Between the great firewall, visas, money and the language barrier – travel to China can be a little bit daunting. But it is actually easier than you think – if you are prepared.
A holiday in China offers a cultural experience like no other. You can walk on crumbling sections of the Great Wall, watch archaeologists at work digging out the Terracotta Warriors and chuckle at the antics of the pandas in Chengdu.
Here’s our list of things you need to arrange and consider before you travel to China.
It’s actually really easy to get a visa for China. Just go to the Visa for China website for your capital city and read the step-by-step instructions or head straight to the Quick Access section. Fill in all the details in Visa Application Form online and save it to your computer. Make sure that you do one for each person who will be going on the trip. Then book an appointment at your local visa for China centre.
You will need photocopies of your passports, flight and accommodation details for the interview.
Take a number at the entrance to the Visa centre and wait your turn. Once at the counter, hand over the Visa Application Forms, the passports, the photocopies and the details of all flights and hotels.
One week later, you can go back to the centre, pay the fee and collect your Visa.
The Great Firewall of China really does exist. Access to Google is limited. There’s NO Facebook access. No Instagram.
But there is a way around it. All you need is a VPN (Virtual Private Network) app such as Express VPN. Install the app on your phone before you go and you will be able to access Facebook and Instagram and Google.
If you don’t have a VPN, you won’t have access to Google. Try Bing.com for internet searching instead.
Don’t even bother with Google maps in China. You are far better off downloading local maps of Beijing and other cities you plan to visit.
Your credit card will be fairly useless in China. Expect to use cash. Before you go, find out which banks in China will accept Australian cards. Not all do. When you spot one of those banks – make it count. Avoid multiple withdrawals as much as possible so you reduce the bank fees.
In most countries, it’s possible to pick up a portable Wifi device at the airport so you can reduce your use of data when out and about. But in China, that’s not your best option given the Great Firewall.
You’re better off actually getting a Chinese Sim card and using the data on that when outside the hotel. Many companies will actually deliver Chinese sim cards to your hotel for arrival. Pop the sim card in your phone and you are ready to go.
The best/fastest trains sell out in advance, leaving only the option of a much longer multi-stop journey. So book ahead.
Most large train stations have an English-language service window. The easiest option is to book online and pick the tickets up with the email (with instructions in English and Mandarin) from the station before you travel.
Download a subway travel app for China. Ensure it shows the connections you need to make in English. This app will be your lifeline.
Be prepared to put all your bags through an X-ray machine at every train station. You get used to it after a while.
It can be difficult to find snacks for kids, even in Beijing and Xian. Fill up on breakfast at the hotel before you head out. Many items for sale in convenience stores have little nutritional value. Ask the hotel for the nearest supermarket and stock up. Market stalls often sell fresh fruit – grab items such as bananas and oranges when ever you see them.
You CAN NOT drink the water in China. You will need to buy bottled water every day.
8. Dining out
Many restaurants will have an English menu. If you have installed a VPN, you will be able to use Google translate. Check TripAdvisor and see what other travellers recommend in your area.
Dumplings are always a good bet. As are noodles. Dandong Duck does tasty Peking Duck in Beijing. In Xian First Noodle under the sun is cheap and delicious.
9. DIY? Or guide?
Unless you are prepared to speak a little Mandarin, do a lot of pointing or just wing it, a guide is a good safe option.
Private guides can be hired on a daily basis. You decided what you want to do and they arrange the details. They can even show you how to use the subway, book tickets and how to find supermarkets.
Alternatively, you can do a whole package tour and travel China stress-free.