A guest post by Jeremy from Living the Dream

The superpower nation of China is big, not just in land mass, but in population as well. With about 1.4 billion people (that is 4 Chinese for every 1 American), and 12-24 hour train rides between each major city, the country is only recently trying to integrate on the world stage. Even with this recent push, certain traits have not been adapted to the world scale. One of these is the language barrier.

Over the years, many countries have grown with English becoming a second language for most people, especially in the service and tourist sectors. Resulting from this, it is easy to navigate around many places throughout the world without knowing the local language.

In China this is different, as it is somewhat difficult to meet people who speak English outside of your hostel and major attractions. This article is not implying that everyone should learn English, just that when traveling countries that have not adopted the language, especially in China, a few things need to be done differently.

The following are 3 tips are recommended to make your stay in China less troublesome when you are not able to speak the language.

  1. Always Carry the Name of Your Destination in Chinese
    It is incredibly important that you have a piece of paper with your destination written in Chinese at all times, unless you know exactly where you are going. Metros in major cities (Shanghai, Beijing) have signs posted in English which help you get to where you need to go.The English displays end there, and smaller cities, where bus and taxi travel is the norm, will not have this luxury. Having a piece of paper with your destination written on it in Chinese from your hostel or hotel can be shown to anyone and a quick nod or gesture will help get you to where you need to be.The most important time when this is needed is going to your next city. Always have the next hotel name, street name, and number written to give to a taxi driver. Likewise, it is important to have writing when going to a train or bus station as well, because even if your hotel claims a taxi will understand train station by seeing your ticket, most do not, and some cities even have more than one, so it is important to be precise.

    Find Shanghai Hostels Near the Bund

  2. Taxis are Unreliable in the Best of Times
    My personal disappointment in China has always been with the taxi system. In the large cities, especially during bad weather and rush hour times, hailing a taxi is near impossible.With a nation of so many people, taxi drivers have been afforded the luxury of being lazy. If it is difficult to go somewhere, they’ll just refuse a fare because they know someone else will be a few feet away that they can pick up. If you are looking to go out of a city in a major holiday or busy period, don’t count on it, because the drivers are more interested in quick fares to earn more money. By not speaking English, the options are limited to barter fixed prices short of flashing money.I found myself upset and lost a number of times due to not getting a taxi when anticipated. One experience even left me on the jam-packed Beijing metro at rush hour with my huge bag, and a random bus transfer to the train station. The only reason I made it is because people on the metro made me follow them, and they did not speak a word of English. How we communicated? Showing each other our train tickets that we had out, realizing we were both heading to the same city.

    Find Beijing Hostels Near the Forbidden City

  3. Book Train Tickets in Advance
    Train travel in China is advancing at a faster pace than anywhere else in the world. This is a great thing for the country; however one thing that is non-existent is a centralized booking system.In order to book tickets, you must be physically present in the city you are departing from. This is fine for most people, except travelers who only want to spend 3-5 days in a city may not have the best options when booking a bed, and may have to make a long journey in a seat or, heaven forbid, standing room only.Generally speaking, the earlier you book your exit ticket, the better chances you will have getting the ticket you want. Like transportation, there are only a few places that have desks that speak English when selling tickets. In Beijing, this counter can have a wait for up to an hour at times. Shanghai is one of the few, or maybe even only city that has automated ticket sales in English at the station which can be sold well in advance.

    The easiest way to book a ticket, even if with a premium, is via your hostel or hotel. You can give them a number of options and they will book the date you want with what is available, sometimes at a surcharge of only a few dollars. In some cities this is not possible, but it works in most, and is cheaper than spending the 100%+ premiums that the few online booking sites charge.

    Find Hong Kong Hostels in Kowloon

If you take these three tactics to heart when traveling China, your experience of getting around will be less hectic than those who go without. But at the current pace of growth in the country, it is only a matter of time before these problems are addressed and will never have to be thought of again. Until then, tread cautiously.

Author: Jeremy

Jeremy Jones is the primary author of Living the Dream. He has traveled to 34 countries throughout North America, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and currently planning his next long term adventure.

2 thoughts on “3 Tips to Navigate China Without Speaking the Language”

  1. I can’t even begin to emphasize how important your first point is! Almost nobody in China speaks English and the pronounciation doesn’t usually look the way it does in pinyin (like the province of Sichuan…) so chances are, nobody will be able to understand you either!

    I actually had decent luck with taxis, though I didn’t visit too many metropolises. That’s where a guidebook (with destinations written in Chinese) is super handy and you can just point!

    I would add, don’t expect people in major cities like Beijing or Shanghai to speak English either! In 2 months in China (almost entirely in the southwest), the single hardest language barrier I encountered was trying to buy a refill for my SIM card in Shanghai… Gave up after 3 hours and countless conveinience stores. Once I had what I wanted in Chinese, it took 5 seconds to get it!

    1. I was most frustrated by the language barrier until I figured out what to do. I’m glad to hear the taxi problem isn’t a huge issue in the smaller towns. I had the biggest problems in Beijing and Xi’an and around Golden Week, but that was probably because more people were out doing things too. My hostel didn’t seem to think they were being too different than normal which is quite scary!

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