Datong – the city of Chinese characters
I mean that literally. As we embark on the journey across the Silk Road, I know that English speakers will dwindle, but I didn’t expect such a drastic shift so soon. Datong was our first stop on the Silk Road after Beijing (you can stop at the Great Wall or Chengde alternatively). We’d already been to the wall earlier in the week, so we headed straight for Datong on the train (bus is another option). People flock here for the Yungang Grottoes and the Hengshan Hanging Monastery, but their mostly local tourists. The two sites are spectacular and certainly worth the visit, just not developed for those that expect communication in other languages. You can get to the sites by bus or local tour with CIT (group tour is 100RMB/pp or you can hire a private car for 350RMB for the day). Walking the streets of Datong, there are almost no signs in English and most locals will stare at you as though you’ve landed from another planet 🙂
So how do you deal? Well luckily David has patience, which you’ll need for attempting any effective communication (basic 20 second questions will take minutes). Then to support charades and gestures – We downloaded a series of apps to assist us.
Offline dictionaries are best if you have no service – then for those that have service, there are these top 3:
- Google translate (great translation, which stores your history, you’ll need service to translate new phrases, but not for the history)
- Waygo (which lets you hover your phone over Chinese characters and converts it to English – helpful for menus, signage and things that locals will write down when attempting to communicate)
- Wechat (which lets you text any person in the app and translate the conversation into your native language).
David and I literally had a full conversation with the train conductor on Wechat on our way over to Datong, which was perfect as we were hoping for full use of 4 seats and a table to work, and he made it happen at no additional charge 🙂
Learn to make translation conversations a fun activity as you’ll encounter them often here – frustration gets you nowhere, so patience really is a virtue while on the Silk Road in China!