6 Tips for Surviving China

Travelling in China isn’t easy. The English-language infrastructure is growing, but the majority of Western tourists still travel on organized tours. However, even with a tour leader to guide the way, there are some little things you can do to make your trip a bit easier.

1. Always carry tissue or toilet paper, even in your hotel

Having your own paper is a no-brainer when you’re touring developing countries, but you’ll be amazed at how small the rolls of paper are in Chinese hotel rooms. Even four-star hotels will short change you. If you’re sharing a room with another person, you’ll be lucky if your ration lasts until bedtime. Raid the housekeeping cart when you can or buy your own, and always hide your excess to ensure a fresh roll.

2. Take a cup on overnight trains

Hot water is the one thing you can count on when you’re on a Chinese train. The cleanliness, the state of the toilet, the air quality . . . not so much. But, with your own cup, you can bring your own comfort. While pot noodles are the norm, your own cup lets you make a cup of tea, hot chocolate, soup for dinner, or even oatmeal for breakfast.

3. Carry a shopping bag and chopsticks

China has a waste problem—so many people and an increasingly consumerist society means lots of garbage. With your own shopping bag and your own chopsticks, you can reduce your contribution to the problem. You’ll also avoid paying the fee for plastic bags at grocery stores. And, when at eateries that don’t offer disposable chopsticks, you can avoid using the reuseable ones that sit in a can of water which may, or may not, have been boiled.

4. Learn the hand gestures for numbers

When you can’t speak or even decipher the language, gesturing becomes an art. And in China, you can count from 1 to 10 on the same hand. This comes in handy when buying fruit from a stall, or securing a table for eight, or double-checking the gate number for a train. And Chinese English speakers can confuse the numbers when speaking (much as a novice French speaker might with trois, treize and trente).


5. Learn to bargain hard

You may have bargained in a Middle Eastern souk, or on a street corner in Southeast Asia, but the markets of China are in a league of their own. The affluent in China shop in malls and brand-name stores. The street markets are for tourists and most of the stuff is, well, crap. But, if it’s crap you want, you need to work hard to not be over-charged. It’s not uncommon for the first price to be 10 times the real value. So start very low; if the vendor doesn’t ignore you, you’re in the ballpark. And hold your ground—you may need to repeat your final offer four or five times before the vendor decides to relent. (Note: If a shop has formal-looking price tags, it’s likely a government store and there’s no room to negotiate).

6. Prepare to stay connected

Wifi is available in most big-city and tourist-area Chinese hotels, but sometimes only in the lobby. Some hotels also offer wired access, so if you’re travelling with a computer, it’s worth packing an ethernet cord [in 2012]. You can also buy a China Mobile SIM card for your unlocked phone and have it delivered to your hotel for about $30. But, if you really want access in China, be sure to invest some time and money into a decent VPN for your computer, tablet or smartphone—otherwise, you’ll be locked out of Facebook, Twitter, and even Google.

This post originally appeared on Travel + Escape.