I don’t know if you’ve tried it yet in China but I’ve been in many situations where a Chinese ID card would’ve been so much easier to work with instead of my own foreign one. There’s a big difference between the international passport which looks like a small book and the Chinese ID card (they have to buy a passport separately if they want to go abroad) which is just a health-insurance-card-look-a-like-thing.
The problem is that Chinese people are using characters in their daily lives whereas people from the Western world are using letters so if you go outside of the main Chinese megacities, you can easily bump into people who don’t know a word in English. This is quite crap if you want them to check you in when arriving at a hotel and they just look confused and irritated.
Well, many hotels also don’t have a certificate for hosting foreigners. Something about how good shape the hotel is in and so on. Therefore, first, if you choose to go around town to find a hotel, be aware that some hotels refuse to take you in because of your foreign passport.
Anyway, if you find a place where they don’t make any weird noises or arm gestures but are still looking at your passport like it’s an alien thing, don’t give up. It’s actually quite easy. The only thing you need is a Chinese name and they’ll put that in the system with your passport number (remember to show them which number that is or they will be lost again .. time-consuming).
Again, if you don’t want to get stuck in this situation at all, then just look at the people outside of the train/bus station where you’ve arrived. Many of these are locals offering a place to stay. I’ve done this a few times and they’re lovely people. Just remember, they tend to put up the price if you look foreign so get a piece of paper and write down the price you want to pay. Average for a normal room for one or two people in a smaller city is between 40-100 RMB (depends heavily on the province).
A little help with the Mandarin when searching for hotels around town:
Jiudian (酒店) – Hotel (When you see the locals in front of the station. They’ll know what you’re up to and please don’t be scared if they take you into a small alley. These hotels are usually not located at the main road or else you wouldn’t be able to haggle down the price at the station).
Duo Shao Qian? (多少钱 ) – How much?
Please check out the dictionary Pleco for more information about the words and to hear how to say it out loud (You can push the speaker in front of each word in the dictionary).