Twelve days in China. Twelve avoidable cockups. Twelve tips for you to travel smarter. 

We genuinely loved China. The people were warm and friendly, and so was the food and weather. But it was evident along the way that we weren’t as prepared as people who travel for a living should have been.

Perhaps it’s just bad luck. Perhaps the Chinese gods detested the nerves I had for stepping into the country of my ancestry when B3 was the best grade I’ve achieved in 10 years of formal education. But I guess travel is not as fun without eff-ed up stories, right?

Anyhoo — should the luck of Dr. Doofenshmirtz befall you and your group of friends overseas, this is how you can Phineas and Ferb your way to a better holiday.

Read also: 12D Central China Itinerary to Ancient Gems & Undiscovered Sights

Cock-up #1: China Doesn’t Use Cash, You Didn’t Know

renminbi flatlay 2 - Cockups Every Traveller Faces

Armed with a stack of Mao money in your naive wallets, your team of “content creators” land in Wuhan International Airport and attempt to order bubble tea. A cataclysmic expression appears on the cashier’s face when she observes you whipping out cold, hard notes — things she hadn’t seen since her innocent pre-pubescent years.

Bubble Tea - Cockups Every Traveller Faces
40 minutes, 40 dollars, 4/10 bubble tea

It takes you half an hour of begging in subpar Mandarin for locals to finally activate their WeChat Pay accounts. You succeed; only to realise you needed to link it up with a credit card from a Chinese bank account for it to work anyway. Amidst a sea of defeated looks, the kind souls serving diabetes in a cup finally relent and accept your dollar bills.

Who knew it’d be that hard to try and shove money into people’s hands?

Solution: Aspire to Be a Man/Woman of Culture

Woman of Culture - Cockups Every Traveller Faces

Pre-trip: Figure out the nuances of a country before you go. It isn’t just about the convenience of getting around, too. Every country has its own set of unspoken cultural rules that can be unfamiliar to foreigners.

For instance, in several Islamic countries, a woman initiating a handshake with a male counterpart can be deemed as provocative and hence frowned upon. Or in Singapore, when you assume a packet of tissue on a coffee shop table is left behind unintentionally. It’s not.

If you’re heading to China, consider signing up for a Bank of China card before you leave. It’ll be much easier to engage in cashless transactions and you won’t look like you’ve arrived from the stone ages.

Cock-up #2: You Still Run Out of Cash

Empty Wallet - Cockups Every Traveller Faces

It’s day four. Your team had just about enough money combined for three loafs of bread and a pack of cigarettes. There were also eight days left. Thankfully, you manage to find an ATM that accepts international credit cards, and you withdraw the equivalent of a year’s savings to tide yourself through the rest of the trip, pushing away thoughts of how you’re going to settle impending credit card debt.

Solution: Ball When You Withdraw, Scrimp When You Pimp

Mcdonald's breakfast - Central China Itinerary
We spent unnecessarily large amounts of money in Mcdonald’s.

Pre-trip: Whether or not you intend to budget travel, it’s always smart to exchange excessive amounts of cash prior to the trip even if you think you won’t spend that much, in case of an emergency. Always keep stashes of money in different places (wallet, bag, pocket, underwear) so even if you are so unfortunately robbed at gunpoint, you have enough to get you by the remaining days.

During the trip: I suppose this bit of financial advice applies not just to travellers but to anyone looking to lead a debt-free life: Don’t spend what you don’t have, don’t buy what you don’t need. That exotic thaneka face-paint might seem like a bargain at six dollars, but don’t kid yourself, it’s in the bin the moment you land (And no, you’re not woke for using it there),

Cock-up #3: Everything Is Under Construction

Hubu Alley Under Construction - Cockups Every Traveller Faces
Hubu Alley looking a far cry from what we saw online

The city of Wuhan will play host to the 2019 Military World Games in October. With the imminent arrival of hundreds of high-ranking army personnel, the local government decided to renovate most of their main tourist hotspots.

Even the glorious Hubu Alley — usually home to a variety of 100+ food stalls — was reduced to a singular stretch of scarce delicacies and multiple fish-spa shops when we went in July 2019.

Enter four hungry, starry-eyed travel interns. Cue overwhelming disappointment.

Solution: Smile Through the Pain

Smiling Through Pain - Cockups Every Traveller Faces
Practicing our fake smiles in the face of adversity

While “ciao cheese, bye” might be the first thought that springs to mind amidst the dusty construction work, it’s important to keep a smile on your face. You’re here for a holiday, so don’t let one or two mishaps dampen the mood. 

Studies have shown that forcing yourself to smile may actual result in a positive lift of emotions. The logic being: You’re happy, you smile. You smile, your brain thinks you’re happy. So, you’re happy.

Read also: 18 Things to Eat in Central China Under S$20 — Wuhan, Zhangjiajie & Changsha

Cock-up #4: Losing Your Belongings

You meticulously compiled a physical “fact sheet” on all the places you were going to visit in China. You felt proud of yourself; a bonafide seasoned traveller, a true man/woman of culture.

On the second day you had a bowl of beef noodles and left it on the restaurant table. This is a true story.

Solution: Take a Class in Responsibility

Perhaps you might be in the midst of a conversation with an attractive stranger when you decide to put your shopping bags down, so your trembling hands wouldn’t be that obvious. In your earnest endeavour to ensure you walk away with a certain panache, wavy hair gliding in the air — you’ve left your Versace on the floor.

I’m part of that group of people who tend to lose their sh*t in both a literal and figurative sense. But we’re talking about physical objects today, and there’s a solution for that.

It takes two seconds and three kilobytes of energy to swivel around and check your surroundings before you leave. Don’t be lazy and assume your passport’s in your fanny pack. Make it a habit to do the ‘pocket pocket’ dance, illustrated magnificently with this gif.

Feel free to customise the dance according to the location of your valuables.

Cock-up #5: Way Too Many Tourists

Crowded ZJJ Glass Bridge - Cockups Every Traveller Faces
Photo credit: South China Morning Post

You hype yourself up to visit one of the world’s most invigorating attractions — the Zhangjiajie Glass Bridge. It’s the world’s tallest of its kind, and you imagine gorgeous views of the mountainous landscape standing on eerily pristine glass, in the close company of your friends and several other eager tourists.

Except there are hundreds of them. Each fighting for a piece of transparent floor to strike a pose for the gram. You realise you’re barely able to see what’s beneath you, much less what’s around you.

Solution: Get Right In There

When in Rome, do what the Romans do. Get stuck in and get the piece of glass you paid a whopping $80 for. Then do whatever the hell you want.

Also, it sometimes helps to just wait it out. Crowds tend to come in waves in the form of tour groups, so if you have the patience to hang around for a bit, their guides might rush them off to the next location and you’ll soon have the whole place to yourself.

Read also: 12D Central China Itinerary to Ancient Gems & Undiscovered Sights

Cock-up #6: Going Under the Weather

Falling Sick - Cockups Every Traveller Faces

Quick maths: two people sneezing up a storm + two perfectly healthy individuals X consistent close proximity = four fools under the weather. Your sickness is also compounded because you put yourselves through a daily itinerary centred around five hours of sleep and barely 500ml of water. You’re asking for it. There should be no pity.

Solution: Take Care of Yourself

Airbnb Bed - Cockups Every Traveller Faces
If you have a bed this comfy, use it.

It’s pretty apt that I’m blowing truck loads of bird’s nest out of my nose as these words are being written. It was pretty much the same situation for us all back in China.

There are few studies out there that report reliable statistics on travel sickness, but based on anecdotal experience alone, we’re weak-ass b*tches. That kebab stick on the streets of Phnom Penh might tempt you enough to cause bouts of intestinal hazelnut warfare. That impulsive decision to dive into the open waters in Boracay might leave you with nasal niagara falls. Deadly diseases are everywhere and nobody is safe.

Pre-trip: Consult your GP to see if there are any vaccinations you can take before travelling. You should also do some quick searches online to see if the areas you’re travelling to are experiencing any sort of virus outbreaks. Stock up on your vitamins, and pack some general medication with you.

During the trip: In the profound words of my Asian mother, “drink more water”. Allow yourself enough rest on your travels too. Sleep deprivation and dehydration will weaken your immune system and have you significantly more prone to viruses.

Cock-up #7: You Can’t Communicate for Nuts

Renald on stepping stone bridge in Fenghuang - Central China Itinerary
Ever talked your way into the middle of a river?

Picture this: You step onto a bus full of locals you’ve never met, and in the heat of the content creator moment, decide to hold your DSLR up and bellow out that you want everyone to clap for the camera. Nobody does. Some people frown and give you damning looks. You’re embarrassed. Your friends are laughing their asses off.

Later on, they decide to (finally) tell you that instead of asking the people to clap (掌声鼓励), you shouted the common Chinese phrase equivalent of “I hope you have babies soon” (早生贵子). Your life has officially reached a new level of low.

Solution: Smart Applications 

Overview of Apps - Essential Apps for Travelling in China

Despite being able to communicate with the locals there, the shallow depth of our vocabulary failed us multiple times. There was also the issue of differing accents and a generally pathetic inability to read complicated Chinese characters.

As long as you’re visiting a country that doesn’t speak your native language, communication barriers will surely be present!

Pre-trip: If learning the language proves to be an insurmountable challenge, we suggest downloading images of the places you intend to visit (and their names in its original language) onto your phone before your trip. That’ll smooth things out between you and the confused cabby.

Or, download translation apps on your smart phone just in case. Don’t bother attempting to pronounce “Breiðamerkurjökull“.

Read also: 10 Essential Apps to Download Before You Head to China

Cock-up #8: Feelings of Loneliness

Couple at Moshan - Cockups Every Traveller Faces

The Moshan Scenic Area on the Wuhan’s East Lake border was ridden with couples — on bikes, on benches, on each other floating clouds of joy. You look on, wistful melancholy in your eyes, wallowing in the illness that is self-pity — common to the single man. You recall memories of the times you were fondly in love. After all, what good are the world’s most beautiful sights, without the most beautiful hand to hold?

Solution: Treat Yourself

Hair Wash - Cockups Every Traveller Faces
Pro-tip: Ask for the price before getting a haircut

Remember that life is fleeting and you should do whatever you can to be happy. You don’t need a romantic companion to enjoy the finer things in life! Travel opens the door to a whole range of unique experiences you wouldn’t have experienced yourself. Travel is also harder when you realise you need to save money for your BTO and a shiny diamond ring.

Have an expensive haircut. Treat yourself to some bubble tea. Be happy.

Cock-up #9: Allergies and Rashes

Puppies on Street 2 - Cockups Every Traveller Faces

Precious animals for sale along dubious streets are a common sight in China, and although you understand that this business is a moral dilemma on its own, you choose to go ahead and pet them anyway. Along the way you find more of these endearing pets wandering alone on the cold hard concrete, and you proceed to shower them with buckets of affection you wish you showed your previous love interest before everything came crashing down.

A couple of days pass and you begin to itch. You look at your disheveled body in the mirror at night and realise you’ve developed several red spots on your body, a mark of imperfection and annoyance. You wonder if it’s your eczema acting up again and blame it on the polluted air.

Solution: Prepare Protection and Practice Abstinence

Picture with Dog - Cockups Every Traveller Faces

Protection in the form of skin-specific medication. Abstinence from suspiciously cute puppies. It always seems harmless to pat an adorable stray animal you meet on the street, but by the time you’re scratching yourself all over, it’ll already be too late.

If you have a history of sensitive skin and a weak immune system, it’s smart to pack personal medication in case whatever strange condition flares up overseas.

Cock-up #10: Feelings of Helplessness

Fenghuang Museum 2 - Cockups Every Traveller Faces

As you try to scratch away the itch derived from ticks and fleas of promiscuous dogs, you feel an insatiable desire to rid of the sense of helplessness derived from years of insecurity. You think your article titles suck. You think perhaps it was pure luck that landed you this privileged job. You don’t deserve good things and you truly believe it.

Solution: Pray For Luck and Prosperity

Lucky Ribbon Group Shot - Cockups Every Traveller Faces

Almost every culture has its own way of praying for good things, and in China that means writing wishes on red ribbons and tying them onto lucky trees. Sometimes not everything is within our control and we have to accept that.

Be graceful, pray for good health for your friends and family, and for yourself to finally grow some sort of self-confidence. Make sure you include well-wishes for your company’s success and take pictures of it to score brownie points with the bosses.

Cock-up #11: You Get Lost 

Fenghuang Streets - Cockups Every Traveller Faces

You hold on tightly to a large, elaborate map of Fenghuang Ancient Town. You think you’re headed towards the right direction of the museum you’re looking forward to but really, you’ve vastly overestimated your ability to navigate without the help of 21st century technology.

Tired legs and never-ending complaints from your colleague later, you find yourself several kilometres away from your intended destination. You slump in defeat.

Solution: Push Your Ego Aside

Fenghuang Mannequin - Cockups Every Traveller Faces
We tried asking a local but he turned out to be a mannequin.

The locals there know directions better than you do and it’s time to admit that. Before heading anywhere with unfounded conviction, ask someone nearby if where you’re headed to really is where your map points you towards. It doesn’t hurt to be doubly sure.

Cock-up #12: A Full-Blown Existential Crisis

Streets of ZJJ - Cockups Every Traveller Faces

You walk a lonely road along the pavement of broken dreams. Most of what could’ve gone wrong has gone wrong on your trip, and nothing seems to have a point anymore. You’ve put your colleagues through what they needn’t have due to your own ignorance. You blame it all on yourself and contemplate existence.

Solution: Remember that you should love yourself for who you are

Group Shot with Young Mao - Things to do in Changsha

Everyone is imperfect, but every part of you is still perfect in its own way! As I look back on my maiden work trip to China, I realise it wouldn’t have been half as fun if all those “cock-ups” hadn’t befallen us. I wouldn’t have an arsenal of hilarious stories to tell my friends back home, and without them it would have been a lot less unforgettable.

Cock-ups happen on every trip whether you like it or not. It’s better to go prepared, of course, as long as it doesn’t lead to death by starvation or pests from a stray dog. What’s important is that you remember why you travel, and treasure the company of the beloved people you have the privilege of travelling with.

Read also: 19 Reasons to Visit China’s Most Underrated Cities — Wuhan, Changsha & Zhangjiajie


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Renald has an important life revelation every 72 hours. He believes the greatest stories stem from falling into bottomless pits of things he probably shouldn’t have done, and ultimately learning from them.

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