Travel Tips China

 

You will find here some advises on :

How to enjoy China best ?  

  • Bring ear plugs. Not only useful when the Hotel boost a Karaoke floor but also to protect yourself from the horn of the bus during the long trips. 

  • Bring your own noise. After two weeks of Chinese music, to be able to isolate oneself with a walkman is paradise ! 

  • Confronted with a Chinese comedy, play the spectator. To participate is recommended only to those who can control their temper. To make fun of the actors is also a dangerous game. To the shouting, answer with whispering. To the trepidations, answer with a clear serenity. 

  • Show your Chinese friends that you wish to maintain a minimum level of hygiene : no spitting allowed in your room for example !

  • Give an object to a Chinese only if you can afford to loose it. A friend of mine once had the bad idea to let a Chinese look at its photo camera. The Chinese turned it around, pressed a few buttons and... opened the film door !  Chinese people are curious and used to help themselves. 

  • Do not leave the notion of "face" destroy the natural aspect of your relationships. A kind and modest behavior should be the guarantee of friendship. Arrogance, mockery or any kind of violence are to be avoided.  If you wish to insult somebody, do it in a language he does not understand !

  • Be attentive to Chinese politeness : if a Chinese invite you in a restaurant, invite him in return. If he gives you something with two hands, accept it with two hands. If he insists that you enter a room first, refuse and try to push him inside. To summarize : give "face" to your friends ! 

  • Go to China via Hong Kong. This cosmopolitan city will somehow make a good transition. Beside, it is one of the most interesting Chinese place ! 

  • Beware with the prostitution. Where their money is coming from is not too clear : sex or denunciation to the police ? Remember that the activity, often controlled by the local police, is still illegal. The latest HIV statistics should convince you entirely that this is a dangerous activity. 

  • Restaurants are, in China, where friendships are created. If you wish to make enemies, claim around that the Chinese food is disgusting...

  • Happily welcome Chinese friendships. Just be cautious with newcomers inviting you to a nightclub (they are likely to be touts) or requesting any king of financing.

  • Play by the rules to avoid troubles : sleep alone and in registered hotels. If traveling with someone, better tell that you are married. 

  • Only if in a hurry to go somewhere (in which case a taxi is best), the organized local tour is an experience to test at least once : prices are very cheap (sometimes cheaper than the regular transports) and you can be sure that you will visit all the horrors of the area, shops included. 

  • Take the small size option, especially when traveling by bus...

  • Expect the worse in order not to be shocked by the first cultural "difference"

  • Be patient and philosophical ! 

Note : the above advises are from my essay "1.2 billion of martiens" (in French)

 

How to save time & money ?  

  • Learn a bit of Chinese : Not too difficult and so much rewarding ! Very little is needed to be popular with the locals and most of the conversations are on the same subjects anyway : where you are from and how much you earn in your country !

  • Bargain all the time but with a smile

  • Know the price of what you want to buy

  • Tell your price and then leave. If they do not call you back, you are too cheap...

  • If available, use transportation at night (sleeper bus or hard sleep train) to save the cost of accomodation

  • Eat with the local, in the market or small restaurants

  • Drink the local beer instead of the imported one

  • Before you order, always ask for the price (in doubt, ask to have it written down)

  • Travel with somebody to share the price of the usual double room (dormitory are limited)

  • Learn how to speak a minimum of Chinese (not so difficult) 

  • Store on Renminbi while in HK as the exchange rate is slightly higher there.

  • Use Travellers Cheques (in US$ if possible) instead of cash for a better exchange rate.

  • Get a Chinese student card to get the student price to some sights (discount less and less available however )

  • If you wish to impress, do like everybody, surf on the capitalistic wave : show the money !  On the contrary, hide your luxury items to obtain discounts : the cost of my Shaolin training was cut in half the day I got rid of my watch. 


But remember that enjoying a trip is sometimes or from time to time worth a little bit more... Backpacking is more about the bag than the money !

Backpacker' s Tips : John Chuk, USA
« China has dumped the two prices system for both the train and the air fare across the country. In order word, there would be one price for all passengers for train and air fare regardless.
For the air fare, you can normally get at least a 15% discount from any local travel agents by simply ask for the discount. For example, the fare between Shanghai and ShenZhen is listed at C$1120 (about US$135). I get it at C$940 (about US$113).
»

How to deal with touts ?   

Touts sometimes make travelers life a lot easier : they are the one to help you find a place when everything else seems to be full. But beware : not all of them know the price or regulations of the places they bring you to. And remember that in China, only a few places are allowed to take "Aliens" guests... Some tips :

  • Always make clear how much you can pay and insist that you will not pay more

  • Restrict yourself to one area. Do not agree to take a bus or a taxi. The place should be within walking distance so to avoid being trapped.

  • Always check the room before you agree about anything. If you do not like what you see, walk away.

  • If your price has increased by the time you reach the hostel, bargain hard to get a discount. The tout has lost as much time as you so he should be as eager as you to strike a deal. Sometimes, he might even agree to leave you a part of his commission.

  • Be patient. Remember that the touts are trying to make a living while you are only having some holidays. Do not however stay longer than necessary with incompetent touts, not to say the dishonest ones...



How to find a cheap room ? 

  • If you know where to go, avoid touts as the Hotel will have to give them a commission

  • If the price quoted is within your budget, ask to see the room

  • Once in the room, check the electricity and water but avoid checking under the bed...

  • If you do not like what you see, ask to see another room

  • If there are no bathroom attached, visit the common shower/toilets

  • Once familiar with the product, ask for a discount, first with the key-keeper, then at the reception. Your chance of getting one would be higher if you stay several days and if you still carry your bag. 

  • If they refuse and if you did not fall in love with the room's decoration, go check other places.   

  • To check in, you usually have to fill a form, show your passport and pay a deposit. You pay for the room in advance or on departure according to the management. The first option is preferable as you avoid any misunderstanding. Make sure that you get a receipt and keep preciously all documents they give you. 

  • One of these documents is to be given to the keys-keeper of your respective floor. In exchange, she should open your door and give you the compulsory hot water's thermos.

  • Checking out always take some time as the management will check the room and perform a few administrative tasks. One of them should be to give you your deposit back. 
      

How to use public transport ?  

The train :

  • Take hard seat only for short distances, in modern train, if you have no other choice or if you are masochist enough to like it. 

  • The competition to get a sleeper ticket is usually important. In some places, locals can now reserve up to one week in advance by simply calling the station. This means that less tickets are available when you arrive a few days before. Fortunately, solutions do exist and stubborn & patient foreigners are usually rewarded. Indeed, most of the stations have special windows reserved to foreigners and a few tickets are usually reserved for last minute's VIP. The game is to convince the staff that you are indeed VERY important... Crying might help but you can also dress a tent in front of the desk until you get satisfaction...

  • Another option is to buy a hard seat ticket and try to upgrade it once in the train. Here also, you won't be the only one interested in traveling in relative comfort so you will need to get the attention of an official in one way or another. They might offer you to wait in the restaurant car until a bed is available. Usually, foreigners receive a better treatment than locals. It cost an additional Y10 to upgrade or modify a ticket.  

Backpacker' s Tips : John Chuk, USA (Dec 08)
« This website has most of the updated train schedule in China (most of the updated train fare posted, although in USD): http://www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/
This site has lots of subway/metro maps around the world and it also has the Chinese/English version for many cities in China:
http://www.johomaps.com/travelmaps/metromaps.htm »

Backpacker' s Tips : Mark W., Australia/UK (Dec 02)
« Getting tickets for trains when the counter official doesn't want to give you one. Two methods have worked for me.1. Take a all your bags rucksacks etc (wear them if possible) and then put a book over the little hole for the money/tickets. Smile at everyone but be firm and stand your ground, eventually you will get another official
(presumably so the first one can save face) and they will sort you out - or the original official will relent and sell you a ticket. 2. Go to the nearest big hotel and if someone speaks English ask for their help! Once the head of the front desk sent one of the girls over with me who accomplished in 2 mins what I had spent the best part of an hour trying to do. (i.e. buy a ticket!)
»

Backpacker's Tips :  Quang-Tuan Luong (Dec 02)
« I tried to buy a Jinjiang-Emei train ticket in Kunming to be sure to get a sleeper, but this was a mistake. The clerk sold me a Kunming-Emei ticket. That ticket was voided and resold because I was not in the train one hour after it left Kunming. Fortunately the train staff agreed to give me another sleeper, but not without long negotiations (conducted by helpful other passengers, as I don't speak Chinese). The moral is that in China, to buy a ticket from A to B, you have to be in A, and you cannot do it from C. 
Another time, I got in trouble in a train because my ticket turned out to be invalid because of an obscure rule that I wasn't aware of (see below). When the ticket controllers came, one passenger who was in the car and spoke some English asked me some information about how I got my ticket, and then went ahead to try to explain to the controllers. She was soon joined by a crowd of passengers who apparently were all arguing to the controllers that I had been treated unfairly. At the end, the controller's supervisor agreed and arranged to give me another bunk.
»

Backpacker' s Tips : John Chuk, USA
« You could buy the train ticket in the train. In my recent trip, I was in the rush to get onto the train. Instead of waiting in the long ticket line, I just told the person at the gate that I would buy the ticket in the train. The prices were the same. 
For all long distance train rides, the passengers are allow a stop over at one of the town before the final designation without paying extra. For example, the train from Guangzhou to Shanghai, the passengers may stop over at Hangzhou for up to 5 days than catch the next train to Shanghai. For details, the passengers shall ask the question at the ticket counter or the train conductors.»

Note : to buy the ticket at the gate may or may not work according to the staff you are dealing with. You usually have to show a valid ticket to enter the railway station and again to access the platform (you could also buy a platform ticket, "zhantai piao", at the information booth to avoid too much talking). If you are really in rush, you have nothing to loose but otherwise, queeing at the ticket window is recommended.

Backpacker' s Tips : Anonymous, China (Oct 00)
« The local newspaper has just reported today that not only the train schedule changes, but the numbering system will change as well. According to the new system, all trains in China are divided into three categories: the Express trains with numbers beginning with the letter T followed by 1,2 or 3 digits, the Fast trains with numbers beginning with the letter K followed by 1,2 or 3 digits, the Regular trains with four-digit numbers---no letters at the beginning. So from October 21,the trains from Beijing to Shanghai will have numbers T13 and T21,instead of the present K13 and K21.You can see that a complete overhaul of China's train schedule is looming ! »

  • Tickets can usually be refunded before the train departs and sometimes also 2 hours after the departure. If lost, you should be able to get a replacement ticket only if you wrote down the number of the ticket. 

  • Prices varies according to the bed, the class and the type of train. On the same trip, prices range from 1 to 3 depending on the speed, the age and the air-conditioning of the train. See our train schedules to avoid the most expensive ones. In general, Express or Tourist Trains are more expensive than Fast Trains. Tourist trains are not faster but more comfortable. 

  • Soft sleeper is the most comfortable class for traveling by rail but you will be locked in one compartment with 3 other people. Hard sleeper is cheaper, more colorful and less claustrophobic. The Chinese people prefer the bottom bed as it comes equipped with a table and is the most expensive (they gain face). The drawback is that everybody tend to seat on the bed during the day. The top bed is the cheapest and the most isolated but there is no window, no head-room, you lye just below the fan or air cond and, if really unlucky, one of the three loudspeaker. The medium bed is therefore a good compromise.

  • Reach the station at least half an hour before departure : you have a few controls to go through (including the "facultative" X-rays machine), platforms may be quite remote from the waiting room and the trains are usually very long.

  • Trains equipped with air conditioning tends to be quite cold. Trains equipped with fan tends to be hot and noisy as all the windows are open. Fan and loudspeaker can be switched off. Do not hesitate to use this option if you are annoyed. 

  • Boiling water is provided in every wagon. Rice meals are also offered for around Y5, together with snacks or drinks. More choice is available at every station and most of the Chinese wait to buy there.

  • It is forbidden to smoke in the wagon but quite a few Chinese do not care. If annoyed, show them the sign. If you get no satisfaction, ask your wagon attendant to do her job...

  • It is common for the hard sleep's toilets to run out of water in the morning. Go wash your hands in the soft sleeper's ones !

The sleeper bus :

  • The second best bet for long distance after sleeper train, sleeper bus are however to be avoided during the day as the lying position is not ideal to enjoy the scenery.

  • Depending on the type of bus, beds are either flat or curved. Quite often, only the bottom ones are flat and they sometimes come with a slight price increase. 

  • Whatever your reservation, you can usually change your bed by arriving a bit in advance and smiling at the driver. 

  • Chinese people do not usually like to share their bed with foreigners. As long as the bus is not full, you should therefore enjoy two spaces for the price of one. This make a big difference !

  • Various stops are usually scheduled, including the meals, the breakdowns, the petrol and the washing of the bus just before entering the city of destination. 

How to use taxi ?   

The use of taxi in China is somehow a stressful business for backpackers. We have all heard horror stories about travelers being charged three times the normal fare. To be fair, the use of taxi in China is a less risky adventure than in some other developing country as all the vehicles are metered and regulation do exist. Nevertheless, some basic rules are worth following :

  • Different type of taxi exist with different prices. Sometimes & at some places (airport for example), only one type is allowed to take people. This is usually not the cheapest one... 

  • Prices also vary according to the place. 

  • It is usually better to ask for a passing taxi to stop than to board one waiting at the tourists areas. 

  • Always carry a map with you to show the driver that you have an idea of where you wishes to go and how he should go.

  • Show the driver the precise address in Chinese. Do not expect him to read or speak English.

  • If the cab is correctly equipped, it is possible to ask for a receipt (fapiao) before starting the ride. This will obviously leave less room for overcharging.

  • Outside big cities, meters are not always used which means you will have to negotiate the price beforehand. If you do not speak good Chinese, have it written down.

  • If you do not wish to negotiate, ask for the meter to be used.

  • When the meter is used, make sure it is properly zeroed. The flag fall rate almost always includes free kilometers (4km in Beijing for example) but those can be deducted in case of low speed or waiting time. So you wish the distance and elapsed time windows to both show zero as value. To achieve this technology miracle, ask the driver to put the meter from fully up to fully down before starting.

  • You can check this action better by sitting next to the driver. If he does not do it, do it yourself !

  • Rates advertised on the side of each cab are usually for a specific time period only. In Beijing for example, it will be 20% more expensive from 11pm to 5am. 

  • It is also possible for the driver to push a button which will add 50% to the rate after a number of kilometers (15km in Beijing). In theory, they have the right to press this button only if you board in town center and wishes to go to a suburban area or other places where they might not find a return client.

  • Always carry small change so that the driver does not need to get off to find change on your 50 or 100 yuans bill. He should not leave the counter run while doing so...

  • If any problem, write down the number identifying the taxi and tell the driver that you will call to complain. If you do not get satisfaction, call !

Anecdotal Notes : the above tips about taxi were posted following an interesting discussion in the Oriental List (I put at that time a reference to where it was from in Passplanet's "new & soon" section only). Coincidently (this article was never referred to) , I was soon afterward contacted by the list moderator and guidebook writer Peter Neville-Hadley and invited (or should I say ordered ?) to put a link to his service in the Passplanet Link Section. I would have accepted happily except that he has got no site ! To be honest, I also did not like the superior tone of his request. I therefore offered him a special place in the Contributors Section, telling him that the links were reserved for backpackers sites only. My proposal was rejected and from this point onward, the above guy completely lost control of himself : he insulted Passplanet , throw me off the list (even so I had posted articles on several occasions) and started to post his own distorted version of what happened to his readers. I realize now that I should have made a clearer reference of where the above article was inspired from (even so I added my experience into it as well and notwithstanding the fact that I was thrown off the list for another reason than this article) and I apologize for my inexperience but the intolerance & arrogance of this guy just let me speechless. I wrote to him one last time to try to put this puerile "fight" to an end but was indirectly greeted with even more naughtiness and dishonesty... 
I therefore invite Oriental List subscribers to use caution when confronted with Passplanet's bashing from the above individual or service. If you would like to know the true story, I would happily let you have a copy of our actual correspondence. But again, is this sad chapter really worth the time spent ?
 


How to order at a restaurant ?    

Eating is one of the great pleasure of traveling in China. But it can also be a stressful experience, most of the local places having no English menu but quite a few surprises for their foreigners' clients. Some advises :

  • If you are on budget, stick to the small local restaurants

  • Never bother entering a restaurant that is empty

  • Ask for the menu and check whether the prices are reasonable or not (numbers are not written in Chinese characters)

  • Select your meal from the dishes already served or go directly to the kitchen to check what they have. 

  • Once decided, ask for the price. If you order several things, ask eventually for everything to be written down. As a rough idea, vegetables dishes should cost around Y7, meat dishes around Y10 and poultry dishes around Y13. A rice bowl should cost around Y1 and a local beer around Y3. 

  • As for everywhere else, it is very much possible to bargain the price down. 

  • If you ask for tissue, you should be given some kind of Kleenex. It cost Y1. 

  • Restaurants should never charge for normal tea or hot water. 

How to fight cigarettes ?       

People allergic to cigarettes will have an hard time traveling in China. It is now forbidden to smoke in planes, trains or air conditioned buses but one of the great pleasure for a Chinese male seem to light a cigarette just below a non-smoking sign. On normal buses, smoke comes with the ticket. This does not mean however that you have to endure hours of passive smoking. A few things that you can do : 

  • Cough and show the cigarette : some polite Chinese will extinguish it, most should direct the smoke to another direction 

  • Open the window completely and let the Chinese get the fresh air. If they ask you to close it, ask them to stop smoking. You could also open their window and show them where to send the smoke. 

  • An interesting method developed by a Belgium girl I met is to agitate a fan in the face of the smoking guy : this direct the smoke to another direction, disturb the smoker and amuse the other passengers... 

  • Whatever you do, do it with discernment : except if there is a non smoking sign in evidence, do not annoy somebody smoking at the back of the bus if you are in the front...

 


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