Jonna Wibelius shares her everyday encounters and tales of what she Sees, Hears and Experiences in China on her blog VPN or proxy in China... we recommend Freedur). Whether in rural Yunnan or urban Shanghai, Jonna seeks to understand the many facets of Chinese living—a traveler by nature, she looks beyond the tourist drag to dig deep into the local culture. Here she takes some time out to tell us about her experience of life, China and travel in the Middle Kingdom.>>>China Travel: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in China.
Jonna: I'm originally from Sweden but I've been living abroad for the last nine years. For as long as I can remember, I've always felt an urge to live abroad, and as soon as I graduated from high school I packed my bags and waved goodbye to Sweden. Since then I've been living in England, Australia, Finland and now China.
I was living and working in Finland as a web editor when I received a scholarship from the Finnish Journalism Association to go to a developing country (I picked China) and report on a developing project. After some research I decided to go to some isolated mountain villages in Yunnan where a volunteer group called Yunnan Institute of Development (YID) was working...
With some help from YID, I got to visit the tiny villages Beijing, where I'd spent some days before I went to Yunnan. But even more striking were the people of Daxi, who had nothing, and who still were so friendly and generous. The only downside was that I couldn't communicate with them myself, and that everything needed to go via two translators (one translating from the minority language to Mandarin and then another one translating from Mandarin to English). I was intrigued and decided that I would return to China in order to learn the language and find out more about this fascinating country.
Some weeks later I quit my job, applied to a Mandarin course in Shanghai, packed my bags and moved to China!
China Travel: Have you always had a blog or it something you started here?
Jonna: When I told my friends and families that I was moving to China they suggested that I'd start blogging about my life there. Once I arrived, though, I decided I first needed time to adapt before I could write about everything, so it wasn't until I was 1.5 years into living in China that I started blogging. I've never had a blog before this.
China Travel: You speak, read and write Mandarin. How do you think that has influenced your life here?
Jonna: It has definitely made life easier and more enjoyable. I didn't fall head of heels in love with China when I moved here in 2006, mainly because I felt it was hard to get into a society speaking a language I couldn't understand. The expat community didn't appeal to me either, so I actually felt a bit out of place at first. I was very persistent with my studies, however, and as soon as I was able to communicate, life turned to the better. I got Chinese friends and slowly felt that I became part of the society and understood how things worked. I often hear foreigners (who cannot speak Chinese) complain about this and that in China and I always tell them the same thing: study the language. Not only will it open your eyes to a rich and beautiful culture, but also help you understand people's behavior, and how life here works.
China Travel: Have you had the chance to travel very much in China? Tell us about your best experience so far.
Jonna: I love traveling more than anything, but I'm not big on sightseeing. I seldom use guidebooks or maps. I just go somewhere, chat to locals and ask them for recommendations. One shouldn't forget that taxi drivers are great local guides, happy to tell you about "their" city. (This photo special sums up my best travel moments in China between 2006-2009 quite well.)
In China I've been around for quite a bit, some common places like Beijing, Hainan, Dali and Lijiang, but also some less obvious travel destinations such as Dalian and Changsha. The latter left a deep impression on me, mainly because I went from Changsha to a small country village called Shuangxi to visit my Chinese friend's family. He couldn't come with me, so I went with some friends, and his family treated us like a queens and cooked us the most delicious meal. We had a lovely day with them in their village, not doing anything special, just hanging out, chatting, eating and laughing.
Inner Mongolia is another great travel tale, not to mention trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge with my mom who's 63!
The locals called me a "bad daughter" for dragging her up there, but mom and I had the time of our lives!
My first trip to the poor areas of Yunnan will of course also always be a very special memory to me. I feel lucky to have had a chance to see many different sides of China.
China Travel: And your worst?
Jonna: While the trip to Daxi was rewarding in many ways, the living conditions up there were horrible. No toilets, nowhere to wash up, heaps of huge bugs and dirt everywhere. It was raining a lot, and once when we were going down the hill of a mountain our car had a slippery slop and almost went off the edge of the road. It's okay to joke about it now, but then I was terrified.
China Travel: You've lived in both Shanghai and Suzhou, which did you prefer and why?
Jonna: Shanghai, by far! This city is buzzing with life, culture and fun! In Suzhou there's not much to do. It was a great place for studying Chinese though, much better than Shanghai. There isn't that much distracting you, and the locals love it when you speak Chinese to them, regardless of what level you are on. Many of them cannot speak any English, so you have to rely on your Chinese much more than you do in Shanghai.
China Travel: What are your Top 5 recommendations for a first time visitor to Shanghai to get a real feel for the city?
Jonna: I always say that Shanghai is a city that you should explore with your stomach. There are so many great restaurants here, my favorite one being a small Hunan place on Wulumuqi Lu. Trying some street food is a must! The nightlife here is great too, you can get everything from underground bomb shelter clubs to posh bars at the Bund.
[pullquote]I always say that Shanghai is a city that you should explore with your stomach... Trying some street food is a must![/pullquote] I'd also recommend visitors to get up real early in the morning, like 5:00 a.m. and head out for a walk. The city is far from asleep, the seniors are out doing their morning exercises, and the smell of freshly made baozis is everywhere.
Shopping is good here. I personally prefer the small shops in the French Concession to the big, shiny malls and the fake markets.
When speaking of shopping, although it might not be everyone's cup of tea, I think it's worth checking out some Chinese designers while in town: One by One, Seven Days, May Jiang and What Where Who.
China Travel: What is the one thing you wish you'd known about China before arriving?
Jonna: That they don't make shoes for big feet like me! Also, it would have been great if someone would have told me that comments like "you look so fat" or "today you have panda eyes!" shouldn't be taken too seriously.
China Travel: What do you miss most from home?
Jonna: Nature, fresh air, running outdoors, my family and friends.
China Travel: What would you miss most in China if you were to leave tomorrow?
Jonna: The food, the atmosphere, the cheap taxis, the speed of things, and the amazing people I've met here. I love my life here. It will be hard to return when the day comes.
China Travel: What three words sum up your China experience?
Jonna: Inspiring, eye-opening and thrilling.
All photos by Jonna Wibelius.Read more from Jonna at VPN or proxy in China to access it and any links included in this post. We recommend Freedur. In fact, we like it so much, we're giving free Freedur VPN accounts away as part of our Ctrip China Travel Photo Contest (click through for details).