4/11/2013 10:50:00 AM

How To Travel In China

The Great Wall. Photo by Travelninja.
The Middle Kingdom calls to fans of both ancient civilization and contemporary cities. To make the best of your visit, follow these 10 suggestions.

1. Before You Go: Vaccinations And Visas
Check with your local travel clinic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the vaccinations you’ll need for the specific locales you’ll be visiting. Visas on arrival are procurable only for emergencies, and the availability of travel visas depends somewhat on what is happening in China during your travel dates, so give yourself plenty of time to get your paperwork in order.

2. When (Not) To Go 
The vast country includes subarctic areas in the northeast, deserts in the northwest, subtropical highlands in the southeast, and many environments in between. With this variety, there’s no best time to go. But there is a worst time—during the Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival. Seven days of endless fireworks may seem tempting, but many businesses and attractions are closed during the national holiday, and you’ll be competing for transportation with the millions of Chinese who make up the world’s largest annual migration.

3. Communication 
Don’t be fooled by all the English signs at the airport or the children calling “Hello!” “Good morning” “Michael Jackson” to you. Unless you’re sticking to five star venues in major cities, it will be difficult to get around in English. And don’t expect that locals will understand your pronunciation of Chinese; “ma” means mother, hemp, horse, or scold, depending on the tone you use when you say it. Carry a small dictionary with Chinese characters to make sure you get across what you mean. And before you jump in a cab get an address of your destination written in Chinese.
Photo by MacFish.
4. Traveling Within China 
There are English-language websites that can help you manage metro routes, train lines, and plane tickets; all three options are quick and affordable. Traveling by car is the most difficult option, as China does not accept the International Driver’s Permit and as traffic is difficult to navigate. If you must travel by car, hiring a driver is best. Your visa will permit you to go to most any place in China, but if you plan to travel to Tibet, know that access there may be cut off despite your best-made plans; have a back-up destination in mind.

5. Items For Your Day Bag
Bring plenty of business cards—called name cards by locals—and offer them to people with two hands. They’re the polite way to introduce yourself to almost anyone you meet. You’ll need your passport to buy train tickets, to change money, to send a FedEx package, and to do numerous other things that don’t require a passport back home. Carry a package of tissues and some hand cleaner; not all toilets are stocked with paper and soap.
Photo by petermurray.

6. Get Off The Beaten Path
Visitors looking for the “real” China can be dismayed to find so many streets filled with shopping malls. But look a little further—just one block away from that Gucci store may be an alley with a noodle shop, a bicycle-repair stand, and a tree full of caged birds. China is an easy—and safe—place to wander, and locals typically aren’t defensive of their turf. Street signs in major cities are marked with compass directions to ease your ramble.

7. Avoid Hassles 
Foreigners meet little crime in China, but mind the well-trained pickpockets in tourist spots. Be wary of young people who want to practice English with you or take you to a teashop; these are two common scams. If you’re eating street food, watch that the cook is serving your meal fresh from the wok instead of from a tray that’s been sitting out. Shopkeepers might start haggling at a higher price with foreigners than with locals. Decide what you really want to pay for the item, counteroffer with half of what was requested, and take it from there.

8. Stay Clear Of Accidents 
Traffic patterns in China may seem pattern-less to visitors. Cars make mid-street U-turns, silent battery-powered scooters sneak up on sidewalks, and bicycles and autos head in opposite directions on the same street. Look in all four directions before you cross the street and move with a crowd whenever possible. If you’re riding a bike or a scooter, skip the local bareheaded convention and wear a helmet.
Photo by Maggie Magee.

9. Be Polite
Chinese people generally show great acceptance of foreigner’s missteps, but it can’t hurt to try to be polite. Don’t show affection in public; even handholding is a no no. Dress appropriately; short shorts don’t cause much attention in Shanghai, but be more conservative if you’re traveling to smaller towns. Most importantly, don’t show your temper. In a country where saving face is key, anger will get you nowhere. Remain calm while you work out your disagreements.

10. There Will Be Crowds 
With a population of 1.3 billion and counting, China is not the ideal destination for the traveler looking for solitude. Even “secret” get-away places have likely been discovered by China’s ever-increasing tourist class. It will make your trip more enjoyable to forget your personal space for a while and just roll with the crowds. If you simply accept that people might stand very close to you and that queues might look more like mosh pits than lines, you’ll have a pleasant stay.

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