It’s a massive understatement to say that I want to go back to China. I am actually DYINGGG to go back to China! I spent three weeks last year and felt that I could barely scratch the surface of this massive, intense and complex country. Having visited a few other non-English speaking countries was by no means any preparation for the language barrier I experienced in China. I was also fresh off a month of a vegan diet before my trip and was keen to reduce my meat intake but China was definitely not the right country for that resolve. Plus, a lack of access to social media and google proved frustrating on many occasions. BUT, it was still an incredible experience and one that I would jump to do again. I met some amazing people, ate ginormous amounts of food, which was totally unlike the “Chinese food” that I was used to, saw some wonderful towns and cities and experienced the fantastic infrastructure which I would have never believed possible in a country that size.
So below is a list I created, of things I think every first time visitor to China should know. It won’t take away your struggles entirely, but it can ensure that you prepare yourself and don’t lose unnecessary time figuring things out while there.
Here goes –
Dealing with the Great Chinese Firewall
No social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. work in China and while this may not be a show stopper for many, if you are a borderline addict(who isn’t ?), prepare yourself for a social media detox. If this doesn’t bother you, then great, you have nothing to worry about 😉 . While I was aware of this before my trip, I found the first few days hard. I guess it was just something I was so used to and took for granted. It got easier by the second week and I quite enjoyed being disconnected.
No Google – This was a huge problem for me, especially because I needed to check my Gmail for some important messages and even more importantly, needed google maps for navigation. Totally sucked!
When I visited last year, you could still get yourself a VPN and override the Great Firewall but as per this article published in the Guardian in July 2017, there have been talks that China will block all VPNs in 2018.
Let’s talk English
This is definitely the biggest barrier for a traveler and adds another dimension to the complexity. My Airbnb host told me that while Chinese kids start learning English in elementary school, it’s not widely used in daily conversation so over time, the control on the language fades. Hence, most people remember some of it and hardly use it hence are extremely uncomfortable to hold a conversation in English. She gave me a great tip – if you get lost somewhere, or are in any situation where you need a translator, your best bet it to look for a young person who could be a student, as their English skills will be most refined and they can likely help you out.
Chat on WeChat
It’s not just a chatting app but a lifestyle app and solution to everything in China. It’s got chatting like WhatsApp, shopping, a payment interface, a social media platform and so much more. Everyone is on WeChat in China (~900 million people use it) and it really was the most convenient platform to communicate digitally.
Food is incredible for meat eaters BUT….
I am a foodie, and have a limited barrier to trying out new things but even then I was challenged a fair bit in China, specifically if I wanted to eat vegetarian or not eat certain types of meat. Of the places I visited, except for Shanghai, I found menus written fully in Chinese and no one on the staff who spoke enough English to understand my preferences. So unless you have a local host or anyone with you who speaks the language, know that eating out will be tricky for the most part. Most menus have photos of the dishes so you order by eye and make sure that you have a language translation app and data on you at all times.
This was largely fun for me but I know that it can be extremely painful if you have dietary restrictions of any kind. If you are a vegetarian, it can be a massive struggle to be honest.
But if you are not, BE PREPARED FOR ONE HELL OF A CULINARY EXPERIENCE!
Chopsticks aren’t for everyone
While we are talking food, let me share with you a deceptively minor seeming matter and that is Chopsticks. Most local restaurants will not give you a spoon or fork and you will need to eat with Chopsticks. I struggled. BADLY 😦 . In fact it pissed me off when I was hungry and struggling to hold on to the food on my chopsticks. I swear I just wanted to use my hands! It’s an art to eat food on Chopsticks, and you will get better with practice surely. But I would advise you to carry some disposable forks and spoons for the initial meals.
Make Ctrip your friend for booking inter country travel
Having been used to Skyscanner, Kayak and the likes, I struggled to get the right tickets and costs on these sites for travels within China. Then I was introduced to Ctrip. And that was that – an end to my woes. Ctrip is a Chinese travel company and you can use it to book any ticket – rail, air, bus or even accommodation (I didn’t do that). The site is in English (Thank God) and they have an app – all easy to use and very efficient. You don’t need to look further.
This is a huge plus considering how massive China is. The train network is incredible and works to the second and once you get the hang of it, it is an extremely enjoyable experience. I took many trains in Guangzhou, Wenzhou, Ningbo, Yuyao and it was fantastic to see the level of connectivity even to smaller towns. Extremely impressive. But what takes it to another level is getting a ride on the Maglev train from Longyang Road Station to the Pudong International Airport Shanghai – the train reaches a maximum speed of 431km/hr and you really feel like you are time travelling when you whiz past the traffic on the road. The train is built more as an experience for travelers but it is a must must do, even if you don’t need to be on that route. It costs 50 yuan per person and less than 8 mins.
So that’s it!
I hope you found this list useful if you are planning to go see a bit of China. It’s a fascinating country to visit and can be a very unique experience if one is willing to keep an open mind and have a spirit for some adventure.