My tips on everything you need to know and do before a trip to China.
Although my husband and I returned from our three-week trip to China with a wanderlust to return so strong that we practically started looking up flights the day we returned, we were in a completely different frame of mind before we left. Indeed we were even considering booking a guided tour, so afraid were we that we would be completely lost in this new land. But a good amount of research and talking to friends who had been to and lived in China proved a vital source of information that led us to going it alone and probably having more fun that had we been at the mercy of time limits and group instructions. So, I’d like to share some of the most important tips we collected before and during our trip.
Before you go
1. When to travel
April and May, and September and October are great times to visit, though be aware of and try to avoid the first week of October, or Golden Week, the semi-annual seven-day holiday when the whole nation travels on holiday and popular destinations get incredibly busy.
2. You’ll need to plan your route
Visitors to China need a visa and to get one you will need to present your travel and booking confirmations. Also make sure you plan in advance as your visa is not issued immediately. Mine took a week. You can find details about your visa on the website of your local embassy.
3. Check your vaccinations
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends the following vaccinations for travellers to China: Adult diphtheria and tetanus (ADT); Hepatitis A; Hepatitis B; Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR); Typhoid; Varicella; Influenza; Japanese B encephalitis; Pneumonia; Rabies; Tuberculosis. Double check with your GP to see what you need, depending on where exactly you will be travelling and leave enough time to receive multiple shots and to recover from possible side effects.
4. Stay in hostels
While admittedly you will not receive the luxury you would in a hotel, hostels are a great way to meet people as well as really experience authentic life in The People’s Republic of China. In Beijing, for instance, we stayed in a hostel in a hutong. Hutongs are narrow streets commonly associated with northern Chinese cities and which really give you an insight into the everyday, definitely not luxurious, life here.
Once you're in China
5. Allot time for travel
While China is technically one country, it is so large it feels more like a continent and you will often need to take planes or many-hours-long trains to get to your destination. Travelling is also tiring so give yourself time to relax and recuperate from travel time rather than packing things very closely together. The same goes for day plans. Rather than trying to see five sites in one day, pick one or two things to do. The Forbidden City, for instance is huge and in addition to queuing time, it requires time to be appreciated. A good idea is to visit Tiananmen Square first (watch the flag-raising ceremony at sunrise) and then head to the Forbidden City, whose entrance is nearby.
6. Buy a local sim card
We saved a lot of money on taxis as we could look up routes home, use a translating app (very useful) or to our destination when we got lost after having bought a sim card from the airport. You can also then use WeChat to order a taxi (when public transport is no longer running or you are far away from a station, for instance). The only snag was that we found it difficult to top up since we didn’t have a Chinese credit card and were saved by an employee at one of our hostels who transferred us money via one of her apps.
7. Install WeChat
This is the China equivalent of Whatsapp/Facebook chat. We found it incredibly useful to connect with locals and talk to services. Everyone uses the app so we found ourselves chatting with the taxi company who told us exactly when to go out and wait for the driver since it was raining. If you have a Chinese credit card you can also use the app to pay for services. Very handy.
8. Get a VPN
In China, sites like Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, Google and all its sister sites like Gmail, Google docs, etc, are blocked. Whether, like me, you’re a freelancer, or simply want to stay in touch, look something up (I never quite get the results I need outside Google), a VPN is vital. I tried a number but found ExpressVPN to work best. It works on Windows, Mac, Android and iOS and even unblocks other popular online services like Netflix, Facebook, YouTube, HBO and Tinder. You can find our more and get the VPN here.
9. Have fun!
Despite the most meticulous planning, you will still make mistakes and get lost. But that’s part of the adventure. China is a very safe place and even if you don’t speak the language, gestures and translation apps will get you a long way if you need help or directions.
10. Anything else?
If you live in China or have been there and would like to share some tips, do post them in the comments section.