Some ground level tips to navigate through the language & technology barriers of China for a Business Travel to China. Useful for a backpacker or a business traveler.
“There are no foreign lands.Robert Louis Stevenson
It is the traveler only who is foreign”
Taxis zooming past, jazzy public transport, high-speed trains, swanky buses & rapid transit corridors, web of subway. But nothing seems accessible.
China has grown rapidly in technology & infrastructure over the past years. Alongside it has created its parallel universe of home-grown apps, to replace Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Maps, Amazon, Uber etc. None of these are accessible in China !!
1. Print hotel address in Mandarin – BEFORE you start
Airports and stations have well-organized taxi bays and directions for pickup marked in English. But beyond this, English is rarely understood.
Due to network and other issues, sometimes, the Internet may not work immediately when you reach China. Also many sites are blocked in China. So have ‘print’ or ‘screenshot’ of the address BEFORE you start.
Simply show it to the taxi or bus driver and zoom to your destination.
Missing the mandarin address, can cost you a lot of time & money. Be prepared for a misguided city tour with a confused taxi driver. Don’t expect much help from street pedestrians and policemen. People are helpful, but handicapped when it comes to English. Also, translation apps are not very accurate.
Ask your hotel, or check the Hotel App/ website for the Mandarin address before you start for your business travel to China.
For most hotels, Tripadvisor has a link “Name/address in local language”
2. Have sufficient cash with you
Local taxis will take cash (or payment Apps). Bigger stores & restaurants can take cards. But places even like McDonalds may refuse cards.
So be prepared with a reasonable amount of cash before you step out of the Airport. An amount you will need in any developed economy to travel by taxi plus some buffer should be fine.
Tipping culture is not prevalent in China. Drivers and restaurants do not expect Tip. If you still tip, it may be frowned upon by some, while many will still accept it (mostly places catering to western travelers).
3. Local taxis in China with DiDi App
DiDi is similar to Uber. You can call normal yellow-taxi or enlisted private cars (similar to UberX). Almost every local uses this. Yellow taxis go by meter and take cash.
Without this, every taxi you flag-off is either ‘carrying someone’ or ‘called by someone on DiDi App’. No taxi stops for you.
There are multiple DiDi App variants. Download the correct one, which is “DiDi – Greater China” App on Android/Apple. Use this in your business travel to show your hosts, how easily you are adapting to China
1. If you can link your credit-card to DiDi App, then you can call Express cabs (enlisted private cars) and pay directly from your card. This also helps cashless travel and reimbursements for business travel.
2. You can chat with your driver in the DiDi App, while giving directions. The App auto-translates the chat in real-time.
4. WeChat communication – Must for Business Travel to China
The mega-App Wechat is similar to WhatsApp and much more. It has chatting, calling, conference, social-updates, payments, promotions, bicycle-rentals, e-commerce, food-order, even COVID profiling, all rolled into one. Another relevant feature is its in-app translation.
WeChat is an essential tool here. .For foreigners, registration and authentication can be sometimes tricky. But go to any length to ensure that you have a working WeChat account.
For use in a laptop, use “WeChat for PC”. It helps to share files/content directly from your Laptop to your WeChat contacts & handle WeChat calls from Laptop.
5. Public transport smart card / Metro card in China
If you spend more time in one city, it’s recommended to purchase a mobility card (transit card/metro card). It works for all buses and subways. Mostly it is available at the airport metro stations, (and will accept cash or Mobile payments, but rarely cards). Airport counters generally have an English speaking person.
Another option is ticket-counter at subway stations. But better to go with a picture of the transport card (or get it written in Mandarin from the hotel), to avoid a lengthy sign-language conversation and still return empty-handed.
Every city has its own transit card.
The transit card works on all buses and BRT corridors for a city.
Shenzhen and Hong Kong share common-border with many transit points. So both governments now have a common transit card. A single card has two virtual wallets, one for Shenzhen ‘Tong’ card (Currency: RMB) and another for Hong Kong ‘Octopus’ card (Currency: HKD).
6. Maps & Navigation – Apple maps & Amaps
Google Maps do not work, (not even Offline-download of China region). If it somehow works, the coordinates and landmarks will be hilarious. Your actual location and location on the map may be miles apart on Google Maps.
This knowledge (of incorrect google-map behavior) is important, as the map may suggest a station across the road, but you are actually in a park far from it. So, use it at your own risk of getting further lost.
For Apple users, apple-maps are reasonably good.
For Android users, a good alternative is Amap. It is not in English. But you can type in English and for common items, it can auto-translate & show the search results, routes, traffic navigation, restaurants etc.
7. High-Speed trains in China
High-Speed Rail (HSR) is an excellent & more relaxed alternative to flights for intercity travel. It is modern, clean, fast and punctual.
Shanghai-Beijing distance (about 2-hour flight) is similar to Delhi-Mumbai or Paris-Madrid distance. Has 40+ HSR, every day, for a 5-6 hour journey.
Ticket purchase can be a hassle for foreigners and counters rarely understand English. Also keep sufficient time to navigate as queues can be long and the stations can be larger than an Olympic stadium.
Some apps/sites like Trip.com make train ticketing easy for foreigners.
Purchase online on the English interface and (if needed) exchange it for a paper ticket at the station-counter by showing your passport.
[Vegetarian Bonus]. Hot food of your choice in China !!
Hot-Pot is a Chinese cooking method, prepared with a simmering pot of soup, containing a choice of ingredients, including various vegetables, meat & spices (self-service selection, and you don’t need to take).
The choice of ingredients is completely up to you. It can be only vegetables, herbs & noodles (for vegetarians). Selective non-vegetarians can add chicken or lamb. Put them in a bowl and pass it on to the chef. Try to indicate a medium level of spices (if you can). If too spicy, just pick some juice or cold drink from the refrigerator. The average cost of a meal is about 3 to 5 USD.
Generally, China is very safe with negligible street crime, and much less with foreigners. Still scams can dupe you and spoil your business travel to China
A popular scam is the Chinese-tea scam. In popular tourist destinations or markets, an English speaking lady will approach you, claiming that she wants to talk & practice English with you. Meanwhile, some nice Chinese tea will be suggested and you will be guided to a tea-shop.
Once the tea is ordered, you will be presented with an astronomical bill that has to be paid!!
You can read about more scams here.
But still, it’s a lovely, beautiful place with superb technology & infrastructure. A very safe place, with helpful people. Check our other Travel articles & enjoy your trip to China!!
Technology & rules of land change rapidly. All efforts are taken to keep the data updated. If we miss anything, do let us know in the feedback below.