Travelling in China can be a bumpy road.
There have been days when Stephen and I just look at each other in astonishment: this is what cycle touring is all about! We've met fascinating people, we've watched farmers work the steep terraced hillsides, and we've soaked in views so perfect they look painted on.
Other days, we question our own sanity. China is a tough place for a foreigner to travel. It's even tougher to travel off the beaten path and under your own steam. We can't escape the stares, we can't communicate, and we don't understand the local customs.
On the hard days, the right set of gear can make it all a little more manageable. So if you're planning any kind of trip to China, be it a short break or a months-long bicycle adventure, here are four items that will help keep you sane.
Good Quality Smog Mask
China is infamous for its dangerous smog.
We'd read all about it, but we didn't really understand what it was like until we'd experienced it for ourselves. On a smoggy day, the sky is an oppressive grey mass. Dawn flows directly into dusk, with no proper daylight in between. After our first few weeks of this, we started to wonder if there was still a sun up there somewhere, of if it had disappeared completely.
The smog problems are not limited to Beijing, Shanghai, and other big cities. They persist throughout the countryside in certain provinces, where factories abound and coal smoke hangs thick in the air.
That's why we love our smog masks. Reports are varied as to whether a mask really does much to protect your health, but at the very least they give us a little peace of mind. And even if they're not keeping out all of the deadly PM2.5 particles, they do protect us from other hazards.
Demolition and construction sites abound, filling the air with dust and decades-old building materials. The streets are chaotic with questionably tuned-up vehicles, spewing black smoke in our faces. And on the metro, it's hard to avoid coughers, sneezers, and snifflers, all ready to share their germs with you.
A good mask will let you breathe a little easier.
There are lots of options when it comes to masks, so before you leave home, do your research. Look online or at your local DIY store for a smog or construction mask with a carbon filter designed to handle PM2.5 particles.
And don't worry about looking odd, sticking out, or being the weirdo with a face mask on. In the cities they have become a fashion accessory. In the countryside, you'll be stared at no matter what you do, so you might as well protect your lungs while you're at it.
Earplugs Or Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Picture this. You're shopping at a high-end grocery store in the local mall. The tinny sound system is playing Christmas carols sung by evil munchkins. Weirdly, the store has multiple speaker systems, not synced with one another, so the munchkins wage a sonic battle as you shop. Simultaneously, an announcement in Chinese repeats on an endless loop, no doubt announcing a mad crazy sale on live eels or chicken feet.
Noise is a constant in China.
On trains, busses, and planes, the noise level is much higher (and often ickier) than it would be at home. Smartphones and tablets are everywhere, and many people eschew headphones, preferring to share the sound of their TV show, cartoon, or games with everyone around. There is coughing, there is spitting, there is shouting, and, for reasons unknown to me, there is the continuous cracking of sunflower seeds.
Imagine the noise at a baseball game, pack it into a moving metal tube, and you've got the sonic experience of public transport in China.
Streets are filled with honking trucks and scooters.
Hotels, especially budget hotels, are notoriously loud, with the maids and reception staff being the worst offenders.
As I write this, I can hear multiple horn blasts from the small street 21 stories below, a siren wailing in the distance, the rumble and screech of the elevated metro line, construction from the vast site on the other side of the building, an unidentifiable banging from down the hall, and the shrill blast of a policeman's whistle.
Sometimes being here makes me channel The Grinch.
"Oh the noise, noise, noise, noise, noise. There's one thing I hate, all the noise, noise, noise, noise!"
Earplugs or headphones won't be appropriate in every noisy situation you encounter. For example, I wouldn't recommend wearing them on the street, since you'll need all of your senses to avoid being run down by scooters and taxis.
But, especially if you're not great at ignoring ambient noise, a pair in your pocket will serve you well for moments when you need to think. Another pair beside your bed will be essential, unless you fancy staying up late with night owl hotel guests and waking up early with the maids.
Unless you are blessed with a giant bladder, you will probably have to visit a few public toilet facilities in China.
As a small-bladder girl myself, I've become an expert on toilets around the country. In Beijing, I was pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness and abundance of the facilities, many housed in stand-alone buildings throughout the famous hutong.
Even though they are bring-your-own-paper and squat places, they are usually clean and fairly modern, with individual cubicles for privacy. In Shanghai, it's easy to find Western toilets with paper, mirrors, and all the amenities.
Everywhere else, it's a crapshoot. I've used basic troughs-in-the-ground that haven't been cleaned in a decade, bus station squatters with tiny foot-high partitions between toilets, and even a roadside bush a time or five.
But these experiences are the exception. Mostly the facilities are good, and even provide a place to wash your hands.
Curiously, the one thing missing from almost every public toilet is a paper towel dispenser. I like to think that this if for conservation purposes, since paper is not to be wasted in a country with so many people. Locals just flick away the excess water and leave their hands to air dry. This leaves me with raw flaky skin, so I prefer to dry mine.
Enter the personal towel. I carry my MSR Personal Pack Towl everywhere I go. It's compact, quick drying, and clips right onto my bag. A facecloth from home tucked into your day pack would work just as well. If you prefer something more stylish, People Towels make a cute little hand towel for just such a purpose.
Once you get used to carrying your own personal towel around China, you can import the practice back home, thereby saving trees and electricity every time you visit a public toilet.
Portable Cutlery Set
Stephen and I have been carrying our To Go Wear bamboo cutlery sets for years now. We loved having them in LA, because it meant we never had to eat lunch with a flimsy plastic fork and knife. Not only did we avoid the broken-tine-in-the-salad debacle, but it felt good to dispose with disposables.
In China, they have become indispensable for every meal. Of course, every restaurant provides you with a pair of chopsticks when you order. Sometimes you get an immaculate shiny metal pair, or heavy duty plastic, and sometimes, you get a pair of shabby wooden sticks that look like they've been constantly gnawed on by mice for the last 10 years.
Lots of places use a UV chopstick and dish steriliser to ensure they're not helping to spread communicable diseases and germs. But lots of places don't, and you usually can't tell which kind of place you're in just by looking. We have also seen many UV sterilisers filled with chopsticks, but not plugged in, which doesn't instil us with great confidence.
With that in mind, it's always nice to be able to pull out our own personal cutlery sets – which include a fork, a knife, a spoon, and pair of chopsticks – knowing that the only mouths they've been in are our own.
Admittedly, I have often felt self-conscious doing this, especially in village restaurants where we are being watch closely by every patron, all the staff, and the proud owner. Pulling out our own cutlery is like saying that we're too good for the chopsticks that everyone else uses.
But, I have come to accept my role as the crazy foreigner in town, and using our own cutlery is just one more in a long list of crazy things we do.
If you have any favourite pieces of travel gear, please share them in the comments below.
You can follow our daily adventures in China at My Five Acres, where you'll find many more tips about travelling in China.
All photos copyright Jane Mountain, 2013