Things you need to know before you go to China
China is well known for its Giant Panda, the Great Wall, tea, porcelain, Feng Shui, Tai Chi and its massive population, but when you travel to the Forbidden City and beyond, there are a few things you should know before you go to China.
During the summer of 2015 I spent a couple weeks traveling around China, and while I had been to other parts of Asia, this was my first time exploring the land of the Red Dragon. Traveling through China exceeded my expectations in many ways, but it also came with a number of challenges. If you are planning a trip to China, I hope the following tips will make your journey a bit smoother.
KNOW THE VISA PROCESS BEFORE YOU GO TO CHINA
As an American, there are only a handful of countries for which we need to obtain advance visas, and China is one of them. Obtaining a Chinese visa can be a bit of a challenge on your own, so I recommend a services like Travel Visa Pro or Visa Express. You simply send all of your information to either of these companies and they will handle the legwork for you, including going to the China Embassy. Be prepared for sticker shock though as the fee for the visa, the service and postage is near $300. If you need it in a rush, that number can soar to above $400. The good thing though, the visa for U.S. citizens is now good for 10 years.
WIFI CHINA TRAVEL TIPS
As many of us want to stay connected while traveling abroad, this is a bit more of a challenge in China. For starters Wi-Fi speeds are horrible and many websites are blocked altogether, including many social media and search engine sites. You will need to install a VPN on your computer and/or phone in order to access these commonly visited sites. However, be prepared for interruptions because government officials are frequently shutting down VPNs.
FOOD IN CHINA
Unlike Western culture where we eat three distinctive meals each day, the Chinese eat very similar food for every meal. It may take a while for western stomachs to acclimate. Be sure to only drink bottled water. I would also recommend taking a generic antibiotic (such as Ciprofloxacin) with you in case you get food poisoning. I had no issues, but I’m also cautious where I eat.
BEFORE YOU GO TO CHINA THERE IS SOMETHING YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE FOOD CULTURE
Speaking of eating…in China, it is disrespectful to the chef if he can’t hear you eating. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little here, but don’t be surprised if you hear people eating their food. The Chinese can be quite loud, which is contrary to Western culture where we are taught to eat with our mouths closed.
The Chinese food in China is vastly different from Chinese food in America and will vary depending on the region. The food is often vibrant and full of flavor, but be careful of bones, the Chinese will eat everything and have no issues with river fish full of bones. I was even in a restaurant once where my group and I ordered a chicken dish. When it arrived at the table it looked delicious. In the States we would have pulled off the legs, the wings, etc. and started eating, but in China the server took a large meat clever and started chopping up the chicken into bite sized pieces with little regard for the bones. It make a fantastic chicken dish into a dicey dining experience. INTERESTING NOTE: Did you know that the iconic Chinese to-go box is an American invention? It was patented in the late 1890s.
CHINA TRAVEL TIPS REGARDING THE LOO (TOILET)
Unless you’re staying in an international hotel, few places have Western style toilets, most are the squat variety. I was told the squat style toilet is better for your health, but only if your knees are in good shape!
BEFORE YOU GO TO CHINA, BYOTP
“Can you spare a square?” [Seinfeld reference]. There is nothing worse than going to the bathroom only to find there is no toilet paper. Paper products, such as hand towels, napkins and toilet paper are the exception, not the rule. So be prepared to BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper and other paper products). Some wet wipes and hand sanitizers would also be good to have on hand.
THERE IS SOMETHING LOST IN TRANSLATION IN CHINA
In China, a lot gets lost in translation. I have traveled all over the world, and while I have been in nations with few English speakers, I’ve always been able to get by. In China however, I noticed a lot gets lost in the ether of a conversation. Many Chinese (at least in the cities) now speak some English, but even though they speak the language, doesn’t mean they understand it. It had never dawned on me before, but this was the first symbol based language country I had ever visited. So much can be communicated in a single symbol that a lot cannot be accurately translated into English. One way to help communicate is to use your phone and take pictures of signs, bathrooms, etc. and then point to these images on your phone when you are asking for assistance.
TIME IS BUT A MYSTERY IN CHINESE CULTURE
Be prepared, most things run late in China. From a bus, to an event or a show.
FEEL THE LOVE
I was really surprised at how happy and friendly many Chinese were, especially in the city of Hangzhou. The people love westerners and enjoy having their photo taken with you.
THIS IS SOMETHING REALLY GROSS THAT TAKES PLACE IN CHINA
Believe it or not, spitting and flatulence is pretty normal in China. You’ll often see spit stands (with sand) at hotels. Af first glance you might think they are ashtrays, but they are for people to dispose of a large loogie. Be very careful when walking by buses and buildings where you might be in spitting range as something might land on your head or in your purse.
COMMUNISM? WHAT COMMUNISM?
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first arrived in China, maybe I’ve read too many spy novels, but I expected China to feel more militant (for lack of a better word). I was sort of expecting to feel followed, or spied on—and if that were the case, I didn’t sense it in the least.
CHINA TRAVEL TIPS ON TRANSPORTATION
Taxies are everywhere, but unless you speak Mandarin, I would use Uber. This way you don’t have to haggle over price and/or get lost because the driver didn’t understand where you wanted to go. The great thing about Uber is that you can plug in your destination before your ride arrives, so it’s not essential to communicate with your driver.
JUST A LITTLE FOR ME PLEASE
Rice wine is very powerful as I learned while trying to be hospitable with some locals in Dunhuang (Gobi Desert) who did not speak English. I was with a group of people camping out in the Gobi Desert and while walking around taking photos, this group of Chinese folks wanted to talk to me, but all I could say was “American…only English.” They replied back “American?!” with great jubilation, but no other English words. They then handed me a shot of something to which I paid no attention and knocked it back with little care.
After unsuccessful attempts at communicating, I held up my finger as a sign to “wait just a moment.” I then ran over to my camp and grabbed a translator who walked back with me. My translator communicated who I was and what I was doing there. The Chinese group was hurling one question after another, while at the same time providing me and my guest with shots of what I would later discover to be rice wine. After a couple more shots, my translator was going to refuse her second, and so I drank it for her. She then informed me that I needed to be careful as rice wine can be very potent, which I discovered a few moments later as my words began to slur.
China is a country full of charm and ancient intrigue, with breathtaking sights, interesting pagoda architecture, blissfully quiet temples and charismatic and friendly people. While China is not the easiest country to visit, it is one that will delight and inspire you in many ways. If you’re interested in Hangzhou, China check out my article Eight Auspicious Things to do in Hangzhou, written for Travelocity.