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.
Not too long ago I came back from a two week trip to China and I had a fantastic time out there exploring the Xi'an region. With that fresh in my mind, I wanted to share my thoughts about everything you need to know before you head to China for the first time.
The following is a list of things that you'll want to consider bringing to any trip to China.
- 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.
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.
- 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 the FML or “I hate my life” service treatment.
- 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 its 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?
General Tips for China
- 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.
- Better yet, find a private guide. I did this for my 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 sticks are everywhere in China but just be aware that some museums won't allow you to bring them inside.
- When buying a prepaid cellular plan, make sure it's more than Edge. You might as well not have data if you have Edge.
- Never underestimate traffic in the city. Often times you're better off taking public transit.
- ALWAYS haggle. As a general rule of thumb, you can always start negotiations off at 50% off.
- The best Chinese language translator app is Pleco (Android/iOS). Download it. 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.
- If you need help, look for a high-school looking kid. The chances that they'll speak some English will be a lot higher.
- When booking hotels in China, Ctrip and Agoda are your best bet as they have the widest selection of hotels.
- Slurp your noodles. It's okay :)