Traveling In China Without Speaking Chinese

Do I need to speak Chinese to travel in China?

In this article, I’m going to address one of  the many reasonable concerns you have about traveling in China, a question I asked myself many a time before moving to China for the first time in 2009.

As an amateur international traveler/backpacker (at least I think so), I often thought about the trade-off between hitting as many places as I possibly can in my life, and investing the time, energy and, unfortunately in many cases, the money to becoming an expert on one region. Folks, I have a long way to go before I am recognized as a “China expert,” but as an avid China watcher in my mid-twenties, I would not replace my years of Chinese language study for the world. However, depending on your immediate and longer-term goals, committing years to learning Mandarin Chinese before backpacking through China may not be your best bet. 

First off, I think that the bulk of readers have already beaten out the pack when it comes to expressing interest in China. By virtue of reading, whether you have sought out information on travel in China or happened upon this blog by chance, you are one step closer to pushing the bounds of your comfort zone, one step closer to making that leap, one step closer to taking the trip of a lifetime. Despite the many questions you may have, I just want to tell you that you deserve considerable respect for challenging your comfort zone and your preconceived notions about travel and China in general.

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So do you need to speak Chinese to solo travel in China...or not?

Well, that all depends on the experience you are looking for. When I made my way to China for the first time in September of 2009, I already had a year of beginning Chinese under my belt. For those of you who are foreign to language study, especially Chinese language study, one year qualifies as the rudimentary basics.

I can recall landing at Beijing’s Capitol Airport [Ch. Beijing Shoudu Guoji Jichang] completely stupefied. Despite my year’s worth of Chinese study, I could not exchange but a few words with the swarms of people at the airport, and quickly came to realize that the road to Chinese fluency would require a lot more than I thought; it was all very humbling.

When I got a cab and started to head to the hostel, passing by relics I had read so much about, like the Forbidden City [Ch. Gugong] and some of Beijing’s old Hutongs [Ch. Hutong], the rush of finally being in China gave me a renewed sense of confidence in my Chinese abilities. I abandoned my anxieties about making mistakes, and I just started to speak, taking each conversation as an opportunity, rather than a burden, to improve my Chinese.

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Sure, I made plenty of mistakes, but I figured these mistakes were all a part of the experience, right?

A few days after my arrival in Beijing, my friend and I went to the train station to purchase some tickets to Chengdu, the Sichuan provincial capital, nearly a thousand miles away (~1500 km). We initially came to China to pursue a year of language study at Chengdu’s Southwestern University of Finance & Economics [Ch. Xinan Caijing Daxue], and before our departure we had planned to make our way cross country by train. Purchasing the right tickets, an ostensibly effortless task, turned out to be an utter nightmare. Standing in those miserably long lines, we felt like time stood still. The line wasn’t moving, bystanders were staring and kibitzing, patrons were pushing and shoving, and I couldn’t make out the stick-figure like characters on the ticket windows. What did I get myself into?

When we finally made it to the ticket counter, which was a miraculous feat in and of itself, a lovely staff noticed our distress and beckoned a colleague of her, a local student as it turned out, to help us purchase tickets. Long story short, although we were able to secure tickets, they weren’t for the next day, the day we originally intended to leave, but rather for an entire week later. Tickets were ALL SOLD OUT! Only later, in fact on our departure, did we find out that we had booked hard seats [Ch. Yingzuo] on the SLOWEST train to Chengdu; the excruciating trip took thirty five hours.

I wanted to relay my first encounters and experiences in China to highlight that some Chinese language ability, an indisputable asset, is far from a necessity when it comes to traveling in China. China not only boasts a mammoth community of English speakers, mainly youth, but also a Western-focused tourism infrastructure that makes travel to China seamless for the foreigner. It goes without saying that despite some of the many challenges that remain for the foreign, monolingual traveler, as evidenced through my own experiences, China has indeed been successful in bolstering its tourism industry, catering to a wide variety of travelers.

However, it is my humble opinion that your China experience will be seriously enhanced if you start learning Chinese before your China trip. Even the most basic of phrases will go a long way on your journey to Chinese cultural exploration.

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Where the hell do I start?

Well, this is a tough question to answer! Like many of you, I started learning a foreign language in High School (Spanish), and only when I started college did I begin to study Mandarin Chinese. Check Backpack In China’s Blog soon for another piece on where to start on your quest for Chinese language proficiency.

Written by Max Gelber

Max Gelber

Max J. Gelber is the Webmaster at ChineseScholarshipSite.com, a website dedicated to providing up-to-date information and resources on obtaining scholarships for Chinese language and culture study. He holds a B.A. (Magna Cum Laude) from the University of Florida in East Asian languages, literatures, and cultures with a special focus on Chinese. Mr. Gelber served as an unofficial cultural ambassador and English teacher in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic through the US Fulbright Program. During his time as an undergraduate student, Mr. Gelber studied Chinese language at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu and at Middlebury College. He also studied Central Asian history/politics and Kyrgyz language at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, and intensive Uyghur language at Indiana University’s Summer Workshop in Slavic, East European and Central Asian Languages (SWSEEL) in Bloomington. Mr. Gelber is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and English, and has a beginning-level command of Uyghur, Kyrgyz and Russian.

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