Rules such as double checking your China visa, having travel insurance and having a practical budget you can stick to are all pretty obvious. There are other less formal and obvious but no less important rules that can make a big difference to your travel in China.
These rules are the unwritten rules of travel in China passed on from one traveller to the next in hostel lounges, disreputable bars, hiking trails and the far ends of the Great Wall. I have listed below the 10 most important of these unwritten to help make your time in China more enjoyable. If you have travelled in China before and have picked up your own unwritten rules, feel free to add them at the end of this post.
1 – Don’t brag and carry on about how good your country is
One of the most annoying things a foreign tourist can do in China is brag about how everything is so much better in their own country. Sure most of us come from beautiful countries which great infrastructure, legal systems and football grounds but so what?!? You travel to China experience, enjoy and celebrate the incredible diversity, uniqueness and beauty that China has.
2 – More expensive does not mean better
I’m a bit of a budget traveller so I’m probably prejudiced but I can say with all honesty that some of the best meals, rooms and experiences you can get will be in small dingy restaurants, street vendors, out of the way hostels and chaotic local markets.
Five star restaurants and hotels have superb service and luxurious environments but little or no character. You hardly know you are in China when you eat and sleep in them. Truly the best way to experience travel in China is to eat where the locals eat, focus on the content of tours/activities not their price, and stay at small hostels/hotels that tell you about China. A classic example being the small hutong hotels you can find in Beijing.
3 – Pack thongs / flip flops
No matter where you plan to travel in China or for how long, you will find the humble flip flops indispensable. Great for beaches, showers, middle of the night toilet runs and squashing cockroaches. They also have the benefit of being cheap, take up very little room in your backpack and are virtually indestructible. They can also make great trade goods and conversation starters.
4 – Take at least one decent set of clothes
For most of your time in China you’ll be wearing worn out, non descript jeans, shorts, shirts and so forth which are great for climbing the Great Wall, hiking Leaping Tiger Gorge or riding a smelly camel on the Silk Road.. They are not so hot for dinners with Chinese friends/hosts, a night on the town in Shanghai, visiting the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong or many other occasions where you need to look half reasonable.
So stuff at least one set of semi decent and clean clothes in your pack for these special occasions where your normal ragged and smelly shorts, singlets and sandals will not do.
5 – Pack the minimum and buy what you need in China
You can by anything and everything in China with the exception of safe infant formula. So don’t pack stacks of socks, t-shirts, under wear, tooth paste and other essentials that you are worried you can’t find in China. Trust me, you can find everything you need and more. Many people come to China with empty backpacks and suit cases that they take home loaded just because you can buy everything here.
If you don’t believe me, take a quick tour around your home and see where most of your possessions are made.
6 – Keep your cool in the face of perceived rudeness
Often in China you will find locals will bump into you with out saying sorry, push into queues ahead of you (or not even queue at all), give some what brusque service and irritate and annoy you in so many other ways. There may be a strong temptation to jump up and down, throw a righteous tantrum and chastise the offending party.
No matter how real or imagined the offense is, keep you cool, force out a smile and move on. You are in China to enjoy yourself and cultural differences that cause real or imagined slights are part and parcel of travel and getting angry, as justified as you may be, will not help.
7 – ALWAYS carry tissues with you
As you travel around China, you will find that most Chinese public toilets do not have toilet paper. If you don’t carry tissues, you will end up in some very embarrassing situations. Carrying tissues is also a great way to make yourself popular with your fellow tourists who find themselves less prepared than you are.
8 – Cross the roads VERY carefully
In most western countries, cars will stop and make way for pedestrians. In China pedestrians make way for cars even at pedestrian crossings with green lights. Many Chinese drivers are certifiably insane once they are behind the wheel and public bus drivers are the worst of them SO no matter what, be very VERY careful when crossing roads.
One useful technique that many locals use is to cross roads in groups because stragglers maybe picked off but there is security in numbers.
9 – “No Thank you” does not mean no
When Chinese communicate, they often place more emphasis on implied meanings than direct meanings. This is especially the case with refusals where no thank you does not mean no. It is customary for Chinese people to refuse your offer two to three times before accepting to be polite and to maintain face. If you are offering a Chinese friend, colleague or companion something they need or want such as a drink, help or payment and they say no, keep offering because they don’t mean no and they will eventually accept. Be careful though because just to be confusing they will sometimes mean no.
10 – Always fight for the bill when some one else is paying
Often in restaurants and bars you will see people happily enjoying themselves together then as they prepare to leave, start pushing each other, struggling and yelling. Don’t worry, they are just fighting over who gets to pay the bill. It is considered good manners to be verbal and aggressively to fight for the bill even when you have no intention of paying for it. The fight should last for a few minutes then the host will be allowed to win and pay the bill.
If a Chinese companion is taking you out, always fight for the bill at the end of the night to be polite, give them face and show respect. Don’t’ get too carried away through and actually win or your host will be mortified and incredibly embarrassed.