What follows is part 1 of a 2 part article I wrote for a magazine. They ended up not publishing it or paying me, but hopefully it will be of some use to someone.
1 – Trains
Most hostels will book train tickets for you, or else you can use http://www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/
If at all possible avoid hard seat tickets for any extended journeys. Avoid taxi touts once you leave, queue for a taxi with everyone else, it’s cheaper and safer. Because Chinese cities are so big many of them have more than one station. To avoid missing your train show your ticket to taxi driver so you get to right station. As a foreigner you will need to show your passport at train stations. Then just stock up on snacks and enjoy the ride!
2 – Bargaining
China is great for shopping, after all, a huge variety of goods are made there. Often though, the price won’t be displayed on the item. You are expected to bargain for it. A good rule of thumb is that the item is probably worth half of the stated value. Bargaining can be time-consuming but a lot of fun. You will eventually have to accept that you will never get as good a price as a local, but it will still be cheaper than you pay at home.
3 – Safety
There is an absence of any major crimes against foreigners. Usually the only thing you have to worry about is pickpocketing, so keep your money safe, don’t keep it all in one place, buy a padlock for your bag and if you’re staying in a hostel or in any sort of group accommodation make sure you use the locker provided in your room.
4 – language barrier
Just enough Chinese is a very good pocket phrasebook and even if you can’t pronounce the phrases you can point to them. Pleco is an excellent free app for iphone and android. It’s a dictionary and pronunciation guide and with the paid version you can hold your phone’s camera over documents to translate them. Many restaurants will have pictures on the menu. If you are stuck in a Chinese city and need to find an English speaker Chinese teenagers and college students will usually have the best English.
5 – Toilets
Squat toilets are very common and can take some getting used to. bring your own hand sanitiser and toilet paper or tissues. If you can’t hack it and need a Western toilet (and if you find it difficult adjusting to the food you just might need that home comfort) then Western franchises like McDonalds or Starbucks will nearly always have at least one.
6 – Medicines
Bring whatever medicines you need from home. You can buy nearly everything you need in China over the counter but it can be very difficult to communicate what you need and translate the medical names or the dosage you need. Bring stomach meds in case you have difficulty with the food (on the subject of food, bring a fork if you have trouble with chopsticks). Don’t drink the water.
7 – Pollution
If you have sensitive skin bring any medicines or cream you would need as there is a lot of smog. Face masks can be a good investment for breathing through if you intend to spend a lot of time in Cities. Air Quality China is a useful free app for tracking current pollution levels.
8 – Useful apps and websites
Wechat is a very popular social network in China, rather than asking for your number people will often ask you for your wechat (or Weixin) id. It’s free and useful if you hit it off with someone you’d like to meet again. Another great resource is any of the expat websites, there is at least one for every major city and they will have maps and event guides and plenty of English speakers if you have questions. If you are going on a business trip and need to work or email then it is useful to install a VPN on your computer as many sites are censored or even blocked by the great firewall of China.
9 – Join the YHA
the Youth Hostel association is a great resource. Annual membership is quite cheap, it’s very easy to sign up online or at any of their branches and you receive a membership card. Their hostels are closer to hotels and are all licensed to allow foreigners to stay. Even if you don’t want to stay with them they are a great back-up to have in case your accommodation falls through. And, if you’re a member, you can avail of the services without having to stay there. For example you can store your luggage in hostels for free, get maps, the staff usually have English and will help you out, you can use their wifi and they nearly always sell coffee and beer.
10 – Just go with the flow
You are going to get lost, you are going to see things that are unusual, you are going to encounter huge crowds of tourists. Common sense will help you deal with most things on your journey: be safe on roads and around traffic, bring a map, have patience, arrive at attractions early to avoid crowds and above all just go for it. Dive in, try the local foods and local massages and markets, have fun and enjoy a thoroughly awesome (in the true sense of the word) and unique country.
I’d like to just add, I had experience with a few companies while travelling and there are two I’d like to warn you away from. Send My Bag is the company I used to ship my stuff home ahead of me. They are pretty expensive and were difficult to deal with. When my bag arrived home a lot of small items of personal significance (but no monetary value) were missing. Things like a novelty birthday candle I bought for my granddad’s birthday, and a memory stick full of photos. When I complained they sent an email with the wrong name saying they were sorry I’d lost my ‘camera equipment.’ When I complained further saying that I hadn’t lost any camera equipment they basically said that there was nothing they could do and the ‘insurance’ they include in the price didn’t cover this. So basically they are careless, expensive and difficult to deal with. Avoid them.
Hostelworld is a useful hostel review service. But I wouldn’t book anything through them again. I did while travelling because it’s in English, you just pay the deposit and pay the rest in cash on arrival. However, when I had problems booking a hostel in Hong Kong (I booked, paid the deposit, they had no record of my booking and wouldn’t believe I had already paid, the hostel was now booked out), they were useless at replying to emails and phone calls, very unhelpful, leaving me stranded. Eventually I found another hostel through word of mouth. At the end of my stay in Hong Kong I discovered the original hostel (the one which they claimed they had no record of booking) took the full amount from my account. When I tried to dispute this Hostelworld blamed the hostel and the hostel blamed Hostelworld. The most concerning thing is that Hostelworld must have given them my bank details without my permission. So basically they are very good for finding hostels and reviews, but don’t book through their system.