CHINA TRAVEL GUIDE
There are few countries in the world with a culture as distinct as China. A country of contrasts, China offers thriving Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, but also extremely rural and underdeveloped areas in the western part of the country. This is a country stuck between the developed and developing world. Rapid change has attracted curious people from around the globe, so it’s a great time to dip your toes into this amazing culture and explore the country. Each day creates a new China. While I dislike the pollution of many of the big cities, the countryside and food are incredible. This travel guide to China can help you get the most from you visit!
Top 5 Things to See and Do in China
1) Visit Hong Kong
- Hong Kong effortlessly blends East and West. This bustling metropolis combines high rise buildings with traditional street markets and religious temples. Throw in a large expat population, good shopping, fantastic nightlife, and delicious food, and you’ll why everyone loves it so much.
2) Explore Shanghai
- One of China’s largest, busiest, and most visited cities, Shanghai is like the future — fast trains, lights everywhere, organized, and cosmopolitan. I love Shanghai. To get a sense of historical China, head to the Old City and see the YuYuan Gardens.
3) Wander Beijing
- Visit Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, countless shopping malls, the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and of course, the Great Wall. There’s nothing like Beijing in the world, and though horribly polluted and with awful air quality, it’s still a city you have to visit in order to understand modern China and its dynamism.
4) The Great Wall of China
- No trip would be complete without visiting the Great Wall. There are plenty of tours to different parts of the Wall, so pick according to your budget. You can also take the public bus to the busiest part of the wall (Badaling). The bus is 12 CNY each way.
5) See Xi’An
- Xian is one of the ancient capitals of China and home to the famed Terracotta Army, the City Wall, and the amazing architecture of the Muslim quarters. Those three things are pretty much why everyone comes here but there’s also an incredible hike on Mount Hua not worth skipping.
Other Things to See and Do
1. Tian’anmen Square
You’ve no doubt seen it in films and on TV, but it is hard to get an idea of the sheer size of this square until you’re standing square in the middle of it. There’s plenty to see here including the Tiananmen Tower, the Great Hall of the People, the People’s Heroes Monument, the National Museum and Mao Zedong’s mausoleum. While you are allowed to take photos in the square itself, you cannot use your camera in the mausoleum.
2. Gorge on food
China is a food lover’s paradise. Eating here will certainly put your take-away back home into perspective. In such a huge country, it’s no surprise that different areas have different culinary delights. It’s entirely possible to enjoy the four styles of Chinese cooking (Cantonese, Beijing, Shanghai and Szechuan) while on your trip.
3. Cruise the Li River
For a true sense of natural beauty, head on a cruise down the Li River. This place has been listed as one of the top ten “watery wonders” by National Geographic. The river is 272 miles long and has dozens of places to explore along the way, such as Zhujiang Pier, Yangdi, and Guilin.
4. Visit the Forbidden City
This famous attraction in Beijing was the imperial palace from the time of the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. Now the Palace Museum holds artifacts from both dynasties and is a great place to learn about China’s history.
5. Travel (part of) the Silk Road
With a history of over 2,000 years old, this is a must-see for visitors. There are many locations to check out along the road, as it originally spanned from Chang’an to Rome and Italy. Its total length was over 2400 miles, half of which was within Chinese territory.
6. Explore Tibet
Also known as “the Roof of the World”, this area is perfect for adventurous travelers that are looking for unique attraction. Explore the snow mountains, exotic customs, and Buddhism. Tibet has had tumultuous past, so during your visit it’s wise not to bring up the Dali Lama. You’ll need to a special permit to visit the region.
7. Potala Palace
If you’re in Tibet, this is a must. Now a museum, this Tibetan palace was home to the Dalai Lamas up until 1959. The many halls, temples, and courtyards have been constructed from wood and stone. It’s an interesting and historic building to see and gives you a sense of just how important the Dalai Lamas are to Tibetan culture.
8. Take in the Karst mountains
Illustrated on the back of the 20 yuan banknote, these mountains are a stunning sight to see in person. They’re huge! You can take a boat trip down the Li river, and enjoy the breathtaking views of the mountains. You can also rent a bicycle to explore the quieter backroads and take in the picturesque landscape. Prices begin around 20 CNY for a half day.
9. The Mogao Grottos of Dunhuang
Also known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, these grottos are home to the largest, best-preserved, and richest Buddhist art in the world—the first cave was carved here in 366 AD.
10. Take a walking tour
All of the major cities offer various types of walking tours, many of which are free and last a few hours. If you want learn about the history of China’s major cities, this is a great way to start!
Accommodation – Prices start at around 25 CNY for a dorm in many of the smaller cities. Expect to pay closer to 90 CNY in Hong Kong and Beijing. For a private room, prices begin around 125 CNY though expect to pay almost double that in the larger cities. Budget hotels begin around 75 CNY per night for basic accommodations, with higher prices in Hong Kong. Airbnb is plentiful in China, and can be found in all the major cities though it’s much less common in rural areas. Prices range from 260-780 CNY depending on the city. For anyone traveling with a tent, there are plenty of campgrounds around the country. Expect to pay around 20 CNY per night for a basic plot. My suggested places are:
Food – Food in China is cheap. A meal from a street vendor usually goes for around 7-14 CNY. For this you might get noodles, rice, pork buns, or a soup. A full meal in a sit down restaurant will cost between 15-54 CNY plus the fee for a bowl of rice and clean bowls (yes, these cost extra!), which is often around 4 CNY. If you stick to the local food, you’ll find it hard to go broke. You could spend less than 68 CNY for an entire day’s worth of food. In western China, southwestern China and the interior, food is much cheaper than in the big cities and you can eat for under 27 CNY per day — about half the costs of the big cities.
For Western food, you can expect to pay much higher prices for food that will be a disappointment compared to home, if you’re outside of the more Westernized cities like Hong Kong. A western style sandwich can run about 40 CNY and a cup of coffee can be similarly-priced to back home.
Since food is so cheap, there’s no need to self-cater or cook your own meals. You are better off eating the streets food and at the restaurants. Moreover, many hostels don’t have kitchen facilities for you to use even if you did go grocery shopping. Therefore, self-catering is not something I recommend. If you will be buying your own groceries, expect to spend between 300-400 CNY.
Transportation – China may be a huge country, but it’s easy and cheap to get from one place to another. Buses are the most popular way to travel and usually cost between 1.50-3 CNY in a city. Major cities also have extensive underground systems that are less than 6 CNY per ride. Taxi fares start at about 6 CNY. On a high-speed train, the ticket from Beijing to Shanghai is around 545 CNY for 2nd class, around 930 CNY for 1st class, and around 1,800 CNY for a VIP seat. For the longer, full day train, a 2nd class seat is around 445 CNY and a 1st class seat is around 540 CNY. For overnight trains, keep in mind that the lower bunk is usually cheaper as it is closer to the noise. Top bunks will be more expensive, though they occasionally have very little space to offer (even though you pay more); it is not uncommon to be unable to sit all the way up. Buses are generally cheaper than trains. For example, the 9 hour to Beijing to Anshan is 190 CNY while the train is between 230 and 965 CNY. The two hours bus from Beijing to Tianjin is 27-41 CNY while the high speed train is around 65 CNY. The trip to Shanghai to Hanghzou is 2.5 hours by bus and 75 CNY, while train is 95 CNY. There are plenty of regional carriers in China when it comes to flights, including Air China, and China Eastern, Southern, and Southwest Airlines. Just keep in mind that many flights rarely leave on time, so be mindful of your connections when booking!
Activities – In general, sights are affordable in China — even popular attractions such as the Great Wall or the Forbidden City are under 68 CNY. While the Great Wall never kept out invaders, it’s beautiful and is only 48 CNY, the Forbidden City is 68 CNY. Smaller temples, activities and sights are much more reasonable priced and cost around 14 CNY.
While attractions and temples are less than 70 CNY, prices for hikes and outdoor activities tend to be around 205 CNY. For example, a trip to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain costs 175 CNY, a visit to the Jiuzhai Valley is a whopping 405 CNY and a three day pass to the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian province is 270 CNY while the Yellow Mountains in Anhui province are 250 CNY.
Suggested daily budget
210-280 CNY / 30-40 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
Money Saving Tips
China is already very cheap but doing these three things can lower your prices even more:
1. Use sleeper trains – Use sleeper trains (doorless compartments with bunks) to travel overnight since distances between cities can be quite large. Spending a night on the train will save you paying an extra night of accommodation. Lower bunks are less expensive, so purchase a few days in advance to take advantage of these savings. Some stations have ticket offices for foreigners if you need help navigating your options.
2. Ask for Xiao Pan – If eating alone, ask for “xiao pan”. These are small portions and work out at 70% of the size and price of a normal dish.
3. Hard Seats – Travel on the “hard seats” on trains or buses. These are the cheapest and most basic seats but are not “hard” as the name would lead you to believe.
4. Take a walking tour – Free walking tours are available in most Chinese cities. Most last a couple hours and are a great way to get the lay of the land and learn some of the local history.
ESSENTIAL THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU VISIT CHINA
Ever since opening its doors to the world in the 70’s, China has experienced a period of rapid growth and change.
These days, more and more tourists from around the world who visit China are flocking to the ancient country to experience its rich history and perhaps catch a glimpse of its bright future.
While modernization has meant that many western amenities are now available, there are still a few hurdles that might catch the unprepared unaware.
After two and a half years living and working in China, I’ve compiled some top tips for going to China I wish I’d had before I got there.
Hopefully, these will help you discover what a wonderfully challenging and beautiful country this is.
1. Cash is preferred
Although more and more businesses (particularly large hotel chains and upscale restaurants) now accept Visa and Mastercard, the most widely accepted card scheme is UnionPay.
However, for the most part, when you are traveling in China you’ll need to pay with cash!
2. China recognizes only one currency – its own.
The official currency of China is the yuan, otherwise known as RMB or colloquially as ‘quai’.
Notes are available for 1RMB, 10RMB, 20RMB, 50RMB, and 100RMB. There are also 1RMB coins available, as well as smaller fractions of known as ‘Mao’ for the Chinese leader who adorns them.
Chinese businesses do not accept any other currency, including the US dollar or Hong Kong dollar.
3. Exchange currency at ATMs in China
While many Chinese banks do not accept foreign cards, larger chains such as HSBC can be used to withdraw local currency from foreign bank accounts. This usually offers a far better exchange rate than services such as Travelex.
International ATMs are available in all major cities but may be harder to find in less tourist friendly areas.
4. Don’t forget to tell your bank you’re visiting China
Before you go to China, make sure your bank knows you’re going to be using your credit or debit card over there. You don’t want your card being canceled mid-trip for unusual transactions.
6. Bring a translator
If you need to do your banking face to face, you may need to bring a local to help translate. Very few bank employees will have sufficient English to help you, although in larger cities such as Beijing or Shanghai they should have an English speaker on staff.
7 Don’t tip in China
The Chinese do not tip, and you aren’t expected to either.
8. Use your haggling skills
Outside of chain stores and boutiques, it’s totally possible to practice your haggling skills. Never accept the marked price or first price offered.
With shrewd negotiation, it’s possible to get souvenirs and such for a fraction of the quoted price.
9. Visas for China
One of the most important things to know when traveling to China is that they do not offer visas on arrival. So before you travel to China you’ll need to arrange your visa well in advance!
When applying for a tourist visa, you’ll need to provide either a letter of invitation from a Chinese friend or relative, or provide a detailed itinerary of your intended trip. This includes return flights and confirmed reservations for your hotel bookings.
Visas can be applied for in person at the Chinese consulate or can be ordered via post.
10. Booking hotels in China
If you want some flexibility with your itinerary, make use of sites that do not require an upfront payment to make bookings.
Booking.com has over 50,000 properties in China including hotels, apartments, and hostels. You get free cancellation on most rooms. And their book now, pay later at check-in system allows you to lock in that rate with some flexibility. Check current hotel prices.
Chinese sites such as C-Trip require no deposit to book accommodation, and you can cancel without penalty once your visa is approved.
11. Travel Insurance for China
While China is a very safe country with relatively low crime, it pays to be prepared. So one of my top China travel tips is don’t leave home without travel insurance!
If something unexpected does happen and you are not insured, you can be up for a lot of money AND inconvenience. For a small price to pay you get peace of mind – if you can’t afford insurance, you can’t afford to travel.
For American’s, consider a big brand like Alliance Travel Insurance who are a world leader in the industry and trusted by millions
12. Drinking water in China
One of the things NOT to do in China is drink the water.
For the most part, tap water in China is not drinkable. Bottled water can be purchased very cheaply at most restaurants and stores.
13. Pharmacies in China
Chinese pharmacies offer both western and eastern medicine at very reasonable prices. Prescription medication can usually be purchased without a prescription (within reason) by simply providing the pharmacist with your identification.
14. Finding a doctor in China
Chinese hospitals can be crowded and daunting, but most major cities also have specialized hospitals catering to foreigners living and working in the country.
Even in the crowded public hospitals, many doctors will speak English.
15. Coping with air pollution in China
Larger cities in China have serious problems with air pollution, particularly in Beijing. Many locals swear by masks on days with hazardous air pollution, but it is safer to avoid exertion on days with particularly bad pollution.
16. Bring toilet paper
One of the unusual things to know before going to China is that most Chinese toilets do not provide toilet paper. Hotels and nicer restaurants will have it available, but it’s always a good idea to carry a roll of toilet paper or a box of tissues!
17. Bring hand soap or hand sanitizer
Like toilet paper, hand soap is not standard in many Chinese bathrooms. Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you just to be sure.
18. Get to the airport early
It is advisable to get to the airport three hours early for international flights to China and two hours early for domestic. Chinese airports can often be chaotic and overcrowded, so you’ll be grateful for that extra time.
19. Expect delays
In my two and a half years in China, I can count on one hand the number of flights that left on time. Be prepared to wait in the airport (or even on the plane) when flying from a Chinese airport.
20 Catching buses and trains in China
China is serviced by a fantastic network of buses and trains, including the high-speed G-Trains that can whisk you across the country in a matter of hours. Rates are extremely affordable by western standards.
21. Bring your passport when making a booking
You’ll need your passport when making a booking, and you can only book one ticket per passport.
22. Make use of local booking sites
Chinese booking sites such as C-Trip and eLong often offer better rates than western booking sites. Be sure to check both when planning your trip.
23. Driving in China
If this is your first trip to China, you’ll soon see that Chinese roads can be rather chaotic, so self-driving is really only recommended for the particularly brave!
24. Catching taxis in China
Taxis in China are cheap and plentiful. Most drivers will not speak English, so it’s a good idea to get your destination address written in Chinese by somebody at your hotel.
25. Eating street food in China
Chinese street food is delicious and it is everywhere! When choosing which vendor to purchase from, check to see where the locals are dining. If you see a queue, it’s likely to be a safer bet.
26. Spitting in China
The Chinese do not use handkerchiefs and tissues to clear their noses, and instead spit. While this can be a bit confronting when you first visit China, they’re similarly affronted when they see us blowing our noses and keeping it.
27. Personal space
China is a crowded place, and the locals have become accustomed to a much smaller personal space than we are accustomed to in the west. Don’t be surprised if you’re jostled or shoved when queuing – it’s just part of Chinese culture.
28. Taking photos in China
The Chinese love to take photographs, and don’t be surprised if a local tries to snap a sneaky photo of you or even comes up to ask for a picture with you.
Like in most other countries, it always pays to ask permission before photographing a person or a government building.
29. Mailing things home from China
With cheap prices and a huge variety of products, it can be easy to go over your luggage limit while shopping in China. Thankfully, it is very affordable to post things home using China Post’s surface (sea) mail.
This can take one to two months but is a very affordable way to get your belongings home.
30. Beware of Chinese knock-offs
Shopping streets such as Nanjing Road in Shanghai are a great place to find a bargain, but be aware that knockoffs of prominent brands can be seized at the airport upon your return home.
31. Don’t be shy in restaurants
Chinese waiters and waitresses aren’t as proactive as you may be used to, so don’t be afraid to throw your hands up and call for the fuyian if you want service.
Also be aware that conventional western service is hard to come by. Don’t be surprised if your starter, main, and dessert all arrive at once while your friend still waits for their first dish.
32. Get a local SIM card in China
China’s major carriers include China Telecom and China Unicom. SIM cards can be purchased at the airport or at most corner stores, and credit is quite affordable.
Most Chinese SIMs are locked to the province in which they are purchased, so you’ll pay roaming charges when texting, calling, or using data outside of this province.
Even then, the rate is far cheaper than international roaming.
33. Get a VPN for China
When you visit China keep in mind that their ‘Great Firewall’ blocks sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and most of the Google selection. If you want to access these while you’re visiting China, you’ll need to purchase a VPN.
When shopping for VPNs, check that they cover China – as many free options do not.
34. Download Weixin (or WeChat)
China’s premier messaging app is Weixin (WeChat in English) and everybody you meet – expats and locals alike – will have it.
Download the free app and set it up, as it’s a great way to keep in touch with locals who may not have social media.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to get off the beaten track. While Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an are worthy of their international fame, there is so much more to China than these cities and their cultural sites.
This is a massive country with a rich history, over thirty distinct cultural groups, and a huge variety of landscapes to explore – don’t limit yourself to the same few sites everybody else visits.
- For the latest information about Chinese visas click here.