The first few days in China were a humbling experience. The confidence that we gained from successfully navigating the largest country on the planet was quickly replaced with an understanding of just how little that qualified us to travel in China. However after a month there we felt comfortable, and I am looking forward to our return in a few months. Here are some of the things we learnt that made the experience so much more enjoyable.
1) Counting on one hand.
Pointing, finger counting and learning the phrase “how much” had got me through just about every purchasing situation in Russia. But when I approached a fruit seller in Harbin and said “Duo shao?” whilst pointing at some bananas, the hand gesture I was greeted with was baffling. “Yi, Er, San?” (one, two, three) I said, holding up one, two and three fingers respectively. Again, she responded with a hand gesture which looked like she was advising me to hang loose. This, I now know, means 6. The full list of hand symbols is viewable here, and it’s actually surprisingly useful to know.
2) Carry toilet paper and hand sanitiser
There are four things we tend to take for granted in UK toilets; toilet paper, soap, water to wash your hands and a method for drying your hands afterwards. In China (outside of the fancy department stores) if you get 2 out of 4 you are doing well. The good news is that public toilets are far more common than in the UK so if you bring your own TP and some evaporating hand sanitiser you’re sorted.
3) Don’t be afraid to push
Physical contact is not rare in China. On public transport you are expected to create a path to the door when it is your turn to get off, people will not move aside of their own accord. This can be hard at first but once I understood that people really don’t mind being moved, and I wasn’t being rude by pushing my way through, it became quite natural. In fact, once we arrived in Seoul I had to remind myself that body language alone is normally sufficient to receive a path to the exit.
4) Box out
This is similar to point three but if you are waiting for something (ticket desk, bathroom stall, supermarket till etc…) you have to physically defend your place. Don’t rely on queues. Rosanna particularly experienced this in the ladies toilets where cubicles are hotly contested and you need to stand directly in front of multiple doors or otherwise people will cut in front of you continuously. At a shop counter have your money in hand and start the transaction yourself by putting you purchase down in front of the cashier and passing them the cash. Obviously this only applies when you are in competition, there’s no need to urgently thrust your money and goods at a cashier in an empty convenience store. Basically follow the lead of the other customers and don’t be too polite or you’ll end up reliving my first experience of this where the 6 people in the ‘queue’ behind me got served before I did.
5) SIM card
We bought a Chinese SIM on our second day in China and it was so useful. The mobile data was really cheap, £5 for 2GB, and this meant that we could use online maps while out and about. I would recommend Maps.me or Baidu, Google maps is only available with a VPN and even then its information isn’t that accurate. Also because all our spending is done on a travel card managed through an app (Revolut) being able to transfer money in and out on the move is ideal. Obviously a SIM card allows you to make calls too (I know, using a phone to call people in 2017, weird right?) so you can ring your hostel for directions without incurring any charges if you are having trouble finding it, very handy.
Also having mobile data means you can use the public transport option in Baidu which will tell you which bus to get to your destination and you can track your travel to know when to get off. This saved us so much money on Taxi’s as no matter where we were we could just tap on the location of our hostel and then Baidu would show us which bus to get. Most busses cost 1RMB, some more long distance ones are 2. At the time of writing 1RMB is 11 pence in Sterling. Take a few buses instead of taxi’s and the SIM card has paid for itself! You put the fare in a slot at the front of the bus, next to the driver, when you get on or if there is no slot there will be a conductor who comes and collects the fare after a while.
7) Museums are relatively expensive and the quality is inconsistent
We went to some really great museums in China which were also great value for money (the Pingyao city ticket and Tsingtao brewery tour are immediate examples I can think of), however there are just as many museums that are overpriced for non-natives and lack content. Museums tend to have a foreigner price which removes the purchasing power advantages of the higher value of the pound. Most museums we went to were the same price as you’d expect to pay in the UK (between 5 – 10 GBP). I’d advise reading a few reviews on tripadvisor (not blocked in China) first to see what other english speakers thought. I am not complaining about the fact that the museums are all in Mandarin, that’s understandable and I am not so entitled to expect as to expect English everywhere. However if it is quite a text heavy exhibit which is all in Mandarin then it’s not worth paying the entry fee.
8) Book train tickets at station
We booked all our internal train tickets from the stations as we went, typically buying the departure ticket for a city when we arrived into it (you’re already in the station so why not). If it’s a busy train then we occasionally bought further in advance. We used Ctrip to check the prices and remaining seats on the trains we planned to take. You can book the tickets direct from Ctrip (and flights too we are told) but there is a small commission so we chose to go to the station. It’s more fun that way too. We ended up writing out the time, date and location or both the arrival and departure, as well as the train number and class of seat we wanted. All of this information is available on Ctrip. They will ask for your passport and typically which name on it is your surname.
Once you are ready for these questions the whole process can go quite smoothly. The first time we weren’t really prepared and several people who were in the queue behind us gave up because we are taking so long. I must commend the patience and perseverance of the ticket lady though who managed to book us exactly what we wanted using mostly gestures. This is a common thread throughout China to be honest, I don’t think we ever encountered someone who dismissed us as stupid tourists like we had a couple of times in Russia.
9) Being adventurous when looking for food.
This is a two-step process . Step one, if you want to eat we had our best experiences just wandering around and going into places at random. The two things we tended to look for were pictures of all the dishes on the wall (with prices – this is common) and at least one option that looked like it was all vegetables. I’ve read any number of blogs that say “check the kitchen” or “avoid uncooked vegetables” but in my experience getting food poisoning is pretty rare (neither of us were affected) and considering how amazing all the food is having the runs every once in a while is a price worth paying.
Step two, learn the names of your favourite ingredients in case there isn’t a picture menu. The best meal we had was a result of saying “qiezi” (aubergine) and “doufu” (tofu). If that fails then take suggestions. I had the phrase “what would you recommend” on my phone and if the options ever got too overwhelming I would hold this up and I was never let down. Yes it meant that one time I ate an entire squid tentacle but it turned out to be delicious.
10) Pay with cash
Very few places accept card, and the few that do only accept UnionPay (the Chinese equivalent of Mastercard or Visa). We ended up paying for almost everything with cash, the only exception being one hostel in Dalian. Not all cash points will give you money either, you need one that specifically mentions Mastercard or Visa (or Amex, Discover etc…). In our experience these could always be found at branches of Bank of China and Agricultural Bank of China (ABC), occasionally at Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and never at China Construction Bank – which is annoying because this is by far the most ubiquitous source of ATMs in our experience.
11) Buy a VPN
We used our VPN so much. Flickr is blocked in China, as are all Google services (including Youtube) so this would have become a text only blog without one. Also you can still get iPlayer and Facebook too, which is a bonus. We used Private Internet Access because they had good reviews, no logging and they offered UK endpoints (essential for iPlayer). There are free VPNs available but I think you get what you pay for, we opted for the premium option because we intend to spend several months in China.