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Alright, “survive” is probably a harsh word here. When I was planning the trip, I didn’t think I needed to “survive” it. I was excited to go, so maybe I should really rephrase the heading into something like” How to plan your Canton Fair Trip” or “What to expect at Canton fair”. But I won’t. Leaving it as it is will give you a little more down-to-reality perspective as it is not going to be your usual fun-filled holiday( although, I don’t say you can’t mix business with pleasure!)
I am so glad I went.. and survived it as you have guessed by now. It was a hell of an experience- in a very good sense. It was massive, tiresome, exciting, interesting, eye-opening, mouth-dropping adventure. If you have been to a fair or exhibition before, well, let’s just say-double or triple the size.
Here are the three things I discovered were most important to bring along on the trip:
1. A good Phrasebook- despite of all my readiness( I have managed to study the language for a few months)- my basic speaking skills remained too basic
2. All places we intended to visit written in Chinese ready to be handed out to taxi or bus drivers, hotel staff, train officers etc.
3. Printout of places to dine in the area (haha, no I didn’t have that one but, oh man, I wish I had!) Expectation over reality! To find those places visit Trip Advisor page and type in Guangzhou
The three things to watch for in China:
1. Fake notes- shock for foreigners, normal part of a daily life for locals
2. Careless Taxi drivers- if not given detailed instruction, they drop you off at any proximity of your end destination-you might end up walking another block
3. Tap water- never and I repeat it, never drink water from the tap! Bottled water is very affordable
Here are my 10 Tips on anything and everything:
1. Travelling light. By saying that, I don’t mean that bringing a pair of socks and undies will do. For our ten-day trip we packed three sets of clothes and honestly, could do with more, because we also took an overnight return train ride between two provinces, so a spare set would be handy. But for one week visit, three sets of good clothes should be sufficient. After all, it is China, might as well go shopping! Remember, you are going to the biggest Fair in the world,with a potential of finding the right supplier and closing a deal of the century- then look like a professional! So many foreigners walk around the complex looking like they just got off a plane-could be true,yes-but seriously, since when it is OK to show up in a casual tee and a pair of short shorts to a business meeting?
I also had my small trolley case that served the purpose of a on-board carry bag, everywhere with me-saved me so much trouble of needing to carry things, as I was given brochures, business cards and other useful information from right, left and center.
2. Learning about the culture. Because that is a huge part of this country. That’s what sets them apart. Following traditions, table manners, greeting gestures, business etiquette is what Chinese appreciate seeing in foreigners. Doesn’t matter from which angle you look at it, but we are still considered strangers until we do business with them for a while and earn their trust-after that we can be best friends! Chinese in majority is a very family-oriented nation, so when anybody trying to enter their close circle, at first is perceived as an intruder. Respecting it will typically serve a good deal and help establish the trust between the parties which will let you in the close circle faster ,easier and hopefully, for good.
3.Studying the language. Official language in Guangzhou is Mandarin. Investing in a pocket-size phrasebook from Lonely Planet- a well designed two way dictionary-was what saved my life at every occasion. If you think you will be able to freely communicate your needs in English-think twice, you are up for a big surprise. As long as Chinese culture goes, they still believe that their country is in the center of the Earth(China literally means The Middle Land). An average citizen has no need to learn English, doesn’t see a foreigner very often and is very comfortable with his own language. Of course, if you have extra cash to splash around, by all means, do it -go get an interpreter. We found that everything was doable, challenging but doable. Like memorizing simple phrases that are used daily: “Hello. Thank you. How much. Take me to this hotel. I want this. I want that.” If I can remember them, so can you! Do not be discouraged by an uneasy pronunciation, no one expects you to be fluent.
4.Getting to and from the Fair Complex and generally around the city.
You have probably already heard how ridiculously cheap Taxi in China is. And it sure is but be vigilant – as a foreigner you are such a treat to them. When catching a cab, ask the driver to turn a meter on, unless you two will agree on a set price, generally it still is very cheap and he will get a little bonus for the day. Turning a meter on will not guarantee you the shortest way to your destination, most probably you will still end up paying more. Always, and I mean always have all your destinations written in Chinese. On your phone, using Maps or whatever App you use for planning journeys, map out your trips and do a screenshot of every one of them. Typically, the names of streets, Malls, hotels etc will be written in both Chinese and English. That is what is going to save you a big headache and some money. When it comes to public transport I, personally, love using Metro. It feels safe and fair. You only pay what everyone has to pay-no arguing, no bargaining. And it still is the easiest and cheapest way around-yes, all stations are written in English and there is a language option on the Ticket Machine. The peak hours can be a bit off-putting, in the morning after 9 am is typically a good time to travel.
Now, remember I mentioned careless taxi drivers. This is what I mean. In their eyes you are rich and dumb- don’t be offended, blame TV- look, if you can’t say a word in Chinese, so tell me why wouldn’t it make sense to rip you off for the hell of it? There are plenty of suspicious taxi drivers that hang around the Fair Complex waiting for visitors to start heading back to their hotels etc-just to charge them a triple price. OK, it is still pretty cheap compared to Australian prices but..! as I kept walking toward the road waiving to another Taxi driving past (they are always on a look-out), I got to the hotel as cheap as I could manage.
Can’t mention Rickshaw services here. Very unexpectedly, we got the most honest driver(he was a bit of a poser too) that charged us only 1 RMB(Yuan) per person-that is 0.20 cents AUD. Definitely, highly recommend to get a ride plus it is a very fun way to get your shopping done. Locals use it frequently, it is that cheap.
- Eating out and street food.
I noted above to never drink tap water, not even if you are dying.. or have a superb Insurance company that won’t let you die when you can’t afford to pay hospital fees. Ok, food is a bit different to water, it is actually cooked, mostly fried. Hygiene is what is left to your own judgement -try it at your own risk but some stuff is just asking to jump in your mouth. I guess, one that doesn’t risk, doesn’t drink Champagne( very famous saying in Russia). That is your Street food.
When it comes to dining in, well, that was not what we expected. Majority cafes, restaurants of eateries serve local foods, which doesn’t necessary mean “awesome Chinese you get to take away from your local restaurant in your country”. Guangzhou is famous for being the best place to eat in China. That is if you know exactly where to go (Trip Advisor). Alternatively, there are Western style restaurants available-for specifically fussy eaters- and according to the picture below, that’s what we eat looks like to them(genuine photo taken by me).
- Using toilets in public places.
Wow, OK, why would anyone need an instruction for that? Travel is all about fun, right, and you will find hardly anything funnier than public toilets in China..or some absence of those just when you need them. First rule: you absolutely must have a pack of tissues in your pocket everywhere you go! If you think you are going to get toilet paper in a public toilet, well.. don’t blame me for not warning you! At Canton Fair Complex toilets are not that bad, quite clean and with a toilet paper supply. There are two types: squatters(you’d better hope your knees aren’t playing up) and a normal western seat. I heard lots of people whinging about the squatters but to me(remember, I told you I was from Russia) they are made with your health in mind. Haha, No, not really, they are just old type that has never been replaced. First, you get to do squats( isn’t it great, considering you are out of your normal exercise routine while holidaying).Second, you sure won’t get any transmitting disease from seating your butt on God knows where someone just sat- that is 1:0 in the squat seat favor. I always make sure that when I flush the squatter I run out the door at the same time(LOL they don’t have lids).
- Standing our grounds at the hotel.
Here is a good lesson for you. We decided to save a bit of cash and live it up in a not that far away hotel- it honestly was not far away at all, a short walking distance to the major road that would take us across Pearl River to the Complex. The hotel itself was an excellent value with its great location, very clean, a lovely spacious room and breakfast included, oh and with Canton Tower view! Our room was booked for the three of us(our 11-year old was apparently free of charge but they expected him to pay for breakfast??) but the breakfast vouchers were only given to two guests as the room had only two beds..hmmm.. really,they didn’t seem to reject the third person while booking for more than two people for that room? So I pointed it out at the reception and despite of the language barrier we were handed another set of vouchers, I think because the receptionist decided to save himself a drama. Now, here is the good news- if you have not paid for your stay upfront – go ahead and ask for a discount-everything is negotiable in China, even hotel services, that is if you can express yourself clear enough for the staff to understand.
- Eating at Canton Fair.
There is a huge hall downstairs with a long line of food counters. When we first walked in, we got excited as it seemed that we had different meal options. With the closer look though we found that the food was exactly the same at every one of them. Unfortunately, it was not your awesome fresh cooked meal, this stuff actually came in prepacked containers, not so freshly prepared and not so tasty. On the positive side, every meal included a bottle of water. In the next hall we discovered McDonalds which absolutely saved our day. I am really ashamed to even say that aloud(leave alone writing about it!)but we did eat at Maccas-and I would never even touch that stuff back home! A few coffee shops upstairs were a good option too, they offered snacks, sandwiches,coffee and seemed to be popular for closing business deals.Be prepared to pay a double price.
- Fake Money anyone ???
How do I put this.. OK, we all are grownups here so I am just saying it as it is. Fake notes, especially those of a higher denominations, are at a real risk of being counterfeit. Did I know that prior to our journey? Nope and nope! The best practice to adopt is to exchange the currency at the Currency exchange points(at the airport or a hotel).Is it more expensive? Of course it is! To exchange $50 AUD at the airport, we paid $10 AUD in fees! Is it safer? Yes, 99,9%(why not 100%?- if you don’t personally check every note yourself, nothing is guaranteed). Is it possible to get cash out at ATMs and still receive fakes? Yes, 100% possible. But less chance. Every time you get a change from cash, check the notes there and there to avoid nasty surprises. By the way, love their ATMs, they truly are a state of art-see the pic below. This one is 24/7 at China Bank branch: you walk in, the door automatically locks from the inside- you are safe from burglars, unfortunately not from fake money.
- Preparing for the fun.
Oh, yes and a lot of it! Canton Fair is set up to enjoy the experience, have fun and build strong connections. If you are there strictly to make a deal of your life and bow out, in this case for you it will be cheaper to stay home and do everything over the Internet.
This is what I brought with me: a stack of business cards and a good attitude. Oh and my phone had a Global Sim Card already installed. You can get a Local Sim Card at the Fair- there is a stand near every entry. The most popular Social App used in China is WhatsApp. They love connecting via this App,I found it quite handy for communicating with our supplier, they always keep me updated on things before I even get to check my Inbox for their emails. The downside: Facebook and Google are non-existent (they are prohibited in China) but there are third-part Apps you can download to be able to log into your accounts. Of course, we were not aware of that and founded out about those sneaky Apps by the end of our trip.. until then I couldn’t figure out why my Facebook and Google were not loading.( I felt so lost without both of them- my whole business is on FB and my whole communication life is in my Gmail and I am not even mentioning Google Maps for finding our way around!!!) See, I wasn’t that well prepared. This is why I have written this blog so that you can save yourself some troubles. Most definitely I expected a few hiccups-after all, what sort of adventure it is without them-but some major hiccupsutumuses that we encountered -SOS!- I’d rather have someone telling me about them before I went!
So what will you get from the trip to Canton Fair?
The best part will be discovering of new innovative products and even getting to play with them!Despite of the obvious language barrier, you will make good connections and maybe even score the best price for your product as being a genuine and loyal customer.
What was the worst part of our journey?
Smoking. Coming from a very health-conscious country, this was where my patience ended.. Even if you never smelled a cigarette smoke before in your life, you will get plenty of it here and it’s everywhere. Despite of obvious NO SMOKING signs obligatorily displayed where they were supposed to in public places,locals seemed to think that did not apply to them. That was a huge party plan spoiler for us. We love clean air and really wanted to wake up to a smell of fresh linen or a coffee brew rather than a terrible asthma-triggering stink floating in the air.
*Disclaimer: all photos here are genuine and were taken by me or my family.