China, for me, was a little overwhelming. More overwhelming than the first time I traveled to Kyrgyzstan by myself and moved in with a local family. More overwhelming probably for a number of reasons: the language, the size, the highly populated cities.
It was, however, my first time visiting, and I think China might take some people a little bit more time to get accustomed to. Here are the basic tips and insight for the first time traveler that I picked up on my first trip.
It's difficult. Unlike romance languages that use the same alphabet as English, or even Russian that uses a few of the same letters as English, the Chinese symbols are basically indecipherable to the untrained eye.
Unless you happen to run into an English speaker on the streets, then getting around is extremely hard – especially when taxi drivers just decide to leave you in the dust instead of trying to put up with charades.
Learn some simple Mandarin or Cantonese (depending on where you're going in advance).
Learn the words for hotel, food, drink, how much, and thank you. Numbers, thankfully, you can do by hands gestures (see below), but for everything else, you might want to invest in a language learning or translation app for your iPhone.
Whenever the opportunity presents itself, always have your hotel or hostel write down the name for things in Chinese as it will help you heaps!
Chinese people have a simple way of showing numbers using one hand. When an American girl in our hostel let us in on this little tip, taxis became so much easier!
Get the gestures down before arriving. Know that when a taxi driver flashes the symbol for 6, they most likely mean the fare is 60, and so on.
Toilets are probably the one single place where I would really, really enjoy both privacy and the ability to sit down. Unfortunately, you don't get much of either in China.
Get used to the ways of the squat toilet, as they are everywhere. Also, you might want to get used to the idea of walking in on someone else in the loo.
I had my first encounter with what one might call a “trough” toilet with no walls or doors as soon as I crossed the border, and sure enough, other people taking care of business next to you is only a cause for alarm for you, and you alone.
You might want to read my guide to mastering squat toilets for females and then start building up your leg muscles in advance. If you need some privacy or a place to sit, I suggest heading to a Western establishment for a toilet.
The hygiene aspect of China, since I'm a little bit of a germaphobe, was extremely hard to deal with. Everywhere I looked people were hocking loogies – even indoors, at supermarkets, next to fresh fruit and veggies. The sound alone makes me cringe.
Coughing and sneezing seemed to usually be free flowing, so if you see someone about to sneeze, keep your distance. Perhaps you'll be luckier than when a guard coughed directly on my hand as I gave him my passport.
Always carry extra tissues and hand sanitizer when traveling in China – especially for the toilet situation.
The Chinese palette varies quite extensively from that of the Western world. A big emphasis is on textures, eating strange parts of an animal (chicken feet, intestines and fat), and eating strange things in general (think starfish or scorpions on a stick).
Chinese food is often sitting in an entire pool of oil when served. Even though you use chopsticks and are not spooning large amounts of oil onto your rice, Western stomachs still might have a hard time adjusting.
Sichuan pepper is popular in certain parts of the country, and I personally find it tasty in very small amounts. These peppers actually provide a numbing or tingling sensation to your mouth, so when the food is swimming in peppercorns and oil, it is often too overpowering. Be aware and avoid if necessary.
Hit it up with an adventurous spirit! Order white rice with your meals as it both soaks up the oil of the dish and acts as a filler if you happen to come across food you don't quite enjoy.
Tea is also a must for drinking with oily meals. If there is ever a dish or ingredient you discover you don't enjoy, learn the word for it so you can avoid it in the future.
Western hotels will cater to the Western customer, but smaller establishments and hostels are more likely to provide the Chinese standard of rice pillows and hard wood mattresses. Some people say this stiff setup is good for your back, but I beg to differ.
Sometimes it might be better to make your own pillow out of a shirt stuffed with other soft clothes. Otherwise, you can try packing a travel pillow for your time in China.
Do you have any basic tips for the first time traveler to China?