In my first week in China, I got confronted with Chinese bureaucracy. If you are Chinese (and speak Chinese), life can be really easy and convenient. With a Chinese bank account you can pay by scanning a QR-code in every shop, street food stand or even give money to a beggar. Online shopping is done in two clicks and delivery is sometimes done within the same day. Also food delivery is the quickest in the world (they even deliver McDonald’s at home!). You can use the cheapest sim card companies with 4G everywhere in China and you can use all kind of apps comparable with Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat etc. to communicate with your friends. But as a foreigner, even though you might be treated as a prince or princess, it is quite a struggle to get things done in China. I therefore do not recommend you loosing your wallet in China. Some struggles/frustrations are listed below. Learn from it, so that if you ever visit China, you don’t make the same mistakes I did.
Getting a Chinese number was the first struggle. With some trouble I arranged a sim card in Hohhot. It was not as easy as in Russia or Mongolia, because only a few operators work with my sim card system. And even less operators work with people without a Chinese identity card or passport. So I was left with a pretty expensive operator who gave me just enough internet and calls to survive. They promised me that it would work in whole China. They didn’t tell me that using internet or making calls outside of the province where I bought the sim was limited and much more expensive… so later, totally unexpected, my phone ran out of money and then the sim card just stops working, even if you still have plenty of data.
Then there was the Chinese internet, with ‘the Great Firewall’. I was eager to upload the posts I had been writing in the train about Mongolia, to share my new location through Mymaps on my website and of course to upload my daily Instagram picture. I heard that most foreigners used a VPN to avoid the internet walls to use google and social media sites. But the first days, I had some trouble finding a VPN that actually worked. I realized I should’ve downloaded a VPN before entering China, since downloading apps, like VPN’s from the Google Playstore is not possible without already having a VPN… Yeah. It was then I realised how dependent I was on practically all the sites China blocked. But also, how weird it feels that a government is limiting your (online) freedom. Luckily, my website was working, but terribly slow, like most websites to be honest (in the hostel, in Starbucks, in McDonald’s… I tried everything). It was impossible to upload my pretty large pictures, so impossible to update my blog.
Banks… and the rest
Then, my wallet got stolen from my hostel. My debit cards, credit card, health insurance cards and a lot of money… all gone. After the first panick attack, I wanted to check my credit card account, to see if nothing was taken from it. But ‘somehow’ the website of my visa card wouldn’t load. I had to call my parents so they could block my cards and log in to my account to check my credit card records. Luckily I still had my passport, so I could ‘easily’ get money from Western Union. I tried to make an account on the Dutch website of Western Union, to be able to transfer money, but also this website was slowed down. So I had to ask my parents to make one for me and give me the details. We had to call through Whatsapp since my Belgian and Chinese card wouldn’t let me make calls from China to the Netherlands… given the shitty wi-fi in the hostel, the line disconnected all the time. My parents tried to transfer money so I could pick it up in a bank with Western Union the next day. So the next day I was going from bank to bank to find one that could help me. At the first bank they told me they didn’t do Western Union. The second one didn’t do it for foreigners and sent me to another bank, where I found the closest office was closed. Since I had only 100 yuan left to survive until I had money again, I didn’t want to take taxi’s or metro’s so I walked everything, in the freezing wet cold wind that day. I found an office of the bank that was actually open, but they said they needed a passport and a Chinese ID (or some sort of student ID or residency permit). So they sent me to another office, but told me it was too late to go now because the banks would close soon. I quickly tried another, closer bank, and they told me they could not receive euro’s (?). It was too late now and I had to go back to the hostel. So the following day, I tried again. And I finally found the bank that could do the transaction for me. But then, there was a problem with my last name (again.. thanks dad haha!). My father transferred me the money and wrote my name like my name is in my passport: Tönissen. My official name. But somehow, in China, I have a different official name: Toenissen, because they can not get this ‘ö’ in their computer, and in my visa it is written like that. So they told me that my father had to call Western Union to change my name in his transfer from ‘ö’ to ‘oe’, because now it didn’t match up with my visa in my passport and they couldn’t give me the money… It meant I had to wait another day to get money, because by the time my parents would wake up and could call Western Union, it would be too late for the banks to be still open in China. I luckily met a Dutch girl that evening, who could give me some Yuan to survive until the next day. Finally, the third day, after like an hour of discussing with the bank servant (luckily I had a translator with me now)I finally got some money! I decided that Western Union was not the way in China and that from now on, until I had new cards, I would just search for Europeans to give me some cash. Basically I had to make new friends like this: ‘Hey, I am Hannah, are you from a Euro country? I need money’. Of course a lot of travellers want to help each other out, but I noticed that asking for help can be so difficult sometimes!
I loved Beijing (street)food, but apparently it is not always safe to eat. Just when everything was getting better (I got money and the Dutch embassy helped me out to call my banks for new cards), I got food poisoned. I was planning to go to a really great party in Beijing on Saturday night (real German Techno!), but I woke up really sick that morning. I had to stay in bed for about 3 days.
When I was in Beijing, it was actually not as bad as it could be… But still bad. And in Shanghai as well. So after running for my train in the smoggy air, I caught a bad cough. Which turned into a really bad cold. Practically another 3 days in my bed.
Conclusion: My first month in China was not the best month… BUT. Of course I also made some great memories! Which I am going to write about in another post. And let me finish this post with two positive notes. During that couple of days I felt really alone in Beijing, without money, proper internet connection and friends and family…. but actually, I learned (again) that you are never really alone. I met so many nice people who helped me in one or another way, by lending me money, being my translator, caring for me, trying to cheer me up… Also, because I spent an extra week in Beijing, I got to know this city pretty well, which made me discover a side of Beijing that most people don’t see with a short visit… and I loved it! If there is one city I want to come back to in China, it is definitely Beijing.