Travel China: Shara Johnson of SKJ

Travel China

Greetings all!  We’re kicking off 2013 with an epic interview covering the travellers hot spot of China.  This giant country is regularly sought after by we travelling folk and Shara Johnson of SKJ Travel has much to share with us. We’re happy to have her back after her equally fascinating interview on Uganda last year. 

1. Could you briefly introduce yourself, your site and your experience travelling in China?

I’m Shara, and I don’t own a cell phone.  Gauging from the typical response I receive to that fact, it may be the most interesting thing about me.

My travel blog website is a narrative blog in a sort of “letters to home” style. It’s kind of like a travel journal that I just share with everyone else.

I travelled to China on two separate occasions. The first time I got around all by myself, but stuck to only a couple major cities. The second time my husband joined me, and we had a lovely adventure by train, plane, bus, boat, bicycle, foot, and log rolling, mostly up north.

2. What made you choose this country and what were your first impressions?

I chose China the way I choose a lot of travel destinations:  I wanted to do some volunteer work there. In this case, as an ethnographic researcher in a tiny peasant village. I love kicking off a trip with a volunteer stint, but I generally focus on cultural or wildlife research rather than the more popular humanitarian work.

My first impression was basically, “Wow.” Upon arrival the first year, I stayed in Beijing for over a week at a great hostel whose staff was incredibly helpful and friendly (Downtown Backpackers). I was completely in love with the grandiose imperial architecture. Some of the most fun days of my entire life were roaming about places like the Summer Palace and Forbidden City all on my own with nobody else to please or follow.  Later, I travelled to Xi’an to cross off an item from my Top 5 Things I Want To See list – the Terra Cotta Warriors. I wasn’t disappointed.

Travel China

Travel China: SKJ Travel

Then I began my volunteer work in a region where most inhabitants had never seen a white person. They were not shy about full-on staring at me and my fellow researchers. The village we lived in and studied was very traditional, where people live essentially in sophisticated caves dug into the hillsides of soft dirt in the northern Loess region of China. My first impressions there were of an utterly different nature, living in such a timeless atmosphere where people still walk to the spring each morning to fill water buckets, work all day with a wooden hoe, and donkeys grind millet on stone grinding mills for flour. Here, hospitality is necessary to survival. With no phones, no computers, no mailboxes … if you want to communicate with someone, you have to walk to their village.

A handful of people had cell phones, but typically they had only one or maybe two other people they could even call. Blind musicians still wandered the countryside when I was there, exchanging evening entertainment for room and board. So hospitality is a mandate. And one thing it taught me was the less you have, the more you give. When I came back the second year, people were even more over the top … perhaps because I was with a smaller group. I had to learn not to compliment a villager on anything in their house or garden, because if I did they would instantly force it into my possession.

Travel China

Travel China: SKJ Travel

3. How much money can someone travel around China for? What are the greatest expenses? What things are relatively cheap?

My husband evaluates a country first and foremost by the price of their beer relative to quality. China is probably his favourite country on these terms. Beer is very cheap and quite good.  I never expected to find so much of it … that is, each city has their own beer if not several.  I know tons of people say Tsingtao, or Qingdao, is the best. But I guess I’m a contrarian; I completely disagree. It’s simply the most widely distributed. The local beers are far and away the tastier choice.  You can live on street food and beer for seriously small change.

It’s been several years since I was there, but reports are that prices, outside of Beijing and Shanghai anyway, haven’t changed significantly. So really, everything is affordable. I was impressed by the quality of the hostels we stayed in for the low prices we were paying (around USD$20/$25 for a private room, usually en suite, including at least breakfast, sometimes dinner also). I was also impressed by how easy it was to make bookings online from America. I think things probably change at a disturbingly fast pace, so it’s probably harder to have the experiences I had, wherein, for example, in Datong I appeared to be the first person to make an online booking from overseas. The hotel manager was beside himself with joy (so we suspect it was his idea to list online), and essentially adopted us as his children … again with the hospitality.

Haircuts are ridiculously cheap. Since I often am abroad for many weeks at a time, this actually becomes a factor in travelling. If you read my interview about Uganda, one of the things I was most stymied over was the inability to find scissors to cut my bangs with. Again, perhaps Westerners become less and less rare with each passing year or month, but when my husband asked the hotel manager where to get a haircut in Datong, the manager personally drove with us to a “salon” where we had to wait for “the master” to be summoned from who knows where. He took, no kidding, 45 minutes to cut the hair on my husband’s balding head, pretty much one hair at a time. Best haircut in the world. 15 yuan, which was less than USD$2.

The bottom line for China:  anything that is a human labour service is ridiculously cheap. Street massages, for example, cost me less than one US dollar. Twenty minutes of mind-numbing pain having pressure points drilled and muscles knocked about in order to feel like gold for the following few days – for pocket change.

Travel China

Travel China: SKJ Travel

Train ticket prices vary pretty widely depending on the class of ticket. You can travel for a pittance in the lowest class. A posh soft-sleeper car is a bit more pricey, but honestly, after travelling in a variety of classes, both with and without reserved seats, I say if you’re flush with cash, that sleeper car is awfully nice.

4. What is the local cuisine like? Did you find yourself trying new things or pining for the familiars of home?

Know that traditional northern Chinese cuisine is completely different from southern. Southern is rice-based and the cuisine most Westerners are familiar with in Chinese restaurants. Northern is millet-based with a much milder spice base. One could be tempted to call the traditional Northern cuisine bland in comparison to Southern, though I personally wouldn’t give in to this temptation … I found the food still delicious. And these days any large city will have restaurants serving Southern dishes.  In the northern peasant villages, they live primarily on millet soup, adding fresh vegetables and watermelon in the summer. I got to watch them make tofu in the traditional way in the village, which was very interesting (and delicious).

Travel China

Travel China: SKJ Travel

I never pined for home food, and not being fluent in Mandarin or written Chinese script, it was pretty much impossible not to try new things … whether I wanted to or not! Best bet was to buy street food that you can point to, or to be able to say the basic words like “chicken” or “soup” at a restaurant and ask the waitress to bring you something of her choice. I never had a bad meal by a waitress’s decision. The only truly horrible meal I had, and there was just one, was at a restaurant on the tourist drag in Guilin, and we picked out our dishes from photographs on the menu.

5. What cultural activities and events would you suggest everyone seeing or taking part in while travelling in China and why?

Well, gosh, that’s a huge question, or rather, the answer is huge. Chinese festivals are pretty renowned for their splendour. I guess from my own unique experience, I would say it would be great if people could somehow get access to small village festivals because you won’t see those on TV travel shows or recreations of them in China Towns all over the world like you will New Year and Lantern and boat festivals. A small village celebration I went to, we were met at the bottom of a hill, on which the village temple stood, by a man carrying a portable deity on his shoulders. We had to kneel and kowtow to the tiny god in the box on the man’s shoulders before proceeding through the fields to the temple. As a random tourist, you couldn’t just walk into a small village like this, but maybe you could try to make contacts in the larger townships and get an invitation.

6. What is your favourite thing about travelling this country? What is your least favourite thing?

I’m not a Buddhist, but I loved hitting all the temples and monasteries as we travelled in the north from Beijing to Datong, across Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Gansu to the Gannan Tibetan Nationality Autonomous Prefecture. They were so beautiful and peaceful, and at the same time kind of bizarre in their iconography. Some temples were a fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism. The most interesting, in Zhongwei (Ningxia), added to those Confucianism and Christianity. The most spectacular was Labrang which has the largest population of monks in China. Everywhere we went, all the prayer wheels and butter lamps, all the incense and offerings and kneeling people … it just infused that whole portion of the country with a subtle spiritual element, an undercurrent in all of daily life. I thought it was cool.

Travel China

Travel China: SKJ Travel

My least favourite part was the train sprint. In Beijing train station, everything occurs in a very orderly manner and does not prepare you for the mayhem of the more rural outlying regions. Once you hand over your ticket and pass through the turnstile, it’s literally a free-for-all, run-as-fast-as-you-can, squeeze-and-push-your-way-through-the-door, temporary madness. Even if you have a reserved seat, you still have to secure luggage space, and hurdle over children sleeping in the aisles. Once everyone has found their place, however inconvenient or uncomfortable it might be, they are so polite and friendly and generous, and perfectly civilized. But for that period of time boarding the train, it is all gloves off and there is no mercy.

I don’t have any problem peeing into a dirt hole in the ground – the most common public restroom situation in the outlying areas. But I did have a problem on a couple of occasions walking into a large crowded restroom (such as in a train station) because there are no real stalls and no doors … being confronted with a long row of naked bottoms squatting over holes, and all eyes fixed on me, did actually intimidate me, and I had to hold out for a more private hole in the ground (or wait to get on the train). While I was living in the village, I was constantly spied on by the children while I peed, for the  open-air loo had zero privacy. But still, it was just me … somehow it was more tolerable.

Travel China

Travel China: SKJ Travel

8. What’s one thing you can’t travel around China without?

Your hotel name and address written in Chinese characters. Not everyone reads Roman alphabet-based pinyin, including taxi drivers, particularly outside the primary tourist cities. Even if your Mandarin pronunciation is impeccable, if you’re a Westerner, people will often claim they don’t understand you, even if later they confess they understood you perfectly … it’s a really weird thing. Never leave your accommodations without their business card.

If you plan to wander around on your own off the beaten track, a small simple compass is surprisingly useful. In the larger cities, the smog is so bad you can’t really get bearings from the sun, and even if you have a city map, you can easily get turned around in the maze of alley streets and hutongs, and get flustered with street signs you can’t parse. Being able to align your direction on a map with a quick consultation of a compass is super handy.

9. What kind of response have you had to your blogs about China? What post had the most interest?

I’m often surprised by the responses. The most popular posts are usually not what I would have predicted. On my second trip, in which my husband met me, 2 posts garnered exponentially higher interest than the others.  We stayed in Xiahe for several days visiting the Labrang Monastery. They had some nice shops and I was interested in a particular coat. It was about closing time, and I reached an impasse bargaining with the proprietor. I decided to leave without the coat. I went back to the hostel and sent out a dispatch to my subscribers in which I briefly mentioned my anxiety and possible regret over having walked away from that coat over about a 20-yuan impasse (USD$2.50), before going on to describe the amazing monastery. Tons of people replied to the dispatch telling me to get the coat … friends said if I didn’t want it they’d buy it off me, my mom replied and said she’d buy it for me for Christmas. But it was too late, we left the next morning before the shops opened up. Well, after we returned home, my husband couldn’t keep his secret any longer … as we unpacked, he pulled out of his backpack that coat! I could not believe my eyes. While I was writing that dispatch at the hostel, he snuck back to that shop and bought the coat for the price the proprietor had stopped bargaining at. I was so happy because I never saw another one that I wanted, and so I thought I had missed out. I wrote a postscript to my subscribers about it, and a whole lot of people replied to that proclaiming warm fuzzies in their heart.

Travel China

Travel China: Shara Johnson

10. If you could think of one thing you wished someone told you before you started travelling in China what would it be?

Not all ATMs take foreign credit cards. Maybe it’s gotten better since my trip. But in some places I had to try ATM after ATM freaking out that my card was broken until finally in Xi’an someone clued me in and showed me how to identify a machine that would work for my foreign card.

Thanks again to Shara for a proper in depth interview! Just how we like them!

To read more from, go over to her website and catch her on Facebook.

If you have a travel tale or blog to share, contact us for an interview.



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