12 Tips for the First-Time Traveller to China
In popular culture, China’s story is often misunderstood or narrowed down into a single narrative. My travels to four different cities in four different provinces of China gave me a wider understanding of the country’s diverse cultures, people and food. My little nomadic family traveled through Beijing, Xian, Chengdu and Shanghai.
The Chinese population converses in Mandarin and Cantonese along with many other dialects. English is not spoken widely. Since I did not find a comprehensive list of tips before traveling to China, I decided to share my own:
Forward your emails
Google and Facebook do not work in China, so be sure to forward your emails from Gmail to your other accounts such as Outlook or Yahoo. Viber and WhatsApp are also good ways to stay in touch with folks back home. Baidu is the search engine that is most popularly used in China.
Use the metro
Most major cities in China have a well-connected metro system, which you can navigate without learning Mandarin. Many of the signs are in English and you can purchase tickets from a kiosk at the station.
Present photos/names of your destinations to taxi drivers
Chinese streets and addresses have English and Chinese names that are completely different from one another. If you want to travel by cab to a particular place, ask your hotel to write the name down for you. Alternatively, search for the place online and present the driver with a photo of the place. Be sure the Chinese name is prominently included.
Make a friend who knows the language
This tip is handy when your taxi driver is hurtling the cab in the opposite direction from where you wanted to go. A call to a friend who can converse with the driver and explain to him exactly where you want to go is a godsend in such situations.
Use a tour company or tour guide
If you, like me, are the type of person who doesn’t usually make local friends on such short notice, it is a good idea to travel with a tour guide or go with a tour company. Most tour companies in China can provide you with an English-speaking tour guide and a driver with a car. Traveling with a tour guide is great especially if you want to explore places that are outside the city limits.
Try the local cuisine
Each province in China has different dishes and entirely different cuisines. Eat local cuisines and try new restaurants as often as you can. For example, sample a variety of bamboo dishes in Sichuan and then Muslim-influenced food in the northwest of China. Most of the cities and restaurants prepare beef, pork, chicken, lamb and vegetables. Contrary to the stereotype, it is rare to find restaurants that serve other types of meat.
Point to the pictures on the menus
Most restaurants in the city have a picture menu which you can order from. In case you want to order something specific, ask your friend, concierge or a tour guide to write down a few safe options for you in Mandarin.
Bargain at the local markets
Chinese markets are a great place to shop–from high-end malls to flea markets to fake merchandise markets. Most of the merchandise you can get is good quality, too. Bargaining at local markets takes place over a calculator. The shopkeeper will enter a price and you are expected to key in the amount you are willing to pay. There are apps available, which show the prices that you should be paying at a fake merchandise market.
Beware of scammers
Resist the urge to buy that good looking phone from that stranger at the airport. There are all sorts of scams — some which will be clear to you and some which won’t be. Be on your guard and be mindful of the local laws.
Don’t pay the uninformed tourist price
This is one lesson I learnt the hard way. The concierge at my hotel sold me tickets for a hop-on-hop-off bus tour in Shanghai for my toddler and me. Halfway through the tour I realized that there weren’t many Chinese tourists on the bus, which was not the case at other major attractions. As luck would have it, I lost my ticket and the tour operator at the hop-on site would not let me on without me buying another ticket for 100 RMB.
As I contemplated my next move, I chanced upon another tour bus that was operating on the same route also with English and French soundtracks, which cost only 30 RMB. The day was saved and I learnt an important lesson: research different options before approaching the hotel for advice.
Be prepared for security checks.
Metro stations and other tourist attractions in China have security checks. Be sure not to lug metal around when traveling in China especially if you have a lot of attractions to cover in a day.
Smog is a serious issue in China
Major cities in China like Beijing and Shanghai grapple with pollution, and smog advisories are frequently issued. Limit your travel on such days, and/or wear masks and protective glasses.
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Have you traveled to China? What were your impressions? Email us at [email protected] for information about sharing your experience and advice with the Pink Pangea community. We can’t wait to hear from you.
12 Tips for the First-Time Traveller to China photo credit: Jessica Shen