TOP 23 important things you should know before visiting China
China – colourful country which landscapes simply take the breath away. From temple-topped mountains to sandy, wide deserts. From overcrowded cities full of alien quarters to juicy-green rice terraces, glittering lakes and coconut-rich palm trees along the beach.. This country is just spectacular, but traveling in China can be quite a challenge as well. And therefore we have some tips that might help you to get around China with much more ease!
1. Diversity of the country
This country is vast, you should remember that! You can experience the most different weather and the most different landscapes, so it is important to choose and explore your destination in advance! Your experience definitely won`t be the same if you visit megacities like Beijing and Shanghai or go to remote areas in the West. And therefore you should consider the place of your destination in advance so that you wouldn’t end up in the monsoon storm even if you had read that it will be sunny in China! China is a wide expression, you know! Every place is different!
Check how to move around, what to expect from that certain place (like e.g. elevation related illnesses or sand storms).. It is not possible to describe every single place of China in this small section, but remember that it is important to do some research of your destination before you go! And in China, we don`t think you should avoid all the touristy places. Of course, there are always some pros and cons – touristy places will bring you to the wide-known spots, but there you will be able to get around more easily, you will have restaurants and accommodation. In remote areas you will see the real China, but everything else might be a struggle – depends on what kind of traveler are you!
2. Amount of people
Is it actually possible to realize that every fifth of all human beings alive today are Chinese? Can you imagine how many Chinese have squeezed in China? Moreover, most of the people live by the East coast, so prepare for some queues! Yeah, in the biggest cities there are kilometres-long queues in the stores, in the metro and everywhere around.
All the “travel warnings” recommend to avoid Chinese national holidays which are 10 days during the month of October. But what we did – we just went to the Great Wall of China those days! And actually, we were surprised that everything was so well-organized! Transportation system and ticket booths were available for everyone! Yeah, it took longer to get through the traffic and it took some patience to move with the mass of people, but we survived. Though be mindful – if you do not have lot of time, plan your trip accordingly. You might not get the train tickets, you might not get a bed in a hotel either. And, of course, there will be less personal space in China, people tend to touch and push others in the queues, and it is normal. Nobody never stresses out about these simple things as they are just used to it. But for you – it might come as a surprise!
3. Keep the passport with you
China is still quite traditional and not that open country, therefore there are quite a few random check-ups on the street. Also, you will be asked to show your passport before entering some sights. Your passport will be needed to purchase the train tickets and to get on the train. So in China it is useful to keep the passport with you as it might come handy, but, of course, keep it in the safe place of your pocket!
4. Cash and ATM`s
Oh, man! It is quite a challenge to find an ATM that actually works in China. Most of them are asking for 6 digit PIN number, then there are numerous ATMs that just do not accept no Visa or MasterCard. And not only that – these cards are not accepted in the stores, so cash is very important.
For our MasterCard, the ATMs which actually worked most of the time were HSBC and ABC Agricultural Bank of China. Of course, it is not wise to carry lots of cash with you, but, whenever you find an ATM that works, take out some extra money, as you might not get another working one that fast. Remember that most places in China prefer cash. Even if there are fancier restaurants and hotels that accept Visa and MasterCard, the most of them will operate only with cash payments or WeChat (read about this below).
5. Internet and VPN
China is really complicated. Even if in most public places you will find Wifi, you will be able to use it only if you have your SIM and basic knowledge in Chinese, or if you are able to pay, but who knows where that money is actually going. And, if you are an active user of social sites like FaceBook, or if YouTube is very important to you, remember – in China they do not work if you do not have VPN!
What is VNP? It is called the virtual private network and it gives you online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. Basically, VPN lends you a temporary IP address and hides your true IP address from every website or email you connect with. So this way Chinese do not know that you are using Facebook or YouTube in China! But remember to download this app before coming to China! You can use the trial version of VPN for a month and if you wish to continue there is a small monthly fee for the service.
Also, if you are planning to be in China for a longer period of time, it`s useful to download Weixin or WeChat. WeChat is China’s main messaging app and everyone has it. And it is not used only for chatting, they use it also for finding interest groups, online payments, official company accounts, advertising options, and more! It is basically all-in-one messaging app that s super-useful in China. But don`t get too deep in your phone. We know it is happening everywhere, and very much in China, too. We noticed that every single one in the metro was using his or her phone. They miss their stops, they run into things. There are even warning signs saying “Do not look at your phone when stepping on escalator or walking in the metro station”. Remember that the real life is all around you not in that device!
6. SIM card
Be very careful when buying the SIM because many of the big phone companies will charge you astronomical prices of more than 50 euros for a card. And they do it just because foreigners agree to that! But there are some places that you can safely purchase your SIM, which is airport or corner stores. Yeah, there it is safer than in Vodafone center where they just trick you! The major operators in China are China Mobile and China Unicom. First, remember that your phone has to be unlocked so that you can actually put another SIM in that. Also, bring your passport as it will be needed when purchasing SIM. And keep in mind that most SIM cards are locked to the province, so if you travel further, you have to pay extra for texting, calling or data.
7. Maps and directions
Oh, that is quite challenging in China. Google Maps is acting weird and what about English signs that can help? There are none. Even in touristy areas we found it difficult to get around with the rare maps and directions provided. Each map of the place can be different and even some sites (if translated in English at all) are differently named in different maps! We often didn’t manage to find our hotel or the place of interest without the help of locals. And, yeah, they don’t speak English, by the way. Even if you manage to get a good map, some of the hotels are hidden in such places no one could find them. And the worst thing, if you ask the locals for the directions, they will always point you in one, even if they are not sure. So at the end you might find yourself totally lost in this land. But, hey, this makes China a bit more interesting, right?
8. Chinese language
Yes, they really do not speak English there! Therefore it is very useful to prepare with dictionaries or better download offline translation app. Very rarely something is in English, and even if in some restaurants we came across English translations, they were super silly, like “white face powder” and “not leg”…Well, that doesn`t help, really. Chinese numbers are not that difficult to learn, so that could help you to see if you are being tricked or not. But generally – prepare – this is a country where no other language works!
9. Chinese weird habits
This part of the world is totally different from everything else, so expect some weird stuff to happen. It was weird to see that people are actually shaving and cutting their nails in the public! But generally, long fingernails are quite common, in opposite the beards – during our month long trip across China we saw only one man with a beard! They are also spitting a lot, just like the camels! The cool thing is that it`s common to work out early in the morning – alone or in a group practice Tai Chi, play badminton or run. But interestingly enough, Chinese usually bathe in the evening not morning as they believe that one has to go to sleep clean and fresh.
Chinese often use their umbrellas. Yeah, they avoid sun as much as the rain. Be mindful of colours as in China white is for mouring, but red colour is the one for success. Chinese tend to speak loudly in public and, for them, no question is a “no-no” question, so do not be surprised if you are expected to tell you religion, political opinion or salary straight away. And it is interesting that in Chinese there is no word for “no”, there`s only “not yes”. Chinese do not like to refuse and they will also answer to your question even if they do not know the right answer. Yeah, and if you are lost in the streets, you might be even more lost after the “help” you get. Keep in mind that number four is unlucky as the pronunciation of it is similar to “death”. And when visiting it is common to give a small gift to the host.
10. Food and table culture
Food is a big thing in China, and Chinese cuisine is our favourite one! Those varieties! But we will not discuss the food itself, instead let`s talk about the things you should know about table culture and eating in China. Just to add, be careful of some cheap foods as there are many fake things in China, like plastic rice, that can ruin your health. If something is too cheap, check it twice.
If you are invited for the meal, remember, that the guest of honor or senior member of the group is seated first and he/she starts to eat first, and only after others follow. Interestingly enough, it is said that slurping food and eating loudly is not a manner in China, but, hey, they still do that! Sometimes it is incredibly disgusting.
Chinese usually use chopsticks, so you can start practicing, but generally you can get fork if needed. But, if you go with the flow and eat with the chopsticks, remember that it is super-rude to stick them vertically in the food, wave with them, stab food with them. And never tap on the bowl with your chopsticks! Also, do not point the mouth of the teapot to others.
There are also not that nice habits Chinese have. They always tend to leave something in their plate to show that they can afford as much as they cannot even eat. And everything that they don’t eat like fish bones, they just spit on the table. Even in the homes kitchen is dirty, people dine besides their dirty dishes that hadn`t been washed for days. Also, do not tip in China as it is not practiced and expected.
Of course, not only food but also drinks will surprise you. But the most popular is definitely tea. It is very common for Chinese to drink tea throughout the day, but – if they do not have tea leaf in it, there`s no problem – hot water will do, too! Yeah, for us it seemed strange when we got hot water along with our food. But it turns out that drinking hot water activates the digestive tract, it is dissolving things that body has problems digesting. While muscles are contracting when you drink cold water, hot water increases the blood flow to the tissues, allowing muscles to relax. It also calms down the central nervous system thus helping with all kinds of pain. And the cool thing is that hot water is always available in the train and at the airport. But remember not to drink the tap water in China!
12. In the market
Yes, definitely bargain! Never accept the price first offered. It is even funny that locals expect you to bargain and they are happy for this fun game unless you go too far. Chinese are quite unpredictable and if they get offended they just walk away. But the prices first shown are at least double the real ones.
Chinese love to take photographs, and they do it all the time, especially with a Westerner in the background. You will feel like a star in China, be prepared for some attention! What you can do is offer them a deal – photo for photo. If they take photo with their phone, use yours as well. It`s interesting that some will step down right away – they do not want to be in your photos too! But keep in mind, it is always best to ask permission before photographing a person or a government building.
14. Purchasing entrée tickets
There are many famous sites to visit in China, and it would take more than a lifetime to see them all. But the tricky part is ticket purchasing. Not always you will find ticket booths besides the entrance. Instead you will see bar codes on the poles – Chinese are expecting you to understand that this is the way to pay. Yeah, and they do it using WeChat or simply homepage in internet.
15. Finding hotel
We were super surprised that even in the capital city, Beijing, most of the hotels simply refused to welcome us. And what was the reason for it? Turns out that they need a special license to host foreigners and if the hotel doesn`t have one, which is obviously pricy, they cannot. Yeah, so the cheapest hotels just weren’t an option. Even the official websites like Booking.com and Agoda still have those places in their lists, so always check the “important information” section as there you might read “Chinese citizens only”. Yeah, even two or thee-star hotels can say no to you! And what is the solution? Well, look for more expensive places, try to find some hotel illegally or use AirBnb if the hosts will be nice and agree to use translator to communicate with you!
16. Train rides in China
Chinese trains are quite enjoyable. Of course, the toilet is something challenging as there is only a hole in the floor where not everyone can aim in properly. But there are sleeper cabins and sitting ones. There is always hot water available and sellers are often walking around and offering snacks, meals, drinks and even alcoholic beverages.
The bad thing is that sometimes it`s allowed to smoke inside and the air con is making the train too cold to bare. Locals are messy and cleaners come every two hours to clean all the garbage Chinese have left behind. Locals are used to trade their things, especially in the train – but with one rule – if you get something you give something in return.
Also, in the sitting couch Chinese will try to take all the space for bags for themselves, so you have to be quick and fight for your place. And, yeah, we noticed that people from this nation get motion sick very quickly, so you can end up sitting in front of a puking person – we experienced that a lot. And then just try to avoid that what`s coming!
17. Intercity buses in China
We didn`t travel long distances by bus, but we used the bus to move between cities that are not that far from each other. It is possible to catch bus very easily and you don’t even need to go to the main bus station (which is recommended if you do not know the price for the bus). If it is not a long distance ride, bus drivers often stop and there is a guy who calls in all the passengers naming the destination of the bus. But also, bus drivers can be quite reckless and sometimes it`s just better to close the eyes and hope for the best. Of course, it depends on the region and the place.
18. Public bus
If you are planning to use the bus to move around the city, you will need cash, and as precise as possible as you have to put in in the box besides the driver and nobody will give you your change back. But even if the bus drivers doesn`t speak English, they are generally very nice – show them the map and they will take care of you and let you out in the right place.
19. Metro rides
Metro system in China is quite understandable, at least in the big cities. Though sometimes metro itself is located in the underground shopping maze and it might be quite confusing to orientate around. There are bag checks before the entrance, so remember not to take any sharp objects with you otherwise they will be removed. You can purchase the metro card that you can top up, but it doesn’t give you any discounts, it just allows you to skip the queues by the ticket booths every time you go to the metro. The card itself costs around 3 euros in Beijing, and you can also return it before leaving, but it can be done only in specific metro stations. In metro you have to pay for the distance covered and the ticket has to be shown also by the exit.
20. Bicycle rent
That is one cool thing Chinese have. You can rent a bicycle just by paying using the app. The bikes can be found all around the city, at least the big ones. You pay, get a special code in your phone, unlock the bicycle and go! Even if the bikes do not look the best, biking is so much cheaper and healthier way of exploring the city!
21. Road traffic
Always be very careful on the road, when driving or as a pedestrian. Drivers tend not to stop by the red light, buses go fast without even looking. As a passenger, sometimes it felt like the ride will be the last one, but well, there are so many Chinese and they all are trying to use the road. Sometimes sharing doesn`t work, but, well – that`s a different country and just try to explore it with care!
22. Medical help in China
Well, China has its risks. We talked about the road traffic earlier, and there is also quite high pollution so you will see lots of people wearing pollution masks. But the food in China is quite safe, just be careful with the water – do not use it from the tap. But anyways, if something happens, Chinese pharmacies offer both western and eastern medicine at very reasonable prices, sometimes you will need to provide your identification if you are buying more specific meds. Hospitals in China can be crowded, but most major cities have specialized hospitals for foreigners living and working in the country. But even in the crowded public hospitals many doctors will speak English.
In China, you will find free public toilets all around. Though almost always that is just a hole in the ground. Even most of the mainstream bars and restaurants won`t have a toilet, they will just send you to the closest public one. And always remember to bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer as well.
But, even if China is one complicated and challenging country, it will give you such impressions that you will strive to return. And we hope that these tips will allow you to enjoy your trip even more!