China now ranks among the top five destinations for tourists in the world. As someone who lives in China, I can confirm this is true. More and more people really are visiting the Celestial Empire.
The Internet is overflowing with advice on how to get to different places here. But there are things about China that rarely get mentioned, yet it’s a very good idea to know about them in order to avoid unpleasant surprises.
A crowd of passengers at the railway station in Zhengzhou on the first day of “Golden Week.”
NEVER — I’ll repeat that — NEVER plan a trip during Chinese national holidays. In China, there’s no such thing as official vacation, and the only chance for people who live there to travel is during state-sanctioned official holidays. And…they really do travel. Everyone at the same time! It’s not an experience for the faint-hearted.
All tourist spots during these times are literally swarming with people. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to see anything through the crowd. It’s best to check if your planned dates of travel coincide with any national holidays. And remember: four out of six of the main celebrations change their date every year. However, you can definitely rule out May 1st and the first week of October.
Business class seating in the high-speed Beijing-Shanghai train.
It’s best to buy train tickets in China at least a month early, otherwise there’s every chance you won’t be going anywhere. The differences between first and second class seats in terms of price are often insignificant, but the difference in comfort can be huge, so tickets for first sell out very fast.If you really need to get somewhere, you can always buy a ticket without a guaranteed seat — you just have to sit on the floor for a couple of hours.
Another important thing. You can only enter a railway station by showing both your ticket and your passport. You’ll have to stand in line to have the first checked, then go through security. Plan your time accordingly.
A passenger train near the city of Guilin.
If you travel by sleeper train, unless you get on at the initial departure station, your bed sheet will not be changed after use by the previous occupant. Basically, there are things that happen in China that aren’t worth thinking about too much if you want to avoid stress.
The system of public transport in China is excellent. You can get practically anywhere on a bus, although you have to have the exact amount of change. The only problem is the buses and the subway often stop working relatively early in the night. In Shanghai, for example, the subway stops at 10:30. But remember there’s always a cheap taxi available.
A pedestrian crossing with automatic turn gates to prevent people crossing the road when the red light shows.
No one in China leaves tips. Ever. Not in taxis, nor restaurants, nor hotels. It’s not considered acceptable. Even if you really like the service, you’ll not succeed in leaving extra money even on the fifth or sixth attempt.
If you’re invited to lunch or dinner by Chinese people, they’ll almost certainly pay for your meal, and this works the other way around as well. That is, they expect you to pay if you invite them out. And since people in China eat at set times, the chances of finding a place to eat outside of the usual timetable are low.
Be prepared for absolutely no one to speak English. No one. Not even in hotels. And don’t bother wasting your money on Chinese phrase books. Unless you can somehow miraculously learn their tones, you’ll not be able to say anything intelligible. It’s best to focus on memorizing a few basic characters (about food, for example). Also, download an app that can translate things into Chinese for you.
The Robot Dining Hall cafe in Ningbo where robots work as waiters. They can take orders and understand simple phrases.
There’s no Facebook in China. Nor are there any Google services, such as the search engine, Gmail, Google Maps, or YouTube. Android users will have trouble loading apps. So either be prepared for some social isolation or prepare a VPN beforehand.
Not all hotels have the right to host foreigners. There is a law in China regarding the compulsory registration of foreign citizens, and not all hotels can perform this function. When booking the hotel, check the small print for the phrase “Only for citizens of mainland China.”
You can find hot water in China everywhere: in train stations, in airports, in parks, and in restaurants. So if you have a thermos, you can always make yourself some tea or heat up some noodles wherever you are. This is great if you’re traveling on the cheap.
Chinese people are very friendly. This can be a problem if you’re asking for directions.That is, people will show you the way even if they don’t know precisely where it is. They just really want to help and think that if they don’t they will lose face. Take the easier option: download a map to your phone.
The Chi Lin Nunnery in Hong Kong.
China is an amazing and beautiful country. Traveling there by yourself requires additional effort, but in exchange you’ll receive so many unforgettable impressions that you’ll be certain it was worth it in the end.