Visiting China without knowing the language
March 30, 2016 4:17 PM   Subscribe

I want to go China towards the end of the year. How far can I get without knowing any Chinese languages?

I'm planning a trip to China towards the last quarter of the year; likely in September. I'll be travelling alone, and I don't know any Chinese languages. I've previously traveled to South Korea and rural Japan and in much the same situation, so I have some experience with communicating effectively and politely with only hand gestures. However, from friends who've been there, I've heard that China might be significantly trickier in this respect than Japan or Korea.

I am, of course, resigned to not being able to have very many in-depth conversations with locals, especially outside of big cities. But I need to be able to get food, shelter, transportation, to know how much to pay for things, and to find my way from place to place. From what I'm hearing from other sources, it's definitely possible to get by in Beijing. However, given how polluted Beijing has become, if it's at all possible I would really like to poke my head outside of the big cities for a bit. Is that at all feasible without joining a tour group?

How would it be easiest for me to get around the country? In terms of the countryside, are there any areas I should seek out or avoid?

Bonus question: my first resort for navigation and my last resort for communication when I'm travelling is my smartphone. Mine is an Android, and I hear Google is blocked in China. Does that mean I can't use things like Maps or Translate? Are there workarounds or other apps? Do I risk getting in serious trouble if I circumvent such blocks with a VPN or the like?

Bonus question #2: I am an amateur weiqi player. In Japan I enjoyed playing in go halls a lot, as it allowed me a kind of communication with a group of people very different from myself who largely knew no English at all. As a foreigner in China, where can I find people willing to play weiqi with strangers? Will there be anywhere like that outside of the large cities?
posted by As the space-crow flies to Travel & Transportation around China (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't speak Chinese beyond the names of some dim sum.

You will have no trouble in the big cities. I've been to Shanghai and Guangzhou and getting food is easy and the metro is excellent. If you're using public transport and going on foot, just add bing maps.

Have place names (like your hotel) written down in Chinese with a phone number if you can. I had several taxis call my destination to ask where they were because that was easier than the driver working out where things were from my English map. Lots of places have street signs in English and Chinese and pinyin or whatever but they're not always consistent between maps/books etc.

I found the smaller towns with no metro hard work. You can still eat easily if you're not fussy/on a special diet but getting around in places without a metro system was exhausting for me. I didn't like being so dependant on others for help and not being sure where to get off or how to get back etc. Hotels, even the huge 5 star places, outside of the big cities won't always have English speaking staff.

My brother used a VPN in China with no problems. If you're in a major city, there's often free wifi with vpn in major hotel lobbies and giant malls. Places where business people frequent.

I had a great time. Hope you do too!
posted by stellathon at 5:05 PM on March 30, 2016

I'm Chinese-American and I have taken two people with me to China who did not speak the language (my best friend since high school and my husband).

China is a lot harder to navigate without the language compared to Japan and Korea (both of which I've traveled to without speaking the language). Consider that most things do not have signs in the Latin alphabet. Or if they do, they are often incomplete. One example is the subway in Beijing announcing stops--they will announce it in English, but pronounce the name in a Chinese way, so it ends up being not useful.

If you want to travel outside the big cities, the first hurdle you'll have to cross is getting there. Most places (worth visiting) are most easily accessed by train. However, as a foreigner (i.e. someone without a Chinese debit card), you will need to go through a reservation company. (I used China Highlights.) Then you will need to pick up the train tickets in the station inline because the kiosks require Chinese resident IDs. The lines will be labeled as not all lines do all things, and the labels will be in Chinese. When you get to the front of the line, you show them your reservation number and your passport, and they will give you the ticket.

If you want to go anywhere by taxi (or anywhere at all, really) write down the name, address, and phone number. That way you can hand it to people to ask them to take you there. If you're in a popular tourist spot (or airport or train station), the taxis and private cars might try to rip you off. Make sure that they meter the drive and not negotiate the price beforehand. You may have to walk several blocks away from the really busy spot to get a legitimate taxi.

One of the places we visited on the last trip was Mount Hua. I highly recommend it if you enjoy walking around mountains. When we went, none of the information we had was up to date due to construction, so we had to play it by ear. So learn to be flexible and carry plenty of cash. (Many of the ATMs will not deal with foreign cards, and most places take cash only.)

One thing to keep in mind is that even a "small" Chinese city looks pretty big compared to most European and American cities. So while I grew up in Beijing, thinking Xi'an is a small city (4.48 million people) and that Luoyang is tiny (1.49 million population). Huayin, which is the town at the foot of Mount Hua, is so small that it's not even worth mentioning (242,000 population). So if what you really want is to go to rural China, then I have no advice for you. However, if you want to go to smaller cities, there are plenty, but many of them will still have air pollution.

If you can, take the public bus (not "government-run tour bus" but an actual public bus on a route to the location, usually with a number) as they will be the cheapest and the least gimmicky. If you go on any tour, carry cash, as they will usually ask each person to pay several hundred RMB in addition while on the tour. (It's possible that if you book an English-speaking tour they don't do this. But they certainly do on the Chinese-speaking ones.)

As stellathon said, VPN will work. Otherwise, Google is blocked. The equivalent of Google in China is Baidu with their own Baidu Map which is usually more accurate, especially with taxi prices. And Baidu Fanyi (Translate).
posted by ethidda at 5:21 PM on March 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

I spent a couple months in China last year (mostly in the major cities, but with some time in smaller towns). I have zero Chinese language ability and didn't find it particularly difficult.

Food is generally easy and there is often English on the menu. Failing that, you can always point. I never felt that I was paying more than I should have. There is a lot of fantastic food to be had.

Transport is not particularly difficult either. All the subways have pretty good English, as do the trains, especially the newer ones. You can book trains online (I used Ctrip) as the train station ticket agents aren't that likely to speak English (and the lines can be very long). Then you can just show up with your booking number and passport and be on your way. City buses can be a little more difficult, but as long as you can figure out which bus number you should be on, you'll be OK. Long distance buses are not so bad, you can just give the name of the place you are going to the ticket agent (there aren't as many option as there are with the train).

Hotels and hostels you can generally book online (Ctrip or Elong or hostel specific sites) and then just show up with your passport. In places with fewer white people, they will often connect you to your booking the moment you walk in the door.

VPNs work, some better than others. Get one that specializes in China. Get a SIM card with data for your phone (make sure it is one that works throughout the country, some are only regional). Google Translate is quite useful in some situations.

Enjoy your trip. Many people speak English, but some are very shy about what they perceive as their poor English. I definitely encourage you to get out of the big cities: they say there are two Chinas (rich urban and poorer rural) and I definitely felt that was true.
posted by ssg at 6:16 PM on March 30, 2016

Also, biking is a great way to get around in China (though perhaps a little hairy in some parts). Hostels often have bikes available and in Beijing there is even an app in English with bike share locations and instructions for signing yourself up for the bike sharing program.

For the subway and busses, it is often worthwhile to get a stored-value transit card to make life easier. You can cash them out without much hassle when you leave town.
posted by ssg at 6:41 PM on March 30, 2016

I visited China about a year and a half ago in winter and absolutely LOVED it! I knew it would be interesting but I did not expect for it to be so very delightful, which it was, and I look forward to returning one day. Air pollution aside, I feel it'd be an especially meaningful trip for elementary and middle school kids, fwiw. As an American, I'd heard so much about China and always wanted to go; even though the tourist experience is very limited in terms of cultural exposure, I can say that I gained a greater understanding and respect for this awesome country. Just like with my home country, I'm not without criticism, of course, but it's neat to put everything you've heard into perspective.

I don't speak any Chinese but I was visiting my brother who does, although he felt his skills were a bit rusty. I agree with the previous posters who said that you should be fine getting around major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. However, without a translator/cultural guide, I would have found it nearly impossible to navigate Hangzhou and Ningbo, which are near Shanghai, affluent with "western" influences, and have a few million residents. (Never before have I been so grateful for the "Chinglish" signs native English speakers sometimes make fun of. Not I who is multilingual yet couldn't muster more than mispronounced hello in Chinese!) I'm sure others would argue otherwise but that was my experience and I'd consider myself a seasoned traveler. That said, there are many tourists who travel throughout China just fine without any knowledge of Chinese or previous in-country experience. It's possible to start out in a place like Beijing and look into guided mini-tours for foreigners; that way it's a la carte and perhaps an ideal mix for you.

I felt safe and comfortable everywhere, and the mid-sized cities were my favorites. People were definitely nice and tried to be super helpful when asked, although most people did not speak much or any English. (Exceptions being the students at an English-language university who were fun to hang out with and wonderful tour guides as well as people working in international hotels and at tourist sites!) I didn't make it past Ni hao in terms of speaking but it's just as well because people would respond by enthusiastically speaking Chinese to me. (So nice of them, right?!) This surprised me: basically, the US and China are similar in monolingualism being the status quo for many citizens!

We went on a group tour to the Badaling section of the Great Wall while staying in Beijing: I'm glad we paid to take the cable car, and I'm glad I went with a professional guide on this day trip. (A Chinese student of mine said they take Chinese-speaking tourists to the same tourist traps on the way back, fwiw!) I recommend this mid-priced hotel, which is a short walk from Tiananmen Square and the National Museum of China. (There's free admission and a great café!) A big mall is also a short walk away. Some things felt cheaper than in the US or Europe, like lodging, but food and other items were not; we shopped at a Chinese Walmart, which was cool (even if I won't go to Walmarts back home) but not easy on the wallet.

Since you had mentioned Japan and Korea, I will add what my brother told me. He has visited Japan multiple times and speaks Japanese; he felt it was great also for English-speaking tourists who don't speak the language, as many others would likely agree. He went to Jeju in South Korea and loved it: not a lot of people he encountered spoke English but apparently it felt like a dream in terms of tourist hospitality. Like I had mentioned before, China is wonderful but probably not the most tourist-friendly place overall.

My VPN connection sometimes worked and, even when it did, I got locked out of some of my email due to firewall protections on the American end. You probably shouldn't plan on using GoogleMaps, etc. but there are Chinese versions. Wechat is a biggie if you're looking to connect with people via social media.

A few random tips:

- Air China was rad and I recommend it: they are used to foreign travelers and even have special "westernized" meal options, not that you'd need them!

- BYO hand sanitizer and toilet paper as some public restrooms have neither.

- I recommend this island if you're nearby.

- I found a great book on Chinese versus American customs at Pudong International Airport and absolutely recommend you read it or a different one before you go. I will try to find the title if you're interested. I'm pretty cultural savvy but could have avoided some minor faux pas had I read it beforehand!

I hope you go and have a great time, whatever you decide!
posted by smorgasbord at 6:59 PM on March 30, 2016

When I visited China some years ago, I found it helpful in some situations to have this book called Point It (which I believe you can purchase through the usual online booksellers).

In short, its pages are filled with pictures of things/places/situations and those pictures are organised by theme. For example, you can just turn to the "modes of transport" section and then point to the picture of a train, then maybe point at pictures of tickets and - Bob's your uncle - the other person is likely to understand you are looking to buy train tickets and s/he will point you in the direction of the rail office. Plus, when I used it, it had the effect of causing mutual giggles. Especially once when I pointed at a roll of toilet paper (which had run out). And it was helpful for me in restaurants to ensure that I was ordering vegetarian food: I'd point at the pictures of animals whilst frowning and then point at the pictures of vegetables and grains whilst smiling. :)
posted by Halo in reverse at 1:11 AM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Southwestern China (Sichuan and Yunan provinces) has a number of cities and towns that constitute the "backpacker trail" of China. If you're willing to stay in hostels (most have private rooms!) you can get a level of English fluency and help with things like booking train tickets, understanding bus lines, and figuring out what to do next that you wouldn't get otherwise unless you were staying in 5 star hotels. As a bonus, you may be able to travel a bit with others who speak the language more than you do and can help you navigate.

The scenery is beautiful and the food is amazing... memail me if you want specific suggestions. My favorite parts of the trip were visiting Lugu Lake and going on a horse trek in Songpan, both much more remote parts of the country.
posted by asphericalcow at 8:45 AM on March 31, 2016

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