I’ve noticed that many people tend to be worried about visiting China without speaking Chinese. Unlike Thailand where everyone speaks English, China is a bit harder to traverse without speaking the language.
A few weeks ago I wrote a Quick Guide to Mandarin Chinese, where I gave you all a few phrases to practice before heading off to China. While a lot of these phrases can be very useful, the idea of stepping off a plane with only a few phrases under your belt can be daunting to most.
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If They Can Do It, So Can You
Since I’m conversationally fluent in Chinese, I often wonder how other people who don’t speak Chinese get around in China.
One time I was in a tiny Tibetan town called Songpan in Sichuan. This town was in the middle of nowhere, a solid 7-hour bus ride from the capital, Chengdu. Walking around the streets of this tiny town, I spied a group of backpackers.
“How the heck did they get here??” I thought. I couldn’t wrap my head around how a bunch of backpackers speaking no Chinese could possibly make their way to this tiny Tibetan town.
In all honesty, it’s not as hard as you might think.
1. How to Get Around: Take a Hotel Business Card
Most hostels and hotels have a card at the front desk. This card should have the address in romanized Chinese and Chinese characters. It may even have a little map! Always, always, always take a card. Take more than one!
These cards become invaluable when you’re trying to find your way home. You can just show the card to a cab driver, and he’ll know exactly where to take you. A lot of taxi drivers don’t know the English names for the major hotels because each hotel also has a Chinese name.
If you’re staying at a hostel, people definitely won’t know the place by name. Using the address is always easier, and guarantees your cab driver will be able to find it.
Chinese is also really difficult to pronounce, so even if you have the pinyin (romanized Chinese) written out for you, you probably won’t be able to pronounce the name of your street unless you have some experience with Chinese. Stick a card in your wallet and all you have to do is show the Chinese address to your cab driver and he’ll take you home safely.
2. How to Get to Your Hotel: Get the Chinese Address
“But wait, Richelle, how do I get to my hotel from the airport in the first place???”
Good question! Make sure you have the Chinese address saved in an email on your phone before you step off the plane or train. I normally book all of my hostels and hotels via Hostelworld or Booking.com. When I make a booking, I receive a confirmation email that normally has the address in both pinyin and Chinese characters.
Just keep in mind, if you don’t have a Chinese SIM card or international phone plan be sure to load the email before you leave wifi, or take a screenshot with your phone. The last thing you want is to arrive at your destination with an email that’s not loaded. Learn from my mistakes!
Take Public Transportation!
Most hostels and hotels will also give you directions by foot, bus, shuttle, subway etc. if you don’t want to take a cab. This is a great way to save money and is usually feasible if you don’t have a lot of luggage.
Or you could be cheap like me, and take multiple subways, trains, and busses with a year’s worth of luggage in tow…
Quick side note: Don’t let Chinese public transportation scare you! While the bus is a little difficult because everything is in Chinese, the subways list all the stops in English. I’ve actually found the Chinese subways to be much easier to navigate than those in America!
3. How to Order Food in China: Picture Menus
At this point, I’m sure you’re all wondering “But how will I eat??”
Never fear, picture menus are here! Picture menus are actually my best friend. Any decently nice restaurant in China tends to have picture menus. By “decently nice”, I mean a restaurant that’s not a hole-in-the-wall. Picture menus are great because you can see exactly what you’re getting. Some picture menus have English translations (most of which make no sense), and others don’t.
I would suggest learning the characters for the different meats so you can recognize what you’re ordering.
Do be a little adventurous with food in China. Don’t just order the sweet and sour pork and kungpao chicken (which are delicious by the way). Before I came to China I had no interest in eggplant or tofu. I thought they were foods for vegetarians and didn’t feel the need to try them. China has given me a newfound appreciation for these two foods. Mapuo dofu (spicy Sichuan-style soft tofu) is one of my favorite foods in China!
I also highly suggest taking a food tour while in China. I know of incredible food tours in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Chengdu, so you’ll never go hungry! My two favorite companies are UnTour and Lost Plate!
4. How to Order Food in China: Point at stuff
For the more adventurous or budget-conscious, you can still eat at all those street food stalls and hole-in-the-wall places without speaking Chinese. How do you do this? Look and point.
I do this all the time. I walk into a restaurant and don’t feel like deciphering the characters, so I look around at what everyone’s eating. I go up to the waitress and say “I want this” and point at someone’s food.
You can do something similar by pointing at someone’s noodle dish, holding up one finger, and then pointing at yourself. Yay for cross-cultural sign language! You can also point at the pictures on the walls if there are any. Keep in mind, the pictures on the wall may not accurately reflect the dishes available.
Food Safety in China
What about street food? The great thing about street food is that you can see what people are cooking. Just wander around and pick something that looks good. It’s that easy!
For those of you that are worried about getting sick from these types of places, keep in mind that I have literally never gotten sick from street food, or hole-in-the-wall restaurants. The one time I was hospitalized with food poisoning was when I ate a $10 hamburger at a nice Western restaurant in downtown Ningbo.
Seriously, if you’re going to eat Western food, do it in Shanghai or Beijing.
5. Shopping in China: Haggle with a calculator
For those of you traveling to Shanghai, Beijing, or Shenzhen, you’ll definitely want to do some shopping. The bargaining markets (more like malls) in these cities are insane! I’ve gotten souvenirs, fake designer goods, custom-made clothing, makeup, knockoff perfume, suitcases, jewelry and much, much more. Even if you’re trying to get a small souvenir at a market stall in the Chinese countryside, be sure to haggle for a lower price.
I’m actually pretty intense at bargaining, and I do it in Chinese. But what can you do if you want to go shopping and you don’t speak Chinese? Well, firstly a lot of people at bargaining markets in the major cities speak a little English.
Surprise! The only people who speak English are the people who want to sell you overpriced fake designer goods. All of the shops and stalls will also have small calculators that you can use to haggle over prices. Every single shop will have one. Literally, every single one.
6. Research the History Before You Go
Heading to the Terracotta Warriors, Summer Palace or Forbidden City? Research the history before you go. While these places sometimes have signs in English, they usually don’t make any sense. While this can be absolutely hilarious, it’s not that great for learning about China’s 5,000 years of ancient history.
Google… shoot google is blocked… I mean “bing” or “yahoo search” your destinations before you go so you understand and appreciate the history when you arrive.
7. Use the Hostel/Hotel Tours
Want to go to the Great Wall but you don’t want to deal with the long-distance public bus ride hassle? Book a tour through your hostel or hotel. While I usually prefer to go on my own, sometimes these tours can be very convenient. They may also be the only feasible way to get to places outside the city without a car.
There have been a few times that I’ve tried to go to places outside the city without a tour and really regretted it because I spent the whole day just trying to get there via multiple long-distance public buses!
If you don’t speak Chinese and actually want to enjoy your day, this may be the way to go. If you’re staying at a hotel, and think the price is a bit high, check out a local hostel and you may find more budget-friendly tours. A normal day trip costs around 200-something kuai ($30-something USD). Some can be cheaper or more expensive depending on what you’re doing and how high the entrance fees are.
8. Ask Your Hostel/Hotel for Help
Want to go to to the Forbidden City but don’t know how to say it in Chinese? Ask your hostel to write it out on a piece of paper for you! Want to find a good bargaining mall? Ask your hotel to recommend one for you and tell you which subway stop to get off at. Need to take a seven-hour public bus to a tiny town on the Tibetan Plateau? Your hostel can write out the name of the city for you, and you can take it to the bus station and give it to the ticket counter.
Most hostels and hotels will help you out with the language barrier. While receptionists may not speak perfect English, most can attempt to help you get where you need to go. I rely on my hostel receptionists a lot when I’m traveling. They seem to have the best advice for things to do in the area and tips to get around the city.
For example, when I went to the Zhangjiajie “Avatar Mountains” this summer, I did a bit of research beforehand, but I really didn’t understand how the park worked. My guesthouse owner was absolutely amazing and helped make sure my friend and I had the best trip possible.
He gave us a free map of the park and helped us plan three days-worth of hikes that maximized our time effectively. He also personally walked us to the bus station every morning and even walked me to the train station on my last day because he was concerned about the amount of stuff I was carrying.
9. Download Pleco for Translation
Pleco is my best friend. Pleco and picture menus.
Pleco is a Chinese dictionary app that you can download on your smartphone. No more carrying around phrase books that may not have the word you want! Whether you’re trying to ask the waitress for water or looking for directions to the subway, Pleco can give you the word you need. The best part is that Pleco is a dictionary database, so you don’t need the internet to access it!
Pleco does both Chinese to English and English to Chinese translations. It also recognizes both pinyin and characters. I mostly use Pleco to look up characters I don’t understand. I have a Chinese keyboard, where I can draw the character with my finger. This is great for translating menus, signs, and labeling.
While this may be a bit advanced for those of you that don’t speak Chinese, the English to Chinese translations can really come in handy. The best part is that they give you the translation in both pinyin and characters. Instead of butchering the pronunciation and confusing everyone, you can merely show them your phone and they’ll know what you’re talking about.
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6,000+ words jam-packed with all the advice you need for your trip, from censorship and food safety to the language barrier and getting off the beaten path. I’ve also included 3 customizable itineraries you can use for any length of trip, along with directions and a map to a secret section of the Great Wall not officially open to tourists!
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Don’t Worry, You’ll Be Fine!
The prospect of traveling in China without speaking Chinese can be a bit daunting, but that’s no reason not to go! Many locals go out of their way to help struggling visitors, especially the locals who speak English. China is a vast and diverse country with so much to do, see and eat. I meet people every day who live and work here speaking almost no Chinese.
While I would definitely suggest trying to learn the local language if you’re going to be in China for a while, it’s not feasible for the average traveler to become conversational in a few weeks. With the tips and tricks listed above, you’ll definitely survive your trip to China. I promise!