Thursday, October 22, 2015

Five Things You Need To Know To Travel solo in China


Five Things You Need To Know To Travel solo in China

Hard to imagine anything can be more frustrating, than arriving China unprepared. And we can speak with authority, since when we got here the first time (May 2015) it was like we’ve landed on another planet without a GPS and an oxygen mask. At nowhere else in the world we felt as 'aliens’ as in China. 

Absolutely no one speaks English, and both Mandarin and Cantonese languages are unpronounceable. You can try all you want, they won’t understand you. Even asking simple things like "Where is the bus stop?" can be a very frustrating and overwhelming task. 

And to complete the picture, all the gadgets that any modern traveler relies on, especially in times of despair (like Google maps, for example) are blocked here.

But with a little preparation, we believe your experience traveling solo in China can improve exponentially. In this post we will share the 5 things you need to know to travel solo in China.

1. Download a VPN connection before you travel

The VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a tool that basically allows users to connect to the Internet through other location ports, in other words, even if we are in mainland China, by using this application, it is like we are connected from Los Angeles, Amsterdam or Singapore. 
If you're like me, who relies solely on Google for everything in your life, the VPN is probably the best thing that can happen during your stay in China.

And I'm not talking only about the search engine. All Google products are blocked - Gmail, Google Maps, Google Play, YouTube, Picassa, Blogger. This is when that Hotmail account comes in handy. 

Is your phone Samsung? then it is even worse. Because the Android system is also from Google, so you can’t use the Play Store to download any alternative apps. 

And if that was not enough incentive, Facebook, Instagram, Twiter, Dropbox, Flickr, MySpace are also blocked. The only thing that still works without a VPN connection are Whattsapp and WeChat (widely used in China), but perhaps when you read this post, it may have changed. We are currently using ExpressVPN, which we paid 13USD for a 30 days access up to two mobile devices and a computer. Super recommended.

2. Download at least one Phrasebook and a translation app

Our second visit to China (October 2015) has been much smoother since we’ve downloaded "Pleco". The nicest feature of this app - besides the fact it is free - are the different tools, such as Chinese character recognition using the mobile camera, and a brush that allows you to write the character, and the application will try to recognize it and translate the meaning. 

We also recommend downloading as many Chinese phrasebooks apps you can, with ready-made sentences like "How much is it?", "Where is it?" And "Not spicy" (this one we use every day, and it is super easy to say "Bu Lá"). 

As for the phrasebook apps we are using "Learn Chinese" and "Chinese Lite".

3. Book accommodation at least one day in advance

Different from all the countries we've been before, where we prefer to look for accommodation as soon as we arrive in a city, this is an unthinkable concept here in China. 
First because there is no "backpacker district" with several hostel options side by side, and the distances in this country are quite considerable. Then, the online prices are much cheaper than "trying to" negotiate directly at the hotel. 
We recommend using "" which, without a doubt, is the best hotel booking app on the market. Easy, reliable, with free cancelation and no hiding fees - the payment is directly at the hotel.

But be careful! You may find good and cheap hotels options, but who can only accept Chinese residents and are not allowed to receive foreigners. Never book a hotel room that says "Mainland Chinese Citizens".

4. Always carry a notebook with everything written down in Chinese

Spontaneity is an expensive luxury and planning in China is a necessity. Always choose a hostel where the reviews are "Good location and receptionists who speaks English." DO NOT leave your hotel without writing it down all the places you want to go, including the subway station, bus stops, hotel name, museum, or mountain, in Chinese. 

Remember to ask the information for both ways. It happened once to us to leave to a park and once we arrived, realizing we didn’t know how to get back to the hotel because we forgot to write down the name of the hotel’s bus stop in Chinese. These are the moments you appreciate to have everything "pinned" on Google maps beforehand!

5. Use public transportation

One thing that is absolutely outstanding in China is the public transport. Most cities have a new and super modern metro system, with subway lines reaching virtually everywhere in town. 

In case you can’t reach it by subway, you will get there by bus. At first, the bus ride idea may seem a bit daunting, but trust me. Once you have the name of the metro station/ bus stop written in Chinese, everyone will help you. The cost of the bus ticket varies between 1-2 yuan (approx. 0.20 USD) and the metro between 2-8 yuan (0.20 - 1 USD) depending on the final destination.

The amount of money and stress you will save by not having to explain to the taxi driver where you're going, makes it all worthwhile. All metro stations have ticket vending machines, and the best, with an English option. You choose your destination, the number of tickets, insert the money, and the machine dispenses the card (or magnetic token) and your change.

Don’t believe me? See here how easy it is to take the subway in China
(turn on captions for English subtitles)

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