View Full Version : 'Ni Hao' from Expat Brit in China

08-04-12, 10:51 AM
As an expat Brit currently living in Xiangtan, Hunan Province in China, I see many forum posts at many venues asking for basic information about living in China. I would like to share some of my experiences with you. I have contained this to just a few of the many questions that I see asked regularly elsewhere. When you read this, please bear in mind that it's mostly from my experiences in Xiangtan, the birthplace of Mao Zedong, a.k.a. Mao Tse-tung; probably Xiangtan's only claim to fame or infamy -- interpret as you will.


China generally has a robust and reliable internet service. You won't find WiFi too readily in hotels, but there's generally a cabled connection in your room. Before leaving for China, grab a personal cable > WiFi extender. They can be bought for a few pounds and are pocket-sized. Here's an example:


The 'Great Firewall' of China

China currently blocks access to Facebook and Twitter at the NOC level, thus there are no ISPs that can allow it. Although subject to much debate, access to Google.com and Google.co.uk IS currently possible. I have never had a problem with it. You can also access UK sites like The BBC, although they and others block video content if you have a Chinese IP.

For a vast variety of free, streaming, English language films and TV series, you can download apps for your iOS device. Search the Apple App Store for 'PPTV China'. The main site is www.pptv.com and is probably accessible from the US/UK - I haven't tried it. Caveat: The content is all pirated, but that's 'de rigeur' in China.

Now - on to getting through the firewall. You will need openVPN or something similar on your laptop - iOS devices don't support it (unless jailbroken) so look for a PPTP or L2TP provider for your iPhone or iPad etc. You then have access to Twitter and Facebook and everything else.


I'll be brief here, as there are many. The following applies to my location Xiangtan; which is a large city in western terms, but a 'town' in size to the Chinese. I spent some time in Beijing in 2010, where some but not all of this applies. If you're going out to the 'sticks', then read on...again, this is my experience in Xiangtan, Hunan:


It sucks in Hunan unless you eat nothing but noodles and fierce amounts of chili. Buy from a fast food market vendor at your peril. What you think is chicken or pork is often cat, or rat. You'll wonder why you rarely see stray cats and dogs. No, you won't be served dog meat by a street vendor. You have to pay premium money to 'enjoy' that delicacy, in special parlours that outwardly look like doctors' waiting rooms. I didn't investigate any further because the idea sickens me, but that's another story.

Availability of western food

There isn't any at all worthy of mention. Don't bother asking for it, or trying it at the best hotels here like 'The Paragon' (Xiangtan) as it's shocking. You can get Pizza Hut, KFC or McDonalds if you fancy it. After that, the trail runs dry. No matter if you're prepared to spend 50 a head for a good steak dinner - it's not available.

Bread is a joke here. It's VERY sweet - almost a cake - and makes shocking toast. Your definition/idea of bread will be vastly different if you're American or English - I make no distinction here. My partner (Xiangtan born) and I bought a breadmaker. She perfected it after two attempts and the result is remarkably good, but the flour has a slightly weird taste. Toast now is palatable.

Fresh milk is hard to get. You have to be careful as much of it isn't pasteurised, even when packaged from the supermarket. I have UHT milk which is purely for tea. It's not drinkable or pourable on cereal unless you're a masochist.

Basic western foods are available from the lifesaver TaoBao site. The Chinese 'eBay' is a fine art. Order what you want and it generally arrives via the (very reliable) Chinese postal service in about 2-3 days. You can check it out - enter some staple names in English like 'baked beans': http://s.taobao.com/search?q=baked+beans&commend=all&ssid=s5-e&search_type=item&sourceId=tb.index

Fresh vegetables and fruits are freely available and of excellent quality and variety. Don't miss the longan fruit when they're in season - simply divine.


It's cheap to live here as you might expect. When dealing with money and the Chinese, just do as you would be done by, and as you would in western culture. Tips are not expected. Don't get into an argument over a few quid in a restaurant. Don't expect to be able to exchange foreign currency readily.


Generally a very friendly police force indeed. Don't confuse inscrutability with unfriendliness. Tip them a nod and they'll be happy to respond. Don't fall foul though. Follow the laws of common sense and you won't go wrong. Be prepared for a hard time if you commit any petty offences - there will be plenty of paperwork. Don't expect bribery to work - it could lead you into a huge shit storm where the penalties are severe. The Chinese authorities are coming down hard now on corruption. My partner's brother-in-law is in the local police anti-corruption squad and I hear some terrible tales. They recently had a huge clean-up at the local government level here in Xiangtan, and long jail sentences are expected. Execution is also a possibility for these high-level corruption crimes.


A very friendly bunch indeed. Had long chats with many serving and retired personnel. You regularly see many on the streets.


This is covered extensively on other forums, but here's the gist as it pertains to my situation: I have a simple visitor/tourist visa. It can be renewed twice for 30 days by extension - apply at the local PSB (Public Security Bureau). Show up with a Chinese friend if you possibly can. Show 20,000 RMB (circa 2,000) in cash or current bank statement. Get your receipt for your passport. Collect it with the new extension applied in 5 days. I have been here since August 2011 and have had to leave only once. I took a trip to Thailand to visit my son Simon. Easy. Or you can go to Hong Kong and renew there. Just a note about queueing at immigration - queueing is not a national sport here, so make your way to the nearest police officer's desk and just claim your space.


Very friendly if you show them courtesy and interest in their culture. Outwardly unapproachable but this is not actually the case. Again; do as you would be done by. I'm somewhat of a novelty here as there are very few caucasians, so expect plenty of stares - just smile in return ;)


There's literally plenty to shoot (...cough...) but note the following:

1. Make a polite gesture of request before overtly snapping an individual, just as you would do elsewhere.

2. Don't photograph the police while they are executing their duty. I fell foul of this outside a bar, where there was a fracas between the owner and the law. I was politely jumped on by a member of the security police before I could press the focus button on my iPhone. I was told to "move on lively".

3. No snaps in government buildings, or even outside them.

My favourite snap so far - 'Xiangtan nipper':



Very reliable. Take extreme CARE with Chinese power points and extension cables. They can be death traps. If you're in a shower or bathroom, there may be open wall sockets. Make sure not to splash water in the wrong place. I've only experienced one electricity/water outage since I've been here. All good but take care with electrics.


Coverage is excellent. Go with the China Unicom PAYG option. Unlock your iPhone before you come here, if you want to use a local SIM. Go to the local CU office with a friend if possible. There are forms to fill out and tariffs to understand. Calls are cheap. Data is expensive. Choose the right plan!

Chinese are VERY LOUD on the phone. Don't get offended. It's the way it is. They can also be very loud in public places like restaurants and bars. Just take it in your stride. Remember, it's you that's the visitor. The 'Xiang' dialect here is brusque and pervasive; it's like they're shouting at you.


You get what you pay for. Check TripAdvisor.com for reviews.


Road sense

It doesn't exist in your eyes. It appears to be total chaos. It probably is, but they generally know what they're doing. Be very careful about lane wandering on faster roads. You'll get used to all the honking - it's worse than Bangkok.


Very regular, cheap and reliable. I wouldn't personally go on the motorway/freeway in one on a longer journey.


No idea - not been on one yet.


Very cheap indeed, and plentiful. Make sure you have your return address written in Chinese on paper, otherwise you might not make it home too easily, especially after a skinful.


Good networks and airports. Local and national carriers provide very minimal on-board catering. If you want anything but noodles and a glass of water, fly another carrier.

Okay, that's enough for this missive. If there's any interest, I'll write some more.

08-04-12, 12:38 PM
Okay, that's enough for this missive. If there's any interest, I'll write some more.

Fascinating stuff. I'd love to read more sometime.

08-04-12, 01:00 PM
Dale, I always forget to ask but what is all the honking about? What appeared random honking even on a straight road with nobody around.

China is a great place to visit, very very friendly people... Like Dale says, common sense and don't take the piss. Love to have seen the London riots play out on China, don't think those idiots rioters would be doing that over there.

08-04-12, 01:14 PM
The honking is very pervasive indeed. Outside my apartment, it's either fireworks or honking - 24/7. Hunan is also the centre of the Chinese fireworks industry, so a "let off" is almost as common as passing wind here. I've not seen honking on the highway (Xiangtan<> Changsha) but in the city, it's a nightmare.

16-06-12, 06:58 AM
What a nightmare.

Full story here:


Moral: Don't buy a mobile phone in China. Get it shipped from the UK :(

It's not that mine is a rip-off, it's the fact that the OS software omissions are almost enough to render the thing an expensive brick.

23-06-12, 12:44 AM
Have never been I hope one day I get the chance to travel a bit more :)

24-06-12, 05:00 AM
Only just seen this, great thread. Would love to read more too! :)

24-06-12, 02:44 PM
Sounds so much like Jakarta/Semarang in Indonesia where we visit very frequently for business purposes. Hard work, but we love the totaly different culture shock we still get when we are there. The driving... well, as Brits, we never get used to that.

03-07-12, 12:48 AM
Fantastic insight. I might even pop up and visit you at some point. What's the deal with the Visa though? I read it that you're paying 2k for a 30 day extension each month.

03-07-12, 02:23 AM
The 2k is to show you have enough to survive and won't be selling the big issue or claiming British benefits from British people and other UK based workers - so to speak.