My recent trip to China has taught me some really practical and important lessons along the premise of safe solo travel. China is a very interesting country to visit. It might be quite a challenge for some considering its infamous reputation. I do not wish to discredit the country with my opinions because I honestly enjoyed all the days I spent exploring the Red Dragon of Asia. There are a lot of things to love about it. These are just some basic points I want to emphasize which I feel may help other travelers to have a fun, safe and successful trip. Except for a couple of items which are specific to China, most of what’s listed are actually applicable wherever you go.
1. Study the country, as much as you wish. It helps in planning out a doable itinerary if you’re on your own. Aside from the tourist spots, try digging on its culture, arts and literature. A little historical and political background might also come in handy.
2. Learn the language. Tall order, huh, especially since Chinese is such a difficult language. Even if you read Mandarin pinyin, some letters and combinations are sounded differently. Hence you utter incomprehensible words to native Chinese ears. So before heading out, ask help from your hotel staff in sounding the names of places and stations you will be going to and memorize them. Better yet, have them write the names in characters. Believe me, it comes handy when you’re somewhat lost. Not all places have the written pinyin sign.
Despite my attempt to memorize a few useful terms and expressions, I really only got to use “Ni hao” and “Xie xie” with confidence. I did manage to engage in a meaningful conversation with locals though, thanks to Google translate and a Chinese language app.
3. Avoid talking to strangers. Now this sounds ridiculous as you are in fact ‘The Stranger’ in their country. There are incidents when locals try to talk you in to an offer of some sorts (tea ceremony, discount tickets, sale items, etc.) and it’s all a scam. Consequently, avoid the very touristy places as that’s where it usually happens. Thanks to my very Asian features, I could easily blend in the crowd and pass as a native. And as long as I don’t have to speak, I feel confident enough roaming around.
I am not much of a party-person, so I never go bar hopping, clubbing or on drinking sprees. And I personally think such activities should be avoided by solo travelers. But some international youth hostels organize gatherings for their guests within the premises. So it’s a great venue to socialize and meet fellow travelers.
If you do have an opportunity to socialize, NEVER TALK ABOUT POLITICS. It’s a hot issue in China. So save yourself from unnecessary trouble and just keep your political thoughts caged in your silent mind.
4. Stay in accommodations close to the train/bus stations if you will be using them often, and if you are arriving/departing late in the evening. Besides convenience, it eases out the worries of having to amble the streets in the dark. Saves you time and money, too, in the long run. Also, traffic in China is really bad. So be conscious of time if you don’t want to get caught in a jam and miss your scheduled trip. I learned this the hard way – I did miss my train from Xi-an to Beijing. And the events that followed were nightmare-ish!
I always take into account the price, location and facilities when choosing a hotel. They don’t always match. Many times, it’s either price over facilities or location over price. So check your itinerary and be guided by it.
5. Avoid taking a taxi, especially in Beijing. Although the rate is relatively cheap, I still wouldn’t recommend it if you are alone, or even if you have company but you both don’t speak the language. A lot of scams happen around a taxi ride. I didn’t intend on riding a taxi but there were instances when I was left with no other choice. I guess I was lucky to have had honest drivers, and to have had a Chinese companion in one instance. So if you have to get into one, it helps if you have your destination written in Chinese characters and show the location in the map. Also, make sure the meter reading is turned on. If the driver refuses, simply get off. Otherwise you’ll be charged an enormous amount at the end of the ride.
My first taxi ride was unforgettable. I arrived Shanghai late in the evening and took the bus from the airport. When it made a final stop somewhere in the city, I couldn’t figure out where I was. There were a lot of porters nearby. They were very persistent, but not helpful and I didn’t trust them. So I hired a taxi and showed him the address. When we reached the main streets near the hostel, I thought he was trying to fool me when he seemed unsure and rounded up twice. But I was wrong, he genuinely couldn’t locate it. He kept glancing at my address and checking the street names. Of course I helped him with the map until we figured it out. I thanked my angels profusely for sending me a soft-spoken, well-mannered and honest driver who brought me safely to my destination.
6. Avoid street food and drink only bottled or filtered water. I like Chinese food but I was always doubtful of its preparation. And there’s a lot of food vendors around. It’s like, everywhere you look, there’s food. But I was extremely cautious and picky about what I ate and drank. Better safe than sorry. Fortunately, Chinese people love to eat. So there is no lack of decent food establishments in the cities, not to mention popular internationally franchised fast food chains like Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC, etc…
7. Shopping: When paying, follow the cashier’s hands. Sometimes when you’re not looking, they switch your money with fake bills. When you do get change, ask for replacement of crumpled or torn bills as they may not be accepted in other shops/establishment .
Always ask for discount and learn to haggle. Chinese ambulant vendors and souvenir shop owners are really good at their trade. If you don’t outsmart them, you will lose a lot of money, spending thrice as much as the true value of the item you intend to purchase. The trick in haggling is to start as low as possible, go higher once or twice, then stick to the price you perceive is the value of the product. Learn to say no and attempt to turn or walk away. They are very persistent, but usually give in when they see you quite decided and not falling into their trick.
Refrain from using your credit card. Besides, cashless payment is not commonly used in small shops. I only got to use my card at international ATM’s, in national museums and big establishments.
8. Don’t leave your baggage out of sight. There’s no need to elaborate on this as it’s a rule you follow anywhere you travel. But extra vigilance is observed when in public places such as airports, train stations and even inside the train compartments. It is impossible to be towing luggage to the train toilet. It’s cramped and dirty. So use a day bag that’s light enough to carry around but big enough for all valuables and documents to fit in. Choose one that can not be easily ripped or snatched from you when you’re out in the open streets, and always keep it close to your body. Even local tourists put their backpacks on the front side. Never give robbers an opportunity to be tempted.
9. BE OPEN TO CHANGE. This I consider to be the cardinal rule for solo travelers. It does not mean being accepting of things that strongly contradict personal ideals, but it is important to be tolerant to differences. And when things aren’t happening according to plan, just let it go and move on. Frustration and disappointment, no matter how small, can dampen the spirit. Counter with positivity and resilience. Sometimes change is good. It may be hard to deal with but it can be turned into a blessing and open up better travel opportunities.
10. “Always keep a little prayer in your pocket.” A simple act of offering and supplication as each journey begins and a ‘Thank You’ whispered at the end of the day are enough to keep you calm and centered. When in desperate need for help, call on your angels. Help comes in unexpected ways, but it does come if you ask for it. Give them work to do and you’ll be amazed by the wonders they bring. With them, you are never really alone.
Some final thoughts: The Chinese people are quite short-tempered and easily annoyed by inconveniences that slow them down and delay accomplishments. They simply don’t have time nor the patience to accommodate a wandering tourist they have absolutely nothing to gain from. And they generally don’t speak English. Take these as learning opportunities to push your boundaries in a positive way. You will learn to be resourceful and find your way without relying too much on others. Sometimes you do get lucky and meet some who speak English, mostly students in the big cities, and they are usually helpful.
Well there you go! Good luck in your travels!