- Being able to use my Chinese to get to talk with locals and people on trains was always fun. I went to China knowing no Chinese. I never conquered Chinese to a "fluent" level, but I studied a fair amount and got to a point where I could carry conversations with people on a wide array of topics. There are countless random people who I ran into that'll be some of my fondest memories.
- Seeing the five peaks of Hua Shan during the day is unreal. The steep cliffs, the Daoist temples, the thousands upon thousands of steps going straight up. It's a magical place. Several other mountainous places also stand out to me – Emei Shan, Yangshuo, Karakul Lake, the Great Wall. I guess growing up in flat-as-a-pancake Kansas has led me chasing mountains all around the world.
- Being able to share China with so many people I care about was special. My parents and brother came over for a few weeks in 2007. I had several friends from the US come over. I traveled extensively with friends I made in China. And my wife, Qian, and I have great memories traveling outside of Xi'an. I realized that I don't like traveling by myself. I need companionship when on the road.
- Getting giardiasis (a stomach parasite) at Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province was one of my worst experiences in China. I didn't have any antibiotics and was in a remote place with no doctors or pharmacies to help me out. My friend who I was traveling with, Joseph, got the bug too. We were a mess. I lost 15 pounds in two weeks before I got everything figured out. Needless to say, but I spent a lot of time in the bathroom those two weeks with problems coming from every direction.
- The scariest moment was in Xiahe in Gansu Province. My friend, Andy, and I were the first foreigners in months to see the Labrang Monastery after the Tibetan riots in 2008. It's a long story, but we were able to buy bus tickets to Xiahe in October of 2008 when it was illegal for foreigners to go there (I'm not sure whether foreigners are allowed to go there now). We hadn't realized the restrictions on foreigners traveling there and were simply interested in seeing the Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Upon entering the city limits of Xiahe, armed soldiers donning full riot gear ran onto the bus to interrogate the foreigners. They started barking Chinese to us. I definitely broke a sweat during that scene. Everything worked out in the end and we got to visit the monastery. But it was a pretty intense entrance to the city.
China Travel: What was life in Xi'an like as an expat? It seems like there's a pretty tight expat community on one hand, but like it's also a place where you can immerse yourself in Chinese language and culture more easily than in Shanghai or Beijing, where so many expats get by for years with minimal Chinese.Mark Vranicar: I'd say that your assessment of Xi'an is pretty accurate. There are foreigners living there (and a lot always traveling through as well). But the numbers pale in comparison to some of the other large cities in China like Beijing, Shanghai, or even Chengdu. I like the fact that there are foreigners living there while at the same time the city isn't teeming with them. It's a really nice balance. I heartily recommend Xi'an as a place to live for a foreigner wanting to live in a culturally unique city that still is still very accessible to a newbie to China. One other positive Xi'an has going for it is that the locals there speak a relatively "clean-sounding" Mandarin. It's a great place to learn Chinese. There is a local Shaanxi dialect, but most people speak Mandarin in a similar way to the Beijing standard. Many of the other cities in China foreigners flock to—Shanghai, Chongqing, and Chengdu to name a few—have "funkier" sounding accents or dialects.
China Travel: As a seasoned China traveler, what are your top five pieces of advice for people making their first visit to the Middle Kingdom?Mark Vranicar:
1. Don't travel during Chinese national holidays if at all possible. Hundreds of millions of Chinese people take to the rails, streets, and airports during the three, week-long national holidays celebrated throughout the year. The lines and congestion can be unimaginable. Spring Festival begins on the lunar New Year, Labor Day begins May 1st, and the National Holiday is October 1st.
2. Get out of major cities, at least a little bit. If you go to Beijing, go to the farther away sections of the Great Wall (Simatai is a great choice). If you go to Xi'an, go a couple hours east to climb (or take the cable car to the top of) Hua Shan. If you go to Chengdu, get out to see the Buddha at Leshan.
3. Eat local food. Chinese food varies wildly. Every city has local dishes and flavors that you'll never find in a Chinese restaurant in the West.
4. Don't spend all of your time fraternizing with backpackers in youth hostels. I got real tired of this scene the longer I stayed in China. It's fine to hang out with other travelers, but it's important to remember to get out into the location where you are traveling. Go have a beer and eat street food with locals on the street. Take a map and randomly walk the streets. Try to remember that you didn't travel halfway around the world just to hang out with western hippies.
5. Try to learn a few basic words or phrases in Chinese. Chinese is not impossible, especially if you just want to learn "survival Chinese." Numbers, food, and a few verbs will take you a long ways. Chinese people won't think you are stupid if you try. In fact, they will be impressed with whatever you spit out. Knowing at least a little Chinese will make your travel experiences a lot more fulfilling.