Oh China. The Middle Kingdom, the home of kung-fu and pandas, is one of the hottest travel and study destinations in the world right now.
With over 5000 years of history, China is definitely worth a visit and here at Kotaku, we've compiled a few helpful tips. Keep in mind that these tips don't include budgets and visa issues; all visitors to China must have a visa prepared before landing in the country.
These tips do not relate to Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macau. These areas have different laws, regulations, and even power plugs!
Bring a dictionary or electronic translator
Filled with 1.4 billion people, China is the world's most populous country. Through government efforts most of these people speak a common language called Mandarin Chinese. At the same time, China also has a giant base of English speakers due to mandatory English language education.
While millions of Chinese do speak English, that doesn't mean that you will be able to communicate with them. Don't worry too much though, Chinese people for the most part are friendly to foreigners. A simple translation app or a dictionary will go a long way to make sure you're eating a donkey burger made from donkey meat and not a donkey hot dog made with donkey schlong.
Bring a portable console and/or a mobile device with internet capabilities
Travelling in China often involves going from the city to a rural destination. For any traveller, seeing fields of green or wastelands of brown for hours after hours eventually becomes boring. Having a portable console like a Nintendo 3DS or PlayStation Vita will help deal with the boredom. The same could be applied to an iPad or Android tablet, except iPads and Android tablets don't have StreetPass like the 3DS does.
On top of staving off boredom during the travel phase, these devices will also make sure you're not bored at the station or airport. Travelling in China is normally done through two modes of transportation, by plane or by train. The trains offer a comfortable ride for the most part and are usually always punctual, though they take much longer than plains. Even the super fast high speed rail from Beijing to Shanghai takes 3 hours longer than the plane.
Air travel in the People's Republic is known for being particularly bad. That's not to say it's unsafe or that service is bad. It's a matter of punctuality. Planes almost never ever depart on time. The reason is either due to military controlled airspace (all of Chinese airspace is technically under the jurisdiction of the Air Force of the People's Liberation Army) or some kind of weather anomaly. Flights leaving Beijing and some parts of northern China often get grounded because of pollution and smog. So a gaming device or tablet would come in handy.
Be prepared to stick out like a sore thumb and be gawked at
This bit doesn't really apply to cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Beijing or Shanghai, but it applies to most other cities, villages or towns in China. If you're a foreigner who is of a different ethnicity, you will stick out and there will be lots of people looking at you wherever you go — even more so if you're able to speak Chinese. Something similar also arises with Asians that look Chinese but aren't Chinese, except the shock and awe wears off faster.
If you are a young caucasian lady with striking features and long blonde hair, be prepared to have your picture taken a lot. If you're not of the Asian ethnicity, just be prepared to have people take photos of you in tourist traps.
Carry your own little personal pharmacy
Chinese healthcare is adequate at best. The best medical treatment in the country is reserved for the military, so unless you've got connections in at the PLA, you've got to "fight" for a ticket to see a doctor. Of course there are foreign hospitals and some of the better hospitals have foreign wings, but it's still best to avoid them — like hospitals out west, they're filled with nurses who've have had long days and doctors who aren't interested. That, and they're sometimes not very well-kept.
On the off chance you do get sick and are in need of medical care, do know that Chinese hospitals will not give you painkillers stronger than regular tylenol, and pharmacies won't have things like NyQuil or DayQuil. So if you're in need of minor medical assistance, it's best that you get what you need before visiting China.
If you catch respiratory infections easily, bring NyQuil or DayQuil. If your stomach upsets easily but you want to try all the weird and exotic foods, bring some Pepto Bismol. If you know you're going to go mountain climbing where you'll get hurt but not really hurt, bring your own pain meds.
Carry toilet paper or sanitary wipes
This one sounds strange but it's essential. China is home to millions of public toilets. Public toilets smell, but they serve a necessary function. However, they do not have toilet paper, so it's essential for any China traveller to get into the habit of carrying sanitary napkins on their person. This also applies for restaurants and shopping centres. The higher-end locations will have TP but oftentimes you'll just find a holder without any!
Also, TP is useful for a lot of other things. Wiping off cups and utensils at restaurants and makeshift bandaging of wounds, amongst many other things.
Do not buy electronics at an electronics market (unless you're looking for a novelty)
China is not Japan. It's also not Korea, or Taiwan or Hong Kong. While China does make most of the world's consumer electronics, China isn't a good destination to purchase electronics on the cheap if you don't speak the language.
Shoddy intellectual property rights, rampant piracy and dirt cheap labour have created a smorgasbord of electronics markets selling gadgets and tech toys on the cheap. However, without a proper grasp of the language and a keen eye for detail, that supposedly super cheap "iPhone" you're buying may turn out to be a super expensive brick. It's not worth the headache to try to buy a Nintendo 3DS for less than market value only to go home and find out it's not a Nintendo but a Funtonda.
If you've got an eye for electronics, and you're looking to purchase a cheap toy/gadget for the novelty of it all, then by all means do it. Feel free to buy GooPhones, or bootleg devices. Just keep in mind that bootleg merchandise purchased in China may cause you problems when going through customs in your home country.
The same can be applied to video games. Do not buy video games in China, particularly Wii and Xbox 360 discs. Just don't. If you're buying 3DS, you need to make sure it's compatible with your device as the system is region locked. Go wild with PlayStation Vita games, though.
Carry a plug converter and a power converter
China uses a different power output in their power outlets. While most modern electronics have built-in power converters in them, it's worth looking at the the power input limits of your electronic devices. Most US electronics can only take 110-120 volts. To prevent frying your electronics, make sure your power brick can support the 220 volts coming out of Chinese outlets.
On top of having different power outputs, China also uses different plugs. Chinese plugs will take Hong Kong plugs, US plugs and Australian plugs, but for the most part will not take a standard 3-prong US plug. Also it won't take US plugs where one prong is bigger than the other. To keep hassles to a minimum, a small universal plug converter will be very useful. They sell them at pretty much every airport.
Be extra mindful of your belongings and situation at all times
For the most part, China is super safe. The worst crimes that happen on a regular basis is pickpocketing and theft. It's highly recommended that if you take public transportation like the subway or bus, you make sure your belongings are in front of you and firmly in your grasp. Men should put their wallets in their front pocket. Women should hold their bags by the bag and not just by the strap. If you're carrying a backpack, when you get onto public transportation, wear it on the front.
If you're visiting a tourist trap, do not follow anyone who says they want to take you somewhere, or that they will help you with your belongings! For men, anyone who comes up to you offering you "lady bar" or to take you to a bar to meet ladies, just walk away. It's not rude to ignore them. For ladies and men, if anyone offers to take you to an authentic teahouse, avoid them.
Also... please be mindful of tourist traps. If you're at a tourist destination and you see lots of soldiers around, do not, for the love of God, pour water over your head no matter how hot it is. I repeat, DO NOT POUR WATER OVER YOUR HEAD. The reason is that a long time ago, dissenters and protestors of the Chinese government self-immolated in public locations. They poured gasoline on top of their heads from water bottles and set themselves on fire. Pouring water on your head to cool off in a high security area will result in you getting tackled or harassed by public security.
Visit expat events and make a local friend
The China expatriate community is a "small" one. Pretty much everyone can be connected to one another within six degrees of separation. This allows for very quick networking. At the same time, the expat community likes to have fun and hold events that remind them of home. These events will also draw many forward-thinking and foreign-educated Chinese. A gathering of Beijing beer enthusiasts, for example, draws many Chinese beer drinking fans as well as some of the best microbrews around the country!
These expat events provide two great opportunities for the China traveller. The first is a chance to learn, hear stories and find suggestions from other foreigners who have lived in the area for years. Expats usually know the best places for travel to avoid the tourist traps. They also know the best place to get a taste of home, should you get sick of Chinese food.
The second thing is the opportunity to make a local friend. Having a local Chinese friend is very helpful! You have a friend, someone to do things with, someone who can share their knowledge with you and vice-versa. It's the people that make a place great.
Learn to haggle and be prepared to walk away
What trip to a far away land is complete without some terrible consumerism? China has a bunch of knick-knacks that would make perfect gifts to your friends and family back home. After making sure what you're purchasing is something Chinese and not, say, Japanese or Korean, you should try to get the best price for it.
In China, there are "department stores" where haggling is allowed and a must. Pretty much every major city has what is called a "fake market" where they sell knock-off clothing and accessories to souvenirs galore. These markets are great! You can buy a nice-looking dress shirt without a brand for about $US9 US. The only caveat is the haggling. Don't worry, most of these shops are used to dealing with foreigners. They will be able to speak English.
Haggling is an art, and in China it's almost a game. In the end your goal is to make the person you're buying from as angry with you as possible. It gives you a sense of winning. To the seller, it's almost always an act. If they're going to sell it to you for a "bargain" price, they're making money anyway.
The best way to start off haggling is to be able to walk away. First off, make up your mind that you can live without whatever it is you're haggling for. Ask for the price and then ask for it to be cheaper. The seller will then give you a "discount" price. Take that price and divide it by four. Stick to that price.
If the original price was 100 RMB ($16.oo US), offer to pay 25 RMB ($4 US) for it. Allow for a give or take of about 5 rmb ($0.80 cents US). Once it's determined that you're not paying the ridiculous first price, the seller will start to haggle. They will give you sob stories about how they're unable to pay the rent, or how they're not making money. They're making money. Eventually you'll reach an impasse where the seller will not go lower, at this point, just walk away. The seller will most likely come to you and "begrudgingly" agree to sell.
Purchase a Virtual Private Network
This depends on how long you'll be staying in China. The Chinese internet is ok. For the most part it has bearable speeds. However, there is no Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Many Google services are blocked. Some blogs and blog services are also blocked. Long time China-residing expats turn to virtual private networks to get their social media fix.
VPN's aren't too expensive and they allow open access to the whole internet. The only drawback is the network speed.
Purchase pollution masks
Sadly, as grand and sometimes amazing as China is, its air quality is in the dumps. Most of the best tourist attractions in China fall in areas where pollution is terrible.
The Forbidden City is in Beijing where the air is terrible. The Shaolin Temple is outside of Zhengzhou in Henan, where the air is also terrible. Pretty much everywhere you'd want to go, you'll end up encountering ridiculous amounts of smog. To "enjoy" the outdoors, a good face mask is necessary.
A good face mask should be able to block out most particles. It should sit tightly on your face without any air leakage. 3M sells these masks by the box load and they're the most common type. They're fairly comfortable. As many people in China are wising up to wear gas masks and the like, you won't stick out so much. If you're up for it, you can decorate your face mask to add a cosplay element.
Keep in mind that this is just a series of small tips. When travelling across China, just be respectful of the people, even if they're doing things that maybe unseemly in your home country. You're the guest and you're visiting their home. With all of that said, try to make the best of the situation and enjoy the stay. The middle kingdom is a wonderful place to be.
Top Photo: Jakub Hałun [Wikicommons