6 Things to Know Before You Visit China

Travel in China can be complex. From getting a SIM card, to navigating the language barrier, to the best places to visit, here are six important tips to help make the most of your trip.

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Sitting on the Great Wall of China on a misty day Photo © Getty Images/Wang Tou Kun

When I made the first of my dozen visits to China, I was dazed and confused by this extraordinary country, which felt ever-so-foreign to a lad from Australia. China is not a country you should visit on a whim – it demands and rewards preparation. Here are six things you should know about China before your trip.

Don’t be fooled by China’s fake “ancient” towns

China is filled with incredible old towns and villages, authentic places where traditional lifestyles and architecture survive. It also has dozens of misleading “ancient towns” which are inauthentic and unappealing recreations of historic communities.

This is a peculiar and recent phenomenon. China’s rush towards modernization has seen it bulldozing many of its oldest neighborhoods to make way for new developments. To try to fill this void, it has built endless faux-ancient towns where mostly local visitors can see what China’s communities once looked like. They’re pretty, no doubt, with their arched bridges, quaint teahouses, narrow stone streets, and graceful buildings embellished by ornate multi-tier roofs. Except that, like a movie set, there’s nothing behind the attractive facade.

These touristy locations are typically located on the outskirts of China’s cities, whereas the genuine old towns are further afield. The latter are well worth the effort, whereas the former are a waste of time, so research these locations before you visit. I detailed five of my favorite real ancient Chinese towns in this story for World Nomads.

China’s rail system is phenomenal

Japan is world-renowned for its bullet trains, having pioneered this futuristic mode of transport in the 1960s. At that time, China’s rail network was rickety and limited in scope. In the past 15 years, though, China has not just caught up with Japan but overtaken it.

Incredibly, China now has more miles of high-speed rail than every other country in the world combined, stretching almost 23,000mi (37,000km), and the system is constantly expanding. Every major city in China has high-speed stations, and these bullet trains are efficient, modern, comfortable, and very cheap. For example, the 180mi (290km) trip from Shanghai to the historic city of Nanjing takes just 60 minutes, and costs only USD $24. A similar bullet train journey in Japan or Europe could easily set you back $70-plus.

Don’t overlook China’s extraordinary national parks

China is synonymous with skyscrapers, monumental temples, and teeming markets. This leads many visitors to think of China as an urban destination and fill their itineraries with city experiences. What a mistake that is. I recently went deep into the Swiss Alps – world-renowned for its jaw-dropping alpine scenery – yet it was no more spectacular than many mountainous locations I’ve visited in China.

I still daydream about the days I spent trekking and staring in awe at the dramatic Jiuzhaigou National Park. That wonder in Sichuan Province, central China, is one of a cluster of untamed national parks on the Tibetan Plateau.

I was equally smitten with the spiky karst mountains and snaking rivers of Guilin Lijiang National Park. Not to mention the tranquil West Lake National Park in Hangzhou, where that body of water is fringed by willows, stone bridges, classical gardens, and ancient structures. China’s cities are massive and deeply interesting, but don’t let them dominate your itinerary.

Walking in Shanghai, with the city skyline in the background. Photo credit: Getty Images/Marius Hepp

Get a SIM card and change money at the airport

In popular Asian travel destinations, such as Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia, it’s extremely easy to change money or get a SIM card, the latter of which is now key to facilitating modern travel. There are money changers everywhere in their tourist hotspots, and SIM cards can be bought from convenience stores or phone shops.

Whereas, in China, if you don’t complete those two pivotal tasks before leaving the airport, they become arduous. I speak from experience. Most Chinese hotels do not change foreign currency, and even more surprisingly, nor do many Chinese banks. If you’re stuck, the Bank of China is your best bet, although whenever I’ve exchanged currency there it was a long and laborious process.

I’ve also had to traipse around the huge Chinese city of Chengdu looking for a shop that would sell me a SIM card. It took hours. That was my fault – I should have just bought a SIM card and exchanged money at the airport, where that is comparatively quick and simple.

Chinese food is different than you think

From when I was a child in Australia, Chinese was my favorite type of food. Then I landed in China for the first time in my 20s and didn’t recognize any of the dishes. What many people from Australia, Europe, and North America think of as Chinese food is actually Westernized dishes that don’t really exist in China.

If you walk into a restaurant in China, don’t expect to find General Tso’s Chicken or Orange Chicken, let alone fortune cookies. That’s not bad news, though, because authentic Chinese food is incredible. In Shanghai, try the addictive steamed crab; in Chengdu, savor the ultra-spicy smoked pork sausage; in Xi’an, get the chili-oil-drizzled langpi cold noodles; and in Beijing, pick the lamb-rich Mongolian hotpot.

Don’t expect locals to be able to speak English

In many of Asia’s most-visited countries – Japan, India, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam – you’ll rarely have trouble finding someone who speaks at least some English. Not so in China, and especially if you’re outside of its most-visited cities Shanghai and Beijing.

Beyond high-end hotels in Chinese cities, it’s very rare to find anyone who speaks English (or is willing to speak English). Certainly, the people foreign tourists in China most frequently need to talk to – taxi drivers, shop staff, restaurant workers – are very unlikely to be able hold a conversation.

Now, I can’t speak a word of Mandarin or Cantonese, so there’s no judgment here. But you will face major inconveniences if you don’t prepare for China’s language barrier by downloading translation apps or going old school and wielding a printed guidebook with Chinese language translations.

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18 Comments

  • sam said

    Lot of great comments here! I definitely have some opions.

    1. Take your hotels business card as well as a picture of it on your cell phone.
    2. Have a copy of your passport scanned, saved, and printed out somwhere
    3. Asking for the toilet is good. Often people refer to it as "Xi Shou Jian" (washroom). This may be easier to say than "Ce suo." Again taking a picture of the "toilet sign" is also a good way to show people what you're looking for.
    5. You don't need to slurp when eating soup.
    6. Cell phone is critical! Smartphone is even better. Check out the only ones in China at en.trip-per.com. They'll do live translation for you, as well.
    7. Stick with Chinese money
    8. Don't take a black cab unless you know the price. By taking a regular, authorized taxi you'll be able to get the standard, cheap fare.
    9. Don't drink the rice wine, unless you want to get really drunk.

    Reply

  • Arthur said

    Great comments, but one thing, the soup one is incorrect. In japan, making slurping sounds is respectful. In china, people will actually interpret slurping as a sign that you think you're better than everyone else, and will take it as disrespect
    Take it form me, i was born here, even though im american, and lived here all my life.

    Reply

  • Eduardo Prata said

    Gostaria de informações de como entrar na China de carro, pretendemos passar por lá em 2015. entrando pela Mongolia e saindo pelo Vietnã.

    Reply

  • Eduardo Prata said

    Would you like information on how to enter China by car, we intend to go there in 2015. entering and leaving the Mongolia by Vietnam.

    Reply

  • Ella said

    When you are in China, it is respectful to try every food at the restaurant or home. Take a little bite of everything, otherwise the host may find it offensive or that you don't feel welcome there

    Reply

  • CantBeleeveUGuys said

    What in the world?
    Change your default browser search engine to baidu or bing(not sure if the latter is banned too)
    and sign up for a VPN software as well or the Internet will be pretty useless for many of you who rely on it

    Reply

  • Rocky said

    China is strictly a BYOTP country so invest in those individual tissue packs you can get at 7-11 and carry two with you at ALL times - ALWAYS. The other thing you should have with you at all times besides your passport is the business card of the hotel where you are staying to show the cab driver. If I get directions I have that person send them to me in Chinese to my Wechat account - I love Wechat! - again to show to the cabby. BTW Family Mart has Oral B dental floss in 50 meter spools.

    Reply

  • sumera jamil said

    please tell me about muslim/halal food in beijing. is it available at hostels?
    how are hostel for foreigners in beijimg?

    Reply

  • Locomote said

    Great tips, thanks for sharing. China can be a very different (but thrilling) place. Doing business there is especially interesting to navigate! Have a read of our article and let us know what you think, 'Preparing Your Team for a Chinese Business Trip'. You can find it on our blog.

    Reply

  • Tarryn Wright said

    My top tip is to remember that the atm gives you your cash first and then you have to tell it to return your card (only a few banks in China do it the other way around). If you are used to getting your card and then your cash then it is all too easy to leave your card in the machine and the next person in line can help themselves to your account or it gets swallowed up.
    There is counterfeit money so if paying the taxi driver make a show of remembering the last 4 digits in the serial number so that if they tell you it's a fake you can be sure to get your original "fake" note back and not have it swapped out for an actual fake. Also worth checking your notes after they come out of the ATM as they have been known to spit some out.
    100 Yuan is the largest note (about $15USD) so be prepared to lug around quite a few of them
    .Also as someone else said it's a bring your own toilet paper country and often you will need to use the squat toilets although the main cities frequently have a seated option. Barter hard in the markets (tourist and jewellery etc) they start very high so please feel free to start very low, just allow them to save face by coming up in small amounts. Download WeChat as you can translate on it, just remember that it's not as private as you might expect such a service to be.

    Reply

  • PJ said

    Although I don't speak a word of Mandarin, I never had a problem finding public toilets, in Beijing. I just followed the flies.

    Reply

  • N said

    I definitely agree with all of those things, but I think there's a few that I would add as well.

    #1) Get a VPN before arriving. If you want to use Google (including Gmail), Fbook, Youtube or most other forms of social media while in China, you definitely need to get a VPN before.

    #2) People tend not to really wait in lines so know that you will never get anywhere if you don't push a little.

    #3) This is probably one of the most important ones.... don't forget about the visa! Basically everyone needs a visa to China and it takes some time/planning so make sure to prepare for it. Some of the big cities (such as Beijing and Shangai) have 72-hour visa-free allowances.... so if you don't have time to get the proper visa, this could be something to consider.

    There's a whole bunch of other things (China really is a country full of surprises!) but my husband and I actually wrote an article about 25 things to know before you visit on our website so I'll just leave the link here instead of repeating all the info: http://outofyourcomfortzone.net/25-things-to-know-before-visiting-china/

    Also, sumera jamil - I can't tell you much about muslim/halal food in Beijing (although I know you can find plenty of it if you go the Xinjiang Province in western China), but I can tell you that the quality of hostels varies considerably in Beijing. You can definitely find some cheap nice hostels, though. I recommend you check out booking.com or hostelworld... just make sure you read the reviews before you book so you know what you are getting in to!

    Oi Eduardo Prata, tudo bem? Para ser honesto, eu não gostaria de dirigir na China; os outros motoristas são um pouco loucos e muitas placas de rua são apenas em Chinês. Mas se você ainda quer dirigir, o que eu ouvi é que você tem que arranjar um guia Chinês e não podem ir sozinhos. Não sei exactamente como vc pode fazer isso. Uma coisa mas - se você quer mas informação/dicas de viajar em China, você pode clicar em nosso site link acima. Temos alguns artigos sobre China. Escrevemos tudo em Inglês e Português porque meu marido é do Brasil (e ele escreve melhor Português do que eu :-) ... vc só precisa clicar na bandeira Brasileira para Português. Boa sorte com sua viagem!



    Reply

  • Lucy said

    Having spent 7 years in China - 2004 - 11 my
    Top tips would be;
    Take a pocket size English/ Chinese

    Always carry small packs of tissues
    Be careful with fake money usually it is 50 yuan notes.
    Always openly count out your money when you pay and receive money.
    Learn to bargain it is expected - and fun,
    No need to slurp soup.
    Try all dishes and smile but always leave some or host will think you need more.
    Pedestrians have right of way but cars and motorcycles can come from all directions including from behind and on the footpath.
    Learn basic language and signage it is essential. Writing addresses is good but make sure driver can read have had to lend them my glasses. Getting a bus is good to learn routes. Can always get off and change if going in wrong direction.
    Keep handbags on front of your body even when eating.
    Dress for the weather - never get cold.
    Always use bottled or boiled water - including when doing teeth.
    Wash all fruit and veges thoroughly, no raw veges, peel fruit.
    Each city is different so be vigilant re local practice.

    Reply

  • traveler said

    Don't get Shanghai(d) in Shanghai like I did! I was there a few days before the Chinese New Year. I was approached by a nice young couple who said they would like for me to experience a tea ceremony in honor of the new year. (Actually, the conversation went longer than that and II got business cards from both of them.)

    We did go to a very nice tea ceremony and I found it very interesting. However, I was presented with the bill and it came to the equivalent of abut $200!

    In retrospect, I guess it could have been worse - they could have kidnapped me!

    Reply

  • Kai said

    Thank you for all the great tips. I landed a job teaching english in Beijing, i really only worry about the pollution and strange eating habits. I would not want to eat something by accident for example. I expect to wear a mask when about on my daily business and take all of your advice to heart. Probably not the advice about the soup ????Thank you

    Reply

  • Kyle Schutter said

    I just wrote a post on this from the logistics point of view rather than cultural.Expat in Shenzhen (https://medium.com/@kyleschutter/expat-in-shenzhen-47659759ea15)
    Here are a few key items:
    BEFORE traveling: read this at least two weeks before you travel
    * VPN: ExpressVPN is the best I have found that work on Android, iPhone AND laptop. Otherwise nearly every website you care about is blocked in China(e.g. gmail, facebook, netflix, slack, dropbox, etc.)
    * Phone service: I use Google Project fi for my Nexus 6p which was one of the best decisions on made on the trip. Basically Google has their own SIM card which enables you to make calls from 130+ countries as soon as you land and enables you to use the local mobile data as soon as you connect to WiFi (presumably so that you can get the local network settings). fi costs $40 per month including 2GB of data. fi only charges you for the data you use (and refunds the rest). It also seems to have a built in VPN as I don’t need to use a VPN to access banned content in China.
    * Phones: I have an iPhone with a China Unicom SIM and WeChat and Nexus with a Google Project fi SIM, which has me covered… mostly.

    Reply

  • Johny Bolt said

    Can you give me an idea if Astrill works fine within the Great Wall right now? Any feedback on the internet service?

    Reply

  • hilary said

    Hi, sorry to ask this question. I am a smoker. I am stopping over in Shanghai next week on my journey from Australia to Wales UK. I am trying to find out what brand of cigarettes and rolling tabacco are available in China. Would prefer Marlborough lights in cigarettes and drum or longbeach in tabacco. Thankyou. Have found your other tips very helpful

    Reply

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