Compared to every other country I’ve visited, and those I’m planning to visit on this trip, China definitely felt like the least accessible from the get-go. Right from the start of the extensive visa application process, it’s fair to say that I found the thought of travelling China somewhat intimidating, and whilst we were only there for two weeks we came up against our fair share of challenges. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I didn’t let my apprehension put me off, as despite being the most inexperienced pair of backpackers we ended up having the best time there. Here are my tips for first timers travelling the fourth biggest country in the world…
The first step in planning your Chinese adventure. The tourist visa for China is mind-numbingly long-winded, and I would totally recommend getting a visa company to assist you with it. We used The Visa Machine who were such a great help. I sent my documents off wrong about four different times and they always got back to me straight away telling me exactly what I needed to change, so I have no idea how long it would have taken me to get it right on my own! The process is quite stressful, but the fact that they always responded to my queries almost immediately made it a LOT easier. You also need a basic letter of invitation from a Chinese resident or business to enter China, and they took care of this for us too without us having to lift a finger. The Chinese visa alone costs £150 for a UK citizen (ouch), and The Visa Machine charge £50 on top of this for their services. But I really think they’re worth every penny! Whether or not you opt to get help though, it’s important to know that you can’t start the application process without proof of your methods of entering and exiting China (flight tickets etc.) as well as hotel bookings to account for every night that you intend to spend in the country.
Crossing the Border
We crossed the border into mainland China at Shenzhen train station, after getting the train from Hong Kong. I’m not being dramatic when I say that passing through immigration and visa control here was TERRIFYING. These people had me feeling guilty for things I hadn’t even done. I don’t know if it’s better or worse coming into China via an airport, but our experience at Shenzhen was uncomfortable to say the least. You have to stand for several excruciating minutes while two people look in your eyes, look you up and down, look at your passport, type things into a computer, talk to each other in Chinese, look you up and down again…you get the picture. My heart was seriously racing! Don’t worry though, scary as it is it’s over in a few minutes, and it wasn’t long until me and Jordan were reunited (sweating) on the other side!
Learn the Lingo
Okay, I realise this one’s a big ask. But you really should try and learn the basics in Mandarin before you visit China. We didn’t, and I seriously felt like the most ignorant arsehole ever! I think it’s just polite to at least be able to greet people and say please and thank you, and I won’t be making this mistake again! To be honest though the basics aren’t really going to get you far in China, especially outside of the cities. I’ve never before experienced a language barrier as drastic as when I got to China, so it was a pretty big culture shock to me. After leaving the relatively westernised Hong Kong and entering Shenzhen to find there were no more English signs and that even the tourist information staff at the station spoke no English, I felt totally lost. I think the best way to prepare for this is to make sure you book into English speaking hotels and maybe even have them book your transport from the closest station if necessary – I mentioned what a nightmare we had getting a taxi from Guilin train station to our Yangshuo hotel in an earlier blog post, which you can read here. The most important thing though is to keep your hotel’s address printed in Chinese on you at all times – that way when you need to ask for directions, people can at least point you in the right way!
Surviving Sleeper Trains
The cheapest and least glamorous way of getting around a country the size of China is on an overnight train. We had the pleasure of taking one of these from Guilin to Shanghai; a journey that would have taken two hours on an aeroplane but took twenty on a train – at a fraction of the price. If you’re on a budget then this is the essential way to travel. The overnight train is… an experience… but honestly not as bad as I was led to believe. I was nervous when I met the horrified faces of fellow backpackers in Yangshuo after telling them we were travelling directly to Shanghai on a sleeper train. And again, when I first entered our room and saw four beds squeezed into such a tiny space, I had heart palpitations at the thought of spending twenty hours in such close proximity with two strangers. But the trains do have little cafes/seating areas on board where you can go at any time to escape from your room, so it wasn’t as claustrophobic as I imagined. With plenty of books on the Kindle, iTunes library loaded up, and a few hours sleep in the middle, the time didn’t really drag too much either. A word of advice though, make sure you load yourself up with food and drink beforehand. We thought we’d be okay getting stuff on the train, but the food in the on board cafe is seriously grim. Trust me, it takes a lot for me to turn my nose up at a meal!
The Great Firewall of China
As you may know, there’s an ever growing list of banned websites in China, something you’ll want to be prepared for if you’re a social media addict! The banned list includes Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google, and loads more. If you want to avoid this you can buy something called a VPN, which masks the IP address of your device so that it looks as if you’re accessing the internet from another country… that’s about as technical as my understanding gets I’m afraid. I didn’t bother with this (part cba, part not wanting to do anything the Chinese government tell me not to) so I’m not sure how much it costs! Not having access to social media can make it difficult to speak to people at home, but there are far worse things that can happen when you’re travelling. The most annoying thing for me was not being able to use Google, especially as being somewhere new meant that there were things I needed to look up all the time. Sorry Bing, but you just don’t cut it.
All in all, we travelled about 1000 miles through China, which doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this mammoth country. Despite the challenges we met along the way I wouldn’t change it for the world. If you’re thinking about visiting China for the first time then go for it! Don’t let anything put you off – all of these were just minor setbacks/learning curves on what was undoubtedly one of the best things I’ve ever done!