Visiting China? 7 Timeless Tips from Travelers of the Past

(inspired by debut novel Jade Dragon Mountain)


1. When planning your trip, be sure to account for transit time

John Grueber, a German Jesuit, set sail for China in 1656. He started in Italy, crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Turkey, traveled overland through the Middle East to the Persian Gulf, then sailed to India, where he was delayed for 10 months. He finally booked passage on an English ship and arrived in Macau in July, 1658. Total transit time: 2 years.

(While planes and trains are faster than ships and caravans, getting to China still requires endurance. 20 hours of international flights, 5 hours of domestic flights, and a rattling overnight train through the mountains bring a contemporary traveler from Washington D.C. to the scenic city of Lijiang.)

Kircher map - Europe Asia

2. try not to let visa problems cause undue stress

Matteo Ricci spent 20 years seeking permission to enter China and meet the Emperor. In one of his many letters, he promised the Emperor a gift of a clock. Years later, in 1600, he was allowed to enter Beijing only to be thrown into prison. According to his report, he was preparing to meet death when “one day, the King, of his own prompting, suddenly remembered a certain petition that had been sent in to him and said, ‘where is that clock, I say, where is that clock that rings of itself; the one the foreigners were bringing here?’”

(You may not be required to build a new technological marvel to secure a visa to China, but Matteo Ricci’s experience demonstrates a relevant lesson: bureaucracies are unpredictable and out of your control. All you can do is follow instructions, be patient, and maintain a sense of humor.)

3. master a few useful phrases to help you get around

In 1583, traveler Michelle Ruggieri wrote: “I spent some years in the port of Macao, where the Portuguese merchants do their trading, learning the language which they call Mandarin. It is the language used by these magistrates and courtiers, which, because of an almost infinite quantity of characters, is so difficult that the Chinese themselves spend years at it.”  

(Ruggieri eventually learned enough Chinese to write the first Portuguese-Chinese dictionary, but don’t expect to pick up the language in a week. Helpful hint: check the front desk of your hotel. Many provide cards printed with the message: Take me to <hotel name> please in Mandarin for guests to show a taxi driver if they get lost.)

Chinese dictionary Ruggieri

4. do your best to respect local customs

The Dominican Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon arrived in Beijing in December of 1705, hoping to influence the Emperor against the Jesuits. Unfortunately for de Tournon, his etiquette mistakes quickly earned him the Emperor’s disdain. In his personal writings, the Emperor listed de Tournon’s faux-pas: “He used wrongly elevated characters in his memorials, implied that the word emperor (huang) was also used among his own people, wrote his memorials on paper decorated with five-clawed dragons, and so on.”

(The guidelines for writing memorials—official communications to the Emperor—were as strict as they were complex. De Tournon probably had no idea that he was making mistakes. Accept that you will get some things wrong, and be grateful that your hosts are more forgiving than the Kangxi Emperor.)

5. make sure your guidebook is up to date

Seventeenth-century traveler Xu Xiake recorded his journeys through the provinces of China with obsessive attention to detail. He methodically corrected maps and guidebooks. On one occasion he found a certain town on the opposite side of a river from that which was indicated on the map. “Had I not arrived in person,” he complained, “the prefectural map would have remained unreliable.”

(Xu Xiake was heading into the frontier.  These days, guidebook accuracy suffers more from rapid urban development than from unexplored territory. What used to be a museum may well be a construction site a month later and a hotel a month after that.)

Chinese scholar recluse - mountain

6. put down your camera to appreciate the natural wonders

Xu Xiake stopped correcting his guidebooks for a moment as he climbed a new mountain and “reached the summit as the sun was sinking into the abyss, just in time to see it alighting on a shimmering strip of water below.... As the evening sun went down, the light was maintained by a clear moon, and all of nature was still, the sky awash with blue, as if one's bones had been cleansed in a jade pot… I was not frightened by the crowds of mountain spirits and strange beasts hemming me in, let alone the unmoving silence, for I was wandering with the Ultimate Void.

(There are places in the world that seem to exist outside of time. The abyss and shimmering water that Xu Xiake saw may be there now, unchanged, just as he described them. These places are hard to find, but when you do find them, you have a chance to stand for a moment in the company of a fellow traveler, as if there were no years to separate you.)

7. if you embellish your story when you get home, know that you are in famous company

Marco Polo visited the court of the Chinese Emperor in 1275. Later, he recounted “a strange thing that hitherto I have forgotten to mention…. When the Lord desires to drink, these enchanters by the power of their enchantments cause the cups to move from their place without being touched by anybody, and to present themselves to the Emperor! This every one present may witness, and there are ofttimes more than 10,000 persons thus present. 'Tis a truth and no lie!”

(Did Marco Polo really see, or think that he saw, levitating cups and clouds controlled by diabolic arts? The evidence we have from the past cannot be reconciled with the way we think in the present. This is the realm where history blends with tale, a realm where we encounter mystery and magic, where perspectives shift and rules change. This is the realm of the storyteller.)

Jade Dragon Mountain

Elsa Hart wrote her debut novel, Jade Dragon Mountain, while living in Lijiang, in the western mountains of China. Set in the 18th century, it tells the story of an exiled librarian who must solve the murder of a Jesuit traveler on the border of China and Tibet.