Crappy China Travel Advice

From time to time, ChinaGeeks gets requests from readers or whoever that we link a blog post of theirs. Generally, we do check out these links, although we don’t often end up linking them. Today, we will be linking one, although I fear it’s not the kind of endorsement the woman who emailed us was hoping for.

The post in question is called Travel China Like a Pro: 7 Tips from Expert Travelers. Most of the tips are pretty run of the mill, but two of them immediately jumped out at us as misleading. The first:

3. Beware of What You Blog […] Beware of subversive blogging from Shanghai: censure is common practice!”

Where to begin? First of all, censure is not common. Censure means a formal, often written, expression of disapproval. What the author probably meant was censorship, which, of course, is also misleading. Censorship of travel blogs by foreigners is common? Hardly. In fact, as this and many other English China blogs prove, the Chinese government doesn’t particularly care what we write, as long as it’s not in Chinese.

What’s worse is that there is a useful piece of advice for China travelers that they totally missed: free blogging platforms like blogspot or wordpress are frequently blocked wholesale, so travelers shouldn’t count on being able to keep in touch with those at home through these platforms while in China.

Another tip in the top seven, apparently:

4. Be Respectful if Arrested […] Speak in honorable and deeply respectful prose, especially if you get arrested…

Good advice, I suppose, but (1) how often are foreign tourists arrested and (2) if arrested, how likely is it that any foreign tourists are going to have any idea how to “speak in honorable and deeply respectful prose” in Chinese? More useful tips for tourists would be things like “always carry your passport” and “keep the number of the local US embassy on hand at all times.”

Taken together, these two pieces of advice offer a pretty misleading picture of China to the potential tourist, I think. Travel to China and risk being censored (or censured!) or arrested! Of course those things are possible, but are they likely? Are they likely to happen to travelers? Are they really worthy of inclusion in the top seven travel in China tips?

No, they aren’t. What’s more terrifying is that these tips come from “experts”.

But our intention here is not simply to tear apart a poorly-written blog post. Oh no! We have set our sights higher! For what kind of hypocrites would we be if we could not offer our own, better set of tips for traveling in China? (Answer: the worst kind of hypocrites). So, we put it to you, dear readers, what are your top tips for safe and successful travel in China? If your answers are good enough, we may compile them together to create a guide, which will be permanently available on this site for everyone to see.

0 thoughts on “Crappy China Travel Advice”

  1. I’d say one of the most important has to be: be prepared to not face the same type of manners often regarded as basic courtesies in the west. Particularly, expect to be jostled from time to time, hear frequent spitting, soup slurping, and have smoke blown in your face. Oh, and sometimes, farting and peeing in public.


  2. I think they missed one of the most important ones. If some pretty young girl or boy comes up to you and asks you if you want to go to a “teahouse” to drink some Chinese tea, or asks you to go to an “art gallery,” don’t go. They are scams. The teahouse is obviously more of a scam than the art gallery, because once you’ve drunk the tea, you have to pay. You can get out of the art gallery without paying, but they really put the pressure on hard. This hasn’t actually happened to me, but every month or so another post like this pops up on China expat forums.

    A good rule of thumb is: don’t talk to strangers, even in China. If someone came up to you in your own country and said “Hey! I want to show you something interesting, come with me!” Would you go? I hope not. The same rule applies here in China too, obviously.


  3. let me have a go, my tips for safe and successful (and Happy) travel in China
    1. watch out for being ripped off.
    It’s better to buy things where there is a price tag on it, I mean literally, or you may well end up paying far more than locals. Of course, these who find bargaining enjoyable are exceptions

    2. water from water tap is not clean, do not drink it directly, remember to boil it.

    3. when booking hotel or flight ticket, it’s better to find the big and reputable ones, they are boring, but safe.

    4. Just be yourself.
    I mean, seriously, several weeks in China is not going to help you apply something like “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. It’s just not going to work. Travelling is about enjoying oneself. Do whatever you feel like to, most of them will be perfectly fine, even in China (OK, I am not talking about going into Tiananmen Square and pull out a bottle of water from pocket showing your head, that could indeed get you into trouble)


  4. Good advice all, although I would add one to what you said A Chinese: Beware stores with pricetags meant for foreigners, i.e. “friendship stores” and places like that. Those prices will be absurdly high and usually you see the same thing later in a street market for 5% of the price.

    That rule goes for most tourist attractions too, actually. If you want a souvenir, don’t buy it on-site. You can find the same thing, cheaper, elsewhere–probably all over the city. For example, if you go to the terra cotta warriors in Xi’an, people inside the place will try to sell you a box of soldiers for 25-50RMB. Outside the gates, the same thing costs 10 RMB. In markets and shops all around Xi’an, though, you can get them for like 2 RMB. Of course, most tourists probably don’t care too much as it seems cheap either way to them.


  5. I have to say that in my experience, by far the most cheating happens in Beijing. Those terracotta warriors that they sell in Xi’an for 5 yuan or so start out at 250 at the market in Wangfujing. Also, I remember a friend of mine wanted to buy a tea set while we were on a tour in Beijing. They wanted 200 and my friend thought that was too much and passed. Two days later, we had gone to Shanghai and were in our hotel right off Nanjing Xi Lu and the hotel store owner told us he would sell it to my friend for 10.


  6. Buy food and drinks before arriving at the train station. Get a good idea of what a reasonable price for a hotel room is and then walk out of any hotels asking for significantly more. Ask to inspect the room before paying a deposit.
    If you have any major problems, ask some people who look like students for help. They usually speak English (especially in big cities with good universities) and will probably take pity on you.


  7. Avoid the minefield of criticising anything Chinese, especially taboo subjects such as religion or politics. I once got into hot water when I jokingly said that Feng Shui was only superstition.


  8. Even though the bottom bunk on the hard sleeper train costs the most, it’s the middle one you want. No one else sits on it during the day (the bottom bunk is basically a hang-out, something you will enjoy if you’re into talking to people, as I am, but something you can always retreat from if you’re on the middle bunk). And it’s not all cramped and isolated like the top one. You can just barely see the scenery if you lie down on in the middle, but you can’t from the top.


  9. “Avoid the minefield of criticising anything Chinese”

    Direct criticism, sure. But if you get a question I urge visitors not to prostitute their integrity by humouring locals with kowtowing responses.

    For example, I would advise in response to the following questions:

    1. Do you like China?
    Sure, but like all countries I’ve been to there are good things and bad things (if you’re lucky they’ll follow up and you can elaborate)

    2. Do you like Chinese food?
    Some, but not all. And in my opinion Mexican and Italian food is in a different league (because they are)

    By which time you’ll be getting close to:

    3. Why do foreigners hate China?
    Why do you believe the people who tell you that foreigners hate China?

    In short, wherever you go in this world, tell it like it is. People need to hear it.

    Should I start a China travel blog?


  10. 1: Leave your expectations at customs- in your home country, that is. Or more clearly: Expect nothing, just take China as it is.

    2: Anywhere that attracts tourists attracts scum, and I don’t mean to describe tourists as scum (and come on, Josh, your Beijing examples are perfect for this point! Nobody who lives here would ever have complaints like that!), but to remind all that no matter which country you’re in, if you’re in a tourist attraction, you’re going to be charged far higher prices than you should. So don’t shop there.

    3: Keep your wits about you. China’s safe, but no country is 100% safe. Plain, old fashioned common sense will go a long, long way to helping you enjoy China without getting ripped off (or worse, but the ‘worse’ is very rare).

    4: And I don’t feel entirely comfortable numbering this 4, but: Be respectful. Y’know, the old Golden Rule, do unto others, etc…

    5: Play the game. Travelling in China (including for those of us who live here) means you will be passing through tourist attractions and tourist-concentrated areas (train and bus stations, airports, etc). So you get off a train in Guilin, walk out of the station, your plan is to spend 5 days in and around Yangshuo then head for, I dunno, wherever, some guy starts talking to you, you know because it’s Guilin Railway Station that the dude is going to sell you something, so do a deal, get him to help you buy your train ticket on to wherever (of course, you pay for the ticket) and in return you take a room in the hotel he’s touting. Chances are you come out a winner. Of course, as already mentioned, invites to view an art gallery as your walking through Tiananmen Square or a teashop off Wangfujing should be avoided like the swine flu, but in the appropriate time and place for the appropriate good or service, play the game.

    6: Never, ever calculate prices in your home country’s currency. That’s the quickest way to get ripped off. Do all the research you can beforehand and think only in terms of an RMB price.

    7: The Lonely Planet Rule: If it gets good reviews in Lonely Planet, you probably don’t want to go there. If you walk into a cafe and everybody, including the staff, has their noses buried in Lonely Planet (seriously, this really did happen to me), run like hell. A former colleague put it this way: Lonely Planet bills itself as the backpackers guide, but real backpackers wouldn’t touch a guide book with a barge pole. And besides, if LP had any interest in what backpackers would be interested in, then it would have screeds of info on backwoods places like Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai, but it doesn’t. It offers pages on Yangshuo, and about as many on Gansu. LP is not a guide for backpackers, it’s a guide to banana pancakes. (note: This was said many years ago. Naturally China tourism and LP have both changed since, but I believe the principle still holds).

    8: Make an honest attempt to learn at least a few phrases of survival Chinese. You’d be surprised at the doors this can open to you. Everybody likes being shown a bit of basic respect, and that starts with an honest attempt at the language. And, of course, the more Chinese you can learn, the better. But remember: Even badly mangled Chinese, spoken with the attitude of a humble but honest attempt at learning, will be appreciated.

    9: It’s not about you. Really. You are just another foreign face. You came, and you will leave, just like every other foreigner before you. So don’t take anything personally, always put whatever treatment you recieve firmly in the context of all sino-foreign interactions that have happened over the last several thousand years, with the last 200-odd years having been somewhat less than friendly, for the most part.

    10: Dude, relax…


  11. Direct criticism, sure. But if you get a question I urge visitors not to prostitute their integrity by humouring locals with kowtowing responses.


    This is exactly what I meant by not being an a-hole to the locals. Nobody asks nobody to kowtow to the little yellow people. You’re in somebody else’s place, so just smile and chill. This is the reason I never in my life asked foreigners if they liked China or something Chinese, because even if I wanted to keep the conversation civil there would always be assholes.

    And Mexican food can’t hold a candle to Chinese cuisine. There, now you have both sides of the argument.


  12. Looking back over my last comment, admittedly, I really don’t know much about Beijing, having never had much desire to live there. But related to what you said, chriswaugh, especially for the Americans out there, leave that whole the customer is always right and should expect tip-top service routine behind. Additionally, Americans should stop believing that they should be able to go through life without any hindrances when coming to China.


  13. @ wooddoo

    Go take a look at chriswaugh_bj’s list and take particular note of #10.

    “This is the reason I never in my life asked foreigners if they liked China or something Chinese”

    Seems like you have even more ‘off-topic’ subjects than the CCP. Why do you think it not possible to have a civil conversation around points of difference? Aren’t they the most enlightening exchanges?


  14. The “be respectful if arrested” bologna sounds like a sarcastic joke. The original was from the travel blog “Modern Gonzo”.


  15. #1 – Leave your ideas of ‘should’ behind…especially in thinking of traffic rules.
    Traffic in China moves more like salmon swimming upstream – if there’s an open spot, someone will move to fill it, regardless of those paint lines on the road. Ignore those rigid traffic rules in your mind that warn you to look in only ONE direction as you cross the road. Look both ways, steel yourself, and move purposefully and steadily – hesitation can get you hit.

    #2 – Merchants will never sell something at a loss – they will always make a profit from it, – so bargain politely, but enjoy the game and bargain HARD. If as you are leaving, they offer you some small gift, like another apple, (if you’re buying fruit) or a few more flowers, (if you’re buying flowers) – you paid too much. [there is no need to bargain down to the fen as some of the older ladies of my neighborhood do – and most likely the merchant will think you’re crazy]


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