China information Travel

Survival in China

1. Expectations

1. Intro
1.1 Communication Complications
1.2 Try to be informed, not just opinionated.

Intro – Under Construction

1.1 Communication Complications

If you’re completely new to China and don’t speak the language, getting around might not be the easiest thing. Language is a powerful tool, and where some of us may try other ways of communication to get closer to someone, the Chinese may put up a guard. Sometimes what’s foreign to you is a little bit scary. However, as soon as you show any willingness to speak Chinese, or you know a few words, that guard will come down very quickly. They’re also known (to us Westerners) to be more rough around the edges. Communication is more straight-forward and their hospitality rules are different from ours. It’s more to-the-point. I think it’s actually really nice to do away with our formalities every now and again (not that there are none, by the way). Well, apart from the fact that people may cut in front of you sometimes. But you can just elbow your way through that. You’ll learn to elbow your way through a lot of things. Like in a packed subway during rush hour. Ugh, the horror. My feet were once elevated from the floor; that’s how busy it was. Yeah, good luck with that!

Of course, there’s a large behavioral gap between generations, and just like in any other country, people behave differently based on where they live or their income status. I lived in Beijing and traveled to: Shanghai, Henan, Fujian, Guangdong, Hubei, and Xinjiang – no place was the same. China is a massive country and people in the north are vastly different from the south, not to mention the many minority groups that live across the country. Keep that in mind during your travels. It wouldn’t hurt to read up on some modern history and contemporary developments (here, or here), if you’re really keen on understanding the country before your visit.

1.2 Try to be informed, not just opinionated

The many times I’ve yelled and cursed in Dutch because I was in a rush and the traffic was in-sane. The first gym I went to closed down because it turned out to be a scam, and the owner took my money and ran. I’ve also had mental breakdowns in front of hospital doctors because I didn’t have the vocabulary to express what my problems were and they rushed me back out with pain killers. I’ve been “stopped” during travels because I was mistaken for an Uyghur. I’ve been mugged. I’ve been harassed…. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies. And it’s okay to be frustrated during times like these, but try to not single out events and think negatively of your entire China experience as a result. I’ve heard so many people go: “China is like this, The Chinese are like that…” Every society has some bad apples. Customs, traditions, education, upbringing: it’s all different from what we’re used to. Try to be aware of that (I love using the word ‘awareness’ everywhere. Get used to that).

When wanting to start a business in China as a foreigner, the main advice you’ll get is to always have a Chinese business partner. I feel like the same applies to all other situations. Definitely attempt to befriend the locals. Someone who can show you the ropes and tell you right from wrong. When I told my Chinese roommate about my gym situation, she said: “Why didn’t you just come to me?! This happens all the time!” I was too scared to ask for help, wanted to fix things on my own, and ended up making a mistake due to my own ignorance. If there’s one thing I know about people, is that if they’re proud of their country, they love telling you about it. Ask (and stay calm). The most important cliché to remember, is that we’re all human. I forget that all the time. We all have the same struggles, we hurt just the same, we have hopes and dreams, and as what’s-his-name from the band Good Charlotte once sang: “We all end up the same.” A reminder in times of frustration, wherever you are.

2. Prepare

Ahhhh, paperwork. My favorite thing in the world. Some very basic information. I will share links by people that have done a much better job of explaining things.If anything is outdated or if you feel anything needs to be added, please contact me.

2.1 Things to prepare (government)
2.2 Things to prepare (non-government)
2.3 Upon Arrival (under construction)
2.1 Things to prepare (Government)
  1. Visa Free: There are ways to avoid getting a visa. If you’re planning to go through China on your way to another destination, you may be able to stay visa-free for either 72 or 144 hours. (As of today, June 10th 2020, this has been temporarily suspended due to Covid-19)
  2. All Visas: China doesn’t make it easy (or cheap) to enter to country. What visa you need depends on what you want to do and how long you plan to stay. For a list of all visas, check out China Briefing’s overview here. Applying for any visa usually requires a visit to a Chinese embassy or consulate. You can also get an agency to do it for you. Some countries have mediating institutes specifically for visa application and pick-up, you should check out the requirements for your country to figure out where you need to go.
  3. A work permit (on a Z visa) requires an invitation letter, employment license, and a medical exam. If you’re not working for a government body or a large company (which is rare, unless you teach English), I suggest getting some help. I’m assuming you’re here because you don’t know a lot about China, and without prior knowledge you really shouldn’t do stuff alone. Internations has a clear overview: here
  4. Have a place to stay (hostel/hotel/address) before you arrive; you’re required to fill in an address on your application. You won’t get a visa without it.
  5. Within 24 hours after arrival, you need to register at the Public Security Bureau. Most of the time you’re required to go in person (bring a Chinese-speaking friend/landlord/someone), although sometimes hotels may help out. You’ll need your visa (and passport), and sometimes a lease contract, depending on where you stay. After registering you get a Temporary Residence Permit form (am I saying that right?) – don’t lose it!!! Otherwise you have to go again or you might get in trouble for not having it. Like me. Don’t do it.
  6. China changes its immigration rules all the time. Anything political or any major event can interfere with your plans. In 2016, my move to China came right after a series of political events. My passport had Taiwanese stamps in it, which China did not recognize. I was forced to get a new passport and delay my flight. Cost me a lot. Make sure you stay up to date on current immigration rules (Chinese embassy is your best bet).
2.2: Things to prepare (non-government)
  • Take Chinese currency with you (no airport ATM would take my European debit card. Drama ensued. Take money with you and/or a credit card)
  • Check whether the hotel you book accepts foreigners. To accept foreigners as a hotel owner, you need to have a type of permit. Not every hotel has one. You’ll get sent away.

As you hopefully know, China censors a lot of non-Chinese (social) media. Here’s a list of things I wish I had downloaded before arrival:

  • VPN. A “Virtual Private Network” that circumvents Chinese censorship, so you can keep posting those selfies to Instagram. Chinese authorities have actively tried to block most non-paid networks and keep adding new ones to the list. Obviously, if you find a free VPN that still works, I suggest you use it. But just to be safe, I prefer to use a paid VPN. It’s cheap, don’t worry. Here’s a list. I’ve always used Express VPN and am overall satisfied with it.
  • WeChat – The app that substitutes ALL social media platforms we know. It’s used for business, banking, ordering food, talking to friends, posting selfies… you name it. Very important.
  • Baidu & Baidu Maps (replaces Google & Google Maps)
  • YoukuQIY or Tencent Video (replaces YouTube & Streaming Platforms)
  • Not sure if this is essential, but: TanTan (replaces Tinder. There are other dating apps, but this is the simplest one)
  • Food delivery apps I used: Meituan & daojia
  • Translation Apps: Pleco & MDBG
2.3 Upon Arrival

China Stories Travel

Auctioned off


At least the fireworks were nice. Happy year of the fire rooster ya’ll!

In Hebei at a a friend’s family celebrating Chinese New Year. Here’s a short conversation when meeting a friend of the family:

* How old is she?

“She’s 26

* Has she found a partner yet?

“Not yet, she’s currently looking

– I’m not looking

*Maybe we can introduce her to my son

-I’m right here, I can hear you

” What does he have to offer?

*Has a car, a house and a stable job

“Her culture cares more about whether or not they share the same values

– I speak Chinese, hellooo?!

*Has a bachelor’s degree

“I see, I see. Sounds good.

-No, not good…

“Any interests?

*He likes music

“She likes music too!

-Whatever, I give up…


There will be no follow up of this. I hope.

Beijing China People Stories

Misunderstandings on Love


Bree and her homemade apple juice at dinner

“Is Bingbing related to you?” I ask my roommate, Bree, about the guy that sort of lives in our house but then sometimes just isn’t there. He’s been living in our apartment ever since I got here, but I’ve never seen Bree touch him or smile at him; so I just assumed maybe they were cousins or something.

“Bingbing is my pursuer,” she says while looking at her computer, pretending like that’s not weird at all.

“I’m sorry, what?”

She turns around. “Yes, you see, he is in love with me.”

“And you’re not in love with him?”


“I don’t follow; he lives here.”

“Bingbing has some issues to work out first.”

“And then you will love him?”

“Then he can officially pursue me.”

Bingbing was married before, has a kid and some problems to work out with his ex-wife. Meanwhile he lives in our apartment trying to get Bree to love him back. I asked if it was related to her age perhaps; Bree’s 35 and unmarried, and traditional views on love and marriage are still standing strong, even with current changes in society. Believe it or not, the versatile city of Beijing, with its QR codes, online shopping and payment through apps is still pretty “old-fashioned.” “No, I am just very individual” she says. She comes from a family where, at the dinner table, she had to sit up straight, talking was not allowed and she had to wait until her grandparents picked up their chopsticks before she was able to start eating. “My family had big expectations, but I’m lucky with my mother, she understands that the world is not the same anymore. I think 90 percent of Chinese families don’t think this way. You know, after the door opened to the outside world, the younger generation started to think about breaking free from traditional societal structures. The problem is that the door opened in the midst of tradition. No matter how much you want to escape, your first and foremost priority is the obligation you have to your parents.” She went on explaining that if your partner of choice is not to your parents’ liking, you’re most likely to break up even though you may really love someone. “But Bingbing is a really good guy. He is not like most Chinese men. Chinese men love to control women. We haven’t reached that stage of equality like in the west, we still adhere to the patriarch. Not many women have the opportunity to live a completely free life like I do. But then most women also just don’t know any better.”

Later I see Bree ordering Bingbing to do this, do that, get this, get that and literally disagreeing with all of his opinions.  “You go girl,” I think to myself. #relationshipgoals

We have dinner together later that day, together with Bree’s sister and another mutual friend. The topic of beauty standards comes up. I name a few Chinese actors I think are handsome. “Ewwww no, they’re so ugly”  both women yell at the same time. Turns out small eyes are not to their liking. The ideal man has big eyes and a longer nose, for starters. “What’s your ideal woman, Bingbing?” I ask him. He thinks for a while, says it’s different for everyone, but then still gives a very detailed answer: white skin, big eyes, long nose, tall, big boobs, skinny waist. “So basically what all of you want is a Chinese person that looks very western,” I say. It turns quiet for a few seconds. “Yes, I guess so, but almost nobody looks like that here” Bree says. “That’s a bit fucked up isn’t it?” I state. Everybody nods. I find out Anne Hathaway is the perfect woman. “She looks a bit Asian, bit “western”, tall, great body..”  I also fall into the right category, the men state. I’m just not white enough. I move on to a different topic.

Later that week, 6 pm; I’m doing my make-up.

“You’re going out?” Bree asks.

“I’m going on a date” I reply.

Bree starts giggling. “Dearest… do you know what that word means in Chinese? It means you’re going out with someone on like a romantic level.” 

“I know, I am doing that, sort of”

“Woowwwww, honey! You’ve found love!! I’m so happy for you! Congratulations!!”

“No no no, it’s not like that. I don’t know this person. We’re just going to have a drink and talk.”

This time it’s Bree who doesn’t understand what’s going on.

“Do you know how dating works where I’m from usually?” I ask.

She doesn’t know.

“Basically, you meet someone somewhere; maybe on the internet, maybe at a party or a café or something; then someone asks the other person to “go on a date” and you meet up to see if you like that person enough to go on a second date. If you do, you meet again; if you don’t, you just stop talking to each other altogether. You can have 5 dates and still decide to stop seeing each other, you can also decide to be in a relationship after 2 dates; it depends on the person.”

“Ohhhh. I had no idea it works like that.”

“What? How do you guys date then?”

“We don’t. We sort of meet and decide to be in a relationship the same day. Most people get to know each other through work or school, it’s easier to get familiar with a person faster.”

“But you guys have Tantan (Chinese Tinder) right? How does that work?”

“The same way. You meet and then you’re boyfriend and girlfriend”

“How do you know if you like each other?”

“If you don’t like each other you just break up. When you’re young that is. It becomes more difficult after thirty.”

“Isn’t my way of dating more convenient? Breaking up is always difficult and you may hurt the other person”

“You don’t think it’s a hassle to have to meet a new person over and over again until you find the right one?”

“Yes. I guess it is.”

“Different approach, same outcome” she concludes.

I go on my date. Turns out my date is some sort of an in denial anti-feminist, pro-gun American and Trump supporter, or at least supportive of some of his ideas.

Somehow I’m relieved I don’t follow the Chinese approach to dating.

Beijing China People Stories

My new flatmate: Mr. Lim


This is Mr. Lim from Korea.


He is one of my 4 new flatmates, and boy are they an interesting bunch. One of them is apparently really famous and Mr. Lim is his agent. This picture was taken on the day they arrived and when I didn’t know anything about them yet. I was doing my make-up in front of a mirror and Mr. Lim asked in his best English: ” Are you done makeupping? I wanna take picture.” He said he takes pictures of women to get into the Guinness book of records to be the first man to photograph a certain amount of women. He had thousands he said. I asked if he only photographed beautiful women, as a joke, and he said: “Nooo no no. Ugly Ugly.” My other flatmate; apparently a famous actor, assured me he was not a pervert. Then he quickly went in his room and put on a coat over his pj’s and this picture was taken. You can tell how comfortable I am from the look on my face.

Later I asked Mr. Lim what he was doing in China, you know, to be nice. His response: “Ohhh I escape from the North Korea. I run. Very very fast. I here for two weeks. My friend help me escape!” At first I was caught off guard a little by that response and I can be pretty naive and stupid, plus I didn’t know anyone..But then I turned to famous actor man and said: “He’s joking right? Tell me he’s joking.” To which his response was: “Have you ever seen such a fat North Korean?”

The other two flatmates are a mysterious Korean doctor experienced in Chinese medicine and a Jewish lady; Mr. Lim’s assistant. Mr. Korean Chinese medicine doctor did an acupuncture session on me today. It hurt and didn’t help. I’m not making assumptions. But I am. The lady is looking for synagogue life in Beijing. Is there such a thing?

Like I said: an interesting bunch

Beijing China People Stories

Smog Kills & Instafamous


First of all; don’t be an idiot like me and do a workout in a park in Beijing when the smog levels are high. How self-defeating can you be ?! I don’t know wat astma is like, but I think it felt pretty similar. I also have a throat infection. It’s great.

Also: After 10 minutes of push-ups and pull-ups people started applauding and surrounding me while taking pictures. Then one guy was brave enough to stop staring and/or filming and engage in conversation.

“Is it ok if I take a picture?”

– You’ve been taking pictures before you asked this question

“You speak Chinese!!!”

– uh-huh

“You have a really good body”

– Thank you

“Really strong and balanced”

-Thank you

“You did pull-ups!”

– Yes I did

“Where are you from?”

– The Netherlands”
“Your Chinese is good!”

– Thank you (He based that on the many thank you’s I’m sure)

“They speak Chinese in the Netherlands?!”

– No, I studied Chinese

“In the Netherlands?”

– In the Netherlands

“Can I take some more pictures?”

– … sure

* I did some split-squats; like a squat on one leg*


– uhm….thank you

“You must need a lot of “Qi” for that”

– Excuse me?

“The balance in your body, I’m sure it requires a lot of Qi.”

– Oh.. yes. Yes it does. Lot’s of.. Qi…

“You have a Chinese tattoo?!”



– That’s what it says

“Can I take a picture of that as well?”

– yeah sure….

“A foreigner who loves Chinese culture, wonderful!”


Beijing China People Photoseries Travel

People of Beijing

Traffic in Beijing, Chaoyang (Sanlitun)

Supportive relationship

Smoking in Dashilar


In Dashilar

Need your shoes or bike repaired? Need a copy of your key? Look no further

Woman casually hanging out in (Dongcheng, Dongzhimen)

Woman in the Dongcheng alleyways


China People Stories Travel Xinjiang

The strongest woman I have ever met

August 1, 2016guljekrem

The lady on the right, Guljekrem, invited us over for tea one day while we were just resting on the side of the road.

We came back a second time to thank her. That’s where I learned Guljekrem’s story.

She once had a husband and several children; all dead. She’s suffering from severe rheumatism and nearsightedness, and yet she still invited us over for dinner and walked across the street in pain to get us gifts. I added her on WeChat where she said it was such a blessing to have us over and how much she loved us.  I couldn’t grasp how she was not a bitter, lifeless person filled with anger after having gone through so much.

That’s it really. Just want to remember this.

China Stories Travel Xinjiang

The deadly Karakoram highway

July 22, 2016

We nearly died, I was sexually harassed and I peed on myself, sort of


The Karokoram highway is the road that leads from the city of Kashgar to Pakistan. It’s built in the middle of insane mountains, grasslands and rivers. Because it’s so far west, it borders or is located close to Kyrgistan, Tajikistan and obviously Pakistan, and many of China’s “minorities” live along the highway.

The highway is known to be one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Crossing it takes about 6-8 hours, depending on the vehicle, weather and time. It’s called the Karokoram highway, but actually it’s just small road. About 50 percent of the road is flat and relatively drivable. The rest of the road consists of gravel, holes and mud, making it pretty challenging and dangerous to cross, as the road is extremely steep, mostly unprotected and mudslides or rocks falling from the mountains are not uncommon.

Me and my friend planned a safe-ish trip along the highway by bus. Buses go once a day from the Kashgar busstation and many adventurous travelers took this option. It was the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen. The mountains changed color over time or turned into sand dunes, the rivers became a translucent light blue. There were many different tents, yurts and stone or clay houses along the way, along with all kinds of different people. Amazing.

The drive indeed was a little scary…alright it was very scary. We were basically catapulted in and out of our seats every minute. To avoid big holes the bus kept going from left to right and sometimes it got stuck on steep areas. But the driver seemed to know what he was doing and there were other cars going back and forth, plus the view was absolutely worth it.

We arrived at Karagul lake, a majestic lake next to the road, where we spent a night in a yurt among Kyrgyz people. The next morning we were supposed to go to Taxkorgan, but we wanted to enjoy our time near the lake for a while, so we hitchhiked our way there. Luckily we didn’t have to wait long, as a minivan with some other travelers stopped and took us there for basically next to nothing.

So far so good, right?

Taxkorgan was an interesting place as it was home to many Tajik people, and there were a lot of nomads in the distance on the grasslands surrounding the place. Good Pakistani food too. All was well.

We planned to go back to Kashgar and from there take a night train back to Urumqi to rest a few days (we had to go back to Kashgar because we rented mountain bikes there…which we didn’t use.. a whole different story..). The hostel told us there were minivan taxis going to Kashgar in the afternoon, so we wouldn’t have to leave early to catch the bus. Taxkorgan was another 100km further down, meaning the drive back would take 8-10+ hours.

This is where shit hit the fan.

Upon arriving at the taxi location, there was indeed a comfortable minivan. I put my backpack in the back, took a seat and ate something, while my friend waited outside for a bit. We had to wait for a 4th passenger (the van wouldn’t leave with less than 4 people). There were many different people surrounding the van, mostly Uyghur, discussing whatever in their native tongue. We had to show our passports to inspection at some point and as I got out, all of a sudden I saw a man grabbing my bag from the back of the van and throwing it in the trunk of a tiny old taxi. In Dutch I sort of indirectly spoke to the man and said: “what is going on, what are you doing with my bag.” I turned to my friend and told her I had a bad feeling about this and I asked her if maybe we could find another way to go to Kashgar. She didn’t really respond to my panicking and kept quiet, but I could feel her thinking the same thing.

After inspection we headed back to the taxi site and found we indeed had to take the car that was about to fall apart. As I got in the car I kept saying: “I don’t want this, this doesn’t feel right, I don’t like this at all…”

For the first hour I sat miserably in the middle of the backseat. I was upset that I didn’t just push through and found a different way to travel. I was also scared of the car, which was definitely not meant to drive on that unsafe road. My friend and an Uyghur man sitting next to me fell asleep as I continued panicking. Then I noticed the driver kept changing his seating position, while rubbing his eyes every now and then. Sometimes he drove straight into vehicles coming from the other direction and quickly dashed just before crashing into one. My eyes were wide open at that point and I pretty much stopped blinking with full focus on the driver; my friend was still asleep. I tried to calm down, telling myself that he was an experienced driver and everything was going to be fine. Then I saw him dozing off..several times. Sometimes he let go of the wheel, suddenly woke up, which startled him, after which he moved the car in all kinds of different directions trying to get control over the car again. This woke my friend up as well.

“The driver keeps falling asleep,” I told her. We feared for our lives as in the next 20 minutes or so we could’ve died 20 times. The driver was clearly tired and we still had like 8 hours to go. We discussed getting out and hitchhiking our way to Kashgar. When the driver took a small break on the side of the road to pee, I convinced my friend (who was also dying of fear) to get out and leave. We did. The driver and the other passengers tried to talk us out of it, but after 10 minutes they gave up and drove off.

I was relieved and still pretty positive. It wasn’t going to get dark for the next 4 hours or so; there was plenty of time to find a suitable ride. There was also a police station not far ahead, a few small villages about a 2-hour walk away and we could always go back to the lake (also maybe 2,3 hours) and stay the night there. There were options.

After 15 minutes or so we decided to change our flip-flops to hiking shoes, since we figured this could take a while. Then a truck stopped. The driver didn’t speak Chinese, but he was heading for the Karagul lake. We were excited. My friend threw my backpack and her belongings in the truck while I quickly tried to gather my things.

Then the taxi came back.

Both passengers got out and started yelling at me to get back into the car. I looked at my friend in despair while trying to gather my stuff and listening to the two men yelling. Another truck stopped behind the one we were supposed to get in, honking to the other truck to get a move on. I covered my ears and started screaming: ” I can’t deal with this right now!!” From the truck my friend yelled to the two men that under no circumstances were we getting back in that car. At the same time she realized we dragged the poor truck driver into she got out. While I was still trying to breathe, she kept telling the two men “no” while they continued arguing.

The driver and other passengers said there was a passport check along the way and they needed to take us there first; after that we were allowed to go wherever. We convinced them we were able to walk there. They drove off and waited at the police station. I slowly came to my senses, put on my hiking shoes and we walked our way there.

Upon arriving I told my friend: “you tell them whatever, I’ll take a picture of the license plate.” We found both passengers and the driver speaking to a policeman. Turns out it wasn’t a passport check, it was just a way for us to speak to the police. “It’s too unsafe, the driver can’t keep his focus for this long” me and my friend said. The policeman tried to reassure us everything was going to be fine: “This man is responsible for your safety,” he said as he pointed at the logo on the taxi, which was probably like an official taxi company or something. “We’re really not getting in again” my friend kept repeating. I turned to her and said: “how about we let him drive us to the lake and get out there, it’s not long and the driver seems pretty awake now.” The driver had a nervous smile on his face, being accused of sleep-driving at the police and all. After a few minutes we decided to get back in the car. The police made the driver promise to focus, drive slow, rest and for the other passengers to pay attention as well.

Seeing as how we threw a massive tantrum, the driver was indeed wide awake and drove safer than any other driver we had come across, meaning still unsafe, but reasonably ok, aka: we “nearly crashed” less than we would have if the police wasn’t involved…

We saw the lake pass by, then we passed all of the villages, then the main flat road ended, and darkness came sooner than expected. I was sweating like crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared before. We were driving on a dangerous road, downhill, crazy steep, unprotected, no light..One mistake and we would’ve crashed hundreds of meters into nothingness and there was plenty of wreckage along the way to prove that it wasn’t just irrational fear.

We made a stop at the actual passport inspection. The driver bought us a drink; he was clearly trying to better himself. I needed to go the bathroom, which in the middle of the mountains means squatting behind a rock. I was pretty used to squatting outside at this point, and seeing as how there were worse things happening, this was not an issue. Well..It wasn’t an issue until I accidentally dropped my pants into my own pee…completely soaked up to the knees.. I tried to fix it with tissues first. Then I stopped caring about everything, got up, pulled my pants down so that nearly everyone could see me in underwear, tied my headscarf around the front part of my waist, cardigan around the back: I looked fabulous. I tried to laugh it off, cracked some jokes. My friend was feeling sick and looked at me like: what the hell are you so happy about and “no, I’m not taking a picture..”

I got back into the car with my legs now uncovered. The Uyghur man sitting to my left thought this was a wonderful opportunity to grab my legs and ass. Since it was already dark and in the middle of the mountains there was no way to get out. I pushed his hands away and tried to tell him to stop in English (He didn’t really speak Chinese). My friend also participated in making sure his hands were visible on his own lap. At some point I put my bag in between us. He finally stopped. The rest of the trip he kept looking at me, hoping I would fall asleep. The creep.

We nearly crashed some more, we drove into a group of wild camels..but eventually, after 9 hours, we arrived in Kashgar. I think I maybe blinked once during the entire trip.

We walked back to the hostel in complete silence. Then I stopped, looked at my friend and said: “what…the..hell.”

“What…the…fuck” she replied.



The good news is: My pants are clean.

Picture in the mountains along the highway (when all was still well)


China Stories Travel Xinjiang

The night(mare) train from Wuhan to Urumqi

July 3, 2016


The night train from Wuhan to Urumqi was one of the best (and absolute worst) experiences of my life. There were no seats left, so I had to buy a standing ticket for a 36 hour trip from practically east to all the way west. Locals warned me beforehand: “it’s not what you think it will be, are you really sure you want to do this?”

After entering the train, I lowered myself to the floor in frustration after finding the train completely packed like it was a Chinese New Year migration (I had already traveled for 18 hours straight with little rest and not enough food). People kept walking back and forth; some gave me stares. I got punched and pushed around as I sat there on the floor for at least an hour and I was thinking to myself:
“I’m getting off at the first stop.. I can’t do this anymore”

..But then a man noticed how much I was struggling and offered me half a seat as he stood up. “We’ll switch places when I get tired,” he said. It wasn’t just because I was foreign; as I looked around, people were giving strangers temporary seats everywhere and started talking to their neighbors and offering each other food. “We’re all having a hard time, it’ll get better once we get to Xi’an tomorrow around noon”, the man told me. The rest of that night I stood/sat on the floor and occasionally took an empty seat for 5 minutes…

Word got ’round that I spoke Chinese. “Everyone on the train is talking about you, the foreign girl with the big eyes” a passenger said. From thereon the adventure began. I ate noodles squatting on the floor, I got offered smokes, as you do, and “smoked” disgusting Chinese cigarettes on the toilet together with some factory workers from Urumqi, as we complained about the trip together. An old man from Gansu province proudly showed me pictures of his granddaughter and spoke about his travels in China throughout the years. He had been everywhere but abroad. I told him it’s never too late to travel. He laughed and said: “Young girl, I’m 87. China is big enough for me.” Later on I talked to a bunch of men about foreign cars, specifically German (the only thing they knew about Europe). And one young man majoring in English who made it clear he really wanted a foreign girlfriend, specifically Dutch, more specifically me.

None of these people ever left the country. Most of them came from the countryside or were factory workers. The first morning, the entire train came to see me. They asked questions about literally everything ‘foreign’. Because obviously I knew everything about every country. At some point they wanted me to show them what the Euro looks like, but they had also never seen money from HongKong and didn’t know anything about Taiwan (besides that it belonged to China) or what it was like to have a visa or to travel abroad in general. One guy gave me some cash from Vietnam, asked me to inspect whether or not it was real money. I was the all-knowing foreigner.

At the same time, some people were spitting on the floor and later threw their sunflower seeds into it, some were gargling into the trash can. Teenagers were sleeping on the sink or on the luggage racks. 6 chairs were occupied by 12 people sleeping on top of each other or underneath the chairs. Some kids got sick all over the floor. There were CocaCola bottles filled with pee and cigarettes hanging from the luggage racks on a string and there were mothers from the Nanchang district (apparently, I was told) screaming over everything and hitting their children for no reason; it was normal, my neighbor told me.

Up until then it was actually all bearable.

At the end of day one (19 hours in) I started feeling sick. I lived on little food or water, the windows were not allowed to open, so the only thing I breathed in was the smell of smoke and puke/urine. I took out a plastic bag and sat down on the floor near the toilet areas, preparing myself to throw up. One employee and another traveler sat together and clearly saw I was sick and dying. Then they decided to question me: where I was from, where I was going, why there, how come I speak Chinese, where I learned Chinese..all the while I sat there feeling completely miserable with a plastic bag against my face. Then as I was busy throwing up, one guy took out his phone to take a picture. “Come on, smile, I want to show a picture of the pretty Dutch girl to my friend” one of the men said… I think I kind of lost it there. I didn’t smile.

I got severe stomach cramps and a headache after throwing up. An Uyghur girl I made friends with took care of me. The cramps got really heavy around midnight, and I was unable not to make a scene. I had to stand up and grab my stomach every now and then because of the pain. If I wasn’t already interesting then, I was now. Everyone on the train just stood there and watched me, the only foreigner, for some the only foreigner they ever spoke to, and she was dying; of course you want to watch.
Then came a lot of negotiating with employees and people trying to get me to the nearest hospital, handing me random Chinese medication and like 15 people claiming to know medicine touching my stomach to see where it hurt.. they meant well, they really did. I know if was just any Chinese passenger, they probably wouldn’t have tried so hard. In the end I got what a I wanted though: a bed. Alone. I guess I couldn’t do what they do on a regular basis.. but I tried. Kept it up until 25 hours in.

I met the weirdest, sweetest, craziest, most beautiful people from all over the country and I’ve never felt more uncomfortable at the same time. Everything was so incredibly shit and yet so weirdly amazing. It was a way into a certain kind of Chinese life I would otherwise never experience.

I traveled from Hong Kong to Urumqi by bus, taxi, subway and train. It took me 3 days. It was insane. A lady came to pick me up in Urumqi and hugged me like she was my mother.

Everything’s going to be fine

China People Photoseries Travel Xinjiang

People of Xinjiang

Women in Urumqi, People’s park

Man in Kashgar

Young boy in Kashgar waiting while his father makes a deal on some sheep at the animal market

Man in Taxkorgan

Hui man after prayer in Yining, Ili prefecture

Strong Uyghur women in Yining, Ili prefecture

Children in Turpan

Men in front of a mosque in Turpan

Animal market, Kashgar

Selling sheep, Kashgar animal market

Keeping those sheep in check. Kashgar animal market

Uyghur woman, Urumqi

Fashion in Turpan

Men in Yining, Ili prefecture

Woman in Yining, Ili prefecture

Tajik woman in Taxkorgan

Man in Taxkorgan

Fruit seller in Yining, Ili prefecture

Guljekrem and Paridam, two women who invited us in for tea in Yining, Ili prefecture