14 Things No One Tells You About Traveling in China

Grandmas will push you

People don’t usually think of little old ladies as physically aggressive.  But those people obviously haven’t been to China.  Getting off the subway?  Chances are an elderly woman is getting on, and she’ll body slam you right out of the way.  Waiting in line for something?  Watch out – someone’s grandma is probably about to hip check you so that she can literally sprint to the front of the line.  It’s alarming at first, but you quickly learn to steer clear of old ladies on a mission.

Shanghai and Beijing could not be more different

Shanghai is like a city from the future.  Shiny, gleamy, fancy.  Skyscrapers and malls.  Starbucks and fancy hotels (pro tip: fancy hotels have fancy bathrooms in their lobbies – take full advantage).  Beijing is a city filled with history, with winding alleyway neighborhoods (hutongs), ancient monuments, and the frickin’ Great Wall of China.  You’ll definitely prefer one or the other, but visit both for sure.  We were surprised by how different they were.

Shanghai, China
Shanghai’s pretty incredible.

The bathroom situation is… interesting

You’ll see every kind of toilet imaginable.  In fancy malls with designer everything, the bathrooms are beautiful, with full-time attendants cleaning and restocking toilet paper and soap.  In less fancy establishments, including many restaurants and bars catering to backpacker types, you’ll as likely as not be directed outside to a shared neighborhood toilet.  Squatty potty time!  And soap and toilet paper are definitely luxuries in public toilets, so don’t you ever go out for the day without tissues and hand sanitizer at the ready.  Ever.

Speaking some Chinese would be incredibly helpful

English is by no means ubiquitous, and it’s almost never spoken well.  Fair enough.  I don’t know many Westerners who have mastered Mandarin, either.  If you know far in advance that you’ll be spending time in China, it might behoove you to learn some basics of speaking and reading, and to practice pronunciation with a native speaker.  Everything will be about 10000% easier.

Not the most vegetarian friendly

We’re not strict vegetarians, but we avoid meat where we can.  Not super easy in China, especially if you want Chinese food.  (There are, of course, Western restaurants with vegetarian options.)  You’ll think you’ve just ordered a vegetable dish, but what’s this… tiny pork strips!  Noodle soup but… there’s a surprise chicken foot!  Easiest just to go with the flow with this, unless you speak Chinese and can communicate more clearly than we could.

Chicken foot in noodle soup in China
SURPRISE!!

DUMPLINGS!

So many, so good.  Soup dumplings!  Fried dumplings!  Boiled dumplings!  We loved Mr. Shi’s Dumplings in Beijing.  (We went three nights in a row).  They have vegetarian options galore!

Rainbow soup dumplings from Paradise Dynasty in Shanghai
Rainbow soup dumplings from Paradise Dynasty in Shanghai. Very tasty but definitely not vegetarian. Not even the green ones!

Recycling is serious business

This is especially true in Shanghai.  They have four different kinds of trash cans, one for recycling, one for food, one for hazardous waste, and one for all other trash.  All over the city are signs and advertisements teaching you how to sort your waste properly.  And we noticed that every time we threw something away at a Starbucks, an employee would surreptitiously wander over and check that we had sorted it properly.  If not, they’d actually take it out and move it.  A system not to be messed with.

The trains are incredible

All of them.  From the airport into Shanghai we took the Maglev train, which is the world’s fastest commercial electric train.  We took a super cool bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing, which was spotless due to the employees Swiffering the aisle each and every fifteen minutes.  And the subways in both Beijing and Shanghai are timely and clean, which is a true miracle compared to the New York City subway.  Overall, many joyful train experiences.

English T-shirts are wildly popular, but no one is proofreading them

The most popular clothing item by far in both Shanghai and Beijing seems to be a graphic tee featuring some snappy English phrase.  Up to 5% of these make sense, with the majority being just straight nonsense (fun fact for t-shirt makers – every word in English has at least one vowel), or definitely misunderstood (we spotted several small children cheerfully sporting foul profanity).  Seems to be something that could be easily addressed by Google translate.  But…

Google Translate is horrible at translating Chinese

You know that cool feature on the Google Translate app where you use your camera to scan a sign or a menu or what-have-you, and out pops a handy translation?  Turns out to be basically useless for Chinese.  The app that can do this with much more success is WeChat, the Chinese messaging behemoth.  Needs data or Wifi, but very helpful if you have either.  (Check out our tricks for getting data abroad!)

Google Maps… also not great

Who knows for sure, but this likely has to do with the fact that Google products are blocked in China and can only be accessed by VPN.  (Side note – be sure to set up your VPN before you leave for China, as VPN websites are blocked within China.)  We found more success getting transit directions from Apple Maps than Google Maps.  Nonetheless, all of the usual Western websites that we’re used to using for restaurant, coffee, and bar recommendations, from Google to Trip Advisor, seemed to have information on only a small minority of Chinese businesses.  Even those clearly targeted at Westerners, such as the American-themed diner in Shanghai (aptly named “Diner”), did not appear on any of the websites or apps that we were using.  Your best bet is just to wander and keep your eyes peeled for spots to hit up later.

QR codes for EVERYTHING

The Chinese love QR codes.  They’re on ads.  They’re on signs.  They’re on park benches and restaurant tables.  Plus, the most popular way to pay for things is on a variety of QR-based apps, like WeChat and Alipay.  We didn’t set any of these up, and we were fine using credit cards or cash everywhere we went, but we were definitely not as slick and speedy as all of the locals beeping their phones to pay.

Get ready for crowds

China is enormous, and it is populous, and the people of China seem to love hopping on tour buses to see their country’s great tourist attractions.  So, anywhere that sounds cool is definitely jam-packed with tour groups and families on vacation.  We ended up skipping certain attractions because the crowds were pretty unbearable.  Others (like the Great Wall of China, duh) were still worth it, but definitely could not be described as serene.

Crowds on the Great Wall of Cina
And this is far from the most crowded Great Wall spot.

Worth it!

China is huge, and hugely important in the world.  You gotta go.  It’s pretty cool.  We’ll be back one day.

What did you notice about traveling in China?  Tell us in the comments!

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