Tips for travelling to China: Part I

After learning that I’d be getting time off between a job change last year, I decided to finally visit China. For a few weeks I found myself oscillating between long hours at work and trip planning. The latter drew an excitement which felt unreal, never mind how long I have wanted to experience China for, due to the stressful realities of managing change. When it became real (and it didn’t feel like it was happening until I got to Gatwick) it brought me some of my most memorable experiences to date. Here are some things I learned during the planning stages and from travelling China:

1. Tourist Visa Application

*Disclaimer: the below is based on personal experience and does not negate the importance of individual research or seeking further advice where appropriate*

Rules differ depending on citizenship and the purpose of entry, but as a general rule of thumb, European and US citizens require a tourist visa (L) to visit China. Since 2016, an agreement following President Xi Ji Ping’s visit to the UK the year before means UK citizens can be granted a multiple entry visa to the Mainland for up to 2 years.

Applying weeks in advance is recommended. The consulate aims to process applications within 4-5 days, but from my experience this can take up to 2 weeks due to backlog processing. There are some visa agencies which offer guidance on completing the paperwork and submit applications on your behalf. I found that some packaged agency fees were cheaper than a DIY application from start to end which can cost just over £200 (including both the visa and application fee). I used Travel Direct for this reason and its positive reviews online (https://travel-direct.com). They charged £175 for helping to submit my documentation. It is possible to make your application by post -this certainly is the case via an agency- and if you mail your passport, look to get this tracked and signed for!

The application requires you to state your itinerary and to provide evidence of flights to and from China, as well as your place of stay. This means hotel/hostel and flight booking confirmations, or a letter of invitation from a Chinese national with whom you are staying. I remember thinking this seemed like a catch-22. Why would you book everything without the certainty of being able to go? It seemed an expensive risk and I discovered this was a common fear amongst travellers. I was reassured by the agency that more likely than not, the process should go smoothly. It was a risk I was willing to accept.

If you are unsure of your itinerary and cannot confirm your place of stay, you can consider booking accommodation with either a low or no cancellation fee. This enables you to provide evidence of accommodation whilst having the flexibility to change your mind within a given period. A good place to search for accommodation is http://www.booking.com.

As for proof of flight tickets, the embassy needs to see that you are leaving China, so showing an outbound flight suffices. It doesn’t have to be the flight back to your home country. I was planning to travel to Hong Kong from Shenzhen and to fly from Hong Kong to Singapore before going home. I was able to use my flight from Hong Kong to Singapore as proof of leaving China.

2. Language

The national language is Mandarin Chinese. English signs are commonplace in main cities such as Beijing and Shanghai and they will be present in some towns (but I did still stick to touristic areas like Yangshuo in Guilin). This helps a lot with getting around but when speaking to the average local, even if it’s asking for directions, I didn’t find English to be widely used. I can speak Mandarin but if it wasn’t for this, there would have been a language barrier. It may be a good idea to get an app installed on your device for translations or to keep a small book on key phrases. Even better, look up and learn a few common phrases in advance. Many travellers I met were already learning Chinese and looked for opportunities to improve this whilst abroad which I found impressive.

If you are staying in hostels and hotels, take advantage of being able to check directions or to ask important questions before heading out. You might discover new recommendations at the same time.

3. Transport

I’m not a big fan of long trips on the road so I took the sleeper bus once from Guilin to Shenzhen. I tended to take the high speed rail which can be a similar price to internal flights if tickets are booked a few days in advance. Standard tickets sell out very quickly and a handful of first class ones will be left on the day. After all, it’s become a common mode of transport for commuting locals. Many people use http://www.ctrip.com to book train tickets (there is also an app for this).

When booking train tickets as a non-Chinese national, you will need to provide your passport number and pick them up in person where you are required to show your passport. You can’t have the tickets delivered to you and queues for picking up pre-booked tickets can be very long (the refunds queue is even longer, so don’t buy the wrong ticket to leave Shanghai like I did! There will be stations in the same city with similar names). Anticipate this by arriving a lot earlier or pick them up in advance on a different day if you are travelling later.

For internal flights, there are affordable options with local airlines. Some websites to check out are http://www.airasia.com, http://www.flyscoot.com and http://www.jetasia.com. The flight time is slight shorter than travelling by high speed rail, although similar, but consider the time it takes to check in and go through security at the airport.

Once you’re in the city, the subway is a convenient way to travel. I didn’t find the subway to be too packed and the trains are well conditioned. You can top up or purchase single journey cards each time. Bags are scanned whenever you enter or leave the station and this something you’ll get used to quickly after being in China for some time.

I also found it useful having an offline map. The app I used was Maps.Me and this allowed me to travel around 3 different provinces without using internet. Ideally, use a map with both Chinese and English on it. Being able to show someone the name of the place you are trying to get to in Chinese can help when asking for directions.

More tips?

Persuaded yet? Or already booked your trip? Part II on travel vaccinations, bringing money and accessing internet is on its way to you soon!

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