What should you expect when visiting China for the first time? These China travel tips share exactly what to look out for and how to have the best possible time. Even if you’ve been there before, you might learn something from my travel advice for your next trip!
China can be a pretty overwhelming country. Where else can claim nearly 4,000 years of civilisation, the world’s largest population and soon to be the world’s biggest economy? With so much in its favour, this beautiful country makes a fantastic place to travel to, but can also be pretty daunting if you’re visiting China for the first time.
Read on for my top tips for visiting China, including what to look out for and how to prepare.
Tip #1 – Sort out your Visa early
Most visitors to China will need a Visa, and you can apply for one up to three months before your departure date. They recommend applying for a Chinese Visa one month before you go, however, my advice would be to apply as soon as possible just in case you make any errors and your application gets refused. Trust me – we made a few mistakes on ours and only had our Visa granted the week before we were due to leave!
Follow the instructions you are given exactly, and make sure you include absolutely everything they ask for, including a photocopy of your passport, full details of where you are staying for each night of your trip, and a spare passport photo too. The most up-to-date advice can be found on the Visa for China website, so I recommend heading there first.
Tip #2 – Consider a group tour
As it was my first visit to China – a country so vast and often baffling – I was glad to be part of a small tour group on our 9 day China trip. Our tour guides and drivers took the stress out of finding our accommodation and navigating through the crowds. They also always made sure we didn’t miss out on anything. I wouldn’t have wanted to travel any other way!
Tip #3 – Take our own toilet paper and hand sanitiser with you
It’s quite rare to find toilet paper or soap in public toilets in China, so prepare to take your own. Remember to pick up spares from your hotel room and keep them in your day bag so you’re never caught short. The great thing about this is you’ll always have a tissue handy for runny noses or drying your hands too!
Tip #4 – Be prepared to squat
Sorry I seem to be talking so much about toilets… there is more to China than this, I promise! But it’s true, Chinese toilets are not like home and both boys and girls will find themselves needing to hoist up their clothes and squat. If you don’t like the sound of that, most major tourist sites and restaurants have western style pedestal toilets. Some even come with toilet paper and soap, so time your toilet trips wisely!
Tip #5 – Avoid big sites and travel on national holidays
We were (un?)lucky enough to travel over the Chinese National Day Golden Week, along with approximately 1.4 billion locals (that might be a slight exaggeration, but it certainly seemed to be the case!) Every tourist attraction was packed full of domestic tourists, and the terracotta warriors museum was so busy that we almost crowd surfed through the visit. Our guide even congratulated us on getting out the other end unharmed!
If we had known, we might have travelled on a different week and had a much more relaxed time of things. You can keep an eye on international festivals and celebrations on timeanddate.com.
Tip #6 – Be warned the food is very different to your local takeaway
If you’re a fan of your local Chinese takeaway, prepare yourself for the fact the food in China is going to be quite different. They don’t serve prawn crackers with every meal, and the restaurants we went to had never even heard of sweet and sour king prawn balls. I know right!? That said, the majority of Chinese food in China is actually better than you can get at home. Just be careful if you’re a vegetarian – I really struggled to eat a decent meal as bacon seemed to find its way into the vegetable dishes too.
Tip #7 – Remember not to tip
Even if you have amazing service in a restaurant, don’t be tempted to leave a tip. We were even chased down the street after leaving a few extra Yuan at Pizza Hut (let me off – they cater for vegetarians!) The waitress said we had forgotten our money, and just would not accept the tip.
Tip #8 – Get used to using chopsticks
Of course, chopsticks are the local form of cutlery and you’ll find them at all restaurants. If you’re not used to chopsticks, try to get a bit of practice in before you go. Most restaurants saw us coming and laid out forks, but that would be cheating, wouldn’t it?! I much prefer to do as the locals do, and even became a bit of a chopstick pro after my first visit to China!
Tip #9 – Don’t forget the smaller cities
I knew I was going to love the vibrant metropolis of Shanghai, but I was surprised to find I completely fell in love with a relatively unknown city, Suzhou, too. Despite being the size of London, Suzhou is considered a small city, and is just a couple of hours outside Shanghai. It is a little oriental Venice, complete with canals and beautifully ornate buildings.
Tip #10 – Learn a few words in Chinese
There’s a no bigger compliment than someone taking the effort to learn how to communicate with them. That’s why the Chinese will be so touched if you learn how to say ‘hello’ (nǐ hǎo = nee how) and ‘thank you’ (xièxiè = sheh sheh). Though most people will speak English, or understand your crazy hand gestures, it’s much better to learn. I used Rosetta Stone before my trip to pick up the basics, and it came in very useful as you can read in my upcoming blog!
Tip #11 – Get used to being a celebrity
This is something I have always struggled to get used to in Asia, and I found it particularly difficult on my first visit to China too. As a big group of westerners, we became a bit of a tourist attraction for the locals. People would stop and stare at us, and try to take candid pictures when we weren’t looking. It can be really off-putting, but they’re really harmless. It might be the first time they ever see someone that looks like you!
Tip #12 – Prepare for travel on sleeper train
As China is so huge, you might find yourself needing to travel on an overnight sleeper train to reach your destination. We did it twice – first between Beijing and Xian, and then Xian to Shanghai. On our first time, we were completely unprepared and left everything we needed in the bottom of our suitcase – it’s not so easy trying to find things when your case is crammed underneath your bunk bed in a tiny cabin! The second time, we got it spot on. Put all your essentials in a backpack that you can keep close: water, toothbrush, snacks and entertainment. We also took pyjamas, but most people wore things they were comfortable sleeping in like leggings and a t-shirt.
Tip #13 – Bring the right adapters
The power sockets in China are a bit strange in that most can take both European and American style plugs. So if you already have these handy, bring them along! But if you’re not sure which plug adapter to take to China, you could buy a specific Chinese adapter.
Tip #14 – Try to ignore the spitting and smoking
Again, it took me a while to get used to the cultural Chinese norms of smoking and spitting. Almost every 5 seconds I heard someone emptying their throats on the street next to me. And smoking is very common too – even in places like on trains and in restaurants. Remember it’s completely normal in China, and you’ll soon stop noticing it.
Have you been to China before? Help others out by leaving your China travel advice for a first visit to China in the comments below!
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