Before traveling to China, you might have an idea in your mind of what the experience will be like. You may expect to discover ancient temples, join massive crowds along the Great Wall, and you probably expect that you’ll also be eating a lot of rice. But for everything you expect China to be, the country is likely to hit you with a few surprises. It certainly did for me. The following are 5 China travel tips you need to know — the things the guidebooks generally don’t tell you.
English is not widely spoken
If there’s one thing that Western travelers take for granted, it’s that English will be widely spoken in other countries (I don’t personally speak a second language either, so I’m the same). But you shouldn’t expect English in China, so I recommend brushing up on your charades.
While I would usually recommend that travelers to a new country learn a couple of key phrases in the local language (mainly as a sign of respect), “Chinese” is not a single unified language – there are many different dialects. It’s nice to say ni hao (hello in Mandarin Chinese), but even this varies wildly depending on local dialect.
My best China travel tips would be to use a translation device, like MESAY or the Google Translate app, to make use of body language, and travel with a pen and notepad; when I found that I couldn’t communicate (which was a lot of the time), I relied on my masterful drawing. (Anyone who has seen me draw might argue that ‘masterful’ is a stretch).
Cash is preferred
It’s very rare that I travel with cash these days; from airport taxis to souvenirs, you can almost always rely on Mastercard or Visa. But not in China. While more and more businesses are accepting credit cards, you’ll find that these are only upscale restaurants and large hotel chains.
Most of the hotels we stayed at didn’t accept credit cards, and it’s important to note that they do not accept any type of foreign currency. I also found out the hard way that ATMs very rarely accept foreign cards; while international ATMs can be found in all major cities, we were traveling through the remote countryside, so it’s very important that you exchange currency before arriving.
You WILL need a VPN to get online
Perhaps the most important of all China travel tips — if you plan on using the internet in China, you might be surprised to find that sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even Google are blocked. They call it the ‘Great Firewall’ of China, and if you want to get around this government censorship, you have to use a VPN.
I relied on Hotspot Shield VPN religiously while traveling through China, which works because it routes your internet traffic through its secure server located in a different country. This bypasses any censorship. But it’s important to know that not all VPNs are equal – many don’t work in China, hence I always choose Hotspot Shield as I know it’s reliable and secure.
Always travel with toilet paper and hand sanitizer
One thing many people worry about when visiting Asia is the idea of using a squat toilet, though I was pleasantly surprised that the toilets I encountered in China were mostly Western. That said, the thing you should be concerned about is the lack of toilet paper, as most Chinese toilets do not provide this.
Fortunately, I’m in the habit of always traveling with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but I quickly ran out in China, being the only member of my bus tour who had any. As far as China travel tips go, yes, this is an important one to remember.
The Chinese love taking photographs
While tourism to China has seen significant growth, Western tourists still aren’t very common, especially once you get outside the big cities. Locals are fascinated by Western tourists, so don’t be surprised if people ask to have their picture taken with you; by the end of two weeks in Qinghai, we felt like quite the celebrities.
The Chinese love to take photographs, and they’re so incredibly friendly. If you find that they are staring at you, or trying to take a sneaky photo, remember that this is out of admiration; try to meet their stares and offer a smile. You’ll likely make them very happy.
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