The challenge of traveling someplace where you can’t read anything

I boarded my plane flight to Tokyo without any thought to how I would manage when I got there and couldn’t read anything. Fortunately, that was a trip to visit my Aunt & Uncle who had been living in Japan for about 30 years, and they were able to show me around! My next trip to Asia – Hangzhou, China – was solo, so I had to be prepared.

Memorizing characters

How does one function and find their way in a country where everything is written with an alphabet that one doesn’t know how to read?  For China, I did memorize a few Chinese characters.  I could “read” the two characters used to write “Hangzhou”, which was useful for making sure I boarded the correct bus to get me from Pu Dong Airport to Hangzhou.  I was the only Westerner on the bus, and only a few people spoke any English.  The bus drivers carefully checked tickets as people boarded, so I felt confident that I was on the correct bus.  I also learned the characters  for “mountain” and “exit”.

Have both English & Chinese info printed on paper

So beyond memorizing pictograms, what to do?  I spent a lot of time on the web, hunting for the names of places and things that I wanted to visit, written in Chinese.  I copied them into a word processor, added the English translation underneath, and printed out the pages.  Sometimes, I included a photo of the place.  This worked surprisingly well.  To make sure I got the Chinese characters correct, I researched everything from multiple websites and checked that info form one place matched another.

In China, many major tourist attractions had things written in both English and Chinese. The maps when hiking typically were only labelled in Chinese, and I never could, standing there jostled by excited Chinese folks, actually manage to match any of my memorized pictograms to anything on the map. Oh well.  Lesser known tourist sites, or sites off the beaten path however, would be Chinese only.  Sometimes I found them and other times not.


I found that tickets were easy to buy.  As you go along in China, you pay to enter, then you pay more for another part of the site, then another fee for the next part of the site, etc, so buying tickets happened a lot.  The Chinese were very good about lines as needed.  So I would stand in line, and when I got to the cashier, I would hold up a finger or two to indicate how many tickets that I wanted and smile. The ticket seller would then hold up the amount required with Chinese money (from his cash register) and you could then hand over matching bills (from my pocket) to pay.  Interestingly, tickets everywhere were printed on the same size and type of paper.  The typically had a nice photo, and the name of the place in Chinese and English.  And more information on the back side, though typically only in Chinese.  I brought home a whole pile of these tickets, but unfortunately, I haven’t been able find them since I moved.

I visited at least one tourist attraction that had no English on the sign out front at all (the former residence of Hu Xueyan – a banker who went from rags to riches and back to rags).  I knew from the map I got at the Visitor Center where to go looking, but the entrance sign was in Chinese only, and after walking around the streets nearby a couple laps, I bravely tried entering the place that I thought should be it – and I was correct.  Woot.  The place was well worth the effort to find and see.


Sometimes, doing nothing was enough.  Since I was mainly in an area with lots of tourists, many places were prepared for visitors who couldn’t read Chinese.  In Hangzhou, the restaurants always had menus with photos of the dishes.  In Tokyo, they had plastic food displayed for you.  You could point to what looked good.  Street food, again, you could point to what you wanted.  Numbers were the same as in the West, so no issue there.  Most places clearly displayed prices.

I made extensive use of map apps on my phone – I used a VPN to access google maps, and I had a second map downloaded to my phone – both capable of locating me on the map using GPS. I rode the city buses for transportation with no trouble at all – some buses gave info in Chinese only, while others had both Chinese and English. The bus fare depended on the bus equipment – extra for heat or a/c, or an express route.  More about riding city buses here.  But I digress.

I had a fantastic trip. But it did inspire me to work harder at expanding my reading skills. As for non-Roman alphabets, I have worked on learning to read Hebrew for three years now. I can read – more or less – I’m limited by my vocabulary. And then there’s the omitted vowels guessing game. I’m hoping to travel to Israel, but haven’t done so yet. Covid has grounded me for a year now – and my bucket list is very long!