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.
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!
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!!
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!
￼￼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.
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.
*All photos in this blog post were supplied by Helen & David at notworkrelated.co.uk