Zen and the Art of Travel in China

TravelMuse writers offer tips to help travelers stay balanced when facing potential cultural challenges on a first visit to China.

Travel to China from the United States and other non-Asian countries continues to climb, but taking a vacation to Beijing isn’t quite as easy as, say, heading for the first time to Bangkok, where there’s a longer track record of catering to Western tourists. Travel to China takes more effort, and there are some potentially frustrating and challenging issues that every smart traveler should prepare for ahead of time.

Several of our writers have visited China recently, and all contributed terrific tips and suggestions for making the most of your stay in the country, and they’re helpful for all types of travelers: those with families, couples and the solo explorer. Below is a roundup of common challenges and some suggested solutions for first-timers. Links are included to each contributor’s full article.

Lost in Translation

Challenge: Language Barriers
Miranda Young: Outside of some hotel employees, shopkeepers and restaurant workers, most Chinese speak little or no English. The good news is that they understand that most people don't know Mandarin and have mastered speaking with little more than hand gestures.

MY: In general, it's always good practice to learn “hello” (nihao), goodbye (zaijan), and “thank you” (xie xie); but be prepared for lots of pointing and pantomiming to get your point across. Also, get transportation cards from your hotel to hand to taxi drivers. Transportation cards are wallet cards that list the major sites and/or shopping areas for your city in both English and Chinese. Simply check the box next to your destination, hand it to the taxi driver and you're on your way.

Challenge: Saving Face
Murrey Jacobson: “Saving face” or avoiding embarrassment, is still a part of the Chinese culture. Often when someone seems to be communicating in broken English, they will insist that they know the answer to your question when clearly they don’t have a clue of what you’re talking about.

MJ: There’s no magic solution here, but ask yourself if that person who kept saying “yes” repeatedly really seemed to be guiding you. If the answer or message seemed pretty vague, try asking a few other folks.

Getting Around

Challenge: Transportation
MJ: Beijing traffic is very bad and is only going to get worse. The most commonly cited statistic is that there are 20,000 new cars on China’s roads each day.

MJ: The bus system is good, dependable, and you’ll need to use it often while you’re there. But it has to share congested streets with cars. Want to save time? Take the subway when possible. Beijing has several subway lines that can take you to key sights around the city (three more lines just opened for the Olympics). It’s cheap (about 50 cents one way) and not that hard to figure out where you’re going with a map.

MY: The easiest way to get around in all major cities is by taxi. They are readily available, and they’re dirt cheap. Keep in mind though that the majority of taxi drivers speak no English. (See above.)

Also, there may be limited access to seat belts in taxis. If you're traveling with a child, you may have to play some taxi musical chairs to figure out the best seat for them to sit in, but it's an important step.

Food: Not Your Chinese Take-Out

Challenge: Identifying Food
John Higham: Like Chinese food? Most people do. What’s not to love? Rice, noodles, chicken, vegetables, crunchy bovine intestines, tree fungus, pig gums. What? Crunchy bovine intestines aren’t listed on the menu at the Chinese restaurant around the corner from your house?

JH: Don’t look too closely at your food or your won’t eat anything. Keep your picture dictionary handy and steer clear of any restaurants displaying pictures of dogs; the locals may have an affection for man’s best friend, but it isn’t always for the same reason as you or I have. At our bravest, we simply went to a restaurant near our hostel, looked around at what the other patrons were eating, and pointed to what looked best. While the food was usually delicious, I generally had no idea what we were eating.

MY: If you're a true adventurer with an iron stomach, then experiment away. For those traveling with little ones, though, it may be best to look but not touch, as children have weaker immune systems and can't easily tolerate too much culinary variety. With a 4-year-old in tow, we ended up eating several meals in our hotels.

How Much is That?

Challenge: Shopping
JH: The Chinese entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. Everyone has something to sell you, from baseball hats to DVDs of the Hollywood blockbuster that opened just last night.

Make a game of it with your kids and count the different things for sale in a two-block radius of your hotel or hostel.

Challenge: Haggling
MY: For those who like to haggle, shopkeepers can drive a hard bargain.

MY: The best way to get a shopkeeper to come down in price is to simply walk away. The second you say "Sorry that's too much," and start to walk away is the second the price will drop precipitously.

Cultural Nuances

Challenge: Bathroom Breaks
MY: China’s public bathrooms are almost exclusively “squatting” toilets where you stand over a porcelain bowl built into the floor.

When finding a restroom, be sure you find one that is rated four stars by the Chinese Tourism Board to ensure it's in good shape. Also be sure to carry hand sanitizer with you at all times. The Chinese aren't a dirty people, but the fact remains that the majority don't have ready access to hand-washing facilities.

General Challenges

Internet Access
JH: Kids under 18 can’t use the Internet. When the staff of one Internet café realized my 11-year-old daughter was on the ‘net, we were kicked out.

JH: In Western culture, it’s rude to stare at someone that may be considered different, but in China staring is a spectator sport. Our waitress at a hot-pot restaurant was so amused at our family’s inability to retrieve food from a boiling pot of oil using only chopsticks that she fetched the rest of the staff to gawk at us.

JH: The Chinese [and many Asian cultures in general] believe that discharging phlegm is healthy. and they are prodigious at it.

MJ: Patience, patience, patience. You’re going to get lost. You’re going to be confused. You’re going to be grossed out. You’re going to be annoyed. A little Zen attitude will make a world of difference.


Miranda Young traveled to China with her husband and 4-year-old daughter in Spring 2008. Read her full China Challenges and Guilian articles.
Murrey Jacobson visited China with his wife in Spring 2008. Read his Beijing Travel Tips article.
John Higham spent time in China with his wife and two school-aged children during their year around the world in 2006. Read his China Family and Cultural Travel, Great Wall and Yangtze River Cruise articles. Read about his other adventures at Armageddon Pills.

Destinations: Beijing, China

Themes: Family Travel, Experiential Travel