China is a huge country with a complex history. It can be a challenge to get around with a language and cultural barrier working against you, but it is so worth it to visit this amazing country. If you’re considering a trip to China and doing it on your own, here are some hints and tips we felt would have helped us as we planned and went on our trip.
- Visas – We’ve travelled to countries before that require visas, but you could get the visas at the port of entry (border, airport, etc.). China is one of those countries you have to plan for. You have to fill out an application (for Canadians: http://ca.china-embassy.org/chn/lsyw/hzqz/bgxz/P020110804118020041856.pdf) and when you send it into the consulate/Embassy you absolutely have to have all the supporting documents with it. This includes:
- Copy of your airline tickets
- Details of all your accommodation while in China (unfortunately you have to have this booked in advance and can’t plan as you go along)
- Colour passport photo taken within the past 6 months
- Your passport with at least 2 pages clear
- It took only a week for our visa to be processed, and there are express services for folks who need the entry visa in advance.
- Travel within China – Due to time limitations, we only had 2 destinations in Mainland China. Our original plan was to take the overnight train from Xi’an to Beijing in a 4 person bunker. This didn’t pan out since it was extremely difficult to buy tickets for the train outside of China, and by the time we’d entered the train had standing room only for the train (overnight!!). Of course travel is all about being flexible and dealing with this kind of circumstance. The key is to look into other options. All of the hostels we stayed at had at least 1 staff member who could speak English and we were able to have them help us to find an alternative. In our case, we booked a flight, and surprisingly it was relatively cheap despite being last minute!
- Accommodation – As in any country, places to stay can run from a dirty hovel to immaculate and pricy. For our group, our must’s were relatively inexpensive with private washrooms but no dorms. We made our bookings through Hostelbookers and Hostelworld. I would say my favourite hostel was 7 Sages in Xi’an but Fly by Knight came a close second in Beijing.
- Language – At our best, we could say perhaps 3 things in Mandarin, but luckily our fluent-in-Cantonese travel mate took some Mandarin courses before we went to the Mainland. This helped significantly, but not everyone has a language savvy travel mate to take with them. If you need directions, instructions or anything else in Mandarin, go to your hostel staff and have them write it out for you; you can then just show the paper and ideally get the result you’re looking for. If you land at the airport, there are also staff that can write things out for you at the information booths there. But, these written notes may not always work out. When we landed at the International Airport in Beijing late at night, no taxi driver was willing to take us to our booked hostel after seeing our note. Again, you’ll have to make arrangements on the fly and perhaps make temporary plans.
- Taxis – speaking of taxis, we had a rough time securing taxis in China. In Xi’an and Beijing we were continually ignored. We found this surprising as in our past SE Asia travels, taxis and tuktuks would be competing to get the foreigner’s business (likely for the chance to charge above the usual fare and get a handsome tip). Our recommendation is to try to plan inter-city travel during times when public transit is operating so you don’t get caught without a transportation option. Plus, transit in China is incredibly cheap and very convenient. Yes, you may be squished for the entire duration, but when you can travel over 25 kilometres with the equivalent of just a 30 cent fare, how can you be upset??!!
- Food – For us, China was a dream. The noodles, the dumplings, the rice dishes, the veggies…we loved the food, especially for the amazing prices! China is one of those countries were you can eat all three meals out during the day and it won’t impact your budget if you order smartly. And it is worth it to take a splurge sometimes. We went to a high-end Peking Duck restaurant and it was worth it to try Beijing’s best peking duck. Or, if you find a spot that has an amazing view from a patio, rooftop or balcony, treat yourself. Many of my best memories are from patios onto streets to people-watch!
- Cleanliness – When you travel, or even explore your own city, you can come across some pretty dirty places. We did expect this for China but we were unprepared for some of the things we came across.
- Public washrooms? You are lucky if there’s a lock on the door (and in some cases a door!) and there could be a stench causing you to gag while trying to do your business. This can especially complicate things if you are at a squat toilet. And don’t be offended when you see nationals leave without washing their hands…in some parts that’s just the way it’s done. Advice? Always bring your own toilet paper and have hand sanitizer for afterwards.
- Transit? I am a big advocate of transit, but transit in China was surprising. You can come across people who didn’t wash their hands after using the washroom, scratching themselves, or even picking their noses (and flicking it…no lie!!). So when you are holding onto the posts and poles on the subway car, you may be exposed to a lot of ‘greeblies’. Whether you’re a germaphobe or not, hand sanitizer is likely a good bet when you disembark.
- Streets? The biggest shock for us was seeing the plethora of young babies and toddlers wandering around in crotchless pants. Why would they be wearing this type of garb?? Well, who needs diapers when the child can just relieve themselves, whether right on the street or held by a parent over a trash can! In my travels I love coming across young children; the cheeks of a Guatemalan baby, the long eyelashes of a Thai child, the cute accents of a Parisian toddler…but sadly I had to hold back observing children in China for fear of catching them at a moment I would rather not see. And note: we did not come across too many stray cats and dogs, so if you come across ‘puddles’ or poo on the street there is a good chance it could be from a baby!
- The novelty of foreign tourists – the bulk of tourists in China are from the Mainland, coming to the big cities to see the sights. And given the nature of China, they may not have crossed paths with a foreigner before. As a result, I found this to be the country that gave us the most stare-downs, and we even had some people who sneakily tried to take pictures of us. Our preference were the bold folks who would approach and ask to have pictures with us. It was with laughs and pleasure that I would end up having to take pictures of Ewan and the Chinese families…apparently a tall bearded man is quite the thing to see!
Of course everyone has different travel styles and travel experiences, but these are things we felt would have been handy for us to know before jumping into a China trip.
We really only scraped the tip of the iceberg of China…there are so many other places in that huge country we want to see…hopefully someday!