It's been 27 years since I was last in China, and boy oh boy, have things changed.
The airport is new and shiny, with Western style toilets (hooray).
The city outskirts and innards are now lined with high-rises and highways.
Cars have replaced bicycles as the main form of transportation.
And I am sure more will be discovered during my next three days here.
But for now, let me provide 7 pieces of advice to first-time travelers to China.
1. Just because you feel overwhelmed upon arriving, remember that the basic rules of international airports still apply. Do not get money at the currency exchange located near baggage claim. Instead, wait until you are in the main terminal and use a bank ATM. You'll get a better rate. Also, don't fall prey to gypsy cab drivers, who are lurking in the arrivals terminal. The one who tried to tackle me first offered a ride to the Kempinski for 400 RNB. Noticing the scorn on my face, he reduced it to 200. In fact, the ride in the LEGAL cab cost 80 RNB.
2. Don't expect cab drivers will know English. Always print up the address of your destination in Chinese so that your driver takes you to the right place.
3. Unlike in the USA and many other Western countries, smoking is still common in China. Always request a non-smoking room. The regular rooms have an ingrained stench, even at nice hotels.
4. Sorry, no Facebook. You'll have to wait to share your posts and pix until you get beyond the Chinese borders.
5. Similarly, GMail is iffy at best. While you can do searches on Google's main page, access to Gmail and other Google apps (Blogger, Maps) is often blocked by the Chinese government. I have tried to get into GMail scores of times since arriving. I made it through twice, once through the backdoor of google.co.uk. If GMail is your main email account, prepare to forward those messages to another service before leaving home. HotMail, for example, is working fine here.
6. Even if you are traveling first-class, it's still BYOTP in many tourist toilets. What's more, said toilets may not be the, ahem, comfortable thrones to which Westerners are accustomed.
7. Avoid ending up in a Chinese hospital. More on that in the next post.
BTW, this post was uploaded in Mongolia (see #4)