How to travel to China: the ultimate guide

It is an Advantage to Know Basic Mandarin

Knowing Mandarin is not a necessity but it helps A LOT. If you plan on only visiting the larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai you will be able to get by with English. The younger generations can speak basic English and many are eager to help out when necessary, from our experience.

If you plan on visiting the smaller cities off the main tourist trail, such as Zhangjiajie and Yangshuo, speaking basic Mandarin is invaluable. We would have had a very difficult time here if we couldn’t speak the basics.

Plus, a simple ni hao (hello) or xie xie (thank you) is much appreciated. To speak in full sentences and attempt a simple conversation made us many friends in China. This is a country where people really appreciated our efforts to speak their language and these moments are some of our favorite memories from China.

There are a lot of language learning apps and computer programs to choose from. Tyler and I used Fluenz to learn basic Mandarin. We started the program one year before our trip to China. I have also used Fluenz to learn Spanish, French, and a little German.

It also helps to have a Chinese translate app on your phone. We used this to communicate many times as well.

Be Prepared for Menus in Chinese Characters

Countless times we sat down at a restaurant and were handed a menu with only Chinese characters. This led to us randomly picking out dishes, hoping for the best. This is a gamble in China, since it is very common for all kinds of animal anatomy to make it onto your plate. Once in the bigger cities, menus in English, or at least with pictures, became much more commonplace.

Bring Your Own Napkins

I cannot tell you how many times we sat down to a meal and never saw a napkin. A napkin, such a simple thing. There’s nothing like eating a big bowl of noodle soup with chopsticks, to have broth dripping down our chins, and not have a napkin. Make sure you carry your own supply with you.

Bring Your Own Toilet Paper

To continue with the same theme, bathrooms are rarely stocked with toilet paper. Bring your own.

Also, be prepared to use squat potties. We used more squat potties here than in any other country we visited, with Nepal and India not too far behind. The bathrooms were not the cleanest, either, so it also wouldn’t hurt to carry around some hand sanitizer as well.

Bargain For Everything

With the exception of upscale stores, everything can be bargained for in China, even groceries. At most places you can expect to pay between 10 and 25% percent of the starting price.

If you do not like their price, just walk away, and I guarantee that they will chase you down the street. We even had a lady search us out five minutes after leaving her shop, giving us an awesome price that we couldn’t refuse. It is a game to go shopping and if you like this kind of thing, it is tons of fun.

Your Credit Card May Not Always Work

We travel with both a Visa and Mastercard. In China, there were numerous times that our credit cards were not accepted. China has its own credit cards and is not open to using Visa or Mastercard yet. Be prepared for many trips to the ATM’s to get out Chinese yuan for your purchases.

Use China DIY Travel for Purchasing Train Tickets

If you plan on traveling by train through China this is an invaluable service. This company, run by Australian Chinese couple, can help with booking your train tickets. They were very responsive through email and made our booking of four train journeys quick and painless.

China DIY Travel electronically booked our tickets and we picked them up at our first train station in China. At one station we were able to pick up all of our tickets for all four of our journeys in China. DIY Travel sent us pickup instructions in both English and Chinese, which we printed out on our own. At the ticket booth in the railway station, we showed the agent the printed Chinese instructions and were handed our tickets. Having these instructions was a huge bonus.

DIY Travel also provided us with instructions on how to read the train tickets, how to find our train at the station, and information about boarding procedures. This information is invaluable as everything in the train stations is in Chinese. I highly recommend China DIY Travel to other travelers and wouldn’t hesitate to use them again on another trip to China.

Hotels in China

Make sure you clearly specify that you want a non-smoking room. Many, many people smoke in China. Even if you request a non-smoking room it very well may smell like smoke. It also helps to make sure the hotel has English speaking staff.

Here Come the Paparazzi

If you are traveling with children or have light skin and blond hair be prepared to have a lot of cameras in your face. Tyler and Kara were back in the spotlight again. Tim was a subject of many photos as well, with his height and blond hair. Most people were very polite, asking for photos with our family, but there was a smaller subset of people who stood off at a distance capturing our images on their cellphones.

So, What About the Food?

Yes, without a doubt, Chinese food is much different from what we see in the US. There is almost no similarity between the two.

Some things we loved (I was a huge fan of the noodles and the soups) and some we didn’t. At many Chinese style restaurants we ordered small dishes from a menu and shared them all. The food tasted good but it was oilier than I expected it to be. We would finish a dish, leaving behind a puddle of oil on the bottom of the bowl.

I have to say that I liked Chinese food a lot less than I expected to. I feel like I am a fairly adventurous eater and have an open mind but I can see why Chinese food in the US has been “Americanized.” And no, we never did see a fortune cookie…that also is an American invention.