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Heading to China? Here are 5 surprising things you should know

Woman in China

For me, travelling to China is one of the most amazing, eye-opening and unforgettable experiences you can do. From the bustling city streets with the scent of street food in the air to the gorgeous rural areas like Yangshou. There’s no where quite like it.

However, there are a few things all travellers should think about before heading on a trip to China. From social media challenges to the local lowdown. Here are five key things to know…

Plan your visa in plenty of time 

This is especially for those of you visiting China from the UK that don’t live in or near London, Edinburgh or Manchester. You can fill in a form online here. This takes time to fill in and needs to be done carefully – some parts can be confusing, but try not to overthink it and use their help section.

After filling in and printing the online form, you must book a visit to one of their embassies. This may mean additional travel and costs if you don’t live in the vicinity of one. There were people we met during our visit that had travelled all the way from Jersey just to get their visa!

I visited the London Visa Centre. Arrive early as the queues add up quickly. Make sure that you print out the following: printed application form, all flight details, all accommodation bookings, any supporting documents (e.g. an invitation letter if you get one). If you want your visa to be posted to your home address, bring a prepaid stamp and envelope.

The visas aren’t cheap. UK price currently stands at £151 and US price currently at $140.

Get a local SIM and a VPN before you travel

If you’re anything like me, social media is a huge part of my life. The thing is, it’s well known that China censor pretty much everything, and that includes the likes of Instagram and Facebook. Before you leave, get yourself a Virtual Private Network (VPN). It depends on how long you’re going for as to what you pay.

My best experience was with ExpressVPN – I had no issues with their service and the price was great too. In addition to this, get yourself a local SIM before you leave if you can. You can get those when you arrive, but it’s so much easier to set it all up just before you land in China, with your VPN already set up. My choice was a data only SIM which I purchased through Amazon and comes with several different card sizes. Perfect for catching and uploading those Insta moments

Pandas in Chengdu

Try not to be offended!

It sounds obvious, but Chinese culture is very different from Western culture in lots of ways. The first thing I noticed very quickly was the spitting… Something that Westerners may find unpleasant when out in public, is a social norm in China. This doesn’t mean that China is a dirty place! Personally, I couldn’t stand it, but it’s simply something you get used to – you can’t make faces or comments to those doing it, as it’s completely normal to them.

Secondly, the sheer amount of people may mean your personal space is compromised. Get used to it! When you’re in a crowd, people push, queues don’t seem to exist and you’ll be knocked aside occasionally. But try not to be offended – this is not rude at all on their behalf. We actually found that accepting this and taking on the same behaviour ourselves worked way better for us! There were many times where people actually made gestures to help us push ahead.

Tiananmen Sqaure

Learn a little Mandarin

I’m not sure what makes us assume that many of the places we visit speak English. Why should they? However, as English is taught in schools in China, I did, shamefully, go with this expectation. I realised very quickly that the Chinese locals have no idea what you’re saying most of the time, and will also continue to talk to you in Mandarin regardless. Strangely, we found that the locals spoke great English in Yangshou, a stunning mountain region.

However, there are ways around the confusion! You could learn some basic Mandarin, but failing that, you could download translator apps, many of which work without internet connection. It’s common for most people in China to be on their phones, and they did take kindly to communicating via translation apps!


Toilets are not what you’d expect

I found that toilets were a bit of a challenge in China. A lot of their toilets are squat toilets. This involves standing over a hole, squatting and rinsing… Which brings me onto point number 2 – that there is rarely any toilet paper.

Chinese locals use water guns to wash after their visit to the toilet, so don’t require toilet roll. If this isn’t your thing, I strongly suggest carrying a roll everywhere with you. I’d also suggest having hand sanitiser with you too.

Final point on toilets… in some places, there were no doors. Take for example, a local Hutong (social courtyard) in Beijing we visited. There were only squat toilets, with no internal or external door onto the street! So, stick to visiting toilets inside restaurants and shopping malls if you want a bit of a privacy.

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