I was in China for 12 months on an exchange at Peking University, looking back at my travel experiences now, I wish I had known a couple of things before adventuring around China. Here is what I learned from my China travel experiences:
Research thoroughly before going
My first piece of advice would be to make sure that you know what you are getting yourself into. Travelling in China is not always easy and you have to be prepared to face numerous obstacles. The more you prepare yourself in advance, the easier your journey will be. Instagram pages are a good place to start, they can act as a guide and source of inspiration as to where you should go and what you should see. The Instagram account called @insta_china is a great one to scroll through. I suggest that you look through travel blogs to hear traveller’s personal accounts when travelling in specific areas. Lastly, make sure to read the FCO’s easy to follow advice on travelling in China, they offer visa advice, as well as specific information on individual provinces.
Travelling in a pair around China is not a bad idea as there may be moments of high stress
Plan your journey in advance
This is important. Trains in China get fully booked very quickly, particularly during busy periods such as Golden Week in October and Chinese New Year. If you want to avoid having no choice but to purchase standing tickets for a 14-hour ride, then I suggest that you plan your itinerary in advance. Moreover, before you depart I suggest that you go through the FCO’s handy travel checklist.
Two is better than one
Travelling in a pair around China is not a bad idea as there may be moments of high stress if a train is missed or if you are struggling to communicate with someone, having another person with you gets some of that pressure off your shoulders as you can work together to handle whatever obstacle comes your way.
Talk to the locals
Locals are able to offer a lot of advice – what places to see, how to get somewhere. During my travels in China, most were very approachable and open to answer any questions. Hostel staff also gives great insights, sometimes they create small guides for travelers that offer specific details such as bus numbers. Local tourism offices are quite common, and staff usually speaks English. However, you must always be wary about talking to locals as some may be trying to promote something for their own personal gain or may want money in exchange for their help.
The App WeChat is the main platform for communication in China and is similar to Whatsapp. It will come in very handy when travelling as you can add individuals that you meet along the way, and not only stay in touch with them but also ask for advice as you continue your travels.
Bring a travel guide with you
It is not always easy to get Internet access in China, therefore carrying a guide will facilitate your travels. The Lonely Planet guide offers in-depth information of specific sites, and usually has a list with a range of hotels/hostels options, including addresses both in Chinese and English, as well as phone numbers to these locations. However, the pace of development in China meant that we found that restaurants and hotels had closed down or relocated. So be prepared for your guide to become out of date – it’s always good to have a few backup options just in case!
Check for temperatures
Temperatures can vary dramatically within one province! The city of Turpan in Xinjiang province can get as hot as 50 degrees during the Summer, while the Karakoram highway has temperatures of 0 degrees at night time. Make sure to check what the temperature will be like before you go, and to pack a range of clothing, in order to survive all kinds of temperatures!
Download translation apps
Download translation apps to be able to properly communicate with locals. The app Pleco was a saviour on many occasions when I was travelling around China.
Research to make sure that you are being culturally sensitive
Culture throughout China varies drastically. There are six recognised religions within China, each with their own customs. It is important that you find out what religion is practiced in the area that you are visiting, and what you should do in order to be a respectful tourist. When I was travelling in Xinjiang, it was during Ramadan, a month long fasting period practiced by Muslims worldwide. To be respectful I had to avoid eating or holding food in public. I also made sure not to show much skin as Uygur women typically wear one-piece dresses. However, when I went to the neighboring province of Qinghai, locals practiced Buddhism, so I had to familiarise myself with their religion by doing some prior research.
Before you embark on your journey, make sure to do your research on which insurance will be most suitable for the activities that you are taking on. The FCO offers great advice on foreign travel insurance.
Be safe, and enjoy!