China, it’s not the easiest place to travel

I have travelled to many countries where I didn’t speak the local language, but I have to say, China is perhaps the toughest country I’ve tackled to date. Even though I did quite a bit of travel around southeastern China last year I still haven’t written much about it, and part of the reason is because I have so many mixed feelings about my time there.

On the one hand, Sam and I got to experience some amazing things; we went biking down dirt roads surrounded by fields and karst mountains, we went rafting down the otherworldly Li River, we witnessed bizarre occurrences like ballroom dancing lessons taking place in an underpass, and watched people ride around on scooters with livestock in the back. There were days when we would be left wide-eyed and with mouth agape muttering “only in China!”

Karst-mountains-China

But with all that excitement came plenty of challenges and lows. Travelling in China wasn’t easy; we were scammed by a taxi within minutes of arriving in the country, we were met by unhelpful attendants whenever we tried purchasing train tickets (seriously, buying tickets at a Chinese train station is a nightmare!), we found ourselves stranded when our bus broke down and the company decided it was each man for himself, and well, we also learned to be on alert when walking down the sidewalk, because guys, there’s a lot of fecal matter…

China was fascinating, but it was also exhausting. Yes, I would go back to China, but I also think I was a bit naive during my first visit. This is a country that you have to jump into prepared, and I honestly don’t think I was. So today, I thought I’d share some of tips, insights, and musings for tackling China and hopefully enjoying the experience!

Get ready to deal with the language barrier

One of the factors that makes travel in China so difficult is the language barrier. Don’t expect people to speak English even if they work in the travel and tourism sector. You might have an easier time with this in Shanghai or Beijing, but even Guangzhou, which is a fairly big city, proved to be difficult to maneuver. Either get yourself an app or buy a Mandarin / Cantonese phrasebook (depending on where you are travelling). You’re going to need it more than you realize.

Write down addresses

Always, always, ALWAYS have your hotel’s address written down in Chinese characters. Most hotels and guesthouses will have little business cards with the address in both English and Chinese, as well as a map on the back, so be sure to grab one. This will come in handy if you need to take a taxi back or if you get completely lost and need to ask for directions to find your way back. Sam and I got lost in Guilin one afternoon without a business card…we walked around one neighbourhood for over an hour before we found our guesthouse.

Pagoda-by-the-lake

Use travel agencies to book your travels

I know booking a train ticket sounds so trivial, but have you ever tried booking tickets in China? In my experience it goes a little something like this:

You arrive at the train station and find that there are about 15 different lines, each of these lines have upwards of 20 people and everyone seems to have at least 5 bundles scattered around them. Everything is moving at a snail’s pace, so you don’t want to choose the wrong line.

Above each teller there are signs with Chinese characters – presumably listing the destinations, but who really knows – so you start asking around for help by trying to pronounce the name of your destination using every possible intonation. This gets you nowhere so you just stand in the first line and hope things work out. They don’t because this line only sells tickets to the capital. The teller sends you over to another line where you proceed to the back and wait.

A half hour later you finally arrive at the ticket window and tell the person your desired destination and she looks at you funny. So you start again with the different intonations and scribble down a few numbers to indicate the date. She finally gets it and prints you a ticket, and you hope for the life of you that she really put you on the right train and isn’t sending you off to Ürümqi or some equally remote place in northwestern China…

The whole ordeal takes about an hour and it’ll either leave you in tears or ready to blow a gasket. Seriously, save yourself the headache and use travel agencies to book your train tickets, bus tickets, tours, or whatever it is you need.

Another idea is to have your hotel or guesthouse write down detailed instructions for the ticketing agent – your destination, travel dates, number of tickets – and then you can just hand over the slip of paper.

Prepare to disconnect from the internet

Access to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and some Google services is restricted in China. If you really want to stay connected on your social networks, you’ll need to get a Virtual Private Network (VPN). That being said, I found the speeds to be quite abysmal, so even with the use of a VPN I was at a standstill when it came to getting work done.

Longsheng-Rice-Terraces

Focus on one region

China is the second-largest country in Asia by landmass. It is massive and it is impossible to tackle it all in one trip. Your best bet is to focus on one region and try to explore that thoroughly. Consider the distance from one city to the next and think about how much time you actually want to spend getting there.

Get ready to feel like a celebrity

If you’re a foreigner, you will likely be stared at and photographed numerous times throughout the day. Sam proved to be particularly popular with locals especially when walking through the markets- maybe it’s the red hair and the freckles?!

He’d often have people pull out their cell phones to snap photos, but what I found most amusing was that the locals didn’t even try to be discrete about it. They would stand a few feet in front of him, and if they didn’t get a shot they liked they would follow him until they did.

Beware of the trough toilet

Oh dear, toilets in China… While hotels and restaurants like McDonald’s have Western-style toilets, this won’t be the case everywhere you go.

When travelling through more rural regions I often encountered the “trough style” toilet, which is kind of like a squat toilet except a whole lot messier. Basically, it’s a slanted trough with water running down, sometimes there are dividers but these don’t do much for privacy when they are only about a meter high, and not all stalls have doors… And that’s another thing that shocked me; sometimes even when bathroom stall did have doors, the women didn’t close them! Quite startling to walk into.

These bathrooms are usually quite sloppy, so I don’t recommend wearing flip flops or long, loose pants; I’d opt for running shoes and leggings. Also, it’s highly unlikely you’ll find toilet paper, so it’s best you carry your own. And you may want to add a bottle of hand sanitizer while you’re at it.

Biking-Yangshuo-karst-mountains

Get out there and enjoy nature

I wasn’t a huge fan of the cities mainly because I found them to be very polluted; toddlers walk around with a rip down their pants so they can poop on the street, people hoark and spit everywhere, and no one seems to pick up after their pooch in the park.

However, I think China has a lot of natural beauty to offer. This country has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world and if you’re willing to seek out some of the harder to reach destinations, you’ll be left with a completely different view of the country.

Don’t fall for the all too common scams

I don’t like to say it, but China is renowned for its scams. That taxi scam I experienced on my first day in the country, well, it cost me 100x the price of a bus ride, but that’s not the only scam out there.

You have the tea ceremony scam where two innocent locals will approach you to practice English and then invite you to a traditional ceremony. Don’t fall for it, your new-found friends will disappear and leave you stranded with a bill worth several hundred dollars.

There’s the art school scam where a young student will invite you to an art gallery to look at their work and then pressure you to buy one of their pieces for an outrageous sum. I’ve heard lots of accounts of “security” showing up to impede a quick exit.

And there’s a scooter scam where a rental company asks to keep your passport. Once you take off on the scooter, someone follows you, and then when you park the scooter, it gets snatched and taken back to the shady rental company. Because the scooter is presumed stolen, you then owe them a whole bunch of money, which you will pay if you expect to get your passport back.

These are just a few of the most common scams you’ll hear about. Bottom line, be on alert and if something feels a little off or it seems too good to be true, it probably is, so bolt on out of there!

Train-travel-China

Bring lots of food for long train journeys

Sometimes the food will be delicious and other times there will be NO FOOD at all!

I once made the mistake of boarding the train for a 14 hour journey without any snacks. I was under the impression that food would be available on such a long trip, but the dining carriage didn’t open for dinner or breakfast, and there were no pushcarts selling chips or instant noodles.

I was not a happy traveller that day.

Be prepared for plans to change without warning

It was the day before the Moon Cake Festival when Sam and I left Yangshuo (hotels decided to triple their prices and that kind of drove us away). We were scheduled to leave on the last bus out of town which was departing at 4:30 p.m., but then the bus broke down.

We went back to the ticketing office and this is when we discovered there was no replacement bus and no driver to get us out of Yangshuo since everyone had already taken off for the holidays. It was every man for himself.

People bolted for whatever taxis were left in the lot, and us? We ended up having to pay another driver to let us ride in his already-busting-at-the-seams bus. Some people sat cross-legged on the aisle; Sam and I ended up sitting on the steps right next to the driver. Lesson learned? Tickets don’t guarantee a departure and sometimes you have to be resourceful.

Streets-Yangshuo

I’d like to finish off by saying that in spite of the challenges we experienced in China, I still think it’s a fascinating country to visit. This post isn’t meant to dissuade anyone from travelling to China, on the contrary, I think you should go. But I also think this is a country where you have to come prepared and be ready to face daily road bumps.

Have you been to China?
What were your experiences travelling in the country?

66 Comments

  • Victoria says:

    Thanks for this, very eye opening! While China was somewhere that wasn’t top of the list… I’d also assumed it would be a relatively tourist friendly country. Definitely some things to consider for when we plan a visit.

  • Charlie says:

    Wow, China certainly doesn’t seem like the easiest place to travel at all. I’d love to go there one day though , perhaps once I’ve settled into traveling a little more – doesn’t seem like the best choice of countries for newbie travelers! I’ve always been intrigued to find out what the food is like in China, I hear it’s so different to what we get in Europe and North America.
    Charlie recently posted..A glimpse beneath the City of Light: The Paris CatacombsMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      The food is very different from the Chinese food I’ve become accustomed to here in North America. Going out to a restaurant and opening a menu was always an adventure because we never knew what we were going to find. I have a really funny photo of a menu where you could order “opening the stomach salad” and “horse meat tray”… Needless to say, I didn’t go for either of those!

      • Gary says:

        The Chinese food in Western world is so adapted for Westerners, so not authentic, and I’m glad you seemed to have try out some proper Chinese food (that fish actually looks alright).

        I’d loved to see that photo with “opening the stomach salad” and “horse meat tray”, because in Chinese “opening the stomach” dishes can and usually mean they’re appetisers, not necessary anything bad, just poor English translation. Of course I can’t tell without seeing the photo. Having said that, I have no idea what “horse meat tray” is.
        Gary recently posted..土耳其的貓和狗 / Turkey’s cats and dogsMy Profile

  • Yve says:

    China is definitely a country you have to research well before you get there! I got our hotel to write down in Chinese which train we wanted and took that to the station as you suggested, but also the main stations in larger cities have a designated teller for foreigners, so this helped too. I found our fellow Chinese travellers were very helpful on buses and trains in respect of informing us when we had reached our destination, despite some not speaking English. Hoping to go back next year to include Yangshou this time.

    • Audrey says:

      It’s good to know that in the larger cities they have designated tellers for foreigners. I was actually really surprised this wasn’t the case in Guangzhou considering it’s such a hub for anyone coming in through Hong Kong. I remember they had an information desk (with English signage), but then the person working the desk didn’t speak any English, which didn’t really help our situation.

  • Betty J. Ogburn says:

    …Wow–that definitely sounds like some rough times!!…Hopefully, things will improve for travelers there over the next couple of decades…
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  • Sandra says:

    I travelled around China in 2011 and absolutely loved it. Admittedly I was on an arranged tour and everything was organised but saying that we got to see first hand local experiences. Travelling by train, plane, bus and boat from North, West, South and finally East. The South Western part of China was certainly my favourite. Highlights included Dali, Shangri La and Lijiang. I would love to go again one day.

    • Audrey says:

      I’m glad to hear you enjoyed your travels through China! Sometimes going as part of a tour is the best way to experience a country that would otherwise be very difficult to maneuver. It takes the stress away and you can just enjoy the place for yourself.

  • Mary @ Green Global Travel says:

    Despite the challenges you experienced, it makes for a story for sure, and your stories helps other future travelers! Thanks for sharing your tips!
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  • Dariel says:

    I feel you! I was in Jiuzhaigou, Chengdu in October and I felt like I was going to kill somebody most of the time. They push and rush even though we have an old lady who wasn’t the most mobile person and simply don’t care if she will be hurt. And yes, the toilets were erm… a very different experience. I will go back to China because it’s such a beautiful place like you said – scenery wise – but I’ll take a break from her in the meantime… Haha
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  • Ahhh, and there was me thinking that India was a challenging place to travel around! China has never really appealed to me despite the fact that I love Asia. Not quite sure why!
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    • Audrey says:

      Oh, India also had its challenges! I’d put it right after China. I’m so glad I was travelling with friends who had grown up in India, because I would have been completely lost otherwise.

  • I think you managed to end up on the one train in China with no food. I’ve been on plenty where the dining car doesn’t serve anything (why would they…that would be logical), but I’d stay away from dining car food on Chinese trains even if they do serve it (that said, the fish in your photo actually looks pretty good). The best food is the stuff in the take-out styrofoam boxes the old women sell off their push carts. They only come around three times a day, though (breakfast, lunch and dinner), so if you happen to be sleeping at the time, you starve. But there’s always junk food and instant noodles. You were definitely not on a normal train.

    Most hostels and a lot of guesthouses will buy train, bus and plane tickets for you. They charge a fee, but it’s usually less than the travel agents (it might not start there, but it’ll get there after some bargaining).

    The high school I taught at 8 years ago in Shanghai had trough toilets with meter-high dividers and no doors. And no separate bathrooms for teachers. I generally try to adapt to local customs if I can, but this was too much even for me. It didn’t take long before every employee at the nearby McDonald’s recognized me and the other foreign teachers on-sight. And we never once ordered any “food.”
    Daniel McBane recently posted..Snacking on Scorpions in BeijingMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Aaaah! The McDonald’s bathroom visits made me laugh out loud! Whenever Sam and I were out sightseeing around town and we needed to use the bathroom, we would also try to find the nearest McDonald’s around (which was never too difficult since they seem to be everywhere). I think the most we ever bought was a bottle of water. 😉

  • Megan says:

    This post brought back so many memories. I remember saying “only in China” so many times. It can be a difficult country to travel in, but that can make the experience all the more rewarding. I can’t wait to go back!
    Megan recently posted..What the MONA? Inside the museum of sex and deathMy Profile

  • Rachel of Hippie in Heels says:

    wow this sounds almost as bad as India with the scams! So interesting… If I ever go to China, I’ll have to re-read this first.
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  • Simbarashe says:

    “Above each teller there are signs with Chinese characters – presumably listing the destinations, but who really knows”

    The Chinese definitely know 🙂

    In all seriousness though, this reminds me of the time some friends and I went to Osaka for a Radiohead concert during their OK Computer tour. It was winter, and after our show let out we couldn’t find a taxi driver who understood the hotel where we were staying. Or rather, didn’t understand our English pronunciation of it. We had a good general idea of where we were going but it still took us over three hours to get back.. and it was COLD and dark. Not fun.
    Simbarashe recently posted..B-Sides.My Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Aaah, that sounds brutal!! I’ve had a lot of cab drivers turn me down because they didn’t understand where I was going or they didn’t want to go out of their way, but I’ve always been lucky enough to have another taxi come along and agree to take me. I would not have been able to handle a 3+ hour walk in the middle of winter. I hope you had some good company on that long walk back! 😉

  • Justine says:

    OK, when I read over the line that toddlers walk around with a rip in their pants so they can poop on the street, I was dumbfounded. So I Googled it and it’s totally a thing! I know that a lot of quirky stuff goes on in China, but I had never heard of this phenomenon before now. Why is this a thing there?
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    • Gail Hardie says:

      Disposable diapers are not always available in China – also the cost is very prohibitive for most Chinese. They have worn the split pants forever and it works. Cute little bumps peeking out at you – but could be a bit chilly.

    • Gary says:

      Sadly Chinese toddlers don’t just do that at home, they do (or should I say they’re “allowed” to) that aboard too… There was a “media war” (mainly on Facebook and Weibo – kind of Chinese Twitter) between Hong Kong people and people from mainland China about 6 months ago, as several children were filmed/photoed/reported either defecating or urinating in the street/in supermarket/train platforms within the period of a couple of weeks.
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    • jennifer says:

      It is called “split pants” I read that it is done because the little kids are so little that they may fall into the trough toilets!
      jennifer recently posted..Day Trip from Xian to Mount Huashan, ChinaMy Profile

      • Rebecca says:

        I live in Shenzhen and I have seen multiple children defecate in parks and on the street and it is a daily occurrence to see them urinate.
        I was told it was because the Chinese think that young children should not be forced to hold in their waste and that nappys/diapers were unclean (which to be fair you can see their point on that).
        When they do poo in public it is onto a piece of paper which is then rolled up and put into the bin and I can see why they think that is more hygienic. They must look at us leaving babies sad in faeces and urine and the babies getting nappy rash and this how disgusting we are.

        Its just different cultures and opinions/

  • I’m headed to China at the end of December for about 3 weeks (its going to be freezing!) not sure if I’m looking forward to it or not! China has never been at the top of my travel wish list, but I am going for a good friend’s wedding so my partner and I have decided to make the most of it by travelling around for a few weeks afterwards. I am actually really glad you’ve shared your experiences and tips for getting through China – even though some of these things terrify me a little bit (e.g. the poop everywhere and the lack of toilet walls/doors) at least I can prepare myself as best as possible! Thanks 🙂
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  • Dennis Kopp says:

    You are right Audrey, China is not an easy place to travel and from my experience is not a pleasant one either! I too was confronted with surprisingly many unhelpful and rude people on the streets. Even when I had Chinese characters written on a paper, people would rather walk away than point me in the right direction. And Sam’s photo experience I can certainly relate too as well, since people literally chased me sometimes to take my photo, not only without asking, but from a way too close distance. Also visiting occupied Tibet and seeing how the people are treated there didn’t help to be more fond of China… Well, after having been to almost 70 countries, I still have a tough time saying which was my favorite. But I have a pretty good idea which was my least favorite…
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  • Rebekah says:

    I’ve lived in China 9 months and done a fair bit of travel while here – its definitely challenging at times here but I think the people and the scenery make it worth it. People are really kind and helpful most of the time. I would definitely recommend coming to Sichuan province if you make it back to China- I’m biased but I think its the best
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  • De'Jav says:

    sounds like there are challenges like there are to many countries. I’ve heard some of these same things from others who have traveled. Doesn’t seem like an easy place to get around unless in the big city.
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  • I’ve lived in China for a few years and I definitely agree with a lot of what you’ve said here. Speaking Chinese definitely helps, but there are a few ways to get around that. Bringing your hostel/hotel card is a must, and most hostels/hotels will always help you by writing things down for you. I actually haven’t encountered too many scams here besides the taxis, but all you have to do is ALWAYS get in the official taxi cue and make sure they use the meter. If someone is screaming Taxi at you, don’t get in! In some ways though, I think China is a pretty easy place to travel. The train system is amazing. I wish we had one like it in the USA! Once you get the hang of it, it’s really easy to get around. You just have to be prepared for people not to speak English (even though they all learn English in school)
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  • Sabine says:

    I have only been to Hainan Island – so I cannot speak for China in general. We traveled with my entire family and stayed in very posh hotels as my parents sponsored the trip 🙂 Even in luxury hotels like the Ritz Carlton in Sanya on Hainan Island, none of the staff spoke English. Okay, I probably should not have been surprised but the fact that a lot of the information material (leaflets, tour information, even some menus) were available in Russian but not in English.
    We were the only Western tourists at that time and I could not believe the price level. A coke at the beach did cost us 7 US$ – even for the Chinese. And everybody “happily” paid that price.

    Food was another topic – as you mentioned, you cannot compare it to the Chinese food you get in the West. Again, probably this should not have surprised me, but I think it is the only country so far we have travelled where we found it difficult to find stuff to eat we liked – and we are big foodies and not very fussy.

    I would be curious to explore more of the country but I would definitely expect it to be challenging!
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  • Sarah says:

    Wow, I really enjoyed this post! I thought you handled it really well with giving your point of view, explaining it and then giving heaps and heaps of helpful advice! Also your photos are gorgeous. I’ve been thinking about looking China a lot lately. In a year or two I might have a go at teaching English or something over there! I think I’d have to stay somewhere utterly beautiful though (not a city) or else I’d go insane.
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  • Thanks for the tips! My friends and I are planning to embark on a trip to Beijing next year and one is planning to do a bit of backpacking (not sure which area specifically). I’m cringing while reading the train station part. *hugs*

    Were you guys able to record a video of people chasing you too close for a photo op? Would love to watch that soon in your YouTube channel 😛
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  • Emily says:

    In all our travels I would definitely agree that China (and India) are more challenging than other nations. That being said, there are so many wonderful things, so it is worth the troubles to go there!

    That;s funny how Sam was such an attraction. China was the first place where Ewan was the attraction. A tall guy with a full on beard?? The locals HAD to get proof of it!!
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  • Duncan says:

    i find this so interesting. i experienced a lot of these thins when i was in china in 2010, especially the ticket lines. absolute NIGHTMARE! but that being said most of the other stuff you kind of just have to laugh through it. the celebrity thing in particular, i was stopped in beijing about a million times everyday but and in tibet they were just stunned to see a white kid wondering about lol. i love how you broke all of these down and it reminds me of what i have to prepare fr next time. cheers audrey

  • Shing says:

    I loved reading this post, it brought back so many memories. Like you, China is the most difficult country I’ve travelled to for many reasons. Firstly the language and various dialects to add to it. Even the simplest things like ordering food can be a challenge. I remember one time I became ill and my mouth started splitting into these kind of sores (nice I know) so I went to the chemist and the doctor tried talking to me in Chinese but I understood very little. After no success she started swinging her arms around and making noises like a monkey. I thought what is this doctor doing! In the end I realised she was trying to tell me to eat bananas because I was lacking the nutrients they are high in!!

    I also had a real issue with the animal cruelty, the welfare of animals is just not something that seems to occur to most people there. And it’s not really a beacon for human rights either… As you mentioned with the censorship.

    But as much as there is to dislike about China there is a lot more to love, it assaults all the senses and once you’ve been you never forget it.
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  • Wow I have heard it is a hard place to travel and your post definitely backs that up! You can get apps for everything these days so I can imagine they would help with the language barrier, my boyfriend has one where you hold your phone over a menu and it translates it.
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  • Glamourous Traveller says:

    That definitely sounds tough. I didnt face as many issues when travelling in China maybe because I look far more local. Though that being said they would get all huffy that I didnt speak Mandarin and thought I was lying since I could say “I don’t speak Mandarin” in Mandarin perfectly (Practiced over a hundred times when I was there).

    China can be tough, though personally I didn’t find it tougher than say India. Both countries at a billion, with everything you mentioned in common (fecal issues, toilet issues, picture taking issues). I guess in a country of a billion ppl. It’s every man for himself for survival
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  • Rajesh Naik says:

    Absolutely bang on…. I wished I had read your blog before. Moreover, beware of the locals who speak in English, and tries to be too friendly… They are mostly the scamsters… You can find offline apps for translation. Make sure you install these apps before you go to China, coz play store isn’t accessible, since google is blocked. Moreover, for some, please learn to eat with chopsticks if you don’t know how to use them.
    Cheers,
    Raj

  • Cyra | Gastronomic Nomad says:

    I had a romantic idea of going and travelling around China by train. Sounds like it might not be quite as romantic as I imagined 😉 None the less, I do want to try and get there in the next year to experience it for myself.

    I won’t be able to spend too much time though, so I will try and find just one region. I hadn’t really thought properly about how big China really is…
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  • Lee says:

    Sorry to be a bit negative, but you and Sam must’ve been walking around with your eyes closed. My girlfriend and I travelled China for 7 weeks and had absolutely no issuses with travelling at all. Every single bus station and train station have an English speaking counter or official to help travellers. Even in the most remote places!
    Yes the language barrier is a nightmare and some people are not the most helpful, but it doesn’t take a genius to check some things out in advance. China have several specific websites for trains and buses giving you information on destinations, times,seats, costs, etc.
    As google doesn’t work in China, Bing does, and also the staff at hostels will
    will happily help too!

    And with the 14 hour train journey. I don’t believe that there was no food available. Even on the 2 hour journeys food is available in the dining cart or people walk up and down selling things. But even if you’re unsure, you should always take a few things with you just in case.

  • Franca says:

    China is one of these countries that I’ve been thinking of going to but always for one reason or the other decided not to. I’ve heard how challenging and not easy it can be to visit China, but it’s not what made me decide not to go (not yet at least), I don’t mind challenges in fact, it’s more to do with the lack or very poor respect for human and animals rights in the country. I think one day I’ll go anyway, this post is very useful Audrey and thanks for your honesty 🙂
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  • My father’s wife is from China and I keep hoping to go with them one day — it would be so amazing to visit a country like that with a local!
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  • jennifer says:

    China was easily the most complicated place I have been to so far. But I absolutely fell in love with it and will be returning in 2014.

    I did a ton of research before leaving and that helped immensely as I was prepared for a lot of things. I also purchased all my train tickets online through a very nice woman who sent me printouts written in Mandarin so I could just show them to people and find my way around the train station with ease. I love her so much because I am pretty sure I would have just laid down and died at the Xian train station out of frustration. Even with the printouts, that station tested my patience.

    I also got scammed a few times with cabs but I blame myself because each and every time, I should have been taking public transport but did not because…well looking back, I don’t know why. Sigh.
    jennifer recently posted..Day Trip from Xian to Mount Huashan, ChinaMy Profile

  • I really want to visit China one day, but I am aware that it comes with its challenges, much of what you outlined here. The ticketing thing sounds a lot like what I experienced in Russia – a NIGHTMARE. I did not behave at my most graceful in these moments. At least I figured out the alphabet there… don’t think I would manage to do so in China, haha!!
    Colleen Brynn recently posted..Again And Again And AgainMy Profile

  • Mark Humphreys says:

    Wow, this was an incredibly informative post. I’m glad I got to read this before ever traveling to China. Thanks for the advice, and keep up the amazing blog posts!

  • China might be a bit more difficult to navigate because of the language barrier but overall it wasn’t so bad as I expected. You just need to come prepared with a VPN account and some Apps. One app that helped me out immensely with understanding Chinese menus was Waygo: http://www.waygoapp.com/

    For the tea ceremony scams… they are a pain! My first evening in Beijing, I was approached 9 times in a timespan of about 1,5 hours by several girls wanting to get a drink…sure is hard to make real friends that way.

  • ChinaMatt says:

    Brings back memories of my years in China. It is a frustrating place to travel and live, but it is also amazing. Definitely gets easier when you speak the language.
    ChinaMatt recently posted..Classic Cocktails at KFC in JapanMy Profile

  • Stacey says:

    The more I hear about China the more I dread the difficulties I will face travelling there. However, like you say it’s a fascinating country and I’d love to go!

    Love your pictures too!

  • Rachel says:

    I found the resources at Seat 61 to be a total godsend in booking train tickets in China. It has very detailed instructions including which window is the one with an English-speaking person. We still had some problems (for instance we had to go to the Shanghai train station a total of 4 times before we successfully got tickets to Hong Kong), but between that and always writing down the Chinese characters of our destination, we were able to book tickets at the stations ourselves.
    Rachel recently posted..This Month in ReadingMy Profile

  • I love what you’ve written Audrey! I haven’t been to China “proper” only Hong Kong and even then I had to direct the taxi-driver to where my hotel was!
    It was 04:00 in the morning, I had just left an expat party on Victoria Island, and I wanted to go to Kowloon. The driver didn’t have a clue and that was with the hotel card in both English and Chinese! Thank goodness, I had my wits about me and so I was able to direct the taxi driver myself LOL!

  • I’ve been looking forward to it as I live in China! I saw your it pop up in my bloglovin’ email but I’ve been so busy I’ve not had a chance to come back and read it until now I. I think you offer excellent tips and I really agree with all you said! We can speak some Mandarin (well I can speak a little and my husband can speak quite a bit) and it really helps immensely with getting around. I really agree with you- it’s not the easiest place to travel! I am so used to it though all the hard stuff just seems normal- then I go to another country and am amazed how easy it is to do stuff!
    Joella in Beijing recently posted..Gili Air: Birthday ParadiseMy Profile

  • Thanks for the honest post! China is a place I’m fascinated by and I would really love to spend some time there one day. But I’m glad you’re writing about this, it’s good to know which scams to look out for before going to a new place, and it’s good to know what to expect. This post reminded me of my experience in Bolivia!
    Hannah Wasielewski recently posted..Announcement: Our Next Big Adventure!My Profile

  • Kieu says:

    Omg we made the same mistake boarding a 22 hour train without packing any food!! Luckily, we were able to weasel and buy our way into some cup o noodles… crazy China.
    Kieu recently posted..Eat, Play, Stay: Zanzibar (Nungwi Edition)My Profile

  • Dan Perry says:

    Yup, good ole China. Everything in this post rings true to me, except one thing: outside of the tourism sector, very few people in Beijing speak English. If you’re planning to go, be prepared for a wild ride.
    Dan Perry recently posted..Beijing Hutongs, Part IIIMy Profile

  • Stephanie - The Travel Chica says:

    Great information! It is important to challenge myself with travel experiences like this, but I have to be in the right mindset to get the most out of it.
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..How to make the most of a road tripMy Profile

  • Traveling in China is my 2015 resolution! Your article is very interested. What would be your top 10 to see in China? 🙂

    • Rebecca says:

      Guilin!! (And I have to say Shenzhen because I live here and I love it, its right next to hongkong so you can just hop over the border and say hi)

  • Rebecca says:

    One of the biggest issues i have found is that they assume you can speak fluent mandarin. And if you look at them blankly they just carry on talking at you quickly.
    Sign language and pointing is a foreign concept.
    If you tell them in mandarin that you do not understand they really really think you speak some mandarin and continue.

    Once I had been here about 3 month is guessed I had been asked for about 100 photos and had over 1000 taken off me. in about 100 days. I get stared at everywhere I go. Be ready for this if you do come to China. Especially if you are tall, blonde, blue eyes, red haired, black or very pale. Very pale is especially desired.

    On a side note, try and get some of them to say the alphabet. I am a teacher out here and playing hangman for the first time was a real eye opener. The reason English levels are not good is because they are taught pronunciation from a Chinese person who was taught pronunciation from a Chinese person etc etc.
    un rather than en, eh fuh rather than eff, I cannot even write how they say h.

  • The notion of disconnecting from the net sounds good, but I don’t know about that train system. Wow!
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  • Lou Thompson says:

    This experience of travelling in China was very much different to my own.

    Other than the swift education of having to communicate without using words or hand signals as both these types of communication are individual to China’s culture. China left nothing but a deep warmth and love for the differences between the people of China and… pretty much everywhere else.

    It’s easier to be awarded the affection of the local people when travelling ‘with’ them. Buying train tickets which means it’s likely you’ll have to sit on the floor of a walk way for 21 hours. It also means you are unable to access the part of the train where there might be a food car. That area is reserved for people in possession of a ticket priced above a certain number of Yuan.

    Staying out of the areas which cater for any level of tourist. And lets be honest. Us backpackers are not that different from holiday-goers. Just because we may wash less often, we may visit numerous places, but that’s easily done. All back packers do is have the time to see more than a fortnights holiday would allow.
    It’s easy not to find yourself the chance to congregate with any other nationality in southern and south west China. Armed with a little sincerity and a ton of curiosity – read the local peoples confidence of your presence and et voila. You meet some characters who will educate in the ways of human kind that won’t be found from the security of hosteling or the comfort of familiar language tones. Wander around these parts, in villages and smaller towns. Get involved in the daily grind of 5.30 community dancing. Held in a tiny square where all dance. Men, woman, old and young. Help, if she’ll let you, the old lady who cycles home with her ‘sister’ hanging off the back of a one seated bicycle holding too many shopping bags from the market. Not the local market. The only market.
    She is her none biological sister. The tradition, out side of the cities in the east of the large country, is to treat one another as family. Everyone. As family. . .
    China – is like no other. For so many reasons. But they are my reasons.
    You need to visit the land of the rising sun to discover your own.

  • Kris Lanzarote says:

    Hi there!

    Nice blog and articles. I am actually planning to visit my brother who lives in China (I live in Spain) and I am a bit worried as I do not like big cities, lots of people around and pollution. I do not want to be celebrity either hehe.

    But anyway, I want to visit China as I love traveling 🙂 Let’s see how it goes, I hope everything will be fine and that I will enjoy the trip.

    Thanks
    Kris

  • Mima Isono says:

    I travelled to China quite number of times in the past when I was still working with an international organization. I’ve been to some places in China. The most memorable experience was while I was in Wuhan. Wuhan wasn’t developed as much as today back then. It was really safe walking around in evening time & take public bus. People really were kind & honest at that time, perhaps they still are now. Language was always a problem when I crossed path with local or street vendors. I never found any difficulty in bus or train station because the directions were pretty straight forward even though they were written in broken English or misspelled.

    I think the best time to travel China is autumn or spring. None wears undershirt walking down the street, less people spit or cough.

    Have you seen smelly tofu? It sells on the streets, local love it. I hate it from one kilometer away. The smell is just so unbearable

    Mima | Tokyo Blogger on the Roam
    Mima Isono recently posted..Bhutan Highlight: Capturing Bhutan’s Beauty in A 5 Days StayMy Profile

  • Wayne Seto says:

    Excellent post. I’ve travelled through China numerous times over the years and have to agree with many of the points you’ve mentioned. And yes, language is by far the biggest barrier. As a Chinese Canadian, I can speak the southern Chinese Kaiping (Hoiping) dialect that’s native to my parents by my Mandarin couldn’t save me if my life depended on it. And don’t get me started on the scams, I’ve run into some of the scams you’ve mentioned and then some. Despite all this, it’s an amazing country to explore and most certainly you’ll have experiences that’s “only in China” in more ways than one. Like you said preparation will go a long way. Worth the effort though.
    Wayne Seto recently posted..The Terracotta Warriors: An Emperor’s LegacyMy Profile

  • Veronica Marks says:

    I really enjoyed reading about your experience in China. Your description of working around the language barrier definitely made me nervous about traveling there! I’ll be sure to get one of those phrasebooks, and hopefully that will help.

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