For my last China post I’ve compiled a short list of helpful tips to prepare any westerner (blonde or not) for a trip to this amazing country. To help illustrate these points I’ve included real life anecdotes from my three weeks of traveling.

1) ALWAYS have the name of your destination in Chinese.

Even in urban areas like Shanghai and Beijing it’s super important to have the Chinese translated names (and addresses if you have them) of the places you’re planning to visit since most bus drivers, cabbies, and generally anyone working in a public office will not speak a word of English. To eliminate stress and wasted time while traveling within and between cities, remember to always have your destinations clearly printed out in Chinese and at the ready.

(Elsewise you may find yourself relying on English map translations like the below. Look closely.)

– I learned this important lesson the hard way on my last night in Shanghai; returning from a few days in Suzhou, I’d booked accommodation at a hotel near the airport so I’d be able to easily arrive there the next day for my early morning flight. I had my booking.com confirmation printed and ready with both the name and address in English, but no information to provide my cabbie in Chinese. I thought he’d understood me when I signaled the address number with the roughly pronounced Chinese street name, however 20 minutes later when he pulled up to a seedy row of dark motels and tried to shoo me out of the cab (in the rain no less), I knew I’d assumed wrong. We drove around for another 20 minutes arguing back and forth before he eventually arrived at the hotel I’d booked. That was the first and last time I made that mistake.

2) Don’t take it personally when you’re singled out in a crowd.

There aren’t many non-Chinese tourists in China. It can be time consuming and expensive to obtain a Chinese visa, and due to its (at times) unwelcoming approach to foreign visitors it’s not on a lot of westerners’ ‘must-see’ lists. Except for my days in Shanghai’s FFC, I can count on both hands how many western tourists I saw in each of the cities I visited. For that reason it’s not unusual for western travelers to receive a LOT of attention, both good and bad, from local Chinese.

– After a two hour delay leaving Zhangjiajie, my flight to Beijing arrived after 1:00 am. I’d already spoken to my amazingly helpful Airbnb host, who’d told me a 20 minute cab ride to his place would only cost 70¥, or about $11, but soon learned my flight wasn’t the only one that had been delayed when I walked outside and saw the super long taxi queue. I was immediately approached by airport staff advising me that taxis were no longer running at this hour (!) but they could arrange a cab ride for me for only 300¥. At this point in my trip I was already extremely jaded cautious, so instead of listening I simply got in line with the rest of the people and waited.

Over the next 45 minutes three different uniformed ‘airport employees’ approached me and tried to pull me out of line, each explaining that cabs were no longer running despite the fact I could see them picking people up with my own eyes. By the third attempt I was straight up pissed; more than anything I hate being lied to, and what they were doing was just insulting my intelligence. There were literally a hundred people around me also waiting, why weren’t they being told that taxis were no longer running? I ended up going off on the last girl who approached me, not one of my finer moments but after that I was left alone. I ended up making it to my Airbnb as planned, at a fair rate, but the whole ordeal left me with a poor first impression of Beijing.

(Beware of pollution. And being targeted as a tourist…)

3) Don’t be afraid to try the food!

Initially hesitant to go too far out of my comfort zone lest I be served a plate of dog, with some guidance I ended up loving the food in China! It’s true what they say, that real Chinese food is completely unlike American Chinese food, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn most of their dishes are swarming with vegetables, super fresh, super spicy, and delicious. The Chinese are extremely proud of their cuisine as well; shared meals are a central part of family and home life in China and nothing will create a friendship faster than trying and appreciating someone’s freshly prepared meal. At the end of the day, more often than not I stuck with noodles (I heart me some noodles) but there are so many kinds prepared in so many ways that it’s still an exciting experience trying them all.

(SO spicy, SO yummy.)

4) Be prepared for potential scams.

Some of my favorite moments in China were the long hours I spent hanging out with my Airbnb host in Beijing hearing about his life growing up there. His English was flawless (self taught after watching endless episodes of Friends), and after studying sociology then working at the UN, he had the keen ability to see and explain the intricacies of cross-cultural relationships. He told me one night matter-of-factly that Chinese people are taught that all westerners are rich, period. For this reason many see no issue in the occasional scam (even targeting lowly budget backpackers) because they believe they’re not doing any real harm, and westerners can afford it.

– We were having this conversation after I’d told him about the experience I’d had that very day: wishing to see the Great Wall while I was in Beijing, I was thrilled to follow my host’s advice and take public transportation to one of the nearby sections of the wall known as Badaling, saving $150+ in tour fees. I set out for the main bus terminal via metro, but encountered a small problem when I arrived there and found the bus I’d wanted had stopped running thirty minutes prior (per the legit posted sign).

After once again finding an empty Information booth, I was able to access free wifi and learn from tripadvisor that I had two options: 1) take an alternative bus or 2) take a cab to the wall (there were plenty around). Still wanting to save money, I spotted the alternative bus queue across the terminal and got in line. My confidence was wavering when I didn’t recognize the name on the bus’ sign (though the number was correct) and noticed everyone else in line with ticket already in hand. I stepped out of line to look for the ticket booth (later learning I could’ve just purchased onboard). Lo and behold I was soon approached by a man (after finding the ticket booth empty) informing me the bus I was planning to ride actually wasn’t headed for Badaling. He could, however, easily take me there himself. He seemed trustworthy (famous last words) so I agreed (after 10 minutes of haggling) to pay him the fare I’d seen on tripadvisor for a cab minutes before.

The ride out to Badaling was supposed to be roughly an hour; I hit the first metaphoric speedbump 40 minutes into the ride when we approached a tollbooth and he said I had to pay for the toll fees too, so that we could take the expressway. This added a good 20% to our agreed upon price but, feeling I wasn’t in the best position to argue, I irritatedly handed over the money. It was only after we’d arrived, he’d parked and I was 30 minutes into the solo hike up that I started getting a funny feeling.

I’d read about Badaling online, and had been told by my Airbnb host the best path to escape crowds and see the best views. Well, there were no crowds. And there was only one path. I approached a couple passing by and tried to ask them if we were in fact at Badaling. They spoke no English (and after two weeks I was still having no luck in the Mandarin department) but the super nice guy was able to confirm that no, we were definitely not at Badaling, and even went so far as to show me its location on his phone, 20 miles north!

I couldn’t believe it. The driver had straight up lied to me and taken me to the wrong place. I was irate, or as irate as I could be surrounded by such gorgeous scenery. (So like irate light.)

The section of the wall he’d taken me to at Juyongguan was like a miniature version, completely restored, and more of a show version than the real deal. While still neat to see, I did not appreciate being deceived (repeatedly), so when I got to the top of the wall and saw there was an alternative way down I took it. An hour and a half later I was on my public bus (which did run to Badaling, another lie!) heading back to Beijing, feeling one part guilty but two parts justified in ditching my ride. It certainly made for a memorable day.

5) You’ve got to know when to fold ’em.

In any traveling situation one has to recognize that to a large extent they’re not in control. Getting by successfully in an unknown country with a different culture and markedly different traditions and languages requires quite a lot of flexibility and the ability to roll with the punches. China is no exception to this rule, in fact it was more important for me to remember this mantra there than in any other country I’ve visited so far.

– After a night in the city of Guilin in the Guangxi province, I was super excited to spend the last of my days in China on the beautiful Li River in Yangshuo. Always eager to take public transportation and save a buck, I took off from my hotel for the Guilin bus terminal nearby after being given directions on taking the public bus to Yangshuo. After arriving at the bus station and finding no English signage, I asked around to find out which bus was headed to Yangshuo.

An older woman overheard me and came rushing over, signaled for me to follow her and took me to the correct bus. After getting situated inside, the woman signaled for me to give her 30¥ to buy my ticket. I’d read online earlier that this happens frequently to tourists in Guilin; after showing a visitor directions to a bus, a local will take the tourist’s money for a ticket overstating the price, then pocket the change. After my recent bus experience in Beijing I also knew that tickets are normally purchased from an attendant onboard once the bus is underway. I tried unsuccessfully to explain to the woman that I wouldn’t give her my money, and that I’d buy my ¥20 ticket from the attendant, but she didn’t understand, or pretended not to.

We argued back and forth for a few minutes until she got off the bus, but I knew the ordeal wasn’t over. The bus was slowly filling up when she returned and tried all over again to ask for 30¥ for the 20¥ ticket; I continued to refuse her and she got more and more worked up, yelling at me in Chinese, telling me to get off the bus and trying to grab my backpack. Now, I probably had close to nine inches and 40 lbs on this woman so was never in fear of physical harm, but being publicly berated at length in front of a bus full of strangers in a language you don’t understand can drive anyone to the edge.

I had to hold myself back from getting back in her face when she got in mine, especially when she went to grab my bag, knowing full well nothing good would come of it. After complaining to the ticket attendant onboard about the situation, the attendant then came over and told me to give the older woman money; I asked the attendant why she was only trying to collect money from me and not everyone else on board and she left me alone.

At this point everyone on that bus was watching me. It was all I could do to just sit there calmly, with my hands still on my bag protectively. Eventually the woman had to get off when the bus left town, but she was yelling at me until the very last minute. Once we were underway I put on my headphones and tried to relax (nothing can help a mood like some familiar tunes). I thought it was weird when twice the attendant switched the occupant of the seat next to me, first from a young boy to a girl my age, then to an old woman (it was the only seat she was playing musical chairs with).

When the attendant finally came around to collect money from everyone, she asked me for the inflated ticket price of 30¥. It was then, after briefly challenging her, that I admitted defeat. I only had a 50¥ bill and had to rely on her making change anyway. Despite the Internet and confirmation from my Guilin hotel (and later my Yangshuo hotel) that the ticket price was 20¥, she insisted I pay 30¥. Emotionally exhausted, I paid the 30¥. When I eventually got to Yangshuo I hung up my hat, opted out of public transportation OR private tours for a few days, and simply enjoyed the beautiful setting.

6) Above all, don’t forget to have a sense of humor. And a sweet travel playlist.

The three weeks I spent in China were straight up crazy: crazy challenging, crazy beautiful, and crazy different than anything I’ve experienced to date. There is no way I would’ve gotten through all of that without remembering to have some perspective, and keeping my sense of humor at the ready. (I mean, I got punked by a grandma, y’all…)

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie