China: Off the Beaten Path
If you’re planning a trip to China – and you want to venture beyond the tour bus – here’s what you need to know.
As more and more travelers plan to visit China, some survival tips may be in order for the independent traveler.
I’m not talking here about the tour group that gets picked up at the airport in an air conditioned bus, dropped off at their western-style hotel, then shuttled from tourist site to site led by a flag toting English-speaking guide. No, this is for those braver souls who want to rub shoulders with Chinese locals on small tour buses crammed into seats too small for the North American frame.
If you like to travel on your own and you plan on doing more than the usual Beijing-Shanghai-Xi'an route, then read on.
I’ve learned a few things about China after crisscrossing the country for three months. Some of these tips could prove useful – even life saving.
China is gearing up for the invading hordes by adding English signs in major cities, building new hotels, and teaching English to Beijing cab drivers. Admittedly, therefore, it's becoming easier to travel around China on your own by plane, train and bus without a travel agent pre-booking everything for you.
Airplanes here are modern, safe and convenient. And over 70,000 kilometers of new track have been laid for a rail system that crisscrosses the country linking all major destinations and most of the less frequented ones.
A modern highway system does the same with newly paved roads. Although most are toll highways and foreign visitors are forbidden from driving on them, the roads are in excellent shape. So it's definitely worthwhile, and fairly easy, to hire a local driver if you want to see some of the sites off the beaten path.
But easy isn't necessarily safe or comfortable.
No, the major problem here isn't the travel infrastructure and the ease of physically getting from point A to point B, it's the language barrier. Even though many English signs have been added throughout China on streets, subways, and airports, they're usually in "pinion", the Chinese phonetic equivalent of their symbol script. The signs may look like English to you, but try to pronounce them in any way that will sound like Chinese to a local and you'll end up lost and frustrated.
It's all in Your Tone
The reason is that Chinese is a tonal language, with up to five different tones for the same word. This makes "ma" either "mother", "horse", "bad", or a question depending on the inflexion in your voice. Not only can the wrong tone lead to embarrassment, but it can be quite frustrating as well.
Once we almost ended up on a flight to Taiwan when we tried to buy a plane ticket to Taiyuan, a city north of Xi'an. We thought we were saying the right word, but it came out Taiwan to the Chinese ticket agent in Lanzhou.
Finding a travel agent who speaks enough English to book your tickets can help avoid these potential disasters, but that's not always possible. Even then, mistakes can happen. Our Lanzhou travel agent spoke decent English, but still heard Taiwan instead of Taiyuan.
Some basic Chinese lessons will help immensely. Even the rudimentaries like the numbers 1 to 10 will go a long way. With these ten numbers, you can create the days of the week, and month, and the months of the year fairly simply. Days of the week are just "day one", "day two", and so on. The months are similar.
A small portable calendar will also be very handy for both planning your itinerary and for pointing to your travel date. And all travel agents and stores have calculators to show you the prices. You just type in your price and pass the calculator back.
Fortunately, airports use mostly English and the bigger ones even make flight announcements in English. Trains and buses, however, are all in Chinese. This makes buying tickets and locating your platform, bus or train car difficult. Even finding the right ticket booth can be time consuming and frustrating as you are shunted from one wicket to another -- all the overhead signs are in Chinese.
Again a local travel agent, often at your own hotel, can arrange tickets for a small commission and so avoid the hassles of train and bus stations. But sometimes you're just going to have to deal with the lineups and confusion yourself. The basic Chinese numbers, a calendar and a calculator will get you through most negotiations.
After buying your ticket, always carefully check it to confirm that the destination and date are correct. If you're traveling with a partner, ensure numbered seats are together. Hold on to your train ticket. Sometimes you will need to show it on the train and you will almost always need it to exit the train station at your destination.
Airlines have special requirements and ticket agents need to enter your passport number and name into the computer. Make sure it and your name are accurate. A common mistake they make is to enter your first name as your last, which is the practice in China. This mistake could mean you won't be able to board your flight.
Also, keep your baggage claim stubs. China is the only country we have visited lately that requires you to show your baggage stub when you exit the airport with your bags.
Another useful tool for booking tickets is a road map with English and Chinese names. Many of the maps you find in China will be in Chinese only. Take your English/Chinese map with you and point to the Chinese script for your destination. Or have someone write down the name in Chinese characters on a piece of paper for you to show to the ticket vendor to avoid confusion.
Maps are useful not just for inter-city travel, but also within a city as well. Always pick up a map with both English and Chinese names when you first arrive in a new city. With this in hand you can point to the Chinese characters of your destination for cab drivers or people on the street. And always pick up a business card from your hotel and carry it with you to show cab drivers when you want to return to your hotel.
But possibly our most used travel tool has been a small picture book that has drawings of food and clothing items, planes and trains, and essentials like police and hospital. We have successfully used one on several continents to order meals in restaurants, find a pharmacy, or be driven to the bus station. Our favorite is a slim, plastic-coated pocket book called "The Wordless Travel Book", but there are others for sale on the Internet or at travel book stores.
The Chinese have a love affair with their cell phones. They are constantly talking on them -- while driving, eating, walking, riding the bus or even riding on their bicycles through a maze of traffic and pedestrians. Very scary!
But this addiction can come in very handy if you're lost or need to book a hotel. All you need is the temerity to ask and most Chinese will be glad to offer you the use of their cell phone.
Once on a day trip that turned out longer than we had planned, we were turned down at a hotel because we didn't have our passports. Our cab driver called around to several hotels until we found one that would take us in with just the photocopy that we always have with us. (Important sidenote: hotels in China demand your passport in order to book a room and some will not accept a photocopy of your passport.)
Traffic in China is crazy. It's far worse than in South America or Bangkok even. Besides talking on the cell phone, there are two added risk factors.
First, a lot of the scooters are electric, which means you can't hear them when they speed along the sidewalk behind you or zoom straight at you through the crowd of pedestrians trying to cross the street.
For some reason in China, scooters are exempt from the traffic laws that require other vehicles to stop at red lights. So they and a million bicycles weave their way through the pedestrians. If you stop while walking across the street, you're dead.
The saying "look both ways before you cross" was never truer than in China. Bikes ride on both sides of the road -- as do taxis sometimes! Pedestrians are at the bottom of the totem pole here, ready to be crushed by the sheer volume of traffic.
The second risk factor is that because the scooters are electric, they often don't use their lights at night in order to save their battery. So, in addition to being silent, they are as invisible as Stealth aircraft. Even some of the cars do this at night.
Another hazard on the highways are the street cleaners. No mechanical, gas guzzling sweeper trucks here; these are men and women standing on the side of the highway -- even in the fast lane -- sweeping away leaves with a broom made out of branches and twigs. Their only protection is an orange vest. No helmet, no safety cones, no warning sign, just a vest.
Finding an English menu is difficult outside of the major tourist cities and large Western-style hotels. To make dining out more of a joy than a chore, look for restaurants that have pictures on their menus. Alternatively, use the "Wordless" picture travel book mentioned above and point to a picture of the kind of food you want.
As a last resort, look at what the locals are eating and order the same. This may result in some odd culinary surprises, like the pig's tongue you thought was steak, but food is inexpensive here and you can always try something else.
Food servings in China are huge and are designed for group dining of four or more people. Usually, the servings are far more than two people can eat. As a couple, we like to order two dishes for variety, but this means leaving food on the plates. As a result, we'll sometimes sacrifice variety and just order one dish with two bowls of rice. That's plenty of food for two people.
Finally, don't tap your chopsticks on your rice bowl or stick them upright in the rice. The first is supposed to lead to bad luck and the second means someone has died. Neither is good form in a Chinese restaurant.
Also, because we're traveling a bit off the beaten path, many of the locals that we see in places like Shangri La or Kashgar are not dressed up in bright robes and hats just for the tourists; they actually dress that way every day. This is one of the main reasons to travel independently and off the beaten path. To avoid potential problems, however, always ask for permission to take someone's photo before shooting.
On the down side, besides the pollution, spitting everywhere (even in restaurants, buses, and right here beside us in the Internet cafe), are the squat toilets. If you've been to Asia, you know what I'm talking about so I won't go into detail here. Somehow, even in small cities, they have fancy LCD screens in front of urinals that are auto flushing, but no proper toilets.
But if you're thinking of coming to Asia, here's a travel tip for those of you who like me are "squat challenged". Get in the habit of having a morning cup of tea before breakfast. Every hotel in China has tea in your room and a nice tea cup to brew it in. This will motivate your constitution BEFORE you get on that five-hour bus tour and you'll not have to worry about squat toilets.
Failing that, buy some "portable" toilets from Magellan. We're still saving ours for emergencies, but it sure is reassuring to know that we have them in our backpacks when we're driving across the Tibetan highlands.
It is essential, however, to carry your own toilet paper. Rarely will you find it in anything but the larger hotels. Small packs of tissues that can be bought in any grocery store in China make very convenient substitutes for a roll. Also carry small change around with you for the pay toilets.
Just as rare in washrooms are hot water and soap. Bring bottles of hand sanitizer from home, you won't easily find it in China.
Booking a hotel room can be fairly straightforward even without a knowledge of Chinese. If you're arriving late at night, it's best to book your hotel in advance by phone or on the Internet. Copy or have someone write down the Chinese characters for the name of the hotel. That way you're not wandering around the dark streets trying to find accommodation when you first arrive in a new city.
Otherwise, you can get good deals right at the front desk. Rack room rates at three- and four-star hotels are usually posted on a sign at the front desk and you can simply point to "Standard Room". Then start your negotiations.
Rates are always negotiable except at the highest season or on Chinese national holidays. The clerk will write the opening discounted rate on a piece of paper or use a calculator to begin the bargaining process. Counter with something reasonable and let the games begin. Don't forget to confirm that breakfast is included in your discounted rate.
Before you check in, visit the room to verify that everything works properly. If you don't like the room, the AC won't turn off, or the toilet doesn't flush (a frequent occurrence), ask to see another room. Also, discounted rooms are often beside noisy elevators or stairwells. If you're a light sleeper, politely ask for a different room. Staff are very obliging.
It's always wise to lock up your valuables and passport in the hotel safe. Some hotels have one in the room, others at the front desk. But if you use the front desk safe and you have an early morning flight to catch, it might be best to take your valuables out the night before. Once we risked missing our flight because the manager who had the key to the safe wasn't on duty until 9 a.m.
Make a photocopy of your passport, including your Chinese entry visa. With your passport safely locked up in the hotel safe, you can use the photocopy for booking airline tickets or at the Internet cafes that sometimes demand them.
Most hotels in the three- and four-star category do not take credit cards. At check in, you will need to make a cash deposit equal to one or two times the value of your hotel room times the length of your stay.
Unfortunately, this means carrying lots of cash around. While we've never felt threatened in China, it's wise to use a hidden money pouch. I find that the kind that attaches to your belt and hangs on the inside of your trousers is the least visible and one of the most comfortable.
Every hotel we have visited in China has been "clean" and comfortable. Some are more spartan than others, but they all have tea, toothbrushes, slippers, and a comb, and some even have a bottle of water. Plus they are fairly inexpensive compared to Canada.
Three-star hotels and higher have electric kettles to boil water for tea and to sterilize the cups provided in your room. Some have a large fresh water bottle combined with a heater that boils water for use. It works surprisingly well. (Make sure the seal on the bottle has not been broken and the bottle refilled with tap water.)
As an added bonus, breakfast is usually included in your room rate. It's often a buffet style of Chinese food, but they all have boiled eggs, which have become our staple breakfast food. Some have "Century Eggs", eggs stained dark brown because they've been boiled in tea; but these, in addition to being unsightly, may be unsafe to eat, so avoid them.
There's usually some combination of fruits, buns, cakes and usually vegetables. But some places make omelets and our hotel in Lanzhou made Lanzhou's famous Beef Noodle Soup for breakfast, with fresh noodles made right before our eyes.
Again on the plus side, every hotel, no matter how cheap, has packaged toothbrushes and a tiny tube of toothpaste. Save some of these for those long train or bus rides.
Everywhere we have visited in China, we have found the people extremely friendly and helpful. But outside the big cities, we do get strange reactions when people see us. Most of the time we are the only Westerners in town. The children and even adults stare, but are always quick to say hello or to smile and laugh when we said "Ni hao".
They seem to derive a great deal of pleasure watching us eat with chopsticks or say the few Chinese words that we can pronounce properly. Huddles often form around us when we pull out our dictionary to ask for something in a store.
It's a little disconcerting, but, again, it's an ice breaker and it brings out the smiles. So be prepared to be the centre of attention when you travel on your own in the less visited parts of China.
The concept of lining up for anything doesn't exist in China. This is one of the most frustrating things for me. It's always a mad rush for buses, elevators, even airplanes. There is no such thing as boarding a flight by row. It's a stampede!
At the cashier in department stores, in post offices or at tourist sites, people will butt right in between you and the clerk.
This even happens at airline check-in counters when you've got your passport and ticket on the counter in front of you and your bags on the scale. Someone will come right up between you and your bags and try to get checked in. This is where extra caution is required to ensure you don't lose your passport or bags. You’ll need a lot of patience as well.
The only system where line ups work is in banks where they have a wonderful system, even better than ours. When you arrive you take a number. Then you sit in comfortable seats until your number is called and they announce which wicket you should go to – in Chinese. Fortunately for us they also show the numbers on an illuminated flashing screen over each teller. It is probably no coincidence that the original Chinese banking system was modeled on Britain’s, where queuing is an art form.
The Advantage of Independent Travel
In travel, there's what you see and what you find. A lot of tour groups are herded from site to site like sheep in order to "see" a lot. But by traveling independently, you have more opportunity to "find" those treasures hidden just off the beaten path. And if you follow the basic tips I’ve outlined above and look both ways before you cross the street, your travels in China should be safe, rewarding and relatively easy.
Helpful China Tour Guides:
Kunming: Jasmine (English name) Zou Qing (Chinese name), cell phone: 13888683190, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Jasmine charges around 150-200 Yuan for a whole day with you and she has a tour guide card so she can enter any tourist attraction free of charge. Her vocabulary even of technical words was impressive. We used her on a day excursion to the local botanical gardens and the World Horti-Expo Garden. The latter, by the way, is fabulous if you like Chinese garden design (see earlier blog).
Lanzhou: Sally (English name), cell phone: 13008759347, e-mail: email@example.com Sally is amazing, efficient, very helpful and her English is great. She put us together with her driver, Mr. He, and arranged for him to take us to Xiahe to visit the Labrang Monastery with a stop on the way at Bingling Si. Road trips can also be arranged overland to Tibet.
Xian: Miss Mao, Mao Qi, Manager, China Comfort Travel Service Co., email: firstname.lastname@example.org Miss Mao arranged for a driver to take us to the Terracotta warriors, Hua Shan mountain and the Shaolin Temple.
Written and contributed by Dan Cooper