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.
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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.
10. Download My FREE Ultimate China Survival Guide
Alright, shameless self-promotion aside, this guide is necessary for anyone planning a trip to China, especially those of you who don’t speak Chinese.
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!
Trust me, you need this.
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!
31 comments on “10 Tips For Traveling in China Without Speaking Chinese”
This was so, so helpful!! I’m going to Beijing (and Hong Kong) solo in October and I’ve managed to master some key phrases but I feel like I’m butchering the tones…writing down these tips :)
Awesome Bethany! I know I was really nervous heading off to China for the first time and I’d had a year and a half or Chinese classes! Good luck on your trip and I hope you have an amazing time
Great tips, thanks Richelle! We will be going to China next year and I hope to learn some basic Mandarin beforehand (as we will be hitchhiking so knowing some basic expressions is essential), but even so I realise we won’t be always able to communicate with the locals.
I never go to restaurants with pictured menus as I find them overpriced and aimed mostly at tourists, so street stalls and pointing is absolutely fine by me. We did that in South East Asia and it was worked perfectly. Of course sometimes we got a great surprise when the dish arrived but it was more fun that way!
I found your tips about picking up cards and using Pleco very hepful though and I will be sure to follow your advice! Thanks!
I’m glad these tips helped you prepare for you hitchhiking trip! I’m sure you’ll have a great time in China, and with Pleco, cards and help from your hosts I’m sure you’ll be able to get around. One tip I have is that unlike SE Asia you should consider eating at restaurants with picture menus some of the time. A lot of these places aren’t much more expensive, and they serve a lot more dishes than the hole-in-the-wall places, which mainly serve fried noodles, and rice dishes or dumplings. I tend to eat at a mixture of the two, because I think I would die if I ate noodles every day. I need some veggies!
Great advice! I think another thing worth adding is to give yourself lots of EXTRA time to get things done. Even as someone who has live and studied in China for half a year, I’ve found that even the simplest of errands can take longer to finish. Giving yourself an extra 10-15 minutes can go a long ways in reducing your stress level – and that’s just basic advice for travelers. ;)
I definitely agree! Especially if you’re trying to get somewhere- you never know how bad the traffic will be or when the bus will come!
Thanks, this is really helpful! I’m hoping to travel to China soon so I will definitely bookmark this. Also love the yak picture! :)
Thanks Ashley! Thats exciting, I hope you have a great trip to China :)
These are great tips, Richelle! My 11 year-old daughter has been asking to go to China since she was 3 and we are hoping to travel there soon. I have been thinking that we should do an organized tour because of the language barrier but maybe we could manage on our own!
Your daughter sounds so much like me when I was young! I’m not a huge fan of multi-day organized tours unless they’re small ones for just the family, like the 4 person tour I did in Tibet (granted you can’t go to Tibet without a tour). I think you can definitely manage China on your own. You can travel at your own pace, pick a hotel right in the city near the subway, and maybe just take a tour for the great wall.
Haha- Chinese people constantly ask me how I travel without speaking much Chinese…. its usually not to bad- I’ve only had to break down and call my friend to translate for me once and that was actually in Songpan.
Hahaha that’s so funny! I was so shocked when I saw other foreigners in Songpan. I agree, it’s really not that bad, and a lot of people actually do speak some English.
xie xie! I know some pinyin and some spoken terms in Chinese and found your post to be very helpful. I am planning my first trip to China this summer and I am feeling more confident that I will be able to make it around.
That’s so exciting you’re heading to China! I’m sure you’ll be fine getting around. No need to be nervous. Let me know if you have any questions about your trip :)
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Hi Richelle! Could you give me an info about the foods there… Do they (always) use peanut oil for cooking? My son is allegic to peanuts, so I get nervous thinking about eating local foods…
No problem! Peanut oil is most popular in Beijing and is barely used in the South. If I were you, I would get “I am allergic to peanuts” written on a card in Chinese and then give that to the restaurant that you’re eating at. You can also eat at restaurants that don’t serve peanuty-things, like dumplings! Sorry, I’m not an expert, but I hope this helps :)
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Woow, this looks really amazing,
This is really on my have to do list before i get into my 40’s
Thanks so much Stefanie! You should definitely head to China soon. It’s always changing so much
I absolutely agree with all of these! I’ve lived in China almost 3 years and haven’t progressed my Chinese skills much for the shameful reason that I just don’t need to ? it’s surprisingly easy to get by here with little Chinese! ??
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The wife and I are going to China in January 2018 for a week. This site has been very helpful to us. Thank you so much! God bless you!
Thanks so much! I really hope you enjoy your trip to China. Definitely, download the survival guide before you go. Tons of helpful info in there!
Hi Richelle. My daughter is studying in China & I’d love your help planning a week or more around & in Hangzhou so I’m not too much of a burden on her. I’m trying to book airfare & a good low cost accom. since I’m a teacher traveling at spring break, and she doesn’t even arrive to start there for two more weeks from her intro in Beijing.
Hi Melisa, no problem! If you want to find a cheap flight from the US to China, Delta has really affordable flights from places like LA, San Francisco and Seattle into Beijing and Shanghai. If you look directly on their website try one of those cities to Shanghai and see what you get. I typically paid $500-600 USD round trip from Beijing to Seattle. If you’re from Australia, you should be able to get the same price on a flight from Sydney to Shanghai, but you can use Skyscanner to find the best deals. It might not be a super nice airline though.
Now for affordable flights within your home country and China, I always recommend Skyscanner. Skyscanner checks all the budget sites in China and has everything in English. You can also take a 1-hour train from Shanghai to Hangzhou for very cheap. You’ll just need to take the airport bus into the city, get yourself to the Shanghai train station and then get on your train. You can also take a 2-hour bus which will be cheaper and you won’t need to buy tickets in advance because they run very frequently.
Right on about the food safety! I as well have never gotten sick from street food nor have I felt the pain from those ubiquitous restaurants with the “red frowny-face” food safety posters. A thing I still do is whenever I plan on travelling to a new city or region, I research all the food specialties I want to try there and then write them down in Chinese. When I get there, I just ask people where the best places to try those foods are. Usually the locals are quite enthusiastic to have you try their famous dishes!
So true! People are so happy to show you where to eat, it’s amazing! Usually, hotel and hostel staff have some great recommendations too.
I highly appreciated the work. Thanks for sharing such useful information.