How much similarity is there between China towns across the world and a Chinese town in China? Is everything made in China cheap? Is Shanghai a second New York? With all these questions in mind and like a nosy soul I am, I booked my flight to visit a bit of this continent-size country and a good friend who was working there. While in China I discovered surprises are waiting round every corner and nothing is as you’d expect it to be. So, from how to order and eat food to how to travel round effectively and make cheap phone calls, here are 12 tips for the first time traveller to China!
The Middle Kingdom is a great place to visit – ancient temples scattered across holly mountains and valleys, high-tech flashy cities bordered by shabby towns, where the smells of tofu and fish pervade the dusty air, toddlers with trousers holed between their legs playing next to a Louis Vuitton store, shopping from a few cents to hundreds of euros – there are goods for every pocket, plus there’s food to lick your fingers on an even wider price scale.
Every experience has the potential to either become nerve-racking (if say the taxi driver makes a cunning 1 hour loop to and you miss the last entrance to your desired tourist spot) or reach close to perfection (if say you have the right map and you’re not afraid to use the subway)… depending on how many useful things you know before your arrival. But let’s get started!
1. About crowds and queues – I guess I never really understood what crowds, bad traffic and ‘people’ jams were until I went to China. Famous places can get particularly bad during bank holidays such as New Year or May days, or at weekend so try to avoid those dates if you can. Sometimes it might get frustrating that it takes 10 minutes to just cross a bridge over a street or that you have to queue for 1 hour to buy your train ticket or to get a taxi from the railway station. Therefore arm yourself with a lot of patience, calm and understanding if you want to enjoy you visit to this overpopulated country.
However there are big differences between various regions in this continent-size country, so you could consider checking out this population density map for more details.
2. About the level of English – very few people in China actually speak English or any other foreign language. 99% of taxi drivers, bus drivers and moped drivers don’t. Also in certain hotels, restaurants and public institutions staff have to learn standard phrases for their customers but if you ask something outside their ‘script’ they might not be able to understand you.
The solution might not surprise you: make notes in Chinese – make written notes in Chinese (Simplified Chinese for the Mainland) or ask a friend to write them down for you. If you don’t know anyone to do that, you still have a solution: some travel websites, such as lonelyplanet offer translations for places’ names, bus or subway station names, directions and also general useful phrases to help you to get by. An electronic dictionary (or a standard one) might seem like a good investment if you plan to stay longer. Don’t go without them, unless you know some Chinese!
3. About booking hotels and hostels – book them online before you go, you can book even one or few days in advance – this saves you money and ensures you’ll have where to stay without costing you an arm and a leg. Some places are very busy and some hotels actually won’t take foreigners. As strange as it might sound, it happened to me and my friend to be turned down in several hotels because if we are foreigners we have to go to a 4 star hotel and they claimed there’s nothing they can do, that’s the law!! But if you have a reservation, even such hotels won’t be able to turn you down.
Also, always carry your passport with you – hotels ask for everyone’s passport before checking you in, so don’t just rely on your friend or partner’s ID as you won’t get in.
4. About buying SIM cards – you must know that if you buy a pay as you go card in a province in China you can benefit from the included minutes and discounted fares only in that city or region. If you have a SIM card you bought in Shanghai but are using it in Beijing it can cost even 5 or 10 times more per minute than in Shanghai. So, always buy them locally and make sure to ask if they include any credit at all, as there are many scams where you pay just for the card itself. Some of them cannot be used to make or receive international calls or texts. So always check these details. If you can, go for major mobile providers like China Unicom, China Mobile or China Telecom as they are usually more reliable and have better deals.
5. About maps – Always carry a map in both English and Chinese if you want to visit a city on your own as pointing on the map might be the only way to communicate to a taxi driver or to subway staff about the place you want to go to. Sometimes it’s not easy to find one but don’t despair! Try instead to enter a hotel or hostel – they usually sell maps or even have free ones on display, just patiently look around for leaflet racks!
6. About the subway – do use the subway, most big cities have a good underground network and the station names and directions are usually in both English and Chinese. Some buses also display stop names in English but not always.
7. About asking for information on the street – don’t always rely on people’s information about how to get to a place – Chinese people are very fond of foreigners, very friendly and some of them have an in-born desire to help. However this doesn’t mean the information they’re giving you is always correct or reliable, even if they look like they know what they’re talking about. This is because, one has to understand that especially in rural China the rumour is equivalent to information and some people believe and tell what they’ve heard from others time ago or red on a blog that is 3 years outdated…
From this perspective one of my biggest challenges was trying to get to the less treaded Mutianyu section of the Great Wall but after half a day of efforts and countless pieces of advice from ‘locals’ I ended up at Badaling (quite spectacular in the afternoon sun),the most well known and easy to get to reach of the Wall. Mutianyu seems to remain tied to the luxury of a car as I couldn’t work out any timetable formula (nor could my Chinese helpers) for the ‘ghost’ bus which goes there according to websites and guide-books.
8. About taxi journeys – they’re usually cheap but bear in mind distances can be huge even within a ‘little’ town (but no town is truly ‘little’). After 11pm fares go up by as high as 30% in big cities. So, always ask the taxi driver to start the fare meter and ask for the receipt at the end of your journey if you are in a big city – don’t take taxi rides without a fare meter, they will usually rip you off. Also if you ask for the receipt and you noticed they overcharged you (you can check that with the taxi company that should have an English operated client service) you can complain and get your money back plus compensations.
9. About food rules – Chinese cuisine is delicious and very varied and people tend to share several dishes when they go out rather than ordering food separately. Some food places have the habit of bringing your orders separately like say, you get the duck first and the rice after you finished the duck. If you notice this make sure you tell the waiter you want them served at the same time and don’t assume the waiter understands English.
Don’t be shocked if you notice piles of little bones on someone’s table – that is common and perfectly acceptable in China.
Don’t be scared to try night food markets or ad-hoc ones because they look more or less messy and dirty. Food there is usually fresh, cheap and very tasty.
Be prepared to be offered a lot of hot water in China as…it is good for you, they say. It doesn’t matter if you are in a restaurant or just went for a massage, you may very well receive a glass of tepid, if not hot water for your own health. Tell them you drink cold water in your country, be it summer or winter and you will shock everyone!
10. About superstitions – you must know that some people are extremely superstitious in China: 8 and 9 are very lucky numbers while 4 is extremely unlucky as it represents the same sound and character like the word ‘death’; phone numbers, car numbers and house numbers that include 8 (the luckiest of all charms as it also means ‘to prosper’) are more expensive and on high demand. Also never mention death in a conversation – this is very bad omen too.
11. About good manners – if you tell someone let’s go out for a meal or just a drink it is considered an invitation and you will have to pay for the bill. When you go to a restaurants never order a dish just for yourself… food is for sharing with others you go out with as family and friends and generally the sense of community is very strong in China. The number of dishes increases with the number of people but don’t worry, everyone gets a separate bowl to serve themselves from the common plates.
Also a sign of chivalry is guys carrying girls’ handbags, so don’t assume a bloke with a purse must be gay or a fashion-monger!
12. About bargaining – study the art of bargaining (consider practicing in the mirror if necessary) and be prepared to use your negotiation skills at every step! This is a must-have in China (unless you really don’t care about money) as it can reduce your spending costs by half! Just because you are a foreigner people consider you must be rich too and almost everywhere you will be asked for a higher price. Don’t be shy and bargain, you can offer even half the price – most Chinese people actually like bargaining although it can be time consuming.
Also don’t trust everything you are told and double-check everything you buy as traders and sellers are not always the most honest people. For example me and a few friends landed on a couch tour instead of just a transport bus and were taken to visit places we did not plan to. When we acknowledged the situation we wanted to get off and take a taxi but were told taxis don’t come to that remote area… which was by no means true.
In a nutshell these are my tips for a first visit to China. Don’t forget it is a different culture, sometimes there are considerable cultural differences between regions and things are not always what they seem to be (including food). Go there with an open mind, light heart and … a Chinese dictionary or notes! Prepare to be amazed every day and to enjoy your experience!