China is a great country to travel and explore and we made many great memories on the trip. This was my first trip to this great and diverse country and we got to experience some new cultures, way of life and cuisines. China has rich past and a highly developed language that has been used since ancient history.
Chinese population converses in Mandarin and Cantonese along with many other dialects and English is not a popular language which is cause for many adventurous for the English speaking traveler when traveling in China. Since I did not find a comprehensive list of tips before traveling to China, I decided to jot down some of my recommendations from my experiences in traversing this great and unique country.
- Forward your emails– Google and Facebook do not work in China hence forward your emails from Gmail to your other accounts such as outlook, yahoo, etc. if you would like to keep in touch. Viber and WhatsApp and good ways to connect or call folks back home. Baidu is the search engine that is 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 as well and you can purchase tickets from a kiosk at the station.
- Click pictures of the taxi card– Chinese streets and address have an English name and completely different Chinese name. So if you want to travel by cab to a particular place ask your hotel to write it down for you or search online for the place and keep pictures of the place with the Chinese names prominently mentioned.
- Make a friend who knows the language– This tip comes handy when the taxi driver is hurtling the cab in the opposite direction from the one intended by you shaking his head and saying No, No, No quite empathetically. A call to a friend who can converse with the driver and explain to him exactly where you want to go comes as a God send in such situations.
- Use a tour company or tour guide–
If like me you can’t make local friends on such short notices 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 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 places as much as you can. For example one can sample a variety of bamboo dishes in Sichuan and Muslim influenced food in the north west of China. Most of the cities and restaurants prepare beef, pork, chicken, lamb and of course vegetables, it is rare to find places that have other forms of meat contrary to the popular stereotype.
- Ordering at restaurants– Most restaurants in the city have a picture menu which you can point and order. In case you want to order something specific ask your friend, concierge or tour guide to write down a few safe options for you in Mandarin.
- Bargaining in China–
Chinese markets are a great place to shop. There are all types of markets in China from high end malls to flea markets and fake merchandise markets. Most of the merchandise you can get are good quality too. Bargaining in local markets happens over the calculator where the shop keeper would enter their price and you are expected to key in the amount you are willing to pay. There are apps available that can be downloaded which give the correct price that you can pay at a fake market.
- Say no to Touts – Resist the urge to buy that good looking phone which a stranger wants to sell to you at the departure gate at the airport. There are all sorts of scams that you can imagine and some that you can’t. Be on your guard and be mindful of the local laws.
- Paying 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. Half way through the tour I realized that there weren’t many Chinese tourists on the bus which was not the case at all the major attractions that day. 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 a 100 RMB. As I contemplated my next move in order to reach the hotel with my toddler I chanced upon another tour bus that was operating on the same route also with English and French sound tracks which cost only 30 RMB. Hence the day was saved and a precious lesson learnt to research the different options available before approaching the hotel for advice.
- Be prepared for security checks– Metro stations and other tourist attractions in China have security checks hence it is advisable to not 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 issued. It is advisable to limit travel on such days and/ or wear masks and protective glasses. We were pretty lucky not to have got stuck with smog when we were in China.