The complete foreignness that is the country of China had the most mystic and glamour to me when planning our trip around the world. I was intensely excited to experience the food, people, and culture.
Little did I know how different traveling in China would be.
So I have compiled a list of 7 general roadblocks you might encounter as a non-Chinese speaking tourist in China, and the solutions we found that made all the difference. Oh and I added a few unrelated beautiful pictures from a day trip to the Dujiangyan Irrigation System outside of Chengdu, China.
7 Tips for Traveling in China as an English Speaker:
- Language barrier – At times, the language barrier is challenging in mainland China. As native English speakers we take for granted the amount of foreigners who learn English. It allows us to be lazy and rely on others to help communicate. I fully recognize this fault in our traveling behavior. However, no where else was this more evident than in mainland China. We encountered few English speakers and Google translate was difficult to use since Google blocks itself in China.
SOLUTION: Download Google translate on your phone prior to arriving in China. This way, you can communicate with locals. If you do not download Google translate prior to arriving in China, you maybe SOL. Google blocks itself in China – which makes using an android phone even more interesting – so you will have to utilize crafty methods to download apps. What are those methods you wonder ↓
- Gaining Wifi – I remember asking my friend about how China views controversial topics (i.e gay marriage, religious preferences), and he said, “China doesn’t care about anything, except the internet.” During my time in mainland China, I also found this to be true. Facebook, Instagram and Google (yes, that includes gmail!), are all blocked in China. Also, in order to access wi-fi in many hotels, they require you to have a Chinese cell phone number in order to text you a code to access the internet.
SOLUTION: We bought a cheap Chinese SIM card, switched out our American SIM card, and off we went on our merry wi-fi enabled way.
- Accessing social media & Google – Once you jump the hurdle of gaining access to wi-fi in China, next you want to check your gmail, which unfortunately is also blocked.
SOLUTION: Download a VPN. We used Tunnelbear.
- Uber – Uber provides a wonderful alternative to hurdling the taxi language barrier by allowing you to preload your destination for your driver. However, sometimes this functionality does not work. When it did not work, we struggled and fumbled to communicate with our uber driver where we wanted to go.
SOLUTION: Always have your directions preloaded on a map so you can show your driver your intended destination. You can access a version of Google Maps in China without the use of a VPN by going to maps.google.cn.
- Weather – We had been told that taking the train in China can be faster than flying due to the unpredictability of the weather. After a few experiences, we found this to be true. Our flight from Xi’an to Beijing was 4 hours delayed, causing us to arrive in Chengdu after 2am.
SOLUTION: When available take the train but never the hard seat. We have heard stories of overly packed cars, and mom’s utilizing open windows as alternatives for bathrooms for their youngsters. The high speed rail from Beijing to Xi’an was absolutely wonderful. We got the basic seats, and were so pleased with our experience, which left Beijing on time and arrived in Xi’an on time. If you are picking up your train ticket at the station in Beijing, there is a specific window for English speakers.
- Lodging – After one specific night of several flight delays, we arrived at our intended destination 4 hours later than expected, around 2am. Technically, arriving at 2am is the next day, so our hotel considered us as a “no show” and unfortunately canceled our reservation for the evening. Although, we had written in the booking that we would arrive late, the hotel did not have an English speaking attendant, so this fact was lost in translation. We spent a frustrating 2 hours trying to check into our room between 2am-4am.
SOLUTION: If possible try to book flights that provide you with ample time to arrive at your intended hotel. This seems obvious, but in China, all the extra time is worth it. Also, arriving during normal business hours gives you a greater chance that the hotel might have an English speaking attendant.
***Staying in low budget hotels/motels (which is where we primarily stayed) is frequented by mostly Chinese speaking guests thus no need for English speaking attendants. If we could do it again, we would have stayed in more hostels because usually, when staying in hostels, your likelihood of a bilingual front desk is much higher.
- Laundry – In China, laundry is charged by the item, not by the weight or by the load. This can tally up quickly when you are being charged for each item. While we were staying at the Dorsett Chengdu, laundry was expensive as it is in most higher-end hotels. However, even when we wandered to local laundromats they also had the expensive pay by the item business model.
SOLUTION: Hostels! We looked up a hostel close by, walked in, asked if we could do our laundry and viola! Laundry complete for a grand total for $3. Otherwise we were looking at nearly $70!
Traveling through China certainly has it tough points when you lack basic Chinese language skills, but they can be overcome with preparation or hiring a local guide! We chose not to hire a local guide thinking we could do it on our own, but dang, it would have been easier with a guide at times!
Do you have any other tips for traveling in China? I would love to hear them!
We are currently settling into our apartment in Palo Alto, follow along with us on Instagram for more travel photos!