For those who’ve never set foot in Asia, a first trip to China can be challenging. China is a vast, fascinating and hugely diverse country, but it can take time to figure out how things are done.
Preparing properly beforehand can help you make the most of a visit, ensuring you can handle the differing cultures with greater ease. We’ve compiled the following tips for anyone embarking on a first-time trip to China, whether for business or pleasure.
1. Although Chinese children study English, the truth is few people in China master the language – and outside the larger cities, it can be difficult to find anyone who’ll understand you if you can’t speak Chinese. So teach yourself a little Mandarin before you go. Knowing even just a few rudimentary phrases can make it much easier to get around. It can also help you break the ice when meeting Chinese people or asking for help in getting where you need to go. A good place to start is the BBC’s Guide to Chinese.
2. Even if you think you can say place names and addresses correctly, don’t be surprised if you’re not understood because of your pronunciation. It’s a good idea to always carry a notebook and pen. Ask helpful people to write the Chinese characters for places you need in your notebook so you can show the writing to taxi or bus drivers, or helpful passers-by. It’s also wise to have someone write the name and address of the place you’re staying, in case you need help getting back to your hotel.
3. If possible, avoid travelling anywhere in China during the country’s national holidays. In particular, avoid travel during China’s Golden Week, from the 1st to the 7th of October. As an example, it was estimated that roughly 100 million Chinese people used public transport each day of Golden Week in 2013. Hotels will be fully booked, roads and public transportation will be congested and tourist sites will be packed to capacity. Also avoid travelling during the week-long Chunyun period, surrounding the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year).
4. In a country as vast as China, you simply can’t have it all on a single visit. Instead of spending a large part of your time in cars, trains, buses and planes, choose a particular region or province to visit.
5. Eat only with chopsticks for a few weeks before leaving home. You might have mastered eating a bowl of noodles, but it can be tricky to eat other types of food you’ll encounter without practiced.
6. Don’t expect the same foods you get from your local Chinese take-away at home. Many of these dishes actually originated outside China. Equally, don’t be misled into thinking you’ll find exotic dishes like snake and fried insects on every street corner. The good news is Chinese people like to eat, and eat well! The country features an incredibly diverse range of foods, with a total of eight distinct regional cuisines, with a strong focus on fresh ingredients.
7. Don’t be scared of street food – it’s likely to be the freshest and best you have during your trip. Just stick with vendors who are clearly popular with locals.
8. Carry plenty of cash, especially outside the large cities. ATMs aren’t always easy to find outside the large cities, and ones you do find don’t always accept foreign cards. ATMs with the Visa/MC logo are the best bet.
9. When using an ATM, enter your pin, choose the ‘Overseas’ option and then select Savings. Even if it’s a current account you want to access, the Savings option is usually the only one that works for overseas cards. If a six-digit pin is required but your pin only has four digits, enter two zeros before your pin number.
10. If you want to use online banking, access confidential data or check popular social media sites, you’ll need to use a portable virtual private network (VPN). The internet is censored in China, so you won’t be able to access sites like Facebook unless you use a VPN. Internet security is often poor, making it inadvisable to conduct sensitive transactions without a VPN.
11. Buy souvenirs but don’t expect dirt-cheap luxury goods. China applies a stiff luxury tax to name-branded goods, including those made in the country. This doesn’t mean there aren’t good deals to be had, but shop around.
12. Ignore travel guides that urge you to haggle for everything you buy. There are exceptions, but haggling isn’t the norm in Chinese shops or restaurants. However, feel free to bargain for all you’re worth at open markets.