So you want to travel in China…
Many adult students seek out Mandarin Chinese classes in preparation for a trip to China. Lots of American tourists would take a trip to Mexico or France without brushing up on Spanish or French. Many travelers, whether they are going for business or pleasure, however, feel that it is necessary to learn some Mandarin for China. Despite the fact that many people in China spend years learning English, knowing Mandarin is very useful for travel in China.
Leaving Shanghai and Beijing
Outside of Beijing and Shanghai, travel in China can be very difficult. Sichuan Province recently made the list of Lonely Planet’s top destinations in Asia. The capital of Sichuan, Chengdu, is a fast-growing city, but it does not nearly have the infrastructure of Shanghai or Beijing. Knowing the language (at least a little) can make it so much easier to travel in places like Sichuan.
A good reason to learn a few Chinese characters before traveling to China is ordering food. Big restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing have English menus and/or picture menus. If a traveler goes off the beaten path, Anthony Bourdain-style, knowing Chinese characters will help when looking at menus. Even knowing the characters for beef (牛肉) and pork (猪肉) is useful. Going to hole-in-wall restaurants is also easier on the budget.
Get off the Beaten Path (there will still be loads of Chinese tourists)
One of the best things to do in China is to climb a scenic mountain, such as Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan) or Wuyi Mountain (Wuyi Shan). Places like these require some navigation and that is where knowing Mandarin comes in handy. With a beginner or intermediate level of Mandarin, a tourist will not have elaborate conversations in rural China. They will, however, be able to more easily give directions to taxi drivers, find out room rates and order food.
It is not impossible to travel all over China without knowing any Mandarin. It just makes life more difficult (and expensive). One of the joys that knowing the language opens up is getting to know people. An article in Bon Appetit suggests going to the same restaurant more than once while traveling, just to get to know some locals. They are onto something. Eventually all the food, mountain vistas and train rides blur together when traveling. But the people remain distinct if you get to know them.