Getting around China — one of the largest countries in the world and certainly the most populous — can be daunting. Here avid traveller and tour guide Benjamin Johnson offers a few helpful tips:
I love China, plain and simple, even the things that are downright weird or bizarre.
The food is fantastic (if you know what to eat, and where to find it), the scenery is glorious (when visible through the smog) and the monuments, both ancient and modern, are enthralling.
Getting to some of China’s “hidden gems” however can be difficult. Not every must-see place is accessible by a fancy new high speed train. Often, you’ll find yourself in extremely undeveloped provinces bumping along dirt tracks on an ancient bus. But what can make travelling most challenging in this glorious country is the sheer amount of people.
You will often find yourself in crowds and at times you will find yourself boiling with rage.
So, what to do? Well, there are several things. Speaking mandarin, though helpful, will not help you as much as you’d think — the key is attitude.
Go with the flow on everything. If you get pushed, push back. Here it is “survival of the sharpest elbows”.
I have witnessed old ladies the size of a small child cut through a crowd like an angry weed-whacker… only to reach the front and start to walk more slowly, holding up everyone else behind her.
There is nothing you can do about this, so the best course of action is to take a deep breath, smile and think of happier times. If someone — who isn’t a little old lady — does push, it is absolutely appropriate to push back, in fact I’d say it’s encouraged.
This leads onto standing in line. The consensus in Mainland China is that lines are for the weak. Some places this may not be the case, but they are rarities.
When lining up, hold your ground. You will be assaulted from all sides, especially if you are foreign, as people will take advantage of our cultural reluctance to being pushy.
As they try to push simply glare, or if you speak a few words of Chinese tell them to wait. This works about 80 per cent of the time. As for the other 20, well, what can I say? There are terrible people in every country.
Be prepared, if you’re picking up tickets — have your passport and ticket code ready. That way, once you’ve done your time the line, your interaction with staff takes about 15 seconds and you can be on your merry way.
If you’re catching trains, it’s a good idea to pick up tickets the day before so you don’t have to stress about it if you end up delayed on the day of travel.
Sleeper trains are a fantastic way to get around China. The ‘hard sleeper’ class, although cramped, is surprisingly comfortable. They are also very sociable — you’re sure to make some new friends.
High speed rail is just incredible, and in some cases quicker than air travel. The countryside whizzes past at more than 300kph while you sit back in relative comfort.
Amenities on older trains are very basic, however this is also the case for most buildings in China.
Chinese style toilets or as I call them “squatty potties” were one of my most hated things when I first came here over 10 years ago. Just accept the fact that you will eventually have to use one.
The key is to balance back on your heals and not the balls of your feet. An even better tip is to bring toilet paper with you, no matter where you go.
Squatty potties (even in some airports) don’t have paper, so better than using your hand or a banknote worth a few cents, carry your own.
This tip will eventually come in useful if you are eating the local food. Chinese food is awesome and I have a particular affinity for spice (need I say more?).
Finding where and what to eat can be tricky, but if you follow the locals you can’t go wrong. If you see a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop with a line (or scrum) outside the door, just join up and take your chances. This is the best way to find local specialities whether it be roujiamo (Chinese hamburgers) in Xi’an, xiaolongbao (basket dumpling) in Shanghai, or… well, this list could go on and on.
Basically, the best way to travel around China is to forget all etiquette from the west and embrace a different way of life. Chines people may often appear rude, especially to Europeans, however I have also seen that they are some of the friendliest people in the world.
Just remember to keep on pushing!