Heads Up: Our posts may contain affiliate links! If you buy/book something through one of these links, you will not pay an extra penny, but we'll get a small commission, which keeps this blog up & running. Thank you!
The more I think of my one-month trip in China the more I want to go back and start it over again! This doesn’t happen often to me; even if I liked almost every country I have visited so far just few stole my heart to the point that I am thinking of revisiting them after just 1 year I came back! “Go China” my inner self…screams and you know what? This is neither because China is the perfect country nor cause I have only positive memories from my stay there- in fact, you will read below some eehhhmm experiences as well! Yet, China unknowingly stands for a totally different world for us (coming from a Western/ European country). Cultural shock? Tick! Beautiful places? Tick! Great Nature? Tick! Historical landmarks? You got the point! But let’s see in detail why to visit China and what to expect in here!
What to know about visiting China – the Good
Go China for the history…
China is one of the oldest countries in the world that has played an extremely important role in Asian (and not only) history. From the silk road to the Forbidden City and from the Great Wall to the skyscrapers in Shanghai you can’t get bored! The country is packed with places of interest, notorious monuments, historical landmarks and great stories waiting to be heard.
Tip: You don’t have to arrange guided tours for every historical place you want to visit. I get it, you feel a bit scared wandering alone but, trust me, the public transport is decent and it has English signs too! Maybe the buses are a bit more complicated but still, the numbers are universal! For example, it‘s easy and cheap to visit the Terracotta Army by the local bus!
… but also for the culture!
Hand by hand with history, China holds some special customs, beautiful festivals, unique celebrations and so much more when it comes to culture! I would highly recommend you to plan a visit to China around a specific festival (the Lantern Festival for example) or a traditional event so you can experience China like a local!
In our case, we picked the so-called “worst period” to travel to China- the month of the Chinese New Year! Why’s that? Cause in this 40-day period the largest annual human migration in the world takes place !! Scary, right? Did we regret it? Not at all! In fact, since we couldn’t find cheap tickets from Beijing to Shanghai we were “forced” to add an extra stop on our China itinerary which turned out to be our favourite one – Hangzhou we are talking about you!
Tip: Should you decide to visit China on the peak season prebook your tickets and your accommodation thoroughly and well in advance! You don’t mess with almost 2 billion people especially if you visit one or more of the 10 largest cities of China!
Go to China for the food!
Even in Europe, I crave for Chinese food from time to time. If you like it too… just multiply the satisfaction ten times and this is how much better the real Chinese cuisine is! The vegetables, the noodles, the cooking methods, the sauces all are delicious! Don’t hesitate to eat where locals eat, in markets, vendors, small restaurants, malls etc! We never faced any upset stomach day during our monthly trip and we literally ate from everywhere! Lovely food markets exist everywhere; Beijing, Xian, Hangzhou, Shanghai etc- you won’t be disappointed!
Tip: If you have allergies/ you are vegetarian (like me)/ vegan etc there are two ways you can tackle the language barrier: learn the relevant phrase in Chinese (double-check with a native if possible as the online translations/ pronunciations might be unreliable), practice the accent A LOT (no offence, you won’t catch it anyway but a trial is always worthy!) AND PrintScreen/ take a photo of it so you can have a direct access on it while ordering!
Actually, this is how I survived in China as vegetarian: I learnt “I eat only vegetables” and “I eat no meat/ fish” and I used them both (just in case hehe!) ALL THE TIME! In many situations, they couldn’t understand me at all (I am wondering why…) so I had to opt for the photo alternative. Trying to ”talk” was funny, embarrassing but also really satisfying and, believe it or not, during that month I received only once a meat-based meal which was replaced happily soon after as they realized what I was trying to explain! Please keep in mind that not everyone knows how to read so it is vital to make the effort to learn the relevant phrases by yourself first.
Experience a Cultural Shock
This is beyond real! You will be overwhelmed not only by the crowds (well, if you have lived in London for example, like me, this might not be that shocking!) but also from the surprises that you will stumble upon all the time! You are certain you ordered a wine… why is this glass full of ants?! Why do they serve us only HOT water? (hint: it’s not for the tea, this is how Chinese drink water anyway!). Why the toddlers have an open… hole at their pants? Who eats dogs? Makes sense, right? Cause I don’t want to reveal more!
Tip: Be open-minded. Try not to judge. This is one of the core values of travelling. You don’t have to agree with everything (undoubtedly, constructive and empathetic criticism is very important) but disrespectful attitudes and contempt expressions are universal and they won’t take you a long way. Try to understand first before you jump into conclusions. Tricky but this is another important lesson to learn from travelling.
Go China to step out of your comfort zone!
This is in line with the previous one. If you want to do the next step as a traveller, visiting China without an organised tour/ group is the ideal case for you to test your limits! Being a traveller is not always smooth, yes, but in China you won’t be able to communicate in English (even in hotels it is sometimes tricky!), to use Google maps, Uber, Facebook, social media or even your cards sometimes. How will you deal with all these? This is the exciting part of being on-the-go, right? Hence, I added it on the fabulous part of visiting China 🙂
Tip: Download a safe VPN and set it up BEFORE landing in China. There are definitely decent free ones but during the rush hours the entire country will be trying to connect through these too. It can be a real hassle but you will manage. If you really want to work on the go or need reliable connection all the time you may opt for a paid VPN. Download maps beforehand as well and don’t forget that the new generation (kids/ teenagers!) may know only few English words! Believe me, it can be proved helpful from time to time!
What to know about visiting China – the bad
This totally pissed me off! Picture this: you are asking for a smoothie and you are getting a plastic cup and a plastic straw (ok, still an enormous problem everywhere) with a plastic ring around it and then the cup is placed in a plastic package and then all together in plastic handles-type bag. Speechless? Yes! And the worst is that you can’t really avoid all this without getting across as rude (if you can speak Chinese is, of course, a different story). General speaking the plastic package used is not only useless but also super thick- I am not an expert but it looks like even less “eco-friendly” than the “regular” (for Europeans) plastic.
Tip: Try to read between the lines aka why is this happening? The thing is that when it comes to plastic/ man-made materials, we as Europeans have been doing exactly the same due to the over-consumerism mentality we have, but in nowadays we are trying to get rid of this selfish behaviour -very slowly though. It’s exactly the same stage that China is (understandably!) at the moment and it seems it will take a while for them to realize and to start acting accordingly as well.
Don’t get me wrong, nature and the landscape is beautiful – even though for the last decades there has been huge pressure from the industrialization of the country there are still plenty to experience! But I noticed an “I don’t give a damn” attitude towards animals in general. I disliked how (I saw) people treating the stray animals for example and how the zoos are not being criticized at all – of course, the West has A LONG WAY to go too in that case!
For example when we visited the Pandas in some point we noticed some little ones playing altogether. One other panda was sleeping a bit farther down. Guess what… a guy tried to wake this cutie up for a photo when he could have just photographed any other panda from the ones playing around! We yelled at him for a second in English, he didn’t catch a word but he felt embarrassed and stopped bothering the little one. I mean… it’s just common sense, right?
Tip: Double-check thoroughly any facilities/animal attractions you want to visit. Read reviews and comments before deciding if it’s ethical (as much as possible) or not. The only place with animals we ended up visiting was the Panda Research Centre after having spent many hours of considering every option around Chengdu based on what we could find online about them. I would say avoid zoos completely- if you want to see Pandas just travel to Chengdu instead of visiting the Beijing zoo for example.
We thought we were prepared for that. NOPE! Everybody (almost!) is spitting like no tomorrow! From kids to elderly, you can hear that sound everywhere around you. Chinese spit not only in the streets but also in the buses, in the metro, while eating/ talking/ walking etc. The bins around the stations (or IN the buses) are probably there for this and not for the actual rubbish (oh yes, people spit in them)! Sometimes you are scared of being in the wrong place at the wrong time… if you know what I mean!
Tip: No tips available! You just need to accept it!
I wasn’t particularly bothered about it but other travellers might be. If you are not Asian-looking you will be photographed A LOT! Without your permission of course! Photos, videos, you could even be live on an online chat while people pointing at you. This can be anywhere in between being annoying to being funny. It happened to us all the time apart from the Great Wall day and the Forbidden City visit. I am sure our faces (while eating, talking, yawning, kissing etc) are in many people’s phones- the one and only person that asked our consent before taking a photo was a little boy who told us that he learns English and he would like a photo of us! We couldn’t deny the favour and this was one of the few times we talked in English while in China actually!
Tip: Just go with the flow. You will be a kind of celebrity here especially if you visit smaller cities (small cities in China = with less than 5-10 million people!), villages and off the beaten path places.
Check here accommodation deals for Shanghai:
The security checks in China are intense. You can be asked for your passport/ visa anywhere but also you will be… scanned a lot! For me, the most boring and annoying security check takes place in the metro stations where every single bag is scanned separately so you have to take off backpack, laptop bag AND coat/ shawl/ gloves/ hat/ whatever (China in winder is coooold don’t underestimate it!) multiple times per day when travelling from place to place. Aargh!
Tip: travel light and check if you carry any forbidden items before setting your foot in the metro/ museum / attraction.
What else to expect in China
– Very cheap public transport – honestly it doesn’t worth taking taxis!
– Travelling from one city/ province to another can take hours, if not days! The country is huge, take this into account when you plan your China itinerary and do not overplan!
– Shopping Malls are a must! If you want to find either the quirkiest stuff or things that you didn’t know they exist China is your country-to-be!
– On the other hand the tiny local shops tucked in the metro stations, underground tunnels, labyrinth buildings etc. are one more special thing to do in China. Here you can have your nails done, renew your wardrobe, eat weird specialities, discover the next trends that will arrive in the rest of the world soon, buy cheap souvenirs etc. I loved these!
– Carry a bottle, which can handle boiling water, with you at all times! You can refill it almost everywhere (in stations, in the trains, in the malls, in random places) for free! Less plastic and a bit of saving at the same time!
– If you visit China on a budget the best way to save money on food is to buy noodle pots from the convenience stores (7/11 is one of the most famous chains in East Asia). You just add boiling water and eat on the go/ at home. However, I had hard time finding vegetarian ones -download an app that translates photos otherwise you won’t be able to “read” the ingredients! The convenient stores have also a variety of cooked food (not very appealing though) in affordable prices.
– Despite the over-consumerism and the countless shopping Malls the country is not considered (yet) a developed one cause its GDP is still below the acceptable minimum for the developed-country status. You can easily spot the differences from place to place and be impressed by the contrasts. Boom!
As I mentioned in the beginning, China is one of my favourite countries and I can’t wait to go back. It is a controversial place to be, lots of cons but undeniable a lifetime experience. I would highly suggest you to do a proper research beforehand and be very well prepared for the required paperwork/ VISA, local customs, travel insurance, itinerary, political situation, tickets etc. especially should you decide to visit it without guided groups. Moreover, downloading some absolutely must Apps can be a lifesaver! Knowing what to expect is absolutely vital for such a vast and diverse country! Well, how do you feel about it? Would you plan to visit China solo?