Based on our extensive travel experience in China and from the questions that we frequently get from friends or clients, we share below some of our best advice to prepare your trip to China as well as some very useful resources. You will find many links to websites that offer very good information. We hope that this will take some stress away by giving you a better understanding of what to expect once you get there. You can also download this guide to your computer then print it or move it to your tablet in case you need some of this information while on the road.

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  • Overview of China
  • This video gives you a very quick summary of China and its culture and history. Know everything about China in 10 minutes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IqdV5EfByg
    This other time lapse video gives you a quick and amazing pictorial overview of China (watch in full-screen mode): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1mRcELSVyY#t=152

  • Visa
  • Food
    • Chinese food is served differently from Western food. You do not order a dish for yourself. Every dish is in the center of the table to be shared. You need to order a mix of foods (vegetables and meat) to compose a meal.
    • How to order: Menus in most restaurants have English and/or pictures so that you can order by pointing at the food item. Most popular drinks with meals are tea and beer.
    • How to eat it: You are expected to use chopsticks. However, if you are not capable of eating for chopsticks then you can ask for a fork or spoon. Using a spoon is quite common in China. All restaurants have forks but, if you worry, you can carry your own plastic fork. Learn to use chopsticks and practice at home before you leave: http://www.wikihow.com/Eat-with-Chopsticks
    • Rice: unless you specify otherwise, rice will be brought to the table only at the end of the meal. It is considered a bit like a filler.
    • Foreigners are most familiar with Cantonese food (usually modified overseas) and Sichuan food. China has a wide variety of cuisine. Read this to learn about the variety of Chinese cuisine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_cuisine
    • Special case: hot pot. Something to try while in China. This better when you are a group of at least 4 people although some restaurants have individual pots. It is the real version of “Chinese fondue”. The Sichuan version would be the most spicy one. See how it works here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9XULhGtF6Q
    • If you are vegetarian, you will find many vegetarian restaurants in larger cities, even vegan restaurants. In regular Chinese restaurants, since you order dishes and not meals, you can order the appropriate dishes. Read this: http://vegetarian-china.info/
    • There is no tipping in restaurants in China.
  • Arriving in China
    • Before the plane lands, you will be given a landing card that you need to fill and present with your passport when passing immigration. The card looks like this: http://sydney.chineseconsulate.org/eng/gdtp/P020071009492054844175.jpg If you loose the departure portion of the card, do not worry as there will be plenty at the airport when you leave. Check this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sN8FIHBLkA0
    • After passing immigration, you pick-up your luggage and exit to the main hall passing in the “nothing to declare” customs door (unless you have something to declare). While they rarely checked your luggage at customs, here are the duty-free restrictions: http://www.worlddutyfree.com/information/customs-allowances.html?task=&country_id=39637
    • In the main hall you may wish to look for an ATM to get some RMB.
    • Ignore anybody approaching you to offer you a taxi. Follow the signs for “taxis” and go to the taxi line.
    • Have the name of your hotel and address in writing in Chinese for the taxi driver. It is extremely rare to have a driver who can speak English. Do not use Google Translate or similar software to translate the name and address. It will not be correct. Get these from the hotel website.
    • In some cities there are public transportation alternatives from the airport as well. We cover these in our city guides.
  • Driving in China
  • It is not possible to drive in China with a driver’s license from another country or even an international driver’s license. Only a Chinese driver’s license is accepted. At the Beijing airport it is possible to covert a foreign driver’s license into a temporary driver’s Chinese license. Assuming that you manage to get such a temporary permit, it will be nearly impossible to rent a car as rental companies generally do not accept foreign credit cards and the only international car rental company (Hertz) requires that you have 6 months of driving experience in China. In any case, we advise you not to drive in China as the rules of the road are different and you probably cannot read signs.

  • Weather and Pollution
  • Because of the large size of China, weather will vary greatly from one place to the next and it would not be unusual to have a temperature discrepancy of as much as 40 degrees Celsius between the north and south of China. This website gives you average monthly temperatures for most cities in China: http://www.worldweather.org/001/m001.htm Generally the best months to travel to China are April to June and September to early November. In the spring months, you are more likely to have rain in the south of China. While it is not frequent, in the spring, you may witness sand storms in Beijing. In the summer, it will be extremely hot and humid in most places. Winter months will be quite cold in the north but you need to go far north (like Harbin) to see snow. If possible, do not travel during major holidays.
    Pollution is bad in the eastern part of China. But like weather, pollution levels change every day and also depend on weather. A windy day or a good rainfall will bring blue skies. As you are only passing through for a few days, even a bad pollution day will not have lasting effect on your health, maybe some temporary discomfort. Most people feel nothing. You can read this article from a US doctor who lives in Beijing: http://www.myhealthbeijing.com/resources/womens-health/breathing-clean-in-beijing-lets-separate-fact-from-fiction/ In certain areas like Beijing, in the early part of the year, you may also witness sand storms (as Beijing is fairly close to the Gobi desert). http://www.weather.com/news/beijing-sand-storm-20130301

  • Chinese holidays
  • It is preferable to avoid traveling during the major Chinese holidays.
    • Chinese New Year: the most important holiday. A large number of Chinese return to their home town resulting in the largest human migration in the world. Transportation is super difficult to obtain Traveling is usually extremely difficult from mid-January to mid-February. Tickets on some routes can sell-out in seconds. Read this article: http://money.cnn.com/gallery/news/economy/2013/02/07/china-new-year-migration/index.html
    • National holiday: usually week of October 1st, also a major holiday where Chinese get a week off and travel all over China. The result is that all tourist attractions are overly crowded. See our photos on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=383312235124720&set=pb.195309747258304.-2207520000.1390702559.&type=3&theater
    • Finally there are several other long week-ends. Not nearly as bad as the major holidays but these dates require some planning, especially when traveling near a major city. Here are the dates for 2014:      o Tomb Sweeping from April 5th to 7th
           o Labour Day from May 1st to 3rd
           o Dragon Boat Festival from May 31st to June 2nd
           o Mid-Autumn Festival from September 6th to 8th
  • Money
  • China has its own currency and it is the only one that is legal tender. The Chinese currency is called the Renminbi (RMB). It is also often referred to as the Chinese Yuan (CNY) or “kuai”. This is what the currency looks like: http://www.chinatoday.com/fin/mon/ The easiest way to obtain Chinese currency is by using one of the numerous ATMs. ATMs are everywhere including at the airports. These cash machines dispense 100RMB bills. You should advise your bank prior to the trip so that they do not block your card assuming suspicious use. You can also obtain Chinese currency by exchanging at a bank or at your hotel. You need to bring your passport if you plan to exchange at a bank. It is faster to exchange at your hotel but they can usually only exchange smaller amounts. There are bank counters at the major airports. The exchange rate will be roughly the same no matter where you exchange in China. You will also have a better exchange rate in China than at your home country. While there are banks and ATMs at the airport, it is a good idea to get a small amount of RMB to get your started when you arrive (pay for the taxi to your hotel) just in case your bank card has some issues. You can check on various web sites to get an approximate exchange rate from your currency to RMB although the actual exchange rate that you will get will not quite be the same. Credit cards are accepted in China but many places require cash payment. Expect to pay cash in smaller restaurants, convenience stores, markets, smaller hotels and tourist attractions.

  • Shopping – bargaining
  • Many tourists traveling to China expect everything to be cheaper than back home. It is often not the case, even for goods made in China.
    What not to buy: do not buy electronics as they are most probably more expensive in China than where you come from (due to taxes). You also run the risk of buying a fake that will not work when you go back home. Warranties may not apply outside of China. All international chains such as H&M, Zara, etc. have about the same price all over the world. Luxury brands are much more expensive in China due to higher taxes which is why Chinese love to shop overseas.
    What to buy: good deals can be had on eyeglasses (bring your prescription if you can); custom-made suits, shirts and dresses and nice Chinese traditional items as souvenirs.
    Knock-offs: you will find many markets and shops selling knock-offs of famous brands. Understand that often these are inferior quality goods that bear little resemblance with the real except for the brand logo. In some places one can find good quality fakes that are hard to tell apart from the real thing. Do not expect these goods to be very cheap. Fake goods are divided into several “grades” and you will never seen the best grades in markets until you ask for them. Understand that it is probably illegal to bring knock-offs back home and doing so may cause you some troubles especially if you are returning back to a country where these famous brands originate from.
    Where to buy: in every city you will find a large number of shopping malls of various quality. The good museums also often have excellent shops for good quality souvenirs. You will also find many markets (usually indoors) selling lower quality goods and fakes.
    Bargaining: except in restaurants, shopping malls and fancy stores, you are expected to bargain. (particularly in markets). In markets, never pay more than 10 to 20% of the original asking price. You will probably not achieve this price until you actually walk away. The key is to keep smiling and not being aggressive.

  • Medical
  • In the unfortunate event of an accident or serious illness, you may need to see a doctor. We suggest that you get proper travel medical insurance. While no special shots are normally required for travel to China, your basic vaccines should be up to date.
    Medical assistance in China is found in hospitals. The quality of medical assistance will vary by region, with bigger cities offering top quality medical services that are of international quality. Within a city there will be various quality of hospitals. While Chinese hospitals can provide very good support at an excellent price, you need to speak mandarin or have someone who does to accompany you.
    If you are in need of medical assistance, we recommend that you ask your hotel for the nearest international hospital. These hospitals are usually staffed with doctors from western countries.
    The US embassy in China has a list of excellent hospitals: http://beijing.usembassy-china.org.cn/acs_health.html
    There are also international organizations such as International SOS that have clinics in several cities: https://www.internationalsos.com/en/asia-pacific_china.htm

  • Language
  • A lot of Chinese speak English. But those who speak English are generally better educated so they are not driving taxis, waiting on tables in restaurants or selling entrance tickets at attractions. They are rather holding professional and management jobs in office towers. They are at work and not visiting the Forbidden City, so you are unlikely to bump into them.
    There are 296 languages spoken in China. The official language is Mandarin. Most Chinese under the age of 50 that have some education will speak Mandarin as this is the language they learn in school and watch on most TV channels. For many of them, Mandarin is their second language. So it is not unusual for Chinese to not understand each other. The second most popular language is Cantonese. Cantonese is spoken mostly in the south of China and in Hong Kong.
    Even for those skilled at languages, Mandarin is difficult to learn and takes a lot of effort and time to get to an acceptable level. While you do not need to learn Mandarin to travel to China, it will be appreciated if you can say a few expressions. All one need is “hello” and “thank you”. Tones are important in Mandarin, so watch and listen this video. Unless you want to become fluent, this is all you need: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1LWu81kWqE
    It is not so difficult for one to travel in China without speaking Mandarin. Signs in airport and subways will also be in English and announcements are also made in English. Restaurants will generally have English menus or at least menus with pictures. To buy entrance tickets to tourist attractions, sign language usually works. However you will hardly ever find a taxi driver that speaks any English. So you need to have your destination in writing. It is extremely important to have your hotel name and address in Chinese in writing for the taxi driver to depart from the airport to your hotel. Get this from your hotel website. Never use something like Google Translate for this. To take a taxi to a tourist attraction, have your hotel write it down for you (and remember to have a business card of the hotel to return home!). If you are buying a travel book for China, make sure that the one you have shows the name of places in Chinese. You can then use this book to seek assistance and direction.
    You may also find that a phrase book to be handy. In addition, if you have a smartphone, there are several apps that can be of assistance. Such as this dictionary: http://www.pleco.com/ This app also allows you to point your camera on a menu item and see the translation: http://www.waygoapp.com/ The Google Translate app is also rather good to translate whole sentences: http://www.google.co.uk/mobile/translate/

  • Toilets
  • Rumors about Chinese toilets being of the “squat” type are generally true. However in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai you are more likely to find the ‘sitting toilets”. You’ll be fine at your hotel but on the road you may have to seize toilet opportunities when they present themselves.
    In older areas or buildings you will likely find only the squat type. Public toilets on the street are the kind that you prefer to avoid. They will be smelly and lack privacy. See some photos on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=china%20toilets
    You will find clean modern toilets in hotel lobbies, shopping malls, western restaurants like McDonalds or Starbucks and other nice restaurants. There will also be available in modern tourist attractions.
    No matter which type of toilets you use, you will often have to have your own paper. So always carry some tissue paper in your backpack or day bag. Also in many places you are expected to place the used toilet paper in a waste paper basket as the sewage system may block if paper is put in.

  • Scams to watch for
    • Never follow a stranger anywhere. This is a pretty universal piece of advice.
    • Do not go with someone who approaches you offering a taxi. Taxis are pretty busy and do not go around looking for clients.
    • Avoid taking a taxi that is waiting at the exit of a tourist attraction. They are usually looking for easy preys. Walk a block or two and fly one down the street. The vast majority of drivers are honest.
    • Never take a taxi that won’t use the meter. Walk out and take another one. However, it is common in smaller towns for drivers to offer a flat rate.
    • In Beijing, do not use the rickshaws. They will agree with you on a price like 3RMB then later ask for 300RMB and may even threaten you.
    • Beware of overly friendly locals who want to practice English. This is not how Chinese learn English. They will try to befriend you, then suggest to go for a drink then leave you with a huge bill.
    • Beware of the art students who want to take you to an exhibition of their professor’s art. They are not students and the art is grossly overpriced.
    • Around People Square in Shanghai, there is a high probability that you will be approached by “students from out of town”. They will ask you to take their photo and eventually suggest that you accompany them to a “tea ceremony”. You will end up with a grossly inflated bill.
    • Chinese traditional medicine clinic offering you a “diagnosis” and expensive (worthless) herbs. As a rule, avoid any of these clinics that are part of any tour group (they pay to get a steady supply of tourists) or recommended by someone you don’t know well (including tour guides who may be getting a cut of the action).
    • In Hong Kong you may be approached by fake monks looking for a donation. Real monks do not beg.
    • Do not support beggars in general. Many are "professionals".
    • When using a taxi, Watch for the fake bill swap when paying. Ideally, have smaller notes with you before you get in. Reminder: tipping is not expected.
    • Always be wary of anyone who initiates contact with you, no matter how innocent they look or act (be especially wary in touristy areas). Use common sense and trust your intuition. For example, how common is it for a Chinese girl to boldly approach a random foreign man on the street? In general, Chinese people are reluctant to approach strangers, particularly foreigners. If they seem too comfortable, it could be because they’re practiced at it. And don’t underestimate their acting skills since they’ve been practicing every day for years.
  • Cultural differences
  • When traveling to China or any other foreign country, one can expect to be “shocked” every once in a while. But isn’t that what traveling is all about? How people behave is very much due to their history, circumstances and environment. Here are some things that you can expect in China. Understand that when you are visiting tourist attractions, the Chinese that you are meeting are mostly tourists themselves from other provinces.

    Personal space is a luxury – China is very crowded and Chinese consequently have a very different concept of personal space. You will be pushed and shoved. It is nothing personal. Don’t expect a "sorry" or "excuse me" either. In crowded areas like lines for transportation such as on the subway or going into an elevator, just stand your ground and guard yourself.
    Queuing – Generally people waiting for the subway or wanting to buy tickets will stand in line but you will often have someone trying to cut in. The problem is, a gap that big (e.g. you can slip a piece of paper between your face and the preceding person's back) will be perceived as the end of the line, just asking someone to slip in.
    Remember that overpopulation plays a big part in this behavior and do your best to keep cool while holding your place in line. Don't be afraid to stick elbows out or to shuffle around defensively to keep people from stepping in front of you.
    Spitting – There isn’t that much spitting actually but because there are so 1.3 billion people then you’re likely to see (and hear) it often. More “sophisticated” city residents like Chinese are themselves very disturbed by this “peasant” behavior.
    Being asked for photos – You may have a brief moment when you feel like a movie star when you are approached by a Chinese asking with sign language to have their photo taken with you. These are usually tourists themselves visiting the big city from some remote place where they hardly ever see foreigners, if ever. This is pretty harmless. Just smile and play along. Local Chinese could not care less about you as they rub shoulders with tons of expats daily.
    Staring - All foreign visitors to China, particularly blond or fair-skinned people, receive plenty of attention when in public. People will openly stare at you, expressionless, and sometimes even point you out to friends and family by jabbing a finger in your direction. Don't be offended; people are generally just curious. The excessive attention, even when eating in restaurants, can get tiring; do your best to keep your cool.
    Throwing garbage on the street -
    The whole "litterbug" educational campaign has not swept China. Folks tend to toss things aside (even from several flights up) and into the street. Part of this tendency might be due to the fact that they're used to someone cleaning up after themDespite this, you will never see cleaner streets and sidewalks. Chinese cities employ thousands of people whose job it is to sweep the sidewalks and streets of cigarette butts, litter, leaves, etc. It's a thankless, never-ending job but the streets are very tidy.
    Friendly with kids - If you travel to China with kids, especially young blonde ones, you will probably be overwhelmed at the attention they get. It is all meant very kindly. It can be intrusive and you might even find it rude, but it is meant in the best way. Folks will never tire of trying to get your baby to smile, teasing your toddler and fondling cheeks.
    Walking and crossing the street – Look both ways, twice and follow the crowd. Keep this in mind and you’ll be OK: legs are the lowest form of transportation. Despite the observances from your own culture, a pedestrian is expected to yield to everyone else. Buses will not stop for you. Even when you are crossing the street on a walk sign and you have the right-of-way, and you are holding the hand of an octagenarian while pushing a stroller with twin infants, yield to bicycles and cars because they will not stop for you. Keep keen when crossing the street. Note that jaywalking is probably not legal but everyone does it all the time. While on the topic of bicycle, be careful for those bicycles when getting out of a taxi.
    Are they yelling? - Not really. You’ll find that folks over there talk at a louder level than You are used to, especially when they're excited. I used to think my neighbors were fighting all the time. It turns out, they just talk loudly. Especially on mobile phones, you’ll find people shout away. They're not the least bit angry.

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