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Travel Challenges in China

Navigating China can be tricky, not only with children but even for a travel pro. Learn how to handle the bumps along the way.

 

When I began planning my trip to China, it never once crossed my mind that I might be thrown for a loop. After all, I’m a well-worn traveler who’s gone all over the world with a toddler in tow. Argentina? Amazing. Turkey? Unforgettable. Hungary? Pass the paprika! I thought I’d seen it all. Then I landed in China—and the reality hit me full force.

For adults and kids, there is the language barrier and in many cases unidentifiable food. For my 4-year-old daughter, there was the drastic time change, over-stimulation from all the sights and sounds and the pretty harsh restrictions we had to put on her in terms of running around willy nilly.

We also had problems with her “fitting-in” to the reality of China. Maya is a social child who wants to meet and talk with anyone who makes eye contact with her. She would run off all the time so she could go talk to someone who we didn’t know and who most likely couldn’t even speak to her. That, combined with what seemed like the entire population of China wanting to have pictures taken with her, whether she liked it or not, made traveling with her hard. It was the hardest trip we’ve ever had with her.

That said though, there definitely were things she loved, like feeding the fish at the Summer Palace and at Beihai Park, and playing games in the park at the Temple of Heaven. And I whole-heartedly think China would be an excellent destination for kids who are a little bit older.

So whether you’re traveling with kids or on your own, here are some of the challenges you might encounter on your trip and, more importantly, how to deal with them.

Not Your Chinese Take-Out

Where’s the General Tso’s Chicken? Not in China. Despite the fact that there are more and more authentic Chinese restaurants popping up in the United States, the truth is that it can be difficult to find what we consider “Chinese foods” in China. If you’re like me and go to China not knowing one word of Mandarin, then you're pretty much stuck deciphering the ingredients of dishes by looking at their pictures on the menu or tracking down a place that has the menu in English.

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.

Road Blocks

Beijing and Shanghai both have bus and light rail systems, but the easiest way to get around in all major cities is by taxi. They are readily available and they’re dirt cheap. There are a few things to keep in mind though.

1. The majority of taxi drivers in China speak no English. To solve this, get a transportation card from the hotel to hand to the taxi driver. 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.

2. Choose your taxi wisely. Look for ones that have the typical “for hire” type of lights above and a company logo on the side. 

3. Even if you see a meter, ask BEFORE you get in if it works. If they respond that the meter doesn’t work, you will have to negotiate a price with them for the trip. (As a rule, you should always jot down how much you paid to get somewhere just for these kind of situations).

4. Finally, 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. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), automobile accidents are one of the leading causes of death and/or major injury to children while traveling, so it’s very important to make sure the kids are restrained in some way. 

Tongue Twisters

It’s no secret that Mandarin Chinese is incredibly difficult to learn, so there’s no shame in going to China not being able to speak the language. The challenge, however, is that, 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. 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. 

A Haggler’s Paradise

Everyone knows that there are some incredible bargains to be had in China and many people travel there to do just that. For those who like to haggle, shopkeepers can drive a hard bargain. Keep at it, and you will usually get down to a price that you’re happy with. Often times, they’ll throw in other items during negotiations to “sweeten” the deal, but don't give in until you’re satisfied with the price.

Once the shopkeeper offers a price, counter with a ridiculously low price and work your way back up as they work their way down. 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. For those who want to get something specific and get out, it’s best to come up with a plan of attack beforehand. Make a list, know what you’re willing to pay, and go in for the kill. 

Stay Healthy, Stay Clean

Most people who go to China are veteran travelers who’ve seen (and smelled) a lot of things. But China can test even the most hardened voyager. The biggest issue is public bathrooms. China’s public bathrooms are almost exclusively “squatting” toilets where you actually stand over a porcelain “bowl” built into the floor. It takes some mastery, but is supposedly more sanitary than western toilets. 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. Unfortunately, this can create public health problems, since most diseases are spread through contact as simple as a handshake. Always wash your hands after using the restroom, and use hand sanitizer often, especially after shopping where you may have been touching numerous things that other people also have touched.

It may all sound scary, but have no fear. Despite the cultural differences, China is a wonderful place to go with its amazing history and beautiful landscapes, and should not be missed just because you don't know what you'll encounter.  


Destinations: China

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Eat, Sightseeing, Sleep


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