Travelling to China from Nairobi is not an excursion for the faint-hearted. While one needs a visa, and a passport with validity of at least six months before expiry, the process of acquiring it is daunting to the extent that it overrides the fact that it is free of charge.
After filling in the application and filing it online, one waits for an appointment that eventually determines whether the visa will be granted or not; a standard procedure for travel to most countries nowadays. But it is a fitness report that has to be completed by a reputable medical institution that gives one goosebumps.
Among the tests to be conducted are on HIV status, syphilis and an MRI to establish one’s heart condition. Though it was not outrightly stated what would befall applicants who did not measure up on these counts, it gave the impression that a visa could be denied despite the steps the world has made against discrimination on health grounds especially if the ailments are not contagious.
Visa granted and flights booked, the journey is tiring, particularly when not taking a direct flight. In our case, the travel to Beijing was on Ethiopian Airlines.
After a two-hour hop to Addis Ababa from Nairobi, a layover of six hours was only made bearable by a complimentary meal at the airline’s Bole airport lounge.
On this leg of the flight, one could easily see how an airline can be positioned at the centre of marketing a country. Among the soft drinks served on the plane was specialty Ethiopian coffee, whose aroma lingered long after the tables had been cleared.
On the inflight entertainment menu was an album of music compiled from various Ethiopian artistes, an inexpensive way to promote the country’s culture.
Because I am not a regular traveller, I am not in a position to compare what strides other African airlines have made in promoting their countries to travellers.
However, it is a positioning model that Kenya Airways (they serve Kenyan nuts), newly relaunched national carriers like Uganda Airlines and Air Tanzania as well as the ambitious RwandAir, should consider perfecting.
At Bole airport and later at Chinese airports, it was clear that priority was given to making the traveller feel at home while in transit.
In contrast, one feels trapped at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport when waiting for a flight after checking in.
Unlike in many airports where pricey duty free shopping is the norm, cheaper options were available in the outlets, including vendors, not vending machines, selling drinking water for a dollar at Bole airport.
At Beijing and Qingdao airports in China, there were massage beds conveniently positioned for travellers to enjoy the service at a cost of 10 yuan (about a dollar and a half) for 15 minutes.
We found that the massage beds were a standard feature in the hotel lobbies we visited, as well as in shopping malls and other public spaces.
Users paid for the service by scanning QR codes—a step above East Africa where paybills and till numbers can lead to wrong entries—on the machine for money to be deducted from their mobile wallets or bank accounts.
To get to Beijing, however, there was the small matter of the 11-hour flight that no amount of inflight entertainment, catering, sleeping and other personal interests could fully occupy.
Passengers standing or walking along the aisles was evidence of this, as the leg room and slightly adjustable seats in the economy class section were restrictive. These, however, did not distract from an eye-opening experience in China in the following areas.
The stereotype in Kenya and possibly the rest of Africa is that the Chinese eat plants and animals that other people do not. In the early days of a three-week stay, it was not uncommon for visitors to be cautious at meals, waiting for someone else to taste the food and give their verdict before making their choice.
At times it seemed rude, asking our hosts what each item was made from. Hotels were clearly used to this, placing an ingredients card on every item served at the buffet.
A tour guide later revealed that the unique delicacies talked of—dogs, donkeys, snails and snakes—were not everyday foods and were the preserve of some rural communities or served only at exclusive tourist hotels.
On the whole, rice is the country’s staple, eggs are served in various forms at every sitting, as is green tea, usually taken without sugar.
Salt is rarely placed on the table for additional seasoning, and guests have to trust the chef. A clear giveaway on the table that you are a foreigner is the clumsy use of chopsticks despite spoons, forks and knives being made available.
Mean is what one would term East Africa’s hotel services after staying in a standard facility in China. While beds are of average size, more toiletry is provided free of charge beyond the standard soap, towel and shower cap.
You get toothpaste, a toothbrush, a comb, a shaving blade and cream, sanitary pads and sandals at the hotels we stayed at.
Flushing toilet paper is discouraged as the water is recycled. A word of caution—making a mess in the room can be costly and embarrassing.
One guest was fined 400 yuan ($60) for spilling fruit juice on the bedding, and another paid a similar amount for leaving lipstick on a face towel.
Not all items in the room are free, including water beyond the two complimentary bottles; a $2 surcharge applied for a five-litre can. A laundry room is provided with a washing machine and an iron which guests could use in turns.
Buying personal items, not for resale, can be rewarding both in cents and experience. From jewellery to clothing, shoes, watches and electronics, the price can be a fraction of what is charged in many outlets across Africa.
While taxes and logistics could explain some of the differences, high mark ups by merchants appear to be the norm with prices in Nairobi outlets about two to three times those in Chinese retail stores.
One has to scour the market and fumble through the language barrier—few salespeople speak anything outside mandarin—to secure tangible bargains.
There are however a few markets that tour guides said offer the best deals for short-stay travellers, including the Silk Road Market and the Tiananmen Square areas in Beijing, and the Temple Road and Pearl Market in Shanghai, where items ranging from suits to jewellery and prescription glasses can be customised and delivered to a guest’s hotel in hours.
There is also the Duo Yuan market in Qingdao. Local knowledge comes in handy too as the price and quality of items can differ markedly from one shop to the next, especially for watches, jewellery and electronics.
With more than 70 per cent of Chinese people shopping online, most stall owners give huge discounts for volume sales.
Communication and appliances
For many of us hooked to Western technologies like search engine Google and social media platforms like WhatsApp and Twitter, China’s media is not only state-owned but also strictly regulated. Those applications are prohibited and one has to use Chinese equivalents like Baidu and Wechat.
However, the applications can be accessed through solutions like VPN, which have to be installed before travel, and data-only cards sold by providers like China Unicom.
A one month data only card of 3GB capacity costs 120 yuan ($17) and for 5GB costs 150 yuan ($21). Another alternative would be to buy a local SIM card for 250 yuan ($36), which offers data and international calls.
While in China, I realised how expensive roaming services offered by Kenyan telcos are. Safaricom, which is in partnership with China Unicom, charges $0.5 for calls from China to Kenya, $1 for calls to other countries, $0.4 to receive a voice call (all per minute), $0.25 per SMS and $0.14 per MB of data.
Airtel charges $1.13 per minute to call Kenya from China, $0.47 per SMS and $24.07 per MB on data. On power connectivity, China uses a different system from East Africa, and a converter is required to connect appliances. Luckily, mobile money services are available at local tariffs.
For a country as expansive and diverse as China, one is spoilt for choice in terms of places to visit—from the mountainous west to the mega cities in the east all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
The best way to get to know a country is by interacting with people in their communities, learning the language and understanding their culture.
Historical relics such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City carry millenia worth of history and, not surprisingly, are the most visited sites in China. Other aspects of culture are stored in museums covering all sectors, from rail to film and media.
The construction feats easily stand out, literally: Skyscrapers like the Shanghai Centre and China Zun are among the tallest in the world, and the web of highway interchanges that separate vehicles going in dozens of directions and the Phoenix Centre come to mind.
Others are the undersea road tunnel and the 27-kilometre Bay Bridge, one of the longest bridges in the world, which is partly suspended by cable across the sea at Qingdao.
While Chinese people are friendly, their years of isolation mean Africans become the centre of attraction by virtue of their skin colour, which can be unsettling.