KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
LANGUAGE: Mandarin is the official language of China. In our travel experience, few people outside of the hospitality industry speak English. Download a translation app to help with communication while you travel especially if you are traveling outside major metropolitan areas.
CURRENCY: Yuan is the national currency. Credit cards were widely accepted.
WHEN TO GO: Best time to visit China is during the spring (March to May) or fall (September to October). During the summer months, tourism is going to be at its peak making most tourist spots overwhelmingly crowded not to mention hot.
POLLUTION: Pollution is a huge problem in China especially air pollution. An air quality report is issued every day to advise if the air is acceptable to breathe. You will often see people wearing face masks in public due to the poor air quality.
SAFETY: We felt very safe during our travels. To be honest, most citizens live in fear of the consequences of breaking the law; therefore, the crime rate is very low.
VISA: A visa is required to travel to China and it is a multi-step process. I highly recommend using a company to help secure your visa. We used Travisa and were very pleased with the speedy turn around of our visas. There are several requirements including completing a lengthy application, providing proof of residency within the USA (copy of your drivers license), an official letter of invitation from a Chinese citizen inviting you to the their country, a new passport photo less than 6 months old, providing a copy of your travel itinerary including your plane tickets and payment of the visa application fee. Check the most recent visa requirements to make sure you are complying with the most up to date requirements.
RESTAURANTS: Picture menus are common in restaurants as a “translation” option. You find a meal that looks appealing in the picture and point to order.
BATHROOMS: This may seem like an odd item to add to the “know before you go” section but it is important. Most bathrooms in China especially public bathrooms at restaurants or tourist attractions are squatty pottys, basically a hole in the floor with no toilet. Toilet paper is not available and it would be wise to carry a pack of tissues with you. (I did find some of the handicap stalls to have actual toilets.)
TOURIST ATTRACTION: You may end up being the tourist attraction. There were several instances where we were asked to be in a picture with local tourists.
GOVERNMENT: The communist government runs everything including the tourist industry. The government personally approves and hires all employees involved in the tourist industry. Tour guides must be college educated and must choose a western name to go by. Think John, Tom, Sally and Susan. The heating and air conditioning is also government run. On November 15th, the heat is turned on and on March 15th, the air conditioning is turned on. We were quite hot in our rooms and even though their was a thermostat we were told by the front desk it was only there for looks. These are just few examples you might encounter on a trip to China.
CROWDS: China is crowded! Beijing has a population of over 21 million people and Shanghai over 26 million people. To compare, New York City has a population of just 8 million. Expect public places to be crowded, sometimes overwhelmingly so. People are not afraid to push or shove to get where they need to go.
WHAT WE DID
We booked a whirlwind 10 day trip to China through Affordable Asia stopping in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. Unfortunately, we missed our flight connection to Beijing forcing us to spend the night in Toronto and miss a day of our tour.
First up on our adventure in China was a visit to the Great Wall, China’s most iconic attraction. Located around an hour outside of Beijing, it was an easy drive with our tour group. We were fortunate to be traveling to China in the off season and the Great Wall was practically empty in various spots along the wall. The wall can be incredibly crowded during peak tourist season with crowds forming a sea of people along the wall’s walkways.
We visited the Badaling section of the wall and found the views to be stunning! Sections of the wall can be very steep. It traveling during the winter months be careful of icy patches.
Another popular section of the Great Wall to visit is the Mutianyu. Both sections are well preserved. The main difference being the distance from Beijing; Badaling is around an hour drive where as Mutianya can take up to two hours. One main difference would be the entrance and exit to the wall. Thrill seekers will love Mutianyu’s toboggan slide which takes you down to the exit.
For those interested in exploring unrestored sections of the Great Wall, consider hiking from the Jiankou restored section to the Mutianyu restored section. Expect the excursion to take anywhere from 5 to 6 hours and the ruins to be steep and uneven underfoot.
On our second full day in Beijing, we had a guided tour of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square is located outside the main gate entrance to the Forbidden City and is widely known for the massacre which occurred on June 4, 1989. Protests had erupted throughout Beijing calling for political and economic reform in China following the death of Hu Yaobang, the reform leader and once head of the Communist Party. In an effort to clear the square and end the demonstrations, the military advanced on the unarmed protestors with automatic rifles and tanks reportedly killing hundreds (other estimates say thousands). Global criticize of the incident led to increased international isolation by China as well as censorship and trade embargo.
The Forbidden city, now a world heritage site, was the former imperial palace to the Ming and Qing Dynasties serving as the home to the emperors and their households as well as the political center of the Chinese government. Entering the Forbidden City through the Meridian Gate under the very large picture of Mao, we started our exploration of the over the 980 buildings and 72 acres of the complex. We were very thankful for our tour guide to help in navigating the city! We were immediately approached by a group of local women who wanted us to be in a picture with them in the courtyard. This happened several more times throughout our visit to the Forbidden City. We were the tourist attraction! The Hall of Supreme Harmony, featured in this picture, is the largest hall within the Forbidden City which served as the location for enthronement and wedding ceremonies.
After touring the Forbidden City, our tour group enjoyed a traditional Peking Duck dinner. Served family style, it was a great time to get to know our fellow travel group members. Then we set off to explore the night markets and the endless assortment of food on a stick. Scorpion? Check. Cockroach? Check. Cricket? Check. Octopus? Check. Things I’m not going to eat. Check, check, check. We had a great time exploring the markets, but our tour guide warned not to eat the food. Even if you found scorpion tempting to eat, the cooking oil is dirty. There are minimal sanitation measures taken and you could end up very sick to your stomach.
Before departing for our next destination, we visited the Temple of Heaven and Beijing’s Olympic Village.
Unfortunately, due to our flight being delayed, we missed the group excursion to The Summer Palace and the rickshaw tour of the Hutong, traditional Chinese narrow alleyway neighborhoods.
Xi’an was next destination on our China itinerary. We took the train from Beijing to Xi’an which turns out is not a scenic ride. Be prepared for a dreary four hours passing through what I can only describe as a industrial waste land of few trees and a constant grey haze. The passing “towns” consisted of a large manufacturing plant surrounded by several high-rise condominiums to house the workers. Makes one really reconsider their consumer lifestyle considering majority of the products we buy say “Made in China.”
Finally arriving in Xi’an, one of the oldest cities in China, we spent a busy few days exploring the Tiera Cotta Warrior museum (my main reasoning for adding Xi’an to the itinerary), Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, fortified city walls, the Drum Tower and a stroll down Muslim Street.
Our last city stop on our whirlwind trip to China was Shanghai. The first full day we took a day trip to the water town of Tongli located around an hour and a half outside Shanghai. Nicknamed the “Venice of the East”, Tongli is a quaint and quiet town known for it’s winding canals. We took a boat ride down the canals and enjoyed lunch on the water.
On our second full day and our last day in China, we explored Shanghai. First stop was Yu Garden in Old City Shanghai. Honestly, this is what I thought more of China would look like: blooming orchids, koi ponds, ornate craved statues, quaint tea houses and antique architecture. The flowers were just starting to bloom and the crowds were minimal allowing us to truly enjoy the peacefulness of the gardens in the middle of a bustling city.
Following a tour of the gardens, our guide had arranged for a private tea ceremony and tasting at one of the tea houses in the old city. We spent the rest of the morning shopping in the old city.
After lunch, we ventured down to The Bund and walked along the river front marveling at the cityscape in front of us. It is mind blogging to think that none of these skyscrapers existed before 1990 and this island was all farm land.
If the weather had been slightly warmer during our visit, we would have booked a dinner cruise on one of the many boats along The Bund. Instead we dined at the top of the Four Seasons with a window table overlooking the Pearl Tower and it’s festive light display.
There is so much to see in China. We only scratched the surface with our stops in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. On a return trip, we would love to explore Guangzhou, cruise the Yulong River, visit Zhangjiajie National Forest, take in the beauty of the Longji Rice Terraces or tour Hong Kong.
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