China travel tips
There is a peacefulness to even the busiest streets in China, a soft and soothing energy that’s unique only to this part of the world.
China is a global traveler’s nirvana. See 6,000-year-old relics, climb into ancient pagodas, visit tea plantations and take a cruise down the Grand Canal in a wooden boat. The fall is the perfect time to visit China, because the weather is mild, but it’s after the national holidays, so the tourism is slow.
Although Shanghai and Beijing are the best known destinations, our newest favorite city is Hangzhou, in the Zhejiang province. Hangzhou, home of China’s most beautiful lake (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site), West Lake, is a short bullet train ride from Shanghai. The city is famous for its Dragonwell tea, silk production and as a business center; it’s the home of Alibaba.
Book your tickets to Hangzhou through Priceline.com and get up to 7 percent Cash Back from ShopAtHome.com.
There are countless reasons to add Hangzhou to your must-see bucket list. But before you head there, here are nine important China travel tips to make your journey run more smoothly.
1. You need a travel visa:
To visit China, a passport is not enough. You need a special travel visa, which you must apply for. Not all locations can do this in-state, so you may need to account for time (and money) to send it to an agency that can process the application for you.
2. You need an invitation:
To apply for your visa, you will need a written invitation letter from a resident in China. That’s why we recommend traveling through a tour agency with connections on the ground. Otherwise, if you don’t know a Chinese resident, you might end up with plane tickets you can’t use.
Because it can be tricky to find the right connections, our favorite tour operator in China is CYTS Tours.
3. Many Chinese people don’t speak English:
Unlike Europe and many other international destinations, tourism is still not big in many of China’s outlying cities, such as Hangzhou. You may be surprised to find bus drivers, bankers and even hotel operators don’t speak English.
Before you go, pick up a wordless travel dictionary — basically a look-and-point picture book of the most common words you will need to communicate while traveling. Also, pick up a business card everywhere you visit and take photos of the signs out front on your cell phone, to show to your taxi driver if you get lost. The Wordless Travel Book, $6 (plus Cash Back), Walmart.com
4. Visa is not universally accepted:
Get money exchanged before you leave. Don’t count on withdrawing money from an ATM; many American cards won’t be accepted. If you get desperate, you can exchange dollars at many four- and five-star hotels, but the rate is typically worse — and they only will accept crisp, new dollar bills. So make sure you pack pretty pennies.
5. Chinese food is not Chinese food:
What you get for take-out back home is not what you’re going to find in China. Different regions of the country have different flavors, some spicy, some salty, some totally foreign to anything you’ve ever had before. Pack some extra Clif Bars in your suitcase, just in case. Clif Bar Crunchy Peanut Butter Energy Bars, $11.48 (plus Cash Back), Walmart.com
6. Don’t drink the water:
Even in a five-star hotel, in such an ancient region, the pipes are often old and tap water is not considered safe to drink. Be careful not to ingest the water when brushing your teeth and taking a shower.
7. Expect to squat:
Although you can find “western” toilets in some tourist destinations, the airport and nicer hotels, you are inevitably going to run across a different style of toilet. Prepare your thigh muscles for squatting — and always pack Kleenix or toilet paper, wherever you go. Many Chinese restrooms don’t provide toilet paper.
Also, with the old pipes, it’s not recommended to flush TP down the toilet, which means you’ll see mounds of used squares in the stall trash can. It doesn’t hurt to also pack a handkerchief to put over your nose, if you are sensitive to odors. Just be private about it; overtly dry-heaving isn’t polite. Kleenix Perfect Fit Tissues, $4.47 (plus Cash Back), Walmart.com
8. Pack a converter:
To charge your cell phone and other goodies, you’ll need a power outlet converter. Make sure your converter is rated for Asia — not all are.
Don’t expect to have as many power outlets as you may be used to back home. You may need to ration charging time, so it’s smart to pack an extra cell phone battery pack, too. Don’t bank on a solar-powered charger, though. Hangzhou can be pretty foggy and overcast, especially this time of year. Travel Smart Power Converter, $24.99 (plus Cash Back), Walmart.com
9. Download WhatsApp:
China’s government seriously limits Internet access, including Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Google (and with it, Gmail), Instagram and many other ways Americans are used to communicating. If you don’t want to pay hefty international phone call rates, download the free app WhatsApp, through which you can send texts anywhere in the world over wifi for free. You can even make phone calls through the app, no matter the phone type, iPhone to Android. It’s like a cross-platform FaceTime that will save you big bucks and make it easy to stay connected with home.