How to avoid a disastrous first trip to China

China Guide

In other words, this is everything you need to know on how to plan your first trip to China! Going to China isn’t just like a casual trip to Mexico from the US, Spain from the UK or to Bali for Australians!

Travelling to China for the first time will require you to do some research to get it all right and to not get traumatized, hate it and never return. China is beautiful and full of things to see and most importantly, experience. It can be a place that can be of a huge culture shock for many travellers (unless you are well-travelled), especially if you are going for the first time. Customs are very different, language is obviously incomprehensible, censorship can be annoying to travel comfortably and the visa isn’t the easiest to obtain for all passport holders.

Enough talk, here are our tips for you to plan your first trip to China based on our few visits but also on Mitch living there for 2 years in Suzhou, not far away from Shanghai.

Applying for a Visa for China

Most nationalities require a visa before arriving in China. You can either apply yourself online or have to go to the embassy depending where you are based at the time of application. The application will require you to have your round trip flight itinerary, passport photos and accommodation booked. Because of this amount of requirements, most people rather use agents to do it for them as they can also book dummy reservations.

Processing your visa can take time, China is sure not a last minute trip if you go for the first time!
Also very important, if you plan to travel to Hong Kong or Macau during the same trip, you will need to apply for a multiple entry visa.

Where to go in China?

Problem number one: China is HUGE and quite diverse. Diversity can vary from things to see to different types of cuisine. So to be able to plan your first itinerary in China, it is essential to narrow the list of things you absolutely want to see for this first trip. Focus on these places and then you will be able to plan your route before going. Planning is actually crucial for China to be able to enjoy the journey.

Depending on how long you have, you will be able to draw your itinerary. If you have a week and want to see culture, go Beijing for the Great Wall of China, followed by Xi’an for Terracotta Warriors and end it with Guilin for fantastic scenery. Shanghai can totally be skipped as it is kind of Hong Kong and just another metropolitan city, which you will see enough with Beijing. Save Shanghai for another time!

If you have more time, go see the Avatar mountains (Zhangjiajie), Shanghai, Suzhou for the Venice of the Far East and the Xinjiang region for a complete other world!

Visiting Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau

You must know that with your normal visa to China, you won’t be able to access Tibet or  Macau and Hong Kong. Tibet will actually require you a special permit which you can obtain with a travel agent. Travelling with a travel agency to Tibet is actually the only way you can go there. As for Hong Kong and Macau, they require different visas but is mostly visa-free for all types of passport holders for up to 30 days.

Where to stay in China

China is home to many local giant hospitality groups such as The Mandarin and Shangri-La. Other hospitality groups such as Marriott International, Four Seasons, Alila Hotels etc also have many properties in the country, so you have plenty of choice based on the type of accommodation you desire based on your budget. It is important to book in advance, mostly if you travel close to local holiday dates in China. Don’t forget the country is super crowded and hotels can actually be full during local holidays! Hence book a few days in advance, but anyway the China visa application will require the address of where you’re staying, so we are sure you will get that sorted. Don’t forget that if you stay at a friends house, they actually need to also provide a form for you to apply for the visa.

Alila Anji
Alila Anji from Alila Hotels

There is censorship in China

So this means you will need to get your VPN in advance on all devices because when you land in China, it will be too late to get the VPN. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Gmail (at times) and many other websites are banned in China. Having a VPN is pretty much the only way to get connected! We use Astrill, it is a pretty good one.

Bargaining in China

Usually, most of us hate bargaining. Personally I used to love it but the more I travel, I absolutely hate it as I just want to price to be the right one without even thinking! In China, you will HAVE to bargain, all the time haha. Haggling is totally accepted in Chinese stores, except at the mall and proper retail stores and supermarkets. Like anywhere else in the world, don’t forget to benchmark and shop around to know the average price of things you want! You can also go on Taobao (Chinese version of Amazon) to get an idea of prices. The best way to be a winning bargainer is to stay polite, relaxed and pretend you don’t really need the item. Pretending to leave the shop and not wanting it is usually the best threat to the vendor and the price will drop so drastically you will be thinking that the first price was a TOTAL rip off haha.

When in China, try all the food you can!

We know how much some travellers can be quite not open to try new food, but this is the essence of travelling and mostly in China where the food is so rich and diverse! So even though Chinese food can be spicy, strange or very unfamiliar, you should try it! Each region in China has its own flavours and specific specialities, so make sure to plan another trip just for food, literally! For example, Shanghai is known for its Xiao Long bao (soup dumplings), Beijing for Peking duck, Sichuan Province for spicy food, Chengdu & Chongqing for Hotpot, etc.

Food in Urumqi
Dining in Urumqi and sharing a table with these ladies

You will need a whole lot of patience

When in China you will learn patience. People usually don’t really queue up for things. It can be quite messy and pushy! People aren’t always keen to help you which is another tough thing to deal with when you travel in a place where the language isn’t even readable. Although, we have to tell you that things are changing and people are actually being more and more helpful. The new generation is very aware of western cultures more and more and we have seen quite a change after travelling this past October 2018.

Download this app, thank us later

Like really, download Papago or Waygo. Don’t leave to China without this app. It will help you translate the signs you see in Chinese and make you able to get around a bit more than you would without it! Best thing is to be able to read the food you want at 7/11 if you are feeling like snacks ;-).

That’s it! You are now armed of the best advices to have an enjoyable planning session and trip to China.

Ni Hao


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