When the ex-husband’s girlfriend invited me to join her on a China vacation to celebrate her 50th birthday, of course I said yes! Who better to travel halfway round the world with than the crazy lady my son calls the evil step-monster?
While she’d been dreaming of visiting China for almost 25 years, we still researched hard and planned meticulously. Despite all of our planning, China was still a revelation and a culture shock. It’s a profoundly beautiful, challenging and thought-provoking country that’s left an imprint deep in our hearts.
We’re already busy
plotting planning our next China vacation as there’s so much more to see.
Things to Know Before Your China Vacation
Don’t believe all the travel stories you hear. By the time you’re ready to head off to China, you might feel you could write a small novel with all the “facts about China” about China you’ve received. And it’s sometimes tricky to work out what’s true and what’s an urban myth. Here’s what you need to know to have a truly awesome China vacation.
If you’re planning to visit more than one location it’s good to build some flexibility into your schedule. China is tiring and you might need the odd “chill day”.
Booking.com has thousands of properties across China including hotels, apartments, and hostels. You can stay in monasteries, tented camps or on a farm if that’s your idea of a real escape. One of the best things about using Booking.com is their flexibility, with free cancellation in many rooms. Combine this with their book now, pay later (at check-in) system and you get the security of bagging the accommodation you want at a price you’re happy with, plus the option to make changes to your itinerary if you want/need to. Check out Booking.com offers here.
Getting Your Visa
You can’t get a visa on arrival in China. You have to organise it before you travel. You also need to provide evidence of your travel plans, including flights and accomodation to get a visa. So book those first.
If you search online, you’ll find a host of companies suggesting it’s hard to get a visa for China. Don’t believe them – they want to charge a hefty fee doing it for you. The DIY route is a little time-consuming but it’s not difficult and it will save you £££s. Everything you need to know is online, including the detailed process, costs and timelines.
You Need Travel Insurance
Don’t even think about traveling so far from home without a comprehensive travel insurance policy. China is safe for visitors, but it’s notorious for transport delays, and if you have any kind of accident, you really don’t want to spend any extended time in a Chinese hospital. Pick a travel insurance company that has you (and all of your kit) covered. World Nomads offers good value, comprehensive travel insurance and top notch customer service. They will get you home whatever your trip throws at you.
Organise Your Documents
Save all the documents you printed for your visa application, as you’ll need to carry the following with you while you’re in China:
- Passport and a photocopy of it
- Travel insurance policy
- Name, address and contact details for your accomodation, with proof of payment/reservation
- Full itinerary, including all flight details
- Visa approval letter
- Name and contact details for any guide(s) you have hired
Get the Best Exchange Rate
Do your homework and find the best holiday cash deal online. While you won’t want to travel with a lot of cash, save ££s by ordering your cash in plenty of time and bagging the best rate. Some banks/post offices/bureaux de change need to order Chinese Yen, so don’t leave it to the last minute to buy yours.
Cash is King
While cards are widely accepted in the big cities, they’re not accepted everywhere. Don’t get caught out – expect to use cash for street food, in markets and in rural areas. And it needs to be Chinese Yen – nothing else is accepted!
Prepare For Rural China
If your China vacation involves heading off the beaten track, don’t expect there to be an ATM at your destination. Grab some cash before you go.
Tell Your Bank Your Travel Plans
When you let your bank know you’re traveling abroad; they can update their records and it will reduce the chance of them declining a transaction whilst you’re away from home.
Know When to Tip
Expect to tip guides and private drivers on your vacation in China, but not in hotels/restaurants/taxis, although the custom is creeping in, especially at the swankier hotels in big cities. Most people working in the service industry earn a pittance and a small tip makes a big difference.
Get Your Haggle On
Explore the markets and enjoy a bit of haggling. Never accept the first price you’re offered and you could be taking home some great bargains.
Expect Space Invaders on the Plane
We flew back from China with Cathay Pacific, upgrading to Premium Economy for extra leg room, wider seats and more comfort. It was nightmarish, with a never-ending procession of Chinese people clambering over us all night to get to the nearest loo! (All the Europeans dutifully trooped off to the toilet they could reach without standing on us/our bags).
Don’t Miss the Toboggan
The section of the Great Wall at Mutianyu has the longest toboggan run in the world as one of the options for descending from the wall. Michelle Obama tried it and it’s much more exciting than the cable car. It’s a must-do.
Traveling with Prescription Meds
You can take prescription drugs with you to China, with a few easy preparations.
- Make sure all of your meds have clear a pharmacy label and doctor’s instructions (it’s worth getting a doctor’s letter too)
- Speak to your doctor and work out what meds you might need on your trip so you can take enough to last your whole trip.
- Ask your doctor what the generic name is for your prescription drug. Brand names in China are likely to be different to the ones you’re familiar with, so you need to know what to ask for if you need additional meds.
- Pack meds in your carry-on luggage
Avoid Tap Water
Only drink bottled water, use it to brush your teeth and don’t get ice in your drinks. Check that bottles still have an unbroken seal too. NEVER touch the tap water!
Take Non-Prescription Meds with You
While most Western medicines are available in China, take basic non-prescription medicine with you (paracetamol, ibuprofen, lomotil (anti-diarrhoea), rehydration salts and laxatives). Once you’re oiutside the big cities, it’s harder to find medication that you’re familiar with.
Prepare For Air Pollution
China is infamous for its pollution problems, which are worst in the mega-cities. Buy a supply of anti-pollution face masks before you go or pick them up cheaply at any pharmacy when you arrive, especially if you’re asthmatic or have any other breathing problems. We bought them, but didn’t end up needing them.
Always Carry Toilet Paper
Chinese toilets are an experience. If you want a Western style loo in China, look out for signs for a “potty toilet”; the alternative is a squat toilet. Some places only have quat toilets, but most malls, airports and the bullet train have “proper loos”.
Most of the loos are OK in the cities but you’ll need to carry toilet paper/a pack of wipes with you, as this isn’t usually provided. You also have to put all used toilet paper in the basket (yuk!), or you’ll block the loo.
Carry Hand Sanitiser
Finding soap in a toilet is a bit of a lottery, so be prepared and carry hand sanitiser. Use it a lot!
Carry Bug Spray
Pack bug repellent, whatever time of year you take your China vacation, especially if you’re going anywhere near water. We got savagely bitten on the bullet train….
SEE ALSO: Beijing to Guilin – High Speed Adventure on the Chinese Bullet Train
CULTURAL TIPS FOR A CHINA VACATION
Expect Beds to be Hard
For hard, read “like sleeping on the floor”. If you have a back problem, or prefer a softer bed, you’ll be glad to know that most hotels use mattress toppers. If your bed is uncomfortable, ask for extra duvets to sleep on. Everywhere we asked, the housekeeping team were more than happy to help.
Get Used to People Spitting
Chinese people don’t use tissues or hankies. They clear their noses and throats by hawking, snorting and spitting, which we found gross! Chinese people are equally horrified that we blow our noses and keep the evidence in a tissue!
Look Out for the Beijing Bikinis
In the hot summer months, Chinese men roll up their shirts and walk around with their bellies exposed. Ugh! The bigger the belly, the more likely you are to see it! Expats in some of the main cities find this so offensive they take photos and post them on Instagram with the hashtag #BeijingBikinis.
Take a Gift if Visiting a Chinese Home
Gift giving and receiving is important to Chinese people and it’s definitely the thought that counts. A small gift from your home country is a great way to say a polite thank you to someone for hosting you in their home. Pick something that’s local to your country/area and take the time to share the story around the gift too.
Cover Up to Visit a Mosque/Temple
It’s a universal sign of respect to cover up when visiting sacred places. Pop a simple scarf or cardigan in your bag, so you can cover up at the appropriate moment.
Expect People to Photograph You
Chinese tourists visiting the major cities from rural China love to take selfies with Westerners, because they’re fascinated by our “big” noses and round eyes! While it happens everywhere and can be quite overwhelming, you’ll make their day if you agree. Practice your best A-lister pose, smile and take it all in good humour. Be a movie star for a day…
Understand That Some Subjects Remain Taboo
When you’re having fun on your vacation, it’s easy to forget that China is still a communist country. If you visit Tiananmen Square with a guide, don’t expect then to mention/discuss the 1989 student protests. It’s something they are not allowed to talk about and not permitted to have an opinion on either.
China is Clean Where Tourists Go
China has started to clean up her act. Almost everywhere we visited was immaculately clean, with a small army of municipal workers toiling to pick up the smallest sign of rubbish. Most of the back streets of the major cities and the street markets were litter free too.
When we stepped away from the manicured image presented for tourists, the picture was less rosy. We saw grimy rivers, littering and children brazenly defecating and urinating in the street. Then there’s the dog poo!
Prepare for The Great (Fire) Wall of China
China blocks thousands of websites and mobile apps including Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and some news sites too. Use this handy little website to check if a website is blocked in China, before you head off on your trip.
SEE ALSO: Why you need to get a VPN before you visit China
Download a Translator App
Waygo scans Chinese text and automatically translates it into English. You don’t need an internet connection to use it to translate restaurant menus and signage. It’s no substitute for Google translate, but it does the job and it’s free for up to 10 translations a day.
Get a Local SIM Card
It’s a much cheapest way to stay in touch than international roaming. Pick one up at the airport or a local store. (You will pay roaming charges if you’re visiting different provinces, but you won’t be stung for international rates!)
FOOD AND DRINK TIPS
Chinese Street Food is Cheap and Fabulous
Getting out of your hotel and finding local places to eat is one of the best experiences of a China vacation. You’ll save a packet, have the most delicious food and feel like you’ve been to the “real” China. Watch where the locals go to find the best places…
Beware of Chinese Hot-Pot
If you like (love) viciously hot chilli, this might be right up your street, but it was a hilarious mistake for us. Unwittingly, we wandered into a hot-pot restaurant and ordered the chilli hot pot. It nearly blew our heads off. Read how we made this mistake here.
Avoid Salads Like the Plague
Even in posh restaurants salad is washed in tap water. Stick to food that’s been cooked and you’ll steer clear of tummy upsets.
Be Careful About Fruit
The best way to stay healthy is to follow the “If you can cook it, boil it, or peel it you can eat it…otherwise forget it” rule.
A Private Guide is Worth Every Penny
You won’t want to miss a thing on your China vacation. If you’re an independent spirit and can’t face the thought of a big, organised group tour a private guide will help you see everything you want, based on your agenda.
We fell in love with China during our vacation. While the sites we visited were awesome, it was the charming Chinese people we met who made the trip for us.
Have you been to China? What tips would you share with a first visitor?
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