So you’re traveling to China. Awesome. It is a great place to visit. The people are friendly, the history is amazing, and the sites are beautiful. But, having traveled there in 2011 with a study tour from my college, I realized that there were a few things that didn’t get mentioned in all the “protect your passport, travel destinations, clothing to wear” tips that I looked up, and some that I should have paid more attention to. Like how to use the toilet. So here’s what I learned.
Make sure you know where you are. This is not a simple tip. Two friends and I got separated at night from our study tour in Beijing and missed the last bus that dropped us off near our hotel. We thought we could walk there with no problem, and so set out. Unfortunately, none of us spoke more than a few phrases in Chinese, and just basic ones at that. While the people we encountered clearly understood through our sign language where we wanted to go and tried to point us to it, we didn’t get the directions clearly enough. Three hours later (around midnight by this time) we spotted a cab and flagged him down (see next tip for more on this).
My Tip: Bring a city map with you in whatever language you speak (you should have no problem finding one online to either purchase or print out) with your hotel’s location on it circled, with its name and address printed somewhere. Constantly look up your location. You could even make it a game, see who can be the most accurate. Know where you are.
So we managed to flag down a cab. But how to tell him where we needed to go? Thankfully, I had snagged a brochure and business card from our hotel on the way out that morning. I showed the cab driver the card (it had the name and address printed in Chinese) and from that he was able to get us back to the hotel.
My Tip: Grab the cards/brochures of any place you have been or want to go. Not only will they give you valuable information, but this way you have something that you can point at that a Chinese cab driver or friendly citizen (and they are super friendly) will be able to read, and you can get to your destination.
Any good tip site will tell you to bring your own toiletries. That’s a given. But this tip is about toilets, not toiletries. One thing I learned very quickly about China is that they have a different version of toilets, especially in the public areas. While I can’t speak for the ladies room the toilets in most of the men’s public restrooms (and a number of the restaurants as well) are quite literally holes in the ground. Imagine this: you go into a stall. Close the door. Turn around, and the toilet’s been stolen. Or so it seems. There is a tiled hole in the ground, and you are expected to squat and do your business. This can be really disconcerting, as most Westerners simply aren’t ready for it.
My Tip: It’s difficult to really give out a good tip for this, as there isn’t much you can do if you have to go. One recommendation is bring anti-diarrhea medicine with you. Getting diarrhea in China is really unpleasant. Another thing I would do is try to go before you leave your hotel (which will probably have a Western style toilet in the room). I also would save the bulk of my eating for later in the day, when you are closer to going back to your hotel. Eating a big breakfast, snacking, having lunch and then still be five or six hours from going back to your hotel is not smart. Speaking of toilets…
While I had seen this one on a few sites, I didn’t believe it. I do now. Toilet paper outside of the hotel (and sometimes even in the hotel) is rarer than gold in China. You will not find rolls of it in each stall, and it can even be a pain to find in some stores. A couple of restaurants that I went to had a set up where you grab the toilet paper you are going to use before you walk into the stall. One dispenser. For everyone who goes to that restaurant that day. If they run out, oh well.
My tip: Bring your own. Sounds silly, but really, seriously, bring your own. Carry it in your bag or purse, and make sure you have it with you before you leave your hotel. You do not want to be caught without it.
Side note: Deodorant is another item that is difficult to find. None of the stores I went to had any, and I had run out. I finally got some when I went to the store on the school campus that my group was staying at, which because it has international students carried more than the average store. Make sure you pack plenty.
This I had seen on a lot of travel tip sites, but I didn’t listen, and I paid for it. I was in the Silk Market in Beijing, and saw something that I wanted. I did not have enough money, and spotted an ATM in the corner. Went to it, took out my money, went back and bought the product, and thought I was done. Needless to say, this was incredibly dumb. The next day my account was drained, and while I did recover my money, I had to borrow from my fellow student travelers until my sister could Western Union me some cash.
My tip: Don’t use an ATM in a shopping center. While that tip really applies to anywhere, it applies doubly to China. In Hong Kong they have a great card called the Octopus card. It is a card that you can put money on and use for transportation on trains, and even in many of the shops, nearly eliminating the need to go to an ATM or carry cash. If you have to use an ATM use one that is in a bank, where you can see that no one is around you, and hacking it or setting up a fake ATM is harder. The odds of having your card stolen from a bank ATM are much lower than one in the Silk Market. Speaking of…
Silk Market/Shopping Centers
The Silk Market in Beijing is a tourist trap. It just is. It doesn’t even pretend to be anything else. But it is a really fun place to go, and maybe even buy a couple things. The Silk Market is a rectangular building with 5 floors and it is packed to the brim with stalls and businesses, so thick you can barely walk. But again it works differently there. For one, you haggle with the dealers. If you pay the full price for something, quite frankly, you’re a chump. On the Silk Market website they even have a tab teaching you how to bargain (see here). They will also grab you, and I don’t mean figuratively, I mean they will physically grab you to show you their wares. While apparently they have attempted to curtail this, it will still happen.
My tip: Go, it is fun. But make sure you do a few things. One is learn how to haggle. You’ll end up spending a ton of money if you don’t. Another is attempt to set yourself a limit on how much money you spend. Lastly, don’t go by yourself, especially if you are a smaller person. Being almost 6’2″ and 300lbs, I didn’t have much of a problem getting through the masses. But I could see smaller people struggling, and you can get pushed around. Go with a friend, stick together and enjoy the experience.
In Hong Kong trains are one of the main transportation options. They are incredibly helpful, generally safe, and cheaper than other methods. But they can also be a pain. The trains get filled to the max, and it can be very hard to get on or off. People do not wait until the coast is cleared before getting on. They attempt to get on at the same time that the others are trying to exit. It is like trying to walk through a brick wall. I’ve been on trains in Boston, New York etc, and those are nothing compared to what you get in China. Again, smaller people need to be aware of this, as you will get manhandled.
My Tip: Taking the train is a great method of transportation, and with a plan can be a time and money saver. First learn where you’re going and how many stops it is from your current location. When you get on, try to stay on the side that you will be exiting. If you can’t (and honestly you probably won’t be able to) then about two stops before your destination, start moving towards the side of the train where you will be disembarking. When people are exiting, go with them, just don’t get off. When those doors open at your stop, push and run. It’s the only way you’ll be able to get off the train without missing your stop.
The basic warnings on any site will tell you to avoid the tap water, buy bottled, etc. They are right. Follow them. But there are a few other things to think of. If, like me, you don’t enjoy vegetables, at all, you’ll have a hard time in China. Everything there is made with vegetables. I lost 12 pounds in three weeks. Fish is also big, and also something that I don’t like. While there are chain restaurants (McDonalds, KFC etc.) don’t expect them to be like the ones in the west. For one thing, the menus are much simpler. Hamburger, double hamburger, fried chicken, drinks and a dessert. That’s it. No Super $1 value meal or Happy Meals. Secondly, the food doesn’t taste the same. It’s not bad, but it is different. Another thing to know is that there is no milk there. And by milk I mean cow milk. They have plenty of soy milk and the like, but no real milk. Even the soda tastes different, as they tend to use real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup.
My Tip: Try the duck. I had duck for the first time in Beijing, and it was amazing. If you find you aren’t eating, go to shopping centers and food marts and buy what you need to eat. But honestly, don’t be as picky as me. And try the duck.
Well, I hope you enjoy your trip to China. I know that I did. Good luck.