I live in a city that only has about 1 million people in the main part and only another 2 million in the district that counts as the city. In the summer, however, we're a hopping tourist destination, thanks to our beautiful beaches and historic sites like the Great Wall meeting the ocean. We're particularly popular with Russians, for whom we may be the closest beach with temperate weather.
Despite this international fame, however, we're still a small town by Chinese standards, and that can mean a lot of difficulties for travelers — but that doesn't make our city any less worth visiting. These simple tips can help you discover China outside the bustling megacities, even if you don't speak the language.
Foreigners are still very much a novelty in my city. People stare, slow down their cars, and shout hello at a distance on a daily basis. Midwestern Me still has a knee-jerk reaction to say hello back, and I get only giggles in response 90% of the time. If I do have a communication problem (and I often do), I can't just mumble around and hope some really eager student comes to my aid. I gesture a lot, as well breaking out my translation app.
You will be able to find a Western “steakhouse” or pizza, but the menu options will cater to Chinese tastes, and the cost probably won't be worth the quality. What's worse, you may think you're ordering one thing — and get something totally different. That cheese pizza, for example, might really be durian. You'll have much better luck trying the local specialities and looking for high-rated restaurants on apps.
Unfortunately, the high-end hotel chains won't be a 4-star experience, even if the brand should be, but it's still a better experience than being escorted out of a hotel by policemen because this other hotel doesn't allow foreigners, and most of the cheap ones in my city don't. At a posh hotel, you might struggle to communicate even if they can find the one person who speaks a little English, but at least that person exists. They likely won't at cheaper hotels. And remember; everything that doesn't quite meet your expectations (cleanliness, facilities, activities, food) would be even worse at a cheaper hotel.
Just look out for a clean Eastern-style stall that you can breathe in. And always carry spare tissues.
I know, personally, 30 or so other foreigners working in my city. I know there are tens of others studying in the universities. Other than that, and the businesspeople who come for weeks at a time, there might not actually be any others. When I'm out with friends and we see other foreigners, we agonize over whether to approach them. We're lonely, you see, but we also don't want to seem desperate. So, most of the time, we don't. But, if approached, we can tell you where our cities two dance clubs are, as well as the best bars and restaurants.
Make sure you have a data plan, as you won't always be able to find Wi-Fi, but apps will be your best friend. Despite my virtual illiteracy, I use Meituan like a pro. Pictures and putting a screenshot into a translation app gives me a good idea what I'm looking at, while the map function helps me find interesting places. TripAdvisor can also be useful if there are any reviews of anything in English, it's particularly noteworthy, but also probably a favour to a friend. And, of course, your translation app will literally be your most valuable tool.
Overall, visiting a remote Chinese city will open your eyes up to a completely different China and way of life. I have enjoyed my experiences so far, and I am looking forward to more adventures ahead!