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!”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?