completely bizarre if not totems which should not be eaten culturally. I know the Buganda have this in their culture, so foreigners might not know why we Africans distaste some of these dishes.
For me, as an Itesot, it's simply upbringing. I'll stick to rice, beef, fish, chicken, vegetables, pasta. I actually loved Chinese noodles. Anything beyond this domain is no go.
You will most likely accompany your meal with a cup of tea. The Chinese love tea, after all, they discovered it in 2737 B.C.during the reign of Chinese Emperor Shen Nung before spreading the idea of "tea" to the rest of the world. But don't expect anything that even remotely tastes like Mukwano chai garden tea!
So if upbringing, or culture doesn't stop you from eating bizarre foods, perhaps your pockets will :)
Sights and Sounds
There's a lot to see in China. I am not particularly very keen with tourist attractions, so I didn't visit many places. So went with my wife's recommendations based on where I was and my budget.
I happened to land in Beijing, so the [in]famous Tiananmen square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China were on my list. I am also very much interested in History, so I was absolutely excited to finally see all I had read.
Tiananmen square was of keen interest because that's where the portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong, the founder of People's Republic of China (PRC) is. Now before you get any ideas, I am not a communist, socialist, capitalist. I am simply a curious student of different schools of thoughts.
Entering the Tiananmen square is free, but you have to pay 2 Yuans to get into the magnificent forbidden city. Remember to always carry your passport with you as it will be needed at the security points.
I Couldn't make it to the Great way of China though since it's a bit far from the capital . If you are a keen traveller/tourist, then you probably want to consider some of the following places.
- The Great Wall of China in Beijing
- The Forbidden City in Beijing — Imperial Palace for 24 Emperors
- The Terracotta Army in Xi'an — Emperor Qin's Buried Battalions
- Giant Pandas in Chengdu — "National Treasure" of China
- The Potala Palace in Lhasa — Symbol of Tibet
- West Lake in Hangzhou — Paradise on Earth
You generally need a tour guide to explain some historical aspects otherwise, you will end up simply sightseeing without context.
Currency: Cash is King
You want to carry cash with you as a foreigner in China. Luckily for me, I converted Ugx to Yuans while in Uganda even though there were barely any forex bureaus in town that had Chinese Yuans. If you can't Yuans, then at the very least, carry USD.
Be warned though that in China, changing currency is not walkover. You must do it in a bank and you must have your passport with you. Better do this while in the airport though, but still a passport is a requirement.
If you want to withdraw cash from an ATM, good luck. I attempted once to withdraw from Visa-enabled ATM in Beijing, but the transaction failed. You won't want your card to be swallowed up in a foreign country, so carry cash.
Some vendors such as hotels, restaurants and stores accept debit card Visa, so you want to use your card where necessary. I successfully used mine to book my hotel and buy coffee at Starbucks after running short of liquid cash.
The great firewall of China
You simply can't talk about China without mentioning the infamous massive internet censorship instituted by the communist party of China. This is where politics meets progress and I don't want to dwell much on that.
Chinese experience an alternative internet than what you are used to. If you have made "Google your friend", get ready for some seriously loneliness. All of Google -- Gmail, Search, Youtube, Netflix, Maps, Play store, Translation, Drive etc is blocked or banned. For the first time, I realized how so dependent my life has become on the internet giant. Facebook, Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, Telegram, Uber, Skype are all blocked. My smartphone was instantly turned into a dump feature phone without need of an extra app even for a geek like me.
You have heard it being said that you can get around using a VPN, but be prepared for a shocker. 90% of them don't work.
I can't tell you how disappointed I was especially since the alternatives are not helpful to non-chinese speakers. For instance Baidu is the Chinese Google, but has no English translation.
To slightly regain your digital life in China, you want to immediately download Wechat and Google translate offline. Download the Chinese offline dictionary and you are better of doing this before you land.
Wechat will help you with communication inside China with friends and family back at home and with people within China. You can even authenticate, pay for goods and services using Wechat. At Airports, I often signed-up to Free WiFi using Wechat. I failed to Pay using WeChat because it couldn't accept my debit prepaid card. But I saw Chinese citizens flawless pay using it.
Google translate offline will help you with communicate with the locals. You simply type a phrase in English and it'll translate to Chinese. You can even play it-out-loud. If you have internet and a strong VPN, then you can even speak in English, it translates to Chinese and then your counterpart speaks in Chinese, and translation is made back to English in real-time. Fancy, but requires internet + VPN.
You generally want to learn and memorize some simple phrases like How are you --> Ni hao ma, Thank You --> Xierxier etc. The locals will appreciate your learning efforts with a response and a smile.
As for the VPN, I had mild success with Psiphon and Betternet both of which are Free. They couldn't work in airports though. You could go for ExpressVPN which is paid for. Getting the right VPN that works for you is painful but worthwhile process if you want the internet you are used to.
If you skimmed through this very long post, here are two words you can go with; head east. Whether you are going for pleasure and shopping in Dubia, Studies in India, seeking out opportunities in UAE or business in Guangzhou, go east.