We know. You don’t get the chance to hear too ofetn a phrase beginning with ‘Last time I went to China…’ or ‘What surprised me in China…’. And it’s not even because it’s not a popular trip destination, because lots of people respect the Chinese culture and want to know as much as possible about the people there. If you’re a first-timer, your trip isn’t going to be as planned, and it’s exactly because of all these things that make it a special destination – unknown culture, lots of habits that you’ve never been in contact with (some of them counter-intuitive), a mystique atmosphere that makes the unprepared traveler feel weird about his first experience. So here’s a guide with the most basic things you should know as a first timer in China.
Itinerary can be a nightmare
Perhaps the most important thing that you should know before actually arriving in China is that it’s huge. No, you don’t know. It’s at least ten times bigger than anywhere you’ve ever been. Having a note with the three-four main destination is far from an adequate plan. So at least two weeks before you’ve booked the plane ticket you should start planning carefully. Some of the world’s most impressive mountains, deserts, remote jungles, amazing cities as well as endless grasslands is what you should expect to see in this massive place. A couple of months would be far from enough to visit everything you’ve got in mind – and if your visit’s shorter, than you really should revise your list of attraction. One of the critical criteria is having the inspiration to find one region, or even better, one province and visit everything that’s worth seeing instead of running from an attraction to another as if all the world would disappear before you finish seeing all that you wish. There are some places that you should be seriously taking into consideration: Beijing would be a perfect destination for a first-timer, especially because of all these popular monuments that you can visit, such as The Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, all kinds of parks from imperial internationally popular leisure places, to skate parks and modern, 21st-century places. If you want to visit typical, traditional places and get in contact with the genuine Chinese life and culture, Sichuan is the perfect place – a province made of three regions, where you’ll find everything a tourist needs in order to be more like a traveler: from steamy bamboo forests and Min-Dynasty villages looking different from anything you’ve ever seen in your entire life in Center or South, to amazing lakes surrounded by dazzling mountain landscapes and limitless grasslands in North and West.
Don’t go to the fancy restaurants!
If you’re the kind of genuine traveler who wishes to experience the culture he’s visiting, than you should definitely avoid the expensive locals and eat in the places that seem to look peculiar and doubtful at a first glance. It’s here where you’ll find the most amazing and impressive local cuisine. It’s where Chinese food magically becomes something you’ve never tasted before, regardless of the Chinese restaurants you’ve been going to back home – there’s really no term of comparison. And the locals are going to ceaselessly help you eat well and combine the food with good wines, as they’re going to serve you some interesting desserts for you to remember.
Time to be polite!
If you’re the kind of straightforward person I’m imagining you are, the one who always tells the truth in any social context, your trip to China is going to be your karma asking you to pay your respects to social norms. Whenever you’re complimented your reaction shouldn’t be all natural and under no circumstances should you even think to accept or admit it! If you’re told you’re beautiful or smart, you’re going to say you’re stupid and ugly. Even if you’re the most beautiful, the smartest, the sharpest tool in the shed, you’ll just become the opposite of what you’re complimented.
Be careful to the way you behave in public. First of all, don’t embarrass anyone – that means yourself either. Don’t yell at people, don’t show anger, cope privately and let the society think you’re always happy, calm and pleased. The worst thing you could do as a tourist in China besides showing displays of anger is make someone lose face – that means you should by all means try and avoid making any possibly mean comments in social context, especially to Chinese people.
As it is in some parts of the Eastern Europe, ‘No, thank you’ most of the times only means – ‘yes, but you should insist more, so I know you’re really willing to offer whatever you’re offering’. Don’t ever give up after the first ‘no, thank you’, it’s usually taken as a false offer/proposition, if you’re not ready to insist. And if we’re talking about insisting, don’t photograph the locals if they don’t specifically ask you to.
Never eat with the wrong side of your chop-sticks. It’s something that should be taken into consideration if you’re planning on making a trip to Japan as well. Eating is an art in China, and therefore you should behave like an artist, not like a clumsy moron who’s only eaten fast food all his life. Show some manner!
Another thing that you may know if you’ve been to Japan is that, and it’s also available in China, you should never drink before proposing a toast. If you’re at a party, you’ll probably be served eight to ten different sorts of food and lots of alcohol. Máo Tái is the kind of powerful alcohol that you really don’t want to drink if you’ve got to work the day after the party. Or if you’re on a professionally relevant cocktail. So if you’re making a toast to pretty much anyone at the table before drinking, two good things happen: a) you won’t get wasted in no time and b) you’ll be paying your respects to the Chinese culture. If you happen to hear ‘gân bçi’ (gahn bay), it only means someone’s proposing you a toast and you should drink fast whatever there’s in your glass. If you think you’re not capable of honoring the toast without getting drunk, you may answer with ‘shui yi’ (shway ee), and just take a little sip.
Last, but not least…
Pay your own bills! If there’s someone offering to pay the bill for you, you’d better let them insist a lot and fight for this honor before accepting too quickly. Besides that, if you’re visiting someone, you should always buy a little something – an attention, a gift. Something to make your hosts know you respect them enough and you’ve been thinking about visiting them, not just stopped in a rush.
Prepare to climb lots of stairs. If you’re not in shape, you’ll certainly be after the visit in China. From the hotel/hostel to the park, everywhere you’ll go there will be lots of stairs to climb.
Drink only bottled water. Be careful, even if the water tastes normal, there are lots of affections you could get, especially as a foreigner. Be careful in the shower not to swallow any water by mistake – you could easily feel sick after this.
Also, it’s not really polite to ask people if they’re really eating dogs. They are, just if you’re curious, but it’s perfectly normal for some of the Chinese regions. And this habit becomes less and less popular as time passes, so it’s really not something to chit chat about.
As about the internet access, China’s technically a democratic state and practically it’s neocommunist, but while there is nothing to worry about on the matter of governmental issues that could concern you, you should ask for help to ask sites that are blocked. Internet is being censored in this country, so there are some blocked websites – but don’t worry too much about this either, locals will know how to guide you in the virtual world as well.
As about the general conditions, you’ll like the country (and there are some chances for you to love it!) but the public restrooms are in terrible conditions and they’re as smelly as Phoebe’s cat. And all the places that you’ll visit, from homes to hostels and restaurant are going to smell like cigarettes. Everybody seems to smoke and most of the people seem to spit on the street while clearing their throats (maybe because they smoke that much?). One you get used to these things, you’ll be just fine.