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Basic Tips for the First Time Traveler to China

Chinese sunset
A beautiful Chinese sunset.

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.

Chinese words
Chinese words, or gibberish? (photo: ivanwalsh)


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 number gestures
Chinese number gestures (images by Ningling on Wikimedia Commons)


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.

public squat toilets
Squat toilets with no doors (photo: robbenals)


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.

no spitting
No spitting sign – there should be more of these (photo: philliecasablanca)


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.

Food in China
Food in China (photo: ullrich)


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 Western customers, but smaller establishments and hostels are more likely to provide the Chinese standard of rice pillows and hardwood 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.

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:


Saturday 28th of June 2014

I'm italian, every predictable private bathroom in Italy has a bidet side the wc, after your duty you can even wash properly the bottom asshole and your growin if you need or please, but, when I have to use public bathroom for my businesses i prefer use a sqat toilet because I try to avoid contact with surfaces as much as possible ... of course IN PRIVACY. today in 2014 knowing everything we know as human being about pathogen, bacteria and epidemiology is frankly crazy insane a situation like that, the problem is not the squat toilet and his mechanics, the problem is the way asian and the developing world use it as a mob.

Nomadic Boys

Wednesday 12th of February 2014

Great post - the toilet tips made me burst out laughing!

I find the ICOON app helpful as a way of showing what I want through pictures if I don't know the language very well.


Friday 1st of February 2013

well,hey guys, I'm an Asian (Indian) and I agree with you guys when you all say it's difficult for you guys to use these toilets as you are not used to these toilets (as in my case it's the opposite;I find it diffeicult to adjust to western toilets as I think tey are more filthy-NO OFFENCE MEANT ) but let me tell you this-these toilets (Squat toilets ) are better in terms of health. Don't believe me, do some research on it. It's scientifically proven. By the way if any of you guys have any plans of backpacing India then you are heartily welcome. And don't worry about the toilets, we are known for our hospitality (especially to the foreigners) so your needs will be taken care of (you may find 1 out of evry 5 toilets to be western in most of the hotels).


Friday 28th of December 2012

hi Iam a chinese backpacker ? so funny this about our country ? welcome to china?


Sunday 25th of November 2012

Some great tips here. Traveling through China can definitely be difficult (has spent the last 1.5 months here). One more tip: when your hand sanitizer runs out, don't throw out the bottle, fill it up with liquid hand soap and this way you can actually wash your hands after all those filthy squat toilet bathrooms!

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