Are you traveling to China for the first time?
There’s a common perception that travel in China can be difficult in comparison to many other places.
People often bring up the language barrier as a major obstacle, as well as differences in cultural and social norms compared with the West.
But these things shouldn’t put you off visiting China.
With some preparation, an open-mind and a healthy dose of patience, you’ll have a ball in China.
For this list, I’ve focused on things I had no clue about beforehand, but certainly wished I had!
OK, so here are 10 tips for your first trip to China.
1. Use a translation app
The language barrier can occasionally lead to confusing, frustrating and embarrassing situations.
While they’re not always practical to whip out every time the need to communicate arises, there are times when phone-based translator apps can be a godsend.
Google Translate has been available in China for several years and is widely used among tourists.
You’ll find restaurant staff and shop assistants will usually be able to engage in a simple conversation using Google Translate.
Its real-time camera feature is also handy.
This allows you to scan Chinese characters and translate them to another language. It’s awesome for reading menus – even if the translations aren’t always entirely accurate!
You should also check out these other great apps for China.
2. Learn the Chinese version of queuing
It’s a well-known fact that the Chinese aren’t fans of forming orderly lines.
A typical Chinese ‘queue’, rather than being single-file, more closely resembles a football scrum.
Queue-jumping is extremely common and takes on various forms, from all-out body barging to stealthy squeeze-ins and even verbally asserting one’s right to go in front of every other person in the room.
This part of daily Chinese life can be pretty stressful, especially if you’re traveling to China for the first time.
However, like most things, to learn to queue like a local, all you need is a bit of practice, and preferably, a healthy sense of competition.
A few essential tips:
- Never stand still – the second you stop moving, five people will have crammed themselves into the space left by the person in front of you.
- Keep close – glue yourself to the person in front and don’t open any gaps.
- Stand wide and angle your elbows out – even if there are no gaps in front of you, someone will probably still try and squeeze in. Don’t be afraid to use your arms or body to block them. Wear a backpack to provide a bit of extra cushion for the pushin’ if you like!
- Don’t wait for the cashier to call you – as soon as they’re done serving the person in front of you, go straight up, hand them the money/passport/tickets/whatever and start talking to them. Occasionally people will try to butt in just as you’re about to be served. But don’t feel bad about pushing them aside either.
Remember, Chinese have a different concept of personal space.
Definitely don’t get aggressive, but asserting your intentions by physical means really isn’t considered rude at all.
3. Pay attention to those tones!
Many Westerners see Chinese as difficult to learn.
That’s partly because Chinese is a tonal language – an unfamiliar concept to most European language speakers.
Just being able to say few words can go a long way towards making your first trip to China easier and more enjoyable, even if you’re on a package tour.
Download a Mandarin phrasebook app with recorded sounds. Listen to the words and tones and then repeat, repeat, repeat.
Whether you’re learning basic Mandarin from an app or a native speaker, absolutely do not ignore the tones. These are the changes in speaking pitch.
The simplest strategy for beginners is to mimic each word as it’s said, as closely as possible – both in the pronunciation and the intonation.
Even if your pronunciation is dead-on, utter a word or phrase without the correct tones to a native Chinese speaker, and the likely reply you’ll receive is an uncomprehending blank stare.
4. Walk away from crowds
Too many crowds at that famous tourist spot? Just walk away!
Any popular attraction in China is bound to draw in large crowds of domestic tourists.
The best strategy for avoiding crowds is visiting earlier or later in the day. You should also avoid national holiday periods.
If you’re on a package tour though, you probably won’t have a choice.
Sometimes you’ll arrive at the exact same time as 10 busloads of excitable local tourists.
This isn’t always the huge problem it’s made out to be.
The values of a typical Chinese group tourist are different to most crowd-averse Western tourists.
Local tour buses usually drop passengers off at designated spots where they can snap an iconic photo.
Rarely do the selfie-stick wielding masses wander far from the tour bus, their group or the main path.
Walk a few minutes away from the madness in any direction, and often the crowds all but disappear.
Of course, depending on the site, this doesn’t always work. But you’d be surprised how often it does!
5. Use a VPN
I’d say this is one of the best tips for your first trip to China.
Most people have heard of the Great Firewall of China, a tool employed by the Chinese Government to block citizens from accessing certain online content.
You might think a couple of weeks’ break from Facebook is a good thing. However, the list of banned apps and blocked sites is far more extensive than you might have realized.
It includes Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube, Gmail, Uber, Reddit and Dropbox. It also includes many international news outlets, not to mention Google and anything Google related.
Fortunately, the firewall is pretty easy to get around, with the help of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) app. A VPN anonymises your identity online by masking your IP address and assigning you a temporary IP located in another country.
Not all VPNs work in China. For an up-to-date list of VPNs that do work in China, check out this helpful blog.
6. Try to stay calm in Chinese train stations
Chinese train stations can be crazy!
The single most mind-blowing and stressful moment of my first trip to China was crossing the border from Hong Kong to Shenzhen North train station.
It’s one of the biggest and busiest rail transport hubs in the country. Boy, was I unprepared.
I’d bought my high-speed train ticket in advance and all I knew was I had to swap out the receipt I’d received from an online agent for an official China Railway ticket.
English signage was non-existent. No official-looking person I accosted either spoke English or seemed to understand what was printed on my Ctrip booking confirmation.
I was stranded, utterly without help.
After wandering around the colossal terminal building for what seemed like forever, I finally spotted people walking away from a series of cashier windows with tickets in their hands.
Joining the back of a 50-person strong queue, I hoped and prayed I was in the right place.
Over an hour later, my prayers were answered and I returned from the ticket booth triumphant.
My saving grace was that I had arrived four hours before my train’s departure time. This turned out to be slightly excessive, but I never worried about missing my train.
If you’re with a tour group you should be fine. But if you’re traveling solo like I was, refer to a guide like this for dealing with a Chinese mega-station here.
7. Take care when crossing the road
The only road rule in China is size matters. That means trucks, buses and cars are king.
Pedestrians? Way, way down the bottom of the pecking order.
You’ll most likely come across zebra crossings painted at some intersections.
While pedestrians do use them, motorists seem to regard them mainly as decorations. Stopping at them is completely optional.
Traffic light crossings tend to have a slightly better strike-rate when it comes to cars actually stopping, but even a green pedestrian light doesn’t guarantee right of way.
A red light means nothing to a Chinese motorist on a mission. It’s always up to you to get out of the way.
I think it’s fairly safe to say that pedestrian rights are non-existent in China!
So, how do you cross a Chinese road and survive?
The best advice is to follow the locals and seek safety in numbers.
Cross in a group whenever you can. But if you are on your own, try to cross only at intersections.
Keep scanning the road for a break in traffic until you have enough of a gap to walk swiftly through.
If you see a driver speeding up to get through an intersection – wait, because he ain’t stopping! Only continue when the coast is clear.
8. Get used to smoking and spitting in public
Indoor smoking, but free-range spitting even more so, are two things plenty of foreigners find impossible to get used to.
But if you’re aware of how common these practices are beforehand, witnessing them in the flesh hopefully won’t come as a shock when you’re traveling in China for the first time.
Nearly one-third of China’s population are smokers. This is one reason why many Chinese people often feel the need to hack up a chunk of lung whenever the urge arises.
The combination of tobacco smoke and pollution contributes to the common Chinese pastime of hocking up phlegm onto footpaths, along with the traditional belief that “out is better than in”.
As a foreigner, you’ll find this rather unsavory. But remember, every culture has its own idea of ‘normal’.
For example, blowing your nose into a handkerchief and stuffing it back into your pocket is considered deeply disgusting by many in Chinese society.
9. Get the right visa
Getting a visa for China isn’t as hard as it used to be. In some cases, you don’t even need one.
You can now see many parts of China for a few days without getting a visa before you leave home.
Known as Visa-Free Transit, it’s a great way to enjoy your first trip to China without the hassle or expense of a traditional visa.
You simply apply for it when you arrive in China, e.g. at the airport.
There are some rules with this visa exemption. For example:
- You need to be transiting through China on the way to another country (e.g. your itinerary is Los Angeles – Shanghai – Tokyo – Los Angeles)
- You can stay for up to 144 hours depending on where you arrive in China (different cities have different rules)
- And you must be from an approved country.
To find out if you’re eligible for Visa-Free Transit, use the Chinese government’s online checker.
However, if you’re traveling in China for more than a few days, you’ll need a visa so apply for it early.
10. Avoid Chinese beer at bars
I could turn a blind eye to the spitting, tolerate the pedestrian crossings and learn to enjoy the ‘sport’ of competitive queuing in China. But this one… this one got to me on my first trip to China.
I was at a bar, looking forward to my first cold, thirst-quenching beer of the evening.
I ordered my drink, and upon taking my first sip, the shock to my system was immediate. The cool, refreshing beverage I’d been craving was neither cool nor refreshing.
In fact, nowhere in this entire bar did there seem to be a fridge in sight!
Drinking ice-cold beverages isn’t particularly common in China. Conventional wisdom has it that cold drinks are bad for digestion.
Many Chinese will opt for warm or even hot water and beverages, as warmer liquids aid in breaking down and digesting fats.
See also: Why do Chinese people drink hot water?
From what I’ve read, this is an idea which has some scientific merit behind it.
Since there are few health benefits to sinking copious amounts of beer at a KTV joint in any case, I really didn’t see the point in even beer being served warm!
But while cheap, warm beer certainly doesn’t sit well with my palate, my Chinese friends seem to like their lukewarm lager just fine.
If you really can’t stomach warm beer, try some authentic local liquor instead, like good quality baijiu (white spirit) or Chinese whiskey.
So there you have it – 10 tips for your first trip to China. I hope you learned a thing or two! If you have another few minutes, check out my blog on the truth about China.