Ten Survival Tips for Travel in China

I’m no novice traveler, but China still threw me for a loop.

Every time I thought I understood something, China would pull the rug right out from under me.  The whole country is one big paradox.  China is the world’s second largest economy, but it’s still a developing country.  A place like that is going to be a challenge to navigate, no matter how prepared you think you are.

But every bit helps, so here’s my contribution:  Ten Survival Tips for Travel in China–and they might just surprise you.

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1. Don’t bother trying to learn Chinese before you go

Unless you are studying one-on-one with a native Mandarin speaker, there’s no point.  You’re saying it wrong.  All of it.  Chinese tones are terribly difficult for foreigners to hear, let alone replicate.  Learn “hello” and “thank you”, and save the rest for when you arrive.

If you can't master the language, use a translation app.  They do a great job.

If you can’t master the language, use a translation app. They do a great job.

2. Learn the hand signals for counting

Three months in and I still can’t correctly say the word for “six”.  Fortunately, the Chinese have a one-handed system for counting.  Learn it.  You will use it every single day.

The Chinese hand signals for 1-10. Note that there are three different ways to signal "10", so you might want to look those up.

The Chinese hand signals for 1-10. Note that there are three different ways to signal “10”, so you might want to look those up.

3. Imagine zombies

Everyone who travels to China will warn you: the Chinese spit a lot, so be prepared.  But you can’t prepare yourself for the full body, bottom-of-the-stomach kind of hocking and spitting they do in China.  But one day I realized that the Chinese style  of spitting sounds just like zombie sound effects in movies.  From then on, whenever I heard someone outside my window hack and gurgle on a wad of phlegm, or I passed a man on the street dredging something up from the depths of his lungs, I imagined them as zombies and couldn’t help but laugh.  Seriously, it helped.

The fact that zombies are *better* than reality tells you how bad the spitting is in China.

The fact that zombies are *better* than reality tells you how bad the spitting is in China.

4. Arrive at the train station at least 45 minutes early 

Every station in China is different, but they all have one thing in common: they’re convoluted as heck.  The steps involved in getting to your train may occur in any combination of indoor and outdoor locations, and one to four levels of the station.  Get there a little earlier than necessary to save yourself the stress of running to catch your train.

This railway station only had three floors, but there were indoor *and* outdoor stages to check-in.

At least this train station was pretty.

5. Keep your expectations low 

I know this sounds like  a pessimistic piece of advice, but hear me out:  if you’re expecting places to look like the pictures you’ve seen, you’re going to be nothing but disappointed.  Blue skies?  Rare.  Peace, quiet and solitude?  Nearly mythological.  But if you go to a place expecting overcast and/or polluted skies and the company of thousands of Chinese tourists, you have a chance to be pleasantly surprised.  Pleasant surprise will make you a lot happier than perpetual disappointment.  And, for the record, I have been pleasantly surprised a number of times in China.

Fragrant Hills Park in Beijing had a lot of crowding, but gorgeous weather. Pleasant surprise!

Fragrant Hills Park in Beijing had a lot of crowding, but gorgeous weather. Pleasant surprise!

6. Eat all the food 

Oh man, Chinese food is so good.  Yes, there were some weird food moments I could have done without, like the duck foot skin, but overall the food is delicious.  Gravitate toward street food stalls: the food there is cheap and fresh.  That said, if you have a chance to go to a proper Chinese restaurant (the ones with the big round tables with a rotating glass top) with someone who knows how to order a good family-style meal, do it.

Our first dinner in Beijing was quite a feast!

The rotating table should be introduced in the rest of the world—-you never have to reach!

7. There is no shame in going to Starbucks

With all the overwhelming, day-to-day “foreignness” of China, sometimes it’s nice to go somewhere familiar and chill out for a bit.  For me, that place was Starbucks.  The ease of ordering at Starbucks and the guarantee of getting what I ordered never failed to recharge my batteries for the next challenge.

Starbucks relief break.

Starbucks relief break.

8. Download some chill tunes and plug in

Finding peace in China’s teeming cities or at famous sites is nigh on impossible.  Be it the Beijing subway or the top of Huashan Mountain, you’re unlikely to have a moment to yourself.  On top of that, it’s noisy: shouting, spitting, honking horns and blaring speakers are pervasive in Chinese cities.  Take some deep breaths, and maybe plug in your headphones.  Listening to chill music really helped me survive some of China’s busier sites.

Photo from chinadaily.com.cn. Augment this chaos with a little meditation music and voila, peace. Almost.

The Forbidden City in Beijing. Photo from chinadaily.com.cn. Augment this chaos with a little meditation music and voila, peace. Almost.

9. Adjust your sleep cycle 

Chinese hostels are almost entirely filled with young domestic tourists, not foreigners.  It’s a great chance to hang out with friendly Chinese people, but they aren’t the most considerate roommates.  Expect bright lights, loud noise, and a blatant disregard for every other person in the room until at least 11:00 pm.  Don’t bother getting mad, it won’t change a thing.  It’s up to you to adapt.  Secondary tip: women, choose female-only dorms whenever you can.  Chinese men are champion snorers.

Lights on until midnight! Heat kept at 30 degrees C! Whoo hoo!

Lights on until midnight! Heat kept at 30 degrees C! Whoo hoo!

10. Get out of town 

I spent the bulk of my time in China in Beijing, and it was rough.  I was pretty certain that I didn’t like China and was unlikely to return.  Then I left the city and my whole opinion changed.  People are so much friendlier outside of the big cities!  And if you get really rural, you can find some beautiful and peaceful wild spaces.

Rural scenery around Yangshuo.

Rural scenery around Yangshuo.

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I hope you find these ten survival tips for travel in China useful!  Have you traveled in China?  I’d love to hear your tips for traveling in this complex country.

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2 Comments

  1. China is such a beautiful place. The people might seem wary and there can be a lot of them but that doesn’t take away my love for the scenery. :) Lovely tips!

  2. I have heard a lot from my friends that China is a wonderful place. I have been planning to visit myself. Having to come across your blog just reconfirmed my decision. Especially, the tips and ideas you have shared are useful and helpful for tourists. Thank you!

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