China is a country of diversity. From its world-renowned sights and big, bustling cities, to the vast landscapes and small, rural villages. Whilst it might be historically fascinating, it certainly isn’t the easiest of countries to travel around. You’ll probably come face to face with a range of challenges, and get frustrated, lost and feel pretty much helpless at times!
So if you’re planning on travelling to China, here is a list of 11 essential things you should know before visiting. Arrive with these in mind and you’ll put yourself at a definite advantage to explore!
1. You’ll need a visa
It’s absolutely essential that you apply for your visa in good time before visiting China. This is because the visa application process can be lengthy and tedious! When applying for a tourist visa, you’ll probably need to give them a detailed itinerary of your plans.
Learn more about the visa process on the official Chinese Embassy wesbite.
2. Communication barrier
I still remember that feeling of helplessness when we were attempting to check-in to our hotel in Shenzhen but were faced with blank-eyed stares. Nobody spoke any English, and even though we’d bought a phrase book with us, it wasn’t helping the situation. Eventually we got there, but it took a lot longer than necessary.
It’s definitely worth being aware that in China, a lot of people don’t speak English. What makes it more difficult is that Chinese isn’t a single, unified language – it’s made up of many dialects. So if you learn how to pronounce something correctly in one province, it’s probably said differently in another.
3. Hotels vs Hostels
From personal experience, I would recommend staying in hostels in China. Maybe I was just unfortunate with the hotels I chose, but none of them seemed very prepared for travellers. In comparison, hostels seemed to have less of a language barrier, a more welcoming reception and opportunities to have fun and meet people. Many of them offer activities each night, such as making dumplings, practicing Chinese calligraphy and sampling Chinese alcohol! My favourite times in China came from staying in hostels.
4. Don’t be afraid to haggle!
Haggling is a part of Chinese culture, and is what they will be expecting from you! You can test your skills in markets and independent shops. It’s trial and error with haggling; you’ll know if you’ve gone too low as they’ll let you walk away without another word. One rule though: never accept the first offer.
5. Make use of the public transport
Using public transport as opposed to guided tours can be a daunting prospect for some, especially in China due to the language barrier! It doesn’t have to be so difficult though. As long as you do your research and find out about any common scams that might occur, you should be fine. Public transport in China is extremely affordable, and the subways in the big cities are amazing! Just note that you’ll need your passport when making a train or coach booking.
6. Culture shock
There’s no denying that China can be a huge culture shock. The big cities are loud, polluted and busy, and the people can have very different customs. For instance, spitting, burping and hacking are not uncommon. I even saw somebody repeatedly spitting out their food onto a restaurant floor in Shanghai. You’ll probably be shocked by some of the things you see, but it’s worth keeping an open mind. Remember that in China they also have a lot of lovely habits, such as elderly people playing card games in the park, and huge dance classes in public spaces at the weekend.
7. Squat toilets
If you’ve been to Asia you’ll be familiar with the dreaded squat toilet. Don’t be afraid; they are probably more hygienic anyway! Just remember to bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer though.
8. The tourists are mainly Chinese
As of August 2017, the population of China is 1,389 billion. So it’s no wonder really that even the majority of tourists are Chinese (a warning: don’t travel on Chinese holidays). Westerners can be a rare sight in China and many Chinese people love an opportunity to snap a cheeky photo with you. Whilst on the Great Wall, one lady beckoned me over and before I knew it she’d whipped off my woolly hat and was posing for a picture with me. It happens. Embrace it!
9. Cash vs Card
Whilst credit cards are now more widely accepted in China, most places prefer to accept cash. Also, not all ATM machines read different cards. It’s worth checking that your banking provider is accepted in China.
In China, sites such as Google and Facebook are blocked. If you’re wanting to access these, you will need a Virtual Private Network (VPN). You can either download a free app or pay for one. I’m yet to discover a brilliant VPN, and would probably just recommend downloading several free ones. If you decide to pay, just make sure that the app has China as one of its included countries.
11. Don’t expect the food to be the same
Whatever is on your typical Chinese takeaway list is probably not one of most regularly eaten dishes in China. The food in China really wasn’t what I’d expected! They can have very adventurous eating habits; if you order an unknown meat dish (and sometimes you have to when you can’t find anywhere that has an English menu), it really could be anything. You’ve been warned!
China can be challenging, frustrating and downright difficult, but it’s worth the journey!
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