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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.