Even 20 years ago China was not a conventional tourist destination. Despite the allure of its beautiful landscapes and history-filled cities, politics, poverty, and poor infrastructure kept foreigners at bay.
Today, more people visit China than ever, welcomed in by the profound changes that have swept the revitalized nation over the past decades. Here are 8 tips to for planning your trip to the fascinating, ever-changing country.
1. Eat well
Outside of China, impressions of Chinese food are still often defined by the sweet, balanced flavours of Cantonese food. Dim sum and other Cantonese dishes are delicious of course, but there’s a whole world of regional cuisines to discover: the fiery spice of Sichuan and Hunan cuisine; the freshness and sour funkiness of food from Guizhou and Yunnan.
Plus Hangzhou and Shanghai's light, refined dumplings and seafood, and the hearty quasi-Turkish kebabs and hand-pulled noodles from Xinjiang. You may want to travel for some of these dishes, but major cities will host restaurants from around the country.
2. Get online
Facebook, Youtube, Google Maps, and most Western email providers are difficult to access in China, so you may want to download a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which will help you get past the so-called "Great Firewall".
Inside China there are a few extremely helpful apps: WeChat could simply be explained as a Chinese WhatsApp but in reality, it’s a combination of that, Facebook, PayPal, a food delivery service, and much more. Some of these features are difficult to navigate with limited Chinese, but you’ll need WeChat to talk to new friends, and you can “follow” magazines, museums, restaurants and more on the app to learn about special events and deals.
Baidu Maps is an excellent Google Maps alternative.
3. Learn some Chinese
Chinese languages are undoubtedly intimidating, but attempting to learn a little bit of Mandarin (the most widely spoken, standardized language) will be useful. If you’re visiting for a while, consider taking a short language course.
Even quite basic Mandarin will help you get around, and people will be happy you’re making an effort. Writing down or printing out addresses in Chinese characters can make things easier.
It’s also worth downloading Pleco, an excellent Chinese-English dictionary app.
4. Take the train
For many countries this suggestion would imply the romance of watching the countryside slide by your window. That factor still holds here, but China’s high speed rail network is notable mainly for its sheer convenience. With stations closer to city centres than airports, train journeys between major cities are a comfortable, cheaper alternative to domestic flights.
The five hours between Beijing and Shanghai compare favourably to the flight time, with considerably less stress. Furthermore, the bustling modern stations provide a glimpse of the direction the country is heading in.
5. Get away from the coast
For another side of China, travel away from the major cities near the coast. Cities and provinces further inland showcase distinct local cultures and cuisines, and often have closer ties to tradition.
In Yunnan province near the borders with Laos and Myanmar, China takes on a Southeast Asian flavour. Chengdu in Sichuan province boasts a relaxed pace of life and is a gateway to wilderness along the edge of the Himalayas. Not too far away, Chongqing is a surreal mega-city where skyscrapers hug hills on the banks of the Yangtze River.
6. Do some shopping
Sure, you can buy fake goods in China. But there’s so much more on offer. Why not pick up some quality oolong or pu’er tea? In the hutongs (alleys) around Guloudongdajie in Beijing, boutiques stock clothes from local designers and nostalgic socialist-chic homewares. Stores like Closing Ceremony in Shanghai offer an array of Chinese photo books and art magazines.
7. Go to a show
Chinese contemporary art is firmly established internationally, so you should check out some exhibits at the source: prominent galleries include the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, and OCT Contemporary Art Terminal in Shenzhen.
If you’re more into music, bars in Beijing – try School – carry on the capital’s decades long tradition of gritty rock, and Shanghai’s electronic music scene is known as one of Asia’s best.
8. Plan for the weather and holidays
If you’re lucky you’ll be greeted with crisp blue-skies, but it’s likely you’ll face some pollution while in China. It may be wise to pick up a PM 2.5-type face mask before you go.
Planning for seasons, spring and autumn are the best time to catch pleasant moderate temperatures.
Also be sure to avoid scheduling your trip during major Chinese holidays: Chinese New Year sees transport networks jammed and major cities empty as people return to their hometowns, and Golden Week (early October) is peak season for domestic tourism.