A Vacation in China: Tips on Accessibility

I would like to share some of my wheelchair experiences while on vacation in China with my wife.  First, let me tell you that I am not a writer by any means.  I just wanted to capture some of the issues we had to work out while traveling abroad.  I will preface this by saying the trip was fantastic and very exciting.  I am glad I went and can’t wait to try another country or countries.

My wife planned the entire China vacation.  She had learned about the particular tour company called China Odyssey Tours.com from a co-worker that had been there a couple years ago.  She contacted the company and asked if it was possible to accommodate a tour for someone in a wheelchair.  They asked several questions about what that would entail, and she provided as many answers as she could.  We determined together that it was worth a try. The tour company did their best to make traveling work but it was by no means perfect.

I had been preparing to travel since I was an inpatient at the Shepherd Center.  I went with the therapeutic recreation department to the Atlanta airport to learn how to navigate the airport in a wheelchair and board planes.  Once I moved to outpatient, I started going to the peer support group at the Shepherd Center to ask questions about international traveling.  I attended the Wheelchair Skills Clinic to help learn how to navigate curbs and rough terrain.  I also visited the Shepherd Center Seating Clinic to see what suggestions they had for my chair.  I will say all this did help, but I noticed that through all the advice I got that everyone’s experience is going to be a little different.

So with all the advice in hand, I packed my bags as efficiently as possible.  I brought some extra things that were suggested just in case.  I brought an adjustable wrench and an allen wrench set to be able to make adjustments to my chair if necessary.  The seating clinic noticed my front casters were starting to flake from everyday use, so I ordered a couple of extra casters to bring along in case they decided to go bad while I was in China.  I made sure I had enough catheters and toiletries to last me in case something went wrong.  The one thing that I was sure of was that something was going to go wrong while we were there, and I had talked to my wife about that.  We were as prepared as we could be.  However, nothing could prepare us for what was going to happen.

After all the preparations, it was time to go.  I will not lie.  I was nervous, but also excited to be going on a trip of this magnitude.  Although I have been to international destinations before, I felt like this was my first trip anywhere.  We flew from Atlanta to Detroit and Detroit to Beijing.  I knew I was going to have to use the restroom on the Beijing flight.  I had gone over several scenarios to do this.  (e.g., Using a foley catheter, using and intermittent catheter at my seat under a blanket, etc.)  My wife noticed one of the restrooms was marked with a handicap sign, so I asked the flight attendant if they had an aisle chair.  They said they did, so I decided to give that option a shot. 

While I would not suggest this option to a lot of wheelchair users, it did offer the most privacy.  Most notably, the aisle chair did not have a footrest, so I had to hold my legs in the air while they pushed me.  I waited until the cabin was dark and everyone was asleep to go.  Almost all the flight attendants were on break in the upstairs area of the plane.  One flight attendant wheeled me back to the restroom.  I was able to get in using the handle on one side of the restroom and the sink on the other and pushing myself to a standing position.  Everything was going well.  I did my thing and was ready to go.  I opened the door and the flight attendant was waiting on me.  I was standing in the door when the other flight attendants were ready to come off break.  They tried to open the door to the stairway, but my aisle chair was blocking their door.  One of the flight attendants accidentally pulled the smoke alarm in the stairwell while waiting for me.  This promptly woke up everyone on the plane and had them looking at me in the door trying to get back in the aisle chair.  The captain had called to see what was going on as well.  I will say it was a bit embarrassing.  After getting back to my seat, my wife just smiled at me.  I knew we were both thinking to ourselves that hopefully this is all that will go wrong.

We arrived in Beijing late in the evening and met our first tour guide.  The Beijing airport is very large and busy.  This was the site of the first challenge to see what kind of vehicle they would have and how to get into it.  It turned out they had a van with a sliding door.  I was able to transfer to the floor of the van and pull myself up to the seat.  Things went fairly well.  We were in a hurry, so I took the chair apart, so we could get it in quickly.  The driver was later able to put the two back seats up and they were able to put the chair in the back without taking it apart.  The tour group sent this message to all the other cities we were to visit, so they were prepared for us.

We got to our hotel about midnight.  Our hotel room at Regent Beijing was perfect.  It was wide enough to fit any size chair.  The bed was low, and the room had a large roll in shower with a permanent bench.  We slept well that night and were ready for site seeing in the morning.

We met our tour guide and driver and were off.  We went to Tiananmen Square.  It was flat and smooth.  We went to the pedestrian crossing that went under the street to go to the Forbidden City.  While this was a ramp, it was grooved to provide traction for snow.  This is how the majority of the ramps were constructed in Beijing.  I was able to use the ramp, but I had to go down backwards and do wheelies to get up it.  It really wasn’t much of a problem. 

We made it to the entrance to the Forbidden City.  The area wasn’t quite cobblestone, but it wasn’t exactly smooth either.  I had to do lots of wheelies to get around.  I wasn’t real concerned until what happened next.  I was taking pictures and was behind my wife and the tour guide.  Something felt wrong with my chair, but I kept moving to keep up.  The next thing I know the back completely broke off my chair.  It broke off at the top bolt holding the back on.  I called to my wife and the tour guide.  We looked at each other and just had a sinking feeling.  We had 11 more days in China, and my chair was broken!

We stared at each other for what felt like hours but was actually just a few minutes.  The tour guide had no idea what to do.  Finally I said that I needed to get out of the chair and get the back completely off to see what we can do.  I transferred to a curb and took the Velcro off and got the back off.  As luck would have it, my tools were in the hotel room.  At first I told her that we needed to go back to the hotel. She called the driver and told him to meet us on a side street about a half-mile away.  It was not a comfortable roll, but I was able to manage. 

We met the driver and were going to get in the van, but I noticed all the bicycles around.  I asked the tour guide if there was a bike shop or anywhere we could find a drill in this area.  She asked several people and someone said there was a guy down an ally on the street that worked on bicycles.  We went a few blocks looking down each ally and found the guy working on bicycles.  I told her what I needed, she relayed the information to him,  and the bicycle guy went to work.  He had allen wrenches, a hacksaw and a drill with only 1 drill bit.  He cut the broken part off the bottom of my chair, drilled 4 new holes and reattached the back.  It was about 4 inches shorter, but it would work to get me through the trip.  We were back on track and went to the Forbidden City.

In the Forbidden City, there were some ramps to go through the different areas, but I would not say it was wheelchair accessible.   Several times I would have to hop onto the ground, throw my chair over a large threshold and then hop back in my chair.  Upon leaving the Forbidden City, we were following the crowd down the sidewalk.  This posed another challenge.  They have lots of bollards to keep bikes off the sidewalks.  I had to try several areas until I found one that I could fit through.  There were probably 3 sets of them, but I was able to just make it through all 3 without having to get out of my chair.  We got back to our vehicle and were off to lunch.

The majority of restaurants we ate at all had the same issues.  There were generally 3 or more steps to get in with no accessible ramps.  The wait staff generally had no problem picking me up in my chair to get into and out of the restaurants.  The other issue was restrooms.  I found that most of the restroom doors were not wide enough for me to get in.  In those that were wide enough, there were no handicap stalls.  The stalls were also generally up another stair for plumbing.  I learned not to be shy and would do my business in a corner urinal.  As a side note about China restrooms, my wife had several issues because most restaurants don’t have commodes like we are used to.  Most were just holes in the floor.

The next day we were off to see the Great Wall.  We were told there was one section of the Wall that was handicap accessible, so that is where our guides were taking us.  The term handicap accessible is a very loose term in China (even looser than in the US).  We went up a windy road and found a parking place in one of the highest lots.  You could see the Great Wall from this area, but we were a good distance from it.  The driver came with us and proceeded to push me up a steep, roughly tiled street.  It was too steep for me to do it on my own.  We made it to a landing where we purchased tickets to go to the wall.  This entailed a gondola ride up the side of the mountain.  My chair wouldn’t fit into the gondola, so I had to transfer into the gondola and quickly take it apart.  The gondola operators were not real happy that they had to slow the gondola down.  We got out at the top and then there were more sets of stairs.  The builders had actually tried to make a ramp, but it was at the same incline as the stairs, roughly 1 to 1.  Although it was against my better judgment, the driver pushed me up the ramp to the lookout for the Great Wall.  I was not technically able to get on the Great Wall as those stairs were very uneven with no ramp, but I was able to touch it and get a close view of it.  Going back down was probably more nerve racking than going up.  I had to go down the ramps and road backwards because they were so steep.  I kept hearing the driver’s feet slipping.  If he fell, I would have been in a lot of trouble.  I will say it is possible to do, but it would be nice to have more than 1 person pushing!

We were done in Beijing, and we were off to the airport.  We thought a lot about the flight from the States to China, but we didn’t think much about the flights inside China as they were arranged by the travel agent.  We flew on China Airways.  The airports in China were immaculate and fully handicap accessible; however, that is not to say we didn’t have several issues arise on these flights. 

Our first issue came on our flight from Beijing to Xian.  This was an issue with security.  After my chair broke, I decided to keep my tools with me in case I had any more problems.  I have a set of allen wrenches (no more than 3 inches long and not sharp) and a small adjustable wrench.  According to the TSA in the States, this is acceptable to have on your carry on.  The safety personnel in Beijing confiscated them from me.  They did give me a chance to check them in my luggage, but our luggage was long gone and our English-speaking guide was gone, so I just let them have it and hoped nothing else would go wrong.  Other than that, boarding the plane in Beijing was just like the States.

When we arrive in Xian, they did not have an aisle chair to get me from my seat to the tunnel to get in my chair.  I put my arms around two flight attendants, and they dragged me to my waiting chair in the jetway.

We immediately started our tour in Xian.  We went to the wall surrounding the city.  It was not accessible at all by a wheelchair, so I waited for my wife to look around.  We also visited several pagodas and temples.  You can see a lot, but you cannot get into the temples or pagodas, so I wheeled around and looked at the gardens, etc. while my wife went inside.  They have a lot of stairs and things you can climb in, but my wife wasn’t real interested in climbing to the top of the bell towers, pagodas, drum towers, etc.

The next day we visited the Terra Cotta Warriors site.  This facility was about 90% accessible and very exciting to visit.  They have an entrance where they drive you in large carts up to the buildings surrounding the tombs.  I had to transfer into one of the seats and they literally hung my wheelchair on the back of the cart.  The three tombs all had ramps to get into them, but in tomb 1 you could only get into the front area.  The other tombs were completely accessible. In Xian we stayed at the Hilton Xi’an.

We next flew from Xian to Chengdu.  Again, we had issues at the airport.  The airport was itself very accessible, but they just don’t know how to handle people in wheelchairs.  We were told that I would not be able to take my chair through security.  We explained that I needed to stay in my chair until I got on the plane.  We argued until we turned blue in the face, but we realized we weren’t going to be able to get on this plane if I didn’t check my chair at the check in desk.  We waited until the last possible minute and then checked it, and they wheeled me through the terminal in their chair.  Again, there was no aisle chair, so I was dragged to a seat by a couple of flight attendants.  We arrived in Chengdu, and I was relieved that my chair made it and was still in one piece.

We had some more issues in Chengdu with our hotel, Hotel Sofitel.  This was the one city that we were staying in a Chinese hotel.  We were brought to a room that was beautiful.  It had a bedroom, a living room, an office, and two bathrooms.  Unfortunately, neither of them was accessible for me to be able to shower or bathe.  We were shown another room that they called accessible.  (It had one handle in the shower.)  It was a much smaller room, but I could fit and get to a bed.  I also decided that I could manage to get into this shower if they had a shower chair.  They did not, but they said they could find something for me.  They brought me a metal stool that I made work.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was doable.

The next morning we were off to see the Pandas!  While this is a relatively hilly area, it was accessible.  I will say I was worn out from pushing up hills, but there were no stairs at the Panda preserve.  The only negative to wheelchair access was they had environmentally friendly landscape pavers.  They have gaps for drainage, so it made it a little difficult for my front casters.  All in all the pandas made my day!  The favorite pastime in Chengdu is to sit at the tea houses, drink tea and talk, so that is what we did.  Later, we visited some more temples and a market.  There were stairs and large thresholds, but you could see what Chengdu was all about. 

Then we flew from Chengdu to Shanghai.  Again, we had issues in the airport.  Although the airports were very modern and had jetways, a lot of the planes were loaded on the tarmac.  I was able to take my chair through security this time, but we ended up at a gate on the ground floor.  As we watched other flights leave from this gate, they were going by bus to their planes.  We just kept smiling and waiting for them to call our destination.  They gate attendants got us first to go to the bus.  There was actually a fold out ramp on the bus.  When folded out, it was pretty much a 1 to 1 incline.  There was no way I could get up it on my own, but the driver helped me get my chair onto the bus.  Everyone else got on the bus and filtered around me.  We were the last to get off the bus, and we waited for everyone to board the plane up the stairs.  I looked around and there was no aisle chair or anything.  We had one female escort and I saw one of the baggage handlers give her a thumbs up.  The baggage handler came over to us and then patted himself on the back.  I laughed at him and shook my head no.  Let me just say I am 6’1” tall and about 200lbs.  He was maybe 5’7” in heals and probably 160lbs.  I transferred to the stairs of the plane and was going to push my way up on my rear.  He again patted himself on the back and bent down.  I reluctantly put my arms around him.  He picked me up and carried me up the stairs on his back.  This was ok until we got into the plane.  It was too narrow for him to hold my legs, so he had to let go and drag me to my seat.  Again, we made it onto another plane and wondered what awaited us in Shanghai.

Once everyone was off the plane in Shanghai, I was amazed that they produced an aisle chair to get me off the plane.  They also had a lift truck for handicap people that was at the plane door with my chair inside.  That truck took me all the way to the terminal without having to get on the other bus.

Shanghai was more modern than the other cities we had been to in China.  We visited museums, the Bund, a silk factory, and some markets.  All were relatively accessible.  We stayed at the Westin Hotel, which was also extremely satisfactory.  We were supposed to go up into one of the highest buildings, but our guide said there was no way to get a wheelchair to the top.  We decided not to go.  Based on how modern Shanghai is, I’d be willing to bet there was an elevator that she did not know about.

We then flew from Shanghai to Hong Kong.  I was looking forward to the lift truck taking me to the plane; however, there was a hurricane off the coast that had made it extremely windy.  They told me in the terminal that they were not going to be able to use the lift.  So I boarded a bus to the plane (this one did not have the flip ramp).  People on the bus actually helped to lift me onto the bus.  When we got to the plane there were a couple of baggage personnel to help me on the plane.  I showed them how to roll my chair up the stairs backwards.  This was a much better alternative to being carried up on someone’s back.  They had an aisle chair to get me to my seat. 

When we got to Hong Kong we went to check in at the Renaissance by Marriott.  We asked for a handicap accessible room and they kept asking if we only wanted 1 bed.  When we got to the room it was accessible, but the bed was bigger than a twin but smaller than a double.  The room was very small and very dark.  We went back down and asked if they had one with 2 beds.  They did not.  We then asked for a regular room to see if we could make it work.  We were shown a gorgeous room with a California king bed.  I looked at the shower and thought I could make it work.  I didn’t tell them that it might require me taking off some parts to the door, but they provided a shower chair, and I made it work.  We visited the Peak, the Aberdeen, and several markets.  Most things were accessible in Hong Kong. 

We returned home from Hong Kong through Tokyo with no major problems.  Although there were several obstacles to overcome at I pointed out, this was a fantastic trip and doable.  You just have to keep an open mind and laugh when things go wrong.  My wife and I are already talking about our next trip.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

Food: We had lunch included in our tours and breakfast was usually included at the hotels. We were served very large portions. I would say it was very much like Chinese you get in the US, but we did not order anything crazy. My wife is very picky, so we stuck with safe choices. We would say the meals were very oily and weighed heavy on the stomach. Even some of our guides said they couldn’t eat the things we were eating everyday. Our tour guides supplied bottled water, and the hotels all had bottled water. It was not a difficult thing to find.

Manual vs. Power Wheelchair: From what I saw, a powerchair would not be able to go to most of the sites that I saw. I also don’t know that the airports would know how to handle one inside China. The manual chair was iffy, but doable. I saw one other wheelchair while I was in mainland China and that was an elderly person being pushed by a much younger person. I would be willing to bet they could walk. I was definitely a unique site in mainland China. Several times people would come up on the sidewalk and just try to push me because they didn’t think I should be doing it myself.

Robert Popelka Robert Popelka (2 Posts)

I am a high functioning incomplete paraplegic (T9) in my late 30s. I have only been paralyzed for about 2.5 years, and I use a manual wheelchair. I have been very active since my injury playing tennis, working out, and traveling. My wife also has a few mobility issues but does walk. She is petite and is not able to move/lift me anywhere, so if I can’t get there on my own, I don’t go. (Of course my wife will go without me in a second if there is a good sale or something she wants to see!) I am not really a writer, so please excuse any grammar mistakes. Also I do have a good bit of sarcasm built in, so take everything with a grain of salt.


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