Travelling independently in China was hard. Perhaps the hardest travelling I’ve done in a long, long time. But that’s not to say it wasn’t worth it.
We’d done a bit of research before we went and had heard from others that certain things would be difficult. We knew there’d be a bit of a language barrier, that there’d be funky toilets and that we should absolutely shouldn’t travel on a Chinese national holiday unless we wanted to be in a queue of people all the time.
So, we picked up a book on learning Chinese, were fine with the toilets (how bad could they be right?) and made sure our super cheap flights (just £316 return!) weren’t over a Chinese holiday. Despite this, there’s still a few things I wish we’d known more about before travelling over to China that would’ve made travelling there a little bit easier.
Prepare for your China trip with these handy books
- Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese – A super fun book which uses picture and symbols to get you learning Chinese
- Survival Chinese: How to Communicate Without Fuss or Fear Instantly! (a Mandarin Chinese Language Phrasebook) (Survival Phrasebooks) – the book we used to get us out of some tricky situations
- Lonely Planet China (Travel Guide) – you can’t go wrong with a Lonely Planet guidebook!
Things I wish I’d known better before travelling to China
The language barrier is real
When we booked it I assumed, as us Brits quite often do, that they’d speak English or at least enough for us to muddle by. We bought a book, Chineasy, and tried to learn a few words but got on the plane. However we only really knew “hello” and “thank you” by the time we landed. We thought we’d be okay though…
We were wrong.
The Chinese, in general, have about as much understanding of English as we do of Mandarin. This is made all the more harder given that you can’t guess what a word means as letters are replaced by symbols. Even if you have Google translate (if you’ve got a VPN and can access Google), it just doesn’t work for Mandarin.
Be prepared for this barrier and work on your acting and you’ll get by. If you are really stuck then find someone between the ages of 15-30 and they’ll probably know enough English to help you out. Otherwise put together some useful phrases with some English speaking hostel staff such as “I want to get the train/bus to…” and “where’s the toilet?”
Getting the visa is a pain in the bum
Never has getting a visa been as difficult as the Chinese one. The website is very old and not at all clear, the information you need is spread all over the place and you’re bound to miss something the first time you send off your application.
Our first application was sent back to us as we hadn’t provided a “full itinerary”. I hadn’t realised we had to actually book a hotel for every night of our stay and then provide that booking confirmation in our application. I’d thought that putting the regions we’d be in, and roughly when, would be enough. It wasn’t.
We hadn’t really decided where we were going and this forced us to sit down and spend our weekend decided and booking hotels. Fortunately booking.com has loads of hotels that offer free cancellation. Although we tried to plan and book our hotels as accurately as possible, our plans did change and I was so grateful we could cancel them for free.
Our second attempt was also refused the first time around as my name wasn’t on the booking.com confirmation email. Fortunately I was able to fix this and email them the confirmation but not after some stress of them not receiving the emails etc etc.
Oh and not only is the process a little bit of a nightmare, it’s bloomin’ expensive too! Postage alone costs £7.99 by guaranteed delivery (which you’ll want as you have to send your passport off) and the visa is at least £150 for UK citizens.
Getting our Canadian working holiday visa was so SO much easier!
Always take cash
Unlike in the UK, China is very reliant on cash. Don’t rely on being able to pay with a tap of your card, phone or watch. I can’t even remember when I last took out cash!
Unless you’ve got a Union Pay credit card, you can only use a card in fancy hotels and restaurants (AKA the ones we can’t afford…). You can forget Mastercard and Visa they’re simply not accepted. Not even when buying tickets for the high speed trains.
There are also limited banks you can use with a foreign credit or debit card. The Agricultural Bank of China is probably one of your safest bets but there are a few others.
Don’t feel you HAVE to eat the local food
When I travel I tend to insist on eating local food and frown upon getting a MacDonalds or eating in a restaurant we have back home. I simply didn’t care about this is China.
By week two I’d had enough of noodles and not knowing what I was eating. And, whilst I wasn’t eating in chains all the time, I was certainly a lot more open to eating at Pizza Hut.
This was especially true after one awful meal where the closest translation I could find to what we were eating was “pig’s anus”.
You can’t rely on Google
I knew China had a massive firewall due to censorship which would block all social media and Google. What I hadn’t realised is just how much I rely on Google when travelling.
When I want recommendations on things to do and where to eat I Google for them, when I need directions I use Google maps, when I need to be understood I’m on Google translate and on and on.
Fortunately, we were still able to access Google on Thom’s phone. This was thank to a host in our accommodation in Shenzhen who gave us access to his VPN.
If you’re more organised, you could set one up at home before you leave or make sure you’ve everything you need on paper or stored on your phone.
Data is expensive and you’ll need a lot of sim cards
You can get a Chinese sim card fairly easily in China. We even found a great deal that promised several GB of data for about £1 a day. What they didn’t tell us is that if we left that region of China (which we did the next day) then that would count as roaming and that data plan wouldn’t work.
If you’re travelling through China slowly then it may be worth getting a sim card for each region. But, if like us, you’re only there for a few weeks, then it’s probably not worth buying a sim card everywhere.
Check the toilets
Chinese hotels that have been deemed ‘fit’ for Westerners (AKA the more expensive ones) will usually have a ‘western-style’ toilet. You have to book your hotels online before you can get your visa. This means you’ll be booking more expensive ones that can afford to run a hotel online.
Therefore the chances are that they’ll have the type of toilet you’re looking for. Still, it’s worth checking as whilst squat toilets are fine when you’re out and about, it’s nice to have a western toilet in your hotel room.
The pollution wasn’t as bad as I thought
Everyone knows that China suffers from some pretty bad pollution. You see videos of the smog clouds in Beijing and Shanghai and because of this I was expecting pollution everywhere to be awful.
Maybe it because we travelled in November when the city heat isn’t as stifling or because we weren’t in Shanghai and Beijing, but the pollution really wasn’t something I worried about.
Heck, London is WAY worse than anywhere we went to in China.
You don’t need to see the ‘must sees’
China is full of ‘bucket list’ items from The Great Wall of China to Tiananmen Square and the Terracotta Warriors. We didn’t tick any of these off. Instead we flew in and out of Hong Kong and stayed south visiting lesser known towns and cities.
And you know what? We had a great time! We also get to feel a little bit ‘cooler’ for having seen places that most people miss out on.
I’d still like to see those ‘bucket list’ places in China but I wouldn’t have changed our itinerary at all!