Six Tips for First-Time Visitors to China

28 Jun
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The newly futuristic city of Guiyang

For the past two months I have been traveling around China, and it is my favorite country that I’ve traveled in as a tourist. From when I first touched down in Beijing to when I got on my last bullet train ride back to Beijing, I had so many incredible experiences backpacking in more than 10 different Chinese provinces. I met friendly people who I will stay in touch with, I ate tons of amazing food, and the historic and architectural sites I saw were stellar. Most interesting to me was the extent to which China’s provinces feel very different from one another, despite the Han Chinese “cultural glue”.

Due to the langauge barriers, traveling here as an English-Speaker is not a chill, relaxing walk in the park, but it is very engaging and encourages you to learn. Here are six tips to make your trip to China more enjoyable and rewarding.

Read about the history and culture of China before you go.

This should be done wherever you go, but I would argue that in China it is deserves even more attention. Chinese culture is thousands of years old, not hundreds. There is such a huge diversity of traditions and ideas that have developed over the years. With the oldest continuous civilization that exists today and a ton of regional variation, you are bound to find aspects of Chinese culture that interest you. There’s no way anyone, especially a tourist on a visit, can learn everything about a culture, but it is very important to understand the basics. So read the pages in the back of the Lonely Planet book about the culture of China as a whole, and then go online (or if you’re at college, take an elective) to learn in more detail about specific elements of the culture that interest you. For me, it was the Buddhist sculpture and architecture that I found the most interesting.

Especially outside the biggest cities, you are likely to get stared at or asked questions if you don’t look Chinese. Get used to it.

Inland China does not have an established western backpacker trail. Whether it’s in the restaurant cars of the K-class intercity trains or those hole in the wall restaurants in the alleyways behind the office buildings, there will be plenty of times outside the big cities when being a foreigner (laowai, or the Cantonese term, gweilo) gets you attention. From my experience, older people were more likely to just stare, and the younger people are often keen to practice English. Try not to take it as a bad, uncomfortable, or offensive thing. You may be one of the only westerners they’ll ever see in that vicinity.

Travel by train in the hard seat or sleeper carriage-. It’s affordable, and a great way to get to know the locals.

Even if you don’t speak Chinese, the trains in China are easy to use once if you do advance research and you get the hang of it. Buy your tickets in advance online and pick them up at the station, because you never know if it may be fully booked. Also, get to the station at least 40 minutes in advance, so there is time to wait in line and go through security. If you don’t speak mandarin well, research the train schedule beforehand so that you know how long it should take before you reach your destination, as announcements on older trains are not in english often. Also, memorize the chinese characters for your destination. But all of this is worth it. On the hard-seat and sleeper carriages, travel is cheap, and you will meet many locals, some of whom will be keen to practice English, share snacks with you, or just be curious about you. You should also converse with them in their native language, and demonstrate your Mandarin or Cantonese knowledge.

Accept that you aren’t going to see everything.

Trying to visit every cool highlight in every region of China would be as time consuming as trying to do the same in all of Europe. China is extremely diverse and gargantuan, and should be treated as a contiennt when planning trips. It’s not like Vietnam or Thailand, where there are well-defined tourist trails with easy-to-name highlights along the way. So choose several provinces of the country, and see the “must sees” or whatever you are most interested to see in those provinces. You’ll never be able to see it all.

Learn basic mandarin. Even a little effort goes a long way.

Outside of the most touristy areas in big cities, you will need a little bit of mandarin knowledge. But it’s a huge misconception to say that this means you need to be fluent in mandarin. From my experience, newer backpackers often over-estimate the difficulties posed by language barriers, and the more experienced ones who continue to do so are generally the ones who don’t make any effort whatsoever to speak the language. Folks, do the world a favor and learn at least a bit of langauge, and try to use it as much as you can. In China, it is a necessity, and even if a non-english-speaking chinese-speaker will try to understand an english-speaker, they will be far more polite and receptive if you make just the slightest little bit of effort. Sometimes nowadays, service people will have guests type in english in phones so that they can use translator apps to figure out what tourists want. But don’t be demanding. They are under no obligation to speak english, and shouldn’t feel that they are so.

Avoid “Laowai-passing”

Laowai passing (or as it is known in Japan, Gaijin-passing) is when you use your status as an ignorant foreigner to get away with things you aren’t allowed to do, since you know that officials (who possibly dont speak english) may avoid confronting you. An example would be if, say, you don’t have enough money on your subway ticket to be able to leave at the station you get off at, and the staff don’t speak english and aren’t able to explain how to use the subway properly. And so they’d just let you through the side gate. While many foreigners get away with this sort of thing, it really isn’t cool. You may well be the only foreigner someone on that subway line sees that day, and if you make a bad impression by doing this sort of thing, you are collectively hurting the reputation of foreigners in the local area. Learn how to do basic things that may be different from at home, like paying for the bus or subway. Learn the Chinese characters for ‘entrance” and “exit”, or “male” and “female” (for toilets). Also, if you’re going to be talking to locals (which you should), make sure to learn Chinese etiquette around gift-giving, meals out, and asking about things. There are many online resources that can help with that. Don’t be overly anxious about it, if you mess a few things up they will understand. But you need to show that you care about trying to fit in with etiquette. Also, know that 4 and 7 are unlucky numbers (which is why this post has six tips instead of seven). 

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