Are you thinking about visiting China? Read this post to find all the info you need to know to organize a trip there. You won’t find indications on how to visit specific places but rather a series of useful tips for visiting China.
This is quite a long article so if you are interested in a specific section, click on the links below:
Table of Contents
1. When is the best time to travel to China?
2. What is the best airline?
3. How to get the Visa for China
4. Which travel insurance to choose
5. How to book hotels for your trip to China
6 How to get around China
7. What to eat
8. How to use the internet in China
9. Traveling to China: Guided Tour or DIY tourist?
10. Is China a safe country?
11. Other useful tips for your trip to China
China is a fascinating country with thousands of years of history. For many centuries it has been the most advanced country in the world. Many things we use in our daily lives have been invented in China and I am not only talking about the 4 most famous: paper, press, gunpowder, and compass. The list is very long and you can find it here.
Since the beginning of time, with few exceptions, China is also a very isolated country. It doesn’t seem to be very much interested in the outside world nor does it seem particularly interested in opening up even if things have changed a little recently. The result is that even today China is a completely different country from the rest of the world. It doesn’t matter if you have traveled a lot: China it’s a unique place.
One of the greatest difficulties when organizing a trip to China is linguistic: very few people can speak English. There is another challenge when visiting China which is strongly related to the language: the culture. The thing is that it’s impossible to fully understand a person and it’s culture if you can’t communicate (here you can find my reportage about the practice of footbinding or “Lotus Feet”). So it is easy to find misleading information written by those who have not understood anything about China or simply have a lot of prejudices.
In addition, the mass media flood us with bad news that often portray China as a terrible place. Nothing could be further away from reality: China is an isolated country, politically, but precisely for this reason the Chinese do not know much about what happens outside and are therefore generally very curious and cordial towards foreigners.
The reality is that China is one of the best places to live as foreigners, especially if you are western. You will often be treated like a VIP: people will stop you on the street (especially in areas not very touristy) to ask for a picture (but sometimes they will do it even without asking you anything). Sometimes they will stop you to offer you a job because in China there is a huge need for English Teachers and it doesn’t matter if you can speak English or not, if you have a western face that means that you can speak it!
The goal of this brief introduction is to make you realize that before visiting China you have to forget what you think you know about this country. You will be surprised to know for example that China is not the most polluted country in the world.
When is the best time to travel to China?
This is one of the first questions that those who decide to make a trip to China should ask. Unfortunately, most people cannot travel whenever they want. In Italy for example people travel around Christmas and in August, during the summer holidays which are the most expensive periods of the year and not the best time to travel weather-wise.
The other point is also that China is a huge nation and therefore there is no wrong or right period to visit this country. Summer for example is hot and humid throughout Asia, but if you go to Tibet you won’t have this problem. Winter is cold in the north, but if you go to Hainan in the south, the weather is nice and pleasant. So here are some tips to help you decide when to visit China:
- Avoid periods of national holidays in China such as Chinese New Year and the first ten days of October. Here you find a list of all Chinese festivals. August, even if it is not a holiday period it is still considered high season.
- Check the climate for the area you want to visit. The rainy season usually begins in April.
- Summers are hot and humid throughout China, except for most of Yunnan and on the Tibetan plateau. So summer is not the ideal time to travel to China, but unfortunately, many people have no other choice.
- Autumn it’s generally a good time to visit China.
- Winters can be really cold especially in northern China. In southern China the weather it’s much better (here’s my guide to Xishuangbanna).
- February and March are, in my experience, a good time to travel. The temperatures start to rise and generally the sky is clear. It can still be cold in parts of China but as the days get longer the weather gets more pleasant. In addition, at the beginning of March flowers start to bloom. March for example is the perfect time to visit the canola flowers of Luoping. Remember to check when the Chinese new year occurs though. Avoid that week at all costs.
What is the best airline?
It depends on what you look for in an airline. Personally, I like an airline that can help me to save money. But that’s not always the best option. If I have to wait 10 hours at the airport and change three flights just to save 50$ than it’s definitely not worth it.
On my trips to China, I flew with several airlines like British Airways, Lufthansa, Hainan Airlines, Air China, China Southern as well as several low-cost airlines within China. After countless intercontinental flights, I can say that it’s nice to travel with companies like Singapore Airlines but sometimes it’s better to save money and use that money to see more places.
Of course, that is my point of view. If I could afford it I would always want to fly with Singapore Airlines! To find the cheapest flight, you can use Momondo and try different combinations of dates and destinations. When you find a good deal check directly on the airline website. If you get a VPN, in addition to preventing someone from hacking you while you are connected to wifi, you can find cheaper flights because you can make it look as though your IP address comes from another country and often prices change depending on the country of origin of the visitor.
How to get the Visa for China
One of the major difficulties of a trip to China is related to visas. It is necessary to have one before entering the country and the information is often confusing. I don’t want to give you misleading information so I recommend that you contact the Chinese consulate or Visa For China (in several countries they provide visas instead of the consulate). Keep in mind that if you want to travel to China as a tourist, you need a tourist visa and in order to obtain it, you must have made all the reservations of hotels and airplanes and provide a detailed itinerary.
If for some reason you are already traveling around the world and need a Chinese visa, don’t worry. It is possible to apply for it in one of the many Visa for China agencies around the world. If you are in Hong Kong is even easier. There are specialized agencies that can apply for your visa. Keep in mind, however, that if you already have a Chinese visa on your passport, it’s more difficult to get a new one in Hong Kong. Finally, please don’t overstay your visa because you can get in trouble.
Which travel insurance to choose
Traveling to China without insurance is quite risky.
This being said in bigger cities there are several hospitals with very high standards.
Dentists are much cheaper than in most western countries and in many places, you won’t have to pay if you want to do a simple check-up.
How to book hotels for your trip to China
Hotels in China deserve a special post. On my trips, I have been to many different kinds of hotels. From the best to the worst. I was for example in the oldest hotel in China, opened in the early 1800s in Shanghai and where Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russel also spent some nights (the photo above is the hotel’s ballroom). Once I ended up in a hotel at an elevation of about 3000 meters, during a snowstorm and there was neither heating nor hot water! There were 3 degrees in the room. And I also camped at an elevation of 4500 meters, in winter.
Most of the time I traveled around China I haven’t had such traumatic experiences but I can say that usually Chinese hotels have much lower standards than what we are used to especially if you get away from big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou.
One of the problems with Chinese hotels are the beds. According to Chinese medicine, the mattress should be hard and that’s what you’ll find in most hotels. Only the most expensive hotels (4 or 5 stars) have soft mattresses.
Finally the food. Don’t expect to find coffee and international breakfast in cheap Chinese hotels. You’ll find soup noodles and rice.
To put it short: in China, you can spend really little money on hotels but you have to be willing to adapt. With Booking.com you can find great deals especially if you book in advance. Airbnb has also become popular in China for some time now. Here you can find a discount for your first booking with Airbnb.
Another very useful site is Ctrip. It’s a Chinese search engine that allows you to book Airplanes, Trains, Hotels, etc… I would say very useful especially for trains. However, Ctrip retains a fairly high commission and sometimes is not very convenient especially compared with other search engines. But often it’s the only search engine that allows you to find what you are looking for.
How to get around China
One of the most important things to plan on your trip to China is transportation. It’s a huge country and this means that you’ll have to plan your itinerary well or you’ll find yourself wasting a lot of time traveling from one corner of the country to the other. Moving around China is relatively cheap, especially if you don’t have big problems with the language and you can take local buses.
Depending on the distances to be covered, especially depending on where you want to go, you have several options to choose from. Remember that in order to purchase a train or bus ticket you will always need a passport.
For longer distances, like Beijing-Shenzhen flying is the best option, unless you want to spend 2 days on a train. Once I did it: I traveled for 33 hours on a train. It was an interesting experience but I don’t recommend it to everyone, especially if you have a few days available. The problem with Chinese airlines is that often their websites are only in Chinese and in some cases, they don’t even accept non-Chinese credit cards. In those cases, the only solution is to book a ticket using Ctrip. There are some low-cost airlines in China, but not as cheap as Ryanair in Europe. Flying around China is not as cheap as in Europe.
The train is my favorite mean of transport when traveling around China. It allows to get to know local people and you’ll get to see amazing places. Taking a local train it’s quite an experience though, especially if it’s your first time. First of all, a distinction must be made between regular and fast trains. Regular trains often depart and arrive at stations that are completely different from high-speed trains and are much slower.
It’s better if you buy the ticket in advance. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to book it too much in advance. Tickets are sold only 30 days before the date of departure. Again you can use Ctrip. Once you have purchased your ticket with Ctrip, you must go to the station to collect it.
These are the main types of tickets on sale for each REGULAR train: .
- Hard seat: as you can see in the picture, these are seats (hard and not reclining) in rows of three. It’s the cheapest but also the most uncomfortable solution for a trip on a train. I don’t recommend this option unless you have to make a short trip or have a very low budget. Once I spent about 7 hours in one of these seats and I’m not going to repeat that experience. It was awful. Another problem with this type of seats is that only the two seats near the window have a small table that you can use.
- Hard sleeper: the ideal solution if you are not particularly interested in privacy. These are wagons with rows of bunk beds one after another. Each compartment is arranged with three bunk beds in front of three other beds: there are 6 beds per section but there are no doors. Along the corridor, there are some reclining seats but they are few. When purchasing a ticket at the station, you can choose which bed to sleep on: whether the lower bed, the central bed, or the upper bed. Keep in mind that you’ll have to spend all the time on the bed assigned to you. So if you are in the upped bed it’s not really comfortable because you don’t have enough space to sit.
Remember also that if you don’t get on the train at the departing station, chances are that somebody was on the bed assigned to you before you got in, and blankets and pillows are not changed until the train reaches the final destination… Most of the time this is the option I chose if a high-speed train is not available. If it’s your first trip to China maybe the next option it’s a better choice.
- Soft sleeper: the name it’s deceiving because the truth is that the beds aren’t any softer. The main difference instead is that that are private rooms with 4 beds each. This type of ticket is slightly more expensive than the hard sleeper. It’s ideal if you travel with a group of friends, perfect if you are in four, but if you’re alone it might not be a good solution. You may find yourself alone in your room with people you don’t know. Usually, Chinese people are kind and I’ve never had any problems but if you are a woman and travel alone I don’t feel like recommending this option.
- Soft sleeper (in 1-bed compartment): for some destinations tickets of this type are available. As the name says it’s a room with only one bed. The price is quite high and I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try this option. However, I don’t think that this is a good choice. It seems to me to be a waste of money.
- Standing: Once all tickets in the Hard Seat car are sold out, you can buy standing tickets. They have the same price as the hard seat ticket. Needless to say, this kind of ticket is only useful if you have an absolute need to reach a destination and you have no other choice.
Fast train or Gaotie
Among all the records held by China there is also that of the world’s largest high-speed railway system: more than 10000 km and counting. The incredible thing is that the first line was opened on April 18, 2007! Just to make a comparison: in the United States they don’t have a single kilometer of fast train railway…
As in the case of normal trains, if you want to buy a ticket you have to book in advance especially for popular routes such as Shanghai-Beijing. The stations are as large as airports and are very clean. Prices are obviously higher than regular trains but are not too expensive. Here you can find more information on fast trains in China. The fast train is the best solution to move quickly around China if the distances are not excessive.
Long-distance buses are often the only solution and not an alternative to other means of transport, especially if you go to remote areas. They are generally comfortable and cheap. For popular routes, buy your ticket a day earlier. Night buses have beds instead of seats. As I explained at the beginning, remember to bring your passport, otherwise you will not be able to buy a ticket.
As with buses, minivans are often the only solution. In remote areas, they replace public transport. Most of the time you can negotiate the price. It’s a good idea to have someone who can speak Chinese write everything on a paper that you can then show to the driver. Prices are low as long as you know how to bargain. A trip to China is not complete if you don’t try a minivan at least once. 🙂
How to get around Chinese cities
Moving around Chinese cities is easy. You can choose the right transport depending on how far is your destination. If you know Chinese well you can download the APP Baidu Ditu (the equivalent of Google Maps) and you will be able to use public transportation easily. I use it often and it is really useful.
If you don’t speak Chinese, the only public transport that is easy to take is the metro. Shanghai is the longest in the world, and Beijing has the biggest number of passengers per day.
Taxis are cheap but don’t expect the driver to know where your destination is unless you have to go to the train station or the airport. Recently shared bikes are becoming popular thanks to services like Mobike. To use them you need a Chinese sim card with internet traffic and a deposit, usually 300RMB, on your Mobike acount.
What to eat in China
Talking about Chinese food it’s a bit challenging given the fact that China is as big as Europe, and this means a great variety of different dishes. Each province has its own typical cuisine. Another thing to keep in mind is that there are 56 officially recognized ethnic minorities and each of them has a characteristic dish. That said, there are things you’ll find almost everywhere like noodles, hotpot, fried rice, etc…
The advice I can give you is to try the street food but at the same time paying attention to where you eat. A good reminder: if something you have on your dish touches the table do not pick it up. Don’t drink from tap water and always wash your hands before eating. In most restaurants, water is not usually served. They’ll give you tea instead, but you can bring your own bottle of water.
If you have problems with food intolerance, such as celiac disease, China is in theory the ideal country because most of the dishes are made with rice. In practice, things are more complex. Restaurants use the same pots for cooking both rice-based dishes and flour-based dishes. The best solution is to buy the ingredients and cook them for yourself, especially if you have very serious intolerance. Keep it in mind if you are planning a trip to China.
One last tip. Some of the best restaurants and some of the best food is made by the large Muslim community. Few people know that there are over 22 million Muslims in China. Their restaurants are on average cleaner than the Han restaurants (the term used to refer to Chinese). Finally, remember that you are not supposed to tip the waiters in China.
How to use the Internet in China
One important thing to keep in mind is that in China the Internet is censored. Few people ever speak about the real reasons behind this censorship. While on one hand, it is clear and obvious that the government censures news that is not favorable to its political agenda, on the other hand, it is increasingly evident that certain sites are being obscured to favor the Chinese counterpart. It’s basically protectionism.
Whatever the reasons, the point is that once you arrive in China you won’t be able to access Google, so the Android Play Store doesn’t work, neither Gmail and practically all Western social networks: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WordPress, and so forth.
As I explained on this blog, the best solution to avoid censorship is by using a VPN. There are several reasons to use a VPN all the time, no matter where you are. But in China, this is even more important. You can read more info about the VPN I suggest in this article. It’s definitely better if you get one BEFORE arriving in China.
If you’re wondering if it’s worth spending some money for a monthly subscription since there are several free VPNs, the answer is definitely yes. Trust me when I say that the free VPNs don’t work very well or they will slow down your connection a lot. In addition, maintaining a worldwide server structure has an enormous cost and it is not possible to offer a truly free VPN service. This means that somehow those companies have to monetize and often do so in nonlegal ways (such as privacy infringement and malware). I use ExpressVPN.
The most popular social network app in China is WeChat. If you want to make new friends, it’s a good idea to open a new account on this APP. Keep in mind though that everything you write can be accessed by the government. It is a very useful app and it’s actually much more than a social network. You can send and receive money, pay at the restaurant, pay at the grocery store or market, pay the bills, use the shared bikes, make a video call, check where are the nearest bus and many other things.
Traveling to China: Guided Tour or DIY tourist?
At the end of this article, I hope you have a better idea of what to expect from a trip to China. If you think you can do it, I recommend that you organize the trip by yourself: you’ll save a lot of money. If you don’t feel like you can do it, then rely on an experienced travel agency. I recommend this because is located in China but is managed by very experienced people who know well what Western standards are. You can choose between packages or custom made tours.
Another alternative is this website where you can find tours all over China.
Is China a safe country?
Simply put, yes: China is a safe country. One of the things that always strikes those who visit this country for the first time is the high number of policemen and people who work to maintain order. Obviously, it may happen that some taxi drivers try to take advantage of you, but it is very rare to hear news about tourists who had been robbed or similar things even though we are talking about the most populous country in the world. Nothing to do with the neighbor Vietnam as I unfortunately experienced.
Other useful tips for your trip to China
- Please contact your bank before leaving to prevent your credit card from being blocked on your first transaction.
- If you want to change your currency in RMB the only place allowed to do it is the Bank of China. They have a special form to fill in for that type of operation and is available in both English and Chinese.
- It’s almost impossible to pay using your credit card. So always bring some money with you.
- A good app to translate between Chinese and English is Microsoft’s translator. It works even without the internet. Another great app is Pleco, the best app for translating characters and hearing pronunciation.
- Make a photocopy of the Visa and Passport to keep in case you lose them.
- We Italians are often told that gestures are enough for us to communicate wherever we are… This is true everywhere except in China. They do not have the faintest idea of the meaning of gestures, not even the most basic ones like numbers. This photo shows an example. The most commonly used are the 6 and the 10.
- Sometimes the Chinese seem rude. They spit, scream, smoke everywhere, and jump the queue. But at the same time they are extremely kind, they will very often try to become your friends, without having any bad intention: they simply like foreigners. They’ll probably ask you to take some pictures with you and will tell you that you’re very cool just because you’re a Waiguoren: a stranger.
- If you don’t know what to visit in China, I recommend starting with Yunnan, my favorite province. I’ve written extensively about it on my blog.
Check this page to find some ideas about great places to visit in China. Here you can read an article about the curious and weird Snub Nosed Monkey, one of the species native to China. Here my travel guide to Zhangjiajie.