China is a country that really took me by surprise. The friendliness and generosity of the locals paired with ancient cities, incredible nature, amazing food and of course getting to visit the pandas quickly pushed it to be one of my favourite destinations.
Spend your time wandering through ultra-modern cities or ancient temples, climbing through the mountains that inspired the Avatar world or witnessing the world’s funniest creatures, the pandas. Cruise down picturesque rivers in the Chineses countryside and sample the local delights from each province.
Experience the generosity and curiosity of the locals who are genuinely interested in meeting and talking to you. It was the people that really blew me away in China, I had heard so many negative comments about the people before going but my experience was the complete opposite.
China really blew me away and I hope this guide can help you have a similar experience.
Visa: Acquiring a visa for China is more complicated than most countries. Each country is different but generally, you will need to visit the Chinese embassy twice in your country with your application and passport. They will process your application and put your visa in your passport and you will have to come back and collect it when it’s ready.
A requirement for the tourist visa is to have your outbound travel booked and also all of your accommodation booked for the time you are there. For my application, I booked with a free cancellation hotel for the length of my stay in China and cancelled it once my visa was granted which allowed me the freedom to book on the go while I was travelling.
Many cities in China have free 72 or 144-hour transit visa options.
Know before you go
Population: 1.420 Billion (2019)
Language: The official dialect of China is Mandarin and is spoken by over 70% of the population. Other major dialects include Yue (Cantonese), Xiang (Hunanese), Min dialect, Gan dialect and Wu dialect.
Religion: There are 5 major religions formally recognised by the Chinese government which include Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam
Currency: Renminbi or yuan
Time zone: GMT +8 (Beijing)
Drives on: Left
Fun Fact: One-third of China’s land area is made up of mountains. The tallest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest, sits on the border between China and Nepal.
Follow in my footsteps
Beijing - Xian - Chengdu - Zhangjarijire - Yangshou, Guilin - Shanghai
When to go
China can be visited all year round but the most popular and weather-friendly time is Spring and Autumn. China is a huge country which makes it hard to pinpoint the best time to visit but the general rule of thumbs is that spring and autumn offer the most comfortable weather conditions across the country with only some exceptions. Summer brings subtropical temperatures in the south and winter brings ice cold temperates in the north.
It is worth noting that the Chinese love to travel in China and there are a lot of Chinese people, like a lot a lot which makes Chinese public holidays a difficult time for foreign tourists to travel. Transport options will be pre-booked months in advance and packed to the gills, most accommodation options will be very expensive or be completely booked out, many shops, restaurants and tourist attractions will be closed and the ones that are open will be extremely busy. It’s probably worth checking to make sure your trip doesn’t clash with any holidays if you want to avoid this extra stress.
Spring (April & May)
Blooming flowers, clearing rains in the north and moderate temperatures make spring a great time of the year to visit China, especially for nature lovers. Deep down south will experience their wet season but this makes for moody misty mornings and some stunning day time views. If the rain is not your cup of tea head up north for dryer weather.
Summer (June - August)
Summer is hot hot hot and humid. The south of China experiences subtropical conditions with temperatures getting as high as 40.
Even with these hot temperatures summer remains to be one of the busiest times in China.
School holidays means many locals are travelling and summer is, in fact, the time most travel. It is a particularly good time to visit some of China’s mountain and highland regions which include Zhangjiajie, Tibet, Guilin and Yunnan.
If mountains aren't your thing you could head to Hainan which is often referred to as the Hawaii of China. Here you can enjoy the beach and dip in the water to keep cool.
But if hot, humid and crowed isn’t your thing and you don’t want to visit the mountains maybe you’re better off visiting during a different season.
Autumn (September - November)
Clear days, not much rain and moderate temperatures make autumn a popular time for foreigners to visit China. This is a great time countrywide to visit China and you will be rewarded with the beautiful colours of autumn as an added bonus.
Winter (December to March)
If you don’t mind the cold you will be rewarded with cheaper accommodation and attractions and fewer tourists. Also, the northern cities will look extra beautiful under a blanket of snow! If you’re not a snowball warrior you can head down to the very south of China for warmer temperatures.
Right first and foremost... China is a little different from most countries you’ll visit as you can’t stay in every hotel or guesthouse. Many accommodation options will only be for local people and will not accept foreigners. This isn’t because they don’t want you to stay there but more so because they don’t have a licence or the necessary permissions which vary from province to province and even town to town.
Fear not though as there will be many accommodations options in every town you visit.
Mid-range hotels are in abundance although their quality isn’t always the best and price is no indication of quality. As a rule of thumb the newer the hotel the better the quality.
In larger cities and towns you will find a range of high-end hotels which will include most top international brands. These hotels will be of a comparable standard to those in the western world and will offer guests swimming pools, gyms and spas.
Fortunately for budget travellers, China has a massive network of good hostels and budget guesthouses. Prices will vary greatly from city to city. Overall expect to find really good quality backpackers that also offer good value on local tours and guided walks.
Terracotta Warriors Xi’an
Muslin St, Xi'an
Great Wall of China, Beijing
How to get around
With over 180 commercial airports, a world-class bullet train network, an extensive rail and bus network and ultra-modern subways there are plenty of options to get you from A to B during your trip in China. Travellers should be aware that lots of these options sell out fast, especially during any of the major holidays and pre-booking your transport is the best way to avoid disappointment.
For city travel, I recommend a mixture of using the extensive subway networks and taxis to get to where you want to go. Most if not all major cities in China have a subway network that is cheap, easy to navigate and efficient. Taxis are also relatively cheap and can be booked for half days and full days. Always agree on the price beforehand.
Travelling in China by train is one of the best and cheapest options for tourist. China’s new bullet train network has made travelling by train a very popular and efficient way to move around the country. Although more expensive than non-bullet train options prices normally come in cheaper than flying and can save the traveller a lot of time. Tickets can be booked on Ctrip and delivered to a hotel or picked up from the train station. If you are choosing the latter be sure to give yourself plenty of extra time as queues can be long.
Another great option is to travel by sleeper train. Travellers can book a soft or hard bed and travel to their next destination while sleeping through the night. This is a very budget and time friendly option. The sleeper trains are relatively comfortable and are safe to travel on.
You will have the opportunity to travel on the world’s fastest train when you land in Shanghai. The Shanghai Maglev Train (Shanghai Maglev Demonstration Line) can reach blistering speeds of 431 km/hr (268 mph) as it takes you east to Longyang Road and west to Shanghai Pudong International Airport. You’ll travel 30km in only 8 minutes!
Travelling in China by air is the fastest and most convenient way to get around. China’ domestic air market is growing fast with new budget airlines slashing prices. With over 180 commercial airports you can pretty much fly anywhere in the country. China Southern Airlines (CZ), China Eastern Airlines (MU) and Air China (CA) are the three biggest airlines in China. Tickets can be booked on Ctrip or directly with local airlines or with travel agencies while you are in China.
A negative to flying in China is that many flights are delayed or cancelled due to smog or bad weather conditions. Travelling by train is much more reliable.
Travelling long distances by bus isn’t the most pleasant experience in China and should be avoided unless completely necessary. Congested roads make trips long and slow, drivers can be rude and theft and accidents are common.
The only advantages, if you can call them that, to travelling by bus is cheap prices, easy to obtain tickets and they service some rural areas that aren’t served by air or train. If you want to travel long distance by bus the best way to secure your ticket is through your accommodation or a travel agent.
Buses and minibuses are a common way to travel to and from attractions in the countryside. They are generally cheap and uncomfortable but get the job done.
Renting a car
Renting a car isn’t an option for most travellers as drivers are required to have a Chinese driver's license and a residency permit to rent a car.
Renting a scooter
In some countryside towns like Guilin, you can hire a scooter for the day which is a great way to explore the local area. Always drive with caution and extra care.
Renting a bike is a great way to explore China. As with many major cities these days there are many app-based rental companies in the cites. You can download the app and use the bikes as a quick way to get around the city. Many of the bikes will actually be left unlocked and are easy just to jump onto and cycle to your destination and park up.
Outside of the cities, you can rent bikes the more traditional way from bike rental shops or your accommodation provider. Cycling can be a great way to get out and explore the Chinese county side.
Try the local food
Get ready for some authentic and mind-blowing food that will completely change your opinion of Chinese food. When you arrive in China you will be thousands of miles away from 3 in1 specials and chicken balls and chips but instead will be immersed in local and traditional Chinese delights.
Food is a very important part of Chinese culture and they have many traditions that vary greatly from the western world. The Chinese have a beautiful connection to the power of food as a medicine, learning about traditional Chinese foods and medicine will be a great way to enhance your trip. Local food will also vary from province to province giving you many opportunities to try and learn about new foods.
The best way to experience local food is with a local. Try and buddy up with a local and get them to show you the ropes or go on a food walking tour.
During your visit be sure to try some of these delicious foods:
Wonton Soup - wontons are a type of Chinese dumpling and they are served in a delicious broth
Dumplings - You will find many types of dumplings in China, it is common to have steamed dumplings for breakfast.
Stuffed steam buns - delicious and cheap and again common for breakfast
Dim sum - a popular choice for brunch, dim sums are a tasty version of a dumpling.
Soup dumplings - Soup dumplings or Xiaolongbao is a type of dumpling that is filled with delicious soup. They can be tricky to eat, carefully lift the dumpling onto your spoon and poke a hole to release the juices from inside.
Hot pot - Also known as a steamboat is a popular Chinese cooking method where meat and vegetables are cooked on skewers in a pot of boiling soup. This is a very popular style of cooking in the Sichuan province.
Jianbing or Chinese pancake - a traditional street food that is similar to a crepe.
A lack of English menus and English speaking waiters can make ordering a little tricky and sometimes you may end up with some surprises, both good and bad. Using a translation app can help. It is particularly difficult when you are in the countryside as English is not commonly spoken.
It is worth noting that there are some cultural differences that might not be pleasant for you to experience while you are eating in local restaurants. Spitting out bones onto the table or floor is a common practice as is burping and farting, most restaurants allow smoking inside and restaurants can be very noisy too. For the Chinese people this is just their common behaviour and is socially acceptable, it might leave you a little uncomfortable but you will likely get used to it.