A Beginner’s Guide to China – Everything You Need to Know For Your First Visit

Forbidden City, Beijing

When I tell people that China is my favourite country to explore, nobody seems to understand why. Even when I’ve met people when travelling, the general consensus always seems to be, ‘It’s just never been on my list.’ To which my response is, ‘WHY?!’ It’s one of the biggest countries in the world, with an unbelievable and fascinating history, incredible food, and a unique and varied culture.

Yes, it’s not a calm, relaxing beach holiday, but if you want to explore then there really is nowhere better. The first time I visited, I didn’t think it would be much of a shock to the system as I’d been to Hong Kong earlier in the year. Although they’re technically the same country, they could not be more different, so if you are planning a trip, here is my beginner’s guide to China:

Before you go

Preparation is key for any big trip, but there’s a couple of things that are China specific that you need to sort out:

Great wall of China

 

Houses next to Xi'an City Walls

 

  • Get your visa – and with plenty of time too. Book in your appointment with your local visa application service rather than just rocking up and make sure you’ve read through all the documents you need to take with you. You’ll need proof of at least one place you’ll be staying and proof of your flights out of the country too.
  • Prep your tech – it’s true, you cannot access the majority of the internet whilst in China. There are a few apps I’d recommend downloading, but most important is a VPN so you can get on to all your favourite sites and apps with minimum fuss. Because were you really at the Great Wall of China if you don’t Instagram it?

Tiananmen Square, Beijing

 

Beijing skyline

 

Food

Forget your local Chinese takeaway offering; China is a bloody revelation when it comes to food. Every province has a different speciality, from fiery Sichuan to fragrant Hunan, but it can be hard to decipher and decide what’s what:

Traditional Chinese hotpot in Chengdu, ChinaBadly translated Chinese food menu

  • Menu translations are interesting – they don’t always make sense but they are often hilarious.
  • Water is rarely served cold – apparently it’s considered bad for digestion (is that actually a real thing? Somebody Google it, please). So it might be a baking hot day or you might be eating the hottest hotpot to ever grace your tastebuds, but it’s unlikely you’ll get a bottle from the fridge or a glass with ice.
  • It’s impossible to find a proper cup of tea – as in, just a bog standard builder’s brew. Green, black, floral, herbal teas – absolutely, but try and explain to a Starbucks employee in Chengdu who doesn’t speak English that you want cold milk in your tea and you may end up with a cup of warm-ish milk with a teabag in it. True story.
  • There are a couple of western food chains to fall back on – if you really, really cannot find anything else to eat or you just want something familiar, there is always a Starbucks around, and most of the cities I’ve visited generally have a Pizza Hut too. They do have some interesting toppings though…
  • Food markets are not vegetarian friendly – you are likely to see pig trotters, chicken feet, animal carcasses being stripped in the street, a range of insects on sticks, and live fish being plucked from buckets and put straight into plastic bags for people to take home. But they are definitely the best places to find awesome food and really experience Chinese culture.

 

Fried grasshoppers at Donghuamen Food Market, Beijing

 

Pigs trotters being cooked at the Muslim Market in Xi'an

 

The people

Travelling solo can be daunting, but I’ve never felt unsafe in China. Of course you have to be weary and on your guard to an extent, but unlike South Africa for example, I didn’t feel like I had to watch my back. The people are wonderful but their ‘normal’ is very different to mine and it’s the thing that took me aback the most when I first went to China.

Newspaper stand in Chengdu, China

 

Couple taking photos

  • They might take photos of you – remember that China is bloody massive, and actually a huge proportion of the population don’t live in big cities and therefore may have never seen somebody who isn’t Chinese in real life. As a result, they may just take a photo of you whilst your nursing the worst hangover of your life and not flinch at all when you angrily take a photo of them in return. Really.
  • Nowhere is quiet – China is really loud. There’s a lot of people and finding somewhere calm is rare. Airport lounges are particularly ear-splitting.
  • Nobody values personal space – queues don’t exist, waiting for the next train patiently does not exist, and standing as close to the person next to you as physically possible is absolutely how things are done. Nobody is weird or creepy, it’s just how things are.
  • Spitting is the norm – obviously the levels of pollution in China can get pretty high and hocking is regularly done in public places. The noise is gross and it’s something I’ve never acclimatised to in the times I’ve visited, but it doesn’t put me off visiting.

Wide and narrow streets in Chengdu, China

 

Muslim Market in Xi'an

 

Out and about

There is an unbelievable amount to see across China but it’s not just the big tourist sites; it’s the architecture, the transport and the feel of the country that is all so different. There are a few things to note when out and about though:

People moving furniture on a bike in Shanghai

 

Guidelines on how to use a toilet in China

 

  • Squat toilets are the norm – so practice your squats and carry hand sanitiser and tissues with you everywhere. Western toilets can normally be found in shopping malls and upscale restaurants, as well as in your hotel.
  • China is enormous – which sounds basic, but looking at a map of Beijing and thinking you can walk from one point to another often fails miserably because that city is HUGE.
  • Taxis are…fun – that is, they drive fast, close to the other cars and don’t really follow the rules of the road. If there are any. But I’ve experienced this in Europe too, so it’s not all that different.
  • Public transport is pretty damn good – at least in the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the subway has an x-ray security system, it’s clean, reliable and super cheap!
  • Pollution exists but it’s not always noticeable – in fact, in the total of six weeks I’ve spent in China altogether, I’ve only experienced one severe pollution day and actually been lucky enough to have some insanely blue skies. It’s definitely an issue, but it’s not the constant lung-clogging you might expect.

 

Subway system in Beijing

 

Shanghai elevated road traffic

It may not be your first choice of holiday destinations, but China is the most incredible country and shouldn’t be underestimated. Forget stereotypes and rumours; it is a place that has so much to offer and I cannot wait to go back again to see even more.

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Tips for travelling in China

 

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