Why come to China?
China is a magnificent country to visit. The vast cities will both shock and inspire you. The uniquely-spectacular mountains can lure you into a deep, romantic day-dream and instil adventures at the same time.
However intimidating it may be, once you are there, you will find it to be one of the simplest countries you have travelled.
An organised and efficient train network makes navigating China easier than following South-East Asia’s Backpacking route. The use of a VPN (Virtual Private Network) and a few useful sites will make it a breeze for even the beginner travellers.
Despite what people may think, China is a remarkably cheap country to travel. Even in the most expensive city, Shanghai, you can find a decent dorm bed for £4 a night. Depending on where you eat, you can find meals for around £1-2. One night we dined on a plate of 20, truly delicious dumplings for 20 Yuan (£2.37). So you can certainly travel China on a shoestring budget.
1. Be wise to the scams…
You probably hear a lot about scam artists in China. I was completely prepared for all the ‘students’ inviting us to ‘traditional tea ceremonies’, fully ready for all the offers to be taken to an alternative tourist attraction as the popular one is ‘closed’. I’m sure this does happen, possibly more to solo travellers? We didn’t experience this really.
We did however, get welcomed to the country by a strange woman at the airport who asked for our flight information and followed us very indiscreetly for a half an hour. We think she was trying to get people to plant stuff in our bags. Luckily we managed to keep it hidden from her… well I think we did anyway,.. I would be interested to hear if anyone has had a similar experience?
We probably did get overcharged for some taxi rides but we always used metre taxis and watched the metre as we drove. Most hostels will say how much a taxi ride should be, so you can compare it to that. Be sure to know where you are going and have it ready on a downloaded map so you can track where you’re driving. Some taxi drivers might take you a really long way around to make the cost higher.
I don’t want to talk too much about avoiding scams. Just do your research on a few different sites so you know what to look out for. Generally, it just takes common sense to avoid them.
2. But appreciate the kindness of strangers.
My first impression of China was that it wasn’t so friendly. This impression changed as I got to know it more. I suppose it is how some might feel when they visit London, it tends to be the case with lots of big cities. Beijing alone is home to over 20 million, London is just over 9 million.
Being in such a populous, busy city meant we appreciated it more and remembered those moments when locals went out of their way to help us. My boyfriend, Harry, and I tried to buy some dumplings in a mall in Beijing. Much to our disappointment, we found that you could not pay with cash- they only accepted WeChat payments. At that moment, the young girl behind us in the queue used her WeChat to pay and we gave her the cash.
Another time, Harry’s tube card didn’t work in the machine when we tried to exit the station. During the busy, commuter hour a woman tried to help him make it work. When that failed, she took him to the staff member guarding the exits and explained to him in Chinese so that he would open the gate for him. Both of those woman made seemingly-small gestures, that were really appreciated and were in no way expected in bustling Beijing (especially at rush hour in a tube station). This helped us see how friendly the locals really are.
The moment I will always remember is when we arrived in Guilin and got in the queue for the taxi. Harry, Andrew and I were not prepared for the storm that was waiting for us. After only a minute of the downpour, we were already soaked. This was when the elderly couple waiting in front of us, held their umbrellas over our heads. Not only did they protect us from the intense shower but they also insisted that we got into a taxi before them.
When you travel China, take note of all these acts of kindness in a journel or on instagram, or where ever you keep your travel memories. When you read back on them you will paint yourself a beautiful picture of all the lovely people you met across the country.
3. Eat lots of dumplings and try new things…
There is nothing in the world quite like an authentic, Chinese dumpling. When you bite into it’s crispy, tender shell you will release the flavourful hot juices that were delicately encased to enhance your experience. Top your dumplings with fresh coriander and base them with chilli oil. Enjoy every second, eat them for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner.
Mysterious meat on a stick and mysterious meat in a bowl. We ate a lot of mysterious meat in China. Not to say it didn’t taste wonderful, because it did, most of the time. At dinner, the three of us would choose a dish each and then share them between us. This allowed us to try out more things. The plate that has stuck in my head the most was, I think ears.. which animals ears? I’m not too sure. However, I am sure that they were fried in honey and lemon and that they were one of the most enjoyable dishes I have tried on all of my ventures.
If you don’t try the questionable dishes, you won’t find your new favourites.
4. but don’t feel ashamed if you need to retreat to KFC.
Travelling so far from home is hard. Your stomach will constantly beg you for some food that it can recognise and when you don’t comply, it will punish you heartlessly. Early mornings were the toughest. When you wake up and you hit the streets to find some breakfast you want something easy. I never seemed to be in the mood for noodle and egg broth. This was when we went for the Macdonalds and the KFC. Don’t feel guilty for that, you are already pretty far out of your comfort zone.. treat yourself to that chicken wrap.
side note: I am editing this over a year later. As I am trying to move my blog more towards ethical and sustainable travel I wonder if I should keep this mention of unethical fast food chains in.
Well hopefully one day I will never eat at either of these restaurants. Hopefully one day I will be on a fully plant-based diet. I am not yet. I am not perfect in my environmentalism and it is important for us to not be too hard on ourselves or on others for these choices. So I am keeping this note in my blog.
5. Don’t get deterred by the Visa
This one is for British passport holders, I am unsure what the system is like for other. For us, it was anything but easy to get your visa for China. You have all sorts of documents to prepare, including a day-by-day itinerary. We had to take two separate trips to the office in London as you can not do it all online now.
It’s a long process but it is fairly straight forward. More importantly, it is completely worth your time!
First of all, make sure you get your VPN before you enter the country. If you are planning a trip to China, you probably already know that most of the sites we use – Google, Facebook, Instagram, are blocked. Luckily, for a small monthly subscription, you can use a VPN which opens all these sites up and allows you to use whatever you need.
Ctrip– You can book trains, flights and hotels with Ctrip. We solely used it for trains. It made it all very simple. We would book and pay online, then all we had to do was screenshot our reservation and train number and show it to the staff at the station.
WeChat- We didn’t get this, I wish we did because it would have been so useful. In China, they use it for nearly everything. It mostly would have been good to pay for stuff in shops and restaurants but also to order takeaways and taxis. If you are in China for a while, I would definitely recommend looking further into it.
To give you an idea of how much they use WeChat for payments, people who were begging on the streets didn’t have a cup or a hat for change, they had a QR code to scan to give them money through WeChat.
So this tip isn’t an app but it is on your phone. Save pictures of certain dishes. Most eateries don’t have English on the menus, some will have a few pictures you can point to but most the time you will find yourself staring blankly at a long menu that you have no chance of understanding.
We tried various translating apps but most of the time they were useless. A simple tactic is to have pictures saved on your phone of what you are looking for and then show them to the waiter. For example, I saved a picture of fried noodles and dumplings which are two of my favourite meals and it saved so much time when trying to order (I could tell the waiters appreciated it too).
7. Packing essentials
Packing could be a whole other guide on its own. For this I will just let you know the three things I appreciated the most.
Tissues- Carry them in your bag wherever you go. Just trust me.
Hand sanitiser- We sanitised before every meal and we didn’t get ill once.
Talcum Powder- It will relieve you from sweat so much more than any deodorant you own and come in extremely handy when you play a game of pool at the hostel.
8. Expect the unexpected with any food
Hostels with kitchens will offer Western food. That doesn’t always mean it’s a safe bet. I ordered muesli with fruit and yogurt in one hostel. I woke up especially early for it as I had pre-ordered the night before. I was served a bowl of yogurt with muesli, watermelon and tomato. I did eat it all without complaining because technically tomatoes are a fruit and the girls at the hostel were lovely. I just couldn’t seem to get my head around it…
Even worse was when Harry ordered a fruit salad. The poor lad doesn’t even like mayonnaise on his chips, let alone on his bowl of fruit…
9. Make an effort with the language
Chinese is hard. It’s hard but you still need to make an effort. Hello and Thank you. At the very least know them. If you know them then you can get by for a short time with charades, it’s not ideal but as long as you are friendly then people can see you are making an effort. I would also advise to know how to say water, that will come in handy often at restaurants.
Of course learn more if you can. I tried to but those were the only three words that stuck with me…
10. Enjoy every second
Make the most out of your time in China. People-watch on the subway in Beijing and admire how the uniquely fierce fashion tastes. Eat as many dumplings and buns as you can, taste all the crazy foods you can find. Spend time on the rooftops of your hostels taking in the beauty of where you are. Dine in a rooftop bars that overlook Shanghai’s skyline. Conquer the Great Wall, dance in the storms. Surround yourself with China’s natural beauty when you walk along the Li River. Remember all the smaller details that will make your trip so special.
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