Expat Magazine

Travelling Solo in China: Is It Safe?

By Mint Mocha Musings @nicoledwebb

Solo travel in China

Living in China — Hong Kong and then Xi’an on the mainland — for the past six years, it’s become increasingly obvious, just how safe these cities are. 

Let’s face it, almost every time we turn on the television, we see images of bombed cities in complete disarray, children bloodied and shell-shocked… terror attacks in countries we’ve always felt safe travelling to. Then there are the street muggings, robberies, rapes and murders. The list, sadly, goes on.

And because of that, I’ve heard many people say: in today’s climate they are simply too afraid to travel, especially to somewhere like China!

I’m not saying the above doesn’t happen in both Hong Kong and potentially the quieter city of Xi’an or greater China for that matter, oh it definitely does! Both these cities boast populations around the 8 or 9 million mark, so there are without doubt a lot of “underground” scandals! 

But in general, as a place to live with your kids….a place to travel….a place to be a woman on your own, China is remarkably safe and a surprisingly peaceful hub in a world, that is seemingly more and more fraught with danger and fear. 

So when a friend asked me to write a piece on solo travel for women in China, I thought, “Hell yes! Why not!” because with nearly two-thirds of travellers today being women, I’m sure there are a lot of you, who have thought about it – but put off travelling to an unknown quantity like China. 

But, let me reassure you!

Is China Safe

TRAVELLING ALONE IN CHINA IS SAFE!

For starters, in both Hong Kong and Xi’an….I have rarely, if ever felt uncomfortable walking around, late at night. Clearly, you need to have your wits about you and avoid dark, uninhabited spots, but in general, both cities, though chalk and cheese – are uniquely sheltered environments. 

Hong Kong’s bright lights and big city fit into a small and compact area. It’s overcrowded, for sure! But there’s an astonishing ‘orderliness’ that reigns over the fragrant harbour. I spoke about it briefly in this post A for Effort…a few years ago.

Much the same can be said in the more innocent and less savvy Xi’an. 

As a woman, in many countries, if I was walking towards a group of men, on my own, I could potentially feel a little intimidated – head down, walk quickly. Here – it’s never a glaring problem. ‘Glaring’ being the operative word. There’s glaring and there’s glaring, right? I rarely find Asian men glaring at me in a sexually suggestive way. Glaring perhaps at the absurdity of this strange white woman strolling the streets, but it’s usually nothing more than an innocent curiosity.

That in itself takes the pressure off going anywhere alone in these cities. It gives you a freedom, that I think, many women in other countries may not even realise they’re missing. 

DRESS CODE

Women can freely dress however they choose in China and that applies to travellers too. Most Chinese women though, do dress relatively conservatively, so you’re less likely to garner unnecessary attention if you’re not too revealing! 

But to be honest you will be the centre of attention no matter what you wear. As a foreigner, many locals – particularly outside the first tier cities – will be curious about the foreign lady (or man for that matter) in town. Put a child into the mix and there’s even more attention!

The people of China are in general extremely peaceful and friendly, so your best bet is to take it all with a grain of salt. Some may even try to touch you, just say Bu Yao Le! (Boo Yow La! which means “Don’t!”) if you’re not comfortable and they’ll soon get the message! 

Otherwise, you’ll experience a tiny taste of what it’s like to have celebrity status being constantly ‘papped!’ Some will even want to practice their English with you. If you’re up for it, don’t be scared. For the most part it’s all harmless chatter.  

PICKPOCKETS

You’ll be pleased to know, given it’s humongous size and population, overall, China has a relatively low murder rate….less than half that of the United States. China has severe criminal penalties (by a wide margin, China executes more criminals annually than any other country). It’s also commonly reported that Chinese courts (rightly or wrongly) have a 99 per cent conviction rate. It’s said Chinese criminals understand, committing a crime against a foreigner is bad publicity (or ‘loss of face’) for the country’s lucrative tourism industry, not to mention the hefty penalties they’ll cop. Plus with CCTV in many places, it’s easy to be caught out. Big Brother is always watching!

As a tourist of course, you can fall victim to petty crime. Take precautions and be careful around tourist hot spots and in crowded places like markets or on public transport. I’ve heard stories about pickpockets carrying large bags and placing them under the tourist’s handbag, cutting the bottom out so the contents fall into theirs. Don’t tempt thieves and carry valuables in full view in these places and try to carry as little cash as possible.

*Tip: Most places won’t take foreign credit cards, especially outside first tier cities.

If you’re at a market and you’ve shown the slightest interest in something i.e. looked sideways or touched it, you might have vendors chasing after you down the street trying to sell it to you! If you’re definitely not interested just ignore them and keep walking!

Another popular hang out for thieves is crowded restaurants. You might notice that Chinese never hang their purses or bags on the chair behind them like many of us or plonk them on the floor (like I used to)! The reasons are two fold…one it’s safer and two the floor is usually considered too filthy to place your bag on. When I first arrived in China I was given a rather stern look for placing my bag beside my feet!! (Some tables in cafes actually have hooks under the table for your bag or they’ll bring you an extra chair, yes just for your handbag, ladies!)

SCAMS

Of course, China is the home of fakes! Almost everything can be copied (and that includes food)! I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but just about all  brand-name items for sale in small shops or on the streets probably aren’t the real deal! 

As a foreign tourist, there’s every chance you could find yourself paying double what something is worth.

Counterfeit money is also a big problem on the mainland, so don’t be alarmed when every cashier checks your cash through a machine to determine it’s validity. It’s not just you! 😉 

*Tip:  All the bills except the one yuan note have metal ribbons from top to bottom. These should be visible as a silver line on the front of a shadow when looked at from the back. Also, the flower design near the middle of each note and Chairman Mao’s jacket image are textured.

There is a popular scam in China that may see you suddenly faced with someone throwing themselves in front of your car or scooter! (If you happen to be brave enough to drive and have a licence.) Some people will do anything to get money off the “rich” foreigner.

If you see someone who is injured or hurt, it will probably go against everything you believe in to ignore them…but be aware, there is no ‘good samaritan’ law in China and if you should injure them further, you’ll be held liable.

DOCUMENTS

Protect your passport, tickets and visa documents by carrying them on you if you can’t leave them in a safe.

Keep a photocopy of your passport and other vital documents separately. Note in all hotels and hostels the staff are required by law to keep a copy of your passport while you stay there. (This is about registering you….and the government knowing who’s in town!)

Is it safe to travel to China

ROAD SAFETY

In all probability, the most likely causes of harm to you as a tourist could potentially come from the road! I’m talking about car accidents, road mishaps and the like.

You’ve no doubt heard me talk about the chaotic manner of the traffic many times on this blog? If you haven’t click on this post for the lowdown.

Why do they drive so erratically? 

A big part of the problem is, they just haven’t been driving for long. In 2000, China had less than 10 million passenger vehicles (a proportion less than that of the United States in 1911). Ten years later, the number of privately owned cars in China ballooned to about 70 million. Rumours tell me there are currently 1000 new cars a day on Xi’an’s roads. It’s utter madness, but for the most part, you’ll be fine. 

You’ll probably feel like closing your eyes tight… or holding your stomach with all the ducking and weaving, lurching and halting, but given the amount of traffic, things move relatively slowly. You’ll see lots of bingles (Aussie term for small collisions) but hopefully nothing too major. 

Crossing the road on the other hand needs your attention. Most Chinese just wander out into the road without so much as a glance sideways. Jaywalking laws? Are you kidding! You are probably best not to follow suit. On China’s roads, the unspoken law is generally, whoever’s bigger gets right of way. Keep your wits about you and don’t be fooled into thinking you can cross safely on the little green man!

I have watched many Chinese women stick their arm out like superman as they cross a busy intersection… it tends to work – for them! Of course, the good news is, if you’re a foreigner, chances are they’ll spot you a mile away!! Mostly Chinese drivers are experts at avoiding pedestrians. But tread carefully!

TRANSPORT

Generally, public transport in China is safe. That includes trains in the cities and across the country. There are many different types of tickets you can buy, but you can’t beat the Bullet Train for being fast, safe, clean and easy! For a more detailed look at catching trains with in cities, click here.  Travelling across China, this is a great article here.

Taxis can be harder for foreigners to hail, but if you get one, make sure the metre is running. If Tuk Tuks are available, they are cheap and easy for short journeys. Busses are also doable outside of peak hour. 

Always, always Avoid Black Cabs!

We made this mistake in Beijing outside the famous Summer Palace and the driver did try to rip us off, charging four times the normal price! These are privately-owned cars and look like VIP cabs, usually with a VIP badge, no I.D picture and a fake metre.

Be careful when catching taxis from airports; always use the ones at the taxi rank. Get the driver’s I.D number and insist he uses the metre. Have the name of your destination written in Chinese characters and always try to grab your bags from the boot before paying.

HYGIENE 

The other culprit you’re more likely to fall victim to is poor hygiene leading to a dodgy tummy. 

Don’t drink the tap water and don’t use it to clean your teeth…(embarrassingly, the latter a recent discovery for me).

*Tip: This includes in 5-star hotels!

Beware when buying street food. It might smell delicious and for the record, usually tastes pretty good, but if it’s not from a recommended source, steer clear. Often, if the stall is heaving with customers and looks relatively clean, your odds of avoiding ‘la du zi’ are infinitely better.

*Tip: Bring hand sanitiser because many of the bathrooms won’t have soap. This post here goes into more detail about the essentials to pack!

Public toilets are common but they are mostly of the ‘squat’ variety and not always very clean. Be prepared for some stomach-turning sights. Tissues are a necessity. (On the upside, just think of the work out for your thighs, ladies!) 😉

There are no compulsory vaccines to have before you travel to China, but it can never hurt to visit your doctor to get the latest information.

HEALTHCARE

Be mindful that healthcare in China is not as we know it in the western world. While the major first tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou definitely boast higher standard hospitals, the same can’t always be said for 2nd, 3rd and 4th tier cities, which includes China’s other 655 cities.

Always make sure you travel with international health insurance. Most hospitals will want a deposit or payment up front before any treatment is carried out, no matter how ill you are. This post here goes into more detail about healthcare in China.

During the winter months and often either side, pollution levels can be high… if you have asthma or bronchial issues try to avoid these times. Buy a mask and wear it. Download the Pollution Index Levels app so you can check the levels each day.

Oh and just in case: For ambulance, ph: 120 Police, ph: 110 

Also be aware of any potential rides or attractions you may be tempted to board. In major tourist spots they should be perfectly safe but I tend to rethink a few of the things in the less known cities or villages (like Ferris Wheels and cable cars), purely for the fact the Chinese often don’t build things to last (any more). 

*Tip: It is also a great idea to download a translation app. Pleco is a very handy dictionary app!

And don’t forget to have a good time!! There are many great reasons to visit China….if you’re not convinced, you’d better check out my post here!

There’s an old Confucius saying ‘有朋自远方来不亦乐乎’ — Translated, it means, “Chinese will warmly welcome those friends from afar!”

This is China!

Travelling to China: Where to Go and What to See!


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