Between the great firewall, visas, money and the language barrier – travel to China can be a little bit daunting.
But it is actually easier than you think – if you are prepared.
A holiday in China offers a cultural experience like no other. You can walk on crumbling sections of the Great Wall, watch archaeologists at work digging out the Terracotta Warriors and chuckle at the antics of the pandas in Chengdu.
Here’s our list of things you need to arrange and consider before you travel to China.
The thought of Chinese visas scared me so much that I put it off for months. The form looks huge. But once you get started, it’s actually incredibly easy. And I had to fill in FOUR of them.
Many companies offer to do a Chinese visa for you – for a fee. But you can save that cash and do it easily yourself online. First you will need to find the Visa for China website for your capital city. The link here is for the one in Sydney.
Then you can read the step-by-step instructions or head straight to the Quick Access section. Fill in all the details in Visa Application Form online and save it to your computer. Make sure that you do one for each person who will be going on the trip. Then book an appointment at your local visa for China centre.
When the time for your appointment comes, you will need to have print-outs of your flight and accommodation details as well as photocopies of your passports. You will also need to hand the passports over for processing.
Don’t worry if you forget the print outs. There are photocopiers at the Visa centre. You can also forward any booking detail emails to the security guard. They can then print out any documents you need for free.
Take a number at the entrance to the Visa centre and wait your turn. Once at the counter, hand over the Visa Application Forms, the passports, the photocopies and the details of all flights and hotels.
One week later, you can go back to the centre, pay the fee and collect your Visa. It really is that simple.
China could offer a chance to break free from social media, to unplug and take a technology break. Access to Google is limited. The Great Firewall of China really does exist. There’s NO Facebook access. No Instagram.
But, if you can’t live without it, there is a way around the firewall. All you need is a VPN app. We used Express VPN. Install one onto your phone before you go and you will be able to access Facebook and Instagram and Google.
Once installed on our devices it was as simple as logging into the app, choosing an internet connection in another city such as Hong Kong, LA or Tokyo and search away.
If you don’t have a VPN, you won’t have access to Google. Try Bing.com for internet searching instead.
Don’t even bother with Google maps in China. You are far better off downloading local maps of Beijing and other cities you plan to visit. Tales of tourists trying to find restaurants in the middle of the Forbidden City that don’t exist, simply because they are following Google maps are common. Google is often wrong. Don’t use it.
Your credit card will be fairly useless in China.
Most Chinese locals pay for things using their phone. WeChat and AliPay are the two most common mobile payment systems. We tried to get access, but failed. You need to have a Chinese bank account to make the WeChat wallet work. You could do this by asking a friend with a Chinese bank account to send you a “red packet” – a transfer of money. But you can’t keep asking them to do that all trip.
The only other option really is cash. Before you go, find out which banks in China will accept Australian cards. Not all do. When you spot one of those banks – make it count. Avoid multiple withdrawals as much as possible so you reduce the bank fees.
In most countries, it’s possible to pick up a portable Wifi device at the airport so you can reduce your use of data when out and about. But in China, that’s not your best option given the Great Firewall.
You’re better off actually getting a Chinese Sim card and using the data on that when outside the hotel. Many companies will actually deliver Chinese sim cards to your hotel for arrival. We used one of these companies. They emailed instructions to us in both English and Mandarin. At check-in, all we had to do was show the receptionist the email and she immediately grabbed the package for us. Simple, easy, internet access. Pop the sim card in your phone and you are ready to go.
You can set one person up as the main account holder and the other as a partner on that plan. One word of warning though – ignore every random text message in Mandarin that you are sent. If you don’t understand it – don’t click on it.
Think you can rock up to the station and jump on a bullet train? Think again.
The best/fastest trains usually sell out a few days before, leaving only the option of a much longer multi-stop journey.
If you want to avoid those extra hours – book ahead. You can go to the large train stations and seek out the English-language service window to book. Or – a really easy way – is to book online and just pick the tickets up with the email (with instructions in English and Mandarin) from the station before you travel.
Another great tip is to download an app that plans subway travel in China – showing the connections you need to take to get somewhere in English. Some stations – like the one in the photo below, have limited English. This app will be your lifeline.
Be prepared to put all your bags through an X-ray machine at every train station. You get used to it after a while.
We found finding snacks for the kids was often a little difficult in both Beijing and Xian. Fill up on breakfast at the hotel before you head out. There are convenience stores such as Our Hours that sell snacks but we found most of the items on offer had little nutritional value so they went through the kids really fast.
You CAN NOT drink the water in China. That means you will be carrying a lot of water each day. Market stalls often sell fresh fruit – grab items such as bananas and oranges when ever you see them.
7. Dining out
Many restaurants will have an English menu.
If you have installed a VPN, you will be able to use Google translate to hover over menus to see what you want to eat. Then all you need to do is point when the waiter comes and tell them how many you want.
Dumplings are always a good bet. As are noodles.
Dandong Duck does tasty Peking Duck in Beijing. In Xian First Noodle under the sun is cheap and delicious.
Our best advice? Check Trip Advisor and see what other travellers recommend in your area. That way you can be fairly certain that it will be tasty, and accommodate for your lack of Mandarin.
8. DIY? Or guide?
Unless you are prepared to speak a little Mandarin, do a LOT of pointing and use a translation app or sometimes just wing it, a guide is a good safe option.
We booked a private guide through Viator and told them via email what we wanted to do. That way you can be sure there are no dodgy shopping or factory trips involved. Even if you just do the guide for a few days to get used to the city, it helps. They can also show you how to use the subway, how to book tickets and how to find supermarkets (a MUST when travelling with hungry kids).
Alternatively, you can do a whole package tour and travel China stress-free.
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