China Travel Tips

China was DEFINITELY an interesting country to visit. It was probably our most difficult trip, in terms of language barriers, culture and mishaps. We had several mishaps. lol. Hopefully, these tips I am sharing will help you have a better trip and be able to avoid some of the issues we encountered.

  • Visa – To get a visa for China, you will need to visit the Chinese embassy closest to you. If there is not one near you or you cannot go yourself, they do allow another person to bring the forms in, though it must be signed by the applicant. I took the visa applications in for myself and two other people and all they wanted to know was why the other two weren’t present. I told them they were at work and that was that. You should be aware, though, that you may need to go in for a personal interview. I had to do that and it wasn’t too bad. All they wanted was to know where we were going, where we were staying and why I didn’t apply for my visa in the US (i applied in Kuala Lumpur while we were living there). I had taken in a typed up itinerary of the cities we were going to, the hotels we were staying in and the sites we were considering going to along with my name and passport number as the header. The lady was very pleased with this and approved my visa right away. So, overall, the process was pretty painless. It just took some time because I had to go to the embassy three times. Once to drop off the applications along with out passports, again to do my personal interview and then to pick up the passports with the visa stamps.
  • Power outlets – The standard power outlet for China is the same as is used in Australia and New Zealand. It has three prongs of the same length and width set in a triangle pattern with two of the prongs angled out. All three of the hotels/hostels we stayed in had converter outlets, so we got by just fine for a week without a converter plug. You may want to grab one just in case the hotel doesn’t have converter outlets and doesn’t provider converter plugs.
  • Currency – China uses Renminbi as their currency, though people will more often ask you for xx yuan since yuan is the name of their currency unit. Some places will take USD, which is nice, but those are usually hotels and larger establishments with lots of tourist clientele. But, many places do take debit/credit cards, so you don’t have to carry too much cash around with you.
  • ATMs – There are an abundance of ATMs in China, so no worries about finding one. What you SHOULD worry about, though, is how reliable that ATM is. We were running low on the cash we’d exchanged at an exchange shop and decided to just pull some from an ATM. Lo and behold, that ATM happened to be very hungry and ate our ATM card. Seriously, it took the card and since the only thing on the display was Chinese, we had no idea why. Thankfully, a kind train station worker took pity on us and called the bank to see what happened and the bank worker said the card was flagged as stolen, but that we could get it back in 7 days if we could prove the card belonged to one of us. Um, we were only there for three more days, so that didn’t work. Luckily, we had enough Renminbi  to get to our destination and then had a couple hundred extra USD in cash hidden on us, so we ended up being fine, but we did have to curtail our spending for the remaining time so we wouldn’t have to use another ATM. Not saying this will happen to you, but be sure to have more than one card on you in case one gets eaten. (oh, and about the card, the issuing bank said there was no fraud or theft alert on the card, so they said the ATM shouldn’t have taken it)
  • Don’t drink the water – China is another country where it is not safe to drink from the tap. Be sure to allot money for purchasing bottled water throughout your trip to avoid any type of illness coming from drinking the tap water.
  • Keep all money in inner pockets – This is just a given in any country, really. But China is pretty dense and the cultural norm is to not really care about personal space, so you will have people all up on you no matter where you are. There is a lot of jostling and bumping into with some added pushing and shoving, so you will definitely want to keep your money and cards in a place where they can’t be lifted from you during the bumping and bustling of walking around.
  • Tourists are followed – Just FYI, but there is a contingent of undercover police officers tasked with following tourists around. I’m sure they don’t follow EVERY tourist, but you should keep in mind that it may happen on your trip, so don’t do anything illegal.
  • Lines and Jostling – One of the things that drove me absolutely bonkers in China was the disorder. They don’t do lines there and pretty much follow the ‘push everyone out of your way’ mentality. I hate being pushed and shoved, so this was something I had a hard time with. I’m also not very assertive, so I had to learn pretty fast that if I wanted to get anything or go anywhere, I was going to have to shout and push along with the rest of them. The funny thing about all this is that some people think you are so rude when you do that, but then they’re doing it, too. The best advice on this one is to bring someone assertive along with you so they can push through the crowds and you can follow close behind.
  • Hotel rooms – Be very careful when you book a hotel room. The first place we booked a room called it a 4-bed suite. Since there was a group of us, we decided this would be a good option because it was cheap and we could all split it. Turns out, it was two rooms with 4 beds……………and no bathroom. It was basically a hostel room and the price was per bed, not for the whole room. It ended up being quite a bit more expensive than we had anticipated. The next place we stayed called itself a hotel, yet it was another hostel, though this one lived up to the description of a private room. We booked through www.agoda.com, which we really like and recommend. It was just the descriptions put up by the hotels themselves that were misleading.
  • Humidity and smog – China is very humid and has lots of smog in the fall. We were there in August and at one point visibility was down to less than a mile because of all the smog. If you have difficulty with these things, I’d recommend bringing a mask to filter the smog and making sure you stay very hydrated.
  • Clothing, Hats and Sunscreen – China is very hot in the summer/fall and you’ll want to wear light, loose clothing along with wearing a hat if you are outside a lot and use plenty of sunscreen. Just about every day I was in China I was thankful for my hat. I took sunscreen, too, but didn’t use it as much as I should and got a bit sunburned. We saw a lot of people wandering around with umbrellas, so you wouldn’t be out of place if you brought one of those instead of a hat.
  • Chinese potty training – One of the more unexpected things I saw in China was how the parents potty train their children. Sure, kids wear diapers, but it is a cultural thing for Chinese mothers to train their children to ‘pee on command.’ I had giggled a bit when my friend who lived in China told me about this practice, but I was sure it wouldn’t be something I’d actually see when I was there. I mean, really, who just has their kid pee on a sidewalk? Well, the Chinese. We saw LOTS of parents pull down kids’ pants or diapers and have the kid pee on the sidewalk. I’m so not even kidding. They didn’t have the kids go to the grass that was two feet away, they just pointed to the cement, made a clicking noise and the kid peed. So, be aware that the wet spots on the ground are probably pee spots. (oh, another tidbit, when we were on the Great Wall, people pooped in the corners of the towers on the Wall, so you may want to use caution when walking in those areas)
  • Night Market negotiations   – One of the things I found surprising was that the people at the night markets didn’t negotiate much. They would a little, but not as much as in other countries. Some people flat-out said no when we tried. It was disappointing, but we still kept trying and were able to get a few small deals. The trinket sellers, they are the ones who are more willing to negotiate better deals, especially if you make a bulk purchase.
  • Want cold water? Ask for ice when you order  – Chinese people drink their water warm or hot. If you ask for water, they’ll usually bring you above-room-temperature water. If you want you water cold, you need to be clear about that when you order.
  • Bring bug/mosquito repellent – There are lots of bugs and mosquitoes in China. Some convenience stores sell bug spray, but none of it has DEET. If you want the protection of DEET you’ll need to bring your own.
  • Medications – Be sure to bring a bit extra of whatever medications you NEED. Some medications are easy to find, but not all, so it is better to err on the side of caution and bring some extra in case your trip is extended or you need to take an extra dose for whatever reason.
  • Bring extra of any necessities  – Whether it be something you NEED or something you just prefer, bring extra because finding medical items or comfort/convenience items is not as easy as it is in Western countries. I’d almost say it is impossible to find some convenience items. So it if something you must have or something you just won’t be happy without, bring a spare just in case.
  • Food allergies  – If you have a food allergy, make sure you have several slips of paper with a statement expressing your food allergy in the Chinese language. We chose to use both Traditional and Simplified. Still, though, you need to be cautious. They understand some allergies, but not all. Troy is allergic to wheat and flour and some people  understood that when we presented the papers to them. They pointed out foods he could eat and one place even walked us around the restaurant and pointed to different dishes other patrons were eating that he could eat. It was nice, but don’t just expect all places to be like that one. If your allergy requires medication if you come in contact with that food, be sure to bring extra medication in case you have more than one instance of being given that food on accident.
  • Bring hand sanitizer or wet wipes  – It is very rare to find a bathroom outside a hotel with hand soap, so bring something to clean your hands after using the restroom and before eating.
  • Carry extra water  – In the summer and fall, China is HOT! We were there the first week of August and we were all sweating like crazy the entire time. We ran out of water waiting in line for the Leshan Buddha (3 hours) and also on the Great Wall, both of which charged about 2-3x the convenience store price for water. We were very thankful to have extra water at the terracotta warriors because it is so crowded and hot in those rooms. We all started feeling a bit ill from the heat and humidity in there and had to go outside where it was cooler!
  • Bullet train – Ah, the bullet train. Otherwise known as the Fast Train. Unfortunately, we did not find it very fast. We were supposed to arrive in Beijing about 6 hours after leaving Xián, but due to the train stopping entirely for several hours (twice) and going very slow for an hour or so, we didn’t arrive for 12 hours. It was awful. They didn’t provide any food or water on the train, so we were quite glad we’d brought extra with us. If you decide to take the bullet train, be sure to pack extra water and snacks just in case there is some kind of issue and the train gets delayed.
  • English is not too common – There are a few people who know quite a bit of English, but most of the regular people we came across only knew enough English to sell their items or give information about the attraction they worked at. Taxi drivers were a challenge, so be sure to carry a map with your destination circled so there won’t be any confusion. Another resource is to ask your hotel clerk to write out some directions or destinations on a piece of paper (note which is which) so you can give that paper to your taxi driver. We did that several times and it worked quite well.
  • Phone/Internet – China has pretty good phone and internet coverage. We bought a SIM card to keep in touch with the other guy who was meeting up with us a day after we arrived. The clerk at the kiosk we bought it from had a sheet of paper with the different SIM card options on it, which made things easy. She didn’t speak a lot of English, but there were other people in the airport that were able to facilitate a conversation with her to answer a few questions. Once we chose our SIM card, she did all of the setup on the phone and off we went. We were pleased with our choice and didn’t have to worry about using up the prepaid data because all the hotels we stayed in had wifi in the common areas.
  • Late-night travel – We never planned on traveling late at night, but we ended up in a situation where we didn’t have a choice. The bullet train that was supposed to take 5 hours to get to Beijing ended up taking 12 hours, so we didn’t arrive until well after midnight. The train station is in the middle of a business district and was several miles from our hotel, so we couldn’t very well walk with our big suitcases. The taxi drivers all gave the same price of 4-5x the standard rate and all refused to go by the meter. It was frustrating, but we didn’t really have any other option. So, try to plan all arrivals well before midnight and if it doesn’t work out, well, you’re not the only one being taken advantage of.
  • Toilet paper, wet wipes and hand sanitizer – Yeah, I know. Weird tip. But, really, you’ll want to remember this. Most toilets in China don’t have toilet paper in the actual stall, if they have it at all. Check the wall before you go into a stall for a dispenser. Not sure why they put the toilet paper out there, but that’s where it is. To be safe, though, you’ll want to bring something to use as toilet paper because a vast majority of public toilets do not have toilet paper. And quite a few don’t have soap, so bring something to clean your hands with.
  • Airport taxi – This one ended up being a fluke for us. There was this guy that followed us around the airport while we were trying to decide which SIM card to get, offering to be our taxi. He kept saying he WAS a taxi. After a getting our SIM card and negotiating a price with him, we walked out to his car. Turns out, he was just a random person who wanted to make some money. I wouldn’t recommend availing yourself of this. I felt uncomfortable with the arrangement and we walked back to the airport where we found a line for taxis. To our delight, the price the taxi guy gave us was about half of what the other guy had negotiated down to.
  • Buy extra water before going to your hotel for the night – During our stay in China, of the three hotels we stayed in, only one gave us complimentary water. They sell water at the front office, but the price is a little bit higher than what you will find at a convenience store.
  • Pandas in Chengdu – If you are going to Chengdu to see the pandas, try to get there as soon as they open. I think we got there an hour after they opened and most of the pandas were already inside the buildings because it was so hot. We saw a couple outside for a few minutes, but we were pretty disappointed to see most of the pandas in a building behind glass instead of outside just over a wooden fence.
  • China loves spicy food – We had a really great tour guide in Xián who explained to us how to request less spicy food options. He said that even the ‘less spicy’ food is pretty spicy, so if you say boo-yao-la they will make is less spicy. That phrase came in quite handy for us many times.
  • Chinese people love to practice English – There were several times on our trip that random people would walk up and start talking to us. They were quite polite and asked us questions about where we were from, if we were enjoying China and what our favorite thing about our trip was. It was nice. We found that if we told them they spoke English well, they would be quite pleased. There was one little boy whose mother stopped me so he could recite this ‘welcome to China’ speech to me. I tried asking him a question, but he didn’t understand anything I said, so I just took pictures with him and his family was ecstatic.
  • Chinese love pictures with tourists – This isn’t meant to sound racist, but we discovered the Chinese like to take pictures with white people. We learned this long before we got to China, but it’s still a truth. Chinese people in every country we’ve been to will stop us and ask for pictures. They are mostly polite about it (I had a Chinese man in Malaysia be all touchy-feely with my face and kept trying to hug me) and will gesture with their camera as a way of asking for permission. Be warned, though, that this may lead to others getting in line for pictures with you. There are also others who will randomly take pictures of you. I had a Chinese guy follow me around a place for about 20 minutes just taking pictures of me. I was okay with the first few, but it got annoying after a bit. I glared at him and he went away, so you can try that if you don’t like them taking pictures of you.
  • Say something in Chinese and they think you are fluent – This one was pretty funny. We like to learn how to say thank-you in the language of each country we visit, just as a way to be polite and show respect. Usually people will just smile and say you’re welcome, but in China the people would unleash a torrent of words that left us standing there confused. After they realized we only knew the one phrase, the people would go back to gesturing as a way of communicating. It was fun.
  • Tour guide scams – I’m not going to go into the whole story here since I’m planning on writing a blog about the experience, but be aware that those day-long tour guides can be a bit shady. Be sure to agree on the price and the stops BEFORE you get in the vehicle. And have the phone number of a backup tour guide. If they stop to renegotiate the terms, be prepared to get out of the vehicle. Our tour guide had given us a card with the price on it and then stopped an hour later and told us we had to promise them a 200 yuan tip at the end of the day on top of the price of the tour because we were wealthy Americans (we’re not). It got pretty tense and we ended up  leaving, scared and lost in the middle of Beijing. If you can, try to get a recommendation of a tour guide before you go so that you don’t end up in that situation.

Overall, China is a pretty neat country to visit. There is a lot of fascinating history and culture to learn about there, just be cautious and use common sense while there. I think everyone should visit China at least once because there are so many wonderful things to see and do.

If you have any questions about things I’ve written about or that aren’t on the list, hit me up in the comments. 🙂

14 Replies to “China Travel Tips”

  1. idlewildak

    I loved my short stay in China. I was very fortunate to stay at a university and hang out with the English major students. They took me to an art museum, the Great Wall, and all over their “small” town of 1 million people. I agree about the “no line” mentality. It took me a bit to get used to it too. I thankfully have no food allergies, as I rarely knew what I was eating, but loved it all! 🙂

    • Erin Post author

      We had mixed feelings about China. Some parts we absolutely loved (riding a tobagan down the Great Wall?!?!) and other parts we didn’t like so much. I kinda want to go back and do a do-over now that we know what we know. I totally agree with you about not knowing what we were eating. We took a picture of a menu with items we’d eaten circled on it and my friend said we’d eaten tripe and pig intestine. It was pretty tasty, so I’m glad we didn’t know that at the time!

  2. Pebbles Jacobo

    Wow, excellent and thorough post. I feel set to get my visa and book my trip today. I enjoyed the insight from your own trip. Sounds like you had quite the experience.:)

    • Erin Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I was a bit worried that it would convey a negative vibe, but I wanted to be sure to share some of our experiences so others could be aware and have a better experience. I definitely want to go back and have a do-over trip. haha

    • Erin Post author

      Thank you for stopping by. China isn’t for everyone, but if you do find you have the opportunity (and desire) to go one day, I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

  3. i*Kan

    Oh my! It happened to me as well… Random people stopping us and wanting to chat and hang out together just so that they could practice their English. I blogged about it too. In the beginning I wasn’t sure whether they were scammers, so didn’t engage too much… But got used to it as the days progressed.

    • Erin Post author

      Yeah, we were a little weirded out by it, too, at first, but quickly got used to it. We’d been living in Malaysia for almost a year before we went to China, so we’d kinda gotten used to random people asking for pictures or just wanting to talk. That type of thing happens all over Asia.

  4. Michael Orobona

    I don’t know when I’ll get to China, but this is awesome! Sometimes I have a laugh when I see Chinese tourists wearing dust masks in Western airports. Is there anything westerners do in China that the locals find nonsensical?

    • Erin Post author

      Thank you for liking my post and for the comment!

      I think some Chinese people get a bit miffed when Westerners act like they do. When we were going places, Chinese people pushed us like crazy (and each other), but when we started pushing our way through, they’d get all offended. It was the weirdest thing.

      I also think they think we’re strange because we’re so polite in regards to body functions/noises. They spit, burp, pass gas, and make other strange noises like there’s no tomorrow and they looked at us strange or laughed when we covered our mouths when we yawned or said ‘excuse me’ when we burped.

      Oh! And the fact that white people want to get tan. We had a few Chinese ladies tell us that they loved our white skin and that we should protect it so it didn’t get darker. lol.

  5. sjebner

    It sounds amazing, though complicated to even get there. I would love to experience it though. Such history.

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