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October 12, 2016

How to Travel to China-Drama Free

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Prepare to experience a very different culture

The fun of visiting new places is experiencing a culture that may be very different from your own. This is what makes China an amazing place to visit, but also perhaps a slightly daunting prospect. Have no fear. I have all the tips you need.

Where I travelled

My trip to China spanned over several weeks – eight weeks to be precise, primarily in Shanghai.

Apart from Shanghai, my family and I took day trips to Suzhou, Hangzhou and Yiwu. We also visited Beijing and Guangzhou, taking the high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai and travelling on the slow train from Shanghai to Guangzhou.

As I roamed the streets of China, I was surprised by how little I knew about the culture and people of this magnificent country. So before you leave for China, here are 20 tips that will clear up confusion and let you enjoy a drama-free trip:

20 things to know

1. Have all the addresses of important places you need to get to, like restaurants, hotels and your home country’s embassy, written in Chinese by your tour guide or hotel concierge before venturing out on your own. Remember to bring along your hotel’s business card (in Chinese) and a photo of your hotel to show in case you need to take a cab. Almost all cab drivers in China speak only Chinese.

2. Have local cash at all times. The local currency is the Renminbi (RMB) or Yuan, but the locals call it Kuài. Most usually say “Yī Kuài” (1 Kuài) rather than “Yī Yuan” (1 Yuan), which is more formal.

3. It is challenging to find currency exchange places in China. Even in big cities, most hotels do not offer currency exchange.

4. Most stores and restaurants do not accept credit cards.

5. Tipping is not common in China so travellers are not expected to tip in restaurants or hotels.

6. When drinking alcohol like liquor, beer or wine, know how much you can tolerate. With Chinese hosts, guests are expected to finish their whole glass on every toast. Practice caution. Don’t consume your whole drink, because more toasting will occur after the first.

7. Inexpensive tours that are organized locally in China may be tempting, but you’ll get much more out of a trip organized by a name you already know and trust.

8. Bring your own toilet paper at all times. Bathrooms in China usually don’t have toilet paper. You might want to bring some napkins along as well, since local restaurants frequently don’t offer napkins.

9. Expect that public toilets are not kept to the standards you may be accustomed to.

10. Learn to speak a few words in Chinese; it goes a long way. Here are a few words to know: “nǐ hǎo” (hello), “xiè xiè” (thank you), “cèsuǒ” (bathroom).

11. Get VPN for your laptop and smartphone if you need to access Google, Facebook, Instagram and other blocked websites. I’ve used both StrongVPN and VyprVPN.

12. The locals love to photograph foreigners, particularly Caucasians. If you prefer not to be photographed, let them know.

13. Learn to spot the real deal from the fake. Many souvenir and regular shops sell knockoff shoes, bags, soccer jerseys, scarves and even wine! I’ve seen Australian [yellow tail] knockoffs in grocery stores in Shanghai. You won’t find knockoffs in authorized stores in China.

Rule of thumb: when it comes to branded goods, if it is dirt cheap, beware!

14. Always haggle when shopping in souvenir shops, wholesale shops and street markets. I like to start with half the offered price. I am never afraid to walk away immediately if a sale associate is rude or starts with a ridiculous price. There are always other places that sell the same thing. After walking away a few times and getting counteroffers, you’ll get a sense of a ballpark price for the item you want. For example, the starting price for a pair of shoes I wanted was 160 Yuan. My initial counter offer was 80 and the final price was 95.

15. Shanghai city centre is ultra modern. International brands are well represented in the city’s malls and main thoroughfares like Nanjing Road. The subway systems in Shanghai and Beijing are efficient and clean.

16. In most places, locals don’t queue. It is not uncommon for someone to stand in front of you when in line.

17. Try the street food! It’s a great way to get an authentic culinary experience. Street food is usually safe if you buy from busy stalls. I only purchase hot food from street vendors, foods that are freshly prepared to order, like noodles in hot, boiling soup.

18. Traffic rules exist, but aren’t always respected. When crossing a busy street, check that the road is clear and there are no incoming cars – even if the crosswalk sign indicates walk. It never hurts to be aware of your surroundings.

19. Observe table manners when dining with a local Chinese host. Traditionally, guests should follow these customs: 1) Wait to be seated by the host. Seating arrangements are a way to show honour and respect. The most important person will take a seat facing the entrance. 2) Don’t start eating unless the host has verbally invited you to start. 3) Don’t place your chopsticks vertically in rice.

20. When presenting or receiving a business card or gift, it is considered polite to use both hands.

China is a striking country, chock-full of history, culture, amazing food and tea. Take these tips, book a trip, and discover the 5,000 years of history in the land known as The Middle Kingdom. The culture and customs might be different from what you know, but isn’t that why you visit?

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