TOP 10 TRAVEL TIPS FOR CHINA
Traveling through China was probably one of the more intense months of our trip. The country itself is vast, and in places absolutely spectacular, but from not being able to read a single sign, to needing to rapidly get used to a very different cultural etiquette, we found ourselves floundering more than once.
We’ve pulled together our top-tips that we wish we’d known before arriving in an effort to help those heading to Zhonggou (that’s China in Chinese) flounder less.
1. Download a decent VPN
If you are an international tourist heading into China and heavily rely on Google (for emails, search, documents etc), you will need to download a Virtual Private Network (VPN) BEFORE entering China in order to access these sites.
We can't emphasise this enough.
The Chinese government is famously picky on what online content their citizens can access and use which is slightly at odds with Google’s tendency to give you access to literally the whole internet. It’s not just Google; other popular apps including WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat - all big no-nos. They are blocked by what is known as the “The Great Chinese Firewall” (a witty, witty pun).
A VPN basically gives you access to the internet by passing your connection through a router which is NOT in China. Thereby dodging all the restrictions you get in-country & letting you use your favourite apps while travelling.
While there are some grey areas over the use of VPNs in China, foreigners currently do still have the right to use a personal VPN.
We used ExpressVPN and signed up for 1 month whilst in China. It gave us access on our phones & laptops. It costs around £7.99 a month and while sometimes temperamental, is one of the more reliable services. As soon as we left, we cancelled our subscriptions.
2. Get the Google Translate App
Unless you speak fluent Mandarin (not one we managed to master), this one comes in especially handy.
Once you have your VPN set up and switched on, the next app to get to grips with is Google Translate. There are plenty of translate services available, but we had the most luck with this one mainly due to 4 great features:
It’s available Offline
Provided you download the Language Pack in question whilst still connected to the internet
The Conversations Function
Simply hit the conversations function, select the language you are talking in, and the app will listen, translate & repeat what you are saying in the language you request, i.e. Mandarin (Simplified Chinese). It will then switch the languages and start listening for the reply. Of course there is a lot of hilarity that goes with relying on something like this but in most cases you can get your point across … just about.
The Camera Scanner
This is sometimes helpful, and can sometimes make things worse. But when you are handed a menu in Chinese, with no translations in sight, and (god forbid) not even any pictures, being able to translate even a small amount of written text is often your best option. This only works whilst connected to the internet.
Fair-warning, it is hit and miss (we avoided the ‘hormone soup’ but did order the ‘cow cow cow cow cow’).
The Blue Screen of Heaven
Have you ever noticed that nearly all Taxi drivers are just a tiny little bit blind? I don’t think we’ve ever passed across a map, address, or instruction in a taxi without an extended period of peering, or a slow pat-down for a pair of glasses ensuing. This only gets worse when you’re working in a different language, and quite frankly impossible when working in a different alphabet. Helpfully, once you have the Chinese symbols for where you want to go loaded on Google Translate you can make them full screen & mounted against a dark background. Nice and easy to read.
If your internet fails you & Google Translate isn’t playing ball, it’s. always wise to carry a small phrase-book help you get around. We picked this one up in New Zealand.
3. only take taxis from the official TAXI ranks
While we’re on the topic of Taxis, make sure to only take taxi’s from designated taxi-ranks and ride on the meter. There is likely to be someone who looks pretty official co-ordinating, drivers will likely be wearing the same kind of shirts (i.e pale yellow in Beijing) and will rarely get out of their cars.
If someone approaches you with only a lanyard and leads you to a taxi that isn’t at the front of the rank, or just ‘near’ the rank, they’re trying to take you to their mates for an inflated price. If you do find yourself without a taxi-rank, haggle hard or be prepared to pay up to 10x the metered fare.
Note that Uber is not available in China. There is a Chinese equivalent but doesn’t run in English.
4. TREAT Train Stations LIKE AIRPORTS
The scale of Chinese train stations is absolutely mad. They are enormous. Huge. Mind-boggling. Some are incredibly busy, some have been built for future demand and are eerily… not.
Either way, getting onto a train is a massive logistical operation involving some order of the following: Ticket collection (and associated queueing-in-China adventures), passport checks, ticket checks, security checks, bag scanning, escalators and an approximately 4km walk to your carriage…
In summary, get there at least 45 minutes early.
5. Eat local (but don’t drink local)
Firstly, yes - You should still avoid the salad. Steph caved for fresh vegetables and ordered a cob salad at our hostel restaurant… bad, bad, terrible idea. The next day was a write off. It is still not ok to drink from the tap in China, and any salad or vegetables washed in this water and not thoroughly cooked should be treated with caution.
If, like us, you inwardly cringe every time you buy another plastic bottle of water, LifeStraws are your answer. We can’t imagine how many plastic bottles we saved whilst in both South America and China as a result of a relatively tiny investment before we left.
Aside from this, food in China is an adventure. You can find some incredible local favourites if you venture into the right places. A good rule of thumb is to head to the places with a bit of a crowd. As mentioned above menu’s in Chinese pose a slight challenge… but its all part of the experience.
But the biggest reason you should eat local: It is so incredibly cheap! Our record was 6 different dishes and 3 beers for about £10. What a win!
6. Learn how to beat the tourist crowds
Tourism is China is unapologetically geared towards catering for domestic visitors - of which there is a ready supply! The massive rise of the middle-class and associated expendable income has catalysed an investment in tourism like no other. The volume & rate of construction & development is phenomenal. The crowds that the best sights draw are also… phenomenal.
But there are a few ways to beat the hordes:
Get up late: For the very popular spots (like the Forbidden City in Beijing, or the Terracotta Army near Xi’an), plan to visit later in the day. This feels counter intuitive where in every other country getting there first is preferable, but in China the tourist coaches arrive bang on the opening hour. Wait for the crowds & jaunty flags on sticks to clear before venturing in.
Walk a little further: Where tourism is a pretty new past-time in China, it remains very prescriptive i.e. “this is the view point, this is the photo spot, this is the old water wheel” etc etc, and the crowds flock to these places to make sure they’re doing their tourism right and to keep their guide happy. If you haven’t booked yourself onto a coach full of domestic tourists, you have the distinct advantage of being able to wander off. Approximately 100m from any major government-designated-offcial-tourist-must-see-attraction will be a slice of peace & quiet and a slightly different, though probably equally good view.
Do some exercise: In a similar vein, strenuous hiking or adventuring in China has yet to really take off. Hard physical work is still deeply associated with menial labour. If you seek out more remote hiking anywhere in the country you are almost guaranteed to be on your own. For example our hikes along Wild Great Wall & through Tiger Leaping Gorge were some of the most beautiful and perplexingly quiet experiences of our trip.
7. Stock up on suncream (BEFORE YOU GO)
For no other reason than all the suncream in China has whitening agents in it. So unless you’re keen for the pearly skin, make sure you bring some with you to protect against the intense Chinese sun.
8. Do not download WeChat
Now, this will be tempting to ignore. WeChat is the key to normal life in China. You pay with it, you contact hostels, hotels, AirBnB hosts with it, you order taxis & message people with it. This is an app with a 90% penetration rate across the entire population.
So why not download it?
An app that has the data of 90% of the population is a Chinese Government gold-mine, and apps are only allowed to operate in China so long as they share their data with the very same government. Monitoring in China is a very real thing, and if you sign up to WeChat you are giving unprecedented access to your data and your phone. Steph downloaded it and then got the heebyjeebies when it asked her to face-print, voice-print & finger-print.
Need more convincing? Have a look a look here.
9. MAX OUT THE CASH OUT
When you find an ATM that works.
If you take the advice above and don’t download WeChat, the easiest & most reliable way to pay across China is with cash.
Visa & Mastercard are not the dominant card-operators in China and as such most ATMs will not work with International Cards. Many a stressful, sweaty morning was spent hiking around towns & cities trying to find an ATM that would work. Fail-safe options for us included: HSBC, China Construction Bank, and Bank of China,
10. Check domestic flights
China is a massive country.
Like, really, really big.
And although the train network is rapid and impressive, it is still possible, and sometimes cheaper to fly. We actually prefer to get the train as we believe its a little better for the environment, but sometimes, when we’re pushed for time & strapped for cash, an internal flight can come in really rather handy*
To browse internal flights in China you can use the trusty favourite: Skyscanner:
*For those who are worried, we have been keeping track of our total carbon footprint (running in the tonnes) and have ear-marked future salary to invest in projects to help off-set this. To learn more about these take a look here.