What You Need to Know And Do When Traveling Throughout China
Few places can offer its overseas visitors such a variety of experiences than that of a holiday in China. The country is massive and boasts landscapes including the snow capped peaks of Tibet through to tropical Hong Kong. As diverse as the changing landscapes so too is the culture, history, people and cuisine.
There is something for everyone in China be it cruising the Yangtze River to cycling through the rice fields in Yangshuo, discovering artefacts thousands of years old in Beijing or the newest cocktail bar in trendy Shanghai.
When Is The Best Time To Visit?
China is an enormous country with a climate varying from steamy monsoonal summers along the southern borders with Vietnam and Myanmar to freezing winters near the northern borders of Russia and Mongolia and icy weather in the west, where China meets with the Himalayas of Nepal, India and Pakistan.
If you are planning a trip to China, it pays to know about the dates to avoid when traveling or you may find that everywhere you go is full of massive swarms of humanity, so take note of the following peak periods:
- National Day week October 1st to 7th.
- Labor Day week May 1st to 7th.
- The Chinese New Year Period in January and February.
Crowding is a given as there are more than 1.3 billion people living there. However during the holidays more and more Chinese people leave their homes and return to visit their families, which leads to overall congestion and transport difficulties. Price rises and overcrowding should be expected if you visit during these periods.
Temperatures in Beijing rarely rise above freezing during winter, and can reach over 30°C or 86°F during the summer months.
Winters are slightly milder in Shanghai and the summertime is hot and humid. For some tourists to the area they may be uncomfortable in the south of the country where daily downpours make for humid and steamy sub tropical heat and coastal areas which experience the occasional typhoon.
Tibet and Inner Mongolia experience bitterly cold winters and are best visited during the warmer months only.
Harbin, situated in the far north of China attracts visitors in their many hundreds of thousands including locals and visitors alike to its annual Ice and Snow Festival which is held during January and February.
Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) in January or February is a great time to see the country as it celebrates the annual event.
It's during this time that many Chinese people take up to two weeks off work and travel home to visit their families. With more than 700 million people squeezing onto the nation's trains, buses, planes and boats, this migration is often described as the largest annual movement of humans in the world.
At this time visitors will find many of the cities surprisingly empty. It's best to pick a good place to see in the New Year and then stay put as visitors will face the onslaught of crowds almost everywhere they go.
Transport comes under strain again during the Labor Day holiday on May 1, and during the mid-autumn festival in September - which is often combined with National Day on October 1 to make for a week-long break.
School holiday periods including university holidays drive up demand for train tickets as this is the time many students return to their family homes for a rare visit. Chinese schools have two semesters with breaks just before Spring Festival - January/February and during the mid summer month of July.
Other significant dates on the Chinese calendar include the Dragon Boat Festival which is held across much of the country in June, and the International Fashion Festival in Dalian in September. The International Trade Fair is held in Guangzhou twice a year in the months of April and October when hotels are likely to be fully booked.
Family and community are the heart and soul of Chinese culture, where the group is more important than the individual. The Chinese people show great respect for their elders.
'Face' is a very important concept in the culture, where arguments and highly emotional scenes in public mean a 'loss of face' and are considered to be extremely embarrassing for all involved.
The Chinese can be rather conservative than most other parts of Asia when it comes to public displays of affection and styles of dress, so avoid wearing revealing clothing particularly in rural areas and try not to shock the locals with overt public displays of affection.
While those residing in the main cities dont' look twice at a foreigner, those who travel off the beaten track may attract a lot of attention. The local people of the village may want to have their photo taken with you or they might encourage their children to practice English with you. If you have the time spend a little with the local children to improve their English skills, it will be greatly appreciated.
Don't be offended if you are asked about your age, marital status and how much you earn at home.
Standing in line is not often seen and personal space is less respected than in western culture, so do not be offended if people push and shove their way ahead of you in crowded places.
When dining never play with your chopsticks, this may include licking them, using them to stir food or to point at a person.
Try to eat everything on your plate but don't be concerned about turning some things down. The Chinese are quite understanding if there are certain foods that you don't like to eat such as the 100 year old egg!
Cultural taboos include touching a person's head or showing a person the soles of your feet, and pointing with your fingers.
Numbers are very important in Chinese culture with the numeral eight being the luckiest number and the number four, the unluckiest. Many buildings do not have a fourth floor and many hotels will exclude room numbers with four in them.
Tipping is not expected however it is appreciated. In tourist areas and cities frequented by foreigners, tipping is more likely to be expected.
Most foreign visitors to China will required a passport to enter the country. Many countries around the world have application centers where visitors can apply in their home country. Generally in order to process your application, you will need to supply the following:
- A passport with at least six-months validity and with blank visa pages.
- A photocopy of the passport's data page and photo page.
- A photocopy of any previous Chinese visas or passports.
- A completed visa application form.
- A 48mm x 33mm photo.
- A money order or payment authorization form (if applying by mail).
- A pre-paid self-addressed return envelope (if applying by mail).
- A travel itinerary with proof of a return ticket and hotel reservations, or a letter of invitation (for example, from a local government, enterprise or individual in China).
Visa rules and requirements may change. For the most current information check with the Chinese Embassy in your home country.
Health And Safety
The standard of health care in China can vary significantly. In rural areas for example, medical staff are likely poorly trained and are unable to speak English, however most cities have private hospitals and clinics with at least some English-speaking staff.
Expect to pay medical fees up front even in the case of an emergency. Medical evacuations from China are extremely expensive so be sure to take out travel insurance before heading there.
The tap water is China is not safe to drink, so stick to bottled or boiled water and avoid having ice in your drinks. Additionally, when purchasing bottled water ensure the seal on the water bottle is intact, as some stores sell boiled water in recycled containers.
Traveler's diarrhea, including giardia is common in China. Wash your hands regularly and only each fresh and fully cooked food, and peel fruit before consuming.
Hepatitis A spreads via food and water is common in China, so some travelers may opt to be vaccinated prior.
Dengue fever is quite common in the south of the country so ensure you have a ready supply of insect repellent containing DEET if heading to this area.
Malaria is rare in most parts of China however if you are planning to travel to areas bordering Myanmar, Laos or Vietnam particularly during the wet season you may want to investigate anti-malarial options before traveling there.
Hand, foot and mouth disease is common in China particularly among children, so wash your hands at regular intervals throughout the day.
The air quality in some Chinese cities is poor. If you have respiratory or other health problems, speak to your doctor. Pollution levels vary from day to day so check local reports by visiting an air quality index monitor online such as aqicn.org before heading outside, and consider staying indoors or wearing a mask on bad days.
Personal Safety And Security
Drugs are illegal and convictions can result in the death penalty. It is even illegal to have drugs still in your system regardless of which country they were taken in.
You should carry identification with you at all times.
The legal drinking age is 18.
There are no laws against homosexuality in China.
Gambling and prostitution are illegal in mainland China.
Most religions are tolerated by the secular government however foreigners have been evicted for distributing religious material.
Protesting or speaking out against the government is not tolerated, and although tourists are unlikely to be of much concern, they can land themselves in hot water if they voice their personal opinions on China's human rights record, for example or try to photograph political protests.
All foreign visitors are required to register with the Public Security Bureau (PSB) within 24 hours of arrival in the country. If you are staying at a hotel they will do this for you, otherwise you should report to the local police station.
Travel to Tibet is restricted and applications can only be made through travel agents in China. Visitors can only travel in Tibet as part of an organized tour.
The Chinese criminal justice system gives police the power to arrest and detain suspects without charge for weeks or even months and to confiscate passports and impose travel bans on people suspected of crimes.
China may seem like a very strict place to be sure to stay away from trouble during your stay in the country.
Violent crime rates in China are low however petty theft and scams do occur so remain aware of your environment.
Taxis are required to be licensed and metered, but don't even attempt to negotiate a flat fare unless you know what you're doing.
Taxi drivers have been known to take travelers to an alternative hotel, telling them their preferred hotel is 'closed'. They have also been known to demand a higher payment by insisting the quoted price is 'per person'. If you have a problem with a taxi note down the license plate and driver ID number and make a complaint at your hotel.
Always keep small change on you as many taxi drivers and shopkeepers will not have change for larger notes.
Always cover the keypad when using ATM's and never let your credit card out of sight when paying at restaurants.
As a foreigner will likely be exposed to 'foreigner pricing' from time to time. Stand your ground if you feel you're being ripped off simply walk away.
Common scams in tourist areas include friendly locals inviting foreigners to traditional tea houses and then sticking them with an exorbitant bill, another is 'art students' luring tourists to their studio only to pressure them into buying mass produced paintings.