When “ni hao”, “xie xie” and the name of your favourite dimsum are the only Mandarin words you know, visiting the most populous country in the world will require a bit more preparation from you than a Chinese speaker. Not being able to communicate is especially daunting for those with Chinese ancestry because everyone you meet expects a direct response, not a sheepish shrug.
On his trip to Shanghai, Malaysian rapper Jin Hackman found a vendor and a passerby who spoke English, but it might be more difficult to find them in smaller cities.
You’ll need a little bit more than a prayer to make your trip comfortable and enjoyable. Here are some simple but important reminders that will help you survive China, whether or not you trace your roots to the Middle Kingdom.
1. Stay connected
Digital detox is a valid reason to go to China, but stay contactable in case of emergency. Ever heard of the Great Firewall blocking certain sites and apps? Activate your mobile roaming or order a China SIM before travelling so that you can continue to access your favourite sites and apps. Alternatively, renting a wi-fi router is a sensible option if you’re travelling in a group with a handful of devices. If you’re flying in from klia2, inquire at Travel Recommends and Wiyo for wi-fi router rates.
2. Find your ride
China has some of the world’s longest and busiest metro systems, with more under development. Most first- to third-tier cities have a metro (subway system), which makes travel a breeze. If you’re accustomed to ride-sharing, download DiDi, Uber’s Chinese counterpart. Just like for taxis, print out the name of your destination or get hotel reception to write it down. Navigating is easy for Apple users as Maps is available on iOS. There are also apps such as Metro China Subway that tell you how to get from point A to point B, line changes and all.
3. Mind your Mandarin
There’s no shortage of language learning apps to help you out when you need to speak to someone for directions or locations. Some are even available offline. In addition, optical character recognition technology can already translate Chinese characters instantly using your mobile camera. If Google Translate is not an option, consider Microsoft Translator. Bear in mind that you may sometimes need a few attempts to get a good translation.
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4. Pick up some paper
If you can make a quick stop at the tourism office, you’ll find a wealth of tourist information in English that you probably wouldn’t find just by searching online. Load up on free brochures and mini guides, take only what you’ll potentially use, and leave them at the hotel lobby for other visitors afterwards.
5. Check the weather and air quality
It would be wise to check both the weather forecast and the air quality index before you go, as conditions can vary widely from one week to the next. You can buy new clothes if you have the luggage space, of course. But if you have respiratory issues or are expecting a haze-free skyline, it’s better to temper your expectations of the visibility.
6. Get out of the city
There’s bound to be a major scenic area, water village or great mountain a few hours away from wherever you are. Take the train and go farther out for a real adventure. China is a country of extreme contrasts, and it’s best enjoyed for all its different facets, from the regions that look like Chinese paintings to the cosmopolitan cities that offer a glimpse of the future.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Manila. For flight info and fares, visit airasia.com.