7 Tips For Your First Trip To Mainland China
In the lead up to my trip to China, all I heard from friends were stories about their less than stellar experiences. Suffice it to say, all the excitement I had built in the months leading up to the trip had started to fizzle and was replaced with feelings of trepidation. In hindsight, that was just plain silly. What I can enthusiastically tell you is that China majestic, grandiose, alluring, culturally diverse and all-consuming and so much more than this post can do justice. What this post also aims to achieve is to strike down all the misconceptions that one might have about China.
1. When to travel
If you are looking for a time to travel to China when it will not be overrun by tourists, I do not think there is ever an ideal time to travel. The majority of tourism in China is from domestic tourism so whatever time of the year that you travel, it seems that there will always be plenty of people at all those tourist hotspots angling for those Instagram worthy photos. That being said, at all costs, avoid Chinese Year New and the May Labour Day. I sadly did not heed this advice and I can tell you that the literature does not exaggerate this fact. That being said though, I think March/April or October is the best time to travel.
2. Places to visit
China is massive and unless you have the luxury of time, you will not be able to cover everything in one trip. My advice would be to visit the major tourist destinations for your first trip – Beijing (5 days), Xi’an (3 days), Shanghai (4 days). Depending on whether you have time, Guilin and Chengdu as well.
3. Getting around
All roads, streets, tourist attractions etc in China have a Chinese name and if you’re lucky, an English name. For example, the Great Wall of China in Mandarin is called “Changcheng” whereas in English it has a different name. So, if you tell your taxi driver that you want to go to the Great Wall, I am certain that he will not know what you are talking about. The same logic can be applied to street names, monuments, buildings, etc. Make sure you have the Chinese name of the place that you want to visit written down in Chinese.
Domestic air travel is also incredibly unreliable. My friend and I learned that the hard way. Twice, our flights were delayed by more than 6 hours. So if you are still keen on travel by air, ensure that you leave enough of your buffer in your trip to account for delayed travel. We were told that rail travel was much more reliable (and the one time that we travelled by train can confirm this statement).
4. Language and communication
You know that expression, “It’s all Greek to me”? Well, that is literally what it is like conversing with people in China. Mandarin is the official language that is spoken and you would be hard-pressed to find someone that speaks English. But, there is a solution that I discovered whilst I was there courtesy of a local store keeper – download a translation application on your mobile. It is a life saver! We were able to get around so much easier with the translation app (especially if you want to restaurant staff that you are vegetarian). There are many such applications available but I used iTranslate.
When I travel, I like to engage a tour guide for the first couple of days as it helps me get my bearings with the city and allows me the opportunity to learn more about the culture and history of the place that I visit. We engaged the services one such tour operator and although their services were top notch, we also realised that tour guides in China are used primarily to help navigate the language and cultural barrier that one might face in the country.
5. Food & Tea
I generally eat halal or vegetarian food when I travel and my friend is an almost vegan. I can hear you quaking in your boots thinking, “how on earth did you two survive in China?” And again, contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of vegetarian and halal restaurants available in China. There is a large population of Muslims in China, after all, Xi’an was the birthplace of the Silk Road and trade with the Arabs, so it is only natural that religion followed. You just need to know where to find them. Always look out for Buddhist temples; there is sure to be a vegetarian restaurant within the confines of the temple compound or nearby. What I also discovered is that vegetarian tends to mean ‘meat with vegetables’ rather than its more traditional meaning, so you have to be very specific about your meat consumption habits.
Street food – be cautious. Our tour guides advised us to stay away from street food markets, but in Xi’an, I couldn’t resist especially when the name of the market is “Muslim Street”. I would suggest sticking with grills or BBQ as anything deep-fried may be cooked in stale oil.
Tea is the life and blood of the Chinese. You will not see a single Chinese person who does not walk around with tumblers of green tea. Tea ceremonies are not simply a tourist attraction, it is a way of life. So partake in a tea ceremony. You will not regret it.
When you are in China, with all the trappings of modern convenience, it is easy to forget that China is a communist state and that the internet and media is heavily censored. Google (including Google maps), Facebook, Instagram and other similar social media channels are all blocked in China. To get around this, you will need to download a VPN on your mobile phone and/or laptop. There are plenty available online, I used Astrill whilst I was traveling.
7. You might be a tourist attraction
As the majority of tourism in China is domestic tourism, in many places outside of Shanghai, the local people are not accustomed to seeing foreigners (regardless of ethnicity). Do not be perturbed by people openly staring at you or taking pictures of you. In a lot of places, we also had people stare at us and then turn to their friend seemingly to talk about us. Even though I had read about the fact that this could happen whilst we were in China, I was still not prepared for it when it happened.