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China Travel – Food, Transport and the Language Barrier

Having spent 2 months traveling in China, by the end of our trip we’d still only managed to pick up around 5 words: Hello = “Ni hao”, Thank you = “Xiexie”, Rice = “Mifan” and Vegetables = “Shucai”. This is simply the phonetically spelt words and we haven’t even included the accents that accompany them which play such an important role in how a word is pronounced!

But anyway we’re not here to give you a lesson in Chinese grammar! What we would like to do however is talk about how we managed to travel China without being able to speak or understand the language.

Eating out in China!

Having had the experience of eating out in Japan we knew China was on a similar level when it comes to attitudes towards vegetarian cuisine. Not that Helen is a complete vegetarian, as she does eat fish thankfully, but if you are a strict vegetarian then trying to communicate this in restaurants is near impossible as 95% of everything is prepared in some kind of meat or fish based broth.

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Learning to solely use chopsticks was a challenge, but within two weeks most dishes could be conquered.

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This was a fantastic vegetable noodle soup cooked in Dali in Yunnan province, we managed to communicate vegetarian meal to the cook! But most dishes are prepared with meat or in a meat based broth!

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Meat used to be a real luxury in China. Now a thriving economy, most dishes contain meat products.

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Various styles of handmade Dim-Sum Dumplings (small portions of food) before they are steamed. (We wish we could say that these are the ones we made!)

We did find a great vegetarian restaurant in Beijing at the bottom of Hou Hai lake but many street food vendors sell meat based buns and snacks, however the sugary fruit on a stick is quite a good little snack and not as sugary as it looks! As we travelled south we came across stinky tofu, this you can smell way down the street before you even pass it – not sure it’s for everyone and the smell was too off-putting for us to try!

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Most street vendors are really friendly and will try to accommodate your dietary requirements if possible.

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Be it day or night, food is pretty much everywhere you turn. You won

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Steamed buns on street stalls, pretty much always contain meat!

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Its strange to see your food wiggling their legs whilst impaled. I don't think they waving to say Ni hao!

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Small sugar coated fruits on a stick, just like a mini toffee apple.

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Stinky Tofu! This is kept a little like stilton cheese, often under the ground before it is ready to be cooked!! It really does smell bad!

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Meat is left outside to cure. Not sure how long these had been out for!

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Eating the Chinese way. Family and sharing is very important. We also found out that clearing your plate is a sign that your not satisfied! So when full always leave something, otherwise more and more will be delivered!

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Hot water is freely available almost everywhere (even trains), so for a snack on a long journey do as the locals do, grab some instant noodles.

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You can also get a variety of beers and spirits to compliment your meal. Picnic on Boxing Day (26th Dec).

We found a mandarin phrasebook for £5 whilst visiting the 798 Art district which had a whole section dedicated to food and eating out. Not only was there a description of how to order and how words should be pronounced but the Chinese symbols were also alongside each word so we could show the staff directly what it was we wanted. Still this wasn’t always successful! Ordering vegetables, tofu and a pork dish equated into pork, vegetables and tofu in every dish! But they will taylor what you want especially in the street style open restaurants. Often this is an exciting part of travel, you can’t read the menu, it’s all in traditional Chinese symbols, and so we had to point at the book and see what would come! “Mifan” always got us the rice though!!

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Mandarin Phrase book and Point it book can help tremendously.

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Quirky sculptures at 798, a place combining contemporary and traditional art, architecture, eateries and bars - a must see if you get time in China. We bought our mandarin to English phrase book from one of the book shops here.

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Open fronted street-style restaurants hardly ever have any English in their menus, so the phrasebook came in very handy in these sorts of places! All part of the fun though!

Catching a Train in China!

When we were buying train tickets the book again became very useful, we would push it over the counter and point at the exact phrase we were wanting to use. Eventually we’d always get our tickets. On several occasions we asked the hostel staff to write down which train we wanted to get, the class, and time of departure. Only once did we have to go back to the hostel and change what we were trying to do.

There is an amazing rail network to discover when traveling to China, which is by far more environmentally-friendly than internal flights, and although you may find yourself sitting or lying down on a train for 17 hours, the views are often very rewarding, the company can be fun and interesting and we always found that the locals wanted to chat or offer food even though the language barrier was so evident. Hand gestures and eye contact can go a long way!

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It's cheaper to get a top bunk (3rd bed up) on a sleeper train, but make sure you watch your head!

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Waking up to another new province on a sleeper train.

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Lots of people will try and help, not always successful but they are insistent on trying!

This is part of the charm of being in a country like China. Not everyone speaks English, in fact very few people outside of the major cities do, but there is always a way to communicate through gesture, phrasebooks and expression. We also carried a small ‘point it’ book around with us, but to be honest we hardly ever used it. It’s still a pretty handy thing to have if you get stuck as you can point at a picture or drawing that symbolises what it is you’re trying to communicate.

One thing we would suggest when travelling in China is that you have patience. There is no point in getting worked up about people trying to push in front of you, or spitting their food out on the table beside you. This is all part of their culture. It takes a long time to get anywhere because the distances are so vast and there are so many people trying to get there.

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A packed out metro car in the Beijing underground - often a claustrophobic experience, but it’s only 20p per journey in Beijing so it’s very good value for money!

China travel for us was a fantastic experience, a challenge and an array of cultural surprises and shocks, and getting by with our 5 little words made all the difference. Go and explore this vast, wonderful country. You will not regret it.

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The future of China.

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The wisdom of China.

*All photos in this blog post were supplied by Helen & David at

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It seems that you had really enjoyed your travel in Chine. Hopefully I could get into that place someday.

Nadia says:

I travelled through China as a strict vegetarian (I don’t “even” eat fish), and it was difficult. But in all honesty, I probably ate fish or meat stock without knowing it and I’m not going to lose sleep over that; it would be very difficult to travel if I had that kind of attitude!

I did have the word “vegetarian” (might have been “no meat” or similar) written down, which helped in some cases. Oh and the Point It book is a godsend – love it 🙂

Shirlene says:

Great writeup! The food adventure sounds awesome! We were in China a few years back and now your post is making us wanting to make another trip soon!

Thanks Shirlene glad you like the post. Do it! Go back to China, so much will have changed and theres loads more to see. We loved it.

Heidi says:

Okay, those kids in that photo near the end are just PRECIOUS! And also, this post made me soooo hungry. Whether in China or out of it, Chinese food is by far my favorite and I definitely have a craving for it right now!! Thanks a lot 😉


Katrina says:

Enjoyed the food photos, as well as the last pic of smiling people, very much. Totally groovin’ on the “Point It” tip. What an awesome and totally logical idea!

Maria says:

Love the food… but now I’m hungry and there’s nothing in my fridge that looks that good. :-/

Freed says:

Great post and pictures.
Thanks for sharing.

Btw, have you ever gone to Indonesia?
I’m sure travelling in Indonesia is very exciting 🙂

Great post and photos! Makes me miss China 🙂 I hope to go back soon.

Looks like quite a choice of food in China! Are those scorpions on the sticks?

Hey Guys, thanks for the comments really good to hear your experiences in China and that you found the post interesting and useful. We didn’t try the Stinky Tofu, so your brave people Nomadic Samuel and Andi!

Claire says:

What a great post with colorful pics! THe pic of the crawly things impaled on a stick in the head of cabbage…uggh. When I was there, I ate snake on a stick, but only got through two bites. And I definitely could not bring myself to try to creatures with legs.

Oh how I miss China!!! What an awesome post. Stinky tofu is the best!

Poi says:

I think the trains in China are the best transport we have taken while we’ve been away, perhaps not price wise but comfort and reliability.

We used to write down the train number and then ask them to turn their monitor round and we pointed out what we wanted, worked a treat!

I miss the challenge of China a bit, ir’s far too easy in SE Asia.

This is a great overview of the dining experience in China. I actually ‘quite’ enjoyed the stinky tofu 😛 One of the most memorable places was a little dumpling shop near my hostel in Shanghai where I feasted like a king for about $1. The food is definitely a highlight of the country.

Shamis says:

Language would be the biggest issue. So showing the food you want to eat is a good idea. Nice guide!

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