How to DIY your trip to China

Planning a trip to China is one of the most difficult tasks on par with planning travel to Iran. The issues include the limitations on buying tickets for trains online in advance, the issues related to restrictions on using google maps and a number of other apps we are all used to, the problems of using your bank card, etc.

While planning, I saw a number of people complaining that they had difficulties finding their way, most signs were not in English and it was impossible to get around. People kept suggesting to hire a guide, not to try to plan the trip myself, as, even though I am an experienced traveller, China is another world and I wouldn’t be able to find my way, etc. Obviously, I would never go for guided tours, as I really hate following someone’s schedule and standing around in a group listening to a guide, wait for the people, who are lost or late, etc., while there is so much to see and do around.

So I planned everything myself and I found travelling to China much easier than to a number of other countries, especially because everything is so well-organised. Yes, there were some difficulties involved, as with any travel, but with the right planning, everything went smoothly. I loved the culture and the people and I can’t wait to visit again. If you have any difficulties, ask people around, they are super nice and will try to help, even if they don’t know any English, body language and Google translate always work wonders 😊

In China, if you look different, you will feel like a celebrity. People were taking selfies and photos with us, repeating the word “beautiful”, asking where we are from, etc. I was aware of the scams and was apprehensive at first, but none of the people who talked to us wanted more than to take a photo with us and to genuinely help.

As a result, we have a lot of photos like this one:

Here are some tips that may help you plan your trip and avoid any difficulties.

When to go?

Summers are rather hot in China, particularly in the bigger cities, where air is polluted and it’s difficult to breathe. Winters are cold. Springs may have more showers than autumn, so we decided to go for mid to end of October. The thing is, this time is already colder than beginning of October, but 1-7 is the Chinese National holidays and everyone will advice to avoid this period. It really would be impossible to move around at this time. The attractions are still crowded any time of the year, mainly with the local tourists, but it’s still possible to navigate.

How to get a visa for China and go through the entry process

Citizens of some countries can get short-term visa on arrival for China. I needed the actual visa for a visit. There is a possibility to order your visa via travel agencies, but this would cost more than going to the Embassy, so I opted for the last. The process was extremely easy. You will need to fill in the form (you can find it on the Chinese embassy websites), bring passport and a passport sized photo, the information about your flight and hotel bookings (I brought the printed copies) and the letter from your work/study place.

As soon as we landed, we were directed to the machines to take our fingerprints. Apparently, China has introduced this requirement recently. The machines worked well, and we were able to go through the process in several minutes. You will get a small paper slip with OK written on it in huge letters. When you join the queue, you will need to have this paper slip in hand, as well as the immigration form. We filled this form, while queuing not to lose time.

The whole process took about 45 mins, even though the queue was quite long. The officer didn’t ask us anything and waived us through very fast.

Money

The Chinese yuans are obviously the only currency used in the country. If you are able to, exchange at least some before arriving. Alternatively, you can exchange your money at the bank in the airport. Do not exchange money at the exchange offices next to the Arrivals, as their rate is really bad, and they also add the commission for exchange. So you would lose at least 10%. We found Bank of China at the Departures part of the Beijing airport. Find the counter 3 and the bank is in the back. They will exchange your money with usual exchange rate. We didn’t have to wait in queue, however, it took about half an hour for them to go through all procedures. The exchange in the banks can be done only until 5pm though. If you arrive later, try to have some yuans exchanged in your country or get money from the ATM, it definitely will be better than exchanging at the exchange office. Next day you can find a bank in the city. I heard that in banks many people had to wait in long lines, so try to find a quieter branch. We exchanged money second time in Suzhou and it took half an hour again. There were no queues.

Where to stay (Beijing, Pingyao, Xi’An, Shanghai (or Suzhou, Hangzhou))

I booked hotels via booking.com and trip.com. The second has bigger selection and sometimes cheaper prices, given that it is a Chinese agency.

I booked hotels, but apparently, if you stay anywhere else, you need to register with the immigration within 24 hours. I myself haven’t needed to check this rule, so can’t say how exactly it works.

Beijing – The attractions are spread out in this huge city and it’s impossible to stay anywhere convenient to walk to attractions. Therefore, your best bet is finding accommodation somewhere close to a metro station. Ours was 3 minutes walk from Zhangzizhong Road metro station and this saved us a lot of time. Keep in mind that buses are very inconvenient. It’s difficult to find any non-Chinese information about their destination or stops and besides, they get stuck in traffic and are extremely slow, so you will lose a lot of time with them.

Pingyao – basically anywhere inside the old city walls is central and convenient to walk all around.

Xi’An – even though this city is smaller than Beijing or Shanghai, attractions are still spread out. Do find a place close to metro stations. We stayed in a hotel located in a mall and even though it was close to bus stops, metro was far from it, so it was quite a hassle. Before booking, I thought buses would be convenient, but they took too long to get anywhere. However, taxis were cheap in this city, so we took taxis sometimes.

Shanghai (or Suzhou and Hangzhou) – in the Shanghai area, you can either stay in Shanghai or its surroundings. As I was searching, I found that Shanghai was extremely expensive. The hotels near transport links had exorbitant prices. So I decided to stay in Suzhou (the train from Xi’an stops in Suzhou before arriving to Shanghai, so this was the most convenient option). Suzhou is linked to Shanghai and to Hangzhou by fast trains and we anyway wanted to see this city with its closeby water towns. Our hotel was near metro station, which saved us a lot of time. We ended up loving Suzhou. As for Shanghai, it didn’t appeal to me as much, so we went there only for a day.

Using your email, Fb and google maps

China has not only banned access to Gmail and other google services, fb and other websites, but also banned downloads of VPNs. Therefore, if you want to access any of these apps and websites, while in China, do what all foreigners do – download a VPN before you arrive. Most free VPNs are a lot of hassle and they keep turning off, but you can get 5 minutes on your email at least 😊 or not 😊. A couple of my free VPNs worked the first day, then none of them worked for some days, then they started working again. I have no clue why. So I suggest not to rely heavily on them and be sure to have backup options for contacting outside world, if VPNs don’t work.

If you can’t survive without your Fb access, then you will need to pay for a more advanced VPN service in order to get a reliable access.

Maps – you won’t be able to download offline China maps on Google maps. And the map can only be accessed via VPN. I decided not to rely only on VPN and downloaded other apps. That was somewhat annoying, as I am too dependent on my Google maps, but well 😊

  • The most useful was maps.me , which works fine in China. I moved all my Google map pins there and was mainly using this app.
  • Another good option is OsmAnd maps. You can download offline maps and change the language from Chinese to English.
  • Visit a City app was also helpful for putting all the sights together.

Apps you will need

Download several apps before going:

  • Firstly, a VPN or several. One may not work, but another will. In my case, none worked on some days. The VPNs I had were Tunnelbear, Windscribe, express vpn (7-day free trial), Hide.me, VPN 360.
  • Maps – maps.me worked well. OsmAnd and Visit a City will also help.
  • Translate app – Google translate offline works fine. You can also download Baidu and Pleco, but they don’t translate full sentences, only words.
  • For taxis, download Didi app – we didn’t use it, as I couldn’t sign up with my number and we didn’t get a Chinese sim card.
  • MetroMan – really helpful for metros in any city. It gives metro maps and schedules offline.
  • Wechat – it’s an app used by most Chinese. I contacted one of the hotels via Wechat, for instance. It is difficult to sign up though and keeps getting blocked, but it worked for me in the end.
  • trip.com – a travel agency, which sells tickets. I used them to buy train tickets and the tickets for Mubus, as well as to book a couple of hotels. They are reliable and their prices seemed better to me than those of competitors.
  • Find another search engine, as Google won’t work. Baidu is Chinese search engine, but I couldn’t understand, how to switch it to English. Bing is a good option.
  • Download a web browser – Firefox will do. Chrome and Opera don’t work.
  • Skype – if all VPNs fail, you will need an option to chat with your friends outside China. From the major apps, Skype is the only one that works without VPN. Viber, Whatsapp and Messenger don’t.

Getting a sim card

I heard that sim cards aren’t too expensive in China. I thought about getting one, but then read that the sim card bought in Beijing would not work, for example, in Shanghai without roaming, so I decided that it would be an expensive option. So I opted out of getting a local sim card.

Transport in China

First and most difficult thing is that as a foreigner without a Chinese bank card, you won’t be able to buy the train tickets from the official website, like all Chinese do. Your only option is to use one of the tourist agencies, such as trip.com or to leave buying the tickets on the spot, which, when you have a limited time, can be a bad idea. I bought the long-distance train tickets several weeks in advance through trip.com and got the shorter distance trip tickets (like Suzhou to Shanghai), after arriving to Beijing.

For the detailed information on public transport, see the post here

Food

Food in China is different from what you find in Chinese restaurants in many parts of the world. I had heard before that the food is adapted to local tastes and real Chinese food is different and I agree with this. We found out that Chinese don’t so much like salt, but they heavily rely on sugar and spices. Most things we tried came with sweet and hot sauces and/or with sugar. The food is quite greasy most of the time, but we found some things that we really liked:

  • We loved dumplings in some places. In our experience, shrimp dumplings were mostly too greasy, but the classical meat ones were good in some places.
  • We loved the different versions of rice dishes, especially with shrimp.
  • Our favourate sweets were mango desserts, you will find mango pudding in many places and it is delicious. We also liked mango pancakes.
  • Fish was mostly great, but they often bring it with sweet sauces or fried in a sweet sauce.
  • We were not a fan of Peking duck, it was too oily, although tasty for a bite 🙂

As you can guess all restaurants will bring you chopsticks. Many of them have fork and knife, if you ask, but some don’t. So in the beginning, before we got used to chopsticks, we carried plastic forks with us 🙂

For the suggestions on where to go for food, see the dedicated post here.

Best 10-day Itinerary tips:

(this can be arranged and rearranged according to your wishes)

Day 1 – Beijing – Tiananmen square, Forbidden city, Jinshan park, Wangfujing road.

Day 2 – Beijing – Temple of Heaven, Mutyaniu section of the Great wall.

Day 3 – Beijing – Beijing zoo, Summer palace, Sanlitun area.

Day 4 – Beijing – Hutongs, Drum and Bell tower, Houhai lake, Beihai park, Lama temple.

See the detailed 4-day itinerary for Beijing here.

Day 5 – Pingyao – (high speed trains will get you from Beijing to Pingyao in 4 hours and Pingyao to Xian in 3 hours).

Day 6 – Xian – Terracota warriors, Bell and Drum towers, Xian city wall (enter from South).

Day 7 – Xian – Muslim quarter, Great Mosque, Giant Wild goose Pagoda (and the fountain), maybe Shaanxi museum and/or Tang paradise.

See the two-day guide for visiting Xi’An.

Day 8 – Suzhou – Canglang Pavilion, walk across the Pingjiang road and hire a boat on the canal, Humble Administrator’s garden, Lion Grove garden, Shantang street and the lighted up canal at night.

(You can spend a couple more days in Suzhou and visit Tiger hill, Hanshan temple, The Master of the Nets garden and the Lingering garden. I adored this city and would have spend much more time here. You can also visit the water towns from here, like Tongli and Zhouzhuang.)

See the one-day guide to Suzhou here.

Day 9 – Shanghai – People’s square (if you are here on the weekend, you will see the Marriage market), East Nanjing road, the Bund, ferry to Pudong and the skyscrapers, Oriental Pearl Tower with glass floors, french concession.

(If you spend more time in Shanghai, you can also visit another skyscraper, Yu garden (after Suzhou gardens, it’s not that great), City God temple, Shanghai museum and/or water towns, like Zhujiajiao)

See the guide to Shanghai here. 

See the information on the towers and which one to choose for a visit.

Day 10 – Hangzhou – walk around the West lake, passing Yongjin bridge, Orioles Singing in the Willows, Leifeng pagoda, take a dragon ferry to Three pools island, cross to the north and visit Baoshi hill with the Taoist temple, cross the Broken bridge.

(If you have more time in Hangzhou, you can explore more parks and pavilions around the lake and go to Lingyan temple and Feilaifeng)

Other tips for travelling independently in China:

  • If you look different (lighter skin, red hair, darker skin, tall or whatever else), you will feel like a celebrity or an attraction 😊 People were taking selfies with us, repeating the word “beautiful”, asking where we are from, etc. I was aware of the scams and was apprehensive at first, but none of the people who talked to us wanted more than to take a photo with us and to genuinely help.
  • Chinese are very keen to help, even if they have no clue, what you are asking. If you get lost or need something, just stop someone on the street. We were able to ask for help with body language or through a translation app – this last was extremely helpful.
  • Still be careful of the people aggressively pushing their services or products. For instance, in Xi’an, when looking for 306 bus stop, a lady tried to push us to some buses, loudly shouting at us. Not sure, if the service would be ok, but I am always apprehensive, when they ambush me. So just say no and stick to what you have planned to do.
  • Public toilets are quite easy to find in a lot of places, especially near tourist attractions. They are always free. The toilets can be squat or a western version, but former is in bigger supply.
  • Carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer everywhere. You will find paper in some toilets before you enter the stalls, but in many cases, you will find none. Soap is also rare.
  • In many restaurants you will have to wait for your table, unless you enter a fast food place or unpopular restaurant. Almost everywhere we went for lunch or dinner, we had to wait 15-45 minutes, depending how busy they were.
  • Check prices of anything you want to buy in many spots to get the idea of what it may cost. For instance, for exactly the same chopsticks we were seeing everywhere, we were quoted 10, 20, 100 or even 200 yuan. Keep in mind that in most places they will quote to a foreigner far higher price than any Chinese would be willing to pay. You can bargain. My mom is great at this and on several occasions she managed to make them decrease the price threefold or more.
  • Carry your passport, preferably always. At many sites, passports are needed to buy tickets. In some cases,  like at Forbidden city, your passport is your ticket.
  • Have a lot of fun 😊

Visited 50 countries and counting, Lived in 3 cities and collected a lot of useful information to help fellow travel junkies out there.

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