After spending a month in China I have learnt a lesson or two about how to survive here. You definitely need to prepare yourself before heading to China- which I didn’t and paid the price for! So I put together this quick China survival guide based on my experiences.
The month definitely felt a lot longer, which was exacerbated by the time we were there – August. Lesson number one, if you intend to do anything in the slightest bit touristy in China, DO NOT GO IN AUGUST.
Summer holidays, like anywhere in the world, mean that the whole country – over a billlion Chinese – are also tourists. I thought most went abroad. I was wrong. Most families stay within mainland China as there is so much to explore within China itself, and visas can be difficult to obtain for overseas travel (everyone we met travelling had said the system for most foreign countries was arduous and expensive – just like we had found for our visas to get into China!).
TRANSPORTATION AROUND CHINA
Hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, soft sleeper, G trains, and K trains, the train system can give you a major headache and to make matters worse most cities have numerous stations. Figuring out how to get to places and booking trains can be a total nightmare in China.
Thankfully I was pointed in the direction of C Trip – a great website and app for booking trains (which is also in English – yippee!). This was my go to for getting places.
First off, download the C Trip app. Second, book in advance. I was a total idiot and hadn’t booked a single train when I arrived in Beijing, presuming I would have no difficulties getting around – as one of the biggest countries in the world there would be a tonne of trains, right?!? Well yes there are but there are also a tonne of people who had booked their summer holidays in advance. There are also tour operators who book up huge amounts of seats, again, in advance.
You can book tickets online 30 days before departure and I can’t stress enough how important it is to do this particularly if you are travelling in peak holiday season. I got to Beijing and started to look at trains to Xi’an for the next few days only to find EVERY TRAIN SOLD OUT. And that is not a joke. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Flights were quadruple the price and also fairly booked up. I couldn’t believe it. For the next three weeks most trains had no availability left.
Thankfully after regularly checking C trip for late cancellations I eventually managed to secure seats on a bullet train, not my first choice due to budget (£60 each) but by that point I was beyond grateful that my planned itinerary was able to get going.
But this wasn’t a one off. I struggled for seats on every train I booked. In the end I had to move dates around, and my itinerary, to fit in with train availability. I ended up trying out every possible seat and bed on every form of train, at every type of station.
Most tourists book on the bullet trains and it is easy to see why. They’re speedy and efficient and the signs are in English, as are the train announcements. I didn’t see a single Western tourist on any other train.
Another thing to be aware of is that transport in China is not cheap. Trains especially. Prices differ according to the type of train you book (different categories of train go at different speeds) and the kind of seat you book.
Bullet trains are the most expensive but are the most tourist friendly. As most trains in China cover huge distances, and they are the main way people travel from place to place, most of the time you will be sleeping overnight on the train.
In these cases there are four types of seating available:
- Soft sleeper: the most expensive, and most comfortable. You get a bed in a private cabin of four – two up and two down. The lower bunks are more expensive than the upper bunks.
- Hard sleeper: a bed in a cabin of six (three each side). These are in an open carriage so privacy is minimal. The top bunk is in the Gods and very hard to get up and down from (Row can attest to this).
- Soft seat: a seat with a good amount of leg room, you can book these during the day or to sleep in overnight (we did both).
- Hard seat: again you can book this to sit in during the day or overnight (and yes, unfortunately we can say we did both). You don’t get an individual seat, rather a seated bench that fit three each side. The compartments are noisy and room is minimal.
What we didn’t realise is that families rarely buy seats/beds for the children (and these can be upto to 10 years old or so). Instead they squash them into seats or let them sit on their laps. This is particularly cumbersome when say two adults book a hard seat to stay in overnight. A bench seats three people yet the third person (yes this happened to me – oh glory days) will climb aboard to find they are sharing a bench with two parents and a child or two.
The child then sleeps across the laps of the parents and also over the third person due to no room (yes lucky me- shoved into a corner of a bench to sleep overnight upright, with a brat’s head in my lap; said brat also yanked my iPod headphones out of my ears to listen and tried to read my Kindle). Not a fun 23 hours for me. But hey, I don’t hold onto things so no worries…
This was not a one off – it is commonplace for children not to have their own seat. Also don’t expect quiet of any kind at any time of the night if you are staying in a hard seat. The frequent night stops see a revolving door of people climb on and off and everyone chats. It more closely resembles a market than a night train. Be prepared for little rest or sleep. And an aching bum – the seating is not luxurious!
My experiences of buses were OK for the most part. None of the bus drivers spoke English but usually someone on the bus tried to help me. Just have your one yens at the ready to stuff in the box at the front of the bus.
Every station varies in quality, efficiency and comfort. Stations servicing bullet trains are the best, and most closely resemble airports – for size, scale and atmosphere. Those servicing slower trains – the K train for example – are less glamorous and are usually located further out from the city. Our favourite was Xi’an South station. An hour taxi ride or three buses away from central Xi’an, there are no signs in English, no English speakers and the station itself more closely resembled a cattle shed. Seating and air con were out of the question. Fun times all around.
Ticket collection is always located in a separate building to the main station and departures. You need to leave an hour to collect tickets as no matter what type of station there are always huge queues. As foreigners we were unable to collect them from a machine as we had to undergo a passport check for each ticket.
Every building in the train station (and all metros for that matter) also has security and you need to go through baggage check and a personal scanner to get through. Not great for people with luggage or big rucksacks that you need to constantly take on and off.
Or rather more aptly, lack thereof. I always knew there were going to be cultural differences, and even with a brother in China who had filled me in on some of their antics, I was still surprised, and struggled with the behaviour of many.
First up, everyone spits – not just men! Kids as young as 4 spit anywhere and everywhere. In the street, out of cars, off the side of bikes; I even saw a grandmother teach her toddler grandchildren to spit. What also goes along with the spit is the gathering of mucus in the mouth and the constant gurgling and clearing of throats.
Queueing is unheard of in China. And when forced – say waiting in a tourist line – they do not respond well. In every queue I was constantly prodded in the lower back to keep moving, even if the queue was stationary and I had nowhere to go. You will be kicked, elbowed and shoved aside by all types of person.
Mothers are the worst. They push their children forward as they can fit into smaller gaps and then shove whoever is in their way aside to be next to their children. It is a special kind of genius and it worked seemingly well for the most part.
The Chinese authorities need to learn crowd control. There are always way too many people allowed inside at the same time. Everyone tramples over each other and you can never get anywhere near to what you have paid (usually a fair whack) to see. You should aim to get to attractions in time for when they open or later in the afternoon before they close (which is usually around 5pm).
The attractions themselves make it incredibly difficult for you to go and enjoy them without joining a tour, which tend to be pricey (at least that was my experience). There are few signs – even fewer in English – and you can easily get lost in whatever attraction you are in. Be that the Summer Palace in Beijing or the Yellow Mountains national park.
Driving in Asia can sometimes be a death wish. But driving in China is something special. In any city, or for that matter any place where there is a car, you will be greeted with beeping as background music. EVERYBODY BEEPS. And at anything. At cars, motorbikes, pedestrians, animals.
The driving itself is crazy. No one adheres to lanes – cars regularly drive in bike lanes and also on pedestrian paths – and they will honk at you until you move. One of my driving highlights was in Beijing. A public bus had crashed into a motorbike on a six lane road. The bus driver and motorcyclist were having an argument in the middle of some of these lanes. Everyone on the bus looked on with bored indifference. I then saw two police officers crossing the road right next to the scene. They were carrying what looked like a carpet and didn’t bat an eyelid at the scene before them. They continued across the road.
It goes without saying but take hand sanitizer and tissues with you EVERYWHERE. Squat toilets are the norm – toilet paper and soap are not. A peg for your nose would not go unused either. Don’t expect Western toilets in restaurants either. I once went to a hot pot place in Beijing. They offered hand cream, room spray and a whole host of lotions of potions – but no proper toilet. Weird.
English menus are limited so instead we relied on restaurants that had pictures, but you have no idea what meat it is exactly, or what the other ingredients are.Fortunately most of the places we visited had some form of street market or food stalls which we were able to enjoy.
ENGLISH AND SPEAKING TO LOCALS
There are no two ways about it, locals speak little English but this does vary from place to place. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of signs in English and the metros are in both Mandarin and English. We would not recommend the speaking translation app – we used it in a clothes shop and its translations were weird, bordering on the insane. The written app is definitely a safer bet and much more likely to give you the right results!
Hopefully this guide and these tips will help anyone planning on travelling to China! Have you ever been to China? We’d love to hear your stories and questions in the comment section below! Read Next > How to Hike The Great Wall Of China Like A Pro