I first travelled to China more than ten years ago to study in Beijing for a semester. Since then, I travelled back numerous times, carried out research on site and worked in the so-called “Middle Kingdom”. Preparing for your first trip to China may seem like a daunting task: the language we cannot read and understand, the completely different culture, the sheer size of the country and population and the news we read daily about one of the biggest economies in the world.
Over the years, I became a “pro” in preparing trips for my visitors, travellers and China-newbies to make sure they are not paralyzed by all the sensations and challenges. This post is a summary of all my travel-hacks and tips for your first trip to China.
1. Preparation Is Key
Basic but essential – China is definitely a country you need to prepare before you visit. When I went to China for the first time in 2007 to study in Beijing for a semester, I have to admit that I did not really do much research beforehand. I knew I really wanted to experience a country which was so different from my home country.
However, I do not recommend this strategy. I had a semester to get to know the country. If you only have a few weeks or days, I highly recommend to do research beforehand. Watch documentaries, Youtube videos and read travel reports. There is no in-between for China – you either love it or hate it. I realized that a lot of visitors were sometimes overwhelmed by it and really struggled. Others immediately fell in love. China is not a destination where you will have a relaxing holiday – it is exciting, very different and you will have to process a lot of experiences. However, if you are open-minded, it is one of the best countries in the world to visit.
Things you should prepare before you leave for China:
- Visa (Please refer to the Chinese embassy of your respective country for details.) and vaccines
- Address of your hotel in Chinese and picture of the destination on a map (see below)
- Addresses of international hospitals
- Save the contact of your embassy
- Download the apps I mention below
- Buy a data roaming package in advance (see below)
- Try to memorize basic communication for greeting and thanking
2. Most Popular Destinations and Best Travel Time
For first-timers, I mostly recommend to visit three major destinations: Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. And I also recommend to visit these cities in that order. Beijing takes you to the past and will give you an introduction into the rich history and culture of the country. Shanghai is the future. Hong Kong is an interesting hybrid between East and West.
Depending on the time you plan for your trip, I recommend adding Xi’an with its terracotta soldiers, Guilin (the famous mountain region) and Sichuan (the region famous for pandas and spicy food).
Regarding the best travel time, it really depends where you are going. As the country is so big, I recommend to do some research on each place you plan to visit during your trip. Beijing has similar seasons as Madrid, for example, but with cold winters and dry heat in summer. Shanghai is more humid and much hotter in summer. Hong Kong already has a more tropical climate. Winters in both can get cold as well and in the Southern parts of China there is no central heating, i.e. it will be cold inside.
In general, I would avoid the peak travel times for locals: Chinese New Year (which spans over about three weeks in late January/February), May Week (around the May 1st) and Golden Week in October. During these times, the major tourist sights are really crowded and train and flight tickets are hard to get or very expensive.
3. Culture and Language
We frequently forget how big China actually is. And this geographic size naturally has an influence on culture, language and everyday life. Acutally, there is no such thing as a uniform Chinese culture. Customs in the North are very different from the South. Living in the East is very different from the West.
When I first came to China, it was almost impossible to get around with English, even in the big cities. I was forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, also called Putonghua. Mandarin serves as a kind of “umbrella” language for all the dialects in China. Coming from the German speaking regions, the word “dialect” to me had always meant variations in pronunciation, grammar and the use of certain words. However, “dialect” in China very often means a complete different language. This is similar to what I mentioned above about the differences in culture, customs and lifestyles across China. Just as an example: while Mandarin uses four tones, Cantonese (the language spoken in the South and Hong Kong) uses seven. The two dialects even use different characters: Mandarin uses the simplified version while Cantonese is based on the traditional characters.
Even though the use of English has massively improved, especially in the bigger cities. Language is still a big barrier for a lot of travellers. Be prepared to resort to sign language. You might even be kicked out by a taxi driver who does not want to deal with another “Laowei” (i.e. foreigner) who cannot communicate with them.
Street signs are most of the time written in Hanyu Pinyin as well. Hanyu Pinyin is a phonetic translation of the Chinese characters into our Roman (Latin) script. Hence, with this translation, we can find the streets on our maps. A lot of restaurant menus use pictures which makes ordering easier.
(Note: Due to its colonial past, English is an official language in Hong Kong.)
4. Apps Making Your Life Easier
Fortunately, there are a lot of apps which will help you. Didi Kuaiche is a taxi app similar to Uber. I recommend travellers to use Didi cars rather than taxis due to the language barrier. Your driver will know the destination and the risks of misunderstandings is much lower. Most taxi drivers – even in the bigger cities – do not speak English.
Another really useful app is Pleco – a translation app with an integrated scanner for Chinese characters. I found it really helpful that you can scan a street sign or dish for example and instantly get an English translation. When you look for offline translation apps, bear in mind that Google Translate will probably not be working (see below).
Furthermore, download WeChat. This app started out as a messenger service similar to Whatsapp but has become a huge platform not only for communication but also for news, hotel deals and promotions. There is an English version of WeChat.
In contrast to the West, QR codes are really popular and you can get discounts in a lot of places by scanning their QR codes.
5. Not Everything Works in China
Bear in mind that certain services such as Instagram, Facebook, Google and news sites will work not in China. If you cannot live without these for some days, look into downloading a VPN. However, even then you do not have a guarantee as a lot of VPNs also do not work in China.
6. Getting Around
First and foremost, always carry the Chinese address of your hotel with you. Before you leave for China, visit the Chinese website of your hotel or ask the hotel to send you the name and address in Chinese characters. It is very important to know that words which might seem universal to us are very often not understood in China. For example: McDonald’s is Mai-Dang-Lao, Starbucks is Shin-Ba-Ke. Similarly, a lot of the big hotel names have a Chinese name as well. Therefore, I usually print out the address in Chinese and I also make a screenshot on Google Maps BEFORE I leave (again, bear in mind that Google Maps may not work in China). In general, street numbers will not help you a lot in the big cities. Look for the next street crossing your destination and tell the driver the two streets.
In the big cities, the underground railway systems are extremely modern and convenient. In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, I recommend first-timers to take the underground instead of taxis because it is actually quite easy to get around. Furthermore, traffic can be really bad and the underground will be a much quicker travel alternative. However, be prepared to be pushed and squeezed into the waggon during rush hour – in the most literal sense.
7. Be Careful what You Eat
Chinese food is delicious and we may be tempted to try everything. However, if you come from abroad, you will probably not be used to the ingredients, preparation and hygene. I really enjoy trying new things. However, I recommend staying away from street food if you come to China for the first time and stay only for a few days and weeks. Usually, your body will not have adapted to your new environment and the risk of getting sick is quite high. In general, always listen to your body – you know yourself best.
If you are vegetarian, make sure to tell the waiters – it is a good idea to have it written down in Chinese as well and show it at the restaurants.
8. Crowds, Staring, Noise
Be prepared for a very noisy country. In contrast to a common stereotype of China in the West that “all Asians are very quiet and introverted”, China is one of the loudest countries I have ever been to. People love to argue and laugh together on the streets, there is loud music everywhere and naturally, there are thousands of cars and also many construction sites.
Furthermore, there is no real concept of space. Because there are crowds everywhere, you will have to get used to people coming very, very, VERY close to you.
Even though, seeing foreigners is nothing special anymore in the bigger cities, be prepared to be stared at. Especially if you travel to the countryside or during the major holiday times (Chinese New Year, May Week and Golden Week). This is when people from other regions travel to the major cities and you will be stared at a lot. Sometimes, foreigners are asked to take pictures together with locals as well. No need to freak out, this happens quite frequently.
9. Currency, Sim and Other Useful Things
China has its own currency, the Renminbi (RMB). You can withdraw local money from ATMs – I use Bank of China and HSBC most of the time. I also recommend exchanging money before your trip to be safe. Cash is still king in most of the smaller places. However, in a lot of restaurants and in the malls credit cards are accepted. Furthermore, locals prefer payment via the above-mentioned WeChat app or Alipay. (However, functionalities vary between the local Chinese and foreign app versions and I think for a first-time trip of a few weeks, it is not worth the hassle to get used to these systems.)
When you land in China, buy a Sim-card right at the airport. You will need to present your passport. Furthermore, tell the sales assistant which regions are on your travel list to make sure you will get a Sim-card which works wherever you travel to in China. As a China newbie this is the easiest way to get a Sim card. Theoretically, you can buy Sim cards directly at the providers’ stores, at 7/11 or other shops. But it can be really difficult if you are a foreigner and if you do not speak Chinese. Alternatively, buy a data roaming package with your phone provider at home. This is probably the safest bet.
My toilet experiences in China would actually be a topic for a whole new article. In the big cities, I recommend using the facilities in the big malls and nicer restaurants and hotels to avoid bad surprises. Always bring some tissues with you in case you need to use a public toilet. (Most likely, there will be no toilet paper). Just from my own experience: only use the public toilets if you really, REALLY need to (I spare you the details) and carry some hand sanitizer.
10. Smile, Make an Effort and Be Open-Minded
My last piece of advice actually holds true for any travel destination. In German we use a proverb which can be translated in the following way: “The way you talk to the forest, its echo will call back at you.” It basically means if you approach others in a positive way, your attitude will be reciprocated most of the time.
I had my fare share of frustrating experiences in China – misunderstandings with taxi drivers or the inability to communicate when I could not speak Mandarin. However, when I tried to smile and laugh and made an effort, in the majority of cases, locals were really helpful.
One good thing to know about China is that it may seem impossible and daunting at first. But there is always a way. And once you embrace all the differences and new experiences, China is a country which will make you grow.
More about Travelling to China
All information as of the date of publishing. We cannot accept responsibility for the correctness or completeness of the data, or for ensuring that it is up to date. All recommendations are based on the personal experience of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the recommended places above.