China is still a communist country, and is very strict in rules on quite a few things, so just be respectful in the ports. Rules are quite strict, and it can be difficult to infiltrate social circles and make friends with locals on more than a superficial level, but once you have become friends, warm hospitality awaits.
Mandarin is the main language of China and is spoken and understood in most places. Cantonese is the main language in Hong Kong. English isn’t too widely spoken in China, even in large touristic cities you may struggle sometimes to find English speakers, so learning a few Mandarin phrases or keeping a phrasebook with you is very useful. See my Chinese words attached below. When going out on your own from the ship, Get the ship address in on a piece of paper to have with you so that if you ever get lost, at worst, you can always grab a cab, and show them the port address to get home in case you cant find anyone who speaks English.
Chinese Yuan. Range from $1 to 6.6 to 7.6 Chinese Yuan from Oct 2016-Oct 2017. If possibly, exchange money into Chinese Yuan before arriving in port. There are unfortunately a lot of scams with exchanging money in China, including tourists being duped at seemingly reputable exchange kiosks and offices. Exchange your currency in your own country, on the ship, or in another port in a different country in a safe exchange place if you can. If you exchange it in China, do so it in a proper bank (but they will ask to see your passport as proof if identity here, so this is tricky for crew members) or at the desk or currency exchange machine in the lobby of an international hotel. Always count your money in front of whomever you exchange it with, don’t just trust them, or their count. Counterfeit bills or people “accidentally” giving you less than you should have is too common.
Winter is very cold in most of China, and summer is very hot! Check the expected temperatures for when you’re there and a long range forecast ahead of time. However, in general October to March is colder, needing a coat and sweater, with temperatures ranging from around 0-12 degrees Celsius. Spring is usually March to May with temperatures from around 10-20 degrees Celsius, and summer from May to September sees temperatures soaring to between 25 up to 35 degrees depending on the area. Snow can be seen usually from November until February, and rain is commonplace from October until March. Pollution in China in the large cities, like Shanghai, Tianjin and Beijing that cruise ships go to, is incredible. What I first took to be fog enveloping the city in an early morning haze, I soon realized when I started coughing was no haze, and not going anywhere. It was the visible pollution from the country’s over population and over use of vehicles, and factories bellowing out the smog. There are currently rules enforced though about transport, with privately owned cars not being allowed to be used every day and instead even and odd numbered car number plates being allotted certain days of the week that they can be used, limiting private pollution, and encouraging public transport. Monorails within Shanghai and Tianjin are in the planning stages.
Many restaurants and bars often have free Wi-Fi, especially in Shanghai. Be aware that most places block Facebook, Google and some other websites you may frequently use. You can use a VPN on your device to get around this blocking if you are comfortable doing that. Or just wait to update your status until you are out of China and back on the ship.
Things are very cheap in China for us at the moment, so is a good place to buy souvenirs for family or enjoy food and excursions out.
China can be strict with visas and customs, to check how your nationality affects going into port here first. The crew office can answer questions. Guests, check visa rules thoroughly online in plenty time before your cruise, and check timelines to apply for visas before booking anything ideally.
Chinese food is nothing like Western countries’ versions of it! It is much tastier, fresher and healthier in real China! (As suspected). Rice dishes are king, also noodle dishes; all served with a healthy serving of fresh vegetables is common. Chinese people often eat out with their families, and eating dishes “family style” is very common. Many different dishes will be ordered and put in the middle of the table, and passed around to everyone by way of a “lazy Susan”, which is a revolving extra layer on top of the table, for ease of sharing. If you take a tour with lunch included, it will most likely be to a restaurant with this type of set up. Dim sum, dumplings, xao long bao, and noodle dishes are all varied and tasty. Vegetarianism is not common, and many vegetable dishes will be cooked with pork pieces or in chicken stock, so if you don’t eat meat, check the menu carefully. A way to assure your meal is meat free is to say that you are a Buddhist “Wo shi fojiao tu”, and the server will know to cook your food without animal fats or any small pieces of pork or shrimp in it. Eating at any local Buddhist temple restaurant is a definite way to keep your food animal product free too. Allergies to gluten, or other food allergies are not common, or very well known. I took a cooking class in Shanghai, and inquired about making dumplings with gluten free dough (as my mum can’t eat gluten and I was wondering if I could make it for her later). The response from the chef was one of genuine confusion. He literally said “We don’t have anything gluten free in China. We don’t know what that is.” So if you have any special dietary requirements, make them know early.
If you are staying in China before joining your ship to work or cruise, be aware that tourists are not permitted to stay in every hotel. There are rules about where tourists can stay in regards to budget accommodation, and you are only permitted to stay in well-known international and chain hotels. This isn’t the rule of the hotel, but of the government. It is a rule enforced supposedly to ensure the safety of the tourist, in theory having the chain hotels in good areas with good security etc. However, I feel it is more of a way to make more money out of foreigners, and awarding locals by limiting the cheaper hotels for Chinese residents, as the line of “quality” is sometimes skewed. If staying in a hotel before or after the ship, check the reviews on it first, and always bring a copy of your passport with you as you will be asked to hand over your passport on check in. Air B n B does not exist, and Youth Hostels’ cleanliness from what I’ve seen in Shanghai, leaves a lot to be desired.
Chinese New Year is of course, a huge affair. The start of February sees festivals, parties and general celebration throughout the country, with many businesses halting for families to enjoy time together. More Western influence over the past few decades has seen a rise in Christmas, and Valentines day being not just acknowledged, but celebrated too. Summer (from June to September) sees more festivals in general, with Shanghai having music festivals throughout the warmer months. Each city and area has different things events throughout the year, so check online for the particular city and month before travelling in case there is something extra special happening while you will be there.
My Favourite & Least Favourite Thing About China
I love the history of China. It is one of the oldest civilizations on the planet, and evidence of its rich history, and culture is still very evident in modern life, with temples playing an important role in daily life, as well as many palaces, shrines and buildings being preserved, and museums full of important artifacts.
My least favourite thing about China is more than one thing, but they come from the same route issue which I believe is a widespread attitude of grabbing what you can now, without concern for the future effects of it, due to overpopulation and the neediness that brings. The pollution is stifling and made myself and others on the ship feel quite ill, hacking up the inhaled smog after leaving the ports, combined with being quite disgusted by the constant spitting on the ground of people all around the cities, and finally, the amount of scamming that surrounds you, that you must be constantly vigilant of.
Local Customs/Etiquette to be aware of
• Respecting your elders is still very much abided by in China. While someone older may be a little less than polite to a younger person, the same is not advised of the other way around.
• Smoking is still very common in China. No smoking bars, and even restaurants are in the minority, so adjust your expectations in this regard accordingly.
• Unlike Japan, public places, like in museums, shops, on subways and buses, is a loud social affair in China. If you want peace and quiet, visit a Zen garden.
• Tipping isn’t the norm in China from Chinese guests, but especially in large cities, tips from foreign guests are not unfamiliar, and are received with thanks.
• In my opinion, the most unpleasant behavior you will see often in China is spitting. People, mostly men over 40, will spit on the ground anywhere outside whenever they want to offload residue from chewing tobacco or pollution, or simply to expel excess saliva. Wear open toe shoes with caution!
• Chinese people can be very friendly and kind. If you are invited to something, to attend a gathering or invited to lunch, it is good manners to accept, and your host will pay for whatever you eat, drink or do at said gathering. It is rude to decline hospitality and the visitor will be treated very well, which should be accepted graciously. Thank your host, but don’t insist on paying once you are told it is their treat.