China: Off the beaten path

As more and more travellers prepare to visit China for the 2008 Olympics and the World Fair in 2010, some survival tips may be in order for the independent traveler.

We’re not talking here about the tour group that gets picked up at the airport in an air conditioned bus, dropped off at their western-style hotel, then shuttled from tourist site to site led by a flag toting English-speaking guide. No, this is for those braver souls who want to rub shoulders with Chinese locals on small tour buses crammed into seats too small for the North American frame. You’re willing to drag your suitcase down dark, dirty streets at night looking for that special “atmospheric” hotel.

If you’re the type who does cruises or stays in five-star hotels, this may not be of interest to you. On the other hand, if you like to travel on your own and you plan on doing more than the usual Beijing-Shanghai-Xi’an route, then read on. Some of these tips could prove useful – even life saving.

China is gearing up for the invading Olympic hordes by adding English signs in major cities, building new hotels, and teaching English to Beijing cab drivers. Admittedly, therefore, it’s becoming easier to travel around China on your own by plane, train and bus without a travel agent pre-booking everything for you.

Airplanes here are modern, safe and convenient. And 70,000 kilometres of new track have recently been laid for a rail system that crisscrosses the country linking all major destinations and most of the less frequented ones.A modern highway system does the same with newly paved roads. Although most are toll highways and foreign visitors are forbidden from driving on them, the roads are in excellent shape. So it’s definitely worthwhile, and fairly easy, to hire a local driver if you want to see some of the sites off the beaten path.

But easy isn’t necessarily safe or comfortable. No, the major problem here isn’t the travel infrastructure and the ease of physically getting from point A to point B, it’s the language barrier. Even though many English signs have been added throughout China on streets, subways, and airports, they’re usually in “pinion”, the Chinese phonetic equivalent of their symbol script. The signs may look like English to you, but try to pronounce them in any way that will sound like Chinese to a local and you’ll end up lost and frustrated.

There’s a Chinese expression “Ping ding zi” that literally means “hitting a nail”, but is more accurately translated as “banging your head against a wall.” And that’s what often happens when you’re trying to speak Chinese to locals.


It’s all in your tone

The reason is that Chinese is a tonal language, with up to five different tones for the same word. This makes “ma” either “mother”, “horse”, “bad”, or a question depending on the inflexion in your voice. Not only can the wrong tone lead to frustration, but it can be quite embarrassing as well. Once my wife and I almost ended up on a flight to Taiwan when we tried to buy a plane ticket to Taiyuan, a city north of Xi’an. We thought we were saying the right word, but it came out “Taiwan” to the Chinese ticket agent in Lanzhou.

Finding a travel agent who speaks enough English to book your tickets can help avoid these potential disasters, but that’s not always possible. Even then, mistakes can happen. Our Lanzhou travel agent spoke decent English, but still heard Taiwan instead of Taiyuan.

Some basic Chinese lessons will help immensely. Even the rudimentaries like the numbers 1 to 10 will go a long way. With these 10 numbers, you can create the days of the week, and month, and the months of the year fairly simply. Days of the week are just “day one”, “day two”, and so on. The months are similar.

A small portable calendar will also be very handy for both planning your itinerary and for pointing to your travel date. And all travel agents and stores have calculators to show you the prices. The Chinese also have a clever system of hand signals for the ten numbers. It’s easy to learn and will generate a smile when you use them.

Buying tickets

Fortunately, airports use mostly English and the bigger ones even make flight announcements in English. Trains and buses, however, are all in Chinese. This makes buying tickets and locating your platform, bus or train car difficult. Even finding the right ticket booth can be time consuming and frustrating as you are shunted from one wicket to another -– all the overhead signs are in Chinese. Add on the ever present lengthy lineups in China and you will need to allow extra time for this process.

Again a local travel agent, often at your own hotel, can arrange tickets for a small commission and so avoid the hassles of train and bus stations. But sometimes you’re just going to have to deal with the lineups and confusion yourself. The basic Chinese numbers, a calendar and a calculator will get you through most negotiations.Staff at the train or bus station are usually very helpful as well even if they don’t speak English. Once a friendly sweeper at a train station took us from wicket to wicket until he found the right agent who could sell us a soft-sleeper berth on an overnight train. It was difficult even for him; it would have been impossible for me.

After buying your ticket, always carefully check to confirm that the destination and date are correct. If you’re traveling with a partner, ensure numbered seats are together. Hold on to your train ticket. Sometimes you will need to show it on the train and you will almost always need it to exit the train station at your destination.

Airlines have special requirements and ticket agents need to enter your passport number and name into the computer. Make sure it and your name are accurate. A common mistake they make is to enter your first name as your last, which is the practice in China. This mistake could mean you won’t be able to board your flight.

Also, keep your baggage claim stubs. China is the only country we have visited lately requiring you to show your baggage stub when you exit the airport with your bags.


Another useful tool for booking tickets is a road map with English and Chinese names. Take it with you and point to the Chinese script for your destination. Or have someone write down the name in Chinese characters on a piece of paper for you to show to the ticket vendor to avoid confusion.

Maps are useful not just for inter-city travel, but also within a city as well. Always pick up a map with both English and Chinese names when you first arrive in a new city. With this in hand you can point to the Chinese characters of your destination for cab drivers or people on the street. And always pick up a business card from your hotel and carry it with you to show cab drivers when you want to return to your hotel.

But possibly my most used travel tool has been a small picture book that has drawings of food and clothing items, planes and trains, and essentials like police and hospital. In fact, my wife and I have successfully used it on several continents to order meals in restaurants, find a pharmacy, or be driven to the bus station. Our favourite is a slim, plastic-coated pocket book called “The Wordless Travel Book”, but there are others for sale on the Internet or at travel book stores.

Cell phones

The Chinese have a love affair with their cell phones. They are constantly talking on them — while driving, eating, walking, riding the bus or even riding on their bicycles through a maze of traffic and pedestrians. Very scary!

We have trouble even crossing the street in China and these guys are weaving through the maze with one hand on the handle bars and one on the cell phone.

But this addiction can come in very handy if you’re lost or need to book a hotel. All you need is the temerity to ask and most Chinese will be glad to offer you the use of their cell phone. Once when we were turned down at a hotel because we didn’t have our passports, a cab driver called around to several hotels until we found one that would take us in with just the photocopy that we always have with us.

Another time, on the very top of Hua Shan mountain, a local who spoke some English called our driver at the base of the mountain to let him know we would be arriving earlier than planned. This avoided a lengthy wait at the bottom. Very useful indeed.


Traffic in China is crazy. It’s far worse than in South America or Bangkok even. Besides incessant talking on the cell phone, there are two additional risk factors.

First, a lot of the scooters are electric, which means you can’t hear them when they speed along the sidewalk behind you or zoom straight at you through the crowd of pedestrians trying to cross the street. For some reason in China, they are exempt from the traffic laws that have other vehicles stopping at red lights.

So they and a million bicycles weave their way through the pedestrians. If you stop, you’re dead.The saying “look both ways before you cross” was never truer than in China. Bikes ride on both sides of the road — as do taxis sometimes! Pedestrians are at the bottom of the totem pole here, ready to be crushed by the sheer volume of traffic.

The second risk factor is that because the scooters are electric, they don’t use their lights at night in order to save their battery. So, in addition to being silent, they are as invisible as Stealth aircraft. Even some of the cars do this at night.

Tractor carts (small, noisy, open-air tractors with bike steering wheels and a cart at the back) are ubiquitous, in the countryside and some cities. At night, they drive without lights even on the highways. What a fright to be booting along a highway at 120 kph and suddenly see a dark shadow in your lane. You don’t know whether it’s a stalled truck, an oxen or one of these tractors. What’s worse is I don’t know if our driver can see it and I don’t know the Chinese for “Watch out for the crazy Kamikaze tractor!”

Another hazard on the highways are the street cleaners. No mechanical, gas guzzling sweeper trucks here; these are men and women standing on the side of the highway – even in the fast lane – sweeping away leaves with a broom made out of branches and twigs. Their only protection is an orange vest. No helmet, no safety cones, no warning sign, just a vest. All of this explains why they don’t allow foreigners to drive on their roads.

In spite of this we have witnessed only 16 accidents in our two months in China so far. That’s not counting the motorbike that hit me on the sidewalk in Lanzhou! Yes, both motorbikes and cars drive on the sidewalk.


Finding an English menu is difficult outside of the major tourist cities and large Western-style hotels. To make dining out more of a joy than a chore, look for restaurants that have pictures on their menus. Alternatively, use the “Wordless” picture travel book mentioned above and point to a picture of the kind of food you want. As a last resort, look at what the locals are eating and order the same. This may result in some odd culinary surprises, like the pig’s tongue you thought was steak, but food is inexpensive here and you can always try something else.

Food is not only strange here, but it changes from region to region. So just when you find a favourite dish, it won’t be available in the next city. Worse the pronunciation of it changes as well. We thought we had mastered something as simple as white rice. In the south it was “Bai fan”, elsewhere it’s “Mei fan”. In the north, the waitress just looks blankly at us when we order “Bai fan” until we change it to “Mei fan”.

Three other peculiarities about food ordering. First they only give you one menu for two people; they have lots, but I guess they don’t want to get them dirty. Second, they stand beside your table waiting for the order. For some reason, they assume you’re going to scan the 100s of items on the menu (even in Chinese) and order right away without giving it any thought. Very annoying! Third, they bring only one meal at a time as if they only have one wok. To add insult to injury, they often won’t bring the rice to the table until your main dish is cold or almost finished.

Food servings in China are huge and are designed for group dining for four or more people. They’re far more than two people can eat. As a couple, we like to order two dishes for variety, but this means leaving food on the plates. As a result, we’ll sometimes sacrifice variety and just order one dish with two bowls or rice. That’s plenty of food for two people.

Finally, don’t tap your chopsticks on your rice bowl or stick them upright in the rice. The first is supposed to lead to bad luck and the second means someone has died. Neither is good form in a Chinese restaurant.

Local Colour

Folk dancing has been consistently varied and beautiful throughout China. There are over 50 ethnic groups in China, each with their own culture, costumes and music. The costumes are bright and the dancing is energetic, almost gymnastic in some cases. One performance in Kunming was so enthusiastic, with its upbeat, complex choreography that we just stared with our mouths open saying to each other “How are they doing that?” We’ve seen performances in theatres and on the street by several ethnic minority groups so far and the artistry and music have definitely been a wow.

Also, because we’re traveling a bit off the beaten path, many of the locals that we see in places like Shangri La or Kashgar are not dressed up in bright robes and hats just for the tourists; they actually dress that way every day. This is one of the main reasons to travel independently and off the beaten path. To avoid potential problems, however, always ask for permission to take someone’s photo before shooting.


On the down side, besides the pollution, spitting everywhere (even in restaurants, buses, and right here beside us in the Internet cafe), are the squat toilets. If you’ve been to Asia, you know what I’m talking about so I won’t go into detail here. Somehow, even in small cities, they have fancy LCD screens in front of urinals that are auto flushing, but no toilets.

In a country that probably makes 80 per cent of the toilets and toilet seats in the whole world you would think they could put a few into the airports and bus stations.

But if you’re thinking of coming to Asia, here’s a travel tip for those of you who like me are “squat challenged”. Get in the habit of having a morning cup of tea before breakfast. Every hotel in China has tea in your room and a nice tea cup to brew it in. This will motivate your constitution BEFORE you get on that five-hour bus tour and you’ll not have to worry about squat toilets.

Failing that, buy some “portable” toilets from Magellan. Our good friend Lynn gave us some as a bon voyage gift before our trip. We’re still saving them for emergencies, but it sure is reassuring knowing that we have them in our backpacks when we’re driving across the Tibetan highlands.

It is essential, however, to carry your own toilet paper. Rarely will you find it in anything but the larger hotels. Small packs of tissues that can be bought in any grocery store in China make very convenient substitutes for a roll. Also carry small change around with you for the pay toilets. It will avoid frustrating delays waiting for change on the way to the loo.

Just as rare in washrooms are hot water and soap. Bring bottles of hand sanitizer from home; you won’t easily find it in China.

Hotel rooms

Booking a hotel room can be fairly straightforward even without knowledge of Chinese. If you’re arriving late at night, it’s best to book your hotel in advance by phone or on the Internet. Copy or have someone write down the Chinese characters for the name of the hotel. That way you’re not wandering around the dark streets trying to find accommodation when you first arrive in a new city.

Otherwise, you can get good deals right at the front desk. Rack room rates at three- and four-star hotels are usually posted on a sign at the front desk and you can simply point to “Standard Room”.Rates are always negotiable except at the highest season or on Chinese national holidays. The clerk will write the opening discounted rate on a piece of paper or use a calculator to begin the bargaining process. Don’t forget to confirm that breakfast is included in your discounted rate.

Before you check in, visit the room to verify that everything works properly. If you don’t like the room, the AC won’t turn off, or the toilet doesn’t flush (a frequent occurrence), ask to see another room. Oddly, standard room sizes and quality can vary from floor to floor in the same hotel. Also, discounted rooms are often beside noisy elevators or stairwells. If you’re a light sleeper, ask for a different room. Staff are very obliging.

It’s always wise to lock up your valuables and passport in the hotel safe. Some hotels have one in the room, others at the front desk. But if you use the front desk safe and you have an early morning flight to catch, it might be best to take your valuables out the night before. Once we risked missing our flight because the manager who had the key to the safe wasn’t on duty until 9:00 a.m.

Make a photocopy of your passport, including your Chinese entry visa. With your passport safely locked up in the hotel safe, you can use the photocopy for booking airline tickets or at the Internet cafes that sometimes demand them. You will, however, need your original for most hotels.

Most hotels in the three- and four-star category do not take credit cards. At check in, you will need to make a cash deposit equal to one or two times the value of your hotel room times the length or your stay.Unfortunately, this means carrying lots of cash around. While we’ve never felt threatened in China, it’s wise to use a hidden money pouch. I find that the kind that attaches to your belt and hangs on the inside of your trousers is the least visible and one of the most comfortable.

Every hotel we have visited in China has been “clean” and comfortable. Some are more spartan than others, but they all have tea, toothbrushes, slippers, and a comb, and some even have a bottle of water. Plus they are fairly inexpensive compared to Canada.

Three-star hotels and higher have electric kettles to boil water for tea and to sterilize the cups provided in your room. Some have a large fresh water bottlecombined with a heater that boils water for use. It works surprisingly well.

As an added bonus, breakfast is included. It’s usually a buffet style and they all have boiled eggs, which have become our staple breakfast food. Some have “Century Eggs”, eggs stained dark brown because they’ve been boiled in tea; but these, in addition to being unsightly, may be unsafe to eat, so avoid them.

There’s usually some combination of fruits, buns, cakes and usually vegetables, which we don’t dare eat because they’re not hot. But some places make omelets and our hotel in Lanzhou made Lanzhou’s famous Beef Noodle Soup for breakfast, with fresh noodles made right before our eyes.

It’s a fascinating process to see as the “Chef” starts with a lump of dough and stretches it to make thinner and thinner noodles with each pull, sometimes slapping the whole bundle on the table with a loud “whap” just for show.


Again on the plus side, every hotel, no matter how cheap, has packaged toothbrushes and a tiny tube of toothpaste. Save some of these for those long train or bus rides.


Accommodation, air, bus and train transportation, and meals in China are all inexpensive. What we find surprising is the cost of things like running shoes, coats, technology. The prices in legitimate stores are almost as high as at home, even though they’re all made here and the average monthly salary is less than you make in a day. And there are literally hundreds of stores selling the latest brands and models in every city. We’ve yet to see any locals buying this stuff. But as my wife correctly points out if only 1 per cent of China’s1.4 billion population buys something, that’s still a lot of Yuan!


Everywhere we have visited in China, we have found the people extremely friendly and helpful. But outside the big cities, we do get strange reactions when people see us. Most of the time we are the only Westerners in town. The children and even adults stare, but are always quick to say hello or to smile and laugh when we said “Ni hao”.

They seem to derive a great deal of pleasure watching us eat with chopsticks or say the few Chinese words that we can pronounce properly. Huddles often form around us when we pull out our dictionary to ask for something in a store.This also happens when either my wife or I start writing with our left hands. That’s just not seen in China where everyone is forced to be right handed. They come close and stare over our shoulders in amazement. It’s a little disconcerting, but, again, it’s an ice breaker and it brings out the smiles. So be prepared to be the centre of attention when you travel on your own in the less visited parts of China.


The concept of lining up for anything doesn’t exist in China. This is one of the most frustrating things for me. It’s always a mad rush for buses, elevators, even airplanes. There is no such thing as boarding a flight by row. It’s a stampede and if you’re late there won’t be any room for your bag in the overhead compartment.

At the Post Office or a tourist site, you can be standing at the wicket and someone will butt right in front of you and shove their money at the clerk. Several times in department stores, I’ve had my hand out with my money in it, but still someone will butt right in between us with his money and item.

This even happens at airline check-in counters when you’ve got your passport and ticket on the counter in front of you and your bags on the scale. Someone will come right up between you and your bags and try to get checked in. This is where extra caution is required to ensure you don’t lose your passport or bags. You’ll need a lot of patience as well.

We met a Swiss tourist who explained that he was buying subway tickets at a machine when someone came up and pushed his own money into the machine first. The Swiss was so upset he grabbed the guy’s change and ticket when they came out of the machine and threw them onto the floor. If that’s how it’s affecting the peaceful Swiss, you can imagine how bad it is.

The only system where lineups work is in banks where they have a wonderful system, even better than ours. When you arrive you take a number. Then you sit in comfortable seats until your number is called and they announce which wicket you should go to. Fortunately for us they also show the numbers on an illuminated flashing screen over each teller. It is probably no coincidence that the original Chinese banking system was modeled on Britain’s, where queuing is an art form.

The advantage of independent travel

In travel, there’s what you see — and what you find. A lot of tour groups are herded from site to site like sheep in order to “see” a lot. But by traveling independently, you have more opportunity to “find” those treasures hidden just off the beaten path. And if you follow the basic tips I’ve outlined above, you learn to count to 10, and look both ways before you cross the street, your travels in China should be safe, rewarding and relatively easy.

Tour Guides in China:

Kunming: Jasmine (English name) Zou Qing (Chinese name), cell phone: 13888683190, e-mail: [email protected]
Jasmine charges around 150-200 Yuan for a whole day with you and she has a tour guide card so she can enter any tourist attraction free of charge. Her vocabulary even of technical words was impressive. We used her on a day excursion to the local botanical gardens and the World Horti-Expo Garden. The latter, by theway, is fabulous if you like Chinese garden design.

Lanzhou: Sally (English name), cell phone: 13008759347, e-mail:[email protected]
Sally isamazing, efficient, very helpful and her English is great. She put us together with her driver, Mr. He, and arranged for him to take us to Xiahe to visit the Labrang Monastery with a stop on the way at the remote Bingling Si caves. Road trips can also be arranged overland to Tibet.

Xian: Miss Mao, Mao Qi, Manager, China Comfort Travel Service Co., email: [email protected]
Miss Mao arranged for a driver to take us to the Terracotta warriors, Hua Shan Mountain and the Shaolin Temple.

Dan Cooper is a free-lance travel writer and professional photographer. He and his wife recently toured China for three months on assignment. View photographs from his travels around at world at:

Photo credit: Dan Cooper