Traveling through China can be a very rewarding experience but it does come with its share of challenges. With the right expectations and a little preparation (such as reading our China travel tips), a visit to China can be an amazing experience.
Many people travel here on a tour, eliminating the challenges of arranging itineraries, transportation, hotels, and meals. As we found out, independent travel in China is possible.
We avoid tours whenever possible. Traveling in a large group of people, hopping from landmark to landmark, having everything prearranged, sounds like torture to us. We prefer to be out on our own, finding our own way. Sure, we make blunders and get lost sometimes, but independent travel is the best way to be immersed in the culture. By traveling on our own we get to interact with the local people, rather than traveling within the “safety” of a large travel group with a guide.
And what a culture to be immersed into. The people in China are some of the friendliest we met and the history and sights here are world class. For those who are pondering independent travel to China, here are some china travel tips to help make your visit a little easier. Many of these we figured out for ourselves while traveling.
China Travel Tips
Get Your Visa Before Entering China
This is the most important step in planning a trip to China. Without a Visa you will not be allowed to enter the country (if you are a US citizen).
On the application, you will need to provide your travel dates, travel itinerary, and proof of onward travel. The application must be typed with no hand written corrections or it will not be accepted.
For full details on filling out the application, plus the link to obtain the visa application, visit the China Embassy website.
For travelers planning a layover or a short stop in China, you may qualify for a 72 hour visa. Learn more here.
Purchase a VPN Before Arriving in China
The Great Firewall of China blocks all access to Facebook, Google, Twitter, and YouTube. There were periods where I was even blocked from this Earth Trekkers website. It can be incredibly frustrating, especially during long term travel, to lose access to websites used to stay in touch with people back at home.
One way around this is by purchasing a VPN, or a Virtual Private Network. A VPN disguises the computer’s IP address so it looks like you are connected from the US or Australia even if you are in China. We used VyprVPN for the month we were in China, paying a small monthly fee (around $10) for the service. It worked fairly well but it was not perfect. While in Shanghai I was totally unable to access this website although I could still get onto Facebook. Still, it was worth having this service. Without it I would have spent one month in China without any access to the outside world.
Please note, make sure you purchase the VPN before getting to China. China blocks access to the VPN companies so you will be out of luck trying to purchase one if you are already in China.
Update for 2019: Some of our awesome readers have written in with VPN’s that worked well for them. These VPN’s include Express VPN and Surf Shark. You can read more about these in the comment section below.
It is an Advantage to Know Basic Mandarin
Knowing Mandarin is not a necessity but it helps A LOT. If you plan on only visiting the larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai you will be able to get by with English. The younger generations can speak basic English and many are eager to help out when necessary, from our experience.
If you plan on visiting the smaller cities off the main tourist trail, such as Zhangjiajie and Yangshuo, speaking basic Mandarin is invaluable. We would have had a very difficult time here if we couldn’t speak the basics.
Plus, a simple ni hao (hello) or xie xie (thank you) is much appreciated. To speak in full sentences and attempt a simple conversation made us many friends in China. This is a country where people really appreciated our efforts to speak their language and these moments are some of our favorite memories from China.
There are a lot of language learning apps and computer programs to choose from. Tyler and I used Fluenz to learn basic Mandarin. We started the program one year before our trip to China. I have also used Fluenz to learn Spanish, French, and a little German.
It also helps to have a Chinese translate app on your phone. We used this to communicate many times as well.
Be Prepared for Menus in Chinese Characters
Countless times we sat down at a restaurant and were handed a menu with only Chinese characters. This led to us randomly picking out dishes, hoping for the best. This is a gamble in China, since it is very common for all kinds of animal anatomy to make it onto your plate. Once in the bigger cities, menus in English, or at least with pictures, became much more commonplace.
Bring Your Own Napkins
I cannot tell you how many times we sat down to a meal and never saw a napkin. A napkin, such a simple thing. There’s nothing like eating a big bowl of noodle soup with chopsticks, to have broth dripping down our chins, and not have a napkin. Make sure you carry your own supply with you.
Bring Your Own Toilet Paper
To continue with the same theme, bathrooms are rarely stocked with toilet paper. Bring your own.
Also, be prepared to use squat potties. We used more squat potties here than in any other country we visited, with Nepal and India not too far behind. The bathrooms were not the cleanest, either, so it also wouldn’t hurt to carry around some hand sanitizer as well.
Bargain For Everything
With the exception of upscale stores, everything can be bargained for in China, even groceries. At most places you can expect to pay between 10 and 25% percent of the starting price.
If you do not like their price, just walk away, and I guarantee that they will chase you down the street. We even had a lady search us out five minutes after leaving her shop, giving us an awesome price that we couldn’t refuse. It is a game to go shopping and if you like this kind of thing, it is tons of fun.
Your Credit Card May Not Always Work
We travel with both a Visa and Mastercard. In China, there were numerous times that our credit cards were not accepted. China has its own credit cards and is not open to using Visa or Mastercard yet. Be prepared for many trips to the ATM’s to get out Chinese yuan for your purchases.
Use China DIY Travel for Purchasing Train Tickets
If you plan on traveling by train through China this is an invaluable service. This company, run by Australian Chinese couple, can help with booking your train tickets. They were very responsive through email and made our booking of four train journeys quick and painless.
China DIY Travel electronically booked our tickets and we picked them up at our first train station in China. At one station we were able to pick up all of our tickets for all four of our journeys in China. DIY Travel sent us pickup instructions in both English and Chinese, which we printed out on our own. At the ticket booth in the railway station, we showed the agent the printed Chinese instructions and were handed our tickets. Having these instructions was a huge bonus.
DIY Travel also provided us with instructions on how to read the train tickets, how to find our train at the station, and information about boarding procedures. This information is invaluable as everything in the train stations is in Chinese. I highly recommend China DIY Travel to other travelers and wouldn’t hesitate to use them again on another trip to China.
Hotels in China
Make sure you clearly specify that you want a non-smoking room. Many, many people smoke in China. Even if you request a non-smoking room it very well may smell like smoke. It also helps to make sure the hotel has English speaking staff.
Here Come the Paparazzi
If you are traveling with children or have light skin and blond hair be prepared to have a lot of cameras in your face. Tyler and Kara were back in the spotlight again. Tim was a subject of many photos as well, with his height and blond hair. Most people were very polite, asking for photos with our family, but there was a smaller subset of people who stood off at a distance capturing our images on their cellphones.
So, What About the Food?
Yes, without a doubt, Chinese food is much different from what we see in the US. There is almost no similarity between the two.
Some things we loved (I was a huge fan of the noodles and the soups) and some we didn’t. At many Chinese style restaurants we ordered small dishes from a menu and shared them all. The food tasted good but it was oilier than I expected it to be. We would finish a dish, leaving behind a puddle of oil on the bottom of the bowl.
I have to say that I liked Chinese food a lot less than I expected to. I feel like I am a fairly adventurous eater and have an open mind but I can see why Chinese food in the US has been “Americanized.” And no, we never did see a fortune cookie…that also is an American invention.
Best Places to go in China
In my opinion, Yangshuo, Li River Valley, and Zhangjiajie were the best places we visited. Mountain scenery, friendly people, the best Chinese food we had in China, this was the China I had always imagined. We would love to return again someday. If planning a trip to China, don’t skip these places!