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Ok, I’ll let you be the judge. China’s tourism is heating up – the Beijing Olympic Games are just the beginning of their global welcome mat. So here are some best practices for traveling to a place in which you’ll certainly feel like a fish out of water.

1. This just in – China’s still cheap

Or should I say “inexpensive?” Sure, the American dollar is losing value to other foreign currency. But relatively speaking, traveling mainland China is not bad. And it’s funny how quick your mind starts to think in terms of the yuan or RMB. I remember backing out of “nicer” hotel rooms over 75 yuan – yep, only $10 more could have landed me that shower WITH a drain that works. Sorry Erin. In short: China’s tough enough; don’t sacrifice comfort or convenience for a few bucks.


2. Mandarin – not an orange

You either know Standard Mandarin or you don’t. Not much gray area here for you English speakers. I used to think I was pretty good in linguistics, until China showed me otherwise. Sadly, I think I mastered one word that isn’t “hello” in 3 weeks – pijiu (beer). In the big cities, you’re ok. However, in most mainland places, your english will be greeted by blank, intense stares. Here’s a good use for your translation book: earmark common travel categories (like “hotel”) and just point to words as you butcher them. This works well. Do not use this tactic in small shops and taxis – many Chinese can’t read, which makes for more awkward blank stares. You can also ask hotel operators, trusty restaurant managers (there’s always one who can chop through English) and English speaking guides to scrawl important words or phrases in a handy pocket notepad. No matter what happens, there’s always head nods and hand signals – pretty universal. Handy item I passed up: Pocket cards of line drawing cartoons for common items – the one on the front was a slice of cake, and without it, I went cakeless.

Also related: Never leave your hotel or hostel without a handy take-one map (available at front desks). This will allow you to draw a big circle or bulls-eye around key sights for your cabbie to find. They also usually have your hotel address printed on them. Again, key for getting home after some pijiu.

Forbidden City at night, Beijing

3. Go west

When you’re out and about all day, nature will eventually call. And squatting over a hole is tough to master. Just look for a neighborhood American or European hotel chain – they value the western toilet. They’re easy to sneak into, with the spacious, open and unassuming lobbies. Bonus: they are usually clean, too.

4. Fly like the wind

China is very big. Only Russia and Canada are larger. Flying is only a little more expensive than taking a train. But flying saves you a lot of time and hassel, which is the more valuable asset (see #1). Plus, you’ll be able to watch countless strange cartoons with your new friends in coach while chomping on mystery noodles and buns. China Southern is the airline for me. I do suggest taking a train journey purely for the cultural experience. (see video below – note: orientation was correct in China)

5. Guiding Light

I can’t tell you enough how valuable having an English-speaking guide can be. Turned good sights into great memories. Not to mention, they give you valuable cultural insight into their lives: most haven’t left from birth the city they guide. But be careful: “English-speaking” is a very broad spectrum. We were about a 10% English hit rate with our guide, Yorp, in Huanglongxi. But we understood our guide, Peter, in Xi’an at more like a 65% clip. In both occasions, it was well worth it. Hostels are a good resource for guided tours of all types, whether you are staying there or not. And we found Clarence in Xi’an over TripAdvisor Forum. He was the only one to take us to the pottery at ChenLu.

Clarence the Driver/Guide

Guide books are must haves, of course. Multiple guide books are better (except if you have to lug them around on your back.) We took two – Frommers and Rough Guide. They were both wrong and often very wrong. Places moved, closed or in some cases, never existed. I give Frommers a pass as the only book of many that listed ChenLu, a grand adventure. We learned the good practice of asking hostel and hotel operators to call ahead for us (they speak the language – see #2) and even make arrangments.

I’m sure I’m leaving out some lessons. Feel free to add your own!
No matter. The ones you’ll learn the hard way are always the most fun. Check back later for my review on my favorite pieces of gear.