Before two of us moved to Beijing in 2011, we were relatively new to traveling in China. We’d made one trip in 1997, and went back ten years later in 2007. But that was about it. Now that we’re living the expat life, however, we take advantage of every opportunity to travel the country. Thankfully, we’ve all learned a thing or two–from figuring out the best times to visit the visa office to strategies for making your forays into Chinese public restrooms a more…positive experience.
There are so many cool things to see and experience – so check out some of our travel posts and make plans! Some cool places you want to consider are Shanghai, Mount Emei, Chengdu, Xi’an, HuaShan, HuangShan, and ZhouZhang.
So without further ado, here are a few choice China travel tips, for your enjoyment and edification:
1. Get your visa sorted out as early as possible:
Recently, certain major cities have adopted a visa-free travel policy for stays via international air travel that are shorter than 72 hours. If you’re looking for a short visit to China, you can find out more about the new regulations–including which cities are included and what restrictions are involved–here.
But if you’re looking to stay longer than three days (it’s a big country. It’s pretty safe to say you’ll need more than three days to see at least a part of it), you will need a visa to travel in China, and it’s best to get this done well in advance of your trip to avoid any unexpected problems or rush fees. Make sure that you read the visa application instructions carefully, or your application may be rejected.
There are visa agencies that can help you get this done, but they’ll probably charge a hefty fee in addition to the visa application fee. It’s usually best to do it yourself if you live anywhere near a Chinese embassy or consulate. Have all of your documents prepared and ready. Set aside a good chunk of time at the consulate (at least 2-3 hours. The lines, unfortunately, can be LONG), and check for the best times to go (call to find out when it’s not as crowded. We once went on a Friday afternoon and languished on line for three hours. On another occasion, we went on a Tuesday morning and waited just a half hour. The time and day really makes a difference.).
2. Keep a good supply of smaller bills in your wallet while in China:
We see a lot of foreign tourists in Beijing and elsewhere in China out and about shopping or at restaurants, and when they whip out their wallets to pay, there’s almost always a giant pink wad of Chinese hundred dollar bills in there. This is understandable, as 100 RMB is only about $16. But not only is it not advisable to carry all of your money around and flash it for all to see (for obvious pick-pocket-related reasons), but it’s also a problem for taxi drivers and local vendors if that’s all you have to pay them with.
If you hear them asking for “ling qian,” which means “pocket money,” they’re asking for smaller bills. Taxis are generally pretty cheap in China, so if you have an 18 RMB fare (about $3), and you hand the driver a hundred, you may notice him grumbling a bit because he either doesn’t have enough to make change, or won’t later after he’s done giving you all of his five’s and ten’s. So when you pay with your larger bills at restaurants and ticket offices, try to keep around the smaller bills you get back in change and use them for taxis and local markets.
3. Carry your own bathroom supplies:
Public bathrooms in China (even in large cities) rarely have toilet paper or soap available. It’s a sad fact of life, but there it is. Locals remedy this by carrying packets of tissue with them at all times. You can get these cheaply at any grocery store. Also, a good tip is to grab some portable soap (the small hotel bottles of soap are a really convenient option), so that you can maintain what we’re sure are your very high hygienic standards while out and about.
You’ll also notice that the public bathrooms in China look a little…different. Rather than a toilet, you may come across a porcelain, uh…hole. In the floor. Do not be alarmed! Although Chinese folks use regular toilets in their own homes, many believe that these seat-less holes are more sanitary in a public context, since you’re not actually touching anything. In any case, all you ladies out there will have to master the squat move. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.
If the idea of this freaks you out, then the best places to find generally clean, western-style bathrooms are in hotels. Just find a classy-looking one, walk in like you mean business (they don’t know that you’re not actually staying there), and find the bathroom in the lobby. This is a good option if you’re in a large city.
4. Find a private local tour guide:
If you’re worried about navigating China on your own and wish you had a local connection to show you around Anthony-Bourdain-No-Reservations-style, you can try finding a private tour guide. These are folks who live in the area and can speak both English and Chinese. They’re much more flexible than group tours (which we’ve already warned against here), and can work with your schedule.
5. Tips for eating street food:
Street food is fun. Street food is awesome. Street food can taste really, really good. But it can also be a one-way ticket to a hot date with your hotel room toilet and/or a less than stellar culinary experience.
Avoid “street food” that’s located in tourist-heavy areas. These are money traps, peddling lame-o, tasteless food to out-of-towner’s. The best street food can be found where the locals are, usually early in the morning or late at night. Take a look. Does it seem fresh? Are there a lot of locals lining up to get at it?
Street food in China can be hit or miss, so if you have a delicate constitution, it would probably be best to just stick to the restaurants, of which there are many.
6. Haggle when shopping:
The cardinal rule of any unofficial transaction in China: haggle. Remember that vendors will usually start at around 10 times what you should counter-offer (maybe more). In a lot of places where people are selling stuff to tourists, you’ll find the same merchandise at multiple carts or stalls, so don’t worry if a deal falls through.
Vendors will tell you that they’re losing money, that they won’t be able to pay for their dinner at the rate you’re going, and that they’re giving you, their new friend, the best price possible. Stay strong, and always be ready to walk away. You can always use the interaction as a trial run to get a feel for what kind of prices vendors are willing to sell at, and try again at the next stall, armed with a better idea of what price you should go for. Plus, the slow-walk-away trick is the best way to get the price you want.
7. Bypass some of the less-compelling tourist traps:
In our humble opinions, a lot of the zoos, aquariums, and traditional museums in China are a pass. If you’re from the U.S., you’re just going to find all of these more run-of-the-mill tourist “destinations” to be rather inferior in comparison to what you’re used to at home.
What China has to offer is different. It’s the ancient villages, the architecture, temples, natural wonders, and bustling city centers that are the most interesting and unique. Go to places where you can drink in culture and scenery, rather than a gazillion vases of questionable origin sitting on pedestals or a bunch of fish.
8. Avoid traveling in China during Chinese national bank holidays:
The biggest ones include the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year), and National Day Week. These are peak travel times in China, when tickets are more expensive, and every travel destination is packed to the gills with Chinese tourists (a singularly unpleasant endeavor, as we can all say from experience). You can go online to see what dates the holidays fall on that year and plan out your avoidance maneuvers accordingly.
9. Keep your bags close, and don’t be too cavalier with your expensive smart phones and/or cameras:
Pickpockets prey on tourists and locals alike. Keep your valuables zipped up in your bag, and beware of people getting a little too close for comfort on the subway, especially if you’re carrying a backpack. Also, avoid walking around with your headphones in your ears (especially white Apple headphones. Pickpockets are looking for any and all opportunities to steal iPhones and iPods).*
Once, I was walking back to the apartment in Beijing while listening to music on my phone, which was buried deep inside a buttoned coat pocket. I was walking on a wide sidewalk, out on an open street. Halfway through the song, the music suddenly cut off. I looked down, and the silver end of the earphone cable was dangling in mid-air. The phone was gone. It was a sad day. Be careful!
10. Bring a phrasebook. A few short phrases can be really helpful:
Take it from someone who’s taken seven semesters of college Chinese: it can can be hard.
Yes, you caught me. And my sister, for that matter. We are the over-assimilated Chinese-American kids who were too busy baking apple pies and watching Nickelodeon to learn much Mandarin (up until recently, anyway).
Oh the horror! The shame! The parental ridicule! The years of sitting cluelessly around tables of jabbering relatives! The only things we did understand were derived from context clues. Like when great aunts would squeeze our arms (surprisingly strong grips for their age, mind you), accompanied by an emphatic waaaah! (Chinese for whoaaaaa!)
Translation: Whoa. You’ve gotten fat.
But armed with a history of daily Chinese classes and drill sessions in college (and Saturday Chinese school for Kaitlin, plus a few college semesters of her own), we’re a lot less clueless these days.
So try it. Learn a phrase or two. Practice it at your favorite Chinese restaurant. I know you may feel sheepish at first (believe me. I know.), but you get used to it. Plus, I think it makes the food taste better. You can also find an online dictionary that reads the phrases for you, so that you can get an idea of what they’re supposed to sound like. Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the same sound in four different “tones,” can all have different meanings. For example:
First tone: mā – mother
Second tone: má – numb
Third tone: mǎ – horse
Fourth tone: mà – to scold
Don’t stress out too much about it. You don’t have to know how to speak Chinese in order to travel in China. You’ll also find quite a bit of English in China…on menus, signs, etc., especially in large cities. But it’s always helpful to know a few utilitarian phrases. When in China, try out your Chinese on a local. They’re super friendly and love it when foreigners speak Chinese. For more complicated things, like communicating with a taxi driver, for example, it may be also helpful to have your destination printed on a piece of paper in Chinese in order to avoid a lost-in-translation situation.
11. Tipping is unnecessary in China: It isn’t customary in China to tip at restaurants, hotels, or in taxis. If you feel that your tour guide or tour driver did a great job, you can feel free to tip there, but it’s not necessary in any situation. If you leave money on the table at a restaurant, you might get a waitress running after you with it, yelling that you forgot the rest of your change (true story).
12. Eat. And then eat some more: Food is very important to the Chinese. Every day in Beijing, at precisely noon, a mass migration occurs, during which offices empty completely and restaurants fill up. People are serious about eating on time, and eating well. Find restaurants that seem to cater to a lot of locals. Don’t be tempted to go with the familiar. Avoid any “Chinese” restaurant that also has French fries or pizza on the menu. Wherever you are, look up what the local specialties are. Try something new. And if your chopstick skills need work, we suggest leaving any white shirts you might have at home. Go for a nice, dark color that will mask any spilled sauce. And if you do spill a glob of something delicious on yourself, do not be ashamed! We have all been victim to overenthusiastic chopstick slippage before.
13. Don’t be afraid to stray off the beaten path: Traveling in Asia is an adventure. Explore hidden alleyways, look up local restaurant recommendations, and experience the place like a local. The moment you realize that you’re having a great time is the moment you stop feeling like a tourist.