How To Travel In Remote Rural China

Order Beer–And Other Secrets To Hard Travel Success

Vicki and I recently traveled in Sichuan province, in China’s southwest. In one city, the hotel’s staff told us they served breakfast on the 10th floor, overlooking the river, from 7:30 to 9 a.m. Breakfast turned out to be six kinds of pickled vegetables–the only one I recognized was cucumber–to give some flavor to the soupy rice porridge, plus unsweetened soy milk.

So we got used to pickled vegetables, a local favorite. After all we’re traveling in southwestern China; we go days without seeing Westerners. We adjust to language, culture, expectations, to different ways of doing things.

Just crossing the street presents challenges. Local drivers ignore traffic lights, drive the wrong way down streets, honk at pedestrians to clear out crosswalks, and drive and park on sidewalks. I emphasize the routine nature of these behaviors; we’re talking a common way of driving rather than now-and-again infractions.

To adjust to this kind of travel requires some work. Here, following, are some travel tips we’ve picked up over the years while doing what we call “hard travel.” These tips should help you get around language and cultural barriers.

Carry A Calculator

A friend taught me this trick years ago. Without language skills, how do you tell a salesman what size shoe you wear, a baker how many rolls you want, a ticket clerk what train you want? Use a calculator. Calculators come in handy most often to find out what things costs. At the end of a meal, instead of asking for the check, just hand your waiter a calculator. When you want to know what a hotel room will cost, just give the desk clerk a calculator. They figure it out every time and quickly tap in the price.

Travel Slowly

Perhaps the hardest part of hard travel is moving from place to place. Especially in densely populated countries in Asia, where millions of others want to travel, too, we’re exhausted at the end of a travel day. So we make it a rule to stay at least four nights in most places, and often much longer. By sticking around a bit we have time to return to favorite restaurants, to explore more remote paths. Vicki is a vegetarian, for example, and finding veg places that I enjoy, too, takes some luck. Once we get lucky we want to have time enough to go back again and again.

Order Beer

Perhaps the most useful phrase to know in the local language is “two cold beers, please.” On one of my first trips to China I traveled with an American friend, Peter. Peter and I liked to stop most afternoons and have a beer in a local shop. Most beer in those days sat on tables, and Peter and I wanted it cold. So we typically walked into a restaurant, went through to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and checked for cold beer. If we found it we handed a bottle to one of the half-dozen or so waiters and cooks who were staring at us, no doubt wondering just exactly what we were doing. Once we handed them the beer we wanted, they quickly got the message.

I tired of being stared at, so I learned to order beer in Chinese. Locals seem to respond positively. I think they like people who drink beer. You may prefer a different beverage; you may want to learn to order tea or unsweetened soy milk. Whatever, learn to do it in the local language, even if it’s the only thing you learn.

Stay Out Of Downtown

Setting up in the center of very large cities can be daunting, with traffic, noise, full hotels, and suspect taxi drivers. Consider staying in hotels outside of downtown, preferably on a subway line. We first tried this last year in Kiev, Ukraine. Travelers we met in Odessa recommended the Hotel Slavutich in Kiev, “just out of town but right on the subway.” Upon arrival at the Kiev station, we found the subway, and then the stop for the hotel, very easily. Back above ground we asked locals to point us to the hotel. Simple.

Along with “simple” we paid about half what the same hotel would cost in the city center. And we gained a local neighborhood where we were appreciated as valued guests rather than just tourists. We observed the stay-at-least-four-days rule, so our innkeeper, and local restaurant and bar owners, got to know us. Pretty soon those in the neighborhood tried a bit of English with us, and asked us questions. One local asked me (in English) whether the United States would default on its debt and whether Osama bin Laden was really a terrorist. I doubt I’d get those questions in the center city; I doubt I’d get the chance for follow-up talk.

Set Up A VPN

Internet security can be a problem on the road, and local censors often block access to sites we take for granted. To solve both problems (that is, to prevent prying eyes and to gain access to Google images, search, and YouTube videos), set up a VPN. VPN stands for virtual private network, sort of a connection within a connection. First you connect to the hotel or airport or other public Wi-Fi, then connect to your VPN. Once the VPN connection is confirmed you’re good to go, about as secure as in an office, for example, where you access a private server.

Set Travel Alerts

Call your credit card and cash card companies before leaving home and tell them where and when you expect to travel. Using cards in hotels and restaurants abroad, and getting cash from ATMs abroad, used to be so easy. But fraud losses have skyrocketed in recent years. Card issuers now make it very, very tough to use your card and get money overseas. Calling in advance helps, although you still may have trouble using cards. Be sure to travel with a fistful of cards, in case your primary card fails.

Get A Business Card From Your Hotel

Even Vicki and I forget to get cards from our hotels at times. But if you get lost, need a taxi, or want to check that you have the right bus, showing a hotel card makes things easier. If you get in trouble and need police or a hospital or whatever, a hotel card becomes essential.

Show, Don’t Tell

Use visual aids. If the internet connection in your hotel room disappears, take your computer and cable downstairs to the front desk. Show them the computer and cable and shake your head. Similarly, if you need your key card updated, go to the desk and place the card on the updating device. If you need a bottle opener, take a bottle to demonstrate. Visual aids say so much more than pantomime.

Paul Terhorst

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