If you are a westerner planning a visit to China, I’m sure you have a notepad full of ideas and lists of things you need to bring or remember. There are surely somethings you haven’t considered yet; things you can learn only through visiting the ancient country yourself.
I hate to break it to you, but China isn’t always dumplings and tea, ladies and gentlemen. After backpacking the entire width, and length of China, I’ve compiled a list of tips that I wish I would have known before I got there. Hopefully it helps you appreciate the subtleties of Chinese culture and the wonderfully beautiful landscapes rather than focus on logistics:
1. Print out detailed itineraries in order to obtain a visa
If you are American, you will need $150 USD and your flight and hotel information in order to obtain a visa. They usually take 5 business days. You must go in-person to the embassy.
Other western passports have cheaper visas (usually $100 USD or less).
2. Be very skeptical of hostels and AirBnB locations:
I was unfortunate enough to be taken advantage of twice in Bejing. The airbnb places I rented were disgusting, and one of the hostels I rented was extremely unsafe. Read reviews before booking!
3. Don’t forget travel insurance:
If you do get sick, finding a doctor that speaks English is nearly impossible without insurance, even in large cities. Buy travel insurance. Most plans will aid you with a translator or help you find an English doctor!
Travel and Transit in country
1. There are 4 types of trains to catch:
You can catch either a high-speed G or D train to move rapidly across the country, or catch local K or Z train. If you want to book in advance (highly recommended for bullet/high speed trains), here are a few websites to use to access China’s vast network of trains:
- China Travel Guide
- China Highlights
- China Train Ticket
- Cant purchase, but a great resource for planning travel: Seat 61
- China Trains
Pro Tip: Save on accommodation fees by taking a local overnight train to our next destination. Not only will you save on accommodation costs, but the local trains are significantly less expensive than bullet trains and will keep cash in your pocket as well.
Bullet trains are average $60 USD while local are around $15 USD.
2. Get to the airport early….and expect delays
You are probably going to have to wait for, or on, an airplane in China. They are notorious for being delayed. And travel security can be a nightmare at times, so expect to arrive early and leave late.
3. Assume you passport is always necessary:
You will probably need it when making a booking. Yes, that includes bus and train travel.
4. Travel by bus:
There are often networks of buses you can catch for very cheap at large rail station (I caught one at the Xi’an Rail Station). They often will offer round trip or one-way fees. Don’t take a round trip ticket, even at the slight discount they offer, because it might not be honored on the return trip, especially if you miss a bus and attempt to take a later one back.
Buses will take you to hard-to-reach locations like mountains or The Great Wall
1. Bring lots of pain medication (in their original, labelled containers)
Its hard to find western medicine in China. It is also extremely expensive for weak-acetomenaphine-type drugs. Bring your own to avoid an extra headache while looking for pain relief.
2. Drink only bottled water:
The tap is probably non-potable. Remember to use a bottle of water when brushing your teeth as well!!!
3. Avoid exercise during days with high air pollution:
Don’t over exert yourself if you are in an area that has high air pollution like Bejing. Try to wear a construction-grade mask to keep your lungs healthy during days of high pollution.
4. Check the air quality levels:
It’s a necessity for your health! Some of the most toxic particles are the ones that don’t cause haze! Here are a few websites to check daily:
And an Air-Quality App for your device:
Chinese Toilets do not have toilet paper. Bring your own tissues. Also expect to have your own soap and hand sanitizer!
1. Be careful handing money to shop owners:
You might not get yuan/RMB back. As a foreigner, you are less likely to notice if a shop owner hands you back out-of-date Mongolian or ancient notes back that are unusable elsewhere.
2. Most ATMs will not take foreigner cards:
Look for an ICBC branch to use your visa, or a manned ICBC to exchange currency. Expect long waits.
3. Most places don’t take debit:
Bring enough cash with you. Restaurants and even some hotels might not accept debit or credit. This means carrying a large amount of cash with you. Also be aware that the currency is quite inflated in comparison to some Western countries, so a lot of cash is necessary (A latte at Starbucks is around $30 yuan)
4. Don’t tip:
It’s considered rude. Chinese culture does not constitute tipping. If locals don’t, neither should you.
If you are not in a mall or a restaurant, don’t accept the first bid given. Haggle with a smile. It’s considered good sportsmanship to have a good attitude and a smile while haggling down a price. Never show frustration or anger.
Pro Tip: Don’t go lower than 30% of their given price when initially haggling. An extremely low bid is bad form.
Chinese (pop)culture and technology
1. It is not considered rude to spit:
You will see a lot of it. It’s not considered gross in Chinese culture, so try to have an open mind.
2. Your picture might get taken:
They may ask for your permission. They may not. Try not to get offended, especially if someone puts their baby in your arms (it happened to my boyfriend!!!). You are going to stand out, especially in a very rural area.
3. Get yo’self a VPN!
Pronto. It’s necessary for any google apps you use, or any social media.
4. T-mobile service works through the firewall. Otherwise, get a local SIM:
If you have T-mobile, CONGRATULATIONS! You officially have 2G speeds where ever you wander in China. If you don’t, well, buy a sim card. Make sure you have that VPN!!
5. Download WeChat:
It’s a popular app that anyone in China uses. Super useful when meeting people or sharing photos!
6. Chinese people do not speak “Chinese”:
There are hundreds of dialects and sub-cultures within China, including 55 ethnic groups that have special rights. Ask people about their culture or what their area/hometown is famous for!
7. Be careful when traveling during Chinese holidays:
Guess who got caught in Bejing during Tomb-sweeping weekend? This chick. When every Chinese tourist is competing to enjoy the same tourist spot you are, you might miss out. There are only 5 Chinese national holidays: please do your research before attempting to travel during one!
8. Carry your backpack on your FRONT side during packed subways:
This will prevent pick pocketing and is considered good manners.
9. Be aggressive when you queue:
There are billions of people in China. When you are raised in such a tight environment, personal space matters less. Be aggressive. People won’t mind if you are nearer to them than you would be at home.
10. Pedestrians do not own the road:
You will get run over. Keep moving! Look both ways twice before entering the road.
What did you learn after visiting China? Help me improve this list to help others plan their Chinese adventure!