Plan Your First Trip to China
So you have decided to visit China?! Yeyy (little dance move)! So here are a few tips to help plan your first trip to China from someone who has just planned it all from scratch, no agencies used and with that I saved a lot of money.
Now, it can be overwhelming to decide where to go. China is the 4th largest country in the world, with 22 provinces and 5 autonomous regions. It’s so much more than just the Great Wall (and that is already pretty awesome on its own by the way).
FIRST: you need to ask yourself a few questions:
HOW LONG ARE YOU PLANNING TO GO?
China is big! A train ride from Beijing to Kunming can take 45 hours while a flight takes 4h. If you have only a week I would stick to one province. But if you have a month you can see a lot, expand your horizons!
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO SEE?
Are you into mountains? Big cities? Small villages? Long train rides? Temples? Culture? If like me you want a bit of everything, China has it all! Find some inspiration here!
SECOND: with both questions in mind, draw a map of China and spend some time researching places. Write them down on the map and then plan your connections. Some cities are only connected once a week or the place you want to visit might be closed in some days. So be flexible!
Here is my final China travel map plan for 3 weeks:
WHEN TO GO?
What I really want to say is: when NOT to go.
There are a few dates I would avoid travelling: Chinese Holidays. China has 1.3 billion people. With very little holidays from work, the Chinese tend to travel as much as they are allowed during these few festive periods. During Spring Festival (the Chinese New Year) you will find transport fully booked and shops and attractions closed. Unless you plan to join the celebrations of course then just go for it, but be prepared for the masses!
Be aware the majority of Chinese tourists travel the way we know them for, even in their own home country: big groups, with selfie-sticks, following a flag and stopping at every corner for a photo. This is their way to make the most of their travels on their short holidays.
For a full list of Chinese public-holidays follow click here.
I am not a Visa expert, but here is what you need to know when applying for a visa to China:
- You are likely to require a visa to enter China mainland prior to arrival, so plan ahead.
- Hong-Kong and Macao are free of visa for 3 months for Europe, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand citizens.
- When applying for a visa you will be asked if you want a single entry, double or multiple entries. Before answering this, bare in mind: if you leave China mainland to visit Hong-Kong or Macao, you will require a visa with more than one entry to return to China mainland.
- In some international airports, like Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, you might be allowed to request a transit without visa (TWOV) at the airport, that allows you 72h to visit these cities. For more information on this super cool rule check this link and find out if you are entitled.
- Tibet has special Visa requirements and you need a Chinese or Nepalese Travel Agency to arrange it for you.
Trains are the major mode of transport in China and I found it very cheap, organized and rather confortable. With bullet trains, you can travel from Beijing to Shanghai in just 5 hours. Overnight train is a popular way to commute between cities within the same or nearby provinces.
Some trains offer 3 types of tickets:
- Hard seat – self-explanatory;
- Hard sleep – bunk beds next to each other along a carriage;
- Soft sleep – 4 bunk beds compartment with a door for more privacy- and they provide linen and pillow (note if you join the train halfway through it’s journey, the linen might have been already used by someone else before you).
NOTE: tickets go on sale only 60 days in advance. If you don’t speak Chinese you might struggle to buy them online, since their official website is in mandarin and only accepts Chinese bankcards. Plus, soft sleepers can sell out fast. So write down this (awesome) website that will book the ticket for you: www.ctrip.com
Ctrip shows live-online train times and how many tickets are available. So you can keep ‘an eye’ until you make up your mind.
To book via Ctrip you need your passport number and a debit card. Payment is available in different currencies, including British Pound Sterling, Euros, American, Canadian and Australian Dollars, among others. Then all you need to do is take the reference number that you received in your email to any train station in China to pick up your ticket. If you are not at your station of departure you will be asked to pay RMB 5 per ticket. Be aware that even to just pick up a ticket you might have to go thought security body and bags scan to enter the station.
Understand your train ticket:
Domestic Chinese airlines can be cheaper than bullet train tickets. This was my preferred method of travelling, since I wanted to cover a larger area in short 3 weeks.
To search for flights available I used both skyscanner.net and Ctrip.com . But it was with this last one that I actually booked the tickets.
Not the most confortable way, but I can’t complain really. We always bought the tickets at bus stations the day before or same day. There were stops to use the toilets and stops to top up on petrol. On the leg between Zhangjiajie and Fenghuang we had a vendor talking on the microphone for most of the 4 hours journey, but the drive from Shangri La to Lijiang was a rather peaceful one.
My tip is to take the journey as an adventure on it’s own and embrace the surprises you might find on your way.
Mandarin is the spoken language in Mainland China. Cantonese is for Hong Kong and Macau. Cantonese and Mandarin are written the same way, but pronounced completely different.
GET A MANDARIN PHRASEBOOK!
I took a mandarin phrasebook with me and on the way I explored its pages and marked a few things I thought I would need. I found this very helpful, especially to use in restaurants. If you have any allergies or something you dislike, mark it down, so you can open on the page and show it the waiter. I did attempt to say it myself, but it is very easy to get the intonation wrong in Chinese and without knowing it, you are saying something completely out of context.
Or/and GET A MINI DICTIONARY (e.g English-Mandarin-English)
I didn’t think I needed one, but met other travellers that would carry a mini dictionary, this was particularly useful to hand it to a Chinese person and get them to show you what they are saying to you.
Learn the basics:
Hello – Nǐ hǎo
Thank you – Xièxiè
No, thank you – Bù, xiè
Learn the numbers in Chinese (important to haggle prices and number your orders)
Here is a useful video I watched beforehand: How to count to 10 in Mandarin, but while in China I learnt that the number 10 is actually a CROSS, done with both index fingers to represent the mandarin character ” 十 “.
CULTURE: know the basics
Expect to find yourself thinking “how did I ended up here?!” It is part of the beauty of travelling, isn’t it? You might find the 17 Hilarious Facts about the Chinese helpful in preparing you to what it is like to be a tourist in China.
A few Etiquete rules:
Handshake is the most common non-formal way to greet people. Always greet older people first as a sign of respect. Nodding while looking down is also common and actually appreciated when saying thank you as a sign of respect.
Not sure what to do with Chopsticks? Do not place them upright in your bowl as this reminds of the incense sticks burning to worship the death. Nor tap your bowl with chopsticks.
Bones shouldn’t be placed together with your food on the plate, place them on the provided separated bowl.
Tipping in a restaurant is not expected and can be taken as an insult: like you think their food is too cheap and that they don’t give themselves the right value, in a negative way.
Chinese Internet is protected by this massive Great (fire)Wall where Google (also google maps), Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, (…) are not welcomed in.
So if like me you depend on Google maps to show you the way from the airport to the hotel room, prepare this in advance. Print maps, write down directions, addresses, phone numbers and so on.
If you can’t live without the Google search engine, buy a decent reliable VPN.
Sadly this is real! Air pollution can be quite bad in China. It can be also okay (not ideal, but breathable), as it depends on weather , smog effect and so on. I had no trouble breathing, but if you suffer from any breathing difficulties, such as Asthma, COPD or severe allergies, be particularly careful!!
Check Air Quality Pollution Index Control website for real time numbers.
The Chinese Government recommends to use masks when the AQI rises above 200. However studies shows that it can be health damaging long term exposure to only 50. Some people tend to wear a mask if the index is above 150 and if rises above 200 they will limit their activities outside to the bare minimum.
Carry a mask with a filter.
Surgical mask are not the most appropriate ones as they have no filter and don’t offer an appropriate fit.
Look for this models: 3M N95 or N99 (available as well in convenience stores in China), or something more fashionable and long lasting like Respro Masks.
PACK AND GO!
Feel free to drop me questions if you need any help or drop a comment if you have any other tips. I wish you happy travels!
P.S. Did you know Avatar Mountains exist…in China?! Check it out here!