Then, it hit me. Every single reason to be afraid of going to China.
1) I don't speak Chinese! I don't look Chinese!
2) What if I get sick? Not just a little sick, but intensely ill from food or water?
3) What if get robbed?
4) What if get badly lost?
5) What if I miss a flight or train during my trip?
6) What if I get taken advantage of because I have only very basic Mandarin skills?
And the list continued. Most of my anxiety had been encouraged by other people who kindly warned me about all of the things that could go wrong in China.
Well, I'm happy to report, only # 5 happened to me on my trip to China in March 2018. I attribute the success of my trip to the generous hospitality of my Chinese friends and some planning ahead.
I'm happy to share some tips with you!
|Near the city wall in Xi'an!|
1) Bring cash to China. You'll need it.
Items vary in price in China. Larger cities have restaurant and shopping prices that rival the most expensive European and North American cities. Buyer beware! Most places don't accept VISA or Mastercard. This is only found in tourist sites and some chain stores. Cash will get you everything in China. Budget what you think you'll need and then bring double that amount. Trust me. I was shocked by how expensive things were in China. It's not the 1980s anymore folks!
2) Get the WeChat app on your phone - immediately.
Make sure you get WeChat in your home country first so that the app is in your language. WeChat allows you to chat with friends, make free calls within the app, book train tickets (!!), and...wait for it...pay for stuff! Literally, everywhere you go in China will accept WeChat wallet as payment. If you don't have a Chinese bank account or Chinese ID, wait until you get to China to activate the wallet. Somehow, it recognized my IP address as being in China and now I have a fancy WeChat wallet. (Don't worry. After my trip, it's totally empty.) You can get Chinese friends to transfer money to your wallet and then you can simply pay them back in cash! (There's a theme here. BRING CASH.)
3) Take your passport with you - everywhere.
Chinese museums and tourist sites have strict security. You will need to present the highest level of identification to get into these places. Oh, and be prepared to have your bag checked often too.
|Iconic Shanghai - the Bund|
4) Bring a mask.
I'd seen photos of people wearing masks. I'd even wondered to myself, "Gosh, is the pollution really that bad?" Well, yes, yes it is. You will need a special mask that protects against smaller particulates. These are available and inexpensive everywhere in China. Wear it daily.
5) Bottled water on the regular.
Everybody knows not to drink the tap water in China. I also recommend using bottled water for brushing your teeth and rinsing your toothbrush. It's fine for washing your face though.
6) Food safety.
The food in China is MIRACULOUS. I did not get sick once - likely due to sheer, dumb luck. However, I did 100% avoid street food. Oh, it smells great, looks fascinating, and is "insta-worthy." Nonetheless, if you can't be sure of how it was prepared, I wouldn't risk it. Westerners have different immunities in their digestive system than people in Asia so don't try to keep up with your Chinese friends in this regard. Wash or cook all of your produce.
|Buddhist temple in Yu Yuan Garden in Shanghai.|
7) Eat your veggies!
No, this is not your mum coming back to tell your toddler self what's good for you. It was really challenging to find vegetables in China - even in restaurants. Make sure you order them when you can to stay healthy during your trip.
8) Western Alcohol
The cost of importing Western alcohol to China is staggering. If you really need your French or Italian wine, I'd recommend waiting until you get home. China has its own delights to sample!
9) VPN and other Internet issues
Yes, the ban on Facebook, Gmail, Google, Twitter, and Instagram is very real in China. If you really need these while you're in China, I have two recommendations. Firstly, check with your cellular phone provider before you leave. Telus has a $10 per day deal that made my phone operate as if it were in Canada. Therefore, when I wasn't on Chinese WiFi, my data plan allowed me to access all social media and emails. Secondly, get a VPN (I recommend Express VPN), before you go to China. You can not (and trust me, I tried) download a VPN while in China. Most VPNs are free for 1-week. So, pick the top three VPNs and bring them with you to China! (NOTE: There are some Chinese apps that I will discuss later which don't run properly when you have a VPN. See my first recommendation about getting data while you're away.)
|The Forbidden Palace (Gu Gong) in Beijing|
10) Must-have Chinese apps
-Baidu Maps (because Google maps is not up to date or reliable in China)
-Didi (it's the Chinese version of Uber or Lyft)
-Baidu translator (do NOT leave home without a decent translator - more on that later.)
11) Getting Around in China
For traveling within the same city, the fastest and cheapest way is Didi - an app-based taxi service. Download the app before you leave so that it's in your language. Be prepared that your driver will not speak English. Some cities have a good metro system as well which is even less expensive but could be crowded and the chance of getting lost is greater. I had nothing but positive experiences with Didi. You can link it to your credit card as well. You don't exchange any money with the driver. Avoid taxis if you can. They often don't go by the meter - especially if you're non-Chinese.
|Do these guys really need a caption? If they do, just look up Shaanxi Province.|
12) Ni shou zhong wen ma?
Oh, so you don't speak Chinese. Well, that's okay. You should still visit China and experience its many, many wonders. Bring a translator app like Baidu or Global. Chinese people are quite accustomed to tourists communicating with them using this method and they will be more than willing to help you! For most tourist sites, you can purchase a guided tour from your travel agent before going to China. This is an excellent idea as the guide will speak your language and assist you.
13) Safety in China
China is extremely safe. There are police and soldiers everywhere - literally. As a tourist, you will be a bit more conspicuous so keep your belongings close. However, I never felt unsafe in China. The police don't speak English but they are very professional and will help you with directions if needed.
14) Health in China
Before you go to China, make sure you update your vaccines for cholera, typhoid fever, and all forms of hepatitis. This is especially important in the rural areas of China. Your doctor can also prescribe strong medication for traveller's diarrhea. And speaking of the bathroom...
15) Washrooms in China
Starbucks is your best friend in China. Their restrooms are always clean and have western style toilets. Everyone warned me that not all toilets in China have toilet paper. Thinking this would be true, I may or may not have packed way to many "provisions" for my trip. That being said, do have some form of sanitary wipe with you at all times just to be sure. And remember, it's all part of your "cultural experience" in China!
My trip to China was the excursion of a lifetime. The people are incredibly warm, welcoming, and it gives them great joy to show you their country. China has an ancient culture rooted in Eastern spirituality so try to find quiet, tranquil moments during your trip. The food in China is superb and there is no comparison between it and the "Chinese" food we have in North America. (Okay fine - Vancouver does a decent job, but still!)
Although going to China may seem daunting, frightening, and a lot of work, it is worth it. You will see some of the wonders of the world there. Memories formed in China last a life time. Hope these tips help you and encourage you to book YOUR trip to China!