Essential Things to Know Before Traveling to China

Oh China, the mystical eastern destination shrouded in the mist of media opinions and overheard anecdote. It is a country that you can never get to know what it really is by assuming. For those who are thinking about traveling to China to listen to more than one single story, I am singing your praise and hope the essential information below will be of help.

 

Is China cheap?

Given the fact that we are talking about travel expenses rather than the Apple products, the answer is yes. Many travellers (including our customers) commented that China is much cheaper than most western countries they have travelled in. Generally speaking, even 5-star accommodation in megacities like Beijing or Shanghai is affordable by western standards, with spacious room and modern facilities. Transport across the country is convenient and the costs are low. Meals (Chinese and western likewise) are reasonably priced as long as you are not after an ultra fine dining experience. The only drawback is that the entrance fee for tourist attractions can be somewhat expensive considering that many of them are free to enter in the West. Sometimes separate fees are required to pay to visit a complex of temples or museums, but you can always make a choice, which is a good thing the other way round.

Chinese cuisine and Xian foodThe Chinese food usually costs less than the western one.

Fairmont Hotels Beijing Many accommodation offers great value in terms of the location and spacious rooms!

 

Safety

Well, more than 70,000 people have travelled to China with us since the business was found and none was kidnapped or stabbed, so the conclusion can be drawn that China is safe to visit. Independent travellers shall not be worried either as the Chinese are very friendly to foreign visitors. Sometimes, you may be amazed at the extent that they try to help you out. For single travellers, common sense is a must to use at any time to avoid falling victim of tourist traps or theft.

 

Hygiene and food safety

China takes public health seriously, and the people have gotten used to washing hands whenever necessary. Very often you will see liquid soap available in the bathroom of restaurants or attraction sites.

When it comes to food, look at restaurant that has the food hygiene ratings in their premises, and always go with the one that has something above "C". To many's surprise, the suspicious street food is not that dangerous – very rare an upset stomach caused by street food is heard of. Following the local crowd is a good idea as they certainly have identified the safe zone. The bottom line is avoiding uncooked food in street stalls. That being said, if you do not go on overseas trips often, traveler's diarrhea is still a potential minor incident due to a new diet, dehydration from long-distance flying, a change in climate and lack of sleep. It is best to consult your family doctor for medication advice.

China street foodStreet food stall in Chengdu

China food hygiene ratingA food hygiene rating issued by China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA).

 

Vegen and vegetarian

The Chinese love their meat so much that even a tofu dish is likely to contain meat. But don't panic, it doesn't mean that they don't eat veggies. Popular (and convenient-to-find) non-meat options include noodles, rice, eggplant, garlic, bak choi and many other plant foods.

Xian cold noodleXi'an cold noodle is a yum choice for those don't consume meat.

The safe bet is to visit a vegetarian restaurant, which can be hard to find and often only available in big cities. It would be much easier having a local to check out the Chinese review sites to find one. Otherwise, you can still order a plate of stir-fried vegetables and tell the waiter or waitress that "bú yào fàng rèn hé ròu" (do not contain any meat). But this is not guaranteed, sometimes there is pork mince sprinkled on the vegetable. It is because of a common belief in China that if there is no meat in a dish, your money is not well spent. The restaurant is afraid of having a complaint if they totally abide by your request. If that happens, turning a blind eye probably is the only choice.

Chinese cuisine for vegetariansA typical plate of Chinese vegetables consisting of mushrooms, beans and bell peppers.

 

Greeting

I have been asked what is the correct way of greeting the Chinese. A very useful phrase to show your friendliness is "nǐ hǎo (hello)". Handshake? Definitely OK but a bit formal. Nodding? Yes when there are too many people to shake hands with separately. Hugging? More common between friends and family members. Kiss on the cheek? Would rather not to do that… Bowing? It is more of a Japanese thing.

 

Gifts

As we are living in a more open-minded society, international marriage has become a common phenomenon in China. If you are going to attend a wedding that involves a Chinese bride or groom, there is no such thing as a list of desired gifts in western culture. A red packet containing cash ranging from RMB300 to RMB800 for per attended is a common practice. The amount of money can vary depending on your relationship with the couple. Additional gifts are of course welcome such as gold accessories.

 

VPN

Many are shocked to learn that mainstream social media or websites are blocked in China, but it is a true fact inbound travelers need to deal with. The banned list includes Google (all affiliated products), Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp. To access these, you will need to install a VPN before your trip. For independent travelers, a VPN is even more crucial as they will need Google translation and the map to navigate through.

 

Cashless

China has entered the era of cashless economy. The major e-wallets are Alipay and Wechat Pay and you can spot the sign of payment instruction everywhere from shopping malls to wet market stalls. As these payment methods require a Chinese bank account to register, you can skip using them and opt for cash instead. And yes, they are still widely in use and accepted.

Chinese AliPay and WeChat paymentPhysically, every shop or restaurant in China has two signs (WeChat Pay and AliPay) installed at the cashier or on the door.

 

Language

China is one of the countries that you definitely want to have a guide to wander around with. Although English is largely taught in China from primary school in recent decades, not many are able to use it, not to mention the crappy translation for street signs. Getting lost in translation is part of the experience, but many times it can be frustrating like when you try to order something to eat, or telling a doctor of your ailment. Another bonus of having a guide is that you will not get bored when visiting monuments with lots of scripts while have no idea about the stories behind them.

Mandarin is the official language of China, albeit less used in places where local dialect has a strong influence, such as Guangzhou (speaking Cantonese) and Chengdu (speaking Sichuanese). Even if you are a Mandarin expert, it is still a challenge. But worry not, people would be happy to switch to Mandarin if asked.

 

Finding a doctor

When it comes to medical help, public hospitals are the first go-to place. Hospitals established for foreigners can be found in highly developed cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. It is necessary to have someone who speaks both English and Chinese with you to see a doctor in smaller cities. China has a fairly developed healthcare system, with many hospitals practicing a mixture of Western and Chinese medicine.

 

Toilet

Although western toilets are getting common in newly furbished apartments, squat toilets still dominate public place with a handicapped stall (usually the last one) dedicated to a western style toilet. Fortunately, sitting toilet can be easily found in starred hotels, airports, malls (in developed cities), upscale restaurants and even in high-speed trains. Not McDonalds or KFC because they have catered to the needs of the Chinese markers. "WC" and "toilet" are commonly used rather than "bathroom" or "restroom".

There is research evidence showing that squat toilet is more hygienic than sitting ones. As there is a fairly strong chance of using a squat toilet when needed (especially for women travelers), I would recommend you practice squatting one month prior to your travel.

Always remember to bring your toilet paper as usually it is not provided in public toilets. You may come across a bin next to the toilet, which is for used toilet paper because some of the sewage systems are not designed to deal with papers. Sometimes there is a notice of instruction stuck on the back the door, but they are usually in Chinese. The safe bet is whenever you see a bin, don't look at it, just throw the paper and leave.

Squat toiletSquat toilets still prevail in most Asian countries.

 

Tanning

Like many eastern Asians, the Chinese are not into tanning. In summer you will encounter hundreds of different umbrellas to protect the locals from the sun. It is quite nice to enjoy the design of the umbrellas though.

China street photographyWomen make up the main user group of umbrellas in on sunny days.

 

The hot water myth

Chinese people believe that drinking hot water is good for your stomach, which explains why tea is a popular drink. Don't be surprised if you are offered a glass of warm or hot water!

 

Restaurant manners

Unlike western restaurants where diners wait for the waiter or waitress to approach (sometimes it can be a long wait if the business is busy), the Chinese restaurants prefer to get things done more quickly. It is OK to signal or call for the staff to bring a menu or check the bill.

 

Queuing

With an enormously large pupation, China is no doubt packed everywhere. Personal space is a rare concept among the Chinese in terms of queuing. People may get very close to you but not necessarily try to take advantage (watch out for pickpocketing though).

 

You are popular!

In smaller cities other than Beijing or Shanghai, foreign visitors are not very common. Therefore, sometimes you will find people staring at you or taking photos. Don't get irritated, it's simply out of curiosity. Return a smile or maybe take the opportunity to start a conversation!

Braver English learners may take the chance of speaking to you or have a photo together. And you will feel like being a super star in a foreign country!

 

Tipping

Tipping is not a common practice in restaurants or to taxi drivers. However, it greatly demonstrates your appreciation to the private service provider such as your chauffeur and personal guide. The amount of tipping really depends on the level of your satisfaction. I would suggest a range starting from RMB 200/day for the guide and RMB 100/day for the driver.

 

Haggling

Touristic markets are the best place to practice haggling skills, other than that there is not much negotiable nowadays.

 

Air pollution

Beijing and a few cities in the northwest suffered a good amount of air pollution, but since efforts have been put into clearing Beijing's sky, these days are pretty safe. Masks are not necessary to invest if just for a short period of stay (less than 10 days) unless you have pre-existing medical condition. Just in case the weather gets too bad to do a photogenic trip on that particular day, download an app called Airpocalypse that can gauge air quality so that you can change plan accordingly. Unlike fixed group tour itinerary, the private guided tours we provide has great flexibility, which allows our guests to swap attractions to get the best out of their stay.

Huanghuacheng Great Wall ChinaThe outskirts of Beijing are a great alternative to city tour on a less clearly day.

 

One-child policy

The one-child policy was implemented before 1978 and was abolished in 2015. This policy was made to curb the urban population but didn't apply to rural families and the other 55 ethnic minorities. So don't be surprised if the Chinese you meet has a sibling.

 

Taking photos in China

Like mentioned, the Chinese would be happy to take a photo with you, and they do not really mind being taken a snap of them. Street photograph is usually fine, but a permission would probably yield better results.

 

Instant message tools

The China-developed and operated app, WeChat (Weixin in Chinese), dominates the communication world of China. Basically, everyone is using it, from a 70-year-old granny to expats. An English version makes the use easier and I personally think the user experience is much better than any other messaging tools. It's a great way to stay in touch with locals. WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Line, Messenger are all blocked (VPN required).

 

Where to visit

China is big enough to offer gazillions of choices for exploration, so try not to limit your visit to the must-sees of Beijing, Shanghai and Xi'an. There are plenty of places are rich in history, picturesque landscapes and a variety of interesting cultures (even the North and the South see distinct cultural phenomena!). I have heard foreigner visitors describing the countryside view as unreal, which indicates no exaggeration in my opinion either. Check out what else is worth going to with our sample China itineraries, or get in touch and let us know your interest – one of our travel experts will work out something for you.

Xianggong Mountain Guilin sceneryGuilin tops the destinations for a surreal Chinese painting-like vista.

Lugu Lake in YunnanThe intact Lugu Lake and minority villages in Yunnan Province.

 

Transport

When it comes to air travel in China, I would suggest always leave for the airport three hours early for intentional flights and two hours early for domestic. The line in big cities' airport can be very very long particular on public holidays. There is a good chance for delays due to either weather concerns or air traffic controls, but the airport is modern and sleekly designed, at least offering a great place for a rest.

The high-speed rail in China is another wow to many foreign visitors. Many cities are interlinked by railways and tickets are modestly priced. Apart from the great efficiency, travel by train allows you to see the real China. Foreigners can buy train tickets on China Railway's official website (Chinese only) or in the train station with their passport. Rest assured that we handle our guests' ticket booking without disclosing their information to the third party other than China Railway.

Subway is an easy way to get around the city, and you can find them operated in a number of cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an, Guangzhou, Chengdu, etc), particularly the capital city of a province. There is also a fantastic network of buses in some cities, but very often the names of stops are in Chinese only.

Taxi is relatively cheap compared with western standard, however, the drivers usually can't speak English. It is advised to carry a card which has your destination or hotel address in Chinese and show it to the driver. As Uber dropped out of the Chinese markets in 2016, DiDi has become the alternative, which provides an English interface. For safety concerns, I wouldn't suggest male or female travelers take a DiDi along at night.

Taxi in China Taxi is cheap and convenient to get around the city, but remember to have your Google translate ready for communication!

China is a great place to visit! Come open-minded and you will have an experience like no other. I hope my local insights will help you plan the trip, and you are more than welcome to send an inquiry or download our China brochure to get a personalized itinerary for free!

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