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How To Cope With Independent Travel In China

If you are planning a visit to China, there are multiple annoyances to be aware of before your visit. There are many challenges for Westerners visiting China for the first time, some of which will take you by surprise if unprepared. This guide aims to highlight some of these and provide you with a few travel tips to help you cope with independent travel in China.

Great Wall of China Mutianyu
Great Wall of China Mutianyu – just one of the amazing sights you can see during a trip to China

Social media

WeChat is in and every other social media platform that you normally use is out. Posting beautiful pictures to Instagram? Nope! Checking in on Facebook? Nope! How about a quick tweet? Also no! Even WhatsApp and Messenger are out too. China has also banned Google and all its apps. Yes, that includes Google Maps, Google search, YouTube, Drive, Safari and the Play App Store.

Frankly, it is a bloody nuisance and really drives home to you how reliant you are on this kind of technology. I rarely take guide books overseas these days as Google provides the answer to everything. Not in China! You can use Bing and Yahoo but results seem biased towards Chinese websites.

On the plus side, I enjoyed an unexpected digital detox.

Xian gardens
No sending pictures to our friends on social media for us….

WeChat

WeChat seems to power everything in China. From bus fares to Starbucks, taxis to bike rental. It is also a curse for westerners travelling in the country. Without this form of payment you will be forced to pay cash in many situations. My credit card got a definite break in China!

Strangely, WeChat is also your passport to toilet paper in many establishments. Only by scanning the WeChat QR reader can you access toilet paper. Now what an incredible way to keep track of your citizens whereabouts but what a bloody nuisance for foreigners.

To rub salt into the wounds, I attempted to download this app and quickly discovered that without a local address or a referral from a Chinese person it was not possible to sign up. I don’t know whether that is latent racism or an attempt to protect the sanctity of Chinese culture.

As in awe of this app as I was, as it literally does everything (including social media messenging) I felt mightily excluded by the time we left the country.

How to overcome this annoyance

Firstly, you need to ensure that you download any apps you may need for your stay BEFORE you leave. If you have an Android device you will not be able to download any apps in China as the Play Store does not work. If you have an Iphone you will have no issues, but will not be able to access any Google apps such as Google drive and Google maps.

As a minimum I recommend the following:

  • Language translation app for English to Mandarin or Cantonese
  • Subway plans for the cities you plan to visit
  • Ofo bike hire app or similar (see our getting around post for more on this)
  • QR Reader (QRs rule the roost in China!)
  • City tourist apps for your chosen cities
Ofo bicycles in Beijing
Ofo bicycles in Beijing

Downloading a VPN

In addition, you can download a VPN before your arrival and fool your device into believing it is not in China. Please check that it definitely works in China as these apps are typically charged.  Check out Dan from Layer Culture’s great guide to help you select the best VPN for travel.

Toilets

Although allegedly toilets have significantly improved in recent times, toilet time can be stressful. Whilst there are plentiful public bathrooms around the city, their cleanliness is debatable and they are usually traditional squat toilets with the occasional western style toilet. Many establishments have a picture on the outside of the cubicle to determine what style of toilet it is before entering.

Outside luxury hotels and airports you will have to contend with squat toilets, and if you plan to take trains during independent travel in China, you will likely find the same.

How to survive this inconvenience

You may wish to carry wet wipes (to wipe any stray wee from your ankles), toilet paper (as this is rarely provided, although see WeChat below for a bizarre exception) and a small disinfectant bottle. I thought Jason was being a little OTT when he came home with these. We did not need them often but I was relieved we took them for that odd occasion.

W Beijing hotel daybed
Hotels accept British credit cards but you will struggle elsewhere

Credit card acceptance

Other than in luxury hotels your AMEX will be useless in China. This is one trip where you will not be able to satisfy the minimum spend on your British Airways credit card and earn those extra bonus AVIOS. MasterCard and Visa are accepted in other establishments but these are bigger outlets. For someone used to using a credit card for every purchase, to eek out every single possible air mile, this is something of an alien concept.

How to survive this inconvenience

Cash is definitely king in China for foreigners. ATMs are plentiful (literally, I have never seen so many banks in one area!) and accessing funds usually uneventful. Be sure to withdraw cash regularly, especially if travelling to rural locations where banks may be scarce.

If staying in smaller hotels, I recommend prebooking and pre-paying so you can pay in GBP and using a card. Hotels.com and Agoda are both great sites you can use to book in this way. You will also avoid currency exchange costs.

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Language

There is no denying that the language is a big issue when travelling to China. Not only does it sound different. No amount of deciphering will allow you to use common sense to translate the written language.

Other than in hotels and big tourist areas, little to no English is spoken (although the younger generation seem more able to express a few words).

To be fair, this was less an issue than we thought. We muddled along with a variety of pictures, maps and written instructions from our hotels but we certainly could have prepared better.

How to survive this inconvenience

Before you leave the UK, buy a language guide or download a translation app from English to Mandarin or Cantonese.

When taking taxis to or from hotels, it is wise to ask for the address to be sent to you in the local language. Every time we got into a cab to go to an hotel we had a similar experience which went like this:

1. I produced the hotel confirmation with address in English
2. The taxi driver looked at it blankly and started muttering or shaking their head
3. The taxi driver rang the hotel for directions or motioned for us to call the hotel

Expensive tours

To be fair, this is common in countries where they do not receive sufficient overseas travellers to warrant an extensive tourist system. However, Jason and I are so used to jumping on hop on hop off bus in cities around the world, it’s frustrating when the only options are narrated tours on set schedules. This proved to be the case in both Xi’an and Beijing, so it was a choice between a DIY city tour or ridiculously priced private tours.

DIY Tour of Xian
DIY Tour of Xian city walls on a bicycle no less….

In fairness, it isn’t just the price that bothers me about these trips. It’s the fact that I am forced to follow a schedule which often includes a side trip to a perfume store, gem factory or other such venue that I have no interest in. I don’t want to listen to someone drone on about the history of a place endlessly.

As a result, we chose to DIY our travel and trips. We booked our own trains between Xi’an and Beijing (read more here) and used the subway and buses to get around.

How to survive this inconvenience

It really isn’t difficult to DIY your trips with a little planning, but you will need a good guidebook to assist you. We used Lonely Planet and although it was a few years old, I used it more than any guide book I’ve used in years. I suspected that Bing was programmed to push Chinese tour companies to the top of the search listings, as many of the results were little more than advertising attempts. China Highlights, although a tour company, offered a good blog with more unbiased content and I relied on this quite heavily during our time in China.

Rudeness

Pushing and jostling is a regular occurrence in China. I guess with a population of 1.3 billion it’s inevitable that people will be fighting for space, but it sometimes borders on outright rudeness. I was roughly pushed aside at the Terracotta Warriors by a fellow guest desperate to get a glimpse of the warriors. It is not uncommon for parasols to whack you in the head and trolley cases to bash into your ankles.

There were times when frankly this drove me insane!

Crowds at the Great Wall of China
Crowds at the Great Wall of China although not as bad as I expected

How to survive this inconvenience

My only advice for this is to plan your visit outside peak times. We travelled in high season and school holidays so it seemed that everyone was on the move. Tourist attractions are obviously very busy during this period.

Visit in spring or autumn and not only should things be a little less chaotic but the weather will be less hot and humid. Much as I love the heat, it can be incredibly energy sapping when you are walking around tourist attractions.

Electronic menus

My last gripe with China is also something I find quite cool, but impractical.

Many upmarket venues offer menus on tablets. This is really cool, especially in the venues where you can also use the tablet to order. However many places also seem to be a little stingy with distributing them providing only one device per table. This is not great when two people are trying to decide on their menu selections, especially if one is indecisive.

How to overcome this annoyance

If you see them coming with a tablet, ask for two.

Any other tips?

Now, I am sure lots of you lovely readers have already been to China and I would love to hear any other tips you have. We had a great time in China but certainly found it a frustrating place at times. If you plan ahead, you can avoid many of these issues however so do your research beforehand.

About Anne

Anne is the founder and editor of TravelTheGlobe4Less. If she isn't travelling, she is thinking of travelling or planning her next trip. She has visited over 80 countries on six continents and sampled everything from backpacking to bank bursting travel. Her mission is to help you enjoy more luxurious travel without the luxury price tag through the use of airline and hotel rewards and other money saving travel tips

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18 comments

  1. I am now not sure where you are getting your info, but great topic.

    I needs to spend some time studying much more or understanding more.
    Thank you for magnificent information I used to be in search of
    this info for my mission.

  2. Thanks for good advice! China is a great place to visit.

  3. I’m typing this on a plane back from Beijing. Google and apps (including maps) worked just fine. Same with Android app store (downloaded Google Translate and that was a lifesaver). No VPN needed. Agree 100% on WeChat though… That’s just how things are done.

    • Glad you didn’t have the same issues but how weird is that that some people have no issues?

      Wonder if it makes a difference what device is being used???

  4. I didn’t think your article was too negative in the least. We’ve traveled to China twice independently and frankly my biggest struggles were with the bathroom situations. It’s been six, seven years, maybe things are better. I learned to drink very little during the day and to always take advantage of a nice museum etc. in a large city, I would even go so far as to go back to the hotel to use the toilet on occasion. I hope I don’t need it, but next time I will take a mask scented with something and a scarf to wrap around my nose in the toilet areas. There were times, ex. a private driver from Beijing to the Great Wall where I couldn’t avoid needing to go once during the day. We certainly encountered rudeness on occasion but that wasn’t really a problem. I do hope to return. My daughter, whom we adopted from China, was often approached by people assuming she could speak Chinese and there were a few hostile stares toward our family, but overall that was pretty minor.

    • Wow, how cool that you adopted a girl from China. I think the bathrooms possibly have improved as we largely found them to be ok. Obviously, most of them are squat toilets so I am unsure how elderly Westerners would cope with that but even then major tourist attractions seem to have one Western style toilet. The toilet paper situation was frustrating but we had been forewarned and took our own paper to overcome this. Having seen documentaries with ‘communal style toilets’ however I was pretty relieved that things appear to have moved on. Thanks for commenting.

  5. I dont agree that much. I have been to China now 20 times. Even the first time was without any problems at all. All the negative in this article …. why?
    Yes social media doesnt work. WeChat works without problems no referral needed. VPN is the solution. Easy. Or just roam your own data plan: everything works too.

    Language: yes and no. Thats in so many countries the case.
    Prices of tours: for 50-60 euro you have a private taxi take you around!! (450 RMB should be ok).

    As for menu. In China you choose stuff for everyone amd you share. This is common and great.

    I think you are way to negative here.

    • Just sharing our experience in the hope that others can benefit from it

    • On balance, if you read Anne’s other articles, she loves China! I think it’s good to see an article that warns of issues people might encounter and gives you a chance to prepare yourself if you make the trip.

      It’s also good to be aware of the cultural differences, so they don’t come as a shock, which can result in hostility on both sides!

      • Thanks Simon. Appreciate it. Will definitely head back to China in the future as I want to go to Guilin and some other locations. Bizarrely just received National Geographic Traveller and this months edition features the places I want to go

  6. Thanks for that, Anne – one day, I hope to get out there… I’ll probably be quite old and crotchety then, so will likely just shout loudly, tut a lot and tell people I’m bloody British 😂

    Malta, by the way, won’t be happening. Our tier point runs will be Lanzarote next month and Iceland in January. After booking the latter, everyone has told me two things:

    1) it’s beautiful
    2) it’s bloody extensive!

    • Hi Simon, Iceland is definitely gorgeous but expensive. I don’t really remember how bad it was as it’s over ten years since I went and I think it has got a lot worse since then. The blue lagoon is utterly exorbitant but that aside, it has to be done. You cannot visit Iceland and miss out on that. Where are you heading?

      • Reykjavik- usual attractions booked and cramming it in, as it’s just a long weekend.

        Might take some packed lunches… 😉

        • Ha ha I’m sure you can pack some spam in your luggage! Maybe a few bottles of wine too!

          I’ve recently booked Kiev for a long weekend at easter and am looking forward to that one. Our passports expire next year so can also finally book Beirut which looks amazing

  7. Great post, I remember the Terracotta Warriors like this and looking back it was mad ! This is why for certain countries, I book a tour. And someone else looks after me !

    • I don’t blame you. Sometimes it is nice for someone else to organise stuff but I hate being herded around in groups so I don’t think it will be for me just yet.

  8. I would also say that if you have T-Mobile you can access any of the banned sites like google and Facebook in china. The only bad part of it. Is it’s just 2g so it will make browsing a bit hard on certain apps like Facebook and insta

    • Ooh Dustin thanks for that great tip. I’m kicking myself as I’ve just found out my VPN subscription has not expired and so I could have used it doing our stay! Doh!

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