Traveling in China is a lifetime experience, but also a complex endeavor that needs careful preparation. Planning what places you want to visit during your journey across China is the fun part, yet in the planning process, there are a few things you should be aware of.
As an expat who crisscrossed China for business or leisure during ten years, here is a non-exhaustive list of things I wished I had known when planning my first trip into the Middle Kingdom.
Feel free to add your own story, tips and advice in the comment section below.
#1. Forget the long bucket-list
China is a vast multi-cultural country with a long history. It’s tempting to make a long bucket-list and try to visit as many natural and cultural sites that China has to offer, however this is not a good strategy. You will end up running, rushing through places that takes time to visit, flying a lot and risking long delays at airports (see below), and spending days in long train trips. When you prepare your itinerary, do not go overboard and try and be realistic. Depending on how much time you have, try and explore two or three regions depending on your interests, this is the best strategy.
After Beijing and Pingyao, spend two days exploring the ancient castles of Shanxi and then move on to the Longmen Buddhist Caves. Base yourself in Shanghai and visit Suzhou, the nearby water towns and Hangzhou. If you go to Yunnan, base yourself in Dali and explore the many historical villages around the ancient town.
#2. Leave room for the unknown
No matter how well you plan your travel across China, leave room for the unknown. Bus schedules change overnight, in summer, during the rainy season triggers mudslide cut roads off and shut airport down in the provinces south of the Yangze, tickets may be sold out, or you decide you want to stay one extra day to visit a place you heard of from a fellow foreign traveler during your trip. Leaving yourself at least one or two extra days during your trip is always a good idea and will allow for you to be flexible in case something unexpected happen.
#3. Expect flight delays
Chinese airports have the worst reputation for flight delays. I have crisscrossed China by land and air for years and here are a few facts : early morning flights are more likely to depart on time and the chances decrease as the day goes by. When I was giving tours in Yunnan, I had clients who had to fly between all the places they wanted to visit and all their flights were delayed, anywhere between 3 to 6 hours. They had a nice bucket-list, were flying to almost all their travel destination and with flight delays, they ended up rushing through most of the places they wanted to visit.
In addition, when flights are delayed, information from the staff is scarce is very few people will be able to tell you exactly what is going on in English. Also, in many instances, passengers get extremely impatient and even violent with the airport staff.
Remember when I said ‘leave room for the unknown’?
To avoid flight delays and long lines at the airport’s check-in and security check, switch to the high-speed trains which are always on time. Click the following links to read my beginner’s guide to buying train tickets in China or to learn more about fast-train travel in China.
#4. Hotel booking : online vs. offline
Many China-bound travelers, especially first-timers have a tendency to book all their hotels in advance. While it makes sense to book your accommodation online for your arrival in China and into the country’s largest cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, if you are traveling to smaller places in the countryside, this might not be necessary.
In smaller towns, a lot of nice hotels do not offer booking through western websites and most of the hotels and guesthouses in the historical villages I mention in this website do not even have an online presence, which does not mean that there are no accommodations. In a place like Dali in Yunnan, there are hundreds of guesthouses is town and you may want to see what they have to offer for yourself upon arrival. I have never booked hotels or guesthouses when traveling for leisure in China and always, even in the smallest place I went, I always found a decent place to crash.
Of course, if you travel during the peak season, do book online.
#5. The pollution factor
In Beijing, Shanghai, most cities in north and northwest China and pretty much anywhere in the country, pollution is factor you will likely have to deal with during your travel. The infamous Beijing’s “airpocalypse” does not happen every day and there are long periods of ‘excellent’ to ‘good’ air quality index (AQI) days. Should the AQI becomes ‘unhealthy to sensitive groups’ or ‘hazardous’, you may expect soar throat, shortness of breath, discomfort in your eyes and/ or headaches.
Come prepared and bring a mask with a filter against PM 2.5, the smallest particles which are the most harmful. Download Air Quality Index (AQI) apps on your mobile and turn on the notifications which will alert you when pollution is getting bad.
#6. The Language barrier
Chinese is as hard for you to learn than English to Chinese speakers. Many have spent years studying English in high school, but because the lack of opportunity to practice, they have a basic and passive knowledge of the Shakespeare’s language. Yes, you will meet a lot of people who speak fluent English, but do keep in mind that beyond Beijing, Shanghai and other large cities, few people will be able to converse with you in English.
Since few people speak English, it is not a bad idea to invest into a phrase-book and a travel guide book that has the name of the places and address with Chinese characters. I always advise people to download Pleco, a free dictionary with pronunciation and add-ons. These add-ons (some of them are free, some have to be purchased) include specialized dictionary (business lexicon, the famous Grand Ricci dictionary for the geeks), one-way German and French to Chinese dictionaries, monolingual Chinese dictionaries and a very useful Optical Character Recognizer that automatically look up words with your phone camera.
#7. Enjoy Chinglish
Chinglish is a near literal translation of a Chinese sentence to English and sometimes failed translations. In Beijing and Shanghai, there have been campaigns to eradicate it, in vain. Harder to find in the first-tier cities, you will find Chinglish signs almost everywhere and some will brighten your days. Chinglish sentences are always funny and if one can always guess the meaning or the intent of the message, sometimes it is not that easy.
If you want to grasp the basics of Chinglish, check China Mike for a good collection to get you started with.
#8. Take a tiny notepad
When you meet someone who speak English and are headed to rural place, have them write in Chinese addresses, destinations, basic sentences that you feel you’d need during your travel and other information you may need on the way. In a world where tech is everywhere, it’s old school, but it works … and battery never runs out.
#9. Forget the Chinese food clichés and master the chopsticks
Those who have never been to China still think that Chinese people eat rice and dog on a daily basis. Also, with the ‘westernized’ Chinese food menus, there is more to Chinese food than the kong-pao chicken and fried rice. There are many different types cuisines (the official number is five) and a gap between the wheat-based north where you will find a lot of fresh noodles hand-stretch in front of you and dumplings, and the rice-based south where the Sichuan – Hunan cuisine is known for being the country’s spiciest while the Cantonese cuisine is bland with a lot of seafood, but considered more ‘refined’.
Wherever you go, you might just be able to eat something different everyday.
If you are heading to Yunnan, check out Georgia’s website for authentic Yunnan food recipes, get in touch with Luxi, a Sichuan girl in Yunnan who gives great cooking classes at ‘Rice and Friends‘ in Dali and if the panda research center in Chengdu is on your bucket-list, contact Jordan at Chengdu Food Tours who will show you real Sichuanese food.
Many restaurants have picture menus that will help you decide what to eat. Be careful when you order meat, it might be stomach, kidneys or entrails. If you are into seafood, you will be able to choose what you want to eat directly from the fish tank at the entrance of the restaurant. In rural China, many restaurants do not have menus, but a fridge with all the vegetables and meat available. Choose what you eat. Always ask for the price before ordering.
Unless you are headed to a fast-food or a “Western Restaurant”, you will not find forks and knifes. Do practice your chopstick skills before coming to China, you will likely improve and master the art during your trip, and who knows, after 2 or 3 weeks, you will be able to pick three peanuts in the same time.
#10. Don’t mind the slurping and be civilized
Making slurping sounds while eating a bowl of noodles, burping and even spitting in the streets are not considered “uncivilized” behavior in many parts of China. Although they can be annoying (to say the least) to many foreigners, you may have to put up with it.
Before the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 and the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010, state campaigns aimed to rule out “uncivilized” behaviors in order to accommodate foreigners’ sensibilities and give a better image of Chinese people to the world. However, in rural China, spitting, yelling over the phone in public places, pushing one’s way into the bus or cutting in lines to name are commons. Although, these are considered ‘normal’ by local standards, many foreigners may find them jarring.
#11. Don’t forget to bring tissues and your hand sanitiser
If cleanliness of Chinese public toilets vary from ‘somewhat acceptable’ to insanely gross’, one thing is sure, they never come with tissues. So, bring them with you. If you will find water to wash your hands, you may not find soap and towels. Of course, public toilets in a high-end mall in downtown Beijing will meet international standards, however, when you stop at a gas station during a long bus ride, be psychologically ready for the worst.
If you go to the countryside, toilets signs will not be in English. You will find 男厕 for male bathrooms and 女厕 for female bathrooms.
#12. Know when to travel and where
Chinese have coined a phrase ‘人山人海’, literally ‘Mountain of People, Sea of People’ which expresses very well how densely populated the country is. It’s not just a metaphor and there are three periods of the year during which you may experience the meaning of this expression.
The Spring Festival (dates varies according to the lunar calendar, but roughly in February), during which hundreds of millions of workers buy go back to their hometown to celebrate with their families.
Then comes the May 1st holiday or Labor Day : the entire country gets a few days off and flock to shopping malls and tourist sites.
Finally the October 1st holiday which celebrates the anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. Again, the entire country gets a few days off and go traveling.
If it’s your first time in China, I strongly suggest avoiding traveling in China during these times of year.
There are two other time of years to keep in mind : the dragon boat festival in early June and the mid-autumn festival in September (precise dates depends on the Chinese lunar calendar) during which the entire country has one or two days off.
This is a nation-wide holiday system that may change during the next ten years.
In southern China, the rainy season comes with heavy downpours, floods and sometimes typhoons which may disrupt land and air travel, and causes mudslide on remote mountain roads of Yunnan or Guizhou.
#13. Travel with the Chinese
With the development of economy, the Chinese have discovered the joy of traveling in their own country. There is a plethora of travel agencies which caters to the countryside’s new urban middle-class, but also a rise of the independent travelers who are driving or backpacking. Everywhere you go, you’ll see that the Chinese have the travel bug.
So, even if you are not traveling during the peak seasons and even if you think you are not going to a touristic hot-spot, chances are you will encounter tour groups with matching base-ball caps following a guide who scream into a megaphone. When you are submerged in crowds of tourists in Dali or Fenghuang, just keep in mind that you are traveling with the Chinese in their own country and it cannot get more authentic than that.
#14. Winter in the south
All the provinces south of the Yangze River do not have heating system. Although good hotels in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Kunming or Guangzhou will have warm rooms for you, make sure you pack enough warm clothes if you are heading to visit the Guilin / Yangshuo area or if you plan to travel in Yunnan. You will not have to deal with freezing cold temperatures (unless you go to Shangri-La and Lijiang), but very chilly nights.
#15. Get ready for extra security
When touring Beijing and Shanghai, you will soon notice that the entrance to subway stations have an airport-like screening system. If you carry a bag or a backpack, you will have to screen it. It’s annoying, but comply without questions.
The same goes for train and bus stations. So, make sure you arrive well in advance to comply with security checks. Don’t worry, it’s a quick security check that includes luggage screening and a very quick pat-down (usually your front pockets).
#16. Ticket stamping
Depending on the train station or the airport, make sure you have your ticket or boarding pass handy, because you will have to show them multiple times to multiple employees who may or may not stamp it. It’s annoying, but it’s the way it works. In once instance, I had my boarding pass stamped twice and checked four times.
Outside Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other major cities where a smoking ban in public places is enforced to various degrees, once you go to the countryside, you have to know that most men smoke … everywhere. The good news is that smoking ban is strictly enforced in rural buses, however, the ban on smoking in small restaurants is rarely enforced, specially in the countryside.
#18. On lines, cutting them and roughing in
Queuing to buy a train or a bus ticket can be a frustrating and jarring experience for first-timers. Although most people do queue in orderly fashion and wait for their turn patiently, some people just do not care and cut in lines. In some instances, people will cut the line in front of the foreigner that you are.
In crowded waiting halls of train or bus stations, you are likely to experience a rough push towards the boarding gates. Stay calm and carry on.
#19. Experience the burden of stardom
While foreigners are not an unusual sight in the most developed cities or tourist hubs like, you have to keep in mind that hundred of thousands of domestic tourists have never seen a real foreigners. While visiting the country’s famed tourist sites, get ready for a lot of ‘hellooooo?’ (followed by laughter), people asking to take pictures with them and armies of wanna-be photographers with their mobile phone or incredibly huge lenses snapping your portrait. If you are tall, blonde with blue eye, you will be a curiosity.
#20. Embrace capitalism : expensive entrance fees
It’s normal to pay an entrance fee to access to a museum or a protected area. With the development of tourism and a surge in domestic travelers, entire historical and ethnic villages have been fenced off and visitors must pay expensive entrance fees. Two years ago, I wrote a post about the most expensive entrance fees to ancient villages in southwest China. While preparing your travel across China, try and gather as much information as you can about entrance fees (门票) so that you do not go over budget.
#21. Wireless communication (phone, 4G and VPN)
China is probably the most connected nation in the world. You will find free WIFI in many coffee shops and the 3G and 4G network is available throughout China, even many of the most remote places.
Upon your arrival, buy a 4G sim card for your (unlocked) phone and get connected. Be warned that the list of foreign social medias platforms like Twitter or Facebook are not available in China and you may want to purchase a VPN if you want to keep in touch with the outside world.
Check my post about what you need to know to stay connected during your China travel.
#22. Take cash
Although Chinese people are making more purchase online, with credit-card or with online apps like Alibaba Pay, Zhifu, and Wechat, first-timers in China, should get cash.
If you stay in 5* international hotel in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, they will accept your Visa, MasterCard or American Express, but once you go on the streets, you will need cash.
You will find ATM at the main banks : Bank of China 中国银行, Construction Bank 建设银行, HSBC 汇丰银行 or Industrial and Construction Bank (ICBC) 中国工商银行. Be careful, you can only withdraw between 2500 RMB or 3000 RMB (depending on the bank). If you have extra cash, it will be hard for you to change it back to your home currency in China, do inquire with your bank.
#23. No need to tip
North American travellers : service is included and a tip is not expect and may be viewed as an offence. Taxi drivers will round up the fare for you. If you hire a local tour guide or a driver, make sure you bargain and discuss what the fee you are paying include.
#24. Hong Kong and Macau are (special) territory of China
Hong Kong and Macau have the status of “Special Autonomous Region” aka SAR. They have their own currency (the Hong Kong Dollar and the Macanese Pataca) and are an integral part of China since they were handed over in 1997 and 1999 respectively.
However, even though they are administrative regions within the Chinese territory, they have a different status and everyone must cross a border and go through customs when entering and leaving. Foreigners from most countries may enter Hong Kong and Macau without a visa and are allowed to stay for up to 90 days while Chinese people must have a special permit in order to cross the border.
The point is : if you cross the border from China into Hong Kong or Macau and have a one single entry visa, it automatically becomes void and you are not allowed not re-enter mainland China. However, you can go from Hong Kong to Macau without any problem.
# 25. Include ancient & ethnic villages in your bucket-list
China is a country of big cities. They offer a lot to see and if there are a few old neighborhood left in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Chengdu or Guangzhou, consider jumping on a bus to visit a few ancient villages. There you will discover another China where the pace of life is slower than in urban area.
Click on the images below to discover more places to explore outside of the cities and how to get there.