Solo Travel to China: 32 Tips You Need to Know
Westerners, in China, are known as “Big Noses”.
Doesn’t sound too flattering does it?
But learning this does put one in one’s place. We are the outsiders. We are the guests. And we should learn how to behave.
Hopefully the tips below, which were gathered with the help of my fellow travelers, will help you navigate and negotiate China with a little grace as well as greater ease.
I say my fellow travelers because I was in China for three weeks as the guest of Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.). And though we had the benefit of an expert resident in each city and our local trip leader, we still noticed many things about traveling China that would be helpful to know before arriving. So, at one dinner, I got everyone brainstorming for this post. Here are the results plus a little research from me.
Solo Travel to China – before you leave.
- You need a visa. I met a fellow from Switzerland who said he just walked into the Chinese consulate in Zurich and got it. This could be because Switzerland is not part of the EU. It seems that, in most cases, it takes four days but there is also a lot of background work as the application requires your invitation from China and specifics on where you’re staying every night you’re there. Read the visa application instructions for your country carefully and give yourself lots of time to get it.
- If you’re going to Hong Kong mid trip, be aware that you will either need a multi-entry visa or a new visa to go back into Mainland China. The former requires that you to show how you will go back to China and this can be complicated if you are planning to take the train – see below. If you stay in Hong Kong for at least four days you should be able to get a second visa from there.
- Pack light and with lots of layers. When I went (April) the weather was warm in the day, cold at night. We had some rain… my clothes had to cover many conditions.
- If you’re not on a tour, take a guide book. This is one country that would be very difficult to navigate without one.
- If you are on a tour, take a reference book or two (especially on your tablet) so that you have access to in-depth information as you travel.
Solo Travel to China – basic tips
- As for many countries, this is the most important tip. Drink bottled water. Make sure that the cap cracks as you open it so that you know that it is the original, clean water in the bottle.
- Wear deck shoes or footwear with really good traction. China uses a lot of polished granite outdoors and I slipped a few times. Oddly, when I got to Hong Kong, what looked like the same granite was not slippery.
- Learn a few words with these very phonetic spellings: Knee-how (hello for any time of day); Shay Shay (thank you); Gum Bye (cheers); Dui Bootse (sorry); How (yes/okay); Boo (no). You’re not going to get the tones right but with these basic words coming out of an obviously non-Chinese mouth, everyone seems to understand.
- Carry toilet paper with you at all times. Used toilet paper goes in the basket, not the toilet.
- There is only one time zone in China so, whether you travel far distances or not, the time is always the same and your difference in hours to home is always the same.
- Crossing the street can be hazardous. Follow the lights if necessary but you’re actually safer following a crowd.
- Tipping – Tour guides make their living mostly off of tips. $3 – 4 American dollars for a full day tour is fair. Tipping is not common for taxi drivers or restaurants. In high-end restaurants and hotels catering to westerners tipping is expected.
- There are scams to watch out for in China. Knowledge about counterfeit money and things like the Tea House scam will help you travel without a problem.
Solo Travel to China – get the best experience
- Beijing and everywhere – find the public parks and watch the locals do Tai Chi in the morning. The Chinese have an amazing sense of community and their parks are full with people participating in shared activities from drawing to calligraphy to hacky sack…
- Xian – Terracotta soldiers – unless you enjoy watching cheesy films, skip the movie-in-the-round. It’s terrible and a ploy to get you into the gift shop. To take really good pictures, make sure that you have a camera that’s decent in low light and has a good zoom.
- Chendu – You’ll go to Chendu for the Pandas but don’t miss the People’s Park. It’s wild. Activity is everywhere. From amateur acts on stage to matchmaking services to a massive tea house… you could spend hours there.
- Lhasa – The city on the roof of the world (here’s a wonderful book about Lhasa, Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet) is a challenging city from a political and cultural perspective (I’ll get to that in a future post) but also due to the altitude. If possible, take the train to Lhasa and give yourself a couple of days to adjust before climbing the Potala Palace.
- Hong Kong – It is possible to get out of the bustle of Hong Kong and enjoy nature. Check out the 10K hiking trail to the Big Buddha. This post tells you how to do it.
Solo Travel to China – accommodation
- Hotels – All the major chains have hotels in China’s major cities, but why stay at a western hotel? The hotels selected by Overseas Adventure Travel were all Chinese owned and gave a more local flavor.
- Guest Houses – Guest houses are a wonderful opportunity to get closer to the local culture. We stayed one night in a guest house in a village outside of Xian. O.A.T. arranged for us to eat our evening meal there and help with the cooking which was a bonus for me as I learned how simple the basic dishes are. Also, our host took us to the local park in the evening where the whole village gets together for line dancing. It was a great time!
- Hostels – I met a number of solo travelers going it independently in China. They were staying at Hostels and (with one exception in Chendu where the hostel was under a massive renovation) had good things say. You can check out the hostels in China here.
Solo Travel to China – food and restaurants
- The food is fabulous and you’ll be a master of chopsticks in no time. Dive in and enjoy this cultural experience.
- Don’t count on using credit cards unless you’re in a high-end restaurant. Cash is the currency of China.
- They have the smallest napkins ever (if they have them at all). Bring a cloth napkin with you.
- Because I was on a tour, I didn’t get into eating street food. To learn about eating delicious street food safely I recommend reading The Food Traveler’s Handbook by Jodi Ettenberg. It’s full of great advice.
- Vegetarian? I am and found it difficult sometimes. Here’s a post I found on the Most Popular Vegetarian Restaurants in Chengdu.
Solo Travel to China – getting around
The infrastructure of subways, roads, rails and flights in China is excellent.
- Subways – The subways in Beijing, Shanghai and other large cities are extremely busy but also efficient and inexpensive. During rush hour, there are people whose job is to push people on the subway. Don’t be alarmed. This is normal though you may want to avoid the busiest of hours.
- Taxis – I took taxis in Xian and Hong Kong and both were quite inexpensive. In Xian (and the rest of mainland China), tipping is not necessary. In Hong Kong, tipping is.
- Trains – You can only buy train tickets a maximum of 18 days in advance and you can only buy one ticket per passport. Unless you read Chinese, you can’t buy online. This site offers comprehensive information on how to buy rail tickets in China. A few additional notes:
- You need your passport to enter the train station.
- The toilets are mostly squat toilets however in first class you may find a western toilet at one end of the car and a squat toilet at the other end.
- Left luggage rooms are available at large railways stations making it possible to take an overnight train into a city for a day and leave that evening.
- Air – Because China is such a large country, you may want to consider flights between destinations. The cost of domestic airfare is reasonable by North American standards.
Solo Travel in China – communications
- Internet – there are lots of sites that are not available in China. For example, you can’t see Solo Traveler in China unless you have a VPN which provides security for all your transactions and makes it look to the Internet like you’re in another country. Read Travel Technology: Increase your security and reduce costs to get the scoop on how to do this.
- Unlocked phone – You may want this for texting and internet access more than to use as a phone. You’ll need to buy a SIM card for your unlocked phone. Once I put in the SIM card it didn’t work automatically as I expected. I had to set up an APN which involved searching the internet for the exact specifications for my phone.
If you travel to china independently, these tips should be really valuable to you. If you go with a group, I hope they help you get the most out of your tour.
What an experience! What a fabulous time! My thanks to Overseas Adventure Travel for making my trip to China possible.