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Random thoughts on my China trip

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jbradfor

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I don't think I want to live in China. No insult at all to native Chinese, nor to any ex-pat enjoying life there. But for me personally, it's just too much activity, and too much effort. Likely if I did live there I'd get more used to the flow and find it less effort and more pleasant, but I fear I've gotten too soft living in Suburbia to handle a major city, let alone a major city in China.

I take back every good thing I've ever said about taxi drivers in China and how honest they are. At least in Chengdu. Out of 5 taxi rides, they tried to cheat us twice. And I don't mean just go a couple extra blocks longer for an extra yuan or two (used to that), I mean try to charge us 2x-3x the proper fare. And these are in licensed, metered taxis.

It's too difficult to find diet soda in China. On the plus side, when I do find it, it's usually Coke Zero.

Things are still cheap in China. I was concerned that between the USD-RMB exchange rate going from 8.4:1 to 6.2:1 since I was there last, and the high inflation rate in China, things would feel expensive. Nope, still not. Especially in 3rd tier cities like Pingxiang. One morning took my daughter to a neighborhood square to run around; we bought three rides on those kiddie coin-op rides, two bottled drinks (water and "iced" tea), and two "ice cream" snacks; total cost, 14 yuan (!). Compare that to, say, the cheapest bottle water I found in terminal D of the Shanghai airport was 34 yuan (but it was Evian).

Mixed kids still gets a lot of attention in China. I'm used to be stared at when out and about, but with her, it was a lot more attention. People even came up and wanted to have their picture taken with her!

I was more impressed with Shanghai than I was last time I was there (2005). Not sure what the difference is, but it feels like it's advanced a lot in the last 7 years.

Chengdu is backwards. I don't mean the infrastructure -- it's quite developed. I mean the peoples' thinking. I can't believe in 2012, in the central business district of a major city, one still has kids yelling "hello!" to all the random 老外. Yes, I'm white, not Chinese, get over it. I really felt the difference between Chengdu and Shanghai.

In addition, I was less impressed with the food in Chengdu than I expected. I've heard great things about Sichuan food, but we didn't see it. This is certainly due in part to our choice of food -- we didn't have Sichuan hot pot (too spicy), for example. But we did go to what was told were decent restaurants and tried Sichuan dishes. Not bad, but not great, and everything was much too oily.

On the plus side, I think Chengdu woman are more attractive. To me, Beijing and Shanghai woman are too skinny, Chengdu woman are much curvier. They also dress skimpier, but less fashionable.

I don't like jiaozi as much as I thought I did. Last trip (in Beijing), I ate jiaozi at every opportunity, and loved every one, down to the 1 yuan street vendor ones. This trip, had a couple of them, not so impressed. Only decent one was at the Nanxiang 1900 (at the Super Brand Mall). I even encountered ones I actually didn't like, first time ever.

I no longer feel the need to speak in Chinese just to show them that I can speak Chinese. On past trips, I've had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about it; this trip, well, not only did I not mind switching to English if they replied in English to my Chinese, but I would often just start in English. The only exception to that was passing by a book store in Shanghai airport, a woman calls out to me (in English) "Do you want to learn Chinese?" I had to reply in Chinese to that!

The second best part of the Oriental Pearl is the History of Shanghai Museum (at the end). "Interestingly" enough, there are no signs in English saying what it is, nor saying that it's free (with ticket to visit the tower). It's a really well done museum, very interesting, with signage in English and Chinese (and Japanese).

Plane ticket to China for my daughter: $1400. Look on her face the first time she sees (and needs to use) a squat toilet: priceless!

Addition 5/22/12:

What's up with the meaningless use of pinyin? As an example, I saw a road/traffic working with a sign on his back saying 交通 -- with "jiao tong" written on the back. How can that ever be helpful?

Addition 6/16/12:

A much smaller percent of the people smoked than I remember. I remember last trip it seemed like freeking EVERYONE smoked. This trip, very few people smoked. On the downside, those that smoked did so freeking EVERYWHERE: hotel lobbies, next to non-smoking signs, even in elevators! And in bathrooms -- it seems a common way to smoke in non-smoking buildings (hotels, airports) is to go into a bathroom stall, lock the door, and puff away.

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Oh sorry, but I think that museum was quite terrible, and I really regretted visiting it (plus I had to pay a fee as I didn't go up the tower). The nearby private 震旦 Museum was so much better IMHO.

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To each their own I guess. I'm a sucker for dioramas and recreations of stuff. Plus, it was a free surprise for me, so it felt like a bonus.

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Where did you go? I see mentions of Shanghai, Chengdu and Pingxiang. I would guess you mean the Pingxiang in Jiangxi, not the Pingxiang in southern Guangxi near the Vietnam border. Would that be right? Looks like a pretty remote place. What was it like?

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Another unrelated question. I'm curious about the Chengdu taxis.

I mean try to charge us 2x-3x the proper fare.

How did the drivers try to explain the difference in what they wanted you to pay and what the meter said? Did they say there were tolls or extra fees or a surcharge for waiting maybe? Did they say the meter was broken? Did they say the meter only showed what was the one way half of a round trip fare to a remote spot? Or something entirely different?

Did they persist in their illicit demands once they realized you spoke the language or did they just say, "Oh, I made a slight mistake" and let the issue fade away?

I'm planning a trip to Chengdu next month and would like to be fore-armed on this issue. Thanks.

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The first case was a rather standard "the meter is broken". The second was a lot more "interesting".

In the first case (going from the airport to the hotel), the driver claimed the meter was broken. [We got the taxi at the proper taxi stand.] He put the meter start/stop down and showed that the meter didn't start. But in this case I'm pretty sure he purposely disconnected the meter to try to cheat people, since he didn't say anything about the meter being broken until after we had started to drive, and then initially asked for 180 yuan. Long story short, we eventually agreed on 80, which I still thought was high, but not unreasonable. When we got to the hotel, before paying, I told the people who work there that the driver wouldn't use the meter, and asked how much a normal fare is; they said 50-60 yuan. So I gave the driver 60 yuan and walked away. He of course started to yell at me and said we had agreed on 80, so I called him a cheat and just walked away.

The second one the guy somehow rigged the meter so that it ran too fast!! [This was coming from the Panda center back to the hotel.] This was our 3rd day there, so I had some idea of how fast the meter should run (I'm pretty good at speed and time, and had a general sense of the roads). After the meter reading 30 yuan after going about 1/4 - 1/5 the way (it was under 70 yuan going there), I told the driver that the meter was going too fast. He of course said no and said it was because we were on the freeway, but I knew better and kept arguing. I noticed that from then on the meter was going a bit slower. I also noticed that he didn't have his taxi license number displayed on the dashboard, so I couldn't report him. A bit later I noticed his taxi license number holder in one of those storage units in the dashboard (I was sitting in the front seat, wife and daughter in the back), so I made sure my wife had pen and paper (mumbled in English to her), then grabbed the license and made a big deal of my wife writing down the name and number. Soon after then the driver made me a good deal on the whole ride (60 yuan -- which was less than the meter was actually reading at the time!) if we would give him the paper on which we wrote his license number. We agreed.

So back to your language question.

In the first case (broken meter), the driver initially tried to send us to a different taxi, and only when I spoke to him in Chinese did he take us. So in this case, in retrospect, I think speaking Chinese hurt us, as he was waiting for a Chinese speaking person to explain the meter is broken.

In the second case (fraudulent), speaking Chinese helped. But what really helped was writing down his license number.

In terms of lessons learned, the primary thing is to be really careful in Chengdu, know the roads, know the distance, and be prepared to argue. Taxi fraud is a big deal everywhere, but in my (limited) experience Beijing and and Shanghai have really made a big effort to keep taxi drivers honest, and if you have a problem with a taxi, it is taken seriously (by the hotels and by the government). In Chengdu, taxi fraud is almost expected. For example, when we complained to the manager of the hotel about the taxi ride from the airport and trying to be cheated, and wanted to report him, the hotel manager just asked how much we ended up paying. When we said 60 yuan, she just said that's about right and let it drop. The fact that the driver tried to cheat us seemed to be expected and no big deal.

The other issue seems to be that taxis from the Panda center seem ripe for fraud. As we were leaving, two separate unlicensed taxi drivers came up to us to ask if we wanted a ride. We took an official metered one instead, but see above. There was another poster here recently who took a taxi back, and agreed on 90 yuan. I think basically the issue is that too few people take taxis back, and they only way they can make any money is by charging more than the official fare.

The second fraud one really shook me a bit. We try to be savvy travelers, but this one is hard to catch. In fact, even though we caught it, the only reason we actually ended up paying a reasonable fare is because we got the taxi license number. [Which, I know, goes against my paragraph two above about not caring about reporting, but this one they might have cared.] And the only reason we got the taxi number was because I was sitting up front and saw it, if I were sitting in back, I wouldn't have seen it, let alone been able to grab it (all taxis I saw have a cage between the front seat and the back).

In the grand scheme of things, taxis are cheap enough that, frankly, with our US-based income the difference between a USD10 fare and a USD20 fare is not a big deal. However, being cheated really affects me, and really leaves an unpleasant aftertaste about what should otherwise be a good trip.

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Where did you go? I see mentions of Shanghai, Chengdu and Pingxiang. I would guess you mean the Pingxiang in Jiangxi, not the Pingxiang in southern Guangxi near the Vietnam border. Would that be right? Looks like a pretty remote place. What was it like?

You nailed it.

Pingxiang is very remote. I wish I had more time to explore it, as it would certainly be a cultural experience. I wish I had a chance to walk around some of the neighborhoods and chat with some locals. Unfortunately, we were having a heat wave the days were were there (one day is was 37 heat index according to weather.com), and I was responsible for looking after our daughter while my wife worked, and she would not be up for that. We did go to some of the local parks where I did have some chance to interact with locals (we got LOTS of attention!), but not much.

We were there for a meeting, as guests of the local government, so while it's probably bad form for me to bad-mouth them too much, here's my honest thoughts.

It's really a city in transition. In terms of people's thinking, it seems easily 30 years behind Shanghai. It has historically been a backwards coal-mining town (and I think I've seen mention of your opinion of other coal mining towns.....), but the coal is going away so they are trying to diversify into other areas and are courting new businesses.

The level of English spoken there is near zero. To handle all the foreign guests, they basically shanghai'ed (is it bad form to use that word in this context? :mrgreen: ) all the local English school teachers into being the translators / hosts. Even the hotel manager didn't speak English.

I would guess that most everyone there has never been on an airplane, for example, and had only traveled to, say, Shanghai once or twice in their lives.

They are also actively trying to modernize their city. They have a fancy-looking new city museum, they've turned the entire urban area by the river into a long green-land, they have a number of large plazas with monuments to events that happened there, and they are actively building new housing developments. The vast majority of current housing seems to be the standard 4-5 story Communist-era concrete block buildings.

Our first night there, we heard Peking Opera being played at LOUD volume from the residential area behind the hotel, along with occasional fireworks. This went on and on and on, and was so loud we knew we couldn't sleep. After dinner, this being 8:30, we finally went down to ask about it. It turns out that it was a funeral, and it would continue for 3 days. [Not non-stop -- they said they should stop around 10 PM each evenign, but I guessed from the look on other peoples' faces that it would be later.] We did move to a room on the front of the hotel, which turned out to be much larger, so all was well in the end. But it was certainly interesting experience a bit of how they honor the dearly departed.

EDIT 1:

Near complete lack of chain stores. I'm used to Shanghai / Beijing, seeing at least a FamilyMart or a 7-11 on every street, not to mention one of those many Chinese food chains, or even a McD. Pingxiang, nothing (or at least none I saw, and I drove along the major streets). I did see a lot of those old-style mom-and-pops stores, selling drinks, food, etc. Many of them, every block seemed to have 1-3. I haven't seen streets like that since I was in the older parts of Hong Kong in '86. I have to assume at some point the chains are going to come in, and nearly overnight all the mom-and-pop mini-marts are going to be gone. I can't image that's going to be good for the employment rate. OTOH, I really wonder how much money those stores really make.

EDIT 2:

One of the days we went to 鵝湖公园. Some enterprising people created a "portable sandbox" you can pay to use. They took a big, inflatable pond (really big, like 20'x10'), put in a couple inches of these brown beads (expect it's some type of hazardous industrial waste product) instead of sand (sand's too heavy), and some digging toys. 10 yuan to us it, or 60 yuan for a month pass. It was lots of fun for her.

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I admire your tactic of letting the driver see you gathering his official license info. That gives you some leverage and is an excellent bargaining chip.

When I leaving my hotel on the way to a well known destination, such as the Panda Base or the airport, I usually ask the staff roughly how long it will take and how much it ought to cost.

Most of the Kunming taxis are honest. I am quick to raise an issue if I think a driver is taking a "scenic" route. Usually the explanation of the deviation sounds valid (road repairs, a traffic accident, etc.)

Going to towns like Pingxiang are like stepping into a time warp. Plus the struggles to modernize, though earnest and energetic, can be very spastic.

Thanks for your thoughtful replies. I'm going to travel in Sichuan a couple weeks from now. Will post an approximate itinerary tomorrow.

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When I leaving my hotel on the way to a well known destination, such as the Panda Base or the airport, I usually ask the staff roughly how long it will take and how much it ought to cost.

Agreed, that's a must-do. Which is what helped in the first case.

But that's what spooked me so much on the second case. Say the driver never slowed down the meter, we show up at the hotel, the fare is obviously too much -- but it's a licensed taxi and ran the meter the whole way? Honestly, I'm not sure what I'd do in that case.

Going to towns like Pingxiang are like stepping into a time warp. Plus the struggles to modernize, though earnest and energetic, can be very spastic.

Since you travel a lot, I'm sure you've experienced this. Some cities I've visited I feel "that was nice", but don't feel I really care about it in terms of wanting to know what happens there. Other places, for whatever reason, I feel I want to keep in touch with.

Pingxiang an example of the later for me.

It's not that I want to go back, but I'd really like to see how they develop over the next 10 years.

Thanks for your thoughtful replies. I'm going to travel in Sichuan a couple weeks from now. Will post an approximate itinerary tomorrow.

Read it, I'm jealous! [Except for all the long bus rides :wink: .] It sound be a fantastic trip.

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