As I got off out the tour van and looked towards the entrance of the majestic Summer Palace, the solider rushed towards me, leaving the post he was guarding moments before. He held up his phone in front of my face and asked ‘picture’?! Normally, I would say no, but I have enough sense to know not to piss off a soldier in a communist country. So, I gladly posed with him and gave my best Tyra Banks top model fierceness.
China is an amazing and interesting place to visit. The landscape is varied and you’ll have plenty to do and see, such as hiking the Great Wall and tobogganing down it (which I recommend) or wandering the impressive grounds of the Summer Palace and Forbidden City.
But travelling around China is no joke. At some point during your trip, you will need to use a squatting toilet, know how to access the internet via VPN, order food using Google translate, be stared at because you do not fit into the largely homogeneous society, or have your photos taken irrespective of how you feel about it (like above).
Based on my trip to China, I have put together a list of 8 things to know before visiting the country.
Here’s are 8 Things To Know Before Visiting China!
The internet and media are all censored by the Chinese government. If you’re a social media/internet junkie, then travelling around China might be hard for you.
Google (Google maps, Gmail, G+, all G products), Twitter, Facebook and my beloved Instagram (when I asked if people had Instagram in China, no one knew what it was), are all blocked in China.
If you think you’ll need access to your e-mail or travel sites, you can get around this by using a VPN (virtual private network), also known as a proxy server, on your phone and laptop.
I took along with me my international roaming data package using EE which worked fine during my trip.
I found the language barrier the hardest part while travelling in China. Always carry your hotel’s business card with their address on it and have it written down in Chinese characters as well. You can show this to taxis to get you back to your hotel.
I also had the Google translate app downloaded on my phone, and found it helpful for basic communication such as ordering food, asking for ice, and simple directions.
Most importantly, you will need patience when trying to communicate in China. It will take a few tries before people understand what you are trying to say.
Being a foreigner, you might not realise that China is predominately a cash-only society. Major train stations, tourist attractions, and even supermarkets take only cash. Not all foreign debit/credit cards are accepted in China and even where they do accept foreign debit/credit cards, your card could still be declined.
To make sure this doesn’t happen to you, bring more Yuan than you’ll need on this trip. You can always convert any excess currency once you get home.
Air Pollution (Smog)
The air pollution in China is very real and the pictures I saw on TV (which I thought were a bit dramatic) did not compare with what I saw in Beijing, and while travelling from Xi’an to Beijing.
The smog was heavy from dusk till dawn, with minimal cloud visibility. If you’re planning a trip to China and have any sort of respiratory disorder (Asthma or COPD – scientist speak for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), then definitely take your inhaler with you and buy a good face mask to wear when outside.
I am no ‘posh spice’ but nothing I read could have prepared me for the abundance of squatting toilets. And before you think I’m talking about squatting toilets in rural areas, No, I’m talking of major cities like Beijing. Squatting toilets are at popular tourist attractions and national transport stations.
For example, my visit to the Summer Palace. This popular attraction for both Chinese tourists and foreigners alike had only one seating toilet which was for disabled users, while the remaining toilets were squatting. This is something you will have to get used to as you travel around China.
I grew up in Jamaica where we had outhouses (outside toilets) similar to the squatting toilets in China. This brought back a lot of childhood memories which I found funny, as Jamaica is considered a third world/developing country and China is a second world super power (I digress).
Back to the matter at hand, asides the squatting toilets, there are no toilet tissues inside the toilets. Tissues are kept on the outside where you wash your hands (sometimes). I took with me on this trip 20 Kleenex original pocket pack tissues, two bottles of travel hand sanitizers and hand wipes. I always kept one packet of tissue and hand sanitizer in my bag at all times and they proved to be life savers.
Pushing (The Chinese Way)
As my guide in Xi’an told me as we entered to view the Terracotta Army, you’ll need to push a little, “pushing is the Chinese way”. Don’t be surprised if you are pushed or someone jumps in front of you in a queue/line.
Staring (Being Different)
Coming from a metropolitan and culturally diverse London where every creed, nation, and race is represented and intermix with one another seamlessly, I imagined that, in a large city like Beijing, they’d be used to seeing thousands of foreign tourists each year. I didn’t think they’d be interested in little ol’ me. Well, I was wrong.
I was assured by a European (with blonde hair and aqua blue eyes) friend that people will try to take photos, just as they relentlessly took photos of her as she travelled around Asia. But I laughed it off and thought maybe there’d be five people max that would be interested in taking a photo with me. Boy was I wrong!
It was interesting and annoying to see in China that being a foreigner will get you stared at, but being a black foreigner was like being a unicorn. You were rare, mystical, you had been beamed down from the mothership and everyone stopped, stared and took pictures with or without your permission.
There were two instances from the trip that stands out in my mind. One, while in Xi’an in the Muslim Quarter where a wedding reception was in full swing in a shop along the street. As we passed by, the groom and his party shouted and gestured for me to join in and take a picture with them. The second instance was of the solider who left his guard post, rushed towards me as I was getting out of the tour van, held up his phone in front of my face and asked ‘picture’?!
I have read lots of blogs that say smile and be friendly when people are trying to take your picture in China, but I think this is an individual choice. Some people will not mind having their pictures taken by or with a stranger while others will find this behaviour irritating.
I was one of them. If I stopped a Chinese person just to take a picture of them because they were Chinese, it would be considered rude. So, I didn’t feel the need to take a picture with Chinese people just because I’m in China.
But, as I said before, if you’re the show pony type and are planning a visit to China, start practicing your best poses and know which angles work for you in a picture. If you find this type of behaviour infuriating and get approached to have your picture taken, firmly and politely say no (or charge 1000 Yuan per picture, this proved to be a good way to get people to leave me alone).
My visit to China was filled with little inconveniences. As with all travel, you never know what to expect when you start out but with a little planning ahead, and using the tips I just shared, your visit to China will be less stressful and one that you remember for all the right reasons.
What are the things you think everyone should know before visiting China?