Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How to travel in China

When I first came back from China in 2006 everyone had questions.  Fair enough, I'd been away for a year, and there was lots to catch up on.  One of the questions I heard the most, or variations on it, was, "Weren't you scared?"

Yes.  Yes I was.  But that's not really the point, because while I was terrified going there, once I got there and settled in (which took a few weeks), I was fine.  Where I lived wasn't precisely a bustling metropolis either (still isn't). Now, I'm an extremely stubborn person, and I do like to stick to things once I've started them, so giving up on China was never an option for me.  But I have come across a lot of people who put visiting China under the heading of "too hard", so I got thinking about tips, ideas and thoughts about travelling there that might answer some questions.

  • You don't need to speak the language.
In hotels and hostels, the staff will speak enough English to meet your needs.  Many restaurants have picture menus, so pointing can do a lot.  Hotel/hostel staff are also really helpful with writing down places and directions for you to give taxi drivers.  Most market  stall operators in the touristy markets will speak English as well, and you can use a calculator to bargain.  A small attempt at the basics of the language will be very much appreciated by locals though, even if it's just being able to say "Hello", "Thank you", "Sorry" and "One more beer, please".  I survived my first few months in China with basic counting skills, the names of a few dishes, and pleasantries. 
  • There is no shame in doing a tour
Tours are a great way to see a large country if you've got limits on your time.  They're also a good way of managing if you feel like the language barrier will be too much, particularly if you want to visit somewhere a little off the beaten track.  There's also any number of day tour operators, and private guides that operate in cities that are popular with tourists.  When we went to Beijing and Xi'an in 2012, we took two day tours.  For visiting the Great Wall and the Ming tombs in Beijing we booked onto a group tour, and in Xi'an we have booked a private guide and driver to visit the Terracotta Warriors, Gao family house, and Banpo Neolithic Village.  For a site like the Terracotta Warriors, we felt that the expense was worth it to get the most out of that day.  The tour in Beijing was perfect for the first day we were there.  We were able to see two of the main sights, and having a driver is always nice.  The private tour in Xi'an was the best thing ever.  Our guide was delightful, and it was really great to have someone to ourselves to show us around that day.  Highly recommended.
  • The food is good
And nothing like Chinese food outside of China.  Each region has it's own specialities, with distinct tastes and dishes.  Rat is a delicacy, and not something you'll be fed because the restauranteurs couldn't be bothered to kill a chicken, the Chinese don't really eat those scorpions on sticks either, and if you want General Tso's chicken, you may be disappointed.  Good Chinese food should be simple, fresh and tasty.   A packed hole in the wall restaurant staffed by a harassed grandma and her family will always be better than an ostentatious be-chandeliered restaurant staffed by bored hostesses in evening gowns with no patrons.  Street food is something that shouldn't be missed either.  If it's served to you hot out off a wok, pan, steamer or grill it's probably going to be ok. Pointing and miming usually works at these places fine, and you may find yourself with a piping hot noodle soup with your choice of add-ins, Chinese barbecued lamb, fresh chive dumplings, or a piping hot egg custard bun, or any variety of tasty snacks.  Leave the stinky tofu though.
  • Use your resources
Aside from the obvious advice to do a lot of research before you go, using what's available to you once you're in China is a really good way to make your trip go a little smoother.  Most hostels and hotels will be able to help with anything from booking trains and flights, to helping decide activities, and writing down directions for taxi drivers.  In general, service in China is quite good and people are quite friendly and willing to help.  I actually think that the level of friendliness towards foreigners has risen since 2005, and this can only be a good thing.
  • You will get stared at
People will stare at you.  If you're really pale, blond, red haired, left handed or particularly tall (or if you and your friends are a combination thereof), you will really get stared at.  However, the staring is rarely meant in a bad way, and it's usually just simple curiousity.  A big smile and a "nihao" (hello) will get you a long way.  I think that in some areas of China westerners are common enough that the amount of staring has gone down, but it's still there in some areas.  Break the ice, give them a smile and say hello, you never know what might happen!
  • Be aware
This really goes without saying for any sort of travel, but always be aware of what's going on around you.  As with any major tourist destination with big crowds, pick pockets are a problem, but so long as you're aware of what's going on around you, and where your bag is, you should be ok.
  • Keep an open mind
Again, this goes for all travel really, but China (and anywhere else you might go with a different culture) can really screw with your mind if you keep thinking, "this isn't like it is at home".  Embrace the weirdness, and revel in the new experiences!

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