China. It’s a strange and wonderful place that draws in many a tourists, 27 million each year, in fact. China has great landmarks (such as the Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors and Forbidden City), weird but wonderful cuisine and a fantastically varied landscape. But… few countries will feel as foreign as China will. If you’re not prepared, China could really throw you for a loop. If you’re contemplating your first holiday to China in the near future, here are ten things you should know before you go.
1. You’ll need a visa in advance. Applications for visas for China must be made in person at a Chinese consulate or embassy either by you or a visa agent acting on your behalf. A single entry, 30-day visa for a UK citizen will cost £30. It takes four working days to get a visa for China so allow plenty of time to arrange it. (If you’re travelling with an organised group the tour company can arrange visas.)
2. You should learn some Mandarin before you go. Very few people in China speak English outside of those working directly with tourists. Ordering food in restaurants, communicating with your taxi driver and asking for directions or help are all best done in Mandarin. There are plenty of free online resources for learning Mandarin.
3. The food in China isn’t anything like “Chinese food” you’ve eaten at home. You won’t find any General Tso’s chicken in sight. The region of China has it’s own specific cuisine. Sichuan food is full of pungent, hot and salty with lots of garlic, chilli and peppercorn. Cantonese food is famous for it’s dim sum.
4. Spitting, burping, snotting and slurping are common. Bodily functions aren’t as taboo in China as they are in the West. You’ll see old men blowing their noses directly into rubbish bins and babies weeing directly into gutters on the street.
5. Expect attention. If you’re tall, fat, blonde, ginger or pale-skinned you’ll get plenty of attention on the street in China. Travelling with children will also draw a lot of attention. Locals will think nothing of shoving a camera in your little one’s face. See this travelling family’s interesting take on dealing with the unwanted attention in China.
6. If you want to travel on a certain train or flight, book it in advance. You’re battling the biggest population on the planet for berths on trains and seats on planes. If you have a tight schedule book in advance. The sleeper train between Beijing and Xi’an is notorious for being booked out.
7. You’ll be using squat toilets… so get used to the idea now. It’s not that gross. In fact, it’s way more hygienic than putting your bum on a toilet seat that thousands of people have used before you.
8. Learn about Chinese customs. The last thing you want to do is upset the local population by getting angry, not toasting when you drink or using your chopsticks the wrong way around.
9. Brush up on common scams so you won’t fall for them. Here’s a great blog post on the ten most common scams in Beijing. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
10. Pollution is rampant in China. Air pollution can reach toxic levels. If you’re asthmatic or travelling with asthmatic children come prepared with inhalers. Travel in September and October is the best for air quality.