China still remains one of the most culture-shock inducing, magnificently magical and simply captivating travel experiences–despite having attracted a bad rep for the trade wars with the States, having been the origin of Covid-19, and the persecution of the Uyghurs in the North.For a delve into ancient traditions and customs, a culture very different from our own; staggering skylines, and famed landmarks like The Great Wall in Beijing, The Bund in Shanghai, The Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, and incredible national parks (Zhangjiajie National Park was the inspiration for the scenery in the movie Avatar); head to this East Asian leader. Language barriers and an incredibly distinctive cultural tendencies mean that navigating and travelling through this vast country is not really an easy feat, and a few handy absolute must-know tips can help shape your Chinese experience.
[Mainland China?That means excluding Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao, which are autonomous regions.]
1. DOWNLOAD A VIRTUAL PRIVATE NETWORK (VPN)
If you’re reliant on Google (this includes Gmail!), social media–like WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, websites hosted on WordPress platforms and Netflix, then you absolutely need a VPN before your China trip. A VPN is a Virtual Private Network, and all you need to know is that it masks your domains, and lets you access sites in China that would otherwise be censored, like the above sites (and many more). It’s not impossible to get a VPN once you’re on Mainland, but it is exceedingly annoying and a lot of extra work. There are a few VPN services that let you subscribe to their services and download their VPN software for free, but others-slightly more reliable ones- have to be paid for monthly.
2. LEARN THE MOST IMPORTANT CHINESE WORD
English speakers are very, very rare, with the occasional foreigner-friendly hotels restaurants which have well-versed staff, but, for the most part, you’re going to have a significant language barrier almost everywhere. So although knowing how to say “thank you” (xiè xie– pronounced shee-eh sheh) and “hello” (Nǐ hǎo-pronounced nee-how) is polite and recommendable, there is essentially one most important, must-know Chinese word:Tīng bù dǒng (teeng boo dohng), which means “I don’t understand” or “Can’t understand” You will, likely, find yourself saying this all the time, everywhere, to everyone, and it basically lets anyone rattling off in Chinese to you that you have not a clue what’s being said. (Remember, the words above are Mandarin, chiefly spoken on Mainland. Hong Kong speaks Cantonese)
3. TAXI DRIVERS DO NOT SPEAK OR READ ENGLISH
Make sure you write down the address/es of where you’re heading, or have screenshots of them, and make sure it’s in Chinese characters. It’s possible that you may come across drivers occasionally that have a basic English conversational level, but for the most part, they really won’t know much else.
4. YOU NEED TO KNOW HOW TO EAT WITH CHOPSTICKS
If you’re accustomed to eating Asian take-out, yay you! You’ve nailed the chopstick game, but, even then, there are some foods us non-Asian folk simply cannot eat with chopsticks. And so,
for this reason: bring a res-usable set of a fork, knife and spoon, and stow it in your backpack. Unless you’re eating at real Western restaurants then you’re likely not to find utensils provided at restaurants. Often, you’ll get a spoon if you’ve got a rice dish, but otherwise, tough luck.
4. DOWNLOAD WECHAT
China is fuelled by WeChat. The Chinese use it for everything: to pay for things, buy flights/trains, get fast food, and most importantly, to communicate. Remember, most other social media is censored and inaccessible, which makes WeChat the most used app. If you don’t have a Chinese bank account, you won’t be able to use the app to pay for things, however, it is an essential medium for communication if you plan on being there a while. Any friends you make will want to add you on WeChat to keep in contact. Whenever you Tīng bù dǒng (can’t understand), point to your WeChat QR code, get scanned, add whoever you need to communicate with as a contact, and then message them on the app. WeChat has one of the most accurate in-built translation abilities, better than most translation apps. Your contact will receive the message in English, and can choose an option to translate to Chinese directly on WeChat. Vice Versa.
5. GET A SUBWAY/METRO CARD
If you’re in a specific city for a while, it’s a lot cheaper and savvier to have a metro card. You can swipe these to enter the metro, and on busses too. Saves you from fumbling around with cash always, and standing in long lines for metro tickets (rather metro chips) during peak hours. The Chinese metro systems are sparkly clean and extremely efficient, but be prepared for unprecedented crowds of passengers during peak hours.
6. GET USED TO PIT TOILETS
Really, pit toilets make appearances everywhere, in malls, train stations and restaurants. If you’re venturing out to the wild, rural side of China, even your accommodation is unlikely to have a Western toilet alternative.
China, truly, is a unique, sensory and must-visit cultural spectacle, and don’t let the language barriers and differing lifestyles stop you from uncovering this exceptional destination.
That’s it. Happy Travels! Let me know how it goes!
These tips have also been adapted from our blog post on Triptippedia. https://www.triptipedia.com/tip/3l2Pjkj/for-the-mainland-china-first-timers