With it's tasty food, complex language, and busy cities, China is a whirlwind for your senses. If you're planning to visit in the near future, help yourself prepare by checking out my tips for your first trip to China.
Prepare for crowds
China has over a BILLION more residents than the U.S., meaning just about everywhere you go you're going to run into crowds. Even in Shenzhen, an area better know for engineering than tourism, I found my friend and I were constantly shoving our way onto the metro.
A larger population also means the cities are bigger than you expect them to be. In Seattle for example, we have one major metro line running from the airport to the university, and the total trip length takes about an hour. In Shenzhen, the metro map was a mess of intertwined rail lines and transfers. Due to the sheer size of the city, it often took 2+ hours traveling in one direction.
To save time and avoid crowds, plan your trip to China during the low season (late October - March). The one exception to that being Chinese New Year, when crowds in the cities are at their largest.
Work around the language barrier
Unless your best friend happens to speak Chinese (mine does hehe), you're bound to struggle a bit with the language barrier. While English can often be found on street signs in the cities, few locals can speak it.
This can make things like finding your way back to your hostel/hotel very difficult. In this situation, I recommend keeping a business card with the name and address of the place you're staying at, as well as taking a picture of what it looks like from the outside.
In restaurants, smiling and pointing to pictures of dishes you like is a good place to start. I did eat at a few places though which did not have pictures on their menu so be prepared to improvise. If you're traveling long enough, learn a few names of particular foods you like (I became an expert at ordering buns and egg tarts).
If all else fails, partner up with other travelers you meet and conquer the city together. Two minds are better than one, and it'll make you feel better knowing you have a buddy if you get lost.
Accept that people will stare
Outside of major tourist destinations, expect to get some stares from the locals. Many people aren't used to seeing foreigners everyday, and therefore are curious. Remember to try and stay polite in these situations even if the staring starts to get a little old.
If you're up for it, have a little fun and stare back haha. I had countless starting contests during my trip, and it always brought a smile to people's faces.
Due to censorship of news and media, you will be unable to access sites like Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter while traveling. However, there is a slight way to work around this, and still stay connected in China.
Download a VPN
By downloading a virtual private network (VPN) ahead of time, you'll be able to access your usual sites as long as you're connected to a decent WiFi connection. During my trip, I used a free app called Turbo VPN and it did the job.
Another great app to get is WeChat. This is the most popular messaging app for people in China, and will come in handy if you wish to stay in touch with a local you meet.
When it comes to wifi passwords, people in China aren't very creative. A good 30% of the time, typing in '88888888,' will do the trick. This is because the number eight is considered to be an incredibly lucky over there.
Keep a look out for other uses of the number 8 in China and you'll suddenly have a fun travel game. We found dim sum in sets of 8, and phone numbers where the majority of the numbers in them were 8's.
Be health conscious
Whenever you travel someplace new, it's important to be conscious of how to stay healthy during your visit. Read up on things like how safe a country's water is, and what to expect from public restrooms.
In China, it's best to stay away from tap water and only drink water that's bottled or has been boiled. Tea is served almost everywhere in China, and is not only safe to drink, but delicious! It's also commonly used to rinse off one's dishes at the table before eating. If you see an empty bowl in the middle of the table, rinse the dishes over it.
Most bathrooms I encountered were not stocked with toilet paper or soap, unless they were in a nice mall or restaurant. As a result, people commonly carry around their own napkin packs. I got used to saving the ones you can buy at restaurants, but you can also find them in any local convenience store. To make up for the soap, I recommend bringing a travel size bottle of hand sanitizer from home.
Go out at night
While China was great to explore during the day, the cities had an entirely different feeling to them at night. Instead of hiding away in their homes, parents take their kids out to play, the elderly participate in dance classes, and street vendors continue to provide late night snacks. For most people in China, the evening hours are a time to be active and socialize.
Coming from Seattle, this was a major shock to me. I'm not used to doing much at night, but in China, I walked around for hours. Not only did I feel safe, there was plenty to keep a person entertained. One night, Yuting and I came back to a televised Karaoke contest outside our hotel...
Have an open mind when it comes to food
The food in China is some of the best in the world. However, chances are you're going to encounter spices, flavors, and animal body parts you may never have tried before. Keep an open mind and close your eyes if you have to - just don't miss out on Chinese cuisine!
At restaurants, food is typically served family style in China. If you find yourself with locals, take your time and enjoy the meal. Eating is a social event, and is not something that's often rushed.
I also recommend learning how to use chopsticks before you arrive. Using a fork easily identifies you as a tourist, and gives people one more reason to stare. Most dishes in China can always be eaten with either chopsticks or a soup spoon.
During my stay, I can't remember a day I didn't stop at the grocery store. The grocery stores in China are a foodie's paradise. Creamy yogurt, fluffy cakes, and snacks galore! There's so much more variety than grocery stores in the U.S., and you can taste the freshness. (Check out my post on the best Chinese snack to try for ideas on what to grab).
Like other Asian countries, China has great street food. In particular, I recommend trying anything that's fried and on a stick, sugarcane juice, red bean porridge, every different type of stuffed bun you can find....THE LIST GOES ON.
Don't let the fear of getting sick stop you from trying these treats. To avoid bad food, look for noticeably popular street vendors and food that looks hot and fresh. While this isn't a foolproof strategy, it has definitely helped me stay healthy on the road (so far no food poisoning but knock on wood).
Get out of the city
While China's major cities are beautiful and busy, the air is heavily polluted. In Shenzhen, I found myself showering every morning and night just to feel clean.
The good news though, is there's plenty of clean, wilderness air still in China. All you have to do to find it is get out of the city. During my trip, my friend Yuting and I escaped to Zhanjiajie National Forest Park for a few days. Not only was the air noticeably fresher, we went on incredible hikes, a cave tour, and fed monkeys (highlight of the trip for both of us)!
Where should you go?
It all depends on where you're starting from and how long you want to sit on a train/bus, or if you're willing to pay for a domestic flight. China's huge and offers something for every kind of traveler. A good place to start your search though is inland. Many of China's biggest and polluted cities are on the coast.
From Shenzhen, Zhanjiajie was a long, but doable side-trip for Yuting and I. However, there are many other beautiful places to visit in China.
Don't let your first trip to China be your last
If your an American, your visa for China is good for 10 years! Don't let it go to waste (Check out my post on applying for a Chinese tourist visa). Even if you're first experience in China doesn't go as planned, try again in a different city. The places you see, flavors you taste, and people you meet will be unique every time.
Also, once you've been once before, you know a little bit more about what to expect and how to prepare.
Please leave a comment below if you have any thoughts or questions. :)