Ni hao! China is very different from my small Scottish town. It is by far the most foreign place I’ve been, and visiting was a huge culture shock. The food freaked me out and the heat sucked, but overall I loved my visit.
I’ve only been once, which was in 2018 when I went with my Dad and Step Mum to visit my Step Mums family in Guangzhou / Shixing. We also went to a few rural areas, and when the trip was over, I went off to Hong Kong.
Mainland China was very foreign to me, but I was fascinated with just about everything. The history, the technology, the skyscrapers, the transport, and just generally seeing how people on the other side of the world lived! It is an incredibly cool country to explore, and I can’t wait to see more of it in the future.
Hong Kong, on the other hand, was more homely. They spoke English, the food was more western, and the internet was less restricted. It was an amazing city, but It lacked the magic and mystery of mainland China. Still, going to the peak and watching the sunset is something you need to see to believe. The dense, skyscraper filled city completely lights up unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s amazing, and one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately, China is one of those countries where there are just too many great places. You’ll never be able to see them all on one trip. I can’t even recommend all the places I find interesting as it would be 20,000 words long! So instead, here are just a few of my top recommendations for China.
The capital, and probably the best city in the country. Beijing has lots to see, the highlight of which is the ‘Forbidden City’, the most well preserved imperial palace in the country. It’s also the best base for visiting the Great Wall of China, with many sections being within day trip range.
A British territory up until 1997, Hong Kong is a really unique mix of British and Chinese culture. It barely even feels Chinese, but it’s still an amazing place to visit. It’s quite an easy city to visit, with English being an official language. Plus, it’s literally an easier city to visit. Most people don’t need a visa to visit Hong Kong.
The city itself is full of skyscrapers packed into a really dense area and it looks incredible, especially at night. There’s even a Disneyland nearby for the young at heart! Oh, and some great hiking trails too.
You don’t see it mentioned as much, but I think Xi’an looks amazing! It’s one of the most historic cities in the country, with some of the most interesting attractions. The old city wall looks beautiful, and cycling around it would be a great experience. But the biggest attraction is the Terracotta Warriors. These are a collection of 8,000 life-sized warrior and horse statues which were carved from clay 2000 years ago. It’s one of China's biggest historical attractions, and is often called the 8th wonder of the world!
Then just outside of the city is Mount Huashan, an outer-worldly mountain with some crazy hikes. It’s often called the most dangerous hike in the world, which is understandable. Part of it is just a plank stuck onto a cliffside with a 2000ft near-vertical drop below! You actually have to use a harness to do the hike.
This is the main city in the Tibet region of China. You need a guide to visit, which is a bit of a pain, but it’s worth it! Tibet is full of great holy sites and natural wonders. One of the top spots is the Potala Palace, which is the religious capital of Tibet, and the historical home of the Dalai Lama.
Nearby you can also find the heavenly Namtso Lake, and of course, Mt Everest!
You’ll probably be flying into Beijing or Hong Kong, as these are the two largest and most accessible airports. Most airports in the country are well connected to local public transport so getting to your hotel will be easy.
You can also get a ferry from South Korea / Japan, or a train from Russia / Mongolia!
Trains / Subway
China has some of the best public transport in the world, especially when it comes to trains. The whole country is linked together really well, and many of the routes are ‘high speed’, where trains can go over 200mph! I was in a station once waiting for a train when a bullet train went past at top speed. It was CRAZY!
The trains are also great value. Going from Beijing to Guangzhou (1,200 miles) takes 8 hours and costs ¥862 (£99) for a basic ticket. If you’re looking to save money you can always get the cheaper slower trains.
Most of the bigger cities have subway systems, which are well run and easy to use. Although, they do get very, very busy during rush hour, so try to avoid those times.
While the trains are good value, buses are even cheaper. If you’re really on a shoestring budget then by all means, go for the bus, but I don’t think it’s worth it. Buses are uncomfortable, crowded, and frankly, they can be a little terrifying with the chaotic road systems. They might be necessary for more rural areas, but when you can, just stick to trains.
Renting a car isn’t something you really do in China. For starters, it is complex, and it isn’t even allowed in most of the country. Secondly, Chinese roads can be very hectic, and driving them might not be safe for someone who isn’t accustomed to it. Thirdly, all the signs are written in weird shapes. So it isn't advisable, but if your heart is set on the idea, then you’ll likely need to rent a driver to go with your rented car.
Uber and Lyft don’t exist, but the local variant is ‘Didi’. Normal taxis are everywhere, and for an adrenaline rush, try going on a Rickshaw. This is a small motor-powered bicycle with a seat in the back! You negotiate a price upfront, and it’s generally quite good for short-distance travel. They’re a bit mental, but do the job.
Hostels are becoming more and more popular in China, and they’re one of the best places you can stay! They are very catered towards foreigners, and will likely have helpful English speaking staff.
Booking hostels is the same as in any other country. In general, you should expect to pay about ¥50-100 (£6-11) for a room, but this will be more in Beijing and Hong Kong.
Unlike most places, booking in advance might actually be more expensive. However, booking as you go runs the risk of no available beds. Plus, you’ll need to list out all your accommodations to get your VISA, so you’ll still probably want to book in advance regardless.
Hotels are all across the country and range from very cheap to very expensive! The cheapest ones probably won’t have any English speaking staff, and they might not be very nice, so I would avoid them.
On the opposite end, the expensive ones are actually decent value. Top 5 star hotels such as the Hilton will be ¥700-900 (£80-103). Not cheap, but for a similar hotel in the USA or UK you’d be paying triple that. Although don’t expect prices that cheap in Hong Kong! Western culture means western prices, sadly.
For a more mid-range 3 or 4 star experience, you’d pay ¥300-400 (£34-46). But it’s hard to state prices here as they just vary so wildly across the country. I would look around on different websites and try to find the best deal. Make sure you get somewhere that has decent reviews, and has English speaking staff.
Also, make sure your accommodation choice actually accepts foreigners. Many don’t!
AirBNB is quite popular, but booking a place to stay is complicated. On the mainland, you may need to go to the local police station to register yourself, so I’d avoid AirBNB unless you’re in Hong Kong. Camping also isn’t legal, so I’d stay away from that too.
Food is a huge part of Chinese culture, and there is so much to try! Meals at many restaurants are social events, where one person orders a large range of food and it is brought to the table all at once, family-style.
This can be an odd experience at first, particularly if you are from a western background. The tables are loud, you may need to clean your own dishes before the meal starts, smoking is common, and picking at your teeth / spitting on the table are normal things to do. These behaviours aren't rude, it is just how things are.
But if you’re not with a large group, then it’s best just to stick to street food. You’ll find it everywhere, especially in the cities. Sometimes it’s a food cart, but most of the time it will be some sort of hole in the wall. The range of food on offer is huge, and even picky eaters (like me) will be able to find something.
Some nice options are dumplings / dim sum, sweet and sour pork, noodle soup, and fried vegetables. But really, there are too many things to list! If you enjoy trying new food then you’ll be in love with China. The food is very healthy and fresh compared to western nations. It’s actually quite hard to get any unhealthy foods.
If food is a concern for you (like it was for me), don’t worry! There’s a lot of western food, although it’s normally poor in quality and expensive compared to local cuisine. I recommend just sticking to basic stuff like beef and rice. Don’t skip on China because the food looks scary! There’s so much outside of the food.
McDonalds and KFC are quite popular in China, but they vary in quality. I went to a McDonalds in Guangzhou and it was dreadful. Then I went to one in Hong Kong, and it was wonderful! The food was great, and it was also cheap compared to western nations, with a full meal costing just ¥40 (£5). Still, this is expensive compared to street food, where you could get a full meal for ¥20 (£2). The more rural you go, the cheaper food will get.
You should also be aware that most people use chopsticks. Sometimes you can get a fork, but it’s best just to suffer through the chopstick experience. Try using it more like a spoon, where you hold the bowl up to your face and then just shovel the food into your mouth. Not joking, that’s what the locals told me to do!
Tea is the most popular drink in China! It’s normally a green or herbal variant, so don’t expect any milk or sugar in it. Water with meals is normally served hot, as it is believed that having hot food and cold water isn’t healthy.
Also, don’t drink the tap water! Always make sure you have some bottled water on you. You can buy them in most places, in addition to various sodas and juice.
In terms of alcohol, beer is very popular! There’s also a drink called ‘Baijiu’, which is a form of spirit. It can be as high as 60% alcohol, which is very strong. It is expensive, and only really for special events.
China is mostly a cash economy, although some places (mainly tourist hotels / restaurants / shops / attractions) accept cards. Still, I suggest that you don’t rely on it and plan to pay for everything in cash.
The exception to this is in Hong Kong, where you should be able to use your cards almost everywhere. Try not to rely on American Express though, and stick to Mastercard or VISA.
Bank of China ATMs will be easy to find, and will allow Mastercard and VISA withdrawals. They won’t be as common in rural areas, so make sure to stock up on cash before you leave the cities! In the rural areas, you should expect to pay in cash for just about everything.
When something doesn’t have a set price, expect to haggle. You can normally knock 25% off whatever price you are given! Don’t go crazy though, you are a lot wealthier than any of the people in the markets. Saving an extra ¥3 isn’t much to you, but it’s a lot to them. Be considerate and don’t be a bad tourist!
The currency in mainland China the Yuan (¥), or the ‘Renminbi’. One Yuan is compromised of 10 Jiao, and one Jiao is compromised of 10 Fen. You’ll mostly be dealing with Yuan notes, but you might occasionally come across some coins or Jiao notes.
The variations of cash are: 1 Jiao/5 Jiao coins, ¥1 coins, and ¥5/¥10/¥20/¥50/¥100 notes.
At the time of writing in June 2022, the exchange rates are: £1 = ¥8.2 / $1 = ¥6.7 / €1 = ¥7.0
In Hong Kong, they’ve got a completely different currency, which is the Hong Kong Dollar. This is similar to the US Dollar, where a dollar is made up of 100 cents. The variations of cash are: 10¢/20¢/50¢ coins, $1/$2/$5/$10 coins, and $10/$20/$50/$100/$500/$1000 notes.
At the time of writing this in June 2022, the exchange rates are: £1 = HK$9.6 / $1 = HK$7.6 / €1 = HK$8.3
Tipping is not common or expected.
China is one of the more expensive Asian countries to visit, but on a worldwide scale, it is pretty cheap! For a decent hotel, street food, and mid-range public transport, I would advise ¥500 a day (£56). Drop down to ¥300 (£33) for a hostel, and go up to ¥800 (£89) for a very nice hotel and first-class transport.
Hong Kong is supposedly one of the most expensive cities in Asia, so you’ll need more money there. Still, I found it pretty cheap. In 2018 I stayed in one of the best hostels in the city, and ate at western restaurants most of the time. Despite this, my daily spend was only HK$450, which is ¥374 (£42).
In Southern China, summers are VERY hot. It can get up to 40c (104f), with like 800% humidity. This is the only China I got to experience as I visited in July, and it sucked. I would definitely try to avoid this time. Winter on the other hand is pretty comfortable down south, with temperatures around 15c (60f).
In North East/Central China, summers are just as miserable, but the winters are a lot colder. Sometimes it gets as low as -20c (-4f). The more north you go, the colder it gets! If you plan on attending the Harbin Ice Festival, prepare for some very cold weather.
Strangely, Tibet isn’t too bad. You think it would be uninhabitable in winter, but during the day it only really goes as low as 0c (32f). In summer, Tibet is wonderful! Nice and cool while the rest of the country is on fire. The region is very sunny, and actually renowned for its great weather.
In China, there are two seasons. The wet season and the dry season. The wet season occurs all summer long, with lots and lots of rain all across the country. Mixed with the very high temperatures and extreme humidity, this is the worst time to visit. Oh, and did I mention the typhoons?
The dry season is during winter, and it’s normally nice and sunny across the country. This is the best time to visit, however, winter can also be really cold in certain areas. (Personally, I think cold sunny days are the best kind of weather you can get!)
In terms of snow, it’s pretty common up north, but seeing any down south is unlikely.
In the south near Hong Kong, the days have as little as 10.5 hours of daylight during the winter, and as many as 13.5 hours in summer. Up north near Beijing, these numbers are 9.5 and 15 hours. You’ll have plenty of daylight to explore year-round!
The main thing to be wary of in China is the Typhoons. These happen all along the coast, and can hit anywhere from Hong Kong to Beijing. They can damage buildings, cause flooding, and disrupt air travel.
If you’re caught out in one, the extreme winds will also be dangerous. But if you stay up to date with the news and stay inside while they pass, you should be fine. Flooding can be extreme in China, so always listen closely to any advice from local authorities, and try to avoid flood-risk areas during storms/typhoons!
China is also prone to earthquakes, with the last big one happening in 2008, measuring at 8.0. The biggest risk area is the Sichuan Province, which is where you’d be if you were to visit Chengdu or Leshan. My best advice here would be to not get caught in an earthquake. But just to be safe, read up about it before you go, and maybe ask the hostel/hotel receptionist if they have any advice about what to do if one were to occur.
China has plenty of wildlife you should be aware of. For starters, there’s the Chinese Bird Spider in Southern China. This tarantulas bite can cause severe nerve damage. This isn’t the only poisonous spider in China, so if you’re bitten by a spider at any point, get a picture of it, kill it out of revenge, and then go to a doctor ASAP.
Snakes are also common, and there are at least 35 venomous species! They’re mostly found in southern China, and the infamous Chinese Cobra is one of the worst. Again, get medical help immediately if bitten.
In terms of larger animals, Asian Black Bears can be found in the country. While they’re one of the more aggressive species of bear, an encounter is unlikely. There are also a couple of Tiger species that call China home, but you’re very very unlikely to see one.
If you’re attacked by a mammal in China, then it will probably be a pack of wild dogs, as they’re a pretty big issue throughout Asia. Throwing rocks, or even pretending to, is a good way to scare them off.
The most terrifying thing, by far, is the Asian Giant Hornet. It’s the largest hornet in the world, and a few stings are enough to kill a healthy adult. In 2013, 42 people in the Shaanxi Province were killed by them in the span of three months! What’s worse, they’re attracted by flailing arms. If you run, they’ll chase you. Thankfully they’re only found in the more rural areas, and encountering them as a tourist is very unlikely.
The national animal is the Giant Panda, and if you want to see one you should head down to Chengdu. Seeing one in the wild is unlikely, but you’ll be able to see lots at the breeding centre, and you can even become a Panda caretaker for the day!
Other than Pandas, China has lots of amazing wildlife, ranging from Tigers to Elephants to Monkeys to Yaks! I suggest looking up the different wildlife in the regions you plan to visit, and then seeing what wildlife viewing opportunities are available.
Still freaked out by the hornets? Yeah, me too! To clear your mind, try Googling the Tibetan Sand Fox, the Red Panda, and the Sable. These are all native to China, and super cute! 🙂
There are lots of monkeys in China, with the most famous one being the Golden Monkey. Then there are the big cats, including the Siberian Tiger and the North China Leopard. Sadly they’re both pretty endangered.
Best of all, Tibet is also home to the Snow Leopard, which I think is the most beautiful animal on the planet. Unfortunately, it is also endangered, and ‘rare’ doesn’t even begin to describe how unlikely you are to see one. You would need to hire a professional tracker and spend weeks searching to get a glimpse of one.
China is more known for its land mammals, but one cool thing it does have is the Pink Dolphin. You can see them around the waters of Hong Kong, and they’re actually the mascot of the city!
China is a communist country, which makes travel there a bit different from most countries. The current president is Xi Jinping. He’s been the president since 2013, and may remain there indefinitely. The word ‘communist’ sounds scary, but it’s really not bad. China is a safe place, and very open to foreign tourists.
Just be careful not to disrespect the country or its leaders! It might get you into some bother. People in China can be very patriotic, and criticism of the country can cause trouble. Also, protests or demonstrations can result in violent clashes with the police, so definitely avoid them if they occur.
Free speech and freedom of information are also more limited in China. Subjects such as the Hong Kong protests, Tibets Freedom and Tiananmen Square are touchy and you really shouldn’t mention them. A large part of the internet is blocked off by the ‘Great Firewall of China‘, so you won’t be able to use Google, Facebook, or anything like that. Most people use ‘WeChat’ to message each other, but if you need more, try to get a good VPN before you visit.
The language situation in China is quite complicated. The official language is Mandarin (also known as Chinese / Standard Mandarin / Standard Chinese), but there are actually around 300 different languages spoken in China. Despite this, Mandarin is by far the most widely spoken language in the country, so learning a few phrases in Mandarin is a good idea regardless of where you're going.
In Hong Kong Cantonese is more widely spoken than Mandarin, however, English is also an official language in Hong Kong, with around half the population speaking it. So if you speak English, you can get by in Hong Kong comfortably without needing to worry about learning any other languages.
On the mainland, English is not common at all. Public transport stations will have English-speaking staff and signage, and tourist areas in the larger cities will have English-speakers too, but in rural areas don't expect to see any English at all. Make sure you've got a translation app on your phone, or have learned some Mandarin!
There’s no one single dominant sport in China, but it’s still a sporty country. Some of the top sports are Badminton, Ping Pong, Basketball, Martial Arts, and Football. It’s a very athletic country, and always comes in the top 2 or 3 of the Olympic medal table.
The fastest-growing sport is football (soccer), and some huge investments are being made into the country's national league. The Chinese government are actually aiming to win the FIFA World Cup by 2050!
China is a very safe country to travel to, so you don’t need to worry about being the victim of any crimes. I felt more relaxed there than I did travelling around the UK, USA, or any other western nation. There are some pickpockets, but they exist everywhere.
Honestly, the biggest danger in China would be crossing the road. It can be a bit mental at times, and Chinese drivers are known for being a bit.. fast. Try to find a spot that looks safe, and then look both ways, twice. It should be fine in the cities, but in more rural areas it is a serious concern.
Also, don’t drink the tap water. It will make you sick.
China has a ‘Don’t encourage, don’t discourage, don’t promote’ stance on being gay. What that basically means is, nobody cares. Gay marriage is illegal, but in general, most of the country is really impartial on the subject. You won’t get any abuse for being gay in public, but try not to flaunt it.
The country has a reputation for being somewhat racist, but this is mostly ignorant racism, not hateful racism. People might use crude remarks and apply racist stereotypes, but normally no real harm is meant. The Chinese people are very expressive and speak their mind, so it’s just something you get used to. You need to have an open mind if you want to travel to China.
As a white person, I got a lot of stares, and people were constantly taking pictures of me. This would likely be worse for a black person. You’ll mostly avoid it in the big cities, but if you go into rural areas, expect a lot of attention. You won’t get attacked or anything, but people might be annoying, and say dumb things.
But as I said, it’s not done out of hate, just curiosity! China is quite an isolated country, and they’ve probably never seen someone like you before. It’s like if an alien visited your own country. You’d stare at it, take pictures, want to touch it, and probably make all sorts of assumptions about it. That’s sort of how Chinese people see you. You’re an alien visiting their country, and they’re curious. All they know about you is the little information they have, which may just be nonsense.
Personally, I thought all the attention was pretty cool. I felt like a celebrity! Everyone I met in China was very, very kind and welcoming. I didn’t have a single bad experience with anyone being rude or ignorant, but that doesn’t mean that others won't.
China is an atheist country, and most people do not have any sort of religion. However, folk history is a huge part of China, and even non-religious people take part in the different traditions and rituals. There’s a folk religion, which is the most popular in the country along with Buddhism.
Healthcare in China is good in the cities, but in the more rural areas, it can be difficult to find. If you’re going to a rural area, take a first aid kit with all the medicines you might need. In a city, you should be able to get all of these from a pharmacy, although the staff may not speak great English.
In the big cities, there will normally be a healthcare clinic which caters to tourists. This would be the best place to go, although it will be more expensive. Healthcare isn’t free for anyone in China, so make sure you have good insurance before you leave! If you get sick or injured during your trip, and it isn’t an immediate emergency, I would suggest phoning your insurance company for advice on what hospital to go to.
No vaccinations are required, but if you’ve recently been in South America or Africa, you will need to show that you’ve gotten a Yellow Fever Vaccination. Although none are required, a lot of vaccinations are suggested. I would maybe advise getting ones for Hepatitis A/B, and Rabies.
Other problems to be aware of are altitude sickness in Tibet, and heat exhaustion during the coastal summer months. Make sure you’re aware of both and have appropriate medication with you. Also, about 50% of people who go to China get travellers diarrhoea. It is inevitable, so make sure you’re prepared.
For visits to Hong Kong or Macau, most nationalities can enter visa free and stay for 90 – 180 days. But for mainland China, you’ll probably need a visa, unless you’re from a small group of certain Asian countries. Most people can also get a free transit visa, which allows them to visit a single city for 2-3 days. This could be a good option for a short visit, but the terms vary by city.
As a tourist, you’ll want an ‘L’ visa. These can be 30 or 60 days, with single or multiple entries. You should apply for it before you leave, and you’ll normally get one within a week. The price varies by country, with UK citizens paying £85, USA citizens paying $140, and most other countries paying a lot less! You need to apply in person, although in some countries you can go through visa agents at an extra cost.
When you apply, you’ll need to provide two photos of yourself, and you’ll also need to give a detailed itinerary of your plans, including where you’ll be going, where you’ll be staying, and what you’ll be doing. You also need to have return flights out of the country. You can’t travel China on a whim, you need to plan!
Visiting Tibet is a whole other ordeal, and it’s best just to have a travel agent get the permits for you. You’ll need to go through a tour company if you want to visit anyways.
A smart thing to do would be to travel to Hong Kong, and then apply for a Chinese visa there. This only takes a few days, and it makes more sense, as once you get the visa you need to use it within a few months. I’ve not done this, but it is supposedly really easy, and a lot cheaper than getting it at home!
China has a few different types of sockets, but the most common is the type A two-pin power socket. You should probably be fine with just that, but it would be better to have an adapter which can switch between type A, C, and I. In Hong Kong, British style type G plugs are widely used.
Adapters will be pretty easy to find in any city, and you could probably get one before leaving the airport.
Thanks for reading my China travel guide! If you’ve spotted something that doesn’t seem quite right, or think there’s anything I should add, please let me know! And if you found this guide helpful, please consider supporting me on Ko-fi 🙂