Traveler’s Tip: How to survive China
We met very few independent travelers in China. In fact we were told repeatedly by others travelers along the way that traveling independent in China was near impossible. So in light of that we thought we would put together a quick Travelers tip post on how to survive China.
- Buy your ticket at the train station. Hostels and tour agencies always charge you a huge fee (sometimes 50-80 yuan) when it only costs them 2 yuan to take the public bus to and from the station.
- At the station there is a long row of ticket selling windows which are dedicated for particular destinations. There is always one window specifically for foreigners. The foreigner window tends to be the least used, sometimes at one far end, and can easily be identified by any other foreigners already in line!
- In practically every Chinese train station, every last sign will be completely in Chinese. In the event that you can not identify the Foreigners’ Ticket Window, simply go to the shortest line and attempt to buy your ticket there. Sometimes the teller will go ahead and sell it to you but most often they will tell you which number window you need to go to and send you away.
- There are three classes of Chinese trains: seats, hard sleepers and soft sleepers. For most backpackers, the hard sleeper is the most economical if not most comfortable. When buying your ticket you have the option of top, middle, or bottom bunk. Top is cheapest and offers a small amount of privacy (i.e people can not stare at you while you sleep) but you can not sit up in the top or middle bunks. The bottom bunk, most expensive, is thus designated the communal sitting area for everyone in your cabin, regardless of whether you are still sleeping there or not. Seats should be avoided for long or overnight journeys if at all possible. Soft sleepers have 4 bunks to a cabin but are only really worth the price about half the time. Check out seat61.com for more detailed information on classes.
- Always buy your train ticket 1-2 days before your journey. Otherwise the train will fill up and you will have to either take a sleeper bus or stay where you are for another day or two.
- Always double check your train ticket (departure date, destination, class) at the ticket counter. Once you walk away, the teller is no longer responsible for any errors they might have made. Once you receive your change and ticket, step to the side of the window and check it right there
- The staple food on trains in China is ramen soup. Every train is equipped with a hot water station at one end of every car. Be very careful as the water is near boiling when it shoots awkwardly from the spout.
- Stampeding aboard trains, planes, and buses seems to be a favorite Chinese pastime. Don’t be afraid to be tough and push your way through. While waiting to let everyone pass is a courteous practise at home, here it leaves you with footprints on your back, 15 people piling their stuff on your bed, and no place to put your backpack.
MONEY & COUNTERFEITS:
China has become very good at making fake goods and money. Always count your change before walking away from the business transaction. Check your large bills (everything over 20s) for authenticity.
- To check if a bill is counterfeit, hold it up to the light; you should see a watermark of Chairman Mao. The edges of the watermark should be a little fuzzy, not perfect. If the lines are perfect, you probably have a fake bill. You should also check the reflective strip on the front of the bill. Scratch at it; if it comes off, you probably have a fake.
- Be very aware of the bills you use to pay with (by using the above tip to check their authenticity). China is among the many countries where vendors will often swap your bill (usually 100s) with one of their fakes and then hand it back to you and say “Sorry, no change.” Keep an eye on the vendor’s hands and general behavior. If them seem a bit shifty eyed and keep glancing at you, they might just be trying to pass off a fake to your or shortchange you.
- Despite what you might think, there are many people (a lot actually) in China that do not speak any or enough English. It is a good idea to take a small pocket calculator with you everywhere but especially to markets for better bargaining skills. Also helpful with bus fares, bakery shops, and so on.
- It can be very difficult to find an honest vendor because of how most people view tourists. It just comes with the trade. Despite how nice or friendly or sincere the vendor seems and despite their promises that the item you are interested in is in fact “real bone/jade/pearl/ivory/gold/etc,” it almost certainly is not. This does not mean that you should not buy the item; it simply means that you should pay the right price.
- Most of the time in markets, the first price a vendor tells you will be 3 or 4 times (sometimes even more) the price is actually should be. Know your exchange rate well and have a reasonable price in mind for the item you are looking at. Don’t be afraid to say your price even if it sounds ridiculously low compared to the ridiculously high price they started with. Everyone is just trying to make a living and you just need to be ready to bargain well.
- For most attractions in China, you do not need a tour. Tell your hostel staff that you do not want to take a tour (no matter how hard they try to sell you one) and instead ask them which public bus/metro to take to get to the attraction. China’s public transport system is top notch and can get you practically everywhere if you just know which bus number to take. Of course don’t forget to ask which stop to get off at.
- China is not for those with a weak stomach. We were not on a single bus or train that didn’t have at least one person vomiting (including several city buses). It is not that the trains and buses are particularly rocky or shake around. Instead we unscientifically attributed all this vomiting business to two things: all that intense hocking and spitting (really, where does all that mucus come from?!) and the terrible food the Chinese seem to enjoy so much (starfish, chicken feet, organs, black eggs—you know, that sort of thing).
- Standard precautions apply in regards to personal safety and keeping track of your belongings. However, it is worth mentioning that Chinese pickpockets have created a clever way of extracting your wallet/valuables. They use a pair of long forceps, kind of like tweezers, to gently grab your wallet/other valuable and make away with it before you even realize what happened. Keep your hands on your stuff at all times.