Key Travel Tips for First Time China Visitors

The first time in China can be an entrancing experience, put together the mysticism of Asian culture, the buzz of the staggeringly large number of people, the sheer size and scale of everything, and you’ll probably be on a starry-eyed traveler high for a while. But, undoubtedly at some point you’ll have to come back to earth, this a guide to help you to not come crashing back!

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A different kind of manners – the west and east has a different style of domestication, learn to live with it, because you’re not going to change the social norms of 1 billion+ people. There’s almost an every man for themselves attitude whilst not rocking the boat approach, for example, it’s oddly OK to push in front of someone else as long as it’s done peacefully and respectfully.  This lack of orderliness and queue jumping can really infuriate western travelers, particularly tired ones who I have often seen dish out a piece of their mind, and it’s for sure got to me on occasions. Just roll with it, or stand aside and offer the way to person in a rush, likely they probably smile back and offer you the way in return. So, golden rule, it’s every man for themselves, whilst, maintaining harmony, but as a foreigner it’s best to err on the side of graciousness and offer them the way. Although, if you are in the circle of family or friends, or you are seen as an ATM, you’ll probably be shown a very high level of courtesy.

Harmonious culture – no one ever really rocks the boat, it’s extremely rare to see public displays of emotion, anger or frustration. Most are mild mannered ( that doesn’t infer that they’re rational), perhaps bordering on shy, although within the circle of friends/family you’ll soon see their noisy and rumbustious side. ‘Face’ is a big thing in China, most seem to dance around the truth in order to avoid any kind of confrontation or to risk belittling another, western people can find this avoidance of facts frustrating, just let it go, dance with them. As an example, give the person behind the counter an earful for botching up your whatever, and they’d probably go into shock, and you’ll get nowhere, if not ignored. The approach to handling complaints is to be calm, persistent with a firm resolve but don’t at anytime make the other person loose ‘face’, in fact, try to boost it. I’ve seen kind words move mountains here. On rare occasions where I have seen screaming matches or bifo’s in public, it usually draws a crowd of amused onlookers, none willing to get involved in anyway though.

Language – it’s amazing how understanding and respectful they are to foreigners, smile and things always seem to work out. Don’t fear the language barrier. But, your experience will really be so much broader if you can speak a little Putonghua, there’s more about language tools and learning here. In the major cities it’s not to hard to find people who speak English, whether that’s in hotel receptions, coffee shops or someone who might come up and say hello simply because it’s there first chance to practice their English skills with a native English speaking person.

Crowds – choose you travel times carefully, major attractions during public holidays can be quite intolerable places even for locals, best avoided. Even during normal days it’s best to plan ahead and avoid peak hour periods when trying get transport, also try to beat the arrival of tour buses to attractions and you’ll save a long wait in the queue. More about holiday dates here.

Eating – eat and eat and eat, cooking is one thing they are really goooood at and it’s one of the key things to experience while here. There’s also a very diverse range of cuisines on offer too, so lap it up. Although, with that said, there are lots of food safety issues in China, which include the use of ‘gutter oil’, low hygiene standards, poor quality water, pork treated with chemicals and sold as beef etc etc etc. To play it safe don’t eat at food stalls unless it’s recommended by someone you trust, don’t eat salads (an exception may be Subway, Hungry Jacks etc. who follow HACCP guidelines), wash and peel fruit before eating.

Eating habits – try to get your lunch prior to 12 if you are in an office area as when everyone clocks off for lunch it can be hard to find a spare seat. Get used to the different habits here too, in fact, why not revel in them, such as slurping, eating with your mouth open, talking with a mouth full, all are A-OK! Ordering food is as easy as pointing at pictures, they are so understanding, if your relaxed and smile, they’ll work it out, if you look stressed, frustrated or angry, they’ll just go into shock and not know what to do and don’t be afraid to try the unusual, it probably turn out to be delicious.

Noise –  get used to it, there’s little escape from it. Bring earplugs as they are hard to find here. The social norms are quite different, in public places western people tend to moderate their voice level, no such thing here. They basically bang and crash and burble their way around until they fall asleep… This can be quite noticeable in cheaper hotels with thin walls, which is why you pack earphones and earplugs.

Water – don’t drink tap water, most hotels will offer free bottled water in the room, although, apparently, the bottled water standards are quite low and has been reported as being tap water, spend a little more in the hope it might be OK, it will still be cheap. Otherwise, at least boil it before drinking. Also, use bottled water for brushing teeth, in the major cities you are probably OK but better safe than sorry.

Everything is Fake – this should be your mantra. Because everything is. Authenticity is overrated here! Reduce your expectations and appreciate the value, or save your money. The worst experience is when you pay more for a copy than what the real deal would have cost, it happens and for sellers at many tourist markets it’s how they work it. Whether it’s art, shirts, jeweler or whatever, in  markets, bargain hard with this mantra in mind.

Prepare – if you have requirements for medicine, bring them with you, or research the locally available alternatives before coming. Imported health products and medicines can be quite expensive, best to bring what you need. Same goes for any make-up and skin care products as most here will be dubious quality. Most skin creams also have added whiteners, this may be something you don’t want too. You may also want to bring your own headache tablets, earplugs, Imodium tablets etc. Store a copy of your passport and visa, in case you loose them. Carry a pocket phrasebook, it can be enormously useful when you end up on a back street with a flat battery and you need to get somewhere.

Getting stared at – not so much in big cities, if at all, but travel to smaller cities and you’ll feel like you just stepped out of an intergalactic spaceship. Also in some cities, which is kinda humorous, you’ll often here cries of ‘helloooooo’ as people ride by, so return in-kind and smile and wave back or yell out ‘ni-haaaaaaaaaaaaaooooooo!’.

Money – always carry enough cash to at least get yourself back to the hotel, most banks accept foreign cards, in particular the big four banks but I have had several times where I have had to walk for ages to find one just to get some money to catch a taxi. More about money here.

Mobile Phones – get yourself an Android or iPhone and load it up with apps. Most importantly you want Google Maps and Google Translate, I use both daily. You can also download many useful city guides, and free dictionaries such as Pleco and Hanping. For a sim card, pre-paid is available everywhere, such as China Mobile or Unicom and you should be OK, China Mobile probably has the better coverage. When traveling I could spend 100 RMB per month, using the internet, maps and translate. Buy an extra battery to carry, or one of those auxiliary battery packs, a smartphone is pretty dumb when it’s battery is flat.

Always – carry your hotel address card, always carry tissues as many toilets wont have any, always carry reserve cash to get you back to the hotel, always get the receipt from the taxi, always smile as when you don’t have words this will get you further than anything else.

Taxi Guides – many hotels will have dual language local maps or maybe even a taxi card, if not it’s likely that someone will speak English at the hotel so ask them to write down the names of the places you want to visit, or circle them on the map at least. The internet will have many websites with addresses and names, I got in the habit of just taking a photo on the phone, but it’s useless when your battery goes flat.

Refunds – there is really no such thing, don’t hand your money over until you are 110% sure, in China it’s all about pre-purchase there’s no after-sales, very rarely would money ever be returned even if the product is faulty or there has been a clear error on the part of the seller. So, whenever you hand over money, be sure to be thinking ‘I will never see this money again, am i sure?’..

Taxis – at major transport hubs there’ll undoubtedly be touts offering rides, I’ve never done it, I just keep looking for a proper taxi. If a taxi tries to take you off meter, you are going to get ripped off, in some circumstances where it might be hard to get a taxi it could be wise to pay some tax, otherwise ask for the meter. In all the years I have had no big issues with taxis, so overall they are safe and affordable. Very rarely have I found a driver that would understand a direction in English, get your destination written in Chinese, point a map, or have the phone number for your destination at least.

Trains and buses – in four years I have never had any issues on trains, actually the train network here is quite impressive, particularly the new D and G trains. You’ll probably want to choose soft seat and soft sleeper options but hard sleeper is still acceptable. I have never felt unsafe on trains. In regards to overnight trains, if your’e tired and a light sleeper you may find it tough, they can be quite noisy (people) until around midnight, so pack earplugs plus headphones. Or mingle in, smile and give a ni-hao and everything will sure go swimmingly. Buses, some good and bad experiences, some intercity buses are clean and comfortable, and some are rusted out rattling pieces of mechanical rubbish, the smaller the city the more likely the latter. Public buses are cheap, but best avoided in peak times unless you like cuddling up like a sardine… same goes for subway.

Planes – mostly world class, expect delays and some airports can be busy so give yourself enough time for check in procedures. Buy tickets in advance for best savings, check out ctrip.com or elong.com which both have English websites and call centers. The cheapest tickets are usually the ones that land really early or really late, downside is that public transport is probably not operating at those times so you’ll pay more for taxis.

Lawless but law-abiding – the government you could say, sits at the head of the table, everywhere. But you’ll find the real world experience kind of lawless, examples maybe cars seem to use any part of the road they want, you’ll get on a bus somewhere that you’ll feel like it’s about to rattle itself to bits, you’ll be walking on the footpath and have a motor-scooter fly by your side etc. It’s chaotic but harmonious, it’s lawless but tightly governed, it’s China and it’s always a contradiction, enjoy it!

Manage your expectations – western cultures have extremely high standards when it comes to hygiene, you’ll need to be flexible with those expectations. Sometimes they’ll be pleasantly met other times maybe not so.  At some point you will need to learn to squat to use the toilet, you’ll walk down a street where store owners through there slops and rubbish out on to the footpath where there very customers walk, in a country that has over a billion people it’s impossible to keep everything sparkling, just deal with it, learn to rough it, it’s fun.

Politics – leave it behind. Rarely do people talk about it. Also, remember they have grown listening to one voice, they will have a one-sided view on issues to which we have had open access to information. Time is better spent learning and understanding.

Hotels – I’m all for roughing it and getting a real experience and so on, but, I also enjoy a hot shower, a clean bed and a good nights sleep. A couple of the hostels I have stayed at have been homely and warm experiences but in most cities I look for 3 star and above. 4 star and above you should expect something quite acceptable and there’ll probably be someone there who speaks English. Quite often he check in staff can seem short and dis-interested, there just overworked, most people are quite rude to them, if you smile, be friendly and they’ll warm to you and help you with anything, for example moving rooms when you find that your room is overly noisy.  If you have a complaint with a hotel, the tourist complaint line in major cities is only interested if you are staying in a 4 star and above hotel.

Also check out 6 things to do when entering China for the first time..