Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Top tips for travelling round China - food and otherwise

I have just come back from a fabulous trip to China and Hong Kong (HKSAR), as I have mentioned previously. I had a fantastic time, my trip was exhilarating and inspiring. It was a treat for all my senses. I saw sights which were even better in reality than the many pictures I've seen since I was about 8 years old. There were also some unexpectedly delightful sights. The food was delicious and often more colourful and vibrant than what we get at home in the UK. Some of the smells were delightful, others arresting for the wrong reasons! But everything was special. It rates as one of my best holidays ever. 

It turns out my sister is going to China later this year to attend a wedding. I said I would provide her with some tips and hints as a result of my experiences. So on my return, I started off writing a random set of thoughts. Some related to food and drink, others to more practical matters. The list grew and grew. I found these little nuggets of information useful for my own travels, so naturally I have assumed that others may also find them useful. Perhaps some of these thoughts are obvious, others may also be set out in guide books. I just pass them on because they may be useful to somebody. If I am barking up the wrong tree, I do apologise.

Anyway - here goes!

I will be following up this post with another, giving you the 'Lowdown on the sights'. It's coming soon!

Tian Tan, the "Temple of Heaven", Beijing
Food and Drink

The tap water is not drinkable. Drink boiled or bottled water.

Sichuan/Szechuan food is served with lots of fried dried chillis. You are not supposed to eat them, so it is fine to leave them.

Tipping is, as yet, unknown in China. So don't bother. In Beijing before we realised this fact, we tried to give a tip. We were met with a kindly look of sympathy. The type you give to an idiot. The money was not accepted, despite our many gestures that it was for the server. 

Tipping is de rigeur, on the contrary, in Hong Kong. Not only is service added, but you are expected to leave a small tip thereafter. Even if it is only the small change.

When ordering food in restaurants, it is not uncommon for food to be served 'family style'. In other words, for sharing and as and when ready. This can mean that what we perceive to be starters or main courses are served together. If you really want some dish as a starter and others as mains, order the starters first. Then only order your mains once the starters have arrived (or after you have eaten them).

You will find the table laid with a plate, bowl, spoon and chopsticks. Put the bowl on the plate and serve small portions in the bowl. The Chinese only eat from the bowl. Shovelling rice with the chopsticks is perfectly acceptable. Slurping is not impolite.

If there are 'communal' chopsticks and spoons, use them to serve food in your bowl. When in company you should not use your own chopsticks to take food from a serving dish to your bowl or directly to your mouth.

Don't ever leave your chopsticks sticking up in your rice. These are the 'chopsticks of death' - like the incense sticks left in sand/ash for the deceased. Very bad luck.

Carving of traditional Beijing (or Peking) Duck

Some Chinese people are convinced that foreigners cannot use chopsticks. So they may look at you as you take your first mouthful of food. Once you've shown you can use the chopsticks successfully, their interest will abate. Don't feel offended, their curiousity is earnest and has no meanness about it.

Grape wine is very hard to find. You are more likely to find red wine (hong pit-ow-joe) than white wine (bai pit-ow-joe). Even if you find white wine, it may not always be served cold. Great Wall brand (Changchung pai) is pretty good. Imported wine is very expensive.

Chinese wine is very strong. It is more like Western spirits in taste and strength. It is an acquired taste. It can be made of rice or other things, even flowers. We found Osmanthus wine in Yangshuo. It was very strong and quite sweet. 
The Li River

Chinese Beer is a pretty good substitute for water. The typical beer you will be served is only about 3% strength. The higher strength beers are more expensive, so you can use the menu as a strength indicator - though you may want to ask to see the bottle before they open it to be sure. Chinese beer is lager beer. Tsing Tao is available in most restaurants, but many of the other brands are similar, and it is good to support local products. The restauranteurs appreciate it.

Chinese tea is often free. Check the menu first. When the pot is finished, turn the lid upside down for a refill.

Getting out and about

If going out, get your hotel to give you a card with the address written in Mandarin. If you then need a taxi to get back, you can just show them the card. Some hotels even have little cards with a map on the back. 

It may also help to get any destination (eg Temple of Heaven, etc) written down, for the same reasons.

Taxis should always use the meter. If they quote you a price, then they are earning your fare under the table and probably overcharging.

The Beijing, Shanghai (and HK) metro systems are really easy to use, quick, efficient and clean. The signs are in English script as well as Chinese.
Tram, Hong Kong SAR

Most city airports have a tourism office. The town centre will have, too. They will give out fairly good quality maps for free. 


Haggling for goods is common. (NOT so in Hong Kong SAR). A very good haggler can get something for one third of the original asking price. Half is good going. Don't lose your temper or get angry. Any price you offer is binding, so don't offer unless prepared to pay that amount. Walking away is often the best way of getting a better price.
The Great Wall at Badaling

There are lots of fake pearls for sale. We met someone who got done badly. Rub the pearls together or gently rub against your teeth. Real pearls are made of layers and layers of material laid on top of each other. So you should feel a slight 'roughness' or gritty feeling. It should not be dead smooth.

Anything described as an antique is probably a fake. Lots of the gems/jewellery/jade is fake. 

Tour guides get commissions for taking their customers to certain restaurants and shops. So they may not be the best places for buying/eating. I found that many of the shops I was taken to were very overpriced. If you find something you just must have, buy it, but you may pay over the odds. If you can check prices, do.

Toilet and sanitary issues

Toilets in hotels and major tourist attractions will have Western toilets. But squat toilets are very common. There will often be a picture on the door telling you if you are dealing with a squatty or a  sitty. Many attractions will have both.

Some places will not have very many Western toilets. So it is likely you need to be prepared to queue.
Yu Garden, Shanghai

Some Asians try to squat on the Western loos. That may mean footprints on the seat. It isn't nice, but what can you do? Just cover it up with tissue or hover over the seat, and be philosophical.

Toilet paper is either not always supplied or may be charged for. It is unpredictable. Take your own around with you.

Most Chinese drains are not built for taking toilet paper. So it is put in the bins in the toilet. This can mean the toilets smell - but the drains are not blocked and the toilets are often clean. It is just the paper which causes the smell.

Toilets in China are now being star rated. 4 and 5 star toilets are usually pretty good.

Ladies' sanitary products (press on towels and the like) are found in the shops which sell bath products or in general stores. Not in pharmacies. Tampons are not available, so take your own if you use them. Sanitary products are not available in public toilets.

Health matters

Pharmacies may sell both Chinese medicine and Western medicine. Some simple items are difficult to find. Take with you: Painkillers, indigestion tablets, diahorroea tablets, oral rehydration salts, insect bite cream.

The Big Buddha, Hong Kong SAR
Mosquitoes are very prevalent in Southern China, although you generally don't have to worry about malaria. The Chinese mosquito repellent products are cheap and work well.

Make sure you have valid health insurance. Whether travelling to China or elsewhere, going without travel insurance is lunacy. Consider it the best thing ever to 'waste' your money on. If you don't ever need to claim, great.

General stuff

Please remember you are in China. That means that not everyone will speak English. People will do their best to help you where they can. If you are standing around looking lost, someone will probably come and try to help you without you even asking. But you may not be able to 'get through' to each other. Relax. Don't get anxious or frustrated. You are in their country. It is you were are remiss for not speaking their language. Not the other way round. Also, please remember that their culture deserves respect. Prince Philip may have said all sorts of inopportune things, but he appears to get away with it because he is royalty. 

The Two Pagodas, Guilin
Mains electric is 220V 50 cycles. There are 2 types of plug. One is a strange 3 pin - not the same as the UK 3 pin, but has thin slanted pins. The other is a standard 2 round pin (like in Europe). I took my 2 pin plug for my camera and found I was able to recharge the battery with no problems. 

Many hotels have free wi-fi. Use of the hotel's internet room is often chargeable. Don't forget that you can't access twitter, facebook, flickr, the BBC and other websites in China. We asked a guide why facebook was not accessible in China. We were told 'they don't want too many people to be friends with the Dalai Lama'. 

When entering a temple, you need to step over the threshold. Men should go left foot first, and women with the right foot first. Many temples in China do not require you to remove your shoes. 

You may be refused entry to working temples and mosques if dressed immodestly. Covered shoulders are often required.

Keep your entry ticket at any given attraction until you have left. Some attractions (notably the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses Museum in Xi'an) may check more than once.

There are quite a few scams. The teahouse one is the most common. You get asked by some seemingly kind and friendly people to come to a tea ceremony. You won't get told the price of the tea. You have a good chat and drink some tea, then you get the nasty surprise - the bill. You end up paying £30-£50 for cups of tea and leave empty handed.
Don't fall for the teahouse scam; many shops will allow you to taste for free

Sometimes rules are imposed which have no logic or reason. You will be told that it is 'for safety' or that it is a 'rule'. Don't get annoyed, you won't get anywhere. Just see how many other people are obeying the rule and make your mind up about whether you will obey it or not. (Unless obviously the person telling you is in authority - then just obey and be done with it!)

Ni Hao = Hello
Xie Xie (shey shey) = Thank you
Just these 2 expressions will win you smiles from so many people you meet.

There is no real concept of 'queuing'. So be prepared for people pushing in. Blatantly.

Things may get to you or annoy you. Try not to lose your cool. Losing your temper is frowned upon, and is unlikely to get you what you want.

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