Here we go, fully ramping up the blogging now. I headed back into the depths of my drafts and found this post I wrote whilst I was in China, at the very start of my travels last August. Not sure why I didn’t hit publish at the time but now it feels very apt to post after my recent To Plan or Not to Plan.
So where to start?!
My two year Chinese visa was about to expire so it made sense that this vast country be my first stop on my new adventure and I’ve still only just touched the surface.
The last time I was in Beijing was back in October 2016. I was on a short Intrepid tour which took in the major sights of Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. I kept thinking throughout that whole tour I would never be able to travel across China independently. Train travel seemed highly complicated, felt like there were barely any signs in English, we couldn’t even read our train tickets and rarely came across English speakers. But there I was… doing it independently… for 17 days… and with Papa Watson in tow! We took trains between Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu and then because of the pure vastness of the country we booked internal flights between Chengdu, Zhangjiajie and Guangzhou.
With the thought that China might be nearly impossible to navigate by ourselves I did what I do best, nooooo not panic… planning! Those that know me will know how much I love this, the aim for the “big trip” is not to plan too much in detail so for China I was in my element. What I didn’t realise fully at the time was that it is quite essential for everything to go smoothly. For a start, you need to have flight and hotel confirmations to be able to apply for your Chinese visa (although we only needed this for Papa Watson as my two year visa was still valid). So an itinerary had to be planned. Of course once you have the visa you can always change your itinerary and hotel reservations (make sure they are changeable) but I was pretty set on our itinerary at that stage and we only booked the trip 4 weeks before departure! I booked trains, internal flights and day trips to the Great Wall & Terracotta Army all online through Trip.com before we left. Honestly, maybe it’s just me being the planner that I am but as I’m writing this at the end of our trip I can hand on heart say that the whole trip went seamlessly to plan and without the prep beforehand and during I’m not so sure how smooth it would have been.
Throughout our trip I still can’t believe how much China has changed (in my eyes) in such a short space of time. In two years…..
- Beijing had blue skies – I had only seen it under an orange musty polluted glow before.
- Majority of the vehicles in Beijing are now electric but Beijing is still grid locked 99% of the time.
- There is far less spitting (in the big major cities). When I did see (or rather hear) it, it would be into a bin or they would go down a side street – no longer was I doing a quick side step out of the way.
- A lot of signs are in English. Some are left over from the Beijing Olympics and now the city is gearing up for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
- Announcements on trains and metros are in Chinese and then English. Even on buses (mostly).
- English is now the second language taught in schools, it certainly felt like we came across a lot more English speakers than I had done before and if they didn’t a translation app was always on hand. Goes without saying that everyone’s English was a gazillion times better than my Mandarin.
- We were barely photographed or video’d. This seemed incessant the last time I was in China. Maybe it was because we were in a larger group last time, or maybe I’ve learnt to ignore the sneaky picture taking this time.
- The metros / subways in the major cities are constantly being built and expanded. Travel guide books are only published every few years or so and you’ll find most talking about Chengdu’s metro system being built. It’s now totally functional – all lines!
- On the flip side the queueing was much much worse. But it was peak season. We queued for at least two hours per “attraction”, sometimes that was to just do a few seconds walk past – like seeing Mao “resting” or the baby panda cubs in Chengdu. We learnt how to queue the Chinese way very quickly too – never leave a gap between you and the people in front – before you know it about 300 people will have cleared past you. In turn, learn to do as the locals do.
- Security is a lot more heightened. Our bags and person were constantly being scanned – entrance to most tourist spots, metros, train and bus stations.
Of course these observations are all related to major cities. It is very different if you go outside of these but regardless, my thought of not being able to travel easily around China independently was most definitely proven wrong. For me it took planning and researching everything – even down to “how do you catch a train from Beijing West Station” & “how do I pick up a train ticket”. All the things that you think are simple take some working out and the more you research the easier it is. Whilst signs are in English and people speak some English, sign language and picture pointing is still common practice to communicate but everyone is helpful – even if they can’t speak English they will often find someone who will.
Now we’ve established I’m a researcher (see previous post) here are a few things to get you started if you’re planning on travelling to China solo and independently.
What an age we live in! No longer am I sat pouring over my guide books (although I still have the Lonely Planet guide downloaded on my Kindle), we literally have everything at our fingertips. Everything….. along as you have a VPN to crack the Great Firewall of China. I couldn’t access the App Store in China so it helps to try and download these free apps before you leave your country.
If you want to use your time in China as a digital detox then you’ve come to the right place! Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, WhatsApp, Google etc are all blocked in China. However, if you want (need) to get connected, download a VPN of your choice before you get to China. I use Psiphon, which is free and has served me well.
SUBWAY / METRO MAPS
Of course you can spend time looking over the vast networks of subway lines trying to pin point where on the map your chosen destination is and what the best route is OR you can download a free app for whichever city you’re in and that can do the hard work for you. I grew up pouring over the London Underground map working out my routes but I know what things will help me in the long run in unfamiliar territory (and unfamiliar language)!
Download Chinese so you can use it offline. Also, download a few phrases that you might think you may need so you can open the app and point to the translation. I have used “I am vegetarian” translation in almost every restaurant.
Literally a life saver! Google Maps doesn’t work, unless you have a VPN. I managed to navigate us around each place so easily using Maps.Me. I downloaded the local area maps of all of the cities we were visiting and saved a pin for all of the hotels so then we can map routes from there easily and check out the surrounding area for any attractions and restaurants. Maps.Me works offline.
This is the Chinese version of WhatsApp & Apple pay all in one. I didn’t set up the payment option when I downloaded it as I didn’t realise that everyone pays for everything with WeChat. It wasn’t necessarily needed but I used the messaging service to contact Chinese guides we had for day trips to confirm times etc. It is also used as a log in to free WiFi hot spots in places like railway stations and airports so it helps to get connected.
Same as Uber. I didn’t use it as I didn’t have data so had to rely on WiFi, which to be fair is quite accessible.
I used Trip.com to book our trains, some internal flights and day trips to the Great Wall and Terracotta Army. So simple to use as a research tool and for booking journeys and tours.
Then the usual helpful ones….
Currency converter, weather app, compass (not that I’ve ever used it but you never know!), and the apps of any booking agents you may have used – Expedia, Booking.Com, HostelWorld etc.
NON APP RELATED
Come armed with the hotel name and address translated into Chinese. I booked most of our accommodation through Expedia which have a helpful tool of translating the hotel address into Chinese. I think you have to be online for it work though so either take a screenshot before you leave or I went old school and printed them all out like little business cards so I can hand them to taxi drivers. You may laugh but believe me, you won’t get very far if the details are in English!!
That’s about all except for possibly one of the most important things – come with an open mind and remember that China won’t be like your home country. It will be different and frustrating at times – observe, learn and just go with it.