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Scams For Tourists to Avoid in China and Travel Advice
Some useful travel tips for surviving a tour of the Middle Kingdom
13 things that you should know before you go to China
These are just a few of the scams that you may run into while visiting China, along with some travel tips that will help you be better prepared when you arrive:
1) Beware of “budget” or super-inexpensive tours in China.
There are many tour companies in China, particularly in the capital city of Beijing, that offer unbelievably cheap tours, which is not a problem as long as you know what you are getting yourself into. These “budget” tours will put you on overcrowded, often dirty buses loaded with Chinese tourists that will have numerous forced shopping stops and fake “sightseeing” stops that are little more than thinly-disguised additional shopping stops. More often than not, you wil spend more time in these shopping areas and getting everyone on and off the bus than you will at the sights you actually wanted to see, such as the Great Wall at Badaling, for example. Be sure to ask questions about what type of tour you will be getting before you put down any money with any tour company.
2) China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine (also known as Chinese School of Traditional Medicine, etc.)
Usually this is part of one of the above-listed “budget” or super inexpensive tours in China. Located near the Ming Tombs, this is often one of the unwanted stops on these tours. Everyone has to get off of the bus, and you are led into a “clinic” where a white-coated “doctor” will examine you. No matter how healthy you feel or how healthy you actually are, the “doctor” will find something wrong with you. But not to worry – this “clinic” will have just the medicine for you! Don’t fall for this one – although Traditional Chinese Medicine certainly has its benefits, this scam will have you overpaying for anything that you buy here, and it almost certainly will not help the imaginary health problems that the “doctor” finds that you have. Stick with a reputable tour company and stay away from places like this.
3) Other Common Scams.
As with any large tourist destination, foreigners are often targeted for scams in China, and it may be worse here as foreigners are so easy to spot in China. Tourists with reputable tour guides are safe, but unescorted tourists should be aware of some common scams:
· “Free” Tour Guides
This is one of the more insidious scams out there (although all scams are inherently evil) - a young and attractive, usually female operative will approach foreigners, particularly single men. They will usually be found in a popular tourist area such as Tian’anmen Square or the Forbidden City, and offer to be a tour guide for free so that they can practice their English, or some other seemingly well-intentioned reason. They will seem innocent and very friendly, acting as though they are personally attracted to the intended victim and they may actually take you to places such as the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube at the Olympic Park. What is actually happening is that they are studying the tourist to find his or her interests in order to take advantage of them and take their money. A common variation is for the young women acting as free tour guides to take men out “for a drink” and then lead them to a fellow scammer’s bar, where they will ask the tourist to buy them drinks for outrageous prices. Usually the victim will not even know how much each drink is actually costing them. The bar tab at the end can be in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. Of course, the more that you drink the less you will be aware of what is happening, and the hangover the next day may be nothing compared to what you find when you finally get your credit card bill or search your pockets for those many 100-yuan notes that you had the night before.
· “Black Taxis”
Probably the first scam you will face begins at the airport or train station with the “black” taxi drivers - people with unlicensed vehicles that will offer to take you to your destination. Anyone with a Western face will almost certainly be approached by someone coming up to you and saying “Taxi!” - do not even talk to these people. At the train station, follow the “Taxi” signs outside to find a line of legal taxis, and make sure that they start the meter when you begin your journey. At the airport, directly outside of the arrival terminal you will find a line of legal taxis to take for the 30-45 minute trip into the city of Beijing. If you have any doubt as to whether it is a legal taxi or not, check the license plate on the back of the taxi, the second character on it should be a “B”, after the Chinese character for jing.
· “Tea Ceremony”
Common around Tian’anmen Square and The Forbidden City, innocent-looking young Chinese people will pose as students wanting to practice their English, older people will offer to act as your “tour guides”, or people will assume other innocuous-seeming identities that have been honed to attract sympathy from foreign tourists. These seemingly helpful people will take you to a teahouse for a “traditional” ceremony where the final bill can run into the hundreds of U.S. dollars - don’t fall for this one. There are honest tea ceremonies provided by reputable tour companies, but never go with someone off of the street, especially around the popular tourist destinations.
· “The Art Show”
Another common scam is the “university art student”, also seemingly earnest, telling you about an “art show” where they will take you to a shop and try to sell you outrageously overpriced “art” that you can buy in many markets around Beijing very cheaply.
There are countless such scams designed to separate you from your money - just use common sense and never go off anywhere with anyone that you do not know and trust, no matter how seemingly innocent and helpful they may appear.
4) Bring Patience With You.
China is not ____________ (fill in the blank with the name of any other country). Just about everything is different in China, which is just one of the many things that make it such an interesting place to visit. Bring plenty of patience with you; decades of Communist rule have led to sometimes unbelievable inefficiencies in the system, but things are (mostly) constantly improving. Also remember that China is the world’s most populous country, and places can be CROWDED - avoid Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, for example, during any of the week-long Chinese holidays, which are in late January - early February for the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival), and also the October 1 National Day. For now, the May 1 Labor Day holiday has been reduced to only a one-day holiday so that one is no longer such a major traveling headache. If you can avoid it though, it is best to avoid scheduling your trip to China during the October 1 holiday – a week afterwards is an ideal time to tour in China when the weather is usually at its very best. Even outside of holidays though, China is still a very crowded country, but as with most places, patience, a smile and a friendly attitude will usually be rewarded.
5) Toilets and Toilet Paper.
Always bring toilet paper with you - toilets in China are rarely, if ever, stocked with a supply of toilet paper. And you never know when that “squid on a stick” that you ate at lunch or dinner might strike back. Most public toilets in China outside of the hotels are of the “squat” variety and thus have no seats, which can be tough on Western legs that are not used to it. McDonalds and KFC restaurants are ubiquitous in the larger cities and they can be lifesavers at times for their clean restrooms. Some of the public toilets are little more than a series of communal holes in the ground with no privacy dividers between them - these are best avoided if at all possible. Beijing implemented a star grading system for public toilets and also added numerous relatively clean toilets for public use for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, so at least in Beijing the public toilet situation has been greatly improved.
6) Tap Water.
Somewhat related to number 2), water in Beijing and China is not safe to drink straight out of the tap. Drink bottled water or use water that your hotel has boiled and supplied to you for coffee or tea. In most places, tap water is safe enough though for brushing your teeth though, just try not to swallow too much of the water. Bottles of water are readily available just about everywhere for around 2 Chinese Yuan, or 3 Yuan inside some of the more popular tourist sites.
ATMs are readily available in the big cities, not so much, if at all, in rural areas. They are usually the best way to get good exchange rates; it is a good idea to check with your bank at home to see how much your own bank will charge you for foreign withdrawals and how much you can withdraw each day. Most Beijing ATMs have a withdrawal limit of 2000-2500 Chinese Yuan (although we know of one with a 5000 CNY limit, due to Chinese governmental currency regulations withdrawals with a foreign ATM card are still limited to 2500 CNY), but most will let you make multiple withdrawals up to your home bank’s daily withdrawal limit. Just be sure that you use your debit or cash withdrawal card rather than a credit card to avoid those outrageous cash advance fees and the high interest rates.
8) Credit Cards.
Credit cards are not yet widely accepted in China. Some of the better hotels will take Visa or Mastercard, and some of the more expensive shopping areas will accept those cards and American Express. As with everything else in China, this is changing, but it is best not to count on using your credit cards much while you are in China; the same is true of traveler’s checks. Some banks will cash traveler’s checks, but the fees are expensive.
Internet access is usually available in the better hotels, but it is relatively expensive if it is not provided for free as part of your room deal. There are an increasing number of free wi-fi hotspots in airports, restaurants and bars that are popular with foreigners. For the more adventurous, ask your hotel or your tour guide where the nearest Internet cafe is - they are usually inexpensive, just a few Chinese Yuan per hour, but they vary from passably clean to downright filthy.
China operates on 220-240V/50Hz, which is different than that of North America (except Greenland) and South America. Most of the better hotels can provide you with an electrical converter, but if you are not staying at a 5-star hotel or if you are traveling outside of the main cities, it is a good idea to bring a voltage converter with you if you have electrical items that you want to use while in China.
11) Chinese Visas.
For Beijing tours and China travel, tourists will need an “L” visa, which is normally good for 30 days, long enough to cover most Beijing and China tours. In the United States, unless you are close enough to the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. or one of the 5 Chinese consulates-general to go there in person, you will need to go through an agent. For other countries, it is best to check with the Chinese embassy or consulate in your country to determine exactly what you will need to get a visa to visit China.
12) Crime in China.
Serious crime against foreigners in China is almost unheard of, but it can happen. As with anywhere you go, be careful and keep your valuables close to your person at all times. What few problems there are lie with petty theft and pickpockets, but using common sense such as carrying your wallet in your front pants pocket, never losing sight of your bags and using a hidden money belt can help you avoid any problems at all.
13) Learn a few words of Mandarin before you go to China.
Simply knowing how to say “ni hao” (hello) and “xie xie” (thank you) will make your visit more pleasant as it will show that you have made at least a minimal effort to understand the language. It is also useful to learn how to say “bu yao” (don’t want) to deal with the inevitable and persistent vendors that will try to sell you souvenirs that no one really needs.
All of the above scams are certainly not found only in China, they are found in one variation or another in just about any tourist destination in the world. Don’t let these warnings frighten you off from visiting China – China is one of the safest countries in the world for visiting tourists and most of the people that you meet will be very friendly - just be wary as you should be when visiting any place that you don't know well. Whether you are traveling on your own or with a trustworthy China tour company, the Middle Kingdom is one of the most fascinating places on earth to visit.
Author: Jeff Cheap