Category: Traveling

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.


Two Americans in China in Hurricane Irma!

Two Americans in China in Hurricane Irma!

When we go back to the States, our home base is in Florida. We arrived at the beginning of September, the height of hurricane season! And we quickly found ourselves in the path of three hurricanes: Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Jose, and Hurricane Maria.

Irma was the biggest and baddest one headed our way. Irma was a Category 5 storm, the strongest storm since Wilma in 2005, the most intense since Katrina (also 2005), and the first to make landfall in Florida since Wilma. We were in for a doozy.

Batten Down the Hatches!

We live in the middle of the state, so usually even the strongest of hurricanes weaken before hitting us. We don’t typically have to worry about flooding or structural damage to our home. The biggest threat is usually just power outages, but we had a generator. So while many people further south or along the coasts were fleeing north and inland, we boarded up the windows, stocked up on water, chips, and gas, and prepared to ride out the storm.

First came the rain…


Then came the wind!


Our baby loves the wind and the rain. So even she had to experience her first hurricane!


In the end, we were quite lucky. We were without power for 4 days and had some damage to a fence. But many people were quite worse off. 90 people died due to the storm and there was over 60 billion dollars in damage.

Hurricane Jose then spun off into oblivion.

But then came Hurricane Maria.

By the time Hurricane Maria became a threat to the area, we were in North Carolina visiting family there. We still had family in Florida, but Maria didn’t really threaten the mainland. Puerto Rico has been another story, though. The damage there has been catastrophic. And even now, over a month later, hundreds of thousands of Americans are without power, water, and other basic necessities. It could take years for the island to recover. Local officials are calling the situation a humanitarian crisis.

Here are several reputable websites you can donate through to help the people of Puerto Rico


Two Americans in China in America

Two Americans in China in America

Sorry it has been so long since my last post, but we just spent 6 looong weeks in America. This was our first trip back to the US in about two and a half years, and it was the longest trip back we had ever taken. We have never been back for more than 3 weeks before. It was a nice trip. Our little girl got to meet both sets of grandparents and aunts and uncles and we got to do a lot of fun things. We visited two states, went on a road trip, went to a lantern festival, took the baby to the beach for the first time, explored two aquariums, and stood outside in a hurricane.

But I was very glad to be back home on Monday. I love our life here in China and I missed my dog! I also missed working. It was very hard to try to work with so many distractions and without having my regular schedule and work place. I hardly got anything done! I am glad to be back to my beautiful Yangshuo and calm, ordered life. Regular blog posts and a new novel will be coming soon, so stay tuned!

Here are a few pics from the trip.

A Weekend in Yangshuo!

A Weekend in Yangshuo!

This last weekend we went to Yangshuo in Guangxi Province. For longtime readers of this blog, you might recall that we began our China journey in Yangshuo almost seven years ago. Yangshuo was where we went for our TESOL training before we were sent to Lixian for our first teaching assignment. We have been in love with YS ever since that first visit. We went back in 2012 for an anniversary trip, but that was five years ago!

So much had changed in that time!

Sadly, many of the traditional artisans are gone. It looked like West Street had been majorly updated, so it is missing a lot of the authenticity it had before. There are still some artisans, but not nearly as many as before and there are no antique dealers, which was sad. However, I have heard that there are still some traditional villages outside of YS, so I am hoping to visit some of those places in the future.

There was also a whole new addition to West Street that wasn’t there before. Along with a ton of new Western and international restaurants! When we were there before, there was only one Western restaurant, and it was expensive and not very good. Now, there are tons of Western restaurants and cafes. There are German, Italian, Thai, and Indian restaurants – and they are all AMAZING! The food was so good, and so affordable. The Indian restaurant was about half the price of the Indian restaurants here in Shenzhen and the German restaurant was quite affordable as well. The restaurants also had surprisingly good cocktail menus, with cocktails for only 35RMB. They are also getting a Starbucks!

The mountains are still beautiful, but there is so much light pollution from West Street, you can’t see them very well at night.

All in all, it was a really nice weekend away and because Yangshuo is now accessible by the fast train, we will probably be visiting there with a bit more regularity.

Have you been to Yangshuo? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Two Americans in China in Japan – Foodie Fun!

Two Americans in China in Japan – Foodie Fun!

As our last hurrah before the baby comes, we went to Japan for the National Day holiday. We went to the Kansai area – Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe. It was amazing. I’m going to have to break up the trip report into different posts because there is just so much to talk about. The first thing I want to share is the food!

Japan in a foodie paradise. Any kind of food you want, you can find here, and so much more! I thought that I would be eating sushi and sake every day, but 1) sushi is not popular in the Kansai area and was surprisingly hard to find, and 2) there is just so much more to eat than that. I wanted to try foods that are unique to Japan, so here are some of the highlights.

Kobe Beef

I’m not a big steak fan, but I’ve been told it’s because I’ve never had “a really good steak.” Well, I can now say I have had the best steak in the world. Many people claim to have eaten Kobe beef before, but Kobe beef is almost impossible to find outside of Japan, and even in Japan it is prohibitively expensive outside of Kobe. So since we were staying in Osaka, we hoped on the fast train and thirty minutes later we were in Kobe, Japan. We went to a restaurant called Steakland and, OMG, the steak was AMAZING.

It really was as delicious and tender as people have claimed. It is melt in your mouth good. If you are ever in Japan, take a trip to Kobe and try this beef of the Gods. Your mouth will thank you for it. There were also a lot of other good looking places to eat, but we were so stuffed with meat, we couldn’t eat anywhere else.

img_1457 img_1466


I really wanted a T-shirt that said “I ate fugu and survived!” but couldn’t find one. My husband refused to eat the poisonous sea creature with me, but I was determined to try it.

Fugu is the Japanese word for pufferfish and it is a specialty in Japan. The intestines, liver, and ovaries of a pufferfish contain a deadly toxin – one that is 1,200 times more deadly than cyanide. Specially trained fugu chefs undergo years of training to learn to cut the fish just right. Realistically, you are not going to die from eating fugu. The odds of you dying from fugu poisoning are lower than the odds of you dying from food poisoning in general. But the myth and the mystique of eating fugu persists, and I had to try it.

I opted for the raw fugu sashimi because I wanted the fugu flavor to be as pure as possible, but you can get fugu in almost any style, including inside dumplings or in hotpot. I went to a famous fugu restaurant in Osaka called Zuboraya. I thought the fugu was pretty good. It has a very light flavor and a bit of a rubbery texture. It was very good with the green onions and citrus wasabi they served with it. I would definitely eat it again.


Whale Sushi

When I finally made it to a sushi restaurant, I was surprised to find whale meat on the menu. I had to try it. Whale meat is pretty easy to find at restaurants in Japan and is usually the meat of sperm whales. It is a dark, beefy kind of meat. I wouldn’t try it again though. I didn’t really like it.


Ice Cream Parfaits

Japan is famous for these beautiful and delicious layered ice cream desserts. If you have spent time in China, you might be kind of leery to try them, but don’t be. Unlike Chinese ice cream, Japanese ice cream is delicious. The parfaits come in all different sizes and every flavor combination you can imagine. There are ice cream shops that just serve parfaits and have hundreds of examples on display. If you come across one of these shops, be sure to go in!

img_1394 img_1396

Fast Food

Of course, in order to save time and money, and for some creature comforts, we did check out a few fast food restaurants. I know some people scoff at eating at a McDonalds or Starbucks when traveling internationally (“you should try local food!”), but the fun thing about these restaurants is that they often have very localized foods that you can’t get anywhere else in the world, so we often pop in to at least look at the menus, even if we don’t eat there.

In China, it is very hard to find good donuts (we don’t have any donut shops in SZ or Hong Kong!), so we had to go to the Krispy Kreme in Osaka. They had some Halloween donuts that were cute and delicious. They had pumpkin pie at Starbucks. And we had chocolate pumpkin french fries at MacDonalds.

We actually spent most of our money in Japan on food. If you ever go to Japan, plan to eat EVERYTHING!

img_1436 img_1716 img_20161006_105821


Have you been to Japan? What were your favorite foods? Let me know in the comments.

Your Local Cousin Helps You Travel Like a Local

Your Local Cousin Helps You Travel Like a Local

Hi everyone, I came across this really cool company and wanted to let you know about it!

What Is Your Local Cousin?

cousin1Your Local Cousin, is disrupting travel and is part of the sharing economy. We have been in business since February 2015 and match travelers looking for customized advice with actual locals in over 80 countries and 200 cities. Travelers looking to get a local perspective on where to find the best beaches in Maui, shop in the Grand Bazar in Istanbul or where to find the best paella in Madrid can choose to text, e-mail or speak with a local. We typically charge between $15 for a 30 minute Skype call and also offer customized itineraries for $25 – $60 and travel maps for $10. We pay locals 70% of revenue and vet all of them over Skype.

How to Use Your Local Cousin

Travelers can find locals by the city or country that they plan to visit and then pick the one that they feel will be best able to plan their trip. Each local’s profile mentions their interests, in other words what they can advise you on and also includes the kind of traveler they can help i.e. families with kids, expats, business traveler, senior citizens and backpackers etc. Travelers can decide to speak with a local, connect with them over text message or whatsapp or ask them to prepare detailed itineraries depending on the duration of their trip. Once connected, the traveler can provide further detail about their trip and ask any questions from the local. The more detailed your questions the more useful are the recommendations! Once don with the interaction, travelers also rate locals on the quality of information provided and responsiveness.

How to Become a Local Cousin

Local experts, aka ‘local cousins,’ are individuals from various backgrounds who should be fluent in English (additional languages are always a big bonus), love to talk about their city and are passionate about helping others have a great experience when they’re visiting and of course don’t mind getting paid for giving advice :). Our local are individuals who live in a city, went to school there recently or own a business / home there, thus they possess in-depth information about a place and are not passers-by or outsourced agents. Locals get paid via Paypal and are also rated by travelers. Locals and travelers do not have to meet in person or provide any personal details to the traveler other than perhaps their Skype handle or email address. If you want to become a local, please register on by clicking on “Become a Local Cousin” on the top right of the home page and complete your profile.

About Your Local Cousin

I founded Your Local Cousin with my actual cousin, Aarti Kanodia (based in New York) and have a CTO also based in NY. I have traveled to more than 30 countries and decided to help travelers solve the problem of wading through information overload online, heavy and outdated guidebooks and sifting through biased reviews on review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor only to get stuck in tourist traps. We want travelers to get customized advice from real locals who share common interests at price points that are affordable. We allow travelers to get the “inside scoop” on where to find all the cool places locals love to visit and avoid the tourist traps. We want to bring the old-school back into travel planning which is seriously missing the ‘human element’ these days. We are YOUR next best thing to speaking with a friend who lives in the city you are visiting.


We have been featured in Travel and Leisure
and USA Today
and Chicago Tribune

Social Media:

Two Americans in China in Bali

Two Americans in China in Bali

This year, for the one week national holiday, Seth and I went to Bali, Indonesia. While we didn’t get to stay as long as we wanted and didn’t see nearly all the island has to offer, we had a great time and would love to go back.

We mainly stayed in Ubud. Ubud is in the center of the island, surrounded by jungles and nestled deep in Indonesian culture. The area is not nearly as developed as other parts of the island, which is just the way I like it. Ancient temples and traditional craftspersons are everywhere.

The first thing you need to know about Bali is that the airport is crazy! It was so much worse than any airport I have been in in China. The taxi drivers are very aggressive and will massively gouge you on rates. If you are going to Bali, make sure you book a hotel that provides an airport shuttle so you can get to your hotel safely and at a good rate. Taxis in general, though, are expensive compared to how cheap everything else on the island is.

The first thing we did was go to Monkey Forest. The forest delivers what it promises. There were monkeys everywhere! They are used to being fed by humans, so they will jump on you and take food from you (or your water bottle, or earrings, or Disney pins, or anything else they can grab) with no fear. The monkeys are free range and could leave the walled area if they wanted to, but they generally don’t because of the food. The forest isn’t very big, though, so it is a cheap, fun way to spend half a day.

20151005_113516 20151005_112144 20151005_115926










The next day we went for some water fun! Bali is an island, so it is famous for its beaches and water sports. We did this really cool thing called a sea walk where you walk along the bottom of the ocean and wear a big dive helmet. It is great for people who wear glasses and can’t wear regular goggles or have problems using snorkels. We also did some snorkeling and a glass bottom boat ride, but those kind of sucked in comparison after the sea walk. If I ever go back, I really want to try some proper scuba diving.

P1160825 P1160837 P1160832 P1160812













After that we went to Sea Turtle Island. This made me a little uncomfortable. I mean, sea turtles don’t live on islands. After they are born, they go to the ocean and most never return. Male sea turtles never return to the land and females only return to lay eggs. The people running the island claimed they were all about sea turtle education and preservation, but it still made me feel squicky. I wouldn’t do it again. But they were super cute. We also got to hold a python, a toucan, and a big bat. So that was cool.

20151006_133544 20151006_132507








20151006_133609 20151006_133502 20151006_133349 20151006_133327 20151006_133327

















After that, we pretty much hung around the Ubud area, which is gorgeous. We did lots of shopping and eating! We also discovered my new favorite thing: the barong!


The barong is similar to the lion dancers we have here in China. The Barong is a lion-type of creature that is the King of Spirits and the Host of Good. We went to see a traditional Balinese dance/opera show that featured the barong, and it was so cool. If you ever go to Bali, there are dance troops putting on shows every night all over town. If you ever go, make sure you choose one that features the barong!

20151007_203921 20151007_204948 20151007_205520










Bali really has a lot more to offer than we experienced. I hope to go back someday!

Have you been to Bali? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.

Don’t forget to enter our December Giveaway!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

We respect your privacy.