It may be the world’s fourth largest country and its most populous, but China still remains a land of undeniable mystery and intrigue. For many people, travelling to China for the first time can be equal parts exciting and intimidating. On the one hand, there’s so much to see and to do as you delve into a culture and landscape that stretches back thousands of years; on the other hand, you’re entering a country that’s simply full of surprises. To make your adventure as smooth as possible, here’s our first-timer’s guide to successfully navigating the Land of the Dragon.
Learn Some Lingo
Whenever you travel to a country where English isn’t the first language, you understandably face a certain communication barrier, but in China, this barrier can at times be exacerbated. China’s official language is Mandarin, but there are numerous other languages at play here, as well as countless local dialects, meaning communication in some areas can be tricky. As with any country, it pays to learn a few choice words and phrases before leaving home, and it’s advisable to buy a phrasebook or download a translator app to help you out when you get really stuck. It’s also useful to carry around Chinese-language business cards for your hotel and places you want to visit to show to taxi drivers or passers-by when you need directions.
Get Your Visas Sorted
Before you board your flight to China, you’ll need to organise an entry visa, as they are not available on arrival. When applying for a China tourist visa, you need to submit your original passport, your visa application form, all relevant supporting documents, a money order or Payment Authorization Form, and a fully-paid self-addressed return envelope. Your China visa application can either be completed in person at a Chinese Visa Application Service Centre (NOT the consulate) or it can be submitted via the post. Do note though that it usually takes 10 working days to process mail applications (as opposed to four), and only Express Post and Registered Post are accepted. It’s your choice how you apply, but just don’t leave it too late!
Stock Up On Cash
The official currency of China is the yuan – otherwise known as renminbi or RMB – and it pays to cash yourself up before you travel. While more and more businesses are accepting Visa and Mastercard, cash is still the preferred mode of payment in many cases, especially in the countryside. Notes are available for 1RMB, 10RMB, 20RMB, 50RMB, and 100RMB, with 1RMB currently buying about 20 Australian cents. It’s worth noting too that tipping in China is not a thing, so you’re never expected to pay more than what’s owing.
Check the Weather
China as a whole is great to visit at any time of the year, but the same can’t be said for each and every province. Summertime in China is notoriously stifling in some parts, with Chongqing, Wuhan, and Nanjing even nicknamed the Three Furnaces due to their heat and humidity. Winter, on the other hand, is particularly frigid in the north (though Harbin does host an incredible ice festival each year). Spring and autumn are generally the best times to travel, but again this differs from place to place, so if you have a limited amount of flexibility with your travel dates, consider planning your trip around the weather.
Don’t Drink the Water
Generally speaking, the tap water in China isn’t safe to drink. Bottled water is available in most restaurants and stores, and is very cheap. There are a few other cultural quirks to note, too. For one, most Chinese bathrooms do not provide toilet paper, so it’s a good idea to carry some tissues with you wherever you go. Additionally, hand soap is not standard in many bathrooms, so be sure to carry a small bottle of hand sanitiser with you too.
Scale Back Your Itinerary
It can be hard to articulate just how big and vast China is. Within its borders you’ll find some of the world’s highest mountains, largest deserts, most remote jungles, and busiest cities. Trying to see everything in the one trip would be near impossible, even if you had a good six months to traipse around. Therefore, it’s crucial you plan an itinerary that doesn’t have you travelling super long distances over a short period of time. As a first-timer, it might be worth focusing only on a single province or region. Sichuan, for example, is a southwestern Chinese province home to giant pandas, sacred mountains, ancient villages, and cliffs of carved Buddhas. Guangxi, on the other hand, boasts beautiful rice terraces and a landscape ideal for hiking, cycling, or river trips. You could also easily spend the entire trip in Beijing alone, visiting the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, the Summer Palace, numerous imperial parks, and so much more. The key is to not stretch yourself too thin and try to do too much in one go. And on that note…
Consider Your Tour Options
If you’re a little overwhelmed by the prospect of planning your first trip to China, it might be a good idea to book a ready-made China tour package that is designed to show you the best of China with zero hassle. Of course, you can take your pick from tours that see you tick off China’s most recognisable sights too. If you’re short on time or eager to visit China with as little stress as possible, a tour package can be just the ticket.
Eat Everything in Sight
There are so many things to do in China, but without a doubt one of the country’s best attractions is its food. The first thing to understand, though, is that food in China is very different to what we’ve come to know as “Chinese food” in western countries. What’s more, the cuisine varies greatly from region to region, with salty dishes dominant in the north, spicy dishes in the central regions, light, seafood-centric meals in the south, and sweet and sour dishes near Shanghai. Wherever you go, try to eat what the locals are eating, and ignore those people who tell you to avoid street food: the flavours to be found here are typically some of the best. You’ll want to work on your chopstick skills before you go though – nothing says “tourist” more than asking for a knife and fork at a restaurant.