Chinese Buffet – Part 1: An Empty Plate

During three weeks in July, I visited China, and Asia, for the very first time. And today marks the start of a new series here at Gadling in which I’ll share observations and travel tips from this recent trip to the People’s Republic of China.

When I left the U.S., my knowledge of China did not extend far beyond the pages of a Friday night take-out menu, and even that (unbeknownst to me) wasn’t serving up an accurate portrayal of authentic Chinese cuisine. I read some educational books and a great web series on China before I departed, but for the most part, I landed in Beijing on an empty stomach — eager to fill up on as much Chinese culture, history (and food!) as possible. My three week experience only scratched the surface, but I definitely received a sufficient introduction to this incredibly complex nation.

I should clarify before all the foodies get too excited, that this is not a culinary travel series — although there will be obvious chatter about dumplings and duck. But in the spirit of communal Chinese dining and shared dishes, I’ve dubbed this smorgasbord series Chinese Buffet – a varied collection of dispatches from one American’s first taste of China.

Chinese Buffet will share a cross section of experiences from my travels in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Suzhou and at the Great Wall. The journey was a real mixed bag: In Beijing, I was on my own, solo budget backpacking, like I did throughout much of Europe last year. In Shanghai, the pace was more relaxed, and I lived comfortably with my Pudong-based pals for over two weeks, experiencing every day life with an expat family. There were some solo day trips too, and an overnight excursion with a four-year-old and his pregnant mommy — a true cornucopia of (mostly urban) travel experiences.

It was only after these good friends of mine decided to relocate to Shanghai two years ago, that I started to pay closer attention to China. With my first real personal connection to the country, I found myself noticing headlines more often. The Olympic buzz especially peaked my interest, increasing my desire to visit China prior to the Games. I wanted to see first hand the rapid transformation that everyone has been talking about.

I put off booking the trip for awhile, despite gracious invitations from my Shanghai pals. It seemed daunting to me – how best to plan a solo trip to China??!?! Of course, this was further reason to visit while my friends were there – I’d have instant guides on the ground. But I was still leery for awhile. Unlike my fellow Gadling blogger, Ember Swift, China was not on my list of top places to visit, but my wanderlust ways and instinctive curiosity towards the unknown kept edging me in this direction. Eventually, I booked a one-way ticket to Beijing, with no set goals except to go and see for myself.

Now, on the cusp of the one-year countdown until the Olympics begin in Beijing, I’ve had a chance to witness what is happening with my own two eyes. I hope sharing my experiences motivates others to take the plunge as well, either now, during, or after the Games. Since my insight is just one perspective, I invite and encourage others to chime in along the way with their thoughts and suggestions about travel and life in the PRC.

It kind of felt like a travel taste-test to me, dabbling in the sights and sounds of a handful of Chinese cities, digesting what I could during the time I was so fortunate to have. I hope you enjoy some of what is served up! We’ll kick off the adventure tomorrow with a week of dispatches from Beijing.