Guilin, China

China For the Beginners: Or, What I Learned on My First Trip

Daria Silter

Daria Silter

Daria Silter is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Global Storybook.
You can read more about Daria here.
Daria Silter

With five thousand years of history behind its ‘back’ – China is one of the few, oldest, most advanced countries in the whole World.  Among numerous accomplishments and gifts to the human society, China is primarily famous for 4 things: publishing (typography), papermaking, compass, and gunpowder.  But it also gave the World porcelain.  And silk.  And tea.  And alcohol.  And even an umbrella and a mechanical clock.  On, and acupuncture!  As well as bronze… and paper money.  And we will stop here because there are way too many things.

Since I was a child, I was always fascinated with this beautiful, mysterious and unknown (to me) country.  I read a lot about its history, religions, literature, and right before my first trip – some newly published nonfiction books (mostly on its social issues).  So before we jump to my observations on this amazing country – I just want you to see where I am coming from.  I love China, despite any “imperfections,” or what we might hear in the news; but then tell me, honestly – which country is perfect?

Ping'an Zhuang Village, Guilin, China

Beautiful ladies from the famous Huangluo Yao Village.

Culture Shock – Really?  Not Really.  

Right before I left for my trip, I came across a random blog post which was titled: “Culture Shock in China – Everything You Need To Know” or something in that nature.  I was very interested so I clicked on it, but what I read there were mostly complaints about how: “Everyone spits all the time, points a finger, and screams “laowai,” which means “foreigner” and laughs when that foreigner looks back at the “offender.”  The person, who wrote it, sounded reasonably annoyed.

I couldn’t help it and throughout my entire time in China – I kept this post in the back of my mind to see if it will match my own experience.  And here’s what I discovered.

On Spitting:

Yes, Chinese people like to spit (and so do many other cultures).  But, during my first three days in Beijing, I saw exactly… three people, who spat.  (Population of Beijing: 21+ million).  In other cities that I traveled to (Xi’an, Guilin, Shanghai) I saw others spit as well.  Though, considering the population of China (over 1,3 billion) – the numbers were minuscule.

On Chewing:

Here’s where it gets interesting.  95% of people that I sat next to on a train or a restaurant, chewed very loudly (khm… ate with their mouth open) while consuming their food.  I don’t think I ever came across this phenomenon in any other country, that I’ve traveled to.

Street food, China

Yummy street food in Shanghai.

On Transportation:

I used the metro system in Shanghai and Beijing, and it was pretty much similar to that of Europe’s (Paris, London).  It was clean, modern, safe, and people even formed a line right in front of the train’s doors.

I also took a (long-distance) regional train several times, and that was a bit… different.  The minute I arrived at the Beijing’s main railway station (50 minutes prior to my train’s departure), I got desperately lost.  I got lucky initially, running into an English-speaking policeman who pointed me in the right direction, where I could print out my train ticket (which is a requirement), but once I did that, I could not find… the actual train platforms!

I took an escalator down, running in all directions, shouting at everyone I ran across: “train? train?” while they stared at me with a numb, clueless expression.  I then ran right into another policeman who just lowered his head, so I could not see his eyes and tried to ignore my presence, completely.  I don’t know how I finally found the right exit (it was on the second floor above ground), but there was a moment of sheer panic, as the time was ticking and I thought that I would not make it on time.  I almost cried in the middle of the street.

Now, I’ve been to many places around the World, and one would think that I should know my way better – but here’s the thing: pretty much EVERY sign in Beijing’s main railway station was in Chinese.  And it’s not exactly the type of language where you can guess the meaning, as in French or Spanish.  (Though yes – there was one English sign that I saw in the station, which said “Subway,” and it meant exactly that).

Another thing that you might not know is that it’s not that easy to buy a train ticket in China.  Out of three fares that I booked, one train got completely sold out the minute its tickets were released (a month in advance).  Now you can probably guess where my panic was coming from.

Bottomline: make sure to arrive at any train station in China (except subway, of course) – at least 90 minutes in advance.  I (stupidly) ignored this recommendation and paid the price with my nerves.

Shanghai, China

Sunset in Shanghai

Now, let’s quickly jump to the next point, which I just briefly touched upon:

On English:

Yes, it’s TRUE.  Pretty much no one in China speaks English.

When I first heard that (before my trip to China), I did not believe it.  The only country that I’ve ever been to, where the locals could not say a word en Ingles, was Panama (and I’ve been to 60+ other countries).

As to China – I refused to believe this rumor to the last minute since I always thought that China had a great education system and a lot of very diligent, studious, and very smart students.  And this is the stereotype that I developed while observing and communicating with my Chinese-American friends.  It was only during the last part of my trip, that I found out while reading a book on China, that the education system here is… let’s just say – not very good.  I can honestly tell you now that this was the single biggest shock of my whole experience in China.

One more note on the subject – do not be surprised (or shocked at this point) when you travel to China (at least in 2017), and find that every single brochure in every major (not to even mention minor) attractions in China is mostly in Chinese.  Quick example: Forbidden City – number 2 biggest attraction in Beijing – did not have a single word in English on its brochure, nothing, nada.  There are a few signs on the ticket counters though, mostly with the ticket prices, some rules and opening hours.

The Last Days of Old Beijing: City Transformed

I truly hope that this will change soon, but for now, it seems that the government’s main priority when it comes to tourism is to accommodate the Chinese tourists only (which I don’t even blame them for – since they already have a huge market, to begin with).

Helpful tip: before you leave for China – download this app: “Google Translate”, and the Chinese (Traditional) to English (or other) languages in it.  Unfortunately, for now, this is the ONLY way to communicate in China.  (And no, the sign language doesn’t work either – I tried…)

On People:

Chinese people are one of the friendliest, nicest and coolest people that I’ve ever had a pleasure meeting with.  Yes, if you do not have Asian features – people will stare at you, but mostly in a very gentle, open and curious way, which was completely opposite to what I encountered in India (sigh).

The truth is, most of the Chinese people, that you will run into, at any of the tourist sites and some “smaller” cities – have never seen a foreigner in their lives!  So naturally – they are curious, wouldn’t you be?  And many people (especially kids) did come up to me (and other “foreigners”) and asked to take a picture together.  And I never refused, no matter how tired or in a rush I was.  Because, I knew that it takes real courage to come up to a total stranger, and especially in such a generally shy society, like China’s.

On Scams:

On my very first day in China, my private tour guide in Beijing asked me to pay for his entrance tickets to all the attractions that we went to.  I was also expected to pay for his lunch.  And then later he (actually) asked me to give him a tip.  But here’s the thing:

  • I knew that licensed guides do not need tickets to enter touristic attractions, and then I wondered – maybe in China, they do?  (It quickly turned out that they don’t, and yes – he scammed me (by taking the cash and insisting on buying the tickets himself, while I waited in the distance).
  • I always give a good tip on (almost) every tour but something just did not feel right here, so prior to our parting, I decided that I will skip this one.  I mean in addition to paying (a good amount) for the whole tour in advance, I also had to pay for every single attraction (for myself and my tour guide), plus his lunch.  However, what shocked me the most, was not even that he scammed me so bluntly, but the fact that he actually asked me to give him a tip after all.

I had two more tours in Beijing, and here are some more juicy details:

  • On the second day-tour to Jinshanling Great Wall, it was pouring buckets, pretty much all day.  Now, am I crazy to think that the tour should have been canceled?  I do not regret, by any means, going there and seeing that wonder of the World, but a tiny part of me wonders – is it really worth risking tourists’ health to take them to such a… well, dangerous place?

The majestic Great Wall is not exactly Disney – it measures about 5-7 meters in height, and it runs on top of some very high (and steep) hills; it’s crumbling badly in some places; some steps are very uneven and narrow, but most importantly – it’s very slippery, when it’s wet.  Oh and yes – the guide (not the same one) also asked to give him tips (several times, throughout the trip) on the bus, but this time the request was less direct since he pitched the whole group.

Jinshanling Great Wall, China - Global Storybook

Jinshanling Great Wall

  • On my third day-tour in Beijing, we planned to visit several famous attractions, including the Summer Palace and the Badaling Great Wall.  We were supposed to spend half a day at each one.  We arrived at the first one around 8:40am.  In a few brisk sentences, the guide explained the significance behind some (side-way) attractions of the Summer Palace, skipping all the major ones, then took us to the back exit, and at 9:25am sharp he declared that now we were going to drive to a jade factory to… eat lunch.

Everyone in our small group of 7 people, looked at their watch, and in an almost perfect unison exclaimed: “Lunch at 9:25am?”  Umm, no thank you.  Just had breakfast an hour ago.  We quickly convinced him to give us… 10 more minutes, “to take a few photos,” and he reluctantly agreed.

So we quickly scattered.  Climbing one steep hill, we stumbled upon one of the most popular sights in the Summer Palace.  We spent about 20 minutes wandering around (10 minutes above our allowed amount) and then ran back to the car.  When he finally saw us, the guide didn’t utter a word, though he looked very disappointed – just to say nothing.  Though, the main “fun” part of the day was far from over.

When we arrived at this “jade factory” (one of the numerous tourist-trap establishments, where you are given a presentation on a “high-quality” product and are then expected to buy it at an extremely inflated price; another common one in China is the “tea house”), a couple that I was talking to, told the guide that we will join the group in a few minutes, hoping to take a quick cigarette break.  The lady barely lit up her cigarette, when one minute later the guide ran out on the street and started… shouting loudly, to immediately go inside and join the presentation.  There were few words that he kept on repeating, which were: “You must obey.”

Now, I am not surprised at the choice of his words, given that China is a Communist country, but what shocked me the most was that he actually… screamed.  Again I have to bring up my past experience and tell you that – no, this has never happened on any of my other trips.  (And a lot of other things did happen).  I’ve honestly never seen a ‘professional’ guide behave so rudely and inappropriately.

I have to add now that besides these three “fun” adventures in Beijing, nothing remotely similar happened on any of my other trips in Xi’an and Guilin.  I’ve had the most professional, friendly and amazing guides on all of the tours in these other cities.  So could this just be “the thing” in Beijing?  Who can answer?

Local snacks, Shanghai

Yummy local street snack in Shanghai

As to any other scams in China – the only one I ran into was with the taxis.  The first taxi that I took from Beijing’s International Airport (PEK), overcharged me by a triple-amount.  Since I didn’t know it at first – there’s a booth located at a prime spot, right in the middle of the taxi stand, which offers “licensed” taxi cabs.  Well, it’s mostly empty for a reason (the one mentioned above).

A Quick Guide to Shanghai's Main Airports

So here’s my advice – skip this booth, and go directly to the taxi waiting line.  All the taxis in Beijing’s Int. Airport are metered (and licensed) and they will get you to your destination for a decent price.  Also, avoid those guys that offer their private “taxi services” in the airport, you will most likely encounter them as well.

Another advice that I actually heard often is to always make sure that your taxi driver has turned the meter on so that there wouldn’t be any surprises at the arrival point.  This advice actually works anywhere in the world – from China to Cape Town.

 On Pollution and Other ‘Things You Need to Know’:

  • Pollution is a huge problem – therefore pack smart when you travel to China.
  • Whatever you do – do not ever drink the tap water.  Do not even brush your teeth with it – use bottled water instead.
  • The Chinese government has blocked most social media sites (including Google, Google Maps, Facebook, Instagram, CNN, etc.).  The only two useful sites that it didn’t block yet are WhatsApp and Yahoo (well, it’s still a search engine!).  Therefore, in order to access any of these blocked sites, you must have a VPN.

If you do not know what a VPN is – it’s basically a third-party app that you can turn on which will re-direct your IP address (aka “computer or phone location”) to any other country in the World.  That will help unblock your desired websites.  The most important thing to remember is that you must download and install VPN before you actually leave for China.  All the VPN sites are blocked as well, hence you won’t be able to access them through the web.

I had two VPN providers that I used in China: SurfEasy and ExpressVPN.  Both required a small monthly fee (none of the good VPN providers will obviously work for free), but you can unsubscribe from them as soon as you leave China.

  • Ladies, be prepared to use a… latrine (aka squat) toilet almost everywhere in China (except most hotels, of course).  I don’t know about the men’s bathrooms, but that is the deal in China.
  • Also, make sure to carry a small toilet paper roll, as well as napkins and liquid soap – because all of these items are lacking in most of the public toilet stations.  Oh, and don’t forget an antibacterial hand sanitizer!
  • As to the power outlets – this is the type most commonly used in China:

power outlet, China

  • Okay now, lets quickly talk about the issue of “space” – because in China it is almost nonexistent.  Again, I am viewing it from the perspective of an American, who’s used to her concept of “private space,” though many other cultures are similar to that of China’s.  But for the purpose of the general observation – you will encounter people that will intrude in your personal space, will also push and shove you, breath in your neck (when standing in line) and so on.

The only way to deal with this is to stay calm, practice ‘zen’, and take everything in stride.  Oh and most importantly – congratulate yourself on making such a great accomplishment – getting to know a new and unfamiliar culture!

  • Finally, I saved the worse for last, exclusively for those of you who actually stayed up reading – the issue of… dog (and cat) eating in China.  The news won’t probably be a surprise to you since most likely everyone by now has heard of the infamous “Yulin dog-eating festival” (my heart stops just writing this).  It is really hard to combine these two facts together – “China” (an amazing country) and “dog-eating” (aka = disgusting, soulless) but here is how I came to understand this.

Chinese menuThe three main “religions” in China – Confucianism (the largest of the three), Buddhism and Daoism – are not really religions per se, they are… philosophies, as neither Buddha nor Confucius, were Gods.  On top of that, the Cultural Revolution that took place in China during the mid-20th century, has completely destroyed and wiped out its spiritual beliefs, memory, and religious background, and therefore left many (especially young) people with no moral anchor, or a divine guidance to rely on.  Therefore many things in China are viewed through a very… primitive, “basic-primal-human” prism, which leaves many other *more spiritually developed* countries wondering – how can something like this even happen?

Well, it can, and that’s the explanation.  In no way would I ever think to look down, patronize or degrade this wonderful country, and I do think that it has an amazing potential and capacity for growth (of any kind).  I just had to unravel this unspeakable and horrific deed (which is…err, ‘normal’ in China, as well as Korea, Vietnam, and some other countries).

As someone who lived with pets all my life – I personally know how smart, sensitive and emotional all of our animals are, and on top of that – they also feel physical pain.  And to hurt another life, just because it cannot defend itself, nor speak up – is shocking to me.  But as with everything else in life – there’s always an explanation (please note: explanation does NOT equal to justification).

Lastly, I do not want to leave this article on such a gruesome note – so let’s end it with you learning two basic and most useful Chinese words:

  • Xia Xia (pronounced: sia sia or shia shia), which means = thank you; and
  • Ni Hao (pronounced: nee hao), which means = hello.

(Another fun thing that I’ve noticed about the people in China is that almost everyone expected me to speak Chinese, and was genuinely surprised and amazed that I couldn’t speak any.  As if it were the easiest language in the World, haha.  Ah, I love China!).


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China for the Beginners: or, What I Learned on My First Trip

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