Will you soon be off on a holiday or travelling to China? Then read on, because there are many, many hazards to travelling in China, and knowing these things can help your trip become a success rather than an unmitigated disaster. China can be one of the hardest countries for Westerners to travel in. It’s vast with a huge population, the spoken and written language are incomprehensible to most (and change frequently as you move provinces), the food is utterly baffling, and the cultural differences are enormous. I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject (I lived for a year in China and travelled substantially in the country) but I can provide the basics for surviving China.
Firstly the language. If you don’t speak any Chinese at all, try and and learn a few words of basic Mandarin before you go. This could be a life saver. Beijing Mandarin is gradually being promoted as the national language, and even in provinces such as Guangdong where Cantonese is spoken, you’ll still be able to get by with some Mandarin. The major difficulty with Mandarin is that as well as not being able to speak or understand it, you won’t be able to read it either. So, remember you won’t be able to read street signs, or shop signs or even read a map to know where you are. You’ll often find the best way to get anywhere independently is by enlisting a Chinese helper to write down the place name for you in Mandarin, which you can then show to the taxi driver. Don’t expect them to understand if all you can do is yell the place name at them. Believe me, they won’t. And remarkably there are no words in Mandarin for ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s too complicated to go into here, but the way I sidestepped this difficulty was by learning the word for correct (dui) and not correct (bu dui). Much easier.
As in many countries, toilets are a serious hazard. Always carry toilet paper and where possible use hotel bathrooms. It’s not just the squats that you have to get used to but the general hygiene standards can also be seriously low.
Interestingly, outside of main tourist areas the concept of customer service has not yet been invented. Do not expect to be greeted and thanked with a smile. Chinese in general do not use ‘pleases’ and ‘thankyous’ anywhere near as much as in the West (which means when used it is more authentic), so you also shouldn’t feel you have to. And don’t take offence if you are treated rudely when buying some vegetables at the local markets. It’s not personal, it’s the culture.
Two quite well-known Chinese cultural traits are public spitting and non-queuing. Don’t be surprised to see a well-dressed woman spitting in the middle of the pavement. It is becoming less common but you will find the older generations in particular, still cheerily partaking in this habit. Being barged in front of whilst patiently waiting your turn in a bank queue can be harder to take. You are going to need to grow some balls if you want to make it to the front of that train ticket queue. Shoving, pushing and blocking all seem to be acceptable practises when competing for any services, and can make the difference between waiting all day, and waiting one hour.
Finally, be warned there is a lot of pollution in the cities. And when I say a lot, I mean a gargantuan amount; think the great London smog in the 18th Century when you were unable to see your hand in front of your face (only slightly exaggerated). It can be advisable to take pollution masks (especially if travelling to cities in the provinces of Shanxi or Henan), and if you have any types of respiratory problems avoid the worst polluted cities altogether. In spite of all this you will be very well rewarded by a trip to China; the ancient history and culture is utterly absorbing; the diversity and excellence of the food can be astounding; and the hospitality exhibited by the Chinese to guests in their homes is second to none.