Everyday life in China

Chinese people are very tolerant of foreigners. Even the strangest behaviors are often accepted, for they think that such things are normal in other countries. The first rule in almost all situations you can get into in China is: don't lose your temper! Patience and politeness always go further than cursing and shouting. Here we'll offer some hints for the traveler's daily life.

The topic "Chinese food: what if I'm allergic to duck foot?" will be dealt with in its own chapter. If you have further questions about traveling in China, you can ask them in our China Forum.

Public transportation in China


The simplest option for getting from point A to point B in Chinese cities is a taxi-people with lots of time and courage can also ride the bus. However, tourists coming in at the airport run the risk of getting ripped off by taxi rides into the city. We recommend taking an airport bus (no problem in Beijing and Shanghai) into downtown proper and then continuing by taxi to the final destination. One is normally met at the airport when one visits Chinese business partners, and hotels also offer pickup service at the airport.

Chinese taxis are very cheap; you can cover short distances for eight yuan (about one euro) and up. After a certain distance, the price is calculated per kilometer. When you take a taxi, be sure the driver starts the meter, and seems like he knows where he's going-at least seems like he could follow the route on a map.


You buy bus tickets in the vehicle from a conductor. Simply name your destination and hold out the money; the bus company employee will give you the proper ticket. Depending on the route, you'll pay 1 - 2 yuan, or more for longer distances. Buses in large cities are for the most part overfull, and crowding is enormous-keep an eye on your valuables.

The driving style of bus drivers is often astounding and reckless. My first bus ride a few years ago in Hangzhou was a formative experience: our driver didn't like to be passed and ran races with another bus. Just when it got really exciting, the police interrupted.


To obtain tickets in person at a train station is an interesting experience that helps one to imagine why self defense is so important to the Chinese. Crowding is unbelievable. During the spring festival or holidays around the national holiday, it's almost impossible to get a ticket yourself. It's therefore worthwhile to pay an extra 30 - 50 yuan to get tickets from a travel agent.

There are four classes of travel on trains.

Hard seater
the cheapest seats, typically just metal with a thin plastic coating. For overnight and long trips you should avoid these; even hardened backpackers should steer clear. Don't offer your seat to an older gentleman or beautiful woman, or you'll bitterly regret it at midnight, as you try in vain to sleep in the aisle or continue standing for the nth hour. If you go to the lavatory, there is no guarantee that your seat will be unoccupied when you get back to it.
Soft seater
available on some routes (e.g. between Shanghai and Hangzhou) day and night.

Hard sleepers are fully sufficient for night travel. They are open compartments with six narrow beds, with great opportunities to converse with Chinese travelers. Hard sleepers are often sold out on holidays.

Soft sleeper
luxury class. Here you'll encounter wealthy Chinese and executives (if, that is, they don't fly instead). Comfortable compartments for two or four people, there is nonetheless not as much space for luggage as in hard sleepers. A soft sleeper costs almost as much as a plane ticket.


Converting euro to Chinese currency is easy. You can do it immediately after arrival at the airport in Beijing or Shanghai, whereas in Europe the exchange is not possible. Traveler's checks in euro are accepted even in provincial areas, and they can be exchanged for yuan at almost any Bank of China, as well as in many hotels. People planning to stay longer should consider opening an account with Bank of China. Electronic transfers from European banks take 3 - 7 days. Chinese banks often have a special counter where transactions in foreign currency are conducted. Foreign credit and debit cards are an exciting affair-will the ATM take them or not? There are tourists who spend half a day in the bank waiting for the return of their credit cards. Paying with a credit card is usually not a problem in posh hotels.

Tipping in the People's Republic of China

Even though you'll be stared at pleadingly and expectantly by attendants (after they hand you a none too clean towel) in the first airport lavatory you enter, it is not usual in China-neither there nor in restaurants and hotels-to tip.

Gifts in China

Among friends, the best gift is something typical from your homeland. If you are unexpectedly invited, bring for example a bottle of wine. Chinese people prefer sweet wines (a dessert wine is an outstandingly suitable gift); a fruit basket would also be good. Avoid certain items, however, such as flowers, which are an expression of mourning, as is white wrapping paper. Go with red instead, which symbolizes good luck.

Greetings and salutations

The Chinese business partner and even friends are greeted according to a hierarchy of age. "Ladies first" doesn't exist in China, so avoid, for example, greeting female interpreters first in a business meeting. A brief handshake serves as greeting, as the majority of Chinese people who interact with Europeans have become accustomed to shaking hands and are surprised when someone offers a short bow. It's advisable, when greeting a superior or equal, to direct your gaze downward and to avoid direct eye contact.

This attests to deference and respect. Following greetings, it's customary to exchange business cards, whereby politeness demands that a card be received with both hands, and then examined for a few seconds rather than carelessly putting it away immediately.

Unexpected encounters

He who travels as a tourist through China will often be approached by strangers, be it by the rickshaw drivers at train stations who want to drive you to a hotel, or Chinese who prod tourists into a restaurant and invite themselves to an expensive dinner. Male tourists are routinely spoken to by beautiful Chinese women, who then order expensive drinks and disappear after consuming them.

I heard about a group of students who, on their first day in Beijing, were convinced by two Chinese men to dine on Peking duck in a rather shabby restaurant. Without ever having seen the bill, they gave the men 1000 yuan (ca. EUR 100) to settle the bill, whereas I, coincidentally, ate like royalty that same day in Beijing's restaurant most famous for Peking duck (Qianmen Quanjude Kaoyadian, in which hang photos of many Chinese and western politicians and famous personages who have eaten there) for a third of that amount.

In case of late-night phone calls to your hotel room, memorize these two important words: "bu yao." Feel free to sound quite enraged, because that will help to achieve just the right Chinese intonation. "Bu yao" means "I don't want that," referring to offers-for example, to have a girl sent up to your room. Many times you'll also be addressed by Chinese students who want to practice their English, or by helpful Chinese folks eager to offer their assistance to gawkish, dumbfounded tourists. It is often the case that someone will invite you on the spur of the moment to visit, or will help you buy a train ticket. As anywhere in the world, there are welcome and no so welcome encounters and events. Though you should be a little suspicious, trust your good judgment of people-if you have a bad feeling, refuse politely but firmly, with a smile on your face, then move along. However, there's no reason to be impolite.

Bartering with street vendors/at the market

Bartering with street vendors/at the market China's is a trade society; besides at restaurants, malls, and supermarkets, you haggle for whatever the stuff is worth. The point isn't to rip off foreign tourists or purchasers, as even Chinese students and other bookish sorts don't know the prices and therefore pay too much. In the end, you pay whatever the wares are worth to you. If the seller determines that you, even as a foreigner, understand the prices, negotiation goes quickly and smoothly. Many products are quite inexpensive to westerners even without lengthy bartering, and one is tempted to pay more for small purchases (for example vegetables) in order to save time. But when you're stocking up on clothing or souvenirs, haggling becomes an interesting experience. Save money with the following guidelines:

Rule of thumb for determining price (not guaranteed):

  • opening price divided by three is a decent result; opening price divided by four is an outstanding outcome. Always let the seller name a price, then begin with an offer 1/5 of that. Increase your offer slowly.
  • When you find something you really like and definitely want to have, don't telegraph how eager you are.
  • Be polite and patient, and take care that haggling is fun for the seller as well, because he'll be more likely to make concessions. Traders occasionally let their wares go very cheap, as long as they can save face doing it.
  • If an item seems too expensive, don't purchase it out of false politeness. Walk away from the stand and see if the trader will then come down on price; if not, well, you can almost certainly find the same product a few meters down the street. Otherwise, if you don't care at all what the trader thinks of you or your countrymen, go back and buy from him.
  • Counterfeit currency is very common in China!

Surely we needn't mention that price negotiations at a marketplace go by very different rules than during business transactions.

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