China Trip Wrap-Up

My return flight to Düsseldorf was scheduled for Saturday at 01:50+0800. Arrival at Düsseldorf would be something like 06:30+0200, so I would get home in the morning and with sleep on the plane the jet lag should not be that bad. At the airport I bought such an U-shaped pillow. A lot of stores outside of the security area carry them. They ranged between around 300 CNY to a cheap feeling one for 120 CNY. I ended up with a mid-range one, it is amazing how many different models there are!

Before I got to the gate the flight was already marked as delayed, they showed 02:30+0800 instead of the scheduled 01:50+0800.

For some reason it is a problem to bring water bottles through the security check. So I always have to toss them and buy new ones afterwards. The easiest way would be to just empty the bottles and refill them at the drinking water fountains. But I did not know that these existed, so I did not bring any containers. In the domestic terminal on the way to Wǔhàn there was a small grocery store that accepted my credit card and sold water. In the international terminal I could not find such a store. There were many stores under construction, so perhaps one of this kind was being rebuilt. I found two vending machines that accept credit cards, so I purchased a bottle of water there. Also I spent my last CNY on water, I was happy to have spent it all.

The challenge started when I wanted to get more water at the gate. There the vending machines only took CNY cash or WeChat Pay. I had neither. So I went back to the center of the terminal to the ones that do accept credit card. In both of them the water was sold out already. So what would you do now? I had the following items:

  • Credit card
  • Less than 1 CNY in very small coins
  • Several 50 EUR bills
  • One full 570 ml water bottle

I wanted to get some more water for the flight and did not want to pay a crazy amount of money for it. It turned out to be quite a quest! I first wanted to see whether I could find an ATM. They did not have one within the security area. Then I tried to go to the currency exchange and wanted to trade 5 EUR for CNY, but the smallest bills that they have are the 50 EUR. I saw that another guy bought currency via credit card, but they sell everything except CNY via credit card. I could have traded a whole 50 EUR for CNY but I really wanted to avoid that. Next I tried to go to Starbucks and wanted to buy water there. They only had Evian for 22 CNY per bottle. That's a bit extreme, but still cheaper than the other options that I had. I tried paying with credit card there but it got rejected and their POS system crashed. The clerk declined to sell me anything, so I left without expensive imported French water. I felt that I was running out of cheap options. There are a row of restaurants, but most of them had already closed at 00:30. The Irish pub still had a clerk at the counter, so I asked whether they would sell bottled water. They had the same Evian for say 26 CNY. But they would not take the credit card outright, so another bust.

I went back to the vending machines and saw that somebody was restocking it. He was just refilling cans, though. I pointed to the water and he communicated that there is no more water. Great. The vending machines at the gates have water but I don't have cash. At the other vending machine I saw somebody attempting to buy a can with bills. I somehow communicated that I'd like to have the cash and payed for his can with my credit card. After that I had a 5 CNY bill which was enough to buy a second bottle of water. At that point I had 1140 ml water capacity again. I refilled that shortly before boarding and then just got water on the plane.

During my stay in China I got to know the food. For the return flight I just booked the vegetarian menu and got a meal which was free of allergy issues for me. I could have just gone with that for the first flight. Next time I know.

The departure of the plane was late at night, I was already pretty tired. With the neck pillow I managed to sleep for more than half of the flight and arrived only somewhat tired in Düsseldorf. Immigration was also with the automated machines, I spent most time waiting for my suitcase. After I left the customs area I went to the first bakery store and got two whole grain rolls with a lot of butter and cheese, I felt like at home again.

During my purchase of the train ticket to Bonn main station I noticed a confused Chinese couple. They asked me in English whether I could help them book a train ticket to Köln main station. As I went there myself this was very easy, I just helped them with the ticket machine. They were very thankful and I just told them that I was happy to return the helpfulness that I experienced in Běijīng. The young woman that sat next to me in the train was also a bit lost, she needed to go to Aachen. I also booked her train but as she took a different one I wanted to make sure that she has all the information needed. Using WeChat I showed my QR code, she scanned it and we had exchanged contact information. Then I sent her a screenshot of the DB Navigator app which contained all the times, train names and platform numbers. The couple exclaimed how difficult the German train system is and I concurred. I really liked the metro systems in Wǔhàn and Běijīng, the CRH was also easy to use. And if I as a German can use the Chinese metro easier than the German regional trains, it should trigger some serious questions.


  • As a Westerner one stands out a lot in general. Wǔhàn is not really a tourist location, most foreigners there are business travelers that presumably stay at the business and conference venues. While I was walking in the streets or taking the metro I would often see people looking at me in interest. We once walked into a little park where everyone outright stared at us. It was a rather peculiar feeling, like a reversed zoo setting.

    This on the other hand made it super easy to get into contact with local people. Just showing them something translated on the phone would usually generate an excited and helpful response.

  • The jet lag coming to China has been rather tough, it was a six hour shift for me. Going to the east is generally the worse direction to travel. Many other people had a hard time adjusting at first. I got up in Germany at 06:00+0200 and arrived one day later at 13:00+0800. Although I initially wanted to take a nap, I stayed awake and it turned out to be the better choice. I was still tired the first few days at the conference because my body did not want to get up at 01:00+0200, but after a week it was gone completely.

  • Hygiene in general seems a bit less developed. In a lot of public restrooms I have found only one soap dispenser, sometimes not even one at all. Often there are no paper towels. Apparently this does not bother people, most do not use soap, a lot to do not even wash their hands at all. In a museum, the subway station and the university I found that they had the standing-up toilets like they have in the Arabic countries. And they did not have a roll of toilet paper in each of the stalls but a central dispenser. So you would need to know in advance how much toilet paper you would need. The toilet in the bullet train also did not have soap. Unfortunately I could not have taken my hand sanitizer on the plane as it is a flammable substance; I would have liked to use it in a couple of such situations. Also used toilet paper goes into a bucket next to the toilet instead of into it. In the hotels they have western style toilets, though.
  • In the western world a door lock closes such that you can imagine the bolt sliding above the lock cylinder. In China I have seen various toilet stall door locks which operate the exact opposite way.
  • People in Germany use their phones a lot, but in China people seem to be outright addicted to them. In the subway every single person, no matter which age, would have a smartphone. In places with large crowds (like malls) one can find charging stations where one scans the code, retrieves a power bank and eventually returns it.

  • Although Asian people are in general described as being very polite, they do not seem to honor personal space as much as British or US-American people do. I have been bumped into frequently. Also queueing must be described as aggressively. If another person fits between you and the next one in the queue, they just presume that you are not queued and just squeeze in between. One really has to stand the ground in order to keep in the line.

  • Power outlets generally have various standards. It seems that there are three standards in wide use within China, and outlets cater to this by having all possible ones available.

  • There is a large spectrum of cigarette qualities and a lot of people smoke really cheap ones. Occasionally I would walk through a cloud of smoke on the street and it would me much stronger than you would experience a cloud of smoke in Germany. I have not seen people using electronic cigarettes, they do not seem established in China yet.

  • In a bunch of places like the hotel restaurant or the ticket machines in the metro I saw Windows XP. That is end-of-life for quite a while now, Windows 7 is also going to be retired rather soon. I am not sure whether people there are more reluctant to upgrade than in Germany, though.
  • A bunch of people from my generation wear gold rimmed glasses. These are not the fashion in Germany. If the fashion in China was completely different, I would not really have stumbled across this. The Western influence is so strong that people seem to wear Western clothes, but the glasses regularly stand out for some reason.
  • Sometimes people got up during the lectures to go to the restroom, pick up a bottle of water or hand the second microphone to the person in the audience who was going to ask a question. The Chinese students would usually walk in a hunched way, trying to be quick and less distracting. The American and European students would just casually walk. To me the casual walking was much less distracting than the hunched shuffling. I presume that this is perceived exactly the other way around from a Chinese student.
  • The people I have met there in my age are mostly only kids from the policies at the time. In Germany most people have siblings, so this feels really different to be among just only kids. I presume that the whole generation just behaves a bit different because their upbringing is different than the ones from kids with siblings.
  • Since WhatsApp only worked on my phone but WhatsApp Web was blocked, I eventually got tired of writing that much text on my phone. Also WeChat Web did not work for me, so I needed to use the phone there as well. I have then thought about getting a Bluetooth keyboard to hook up to my phone. There was supposed to be a large electronics district right south of the campus where one would find many stores to buy electronics. I have went there and indeed saw many technology company office buildings, but there wasn't really any electronics store to be found. Then I discovered two malls, but they were just filled with stores that focused around fashion, food, hairdressing, random junk. There were Apple and Huawei booths, but they only sold the phones and the most popular accessories. I asked some people but they had no idea where I could locate electronics.

    I have later just asked a local from where I could order it online. I have ordered a couple of things from AliExpress, but they do not ship to China. The local told me that I should try or For both of them I would need an AliPay account, however. So I ended up just asking the local to order it to his address and I payed him cash. We have ordered Monday afternoon. To my surprise he was in the lecture hall with my keyboard already the day day after and said that it got delivered to him in the morning. I am pretty amazed how that that went with the regular shipping.

    I have talked about this a bit more, and it seems that it is just the same as in Germany: people order all their stuff online, so there is on real need for actual stores anywhere. There are just stores for things that one cannot order online that well, clothes and food.

  • I have the feeling that this trip was very resource intensive. The biggest ones are likely the 23 hours of flight that I took. But then also the many plastic bottles, the daily replaced towels and all the food that I I ordered but could not eat because I completely underestimated the size of the servings. My ecological impact from the supercomputer simulations is likely to be staggering as well already, so this trip might not have such a huge impact. Still I feel sorry that I spent so many resources during this trip.

  • A friend of mine asked me to send her a postcard. It turned out to be extremely difficult to purchase one. The gift shops at the Great Wall and the Forbidden City did not have them. At the Old Summer Palace I could not find one. At the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wǔhàn they had postal cards, but only very thick ones with 3D effects. Finally at the New Summer Palace I managed to purchase a postal card. It already had stamps worth 5 CNY on it, and apparently that is what one needs to ship it to Germany.

    As I had purchased it on my last day, I did not have the time to find a regular mailbox. I wanted to give it to the reception but then forgot about it. Before I entered security at the airport I asked at the information booth and they did not know about a mailbox. Behind the security I found a "China Post" booth with a mailbox! Now the postcard was on its way. It has "Germany" written on there in four languages: German, English, French, Chinese. It took 17 days to arrive in Germany.

  • One of the summer school students had a cold. He then wore a facial mark such that he would not spread the germs. The lady that filmed the lectures was wearing one on one day and then a colleague was filming the day after. It seems somewhat customary in China that people who are sick wear these masks to limit the spreading of the common cold.

  • In the subway I saw a commercial for sunscreen with an LPF of 130. From the picture of a very pale woman and what people told me the very bale skin is associated with beauty there, just like it was centuries ago in Europe.
  • Extremely few people are obese in China. I noticed this when I first arrived there and also realized this the other way around when I was back at Düsseldorf airport.


This has been an amazing trip. Sometimes exhausting, often rewarding. I have eaten many dishes that were new to me, have seen a bunch of amazing places and streets. During the conference and the Summer School I met many interesting people and became friends with a bunch of them. All in all I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to experience this trip and that it went mostly smoothly.