How do I get to China?
China is a vast country, and your entry point will depend on where you are visiting. Saying that, most tourists will arrive into either Beijing or Shanghai. Both airports are well connected to cities all over the world. Below are the average flying times which you should expect when travelling to China.
- London to Beijing – up to 10 hours direct
- New York to Beijing – 13.5 hours direct
- Los Angeles to Beijing – 13 hours direct
- Toronto to Beijing – 13.5 hours direct
- Sydney to Beijing – 12 hours direct
China has approximately 200 airports, with more being built year upon year. The major international airports in China are:
- Beijing Capital International Airport
- Shanghai Pudong International Airport
- Hong Kong International Airport
- Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport
- Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport
landscape of China
China borders an incredible 14 countries. These are North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia. China is so large that it encompasses almost every type of landscape that you can imagine. Mountain ranges, plateaus, rivers, lakes, plains, forests, pockets of tropical rainforest, fields and deserts – not to mention cities. China is split into four distinct regions: North, South, Northwest and the Qinghai-Tibetan areas.
A staggering 40% of China is grassland, which is mainly used for agriculture. There are also 35 mountain ranges found all over the country, from the iconic Mount Everest, which also borders Nepal, to smaller peaks in the Yunnan province.
Chinese Culture, religion
Chinese culture is deep rooted in centuries of history and tradition. Over 1 billion live harmoniously in China, representing around 56 ethnic minority groups. The largest of these groups is the Han Chinese, with around 900 million people. The government recognises five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam. Traditional religion is in fact a melding of three religions – Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism – which is sometimes expressed in the phrase ‘san jiao fa yi’, meaning ‘three teachings flow into one’. Chinese are not overly religious, but are often quite superstitious and you may see lucky symbols outside homes and businesses and symbolic use of colour such as red which is considered auspicious and white which represents death or mourning. Generally, the Chinese communist government professes atheism, as they believe religion to be underline superstition. It was in 1982 that the government amended its constitution to allow freedom of religion.
Chinese culture is largely centred around family. It is common for three generations to live together. Young family members are expected to help care for elder members, and more often than not when the next generation move away for work, they will continue to support their family back home.
Etiquette in China is important and there are definitely some things to be aware of so that you don’t accidentally offend someone. In addition, observing the local culture will provide an even more authentic experience on your holiday. Below are a few things to know:
As a foreigner, it will be common for people to show an interest in you. They might even ask for a selfie with you. This is normal and even if it makes you uncomfortable, smile, say thank you and don’t make a fuss.
- Always remove your shoes before entering someone’s home.
- Don’t ever give someone white flowers. They are for funerals only.
- Don’t give clocks or watches as gifts. The phrase “give a clock” sounds almost the same as “attend a funeral” in Mandarin and giving this as a gift is the same as saying “your time is up”.
- Do give gifts using both hands. It’s a sign of saying you are offering your fullest self.
- Always greet the eldest person first when meeting a family. This sign of respect should filter into everything. Don’t sit at the dinner table before the eldest family member, don’t eat until they do etc.
- Do slurp your soup. It’s a sign that you enjoyed it.
- Traditionally, it is not acceptable to split bills in China. Either the eldest family member or whoever dealt the invitation will pay.
- Don’t point at people, it’s considered rude.
- Do use Mr or Mrs and their surname to address someone, unless they tell you not to.
- Do greet people with a handshake or a slight nod. Don’t go straight in for a hug, this can make people feel uncomfortable.
- If you receive a gift, don’t open it right away. This is considered greedy.
- Do take off your hat and shoes when entering temples.
- Don’t use a red pen. Red ink is a symbol of protest.
- Don’t be alarmed when you hear people burp in public. This is not considered rude in China.
Shopping in China
China has a booming economy which has led to an abundance of shops and shopping malls popping up in towns and cities. Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong are best for glitzy shopping centres where you can pick up high-end fashion or the latest tech. One of the best in Beijing is the Oriental Plaza, a shiny new mall that sells the likes of Gucci and Louis Vuitton, as well as non-designer international brands. Outside the cities, you’ll find smaller art and craft stores selling souvenirs and art prints.
In Beijing or Shanghai, you might come across “Friendship Stores”. These are state-run shops that were set up to sell foreign goods to tourists that were not available elsewhere in China, but are now open to the general public. They offer a good selection of imported goods that you would find in the West but prices are marked up quite a lot. If you need to stock up on toiletries, look up a “Watson’s”, a popular chain that sells both Asian and Western products.
Popular items to purchase in China are jade, silks, calligraphy art, prints, jewellery, antiques and clothing (although be aware that if a designer brand is cheap – it’s most likely fake.)
Photography in China
China is a fascinating country with loads of memories to take home – you’ll want to capture it. There are a few things you should be aware of when getting your camera out in China.
- Don’t photograph any official or military looking personnel.
- Ask members of the public before taking a photograph of them. While you might sometimes get someone in the background, if you are focusing your image on that person, for example a street vendor, politely ask first. If they are okay with it, say thank you with a slight bow.
- Ask yourself why you are taking the photo, and whether it showcases the country or person in a negative light. Aim to share images on social media that do not degrade the country.
- Obey all signs about photography in temples – often it is not allowed. If it is allowed, ensure the flash is off as this can damage murals and distract people in prayer.
- Don’t photograph local children without the permission of the parent or adult with them. It’s sometimes common to forget boundaries when travelling, but would you want a strange tourist taking up close images of your child back home without your knowledge?
- If you wish to use a drone in China you must research the local laws beforehand. It is often forbidden and you will likely need to apply for a permit from the Civil Aviation Authority of China.
Languages spoken in China
There are a great number of Chinese languages and spoken dialects. Standard Chinese, otherwise known as Mandarin, is the most spoken language in the world with some 1.5 billion speakers. Mandarin is normally what comes to mind when people think of the Chinese language. Cantonese shares a similar base alphabet to Mandarin, but with different intonations, it is its own distinct language. Mandarin is spoken by most of mainland China. Cantonese however, is spoken by the people of Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong province. Many foreign Chinese communities, such as those in London, speak Cantonese because many Chinese immigrants came from Guangdong. It is estimated that around half the people in Hong Kong can speak Mandarin or English for business reasons.
The English language in China is somewhat of a hit or miss. In general, those in the hospitality industry will have a general understanding. Many of the younger generation also speak decent English as they have grown up with foreign films or TV shows. In rural areas, it is uncommon to find English speakers. While we always recommend learning a few words of the local language, we understand that Mandarin is one of the toughest languages in the world for English speakers and so this is not always possible. Joining a group tour is a great way of getting around China without having to worry about the language barrier- all our China tour leaders speak the language!
China’s Capital city
The capital city of China is Beijing with a population of 21 million people. Beijing is considered the gateway to mainland China and is listed as one of the busiest airports in the world.
Population of China
The population of China is over 1.3 billion people. This makes it by far the most populous country in the world.
Everywhere except Hong Kong and Macau, the Chinese currency is called the yuan (symbol: ¥) which is also informally referred to as the renminbi which means ‘the people’s money’. Notes come in 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 yuan denominations. A yuan breaks down into 10 jiao (or mao) and the most common coins in circulation are 1 yuan, 5 jiao and 1 jiao. In Hong Kong they use the Hong Kong dollar which breaks down into 100 cents, and in Macau they use the pataca which breaks down into 100 avos.
ATMs will generally allow up to 2,500 to 3,000 yuan (about US$400-500) maximum withdrawal at a time depending on the location and bank. ATMs can be found almost everywhere in major cities and main banks such as Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China will have machines that accept international cards. Other smaller banks may not although this is quickly changing. If travelling outside of a large city it is recommended to take enough cash to cover your journey in the event you are unable to use your card.
Tipping is not part of the culture in China and is not expected. In some cases, it is even considered rude to leave money on the table and can cause confusion. In tourist areas, it is becoming more normal as Western travellers tend to tip, however you should never feel pressure to do so.
We suggest respecting the cultural norm and unless you feel it is appropriate, do not tip. It is a largely Western concept and introducing this may cause disparities between how foreigners and locals are treated in restaurants, if staff know a tip is involved. There are a few exceptions, for example at the end of an organised tour where it is appropriate for you to show your appreciation. If you are ever unsure, speak to your tour leader or local guide.
Most hotels, restaurants and shopping centres in China accept credit cards. American Express is accepted in larger hotel chains and occasionally other establishments so it is always recommended to also travel with a universal credit card such as mastercard. Markets only ever accept cash, as do some smaller cafes and restaurants. Services such as taxis and guides will usually also only operate with cash.
ATMs and banking
ATMS are widely available in Chinese cities but not in more remote areas. When choosing an ATM to use you should ensure that it has an English option on the screen or you will have great difficulty taking out the right amount. Bank of China, China Merchants Bank or ICBC are normally safe options and accept mastercard and visa. Always inform your bank prior to visiting China or they may think your transactions are fraudulent. It is recommended not to withdraw all your money at once, while paying ATM fees are an inconvenient expense the peace of mind of not carrying all your cash on your person at once should be worth it.
Most banks limit how much you can withdraw each day, so always factor this into your budget. Most hotels, restaurants and larger establishments will accept card, but markets and local shops likely won’t. It’s a good idea to travel with a backup card.
In large cities, banks are usually open from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday. On Saturdays, some banks are open for the morning only. All banks are closed on Sundays. It’s advisable to plan in advance and visit the bank during the working week.
Do I need a visa to visit China?
Most nationalities require a visa to visit mainland China. You should visit your local embassy or visa application centre for further information. As part of the application process, biometric data (fingerprints) will be taken. This must be arranged well in advance of your trip and you must ensure that your passport has at least six months validity.
Note that visa rules for Hong Kong are different to mainland China. Citizens of around 170 countries do not need a visa. You should always contact your local embassy to clarify as rules can change at short notice.
It is possible to visit China for up to 72 hours visa free as per the visa exemption rule. This is known as the 72 hour visa free transit. It is limited to only a selection of the main airports so you should check your arrival airport applies to this before booking. 53 different nationalities can enjoy this visa free transit, including those from Britain, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many other EU countries. Always check that your passport complies before booking. Of course this method of visiting is only useful if you plan on doing a short stop over in China. For most people who are spending at least a few days travelling, an appropriate visa must be applied for.
Vaccinations & travel health for travelling to China
Travel health advice may vary slightly according to your country of origin.
The CDC and WHO recommend the following vaccinations for China: hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, rabies, meningitis, polio, measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis), chickenpox, shingles, pneumonia and influenza. You may need proof of having had a yellow fever vaccine if you’re arriving from or have recently travelled to a country with a risk of yellow fever.
We recommend that you speak to your GP or local travel health expert for country specific, professional medical advice, ideally 4 to 6 weeks before you travel. It is also recommended to check the World Health Organisation website when planning your holiday to China.
Air pollution in China
A lot of the larger cities in China have serious problems with air pollution, particularly in Beijing. There are apps and websites which show the daily air pollution level and on hazardous days it is advised to either wear a mask or avoid exertion outside. That being said, the level of pollution is normally not hazardous for visitors. Locals wear masks regularly because they are subjected to the air on a daily basis. If you have a health condition such as asthma, you should consult your doctor before travelling.
Is it safe to drink tap water in China?
You shouldn’t drink the tap water in China, but it is fine for washing and brushing your teeth. Stick to bottled water for drinking.
Electricity and plugs in China
Electricity in China tends to run on 220 volts and they mostly use a dual flat prong outlet such as that most commonly found in Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. Some hotels also have multi plugs that will take various plug pin sizes but it is best to take a universal adaptor and cover your bases. In Hong Kong they favour the UK-style square triple prong plug.
It is always a good idea to have a few important numbers saved on your phone in case of emergencies. The most important ones in China are:
- 110 is the number for the police service
- 120 is the number for the ambulance and rescue service
- 119 is the number for the fire service
- 999 is the number for all three services in Hong Kong.
Travelling solo in China
China is generally a very safe country for solo travellers. Overall it has a low crime rate and is a non violent country. Petty crime and pickpocketing exists in all large cities and so you should always exercise caution and be aware of your surroundings. Make sure you travel smart – carry a bag that can zip all the way up and keep it on your front in crowded areas.
The biggest issue you are likely to face as a solo traveller is the language barrier. Not every sign is translated into English and most people won’t speak your language. It can be easy to get on the wrong train, go the wrong way or simply get lost. If you are travelling alone you should always be prepared. Carry the address of your accommodation with you (in Mandarin) and ideally a portable phone charger.
Westerners normally attract quite a lot of attention in China. This is not necessarily negative, they just tend to have a very different appearance and so are of some interest to many Chinese people. It’s quite common for people to take your photo. Some may even ask for a selfie. This is just out of pure interest and intrigue and is rarely a dangerous situation.
WI-FI, internet access and data roaming in China
Internet access in China will not be what you are used to. Yes, China has good connectivity and yes, they do have WI-FI. However this does not mean you will be able to freely browse your social media or websites that you frequent back home. Popular social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram are banned in China, as are most Western news outlets.
Wechat is a popular app in China. It’s similar to whatsapp, where you can chat with friends and create groups. It’s also possible to pay for items via wechat.
China (CST) uses 1 official time zone which is is 8 hours ahead of UTC. China does not have a daylight saving time clock change. To calculate the time difference from your current location, visit timeanddate.com.
Getting around China
To say China is a large country is an understatement. China covers some 3.7 million square miles, making it the third largest country in the world. Saying that, it has a decent infrastructure, especially in the tourist destinations. Below are a few of the best travel options for getting around China.
Currently, there are over 200 airports in China. China has an extensive air network and flying vast distances can be covered quite quickly. The most popular airlines are Air China, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines and Hainan Airlines. Major airports in China include Beijing Capital International, Shanghai Pudong International, Shanghai Hongqiao International, Chengdu Shuangliu International, Hong Kong International and Xian Xianyang International. If you book in advance, flights within China are very reasonably priced.
The rail network in China is efficient and high speed, in fact China boasts the world’s largest high speed train network which connects over 500 towns and cities. You should note that signs are rarely in English and trains can be hard to navigate outside the major cities and off the tourist trail. Trains are comfortable, with first and second class normally available, as well as sleeper cabins. Train travel is the ideal way to travel through China, it’s a lot more scenic and more comfortable than flying.
Bus is often the best way to cover shorter distances or reach rural areas. Buses are also used for city tours, day trips and general inner city travel. China has both large, comfortable coaches and smaller, local buses. The most difficult aspect of bus travel in China is often the schedule. It’s rarely in English, and cities normally have a few different bus stations making it difficult knowing which one to go to. Buying tickets online is also not an option, so you have to do it at the station – another barrier if you don’t speak Mandarin. Ideally stick with train travel or book onto a tour that arranges all the travel for you.
Subway and taxis
Most of the larger cities, especially Beijing and Shanghai, have an intricate subway system that is easy to use. You can purchase tickets in the machines at the station and most will have an English language option. Maps are available on apps in English too so as long as you do some research, getting around the cities via Subway is perfectly do-able for tourists. Taxis are available in all urban areas of China and you won’t have an issue finding them in tourist areas. Always ensure you have your destination printed in Mandarin as most drivers won’t speak English.
Car Hire is not an option
Can you rent a car in China? The short answer is no. It is currently forbidden for tourists to rent a car and drive through China, you need a resident’s permit and a Chinese driving license. It’s possible to rent cars for use within some cities like Beijing but with the abundance of taxis and private transfers are available it’s not worth the stress of trying to navigate the city.
A History of China
China has a fascinating and tumultuous history which is one of its major draws for travellers. Early history is divided up into dynasties and artefacts and buildings are identified by the dynasty in power at the time of their creation. Earliest of these periods was the Three Dynasties from 2100 BC to 771 BC which was made up of the consecutive Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties. The Zhou established their capital in Xi’an and introduced the doctrine of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ which states that heaven grants or removes the right for leaders to rule over their subjects with its favour. This mandate would provide the impetus for many of China’s uprisings and rebellions in years to follow, right up to modern days.
The Zhou dynasty descended into violence at the start of what is referred to as the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States period, with hundreds of city states and kingdoms battling for power and territory. The unsettled politics of the time gave rise to ethical thinking and Confucianism and Taoism were both born of this era. War was also a catalyst for industrial advancement; iron-working was developed, more sophisticated methods of agriculture, irrigation and transport were invented and discoveries in astronomy, medicine and mathematics were made.
The Warring States period was brought to an end in 221 BC by the Qin dynasty (221 – 207 BC) who were only in power for a mere 14 years. The Qin armies united China in one centralised state for the first time in its history, making Qin Shi Huang the first Chinese emperor. His rule was brutal and absolute and he drove many peasants off their land to work on large state projects such as the Terracotta Army and the first version of the Great Wall. When he died, his heirs could not keep the empire together leading to rebellion and the beginning of the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).
The Han dynasty lasted some four hundred years and during its rule experienced rejuvenated culture and expansion. Owing to its success and longevity, it became part of the Chinese identity and to this day, many Chinese people will refer to themselves as ‘Han Chinese’. Learning from the mistakes of the Qin dynasty and to avoid further rebellion, Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty, decentralised some of the empire’s power, entrusting areas of land to relatives which ensured a period of stability, taxation and wealth. His successors opened up trade along the Silk Road and Confucianism became an institution within the civil service. Eventually however, the state became overstretched and so began over a decade of civil war which would tear the empire asunder.
The Three Kingdoms period (220 – 581) followed, when the three states of Wei, Wu and Shu struggled to regain control of the splintered empire. War ravaged central China. Buddhism arrived from India and was assimilated and adapted to suit native beliefs and the Confucian concept of a centralised universal order remained integral to the ruling classes.
General Yang Jian (Emperor Wen) of the Sui Dynasty (581 – 618) united the divided northern states before conquering southern China to reform China. During his reign he simplified and strengthened centralised power, military authority and bureaucracy and created a new legal code. His heir, Yang Di, is best known for the forced labour he employed to complete the 2000 km Grand Canal from southern Yanzi to Xi’an where over 2 million people were believed to have died.
Medieval China (618 – 1271) was defined by the Tang dynasty and was a time where literature, art, music and agriculture blossomed. Traders and travellers from all corners were welcomed and Islamic and Indian influences found their way into Chinese society. Buddhism remained the greatest foreign influence and many Chinese pilgrims travelled to India. During this time, China’s only empress, Wu Zetian ruled. She was a great patron of Buddhist art and commissioned the famed Longmen carvings outside Luoyang.
Wu Zetian’s successor was to be the end of the Tang dynasty due in part to his infatuation with beautiful concubine Yang Guifei. What followed was the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms periods when, once again, China was split into short, ineffective dynasties and splintered states. The Song dynasty (960 – 1271) consolidated some of the kingdom but weakened northern defences allowed for the Mongolian invasion by Ghengis Khan. The Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368) was formed by the Mongols under Kublai Khan, Ghengis Khan’s grandson, with their capital at Khanbaliq, or modern Beijing. Venetian explorer Marco Polo served Kublai Khan’s government and his writings of China are all from this time. Famine and floods marked the end of the Yuan dynasty and the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) followed. Their policy of isolationism saw China miss out on much of the world’s trade opportunities, the opening up of sea routes and expansion of territory led by the Europeans. A series of uprisings against the Ming dynasties which culminated in the last emperor hanging himself allowed the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) led by the invading Manchus from the north to take power.
China’s refusal to take part in trade agreements with the British led to the East India Company creating a clandestine market, paying for products with opium imported from India. When demand for the drug led much of the country’s tea and silver to drain out of the country, the emperor confiscated thousands of chests of opium leading to the Opium Wars between the two powers which China eventually lost, facing humiliating terms including the cession of Hong Kong.
Anti-Manchu sentiment led to the Taiping Uprising which left 20 million people dead before it was quashed. Decades later, the anti-foreign Boxer Movement began which rebelled against foreign infiltration of the Chinese culture, slaughtering missionaries and Christian converts. This marked the beginning of the end for the Qing dynasty which in turn marked the end of dynastic China.
A republic was formed and government duly elected, but almost immediately ran into trouble. In 1921 after World War I, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Beijing and despite various attempts to suppress the movement, the Red Army was formed (mostly of peasants and miners) leading to the Autumn Harvest uprising, which though initially successful was eventually turned back leading to the Long March, an epic 9500 km retreat to safety.
Japan invaded and occupied much of China during World War II, forcing the republicans and communists into an uneasy truce. By the time the war ended, the Red Army was close to one million strong and had a widespread following and they rose up to take power as the newly named People’s Liberation Army. Under Mao Zedong, China became communist. In the late 1950s The Great Leap Forward saw farmland pooled into communes, industry was driven by seasonally employed workers and propaganda promised a single great leap forward which would see China match other world powers. Due to mismanagement, peasant dissatisfaction and failed harvests, the movement was a disaster.
Mao sought to regain his authority with the Cultural Revolution where students organised themselves into political militia, called the Red Guard, with four enemies – old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits. This led to widespread destruction of monuments and temples, burning of books and harassment of the academia. Anything Western was destroyed. The violence got out of control and Mao was forced to round up and arrest much of the Red Guard.
Mao died in September 1976 and the move away from Mao’s policies was rapid. China’s new leader Deng Xiaoping, introduced an ‘open door’ policy bringing new social freedoms and increasing Westernisation. Despite this, political reform and freedom of speech remained unrealised and in 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square led to a vicious crackdown by the government killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of people.