A few practical pointers on travel in China which I hope will complement the nice starter kits for China elsewhere with lots of background information.
I first came to China from the UK in 2004, since when Iíve come to thoroughly enjoy living and travelling here. Iíve lived in Guangdong and Shandong provinces, but Iíve travelled all over the country. The changes in that period have been absolutely stunning.
The first piece of advice Iíd give to any traveler in China is to remember that whilst this is one nation, it is enormous, and culturally, linguistically and organizationally diverse so that what youíll find in one town can be different 20 km down the road Ė quite literally they may speak a different language. Not surprisingly, getting off a 4 hour internal flight can put you in a whole different world.
A second thing to remember as a traveler is that in Chinese language culture the idea of insider and outsider are hugely significant, fluid concepts which are an integral part of who a person is and the way they will be treated. In my experience, this is more pronounced in China than anywhere else Iíve visited. At times you may feel you are treated like royalty and at others like a piece of dirt with a wallet. Itís all part of an amazing experience and whilst at times being philosophical might be hard, try to remember that itís not bad, itís just very different.
Entry and Exit
The entry and exit processing for Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau is separate. You can be in Hong Kong, but you need a different visa for Mainland China. If you plan to go to and fro or save money by staying in Shenzhen or Zhuhai and popping across the border to Hong Kong or Macau, you will need multiple entry visa otherwise you wonít be able to come back into Mainland China. Mainland Chinaís border controls are highly efficient, and whilst getting a visa isnít usually difficult, depending where you are the paperwork can take a day or two. A couple of times since Iíve been in China the authorities have tightened controls on visas but there has been a clear reason each time and you just need to be aware of whatís going on inside China (e.g. Olympics, 60th Anniversary of PRC).
Traffic & Travel in General
Arriving at a major bus or train station in China can be pretty daunting. Crowds are kept outside the station, so take your time before you head through the exit, check your bags and make sure you know where you want to go. Private drivers in particular can be a nightmare and pushing your way to the front of a taxi line or just getting out of the station area can both be good moves.
Traffic in China looks terrible, but actually it works if you just trust people to miss you. The boom in car ownership means there are lots of new drivers so be careful when walking near people maneuvering or parking just in case they mix up the brake and accelerator! If there is a traffic accident, the police will come and allocate financial responsibility. You should stay well away from any accident site as it is not uncommon for unsuspecting foreigners to be blamed for accidents they witnessed. If you canít argue your case, you might end up picking up somebodyís medical bill so forget about being a helpful witness and get out of sight.
In most cities taxis are tightly regulated and as long as you insist they use the meter, there shouldnít be a problem. However, itís also a good idea to insist on a receipt so that the driver can offer you a face-saving Ďdiscountí if heís trying to cheat on the price. If you want to use a taxi to travel between cities or out of the city youíll need to negotiate your price. In these circumstances you should be ready to be Ďsold-oní to another driver. You might feel nervous, but as long as you handle it with a friendly smile and make sure you see money pass between the drivers itís fairly straightforward.
Top tip Ė If someone writes an address for you ask them to write the Chinese characters and romanised Ďpinyiní. Helpful Chinese people often translate some words in an address into English which means that if you say the pinyin, a non-English speaking person canít understand. If you get an address that reads like, 88 Ning Xia North Road ask for it to be re-written.
China can offer you epic 48-hour cross country journeys, but the railway network is developing rapidly and the new ĎD-trainsí are a good option for high-speed intercity travel. Buying tickets can be tricky and unless you have reasonable Chinese, Iíd recommend finding an agent to help Ė many hotels have a travel service in their lobby. Youíll pay 5-30RMB but it can save many wasted hours and lots of frustration. Once you have a ticket and are on the train, the guard may keep your ticket for you, but remember youíll need the ticket to get out of the station at your destination.
If you are taking a long journey, youíll be offered a choice of hard or soft sleeper. If those are sold out, hard seat is an option, but itís an uncomfortable way to spend the night. You may be able to upgrade with the guard on the train, but donít count on that. Personally, I donít think soft sleeper is worth the money as flying is usually a similar price. Do not expect to rock up at the station and buy a ticket for the next train to wherever you want to go. Tickets are released 5 or 10 days in advance. However, even if you are at the station on the morning the tickets are released, they might all have been Ďsoldí. Getting out of Xiían in particular can be a problem for this reason in my experience.
Top tip Ė start looking for your rail ticket out as soon as you arrive in a city. Donít wait or assume your plans will work.
The range of air travel options in China has developed quickly, and many guide books are a little behind the current situation. Many Chinese book online and sites such as www.ctrip.com (bilingual) or www.qunar.com are a great source of information if you want to research whatís available, although using them for booking is more complicated. For travelers a local travel agent or your accommodation are the easiest source of tickets. Internal flight prices are based on a per kilometre rate. You can usually book right up to flight time if you are willing to pay this full price. Youíll also pay full price if you book more than 45 days in advance. However, 45 days before a flight heavy discounting of up to 80% starts.
Top tip Ė Try to book internal flights 30-45 days before you fly and remember that if you see 60% next to a flight price that means you pay 60% of the full price. (i.e. you get 40% off).
Buses offer the most flexible and at times unpredictable means of transport. Normally, youíll need to buy your ticket in the bus station and you can often turn up and to leave almost immediately. High frequency express services between neighbouring cities are common. Conversely in more rural locations, there may be only one bus a day and these only leave when they are full or else theyíll crawl along the streets outside the bus station picking up passengers.
Sleeper buses on overnight journeys are common and can be a good value means of getting around and saving on accommodation. However, whilst basic hygiene is ok, these buses put you in pretty close proximity to some of the poorer members of the population. For people over about 1m85, having enough space to sleep comfortably can be a bit of an issue.
Top tip Ė if your bus arrives at its destination early in the morning, you can often stay on the bus for an extra hour or two of sleep while the city wakes up.
If you walk into a hotel, youíll almost never pay the rack rate unless they are fully booked, so expect to negotiate. Donít expect to negotiate in an international hostel, but a Chinese hostel might be different. There has been an explosion of budget hotel chains (e.g. JinJiang Inn, Home Inn, Motel 168). These can offer a clean, good value alternative to hostels.
When you arrive at any accommodation, you are supposed to fill in details of your movements, date of entry into China, visa, etc. This information is supposed to be passed to the local security bureau. This varies from location to location, but donít be surprised if you need to help a nervous and confused hotel receptionist.
Top Tip - If you have an advance hostel booking or not, you can often find their representatives touting at train stations and get them to give you a free ride to your accommodation.
Tourism has taken off big time as Chinaís middle classes grow and you will be directed towards ticket booths at every turn at almost everything labelled an attraction. However, it is really worth making an effort to find out what you can see without the ticket. Often itís possible to walk around the grounds or walls for free. If you canít read Chinese you often donít miss much in the displays inside. Similarly, be aware that some villages charge an entry tax. Itís a bit odd, but best just to accept it.
Itís also worth finding out how much entrance tickets will cost you before you make a journey. If a relatively uninteresting venue is the marquee attraction for in an area with few tourist attractions, the price can be surprisingly high. Travel during Chinaís busy national holidays can be unpleasant, but if you want to try to beat the crowds then start early or aim to hit a venue between 11:30 and 12:30 when the big tour groups are usually stopped for lunch. Much as I dislike these guided tours, they are sometimes the best way to minimise costs and get your photo opportunities. If you take this option, check that the price is not conditional on your spending in nominated tourist outlets.
Top Tip Ė The bilingual, state-owned city museums are often free, and you just need to remember to collect your free ticket at the gate.
Getting cash in China is easy with the huge growth in the number of bank branches and ATM machines accepting international cards. When using an ATM thereís usually an English language option on the first screen you see. Post Offices also allow you to receive Western Union transfers. Black market money changing is an option in most cities. However, using the main branch of Bank of China is often the easiest way to change cash. It might not get you the best rate, but it will often provide the best chance of reassuring service with English language help.
Fake money from banks is not a problem. However, fake 1RMB coins are very common Ė check them for chipping paint and accept you might have some refused. Fake 50RMB notes are also common but more difficult to spot. As a rule of thumb, donít accept a new 50RMB note if you can avoid it and be very wary when taxi drivers give you change at night time. Giving them a 100RMB note that needs change is just inviting trouble. Another problem some travelers encounter are hostels taking 100RMB notes as a deposit and returning fakes when you leave. The easy solution is to sign the top corner.
Bartering & Shopping
Do not be mislead by stereotypes that China is poor. Shiny new shopping malls packed with branded products are plentiful. However, there is a lot of fun to be had joining the majority of Chinese in markets and small private stores. Bartering over price is part of life and youíll need to be aware that prices are often communicated by hand signals so watch carefully!
In tourist areas, accept that people are out to make as much money as they can but remember bargaining can actually be fun. Let the person youíre buying from know that you know or want to learn about China, donít screw too hard a deal just for the sake of your ego and remember that there are 4 prices: for locals, for Chinese tourists, for foreign tourists and the highest of all reserved for lazy foreign tourists. Iíve heard all sorts of theories about getting a good deal which include making yourself the shopkeepers lucky first sale of the day, avoiding the pre and post lunch tour group rush when prices go up or coming back for an evening glass of tea and negotiation. Experiment and enjoy!
Eye Openers: Good and Bad
Travelling in China is great, but it will offer shocks, both good and bad. A few things to look out for:
Donít expect to queue. Sharpen your elbows and join the crowd. Itís each to themselves.
Travel in China can be full on and dirty. People will spit loudly in the street, throw food on the floor, and smoke in the elevator. On the other hand, it can offer unparalleled glamorous luxury. Thereís a time and place for getting precious about your appearance and designer wardrobe and if youíre backpacking my advice would be to travel light and buy clothes as you go.
A personal favourite is getting up and out early in the morning and discovering a silent world of martial arts, dance and other traditional leisure pursuits which are fitted into the fabric of the busiest cities.
A big part of socialising in China is going to karaoke (KTV) after dinner to take a private room and evening singing with or without a few drinks. Similarly, going for an acupressure foot massage or fully dressed body massage is a common way to relax. However, a word of caution is that in all three cases you should keep your eyes open to make sure you arenít walking into a brothel.
Drinking is a popular pastime and one youíll often find yourself generously invited to join in. Unlike the Western tradition of raising your glass, itís polite to put your glass lower than that of the person youíre drinking with. A common question is Ďhow many bottles of beer can you drink?í and therein lies the danger...drinking toasts may well consist of emptying glasses at high speed until someone collapses. Enjoy the hospitality, but beware, especially if a bottle of Chinese spirit, or Ďbai jiuí is unveiled Ė itís lethal if youíre not used to it.
Never leave home without tissue paper...Unless youíre in 5-star luxury, toilet paper is never provided in toilets. A good tip is to always ask for tissues in restaurants. Sometimes theyíll charge for them, but you build up an emergency store!
Getting a pay-as-you-go SIM card for your phone is cheap and easy. You might be staggered by the range of choices available and itís a good idea to get some help. Make sure you get a card that you can use nationwide and, importantly, can top up nationwide too.