When you travel to China, there's going to be the good and the bad and that's just the way it goes. With an open mind, the right packing and mental preparation, you'll be more than ready for the gotchas of China.
Having been to China several times and most recently exploring the Xi'an region to see the Terracotta Warriors, I've learned a thing or two about what it's like to travel thorugh the country. The below are to-the-point essential China travel tips that you'll appreciate knowing before you go.
Read more about China
- Where to stay in Beijing – a neighborhood guide
- Top things to do in Shanghai
- Shanghai neighbourhood guide
- Xi'an Teracotta Warriors itinerary
Want to pick up a bit of Mandarin before you go?
- Rosetta Stone Mandarin is a great online language program that simply works. I've used it to learn Japanese as well and it's great at getting you right into everyday language instead of being stuck on the nuances of grammar and rules.
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China Travel Tips
Even though we are Chinese, travel to China still feels foreign. Having grown up in Canada, there's just a lot of cultural, behavioural, and societal differences that hit you like a brick wall. So I can only imagine being a foreigner there without looking like I do.
What's really helped is going in with a somewhat jaded expectation of China travel. If you go in with the attitude that somewhere along the way, you'll encounter some awful, weird, and hilarious things, I truly believe you'll be better off. It's a mindset shift and it's about expectations.
Personally, laughing things off is the best thing you can do for all of the culture shock things. For everything else, good preparation and homework is a key China travel tip.
What To Pack For A Trip To China
Let's start off easy. If you're starting to pack your suitcase and backpack for your upcoming trip to China, what exactly should you pack? What is different about China that you never would've thought of unless you've been?
A few of these are somewhat obvious and others will definitely be new to you.
- Toilet paper – Bring your own toilet paper or tissue paper packs because you certainly won't see any in public washrooms
- Tissue paper – Tissue paper packs are also useful at restaurants because many places don't provide napkins and if they give you a tissue paper pack you won't want to open it because they are not free
- Plug converter – China has a weird combination of North American/Japan plugs and Australia/New Zealand outlet sockets. If you're coming from one of these countries, this makes things really easy because you won't need an adaptor but if not, make sure you bring the appropriate adaptors.
- Unlocked phone – If you plan on using your smartphone in China, the first thing you want to do is make sure it's unlocked so you can get a prepaid SIM on the street and be good to go.
- VPN – There are a lot of popular sites that are blocked in China and if you plan on doing anything involving, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Instagram, you'll want to make sure you purchase a VPN before you leave home. I used VyprVPN and had a lot of success.
- Quick dry clothes – Clothes dryers aren't a popular thing in the country because most people just hang their clothes out to dry. If you're on the go and are planning on hand washing your clothes, you want to make sure that you can get your clothes dry overnight.
- Sunscreen – It's downright hard to find sunscreen in China so make sure you bring enough for your trip.
Cultural Shock You'll Be Bound To Encounter in China
China has progressed quite a lot in the past few decades but there are still a few lingering habits that may or may not make your jaw drop. I've gone to China enough where I just know these things are going to happen and I don't let it affect me too much.
Some of these things are downright strange but the best thing for anyone travelling to China is just to go prepared and just “shake it off”. After all, you're there for the whole cultural experience right?
- Horking (not to be mistaken with twerking) – This is the strange phenomenon of the need to accumulate phlegm and spit it out anywhere and everywhere. There's no need to be alarmed unless you're in its trajectory.
- Lack of queueing – The Chinese free-for-all behaviour is so frustrating and will make you want to scream. There are two prime examples of this. The key is to remain cool and calm. I have on several occasions yelled and shoved but I am probably not your best role model.
- You'll be standing in line at a restaurant like a proper person would and all of sudden people out of nowhere will weasel their way to cut you off. That, or there may be no semblance of a line at all and it ends up being a big semi-circle pile up of people shouting and waving cash around to get their order in.
- Subway boarding and disembarking etiquette is a disaster. You'd think that it'd be most efficient to let people off the train first before going on but no that often doesn't happen. If you're inside the subway, a pro tip is to start making your way to the exit before you get to your stop because if you don't, you might get trapped inside.
Even for someone that's seen all of these things on numerous occasions, I still can't help but shake my head. Some of these things are cultural things, some are just how society has developed, and others are just things they suck at.
- Infamous peeing on the street – Whether it's through the butt-crack slit pants or whip-it-out-and-go-anywhere moves you may be lucky enough to see this happen in front of your eyes. Yes it's disgusting and sadly encouraged usually by the grandmas and grandpas but it's the kind of thing where you just laugh and point.
- Littering – This frustrates me to no end. The government has tried to counter littering by having garbage bins everywhere but still I see people throwing stuff on the ground, off the mountain and from a moving car. Just another one of those things.
- Warm drinks – This is more of a cultural thing than anything. You'd be hard pressed to be served a glass of ice water or even be able to buy ice cold drinks in China because there's this belief that mixing cold drinks with hot meals is bad for you. This was more of an annoyance than anything because it'll be blistering hot outside and you'll still have to drink hot water.
- Terrible service – I don't know what it is about service in China but wow do they suck. I always have a good chuckle when I get “I hate my life/job” service treatment from any service staff.
- What is real? – China is the master at making copies of real things. It's gotten so bad to the point where a lot of times you really have to start questioning whether what you're looking at is real or fake. They've taken it so extreme that even cars can be fake. You'll see a BMW on the road and think it's real but it potentially could be a China brand car with a BMW body kit. This just means you have to be super careful about what you buy in China. I just go in with the mentality that everything is fake and so you accept the tradeoff of price for quality and authenticity.
- Volume control – There'll be a lot of times when you'll wish you could turn a volume control knob to the left but you won't be able to. So no, not everyone on the phone is having a wildly fierce argument.
- Squatting – This is perhaps the biggest adjustment for most and affects the ladies the most. First of all you have to deal with dirty, smelly and possibly paid bathrooms but then you also have to learn the art of the squat. It's not easy and I avoid this issue all together by just not going during the day but when nature calls. I'm not sure how you prepare for this but maybe you do have to YouTube this?
Essential China Travel Tips
- Book a tour – Have your dream sightseeing holidays in China by booking a tour. It takes the stress of planning every detail of the trip away and ensures that you can focus on having fun and not worrying about the things that make things complicated when you don't speak the language. Just know that if you are doing a bus tour that there may be a big shopping component to it so ask the right questions.
- Private guides – Better yet, find a private guide. I did this for our trip to Xi'an with two separate guides and it couldn't have worked out any better. Private guides are great because:
- Avoid tourist traps
- Can dictate exactly what you want to do (say no to shopping)
- They know exactly what tickets to buy
- Can preorder things in advance for you (like train tickets)
- Flexible enough to make adjustments in the itinerary on the fly
- Selfie stick – As you've probably guessed, these are everywhere in China and the nice thing about being there is that you won't feel awkward for using one. As a heads up though, be aware that some museums won't allow you to bring them inside. In some cases, you'll have to check them into security. Not a huge deal but may be a surprise.
- Buy the right data plan – When buying a prepaid cellular plan, make sure it's more than Edge. You might as well not have data if you have Edge.
- Traffic is bad – Never underestimate traffic in the city. Often times you're better off taking public transit.
- Always negotiate – ALWAYS haggle. As a general rule of thumb, you can always start negotiations off at 50% off. Don't be shy! It's a bit awkward at first but you'll get the hang of it to the point where it becomes a bit of a game.
- Translation apps – The best Chinese language translator app is Pleco (Android/iOS). It's free! Google Translate is a good one as well especially with their new augmented reality feature where it translates words on the fly with the use of your camera. Currently Apple also has their own Translate app built into iOS so you can try that as well.
- The younger generation speaks English – If you need help, look for young adult. The chances that they'll know some English will be much higher than try to speak English to an elder.
- Different hotel booking platforms – When booking hotels in China, Ctrip and Agoda are your best bet as they have the widest selection of hotels.
- Noodle etiquette – Slurp your noodles. It's totally okay :)
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