China can be intimidating for first-time travelers, with its
impenetrable language barrier, distinct cultural differences and of course its
sheer size. All of these are real concerns, but the benefits of visiting this
dynamic and fast changing country quickly outweigh the cons. China is an
incredible country full of rich culture, fascinating history and amazing food.
The key to an enjoyable trip in China is forethought and
preparation. The more you know about what to expect, the easier it is to relax
and navigate the country. So here are a few things for first-timers to
China is Big
This is obvious from just looking at a map, but many
first-time travelers seem to forget to account for China's sheer size when
planning their itinerary. Most major cities are far enough apart to require
either a flight or an overnight train ride to visit.
It would be easy to run yourself ragged traveling around the
country. Instead, if you only have a short amount of time to spend in China,
plan to visit just one or two major cities. With more time you can explore
A Different Set of Etiquette Rules
It would be easy for a first time visitor to view the
Chinese as rude. This really isn't a fair characterization: the Chinese just
have dramatically different expectations and etiquette rules than many visitors
are used to. Learning about what to expect can make all the difference.
Personal space, for example, is not a high priority in a
country of over a billion people. You can expect to be jostled, crowded and
crushed, particularly in the subway. Foreign visitors can attract a lot of
attention, and you can expect to be the subject of photos as well as personal
inquiries into subjects like your marital status and salary.
While China can be confusing, it's not a terribly dangerous
place to travel. Crimes against foreigners are rare and are usually crimes of
opportunity: pick pocketing can be a problem, but armed robbery is not. The
bigger cities and tourist attractions in China are magnets for scammers so
familiarize yourself with any popular cons in the area so as not to fall
Don't Fear the Food
Forget everything you know about your local takeout order.
China is home to one of the most diverse, varied and interesting culinary
traditions in the world. From steamed dumplings to stir fried tofu, peking duck
to boiling hot pots, you are sure to find something to love. True enjoyment
requires an open mind and a willingness to taste first, ask questions later.
No matter what you end up eating, you will want to practice
your chopstick skills. Forks are few and far between in authentic Chinese
Chinese is a difficult language with very few cognates or
recognizable words to western ears. As it is a tonal language the chance of
even mastering a few words is unlikely. Additionally, outside of the tourism
industry there are very few English speakers.
It is possible to navigate China without speaking any of the
local language. The key is preparation: have the name of your hotel written out
in Chinese characters to show the taxi driver, or have a local write down a
list of dishes for you to try and present that at the restaurant. Get
comfortable with the idea of pointing, gesturing and even miming to get your
Yes, they are real, and with the exception of western style
hotels and restaurants, they are everywhere. Don't be afraid though, with a bit
of practice (and thigh muscle) squat toilets are easy to master. You will want
to carry your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
Embrace Not Knowing
One of the most disorienting, yet delightful, things about
China is the constant feeling that you have no idea what is going on. China is
crowded, confusing and busy. If you can learn to embrace the chaos, you stand a
far better chance of enjoying your time here.
What else would you like to know about traveling to China?