Starter-kit for China
Hmm…China…the Kingdom in the Middle…the People's Republic of China (not to be confused with The Republic of China = Taiwan) or as they call it themselves ZhongHua RenMıin Gong he Guo or in daily talkZhongGuo. China has always been my second home country, if such a thing exists. So far I've spend five years there, the first years at the age of two and lately as a university student, as I am now studying Chinese.
There is no single advice to give on China. The country, the culture and the People is simply to diverse to boil down to a single worthy sentence, encompassing all that China is. For the same reason this starter-kit will only scratch the surface of what China is, but if you have further questions feel free to ask or post a note in the forum, where all sorts of views and good advice live their lives.
Getting there: How do you get to China? You can use just about any mean of transportation known to man, except, a tandem bicycle, as two people are not allowed to ride on one bike in China, technically speaking. The most obvious way of getting to China is probably flying, where you'll most likely end up in either Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong, a ticket from Europe is around $1000, but better deals can of course be found. It should be noted, that flying in and out of Hong Kong is usually more expensive than the other airport, but then, the airport on Lantau Island in Hong Kong IS really nice, it even has its own light rail coming from town.
Another obvious way of getting to China is on the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian railway (the Trans-Siberian goes north around China, ends in Vladivostok, and never enters China), the trip from Moscow should take about a week. According to this site: http://www.trainsrussia.com/en/travels
, the ticket from Moscow to Beijing on 2nd class is about $350, on top of this you have to remember to have a valid visa for Russia, which I have heard isn't always that easy.
You can also enter China by car, motorbike, bicycle, foot, or whatever other means of transportation you can dream up and get a permit for, on the numerous border-crossings from Russia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Some of the border-crossings are tricky, such as the one to Tajikistan, was opened in 2004, but only for Chinese, according to this site: http://www.traveltajikistan.com/roadrail/road.html
, as of 2005 you could not yet use the border as a foreigner, but things might change. It should also be noted that the border with Myanmar is a "one-way crossing" going only from China to Myanmar.
China is also connected to Japan and Korea by regular ferries.
When travelling to China you need a visa. No visa – no entry. Unless you enter through Hong Kong where citizens of The Common Wealth are granted a 90 day visa on arrival, and then you can apply for a "real" Chinese visa. Other nationalities can as far as I've heard also acquire Chinese visas in Hong Kong, but better check before leaving home. Visas for China can be simple and it can be a nightmare, and with the Olympics coming up, what I'm mostly hearing is that it is a nightmare.
Before the Olympics the rules were quite simple; you could get 30, 60 and 90 day visas, and when you applied for the visa you had to roughly know where you were going (i.e. Beijing or Shanghai…), in some instances you had to bring your return ticket in order to prove that you had a means of leaving the country, but that was pretty much it. What I've heard lately is that you have to specify where you are staying every night of your visit, which is not too hard if you are at the same large, well-known hotel in Beijing for a week, but a nightmare for the impulsive backpacker, who does not know where he or she will be going tomorrow. It is currently really hard to figure things out, so to be sure, check with your nearest Chinese representation.
Travelling around China:
Getting around China is one of my favourite sports. Chinese trains are wonderful. You can travel in four different styles: hard seat, which is what it is, i.e. 'a hard seat', it is a 90degree wooden seat with minimal padding, not too comfortable, but cheap. You sit six people across from each other, but there has always been sold many more tickets than there are seats, why people will be standing all over with their huge bags of stuff. You should try to travel on hard seat once, but I wouldn't recommend a too long trip on hard seat, as it is near impossible to sleep in the seats, unless of course you are Chinese. The second style is soft seat, which is a nice a soft chair as you see in European trains, here you are normally seated four across from each other, and people will not be standing in the corridor. The third style of travelling is hard sleeper, which is my personal favourite, as it is cheap yet comfortable. A carriage of hard sleeper holds 60 bunk bed, and usually 60 people (no standing in corridors). The bunk beds are in three levels, I usually try to get the middle or top bunk, as the bottom bunk is the communal sitting bunk during the day. In hard sleeper there are no doors to the corridor, but once the lights are out, usually around 22 o'clock people shut up and go to bed (bring ear plugs in case someone snoresJ). Linen, blanket and pillow is provided, and usually quite clean. At the end of each carriage you will find a toilet, a squatting toilet, of course.
The soft sleepers are the most expensive way of travelling on Chinese trains. In a soft sleeper compartment you can close the door, have your own bathroom, and share the space with only three other people. The catch is, however, that air conditioning isn't always too good, so the closed compartments often get really stuffed and humid, which is why I prefer the hard sleepers.
Travelling on hard sleeper is also a very good way of meeting the Chinese people, and even if you speak no Chinese at all they will try to help you, serve you food, invite you home, and generally be really nice to you.
I usually bring a little food and drink onboard for longer trips, but you can buy food on the train, and when the trains stop on stations there will be small carts on the platform.
I good thing to bring on the train is wet wipes or hand disinfectant, as the water in the bath rooms isn't always running.
Getting around Chinese towns is fun, if a little life threatening at times. The obvious choice of means of transportation might be a bike, but unless you have really calm nerves, I wouldn't recommend riding a bike in any of the larger cities (it can be done, but the first 10 or 20 times you do it, the thing that'll mostly go through your head is not "what a lovely weather", but "Oh my, I hope I make it home alive."). Bikes are not good for the big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, but it's perfect for pretty towns like Suzhou, Nanjing and other "smaller" towns. Biking helmets are generally not found in China. You might be able to find one for your daughter, but for adults you'll probably mostly see helmets meant for contact sports, so if you want a real helmet, bring your own.
Getting around the large cities is cheapest by bus or metro. I've never really used that many Chinese city busses (especially not after seeing a baby S*$# on the floor, with its mothers consent) but apart from this they are generally very tightly packed, and I've never figured out the signing. In Chinese 'bus' is GongGong Qiche or just GongChe. The metro on the other hand work really well in the towns where I've tried it, that being Shanghai, Beijing and Nanjing. In Beijing going from the university to the centre (which is a 45 min trip) is around 10RMB. In 2007 Beijing had three metro lines, but in preparing for the Olympics, they've been building on an additional six lines, so now you should be able to go anywhere by metro. In Chinese 'metro' is written DiTie.
Another way of getting around town is the lazy way – by taxi. I don't like to admit it, but I've frequently used taxis in Beijing, because they are so cheap. in Beijing (before the Olympics) you pay a starting fee of around 10RMB, and then you paid around 1RMB per kilometre.
The starting fee varies from town to town, being most expensive in Shanghai and Guangzhou and more affordable in smaller towns.
Dressing appropriate in China isn't too hard, basically wear what you would at home. I usually bring something that is decent, just in case I have to go somewhere where hot pants and a tight t-shirt will make me feel uncomfortable.
Depending on when you are visiting China and where you are going you should bring clothing suitable for arctic climates or a bikini. The artic stuff is of course for when you visit Tibet in winter or do mountain climbing (in which case I'm sure that you know more about what to bring than I do). During summer, shorts will do you well in almost every spot, whereas winter can be biting cold in the north, while much milder in the south.
What to bring:
Bring what you would usually bring for the type of holiday (city or country) you are going. If you've forgotten something, just about anything can be bought in China these days, and probably much cheaper than at home. There are a few exceptions though; deodorant can be a little hard to come by when you are outside the big cities, the same goes for tampons.
I hope that this little introduction to China will help you get started on the wonderful adventure that is China. Whether you are visiting the dessert in Inner Mongolia, the lush rain forests of southern Yunnan, the snow covered peaks of Tibet, pandas in Sichuan (though they are currently in Beijing because of the Olympics and the earth quake), visiting rice paddies in Guangxi, travelling by boat down the Yangze River, exploring the small alleys of Shanghai or standing in awe of the Great Wall of China, I wish you happy and rewarding travels.
Well, that is just about it for now, but if you have any further questions just write me and I'll do my best to help you.