Get the most out of your journey to one of the world's most complex and enthralling countries.
From the neon-blasted urban intensity of Shanghai to the history-soaked residential lanes of Beijing to the sweeping mountains of Yangshuo, China is a vast and varied country, home to 1.35 billion people. Choosing where to explore, and then making the most of it once you’re there, is a daunting task. Here are some things you need to know before booking.
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Explore Beyond the Big Cities
The uninitiated may automatically imagine sprawling cities when they think of China. History-steeped Beijing, hyper-modern Shanghai and chill Chengdu are indeed must-visits, but it would be a shame to ignore China’s stunning countryside purely in favor of skyscrapers and nightlife buzz.
Yangshuo, in the Guangxi region, offers stunning rural exploration, as does Dali in the southern Yunnan province. For a truly unique experience stay overnight in a tulou building (huge, doughnut-shaped community houses often built hundreds of years ago) in the depths of Fujian province.
Prepare for the Ultimate Digital Detox
One of the many negative aspects of the kind of authoritarian communist government seen in China—beyond chilling crackdowns on religious freedoms and dissent—is internet restrictions. Facebook, Google, Instagram, and Twitter are among thousands of sites and apps blocked by the government to prevent the spread of information it can’t control, with censored Chinese equivalents such as the Twitter-like Weibo operating instead. Embrace the chance to escape western social media during your trip, or get a virtual proxy network (VPN) that allows devices to access blocked sites when in China.
Know Your Taxis
There are a few ways to be taxi smart in China beyond obvious things like making sure drivers use meters rather than haggling off grid. Your driver almost certainly won’t be able to speak foreign languages, so have your destination address written down in large type Chinese characters (worryingly, many cabbies have bad eyesight). Consider downloading the Uber-like DiDi car-hailing app, which operates in many Chinese cities, has an English language version, and is cheaper than hailed cabs. Finally, do not tip your driver. Tipping isn’t really done anywhere in China aside from high-end foreign brand hotels.
WeChat, WeChat, WeChat
The messaging and social media app WeChat (pronounced “Way-shin” locally) is ubiquitous in China, where most of the app’s billion-plus users live. The app easily allows you to swap contact details with other users by typing in their username, phone number or scanning a QR code on their screen, and “Can I have your WeChat?” is the new “Can I have your number?”.
You can download an English language version of WeChat for your phone but be warned: the app censors private messages and some people refuse to use it for fear that the government is eavesdropping.
China Is Not a Cheap Destination
Many travelers’ first trips to the East are to Southeast Asian countries like Thailand or Vietnam, where you can often live like royalty on a pittance. China still has poverty and big wealth gaps between rich and poor, but its economy is strong and prices are often comparable to those in the U.S., especially in the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Chengdu. Don’t plan for a budget trip unless you’re happy to stay in shared dorms and eat street-side dumplings every day.
Be Aware of Scams or Prepare to Pay
China is generally safer than most western countries, and as a tourist, you’re far more likely to be the victim of scamming than violent crime. If you resemble a foreigner, at tourist sites such as Beijing’s Forbidden City and the Bund in Shanghai, you will probably be approached by well-dressed, English-speaking scammers, who are disarmingly friendly.
Common scams involve locals approaching you spontaneously, sometimes to practice English or pose for a photo. Next, you’re invited to an overpriced tea house and then presented with an extortionate bill or a gallery where you’re pressured to buy worthless art. On the seedier side, touts approach foreign men, offering them reasonably-priced massages from ladies—until they get slapped with a big room charge. Avoiding these is simple: when someone approaches you in the street, firmly refuse to go anywhere with them.
Take Trains, Not Planes
China is enormous, so it’s tempting to save travel time and book flights around the country. However, Chinese domestic flights are frequently delayed and canceled, so booking them is a gamble. In contrast, China’s trains are wonderfully reliable and usually cost about two-thirds of the price of flights.
The Chinese high-speed train network is the largest in the world, and it’s comfortable and efficient. Long distance trains have decent beds in cabins (a soft sleeper ticket). Train tickets often sell out in advance, so book from the excellent English-language Trip.com site and have them delivered to your hotel.
Prepare for Bureaucracy Overload
Most western visitors require a tourist visa, which is a hassle to apply for so start the process at least a month in advance. The visa is also expensive compared to other Asian countries. For a fee, visa agencies have an express service if you’re late.
You’re legally required to present your passport when you check into hotels in China, and some will make you register it at a local police station. If using Airbnb, ask your host if they can help with this. Regular hosts may be able to take your passport and go to the police station for you.
It’s best to carry your passport with you at all times in China as many attractions, even minor ones, require ID to enter. You’ll need to show your passport when you collect or buy plane and train tickets, then show it again when boarding.
Know How to Avoid Pollution
Since the Chinese government announced a war on pollution in 2014, levels of harmful airborne particles in Beijing are slowly decreasing but the capital and many other cities in China are still often enveloped in apocalyptic smog.
In Beijing, the smog starts getting bad in November, when the city switches on its heating units and continues for a couple of months depending on wind levels. Spring and fall are the best times to visit most Chinese cities when smog levels are usually low and the weather is pleasant.
Xiamen, a breezy island city in southern Fujian province, and Kunming, the gateway to the rural areas of Yunnan province, tend to have good air. If you get stuck in smog, buy a high-quality face protector such as an ID Mask, and download the Air Matters app to keep an eye on pollution levels.
Don’t Go During a Chinese Holiday
Do not travel during the country’s main vacation periods unless you’re prepared to battle elbow-shunting armies of domestic tourists at every turn. The two periods to avoid are Chinese New Year, which usually takes place in January or February, and the National Day holidays, also known as Golden Week, which is usually in October.