How To Travel China Without Speaking Chinese – Guest Post by Cara Crawford

How To Travel China Without Speaking Chinese – Guest Post by Cara Crawford

Let’s face it, China is a confusing place. The culture alone is so jarringly different from virtually anywhere else in the world it’s hard to even know where to start. Between the noise, the pushing, the use of umbrellas on a sunny day, all the weird foods that always happen to be “good for body” and a million other cultural nuances I could fill a list a mile long with, my head’s already spinning…and we’ve haven’t even gotten to the language yet!

But for real, are they kidding me with all those symbols? I mean, the cultural differences are strange, although entertaining in a way, but now you expect us to try and navigate in a country where we not only can’t understand or speak to other people, but we can’t read the stuff either?!

Trust me, I feel ya. China can be a really overwhelming place your first time here. I’ve been there. And with so many barriers it’s no wonder many travelers steer clear of the place in favor of easier destinations.

But just when I started to think that clearly, the only people traveling in China were expats and tour goers, I came across the backpackers. These elusive unicorns have somehow used their unicorn magic to transport themselves to some of the most remote and difficult places to travel in all of China. I’m talking some serious back-country, like, 10-hour bus ride to the middle of nowhere type places. I studied Mandarin Chinese for a year and a half before I dared attempt to travel to some of these places, so how did they do it?

As I found out, quite easily really! Now for the good news, China is nothing to be afraid of, and the language is certainly no reason for not coming to visit some of the many out-of-this-world-amazing destinations this country has to offer. If they can do it, you can too!

Stay in International Hotels/Hostels

Cycling through Tibet on a trip through Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces.

This one has a bit of a two-part explanation.

First, not all hotels in China will accept foreigners. We’re a lot of work, you see, with the whole reading a foreign passport dealio that is a staff requirement when checking in. If the hotel doesn’t have any English speaking staff or anyone willing to deal with foreigners, they’ll just tell you to go away. No bed for you!

Now, if you can speak Chinese you can debate this, and possibly win as the law on this is extremely outdated and pretty sporadically enforced nowadays, but without any language skills, forget it, best to just avoid this situation in the first place. Plus, to be honest, most of the hotels that don’t accept foreigners you wouldn’t want to stay in any way.

Second, any hotel or hostel that markets themselves as “international” will have at least one English speaking staff member to assist you. Hallelujah!

How do you make sure your hotel accepts foreigners?

Well if it straight up says “international hotel” or “international hostel” as part of their name then that’s a pretty big giveaway. But, if not, almost all the properties listed on foreign booking sites like Agoda or will accept foreigners unless they say otherwise on the listing. China has their own booking sites that the locals use when booking domestic hotels, so if the hotel doesn’t want to accept foreigners they just won’t list their property on any non-Chinese site.

Save the Chinese name of your hotel on your phone.

Sunset view from the roof of our hostel in Xingping, Guilin.

When you arrive at the airport in China, unless your hotel has arranged a car to pick you up or you’re brave enough to take a whack at China’s ever confusing bus system, you’re most likely going to have to take a taxi. Most taxi drivers don’t speak a lick of English, which, without any Chinese language skills, could cause a problem, but, luckily for you, you’ll have your destination saved in Chinese characters on your phone, so no sweat. Just whip out your phone and show the taxi driver. Easy peasy. Even if he doesn’t know the place off hand (which does happen sometimes as Chinese taxi drivers are not the most knowledgeable of folk), now he can just type the name into his GPS and you’ll be rollin in no time.

Know the culture before you go.

Celebrating Lantern Festival in Zhuhai.

While learning a whole new language might be a bit farfetched for just a simple vacation abroad, studying the culture is something that is not only super easy, but also extremely underrated. You can accomplish so much just by understanding how things work in a certain culture. Knowing the societal norms will enable you to know how to get things done and what to expect in certain situations.

Some things about Chinese culture are pretty widely known, and, dare I say, obvious, like, for example, the Chinese eat with chopsticks, but there is a lot that’s not talked about. Even knowing the little things like the fact that in most restaurants you seat yourself, for example, can save you a lot of frustration. It also allows the Chinese to be at ease when interacting with you, an incredible asset considering how timid a lot of people are here when it comes to communicating with foreigners.

How can you find out what to expect before coming to China?

It’s as easy as reading a couple articles online or a few chapters in a book. A great resource for us was the book Decoding China by Matthew B. Christensen which will tell you everything you need to know and more about how to get around in China.

Do some background research about the sites you’ll be visiting.

Most places don’t offer guided (or self-guided) tours in English, and the majority of the information signs will be solely in Chinese. If you’re not a history buff and are just going to said place to see the pretty scenery (cough, cough, guilty as charged) then this won’t be much of an issue for you. If you do want to know the history of the places you’re visiting though, it’s best to look that stuff up before you go.

Take a business card from your hotel.

This Chinese guy thought he was so sly photobombing me in front of the Giant Buddha in Leshan.

Virtually every place of business in China has business cards available with the address, and, a lot of times, even a map of the business’s location. Most hotels have them sitting on the front desk. Remember to grab one to keep in your wallet. This way you’ll never have to be worried about finding your way back to a bed at the end of the day. Just show the card to a taxi driver, or person on the street if you’re lost, and they’ll point you in the right direction.

Download Pleco

Pleco is my best friend when out and about in China, and trust me, it will be yours too if you ever get into a communication bind. Pleco is a free offline English/Chinese dictionary app you can download to your phone. It provides more accurate translations than your typical translator and will speak the words aloud so you know how to say them.

The offline aspect of the app is especially handy for travelers, as unless you are connected to wifi or paying for international data, your phone won’t be able to connect to the internet to look up translations when you’re out and about.

Choose a restaurant with a picture menu.

Typical Chinese cuisine from Sichuan Province. Every province in China has its own unique type of food.

This one is a lifesaver, especially if you’re not a particularly adventurous eater. I have to admit, even though I can read a lot of the Chinese on a menu, picture menus are still my jam when it comes to eating out. A lot of Chinese dishes don’t come with super intelligible names, even after you translate them. “Ants Climbing a Log” anyone? Don’t worry, there are no ants involved, it’s actually noodles. But how would you know without seeing the dish?

What do you do if you find yourself in the middle of nowhere and your only options are written Chinese menus with no pictures or translations?

Walk around with your waitress/waiter to other people’s tables and point at dishes that look good. Yes, I’m completely serious. Will you feel like a creeper, yes, will you eat a yummy meal, you sure will.

A rarer third option is that the waitress will invite you back into the kitchen so you can see all the meat and vegetables and pick out what you want. You’ll just be left guessing as to the preparation, but at least you’ll know it’s made with stuff you like. The one place this method is extremely common is at seafood restaurants, where everyone picks out their own live seafood, a treat if you’ve never had the experience of picking out the exact fish you want to eat for dinner!


When all else fails, channel your inner mime. You’d be surprised how much information you can communicate using just your body language. Hand signals and facial expressions can really go a long way. In fact, research shows that a surprising 55% of communication is done through body language. Take full advantage of your body language, and you’re already halfway there.

There are so many universal cues you can communicate using just your body. Rub your stomach or pretend to shovel food in your mouth if you’re hungry, lean your head against your hands if you are looking for someplace to sleep, you can even draw or show someone a picture of something you’re looking for. Get creative and you’ll be surprised how easily you can get by without words.

Ask your hotel’s receptionist for help.

When I was in Chengdu, the receptionists at our hostel told us exactly which buses to take, and where the bus stops were so that my friend and I could go see the Pandas!

Receptionists are often a wealth of information about the local area. It’s part of their job to provide guests with information on cool things to see and do and tell how to do them. Even now, I always ask the receptionist at my hotel in China a million and one questions before I head out exploring. They can always tell me how to get to a certain place or make suggestions about cool local places that I never even knew existed.

A lot of times they can even arrange transportation for you, whether it’s calling a cab and telling the driver where to take you, hiring a private car for the day, etc. A lot of times it’s hard to find information online about how to get to and from certain places you want to see in China, so if you can’t find all the information you need online, don’t sweat it. Your hotel receptionist will probably have better information anyway.

Bargain with a calculator.

If you’re shopping at a local market, most of the time you’ll have to bargain for prices. Seems like quite a daunting task for someone with no language skills, but with the use of a calculator, whether it’s in physical form or on your phone, you can throw numbers back and forth like a pro without having to say a word. You might not be able to verbally spar, but you can both understand written numbers. Pen and paper will also do just fine in a pinch.

Bonus Tips

There are some English terms that China has adopted into their language. 3 incredibly helpful terms to know are:

  1. ATM – most Chinese will understand this, so if you’re in need of cash, just ask for an ATM.
  2. WC – WC stands for Water Closet, aka toilet. So if you need to go to the bathroom, ask for a WC.
  3. Wifi – How do you say wifi in Chinese? You guessed it, wifi.

Ready to tackle traveling in China?

This amazing country truly has so much to offer. From stunning natural landscapes and an incredible 3500 years of history to some of the most bustling modern cities in the world, China has something for everyone. Ignite your sense of adventure and your taste buds, use these tips, and get ready to explore, shop, and eat your way through this amazing place with ease.

Cara is an equestrian, photographer, writer, and lover of anything that includes the words “adventure” and “exploration”. Currently living as an expat in China with her husband, Justin, together they are on a mission to travel and see the world on a budget. Veering off into the unknown to really experience the local culture and natural scenery is what they yearn for. Cara shares all their experiences, lessons learned, and travel guides on Crawford Creations to help others replicate their unique form of travel.


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