Family trip to Canton Fair in China: how we did it
China. The most populated country on Earth. The biggest business dealer.
Planning the trip was easy. From filling in the necessary paperwork to receiving the invitations for our visas took only a couple of weeks. Relatively easy.
To organize the flights and accommodations, first and foremost, we had to find a suitable, preferably fastest route from Australia. To everyone’s surprise, we scored an unbelievable deal. Online of course. Made every booking on our own including the overnight train rides. Without a single issue.
Here is what our the itinerary looked like:
Brisbane – Guangzhou ( Guangdong Province ) – Jinhua ( Zhejiang province ) – Guangzhou ( Guangdong Province ) -Brisbane. Might look like a bit of a lap around but that was our only option. Return overnight train Guangzhou – Jinhua was what we really looked forward to. It reminded my childhood’s train trips. Trains were much more popular in my days.
To say our trip was challenging is an understatement in disguise. For a long time, we tossed over going – not going. I am so glad we did. It was massive, tiresome, exciting, interesting, eye-opening, jaw-dropping adventure. If you have been to a fair or a trade exhibition before, well, let’s just say – double or triple the size. We lived and we learned. The most exciting part was to have my boys with me. For Nick, it was an insight to the largest manufacturing country in the world and a better understanding of how businesses operate.
Here are the three things I discovered were most important to bring along on the trip:
1. A good Phrasebook. Despite all my readiness ( I have managed to study the language for a few months ) – my basic speaking skills remained too basic.
2. The printout of all places we intended to visit. Written in Chinese, ready to be handed out to taxi or bus drivers, hotel staff, train officers etc. ( Never underestimate the power of a native language ).
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 out for in China:
1. Fake money notes. Shock for foreigners. A normal part of a daily life for locals.
2. Careless Taxi drivers. ( refer to the number 2 above ) If not given detailed instruction, they drop you off at any proximity to your end destination, you might end up walking a few more kilometers. Happened to us.
3. Tap water. It is REALLY bad. Never and I repeat it, NEVER drink water from the tap! Bottled water is very affordable.
Here are my 10 Tips on visiting Canton Fair and China in general:
1. Travel 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. 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 potentiality of finding the right supplier and closing a deal of the century. Try to look like a professional! So many folks walk around the complex looking like they just got off a plane, which is a possibility, but seriously, since when is it OK to show up in a casual t-shirt and a pair of short shorts to a business meeting?
I also had my small trolley case that served the purpose of an onboard carry bag, everywhere with me. That saved me so much trouble of having to carry things, as I was given brochures, business cards, and other useful information from right, left and center.
2. Learn 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 the majority is a very family – oriented nation, so when somebody is trying to break into 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.
3. Study the language
The official language in Guangzhou is Mandarin. Investing in a pocket-size phrase book from Lonely Planet – a well-designed two-way dictionary saved me some embarrassment. 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 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 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. Investigate into 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 the two of you will agree on a set price, generally, it still is 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 extra. 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. The names of streets, Malls, hotels etc are written in both Chinese and English. That is what is going to save you a big headache and money. When it comes to public transport I 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. 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 a good time to travel.
Now, remember I mentioned careless taxi drivers. This is what I mean. From their point of view, you are rich and dumb ( no offense! ). 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 pretty cheap compared to Australian prices but..! as I kept walking toward the road waving 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. Unexpectedly, we got the most honest driver ( he was a bit of a poser too ), he charged us only 1 RMB ( Yuan ) per person, that is 0.20 cents AUD. Definitely, highly recommend to get a ride with them plus it is a very fun way to get your shopping done. Locals use it frequently, it is that cheap.
5. Inspect places to eat out and definitely try the street food.
I noted above to never drink tap water, not even if you are dying. Food is a bit different to water, it is cooked, mostly fried. Hygiene is what is left to your own judgment, 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. All menus were in Chinese only! The majority cafes, restaurants of eateries serve local foods, which doesn’t necessarily mean “awesome Chinese you get to take away from your local restaurant down the road “. 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.
6. Expect to pay more for food 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 there were 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, there was McDonald’s 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, something I would never even touch back at 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.
7. Make sure the hotel serves what you booked.
Here is a good lesson for you. We decided to save a bit of a cash and live it up in a not so far away hotel, a short walking distance to the major road that would take us across the Pearl River to the Complex. The hotel itself was an excellent value that offered a great location, a clean, spacious room with the breakfast included, oh and with the Canton Tower view. Our room was booked for three ( our 11-year old was apparently free of charge ) but the breakfast vouchers were only given to two guests as the room had only two beds ( the child was expected to pay for his breakfast ? ). Hmmm.. I pointed out at the reception the booking confirmation for three people and despite the language barrier, we were handed another set of vouchers, I think the receptionist decided to save himself a drama. Now, here is the good news. If you have not paid for your stay up front, go ahead and ask for a discount – everything is negotiable in China, even hotel services. That is if you can express yourself clearly enough for the staff to understand.
8. Prepare yourself for the use of the Chinese style toilets.
OK, why would anyone need an instruction for that? Travel is all about fun, right, and you will find hardly anything funnier than the public toilets in China..or some absence of those just when you need them. The first rule: you absolutely must have a pack of tissues in your pocket everywhere you go. If you think you are going to get a toilet paper in a public toilet, well… don’t blame me for not warning you. At the 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 whining 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 are just the old type that has never been replaced. First, you get to do the squats ( isn’t it great, considering you are out of your normal exercise routine ). Secondly, you sure won’t get germs where you don’t want them. That is 1:0 in the squat seat favor. I always make sure when I flush the squatter I run out the door at the same time ( LOL they don’t have the lids ).
9. Believe me, the Fake Money is Real.
How do I say this… OK, we all are grown ups here so I am just saying it as it is. Fake notes, especially those of higher denomination, 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? You bet it is! As an example, to exchange $50 AUD at the airport, we paid $10 AUD in fees. Is it safer? Yes, 99,9% ( why not 100%? Well, 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 with less chance. Every time you get a change from the cash, check the notes there and there to avoid nasty surprises. By the way, I love the Chinese 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 the fake money.
10. Prepare 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, 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 at 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 the emails. The downside: Facebook and Google are nonexistent ( they are prohibited in China ) but there are third – party Apps you can download to be able to log into your accounts. Of course, we were not aware of that and found 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. ( 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, after all, I wasn’t that well prepared. This is why I have written this post so that you can save yourself some troubles. Most definitely I expected a few hiccups, after all, what sort of adventure is it without them. We encountered some major hiccups – SOS! – I’d most definitely appreciate these tips before we went.
Was there something we didn’t like on our journey?
Smoking. Coming from a very health – conscious country, this was where my patience ended. Even if you never smelled a cigarette smoke in your life, you will get plenty of it here and it’s everywhere. Despite the obvious NO SMOKING signs obligatorily displayed where they were supposed to in public places, the locals seemed to think that did not apply to them. That was a huge party spoiler for us. We loved clean air and really wanted to wake up to a smell of a fresh linen or a coffee brewing rather than to terrible asthma – triggering stink floating in the air.
What will you get from the trip to Canton Fair?
The best part will be the discovery of new innovative products and the possibility of playing with them. Despite the obvious language barrier, you will make good connections and maybe even score the best price for your product as a thank you for being a genuine and loyal customer.