The reason for writing this post is because I want to it to serve as encouragement for more to travel, to travel to China.Read More
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.
I was warned that it would be very difficult to communicate in China since I don't speak Chinese. From buying train tickets to asking for vegetarian food, 'you're going to suffer', I was told. So I went armed with pre-translated sentences about not eating meat and arrived at train stations many hours in advance, prepared to get lost and make mistakes.
Chinese is reputedly one of the hardest languages to learn for speakers, like me, of Indo-European languages, such as English. Chinese is a tone language, meaning that the meaning of the word changes depending on its tone, something alien to us. And, of course, there's the whole new alphabet. That said, for speakers of similar languages it is not that hard, nor is the grammar too complicated - there are no cases, nor obligatory plurals and tenses. But using words from the romance, germanic and semitic languages I do know, would not get me anywhere here as it would elsewhere.
Yet despite this barrier, I managed to get by, often thanks to very creative gesturing and miming, but also thanks to translating apps, which my friends obviously didn't have just a few years back. In pharmacies, taxis, restaurants, both linguistic parties often whipped out their phones and so we managed (though not always!) to communicate our thoughts.
In such situations one becomes ever more grateful for translated menus and signs, yet if the Chinese will forgive me - for I'm sure my app also told them quite a lot of rubbish too - here are some translations that I could not help but giggle at:
I love haggling, and so do the Chinese! Whether it was for a pack of cards on the Great Wall or for a necklace at a stand by the Li river, I partook in a fun bout of haggling, leaving with purchases that will forever remind me of my trip here – at a bargain price!
Unless you are in a high-street store, where the prices are fixed, you can pretty much haggle for many goods on sale in China. In fact, you often have to ask for the price. The advice is to offer at least a quarter of what you are told to pay in order to give you leeway to reach a middle ground.
Bartering really is part of the buying process here and I often see the seller’s eyes light up when I offer a lower price; they often smile as they reach out for a thumbed little notebook, their trusty calculator or sometimes just their fingers. The Chinese cleverly can count from one to ten in one hand. Just because we don’t share a common language doesn’t mean we can strike a deal! We’ll go back and forth and then comes my favourite part: if I’m not happy with the final asking price I walk away. Someone once taught me that if you want to strike a deal you have to be able to walk away from the table. Of course you have to be willing to lose, but very often, you will hear a ‘hello!’ or an utterance of sorts, signalling that you can get your goods for the price you want.
In China you will probably also experience what I call ‘auto-haggling’, when even though you might not be, or not think you are interested in a fresh garland of flowers, little wooden ducks on which to place your chopsticks, or a plastic case in which to place your mobile phone, you will be poked, followed and insisted with to purchase said goods. This happened to us during a trip to Xingping where we took a raft down the Li River (another extraordinary event that must be documented) during a guided Chinese tour (also a novel experience!).
Before we had even descended from the bus, I could see a little crowd of women gathering with their goods, waiting for their potential customers at the bus’s entrance. Even though we said no, they followed us, poking and going down on the very prices they had offered initially. Insistence is the name of their game. I think the funniest was when we hopped off our raft and a woman with a stick balanced on her shoulders, with two birds on each end, placed a pointed round hat on my husband as he tried to get away from her offer for this photo opportunity. I can still see him now, laughing, telling her no, as she continued to try to attempt to hand over the birds on the stick to him. Sadly I didn't catch the moment on camera, but this is the next best thing:
I’ll admit I succumbed and ended up buying two pears for ¥5 (c. 50c)! While it can get a little irritating when you just want to browse at a market, it really is all quite harmless fun and if you show you mean ‘no’, you will ultimately, at some point, be left alone.
I wasn’t sure whether to start with an account of yet another adventure, which left me clinging on for dear life, or at least two chickens’ lives, but also with memories of one of my favourite outings in my China trip so far.
One of the perks, nay goals, of staying in Guilin in the Guanxi Province in southern China is to visit the neighbouring areas home to some of the most breathtakingly beautiful countryside I have seen so far. Most hostels and hotels offer organised outings. So when we arrived at our hostel in Guilin we booked ourselves two trips; one to Yuangshuo with a bamboo trip along the Li River and another to the Longji Rice Terraces. Because both are a bit far out you need to be driven to your destinations. Our trip to the rice terraces saw us sit in an eight-seater van, whose smell reminded me of the upholstery at my grandmother’s summer house and which looked like the last time it had seen the face of a clean cloth was probably when that furniture was made. We left at 08:30 in the morning because we had to endure a more than three-hour drive to the terraces and another three for the drive back. We drove there in what seemed like torrential rain but serendipitously arrived to rain-free terraces.
Because I want to end on the magnificent note the outing to the terraces left me with, I’ll share my ‘little’ adventure first. Perhaps it was because the skies had cleared and we – and our driver – could actually see the road on which we were driving, we were more attuned to his driving ‘technique’, if you will. Essentially this was nothing new because driving in China is, how I can I put this, often akin to sitting in a racing car in a computer game. Speed bumps are more like different terrain to the driver and sadly so were two chickens that came his way.
As a low-risk person (really, I am) my way of dealing with this, because really there is no other way about it if you want to see these sights, is to either close your eyes or just trust the driver. OK, so that’s my adventure. Now for the fun part: the rice terraces.
We opted for a DIY trip and followed a relatively easy set of instructions to reach the peak. The trek should take some 50 minutes but ours lasted a bit longer because we stopped so many times to take photos, because the views really are quite extraordinary. One of the most exquisite is the Nine Dragons and Five Tigers Viewing Point, which allows views of the curvaceous layers of terraces.
The walk uphill is moderately easy though because of the rain, we had to trudge through some pretty muddy areas and some others were a bit slippery. I’m always motivated however when I see either women in heels or people like this lady, carrying half their body weight on their backs.
If I had to find anything disappointing in the trip it was probably just the result of a bit of naiveté in that I thought we would be on our own with only the vast countryside to keep us company. The place was teeming with tourists, and tourist buses. That said, the area is huge and once we started climbing the terraces the crowds did decrease in number. We easily managed to secure a place at one of the small restaurants up top, my meat-eating friends enjoying the speciality of bamboo-cooked rice.
The terraces themselves always remain tourist-free, the reason why, I later learnt, is a ¥2,000 (€250 fine). Just as we reached the top an elderly man from Singapore approached us. Keen to practice his very good English, we learnt that he used to work in the aviation industry and had a colleague and friend in Germany. On looking at our muddy shoes, he warned us that we should not go walking in the terraces. We reassured him that we were well-trained after living in Germany and would not dream of doing so!
We descended with the aim of walking faster this time but couldn’t resist to stop quite a number of times again to take some shots. The sun had come out now and at practically ever bend we turned, there was yet another pretty shot of the sleepy-looking terraces. A misnomer of course, for they were the fruit of endless and hard labour, the year round.
* Pack or pre-apply sunblock if you are travelling in the warmer months (May to September). And take a poncho in case it rains
* I wore sneakers but I would have welcomed some proper hiking boots, especially on muddy days like ours
* Our DIY trip cost 250. With a guide it would have cost 350. While we managed to get to the first peak easily, many advise to take a guide if you wish to go further as it is pretty easy to get lost.
* Always keep a packet of tissues on you. This applies for anywhere in China as toilets don’t always provide toilet paper. There are toilets conveniently located at the foot and top of the terraces.
The main reason I came to China was because I wanted to see the Great Wall of China. The main reason I almost regretted coming to China was because of the Great Wall of China. Those who know me, know the extents I go to to avoid closed spaces: suitcases have been placed in lifts while I ran 10 flights of stairs to meet my luggage at the bottom, dignitaries I’ve interviewed have offered to join me in taking the stairs over lifts, and friends have helped calm me down when we were on trains, which stopped mid-tunnel during rush hour. So, you see I do my best to avoid small, closed spaces. One would think that the vast 20,000km-long, open-air Great Wall of China would be a viable option for a claustrophic traveller such as me. Think again.
We had been in China almost a week now and climbed the Wall about a third of the way through our trip. Having attributed so much importance to this extraordinary structure, we gave the process much importance and even booked ourselves into a remote hostel located practically on the wall itself, whose guests visit only to climb the wall.
While the very essence of the Wall is to stress unity, it is actually divided into at least four distinct parts, having been built at various stages in the course of history. The most popular part is the Bādálīng section, which has been restored and is easily accessible by lift and cable car, making it popular among masses of tourists, especially during the warmer months such as September when we were visiting.
So, the brave travellers that we were decided to go to a more remote part, a section that has not been reconstructed, and is really disintegrated at parts, therefore making it far less busy with visitors.
But once up on the Wall, the sprawling countryside beneath me, the mountain tops enveloping me, and the snaking Wall all around me, and the deep, plummeting drop beneath me, I found myself paralysed with what I suppose was acrophobia. The Wall really is crumbling at parts, at many of which only one person can pass at a time. We had done a good chunk of the Wall before it reached a critical stage that rendered me almost unable to take a step forward. My body was shaking and I had got myself into such a state I probably would have slipped. Yet despite the crippling fear, I did it, I walked as far as my group of friends did, and walked all the way back as they did and I am so glad I did it. Overcoming my fear was the result of a combination of encouraging and consoling words from my friends, being told to breathe slowly and talking to myself and telling myself I could do it. I have no regrets and remain utterly overwhelmed by the sheer magnanimity of this, China’s engineering triumph. To this effect, I want to look back and remember the positives of this memorable experience, as well as to encourage others to go:
The route: Coiled Dragon Loop
We started our hike in the town of Gubeikou which links easily to the part of the Wall known as the Coiled Dragon, named for a big sweeping bend in the Wall with three towers on top. The first section of the Wall is very special as it is a very rare part of the Northern Qi dynasty Wall, making it some 1500 years old. The walk takes some two and a half hours, unless you decide to continue further, as we did, until you reach a military section, through which you cannot pass, hence why we had to turn back. Words really cannot do justice to this mammoth structure and to the experience of standing on it, in the middle of nature, surrounded by astonishing views.
The Great Wall of China
I will forever remain mesmerised by this fantastic structure with an equally gripping history. Work on the ‘original’ Wall was started as far back as 221BC under Emperor Qin Shihuang. It is estimated that some 18—million cu metres of rammed earth was used to build the Wall. The bricks were cut at ground level and then hoisted up by slaves up the soaring heights. Sadly, millions died in the process, and legend has it that the bones of the dead workers were used as building materials too.
The people we met
From the fearless tour leader, who led her group briskly across the Wall, clad only in sandals, to the Chinese lady in heels and the locals who were on their daily walk, the person who stands out most in my memories is the elderly man we met, whose name, unfortunately I never got hold of. With straight, combed white hair, leather loafers, and a stylish camel leather backpack, we met this American man at a somewhat difficult section of the Wall, for which one had to climb over scattered rocks and clamber up some pretty steep steps. Cheerfully grumbling that he had been ‘deceived!’ that the Wall was a smooth part, this brave man refused our help, explaining that he would have to return on his own. He told us how his friend Sally could not join him on this tour, which would go on to include visits to Egypt and Portugal, but that he was taking photos to remember this memorable day. During one of my panicky moments, I thanked myself that I had done this trip now, while I was young, as I would not be able to do this later on in life. I am now reassessing this! And of course, I will never forget and will remain eternally grateful to our walking buddies – Queenie and Eric – who walked with us, encouraged me at my difficult moments, and Queenie who translated for us when one lady advised I use a stick to help me keep my balance.
Where we stayed:
Chinese Box Hostel
A gorgeous traditional Chinese courtyard hostel in the heart of Old Beijing, a haven of serenity after the bustling and busy life of central Beijing.