Travel Tips China for planning and on the go
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
In response to the recent Coronavirus outbreak in Hubei Province, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is advising against all but essential travel to the country. British Airways have cancelled all flights in and out of the country excluding those to Hong Kong. The US Center for Disease Control has issued a level 3 warning advising citizens to reconsider travel. Australian authorities are recommending citizens do not travel to Hubei Province and reconsider travel to the rest of mainland China.
China is an expensive place to visit compared with the rest of Asia. Though food and transport are good value, accommodation can be pricey for what you get, and entry fees for temples, scenic areas and historic monuments are becoming high even on an international scale – so much so that the central government is trying to get local authorities to reduce them (with little effect so far). Actual prices vary considerably between regions: Hong Kong and Macau are as costly as Europe or the US; the developed eastern provinces are expensive by Chinese standards; and the further west you go, the more prices fall.
By doing everything cheaply and sticking mostly to the less expensive interior provinces, you can survive on £30/US$45/¥300 a day; travel a bit more widely and in better comfort and you’re looking at £60/US$90/¥600 a day; while travelling in style and visiting only key places along the east coast, you could run up daily expenses of £150/US$225/¥1500 and above.
Discount rates for pensioners and students are available for many sights, though students may well be asked for a Chinese student card – the practice varies from place to place, even within the same city. Pensioners, on the other hand, can often just use their passports to prove they are over 60 (women) or 65 (men).
While the worst that happens to most visitors to China is that they have their pocket picked on a bus or get scammed, you do need to take care. Carry passports and money (and your phone, if it fits) in a concealed money belt, and keep some foreign notes – perhaps around US$200 – separately from the rest of your cash, together with your insurance policy details and photocopies of your passport and visa. Be wary on buses, the favoured haunt of pickpockets, and trains, particularly in hard-seat class and on overnight journeys.
One of the most dangerous things you can do in China is cross a road: marked pedestrian crossings might as well not be there for all the attention shown them by motorists; and even when traffic lights flash green to show it’s safe to cross, you’ll find that vehicles are still permitted to turn in to or out of the road. Hotel rooms are on the whole secure, dormitories much less so, though often it’s your fellow travellers who are the problem here. Most hotels should have a safe, but it’s not unusual for things to go missing from these. Wandering around cities late at night is as bad an idea in China as anywhere else; similarly, walking alone across the countryside is ill-advised, particularly in remote regions. If anyone does try to rob you, run away or, if this isn’t possible, stay calm and don’t resist.
You may see stress-induced street confrontations, though these rarely result in violence, just a lot of shouting. Another irritation, particularly in the southern cities, is gangs of child beggars, organized by a nearby adult. They target foreigners and can be very hard to shake off; handing over money usually results in increased harassment.
The police, known as the Public Security Bureau or PSB, are recognizable by their dark blue uniforms and caps, though there are a lot more around than you might at first think, as plenty are undercover. They have much wider powers than most Western police forces, including establishing the guilt of criminals – trials are used only for deciding the sentence of the accused (though this is changing and China now has the beginnings of an independent judiciary). If the culprit is deemed to show proper remorse, this will result in a more lenient sentence.
The PSB also have the job of looking after foreigners, and you’ll most likely have to seek them out for visa extensions, reporting theft or losses, and obtaining permits for otherwise closed areas of the country (mostly in Tibet). On occasion, they might seek you out; it’s common for the police to call round to your hotel room if you’re staying in a remote place – they usually just look at your passport and then move on.
While individual police often go out of their way to help foreigners, the PSB itself has all the problems of any police force in a country where corruption is widespread, and it’s best to minimize contact with them.
With adjacent opium-growing areas in Burma and Laos, and a major Southeast Asian distribution point in Hong Kong, China has a massive drug problem. Heroin use has become fairly widespread in the south, particularly in depressed rural areas, and ecstasy is used in clubs and discos. In the past, the police have turned a blind eye to foreigners with drugs, as long as no Chinese are involved, but you don’t want to test this out. In 2010, China executed a British national for drug trafficking, and annually holds mass executions of convicted drug offenders on the UN anti-drugs day in June.
Visitors are not likely to be accused of political crimes, but foreign residents, including teachers or students, may find themselves expelled from the country for talking about politics or religion. The Chinese they talk to will be treated less leniently. In Tibet, and at sensitive border areas, censorship is taken extremely seriously; photographing military installations (which can include major road bridges), instances of police brutality or gulags is not a good idea.
The electricity supply runs on 220 volts, with the most common type of plug a dual flat prong, except in Hong Kong, where they favour the UK-style square triple prong. Adaptors are widely available from neighbourhood hardware stores.
Unless you’re briefly transiting China via certain key cities (see Visa-free transit), all foreign nationals require a visa to enter mainland China, available worldwide from Chinese embassies and consulates and through specialist tour operators and visa agents, and online. In the past they’ve been easiest to obtain in Hong Kong, though at the time of writing there were restrictions being placed on visas issued here.
Visas must be used within three months of issue, and cost £30/$45 and up, depending on the visa type, the length of stay, the number of entries allowed, and your nationality. Your passport must be valid for at least another six months from your planned date of entry into China, and have at least one blank page for visas. You’ll be asked your occupation – it’s not wise to admit to being a journalist, photographer or writer since you might be called in for an interview, and in such instances it’s best to say “consultant” or similar instead. At times of political sensitivity, you may be asked for proof of onward air travel and hotel bookings in your name. Don’t overstay your visa: the fine is ¥500 a day, along with the possibility that you may be deported and banned from entering China for five years.
Tourist visas (L) are valid for between one and three months, and can be single- or multiple-entry – though multiple-entry visas usually require you to leave China every thirty days.
A business visa (F) is valid for between three months and two years and can be either multiple- or single-entry. To apply, you’ll need an official invitation from a government-recognized Chinese organization. Twelve-month work visas (Z) again require an invitation, plus a health certificate.
Students intending to study in China for less than six months need an invitation or letter of acceptance from a college there and will be given an F visa. If you’re intending study for longer than six months, there is an additional form, available from Chinese embassies and online, and you will also need a health certificate; then you’ll be issued with an X visa, which allows you to stay and study for up to a year.
You’re allowed to import into China up to 400 cigarettes and 1.5l of alcohol and up to ¥20,000 cash. Foreign currency in excess of US$5000 or the equivalent must be declared. It’s illegal to import printed or filmed matter critical of the country, but this is currently only a problem with Chinese border guards at crossings from Vietnam, who have confiscated guidebooks to China that contain maps showing Taiwan as a separate country (such as this one); keep them buried in the bottom of your bags.
Australia 15 Coronation Drive, Yarralumla, Canberra, ACT 2600 02 6273 4780, au.china-embassy.org/eng.
Canada 515 St Patrick St, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 5H3 1 613 789 3434, ca.chineseembassy.org/eng/.
Ireland 40 Ailesbury Rd, Dublin 4 01 269 1707, ie.china-embassy.org/eng.
New Zealand 2–6 Glenmore St, Wellington 04 474 9631, www.chinaembassy.org.nz.
South Africa 972 Pretorius St, Arcadia, Pretoria 012 431 6500, www.chinese-embassy.org.za.
UK 49–51 Portland Place, London W1B 1JL 020 7299 4049, www.chinese-embassy.org.uk.
US 3505 International Place, Washington DC 20008 1 202 495 2266, www.china-embassy.org/eng/.
Visa extensions are handled by the Public Security Bureau (PSB), so you can apply for one in any reasonably sized town – the department will be called something like “Aliens’ Entry Exit Section”. The cost, and the amount of hassle you’ll have, varies greatly depending on where you are and your nationality. In particular, many places want to see a receipt from your accommodation, proving that you’re staying in the town in which you’re applying.
A first extension, valid for a month, is easy to obtain and costs ¥160 (though US citizens pay more). However, the particular PSB office may decide to levy extra charges on top, or even waive the fee completely. Processing the application takes seven working days, and you need to apply at least seven days in advance of your old visa expiring. The worst place to apply (bar Tibet, of course) is Beijing, then Shanghai.
A second or third extension is harder to get, and is impossible if your visa was originally issued in Hong Kong. In major cities, you will probably be turned away, though you’d be unlucky not to be given some kind of extension from PSB offices in small towns. You will be asked your reasons for wanting an extension – simply saying you want to spend more time in this wonderful country usually goes down well, or you could cite illness or transport delays. Don’t admit to being low on funds. Fourth or even fifth extensions are possible, but you’ll need to foster connections with a PSB office. Ask advice from a local independent travel agent – they often have the right sort of contacts. In Shanghai and Beijing, it is possible to get extra extensions from a visa agent – they advertise in expat magazines.
No vaccinations are required to visit China, except for yellow fever if you’re coming from an area where the disease is endemic. It’s worth taking a first-aid kit with you, particularly if you will be travelling extensively outside the cities, where getting hold of the appropriate medicines might be difficult. Include bandages, plasters, painkillers, oral rehydration solution, medication to counter diarrhoea, vitamin pills and antiseptic cream. A sterile set of hypodermics may be advisable, as re-use of needles does occur in China. Note there is widespread ignorance of sexual health issues, and AIDS and STDs are widespread – always practise safe sex.
The most common health hazards in China are the cold and flu infections that strike down a large proportion of the population in the winter months. Diarrhoea is also common, usually in a mild form while your stomach gets used to unfamiliar food, but also sometimes with a sudden onset accompanied by stomach cramps and vomiting, which indicates food poisoning. In both instances, get plenty of rest, drink lots of water, and in serious cases replace lost salts with oral rehydration solution (ORS); this is especially important with young children. Take a few sachets with you, or make your own by adding half a teaspoon of salt and three of sugar to a litre of cool, previously boiled water. While down with diarrhoea, avoid milk, greasy or spicy foods, coffee and most fruit, in favour of bland foodstuffs such as rice, plain noodles and soup. If symptoms persist, or if you notice blood or mucus in your stools, consult a doctor as you may have dysentery.
To avoid stomach complaints, eat at places that look busy and clean and stick to fresh, thoroughly cooked food. Shellfish is a potential hepatitis A risk, and best avoided. Fresh fruit you’ve peeled yourself is safe; other uncooked foods may have been washed in unclean water. Don’t drink untreated tap water – boiled or bottled water is widely available.
Hepatitis A is a viral infection spread by contaminated food and water, which causes an inflammation of the liver. The less common hepatitis B virus can be passed on through unprotected sexual contact, transfusions of unscreened blood, and dirty needles. Hepatitis symptoms include yellowing of the eyes and skin, preceded by lethargy, fever, and pains in the upper right abdomen.
Typhoid and cholera are spread by contaminated food or water, generally in localized epidemics; both are serious conditions and require immediate medical help. Symptoms of typhoid include headaches, high fever and constipation, followed by diarrhoea in the later stages. The disease is infectious. Cholera begins with sudden but painless onset of watery diarrhoea, later combined with vomiting, nausea and muscle cramps. Rapid dehydration rather than the infection itself is the main danger, and should be treated with constant oral rehydration solutions.
Summer outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever occur across southern China, usually in localized areas. Symptoms are similar – severe headaches, joint pains, fever and shaking – though a rash might also appear with dengue. There’s no cure for dengue fever, whereas malaria can be prevented and controlled with medication; both require immediate medical attention to ensure that there are no complications. You can minimize your chances of being bitten by mosquitoes in the first place by wearing light-coloured, full-length clothing and insect repellent in the evenings when mosquitoes are active.
In tropical China, the temperature and humidity can take a couple of weeks to adjust to. High humidity can cause heat rashes, prickly heat and fungal infections. Prevention and cure are the same: wear loose clothes made of natural fibres, wash frequently and dry-off thoroughly afterwards. Talcum or anti-fungal powder and the use of mild antiseptic soap help, too.
Don’t underestimate the strength of the sun in the tropics, desert regions such as Xinjiang or high up on the Tibetan Plateau. Sunscreen is not always easily available in China, and local stuff isn’t always of sufficiently high quality anyway. Signs of dehydration and heatstroke include a high temperature, lack of sweating, a fast pulse and red skin. Reducing your body temperature with a lukewarm shower will provide initial relief.
Plenty of places in China – Tibet and the north in particular – also get very cold. Watch out here for hypothermia, where the core body temperature drops to a point that can be fatal. Symptoms are a weak pulse, disorientation, numbness, slurred speech and exhaustion. To prevent the condition, wear lots of layers and a hat, eat plenty of carbohydrates, and stay dry and out of the wind. To treat hypothermia, get the victim into shelter, away from wind and rain, give them hot drinks – but not alcohol – and easily digestible food, and keep them warm. Serious cases require immediate hospitalization.
High altitude, in regions such as Tibet and parts of Xinjiang, Sichuan and Yunnan, prevents the blood from absorbing oxygen efficiently, and can lead to altitude sickness, also known as AMS (acute mountain sickness). Most people feel some symptoms above 3500m, which include becoming easily exhausted, headaches, shortness of breath, sleeping disorders and nausea; they’re intensified if you ascend to altitude rapidly, for instance by flying direct from coastal cities to Lhasa. Relaxing for the first few days, drinking plenty of water, and taking painkillers will ease symptoms. Having acclimatized at one altitude, you should still ascend slowly, or you can expect the symptoms to return.
If for any reason the body fails to acclimatize to altitude, serious conditions can develop including pulmonary oedema (characterized by severe breathing trouble, a cough and frothy white or pink sputum), and cerebral oedema (causing severe headaches, loss of balance, other neurological symptoms and eventually coma). The only treatment for these is rapid descent: in Tibet, this means flying out to Kathmandu or Chengdu without delay. You also need to see a doctor as soon as possible.
Medical facilities in China are best in major cities with large expat populations, where there are often high-standard clinics, and the hotels may even have resident doctors. Elsewhere, larger cities and towns have hospitals, and for minor complaints there are plenty of pharmacies that can suggest remedies, though don’t expect English to be spoken.
Chinese hospitals use a mix of Western and traditional Chinese medicine approaches, and sometimes charge high prices for simple drugs and use procedures that aren’t necessary – they’ll put you on a drip just to administer antibiotics – so always ask for a second opinion from a Western-trained doctor if you’re worried (your embassy should be able to recommend one if none is suggested in the Guide). In an emergency, you’re better off taking a cab than waiting for an ambulance – it’s quicker and will work out much cheaper. There’s virtually no free health care in China even for its citizens; expect to pay around ¥500 as a consultation fee.
Pharmacies are marked by a green cross, and if you can describe your ailment or required medication, you’ll find many drugs which would be restricted and expensive in the West are easily available over the counter for very little money. Be wary of counterfeit drugs, however; check for spelling mistakes in the packaging or instructions.
MASTA (Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad) UK masta-travel-health.com. Fifty clinics across the UK.
Tropical Medical Bureau Republic of Ireland tmb.ie.
Canadian Society for International Health csih.org. Extensive list of travel health centres in Canada.
CDC cdc.gov. Official US government public health agency, with good travel-health information.
International Society for Travel Medicine istm.org. A full list of clinics worldwide specializing in travel health.
Netcare Travel Clinics www.travelclinic.co.za/. Travel clinics in South Africa.
Travellers’ Medical & Vaccination Centre tmvc.com.au. Website lists travellers’ medical and vaccination centres throughout Australia and New Zealand.
China is a relatively safe place to travel, though traffic accidents, respiratory infections, petty theft and transport delays are all fairly common occurrences – meaning that it’s sensible to ensure you’ve arranged some form of travel insurance before leaving home.
Internet bars (网吧, wăngbā) with high-speed connections are everywhere in China, from big cities – where some seat hundreds of people – to rural villages. They’re invariably full of network-gaming teenagers, and charge ¥2–5 per hour.
Having said this, since 2010 you’ve been required to show a Chinese ID card before being allowed to use a net bar – obviously impossible for most tourists. In some places this rule is strictly enforced; elsewhere nobody cares, or you’ll be handed a fake ID at the front counter which will allow you to sign on. It’s best not to rely on them: all large hotels have business centres where you can get online, but this is expensive, especially in the classier places (around ¥30/hr). Better value are the backpacker hostels, where getting online costs around ¥5/hr or is free. But the best deal is to tote a laptop, tablet or phone – major cities have cafés with free wi-fi, while almost all youth hostels and major hotels have it too (though the latter may charge you through the nose); hotels also often feature ADSL sockets in their rooms.
In an attempt to keep control of news and current affairs, China’s internet censors have set up the dryly named “Great Firewall” or Net Nanny, which blocks access to any websites deemed undesirable by the state – currently including Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. To get around it, you need to use a web proxy or VPN (Virtual Private Network) such as WiTopia, Hotspot Shield or UltraSurf, all of which cost a few pounds a month and offer a free limited period trial. This is illegal, but the government pays no attention to foreigners who do this – just about every foreign business in China runs a VPN. For Chinese nationals, it’s a different matter, and you will never find a public computer, such as in a hotel or business centre, running one.
Big city hotels, and youth hostels all over, offer a laundry service for anything between ¥10 and ¥100; alternatively, some hostels have self-service facilities or you can use your room sink (every corner store in China sells washing powder). Otherwise, ask at accommodation either for the staff to wash your clothes or for the nearest laundry, where they usually charge by dry weight. Laundromats are virtually unknown in China.
It is becoming increasingly easy for foreigners to live in China full time, whether as a student, a teacher or for work. Anyone planning to stay more than six months is required to pass a medical (from approved clinics) proving that they don’t have any venereal disease – if you do have a VD, expect to be deported and your passport endorsed with your ailment.
Many mainland cities – including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Kunming and Chengdu – have no restrictions on where foreigners can reside, though either you or your landlord must register with the local PSB. Property rental is relatively inexpensive if you avoid purpose-built foreign enclaves. The easiest way to find accommodation is to go through an agent, who will generally charge one month’s rent as a fee. There are plenty who advertise in expat magazines and online.
There are schemes in operation to place foreign teachers in Chinese educational institutions – contact your nearest Chinese embassy for details. Some employers ask for a TEFL qualification, though a degree, or simply the ability to speak the language as a native, is usually enough.
The standard teaching salary for a foreigner – though this is heavily dependent on your location in China – is around ¥5500 per month for a bachelor’s degree, ¥7500 for a master’s degree and ¥10,000 for a doctorate. This isn’t enough to put much away, but you should also get subsidized on-campus accommodation, plus a fare to your home country – one-way for a single semester and a return for a year’s work. The workload is usually fourteen hours a week, and if you work a year you get paid through the winter holiday. Most teachers find their students keen, hard-working, curious and obedient, and report that it is the contact with them that makes the experience worthwhile. That said, avoid talking about religion or politics in the classroom as this can get them into trouble. You’ll earn more – say ¥12,000 a month – in a private school, though be aware of the risk of being ripped off by a commercial agency (you might be given more classes to teach than you’d signed up for, for example). Check out the institution thoroughly before committing yourself.
Many universities in China now host substantial populations of Western students, especially in Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an. Indeed, the numbers of foreigners at these places are so large that in some ways you’re shielded from much of a “China experience”, and you may find smaller centres offer both a mellower pace of life and more contact with Chinese outside the campus.
Most foreign students come to China to study Mandarin, though there are many additional options available – from martial arts to traditional opera or classical literature – once you break the language barrier. Courses cost from the equivalent of US$2400 a year, or US$800 a semester. Hotel-style campus accommodation costs around US$10 a day; most people move out as soon as they speak enough Chinese to rent a flat.
Your first resource is the nearest Chinese embassy, which can provide a list of contact details for Chinese universities offering the courses you are interested in; most universities also have English-language websites. Be aware, however, that promotional material may have little bearing on what is actually provided. Though teaching standards themselves are high at Chinese universities, the administration departments are often confused or misleading places. Ideally, visit the campus first and be wary of paying course fees up front until you’ve spoken to a few students.
There is plenty of work available for foreigners in mainland Chinese cities, where a whole section of expat society gets by as actors, cocktail barmen, Chinglish correctors, models, freelance writers and so on. To really make any money here, however, you need either to be employed by a foreign company or start your own business.
China’s vast markets and WTO membership present a wealth of commercial opportunities for foreigners. However, anyone wanting to do business here should do thorough research beforehand. The difficulties are formidable – red tape and shady business practices abound. Remember that the Chinese do business on the basis of mutual trust and pay much less attention to contractual terms or legislation. Copyright and trademark laws are often ignored, and any successful business model will be immediately copied. You’ll need to develop your guanxi – connections – assiduously, and cultivate the virtues of patience, propriety and bloody-mindedness.
AFS Intercultural Programs afs.org. Intercultural exchange organization whose China offerings include academic and cultural exchanges that are anywhere from one month to a year long.
Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) ciee.org. Leading NGO offering study programmes and volunteer projects around the world. China options include: an academic semester or year abroad; a gap year (US students only); summer study; and paid teaching for a semester or year.
The Chinese mail service is fast and efficient, with letters taking a day to reach destinations in the same city, two or more days to other destinations in China, and up to several weeks to destinations abroad. Overseas postage rates are fairly expensive and vary depending on weight, destination and where you are in the country. The International Express Mail Service (EMS), however, is unreliable, with items often lost in transit or arriving in pieces, despite registered delivery and online tracking. DHL (dhl.com), available in a few major cities, is a safer bet.
Main post offices are open daily, usually from 8am–8pm; smaller offices may keep shorter hours or close at weekends. As well as at post offices, you can post letters in green postboxes, though these are rare outside big cities.
To send parcels, turn up with the goods you want to send and the staff will sell you a box and pack them in for ¥15 or so. Once packed, but before the parcel is sealed, it must be checked at the customs window and you’ll have to complete masses of paperwork, so don’t be in a hurry. If you are sending valuable goods bought in China, put the receipt or a photocopy of it in with the parcel, as it may be opened for customs inspection farther down the line.
Street maps for almost every town and city in China are available from kiosks, hotel shops and bookshops. Most are in Chinese only, showing bus routes, hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions; local bus, train and flight timetables are often printed on the back as well. The same vendors also sell pocket-sized provincial road atlases, again in Chinese only.
Some of the major cities and tourist destinations also produce English-language maps, available at upmarket hotels, principal tourist sights or tour operators’ offices. In Hong Kong and Macau, the local tourist offices provide free maps, which are adequate for most visitors’ needs.
Countrywide maps, which you should buy before you leave home, include the excellent 1:4,000,000 map from GeoCenter, which shows relief and useful sections of all neighbouring countries, and the Collins 1:5,000,000 map. One of the best maps of Tibet is Stanfords Map of South-Central Tibet; Kathmandu–Lhasa Route Map.
The mainland Chinese currency is formally called yuan (¥), more colloquially known as renminbi (RMB, literally “the people’s money”) or kuai. One yuan breaks down into ten jiao, also known as mao. Paper money was invented in China and is still the main form of exchange, available in ¥100, ¥50, ¥20, ¥10, ¥5 and ¥1 notes, with a similar selection of mao. One mao, five mao, and ¥1 coins are increasingly common, though less so in rural areas. China suffers regular outbreaks of counterfeiting – many people check their change for watermarks, metal threads and the feel of the paper.
The yuan floats within a narrow range set by a basket of currencies, keeping Chinese exports cheap (much to the annoyance of the US). At the time of writing, the exchange rate was approximately ¥6.1 to US$1, ¥9.5 to £1, ¥8.2 to €1, ¥5.9 to CAN$1, ¥5.5 to AU$1, ¥4.9 to NZ$1 and ¥0.6 to ZAR1. For exact rates, check www.xe.com.
Hong Kong’s currency is the Hong Kong dollar (HK$), divided into one hundred cents, while in Macau they use pataca (usually written MOP$), in turn broken down into 100 avos. Both currencies are worth slightly less than the yuan, but while Hong Kong dollars are accepted in Macau and southern China’s Special Economic Zones and can be exchanged internationally, neither yuan nor pataca is any use outside the mainland or Macau respectively. Tourist hotels in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou also sometimes accept payment in Hong Kong or US dollars.
Banks in major Chinese cities are sometimes open seven days a week, though foreign exchange is usually only available Monday to Friday, approximately 9am–noon and 2–5pm. All banks are closed for the first three days of the Chinese New Year, with reduced hours for the following eleven days, and at other holiday times. In Hong Kong, banks are generally open Monday to Friday from 9am to 4.30pm, until 12.30pm on Saturday, while in Macau they close thirty minutes earlier.
Cirrus, Visa and Plus cards can be used to make cash withdrawals from ATMs operated by the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Agricultural Bank of China, as long as they display the relevant logo. In major east-coast cities, almost every one of these banks’ ATMs will work with foreign cards, but elsewhere it’s likely that only the main branch of the Bank of China will have a suitable machine. Note that most ATMs are inside banks or shopping centres, so close when they do, though some are accessible 24 hours a day. Your bank back home will charge a fee on each withdrawal, either a fixed rate or a percentage of the transaction. You can change your yuan into dollars or sterling at any branch of the Bank of China.
Travellers’ cheques can be replaced if lost or stolen (keep a list of the serial numbers separate from the cheques) and attract a slightly better rate of exchange than cash. The downsides include having to pay a fee when you buy them, and that they can be cashed only at branches of the Bank of China and at tourist hotels.
It’s worth taking along a small quantity of foreign currency (US, Canadian or Australian dollars, British pounds or euros) as cash is more widely exchangeable than travellers’ cheques. The notes will need to be in perfect condition, bright and crisp with no creases or tears. Don’t try to change money on the black market – you’ll almost certainly get ripped off.
China is basically a cash economy, and credit cards, such as Visa, American Express and MasterCard, are only accepted at big tourist hotels and the fanciest restaurants, and by some tourist-oriented shops; there is usually a 4 percent handling charge. It’s straightforward to obtain cash advances on a Visa card at many Chinese banks (however, the commission is a steep 3 percent). Visa card holders can also get cash advances using ATMs bearing the “Plus” logo, and book hotels and the like online.
It’s possible to wire money to China through Western Union (www.westernunion.cn); funds can be collected from one of their agencies or branches of the Postal Savings Bank of China.
China officially has a five-day week, though this only really applies to government offices, which open Monday to Friday approximately 8am–noon and again from 1–5pm. Generalization is difficult, though: post offices open daily, as do many shops, often keeping long, late hours, especially in big cities. Although banks usually close on Sundays – or for the whole weekend – even this is not always the case.
Tourist sights open every day, usually 8am–5pm and without a lunch break. Most public parks open from about 6am. Museums tend to have more restricted hours, often closing on Mondays. If you arrive at an out-of-the-way place that seems to be closed, however, don’t despair – knocking or poking around will often turn up a drowsy doorkeeper. Conversely, you may find other places locked and deserted when they are supposed to be open.
For dates of public holidays, see Holidays and festivals calendar.
Everywhere in China has an area code, which must be used when phoning from outside that locality; these are given for all telephone numbers throughout the Guide. Local calls are free from land lines, and long-distance China-wide calls are ¥0.3 a minute. International calls cost from ¥3.5 a minute (much cheaper if you use an IP internet phone card).
Card phones, widely available in major cities, are the cheapest way to make domestic long-distance calls (¥0.2 for 3min), and can also be used for international calls (under ¥10 for 3min). They take IC Cards (IC卡, IC kă), which come in units of ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100. There’s a 50 percent discount after 6pm and on weekends. You will be cut off when your card value drops below the amount needed for the next minute. A cheaper option is the IP card, which can be used with any phone, and comes in ¥100 units. You dial a local number, then a PIN, then the number you’re calling. Rates are as low as ¥2.4 per minute to the US and Canada, ¥3.2 to Europe.
Both IC and IP cards are sold from corner stores, mobile-phone emporiums, and from street hawkers (usually outside the mobile-phone emporiums) all over the country. These cards can only be used in the places you buy them – move to another city and you’ll have to buy a new card.
Mobile coverage in China is excellent and comprehensive; they use the GSM system. Assuming your phone is unlocked and compatible, buy a Chinese SIM card (SIM卡, SIM kă or 手机卡, shǒujīkǎ) from any China Mobile shop or street kiosk (you will have a new number). SIM cards cost upwards of ¥80 depending on how “lucky” the number is – favoured sixes and eights bump up the cost, unlucky fours make it cheaper. They come with ¥50 of time, which you extend with prepaid top up cards (充值卡, chōngzhí kă). Making and receiving domestic calls this way costs ¥0.6 per minute; an international call will cost around ¥8 a minute, though often you can only send texts overseas. The cheapest mobile phones to buy will cost around ¥200; make sure the staff change the operating language into English for you.
Photography is a popular pastime among the Chinese, and all big towns and cities have photo stores selling the latest cameras (especially Hong Kong), where you can also download your digital images onto disc for around ¥30, though prints are expensive at ¥1 each. Camera batteries, film and memory cards are fairly easy to obtain in city department stores.
Chinese people are often only too pleased to have their picture taken, though many temples prohibit photography inside buildings, and you should avoid taking pictures of anything to do with the military, or that could be construed as having strategic value, including ordinary structures such as bridges in sensitive areas along borders, in Tibet, and so forth.
Despite its huge east-west spread, the whole of China occupies a single time zone, 8hr ahead of GMT, 13hr ahead of US Eastern Standard Time, 16hr ahead of US Pacific Time and 2hr behind Australian Eastern Standard Time. There is no daylight saving.
The internet is your best source of information before you travel, as Chinese tourist offices overseas mostly sell packages and have little to offer individual travellers. Once you reach the mainland, you’ll find the CITS (China International Travel Service; 中国国际旅行社, zhōngguó guójì lǚxíngshè) and alternatives such as the CTS (China Travel Service; 中国旅行社, zhōngguó lǚxíngshè) everywhere from large cities to obscure hamlets. While they book flight and train tickets, local tours and accommodation, their value to independent travellers is usually pretty low, even on the rare occasions that someone speaks English. Other sources of information on the ground include accommodation staff or tour desks – especially at youth hostels – and backpacker cafés in destinations such as Dali and Yangshuo.
Cities with large expat populations (including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou) have English-language magazines with bar, restaurant and other listings. These are usually distributed free in bars and upmarket hotels, and often have accompanying websites, listed throughout the Guide.
Hong Kong and Macau both have efficient and helpful tourist information offices, and several free listings magazines and for more on these.
Australia and New Zealand cnto.org.au
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs dfat.gov.au, smartraveller.gov.au
British Foreign & Commonwealth Office fco.gov.uk
Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs dfait-maeci.gc.ca
Irish Department of Foreign Affairs foreignaffairs.gov.ie
New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs mft.govt.nz
South African Department of Foreign Affairs www.dfa.gov.za/consular/travel_advice.htm
US State Department travel.state.gov
China Backpacker chinabackpacker.info. Heaps of trekking information for well-known and very off-the-beaten-path areas of China. Dated in parts but still a great resource.
China Bloglist chinabloglist.org. Directory with links to over 500 blogs about China, most of whose writers claim unique insights into the country, its people and culture. Check out the Angry Chinese Blogger.
China Daily chinadaily.com.cn. The official, state-approved version of the news. Read it and yawn.
China Expat chinaexpat.com. Aimed at foreign residents, but a generally useful English-language resource, with a wide range of China-related articles and plenty of links.
China From Inside www.chinafrominside.com. Glimpses into China’s traditional martial arts, with dozens of English-language articles and interviews with famous masters.
China Hush chinahush.com. Translations of what Chinese net forums are saying about popular national press stories – but not the sort of stories that would ever surface in the China Daily.
chinaSMACK chinasmack.com. Similar to China Hush, but with a definite cruel and trashy tabloid slant. Gives a rare insight into the underbelly of contemporary Chinese life.
China Trekking chinatrekking.com. Inspiring trekking background; plenty of first-hand details you won’t find elsewhere.
Danwei danwei.org. English-language analysis of highbrow and “serious” goings-on in the Chinese media. Thorough and worthy, but could do with an occasional injection of humour.
International Campaign for Tibet savetibet.org. An authoritative source of current news from Tibet.
Managing the Dragon managingthedragon.com. Blog commentary on economic subjects from investor-who-lost-millions Jack Perkowski (who has since bounced back).
Middle Kingdom Life middlekingdomlife.com. Online manual for foreigners planning to live and work in China, providing a sane sketch of the personal and professional difficulties they’re likely to face.
Sexy Beijing sexybeijing.tv. Internet TV series whose Western host talks to young Chinese about mostly gender-related issues. Lighthearted and occasionally insightful.
Travel China travelchinaguide.com. Unusual in covering obscure places and small-group tours, as well as the normal run of popular sites and booking links.
Youku youku.com. One of the many YouTube-style clones in China, with a similar range of content (all in Chinese).
Zhongwen zhongwen.com. A handy online Chinese/English dictionary.
In mainland China the disabled are generally hidden away, so attitudes are not very sympathetic and little special provision is made. As it undergoes an economic boom, much of the country resembles a building site, with intense crowds and traffic, few ramps and no effort to make public transport accessible. Ribbed paving down every city street is intended to help blind people navigate, but frankly Chinese pavements are unevenly surfaced obstacle courses of trees and power poles, parked vehicles, market stalls and random holes – the last thing anyone designs them for is unobstructed passage. Only a few upmarket international hotel chains, such as Holiday Inn, have experience in assisting disabled visitors. The situation in Hong Kong is considerably better; check out the Hong Kong Tourist Association website (discoverhongkong.com) for their extensive Accessible Hong Kong listings.
Given the situation, it may be worth considering an organized tour. Take spares of any specialist clothing or equipment, extra supplies of drugs (carried with you if you fly), and a prescription including the generic name (in English and Chinese characters) in case of emergency. If there’s an association representing people with your disability, contact them early on in the planning process.
To call mainland China from abroad, dial your international access code (00 in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, 011 in the US and Canada, 0011 in Australia, 00 in New Zealand and 27 in South Africa), then 86 (China’s country code), then area code (minus initial zero) followed by the number.
To call Hong Kong, dial your international access code followed by 852, then the number; and for Macau, dial your international access code, then 853 and then the number.
Phoning abroad from China
To call abroad from mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau, dial 00, then the country code, then the area code minus initial zero (if any), followed by the number.
Note that you are generally better off taking a taxi to the nearest hospital than calling for an ambulance.
A good number of professional con artists target tourists – especially in places such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guilin – with variations on the following scam. A sweet-looking young couple, a pair of girls, or perhaps a kindly old man, will ask to practise their English or offer to show you round. Having befriended you – which may take hours – they will suggest some refreshment, and lead you to a teahouse, art gallery or restaurant. After eating or drinking, you will be presented with a bill for thousands of yuan, your new “friends” will vanish, and some large gentlemen will appear – who in some cases have forced people into handing over their card and PIN and raiding their bank account before letting them go. It‘s hard to believe just how convincing these scam artists can be: never eat or drink with a stranger unless you know how much you’re expected to pay.
Currently, visitors from the US, Canada, UK and many European countries arriving on international flights at Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu can spend up to 72 hours in transit without a visa. To be eligible, you must have proof of onward travel to a third country (so you can’t, for instance, be on a round-trip from Hong Kong). You are also not allowed to leave the relevant city’s boundaries during your stay.
Xinhua is the state-run news agency, and it supplies most of the national print and TV media. All content is Party-controlled and censored, though there is a limited openness about social issues and natural disasters as long as the government is portrayed as successfully combating the problem. Stories about corrupt local officials, armed confrontations between developers and peasants being forced off their land, or the appalling conditions of coal-mine workers, do occasionally get through the net, though both journalists and editors take a risk reporting such things: several doing so have been jailed for “revealing state secrets”, or even beaten to death by the thugs they were trying to expose.
The national Chinese-language newspaper is the People’s Daily (with an online English edition at english.peopledaily.com.cn), though all provincial capitals and many major cities produce their own dailies with a local slant. The only national English-language newspaper is the China Daily (chinadaily.com.cn), which is scarce outside big cities. Hong Kong’s English-language media includes the locally produced newspapers the South China Morning Post and the Standard, published alongside regional editions of Time, Newsweek, the Asian Wall Street Journal and USA Today. These have so far remained openly critical of Beijing on occasion, despite the former colony’s changeover to Chinese control.
Most big cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Kunming, Chengdu and Chongqing, have free English-language magazines aimed at expats containing listings of local venues and events, plus classifieds and feature articles; they’re monitored by the authorities, though this doesn’t stop them sailing quite close to the wind at times.
Chinese television comprises a dozen or so channels run by the state television company, CCTV, plus a host of regional stations; not all channels are available across the country. Most of the content comprises news, flirty game shows, travel and wildlife documentaries, soaps and historical dramas, and bizarre song-and-dance extravaganzas featuring performers in fetishistic, tight-fitting military outfits entertaining party officials with rigor-mortis faces. Tune in to CCTV 1 for news; CCTV 5 is dedicated to sport; CCTV 6 shows films (with at least one war feature a day, in which the Japanese will be mightily beaten); CCTV News broadcasts an English-language mix of news, documentaries and travel shows; and CCTV 11 concentrates on Chinese opera. The regional stations are sometimes more adventurous, with a current trend for frank dating games, which draw much criticism from conservative-minded government factions for the rampant materialism displayed by the contestants.
On the radio you’re likely to hear the latest soft ballads, or versions of Western pop songs sung in Chinese. For news from home, you’ll need to bring a shortwave radio with you, or listen via the websites of the BBC World Service (bbc.co.uk/worldservice), Radio Canada (rcinet.ca), the Voice of America (voa.gov) and Radio Australia (abc.net.au/ra).
Children in China are, thanks to the one-child policy, usually indulged and pampered, and foreigners travelling with children can expect to receive lots of attention from curious locals – and the occasional admonition that the little one should be wrapped up warmer.
While formula and nappies might be available in modern, big city supermarkets, elsewhere you’ll need to bring a supply (and any medication if required) with you – local kids don’t use nappies, just pants with a slit at the back, and when baby wants to go, mummy points him at the gutter. Similarly, changing facilities and baby-minding services are virtually unknown on the mainland outside high-end international hotels.
Hong Kong is the only part of China where children are specifically catered to by attractions such as Ocean World and Disneyland; elsewhere, the way that most Chinese tourist sites are decked up like fairground rides makes them attractive for youngsters in any case. Things to watch for include China’s poor levels of hygiene (keeping infants’ and toddlers’ hands clean can be a full-time occupation), spicy or just unusual food, plus the stress levels caused by the ambient crowds, pollution and noise found in much of the country – though this often seems to affect parents more than children.