Myths, Misinformation and Chinglish: China Travel Unraveled

“The road to peace, from the beginning of the fire started.”  The sign was trying to tell us something, but exactly what was up for debate.  We could narrow it down to either instructions, directions, prohibitions, or perhaps an ancient Chinese proverb.  Regardless of its message, it was hilarious.  Chinglish signs like these are all over China and made travel in this misunderstood country, well, still misunderstood.

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After spending a month in the world’s most populous country, we uncovered a lot of inside knowledge and left with a drastically different understanding of this perplexing destination.  In this post, we will detail the most important things to prepare before traveling to China and explain what we found to be myths versus reality, but will not explain how to “fold the flowers and grass to spit the truth for you”.  Although we have included pictures of over a dozen amazing Chinglish signs to feed your misunderstanding.

If you are you dying to explore China, make sure to check out our favorite places in the country for some destination inspiration.  We have four specific posts detailing our travel itinerary in the country with plenty of epic photos from our trip:

Hong Kong, Yangshuo and Longji Rice Terraces
Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Shaxi and Dali
Chengdu, Emeishan and Xi’an
Great Wall Trek and Beijing

And as always, feel free to contact us with any thoughts on our visit or logistics.

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Oh and if you need to get a China visa, you can read our detailed (and recent) list of items which we provided for our 10 year approval.

We used the very professional and affordable China Adventure Travel to custom tailor our active trip in the country.  While we typically avoid tour agencies, it was nice having help to structure the mountain of logistics.  Plus, it got us an invite letter which was beneficial in obtaining our visa application.

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Essentials for Travel in China

1.)  You will need to set up a VPN.  China blocks many websites which are essential for most travelers such as Google, gmail, Facebook, WordPress and WhatsApp.  Chances are good that you use one or most of these, unless you are a caveman, but China may not grant a visa for a caveman.  A good VPN will trick the Great Firewall and allow access to these sites.  Some of the free VPN services don’t have sophisticated software and therefore don’t work in China.  Make sure you fully research and set up your choice prior to arrival since you will be unable once in the country.  We use NordVPN which has worked great for us everywhere in the world, including China.

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2.)  Download the Pleco app and Google Translate.  English is not widely spoken in China as it is in many other countries.  Pleco is a (free) highly in-depth Chinese specific translator for your smartphone.  Unlike Google, it can provide the various nuanced dictionary definitions for characters and phrases.  We found this to be most effective in conjunction with the Chinese handwriting keyboard, which can be added to your smartphone keyboard options in the menu (For iPhone:  Settings –> General –> Keyboard –> Keyboards –> Add New Keyboard –> Chinese (Simplified) –> Handwriting).  This allowed us to draw a character in Pleco and figure out its meaning, which was particularly useful with air conditioning controls.  Google translate can be helpful as well but we found it to be far less reliable.  Plus it is blocked unless you have it downloaded offline or use a VPN.

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3.)  Always carry your passport, which will be required for nearly everything.  We had to show them to check into hotels, board trains, enter the panda park, even to purchase some performance tickets.

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4.)  Download the WeChat app.  This is the Chinese version of WhatsApp, which is used by everyone to communicate in the country since WhatsApp is blocked.  Downloading the app is simple, but setting it up is next to impossible.  Registration requires that you get invited from another verified user, which means getting their identification number or having them scan your QR code.  The inviter has to have been a WeChat user for over one month.  The company has been accused of monitoring chats on a daily basis and storing chat histories.  In fact, it says within the privacy policy that the company would need to retain and disclose user information “in response to a request by a government authority, law enforcement agency or similar body”.  WeChat disputes the amount of information that they share with the Chinese government.  We would invite you but we already rid our phones of this app 🙂

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5.)  ATMs often will not accept foreign cards.  We had the best luck with Bank of China and ICBC, but not much else.  The country operates on a futuristic electronic payment system and uses very little cash.  Just about everything is paid using WeChat Pay or Alipay from a smartphone and many people do not even carry a wallet.  We even saw rural fruit vendors and street buskers with QR codes set up to accept money electronically.  There are no transaction fees for merchants so everyone is on board.

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6.)  Rent a wifi hotspot.  We usually set up a SIM card in countries we visit, but that option is nearly impossible in China.  This is a huge country and distances are vast, so having wifi is great on long travel days.

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Myths Versus Reality

1.)  China is smoggy and polluted – This was one of the most startling things we discovered.  China is actually not very smoggy and we found almost no trash anywhere.  The government has enacted a major keep it clean campaign and it shows.  Signs are posted reminding people to properly dispose of litter and to recycle.  Most of the big cities restrict vehicle usage to certain days to help reduce smog.  We even saw wide scale use of electric / hybrid vehicles and solar / wind power.  All the stories we heard about the oppressive smog and mountains of trash turned out to be almost totally in the past.

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2.)  China is still a distantly developing country – This is definitely a myth!  While there are certainly some areas which are behind the times, we found it to be more advanced in many ways than most other countries we have visited, including our own.  The transportation infrastructure is amazing, with some of the fastest and smoothest trains in the world.  It is said that a cigarette can be balanced on end for several minutes while in motion.  We saw cell phone cameras which could capture amazing astrophotography, they have developed their own GPS system which is accurate within centimeters, and we even saw futuristic lake cleaning robots!  We might as well have been in the Jetsons.  Just about everything is state of the art, other than plumbing, which was probably installed by Genghis Kahn.

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3.)  China is full of “ghost cities” – This is so true!  The creepy vacant cities you have heard about definitely exist.  We saw many of these cities while riding the bullet train from Xi’an to Beijing.  At times, there would be dozens of identical apartment towers simultaneously under construction or sitting totally vacant.  No lights, no laundry on the railings and no cars in sight.  It all looked like something out of the Walking Dead, only brand new.  It brings “build it and they will come” to a whole new level, although in China it is more like “build it and require them to come”.

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4.)  China is a repressed society – We were under the impression that citizens would not publicly criticize the Communist Party for fear of reprisal.  This also turned out not to be true.  We met several people who had no issue discussing their gripes and complaints about the government or Chairmen, and we heard no stories of critics being jailed.  It is widespread knowledge that there is internet censorship and other things that most democratic countries would consider lacks of freedom.  VPN usage is fairly widespread so many people are aware of the world around them regardless of what information is shared within the country.  Even more surprising, most people still support the current government.  The country’s standard of living has increased exponentially which has benefited most people.

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5.)  Everyone in China smokes – There is a terrible smoking problem in the country, and it is overwhelming.  All restaurants allow smoking and just about all of the people walking on the street smoke constantly.  They will even remove their pollution mask to smoke.  We had a driver light up in our unvented van at one point and are also pretty sure the pilot of our plane was also smoking mid air.

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6.)  Rain or shine, you will get poked in the eye with an umbrella It is unavoidable.  You could try wearing safety goggles and hope no one notices you, otherwise, make sure you have good insurance.

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Which sign made you laugh the hardest?  Let us know in the comments below.  We couldn’t help but giggle like school girls all over again when writing this post.


You can see other posts from our adventures, including our Trek Through the Annapurna CircuitGetting Lost and Found in Vietnam and Off Track Travel in Cambodia.  And take a look at our Adventure Gallery where you can see inspiring pictures from dozens of countries.

Do you have an interest in long term travel?  Check out our Planning Page where you can learn how to prepare for a lengthy trip, see how to never check your bags on planes, find out about travel security and make sense of travel insurance, amongst others.

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