Although China doesn’t have the best air quality, they do have some amazing sites to see, the most famous being the Great Wall which is an incredible site. If you make it there, definitely visit Beijing and Shanghai and if you can, visit Xi’An (to see the Terracotta Warriors) and Chengdu (to see the Pandas).
When to Go
The best time to visit China is in the spring or fall as the summer and winters bring extreme weather conditions. April, May, September and October are the best months to visit. Also, be aware of the Chinese New Year (Jan/Feb) and Golden Week (Oct) holidays as the big cities get very busy with local tourists from other Chinese towns and many businesses close. If you do end up visiting during these holidays, make sure to plan your sightseeing days ahead of time as most of the tickets/tours will sell out.
There are many international flights into Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou from the US and Canada. You can fly direct from many of the large cities in Canada and the US. If you are traveling within China though, use http://ctrip.com to book domestic flights as you will find much better prices than Kayak or Expedia since it also includes local airlines within the search. For example a flight from Beijing to Shanghai will show $150-180US as the cheapest price on Kayak as opposed to $60-80US on Ctrip. Hainan Airlines is a great local airline – on the flights from Beijing to Shanghai, you get your own TV as well as a meal. Another way to travel within China is by train, but it will take you more than twice the time to fly and you can likely find a cheaper flight.
All travelers need a tourist visa before they enter China. Your passport needs to be valid for at least 6 months before you enter the country and there must be blank visa pages available. When you go submit your request for a visa, you will need to bring:
- Your original passport, and if renewed within the last few years, you will also need your previous passport
- A photocopy of the photo page of your passport
- The Visa Application Form of the People’s Republic of China (Form2013), filled out and signed
- One recently taken passport photo (bare-head, full face) against a light background (size: 48mm x 33mm) stamped with the date on the back
- Documents showing the itinerary including air ticket booking record (round trip) AND proof of a hotel reservation or an invitation letter issued by a relevant entity or individual in China. The invitation letter should contain:
- Information on the applicant (full name, gender, date of birth, etc.)
- Information on the planned visit (arrival and departure dates, place(s) to be visited, etc.)
- Information on the inviting entity or individual (name, contact telephone number, address, official stamp, signature of the legal representative or the inviting individual)
If you are backpacking and are not sure of the exact hostels/flights you will be taking, purchase a refundable airline ticket and book a hotel that you can cancel once you get the visa for the application. You need to show both of these when applying.
For Canadian passport holders, it will cost $145 CAD for all types of visas ($105 for the visa and $40 for the service fee). If approved, the visa you will get is usually a multiple entry (up to 60 day per entry) visa until the year your passport expires. For American passport holders, it is a bit more expensive. It will cost $240US for all visa types ($200 for the visa and $40 for the service fee). You pay this fee when you pick up your passport and must pay it even if you get denied.
The Chinese Consulate is quite fast with the regular service processing time for a visa is 4 business days. Express service is 2 business days (with visa pickup on 3rd business day) for an additional fee of $55CAD/US, and rush service is 1 business day (with visa pickup on 2nd business day) for an additional fee of $90CAD/US (including additional service fees). If you are applying for a visa at the end of January or beginning of February, make sure to take into account the Chinese New Year holiday as I’m not sure if they work those days.
You can find the nearest location to apply in person for the visa here: http://www.visaforchina.org/. Make sure to book an appointment before heading over to the office though so you are not waiting for hours.
Before You Go
- Many of the websites we use on a daily basis are blocked in China. So make sure to download a VPN before you head into the country if you want to use these sites. Most of the big hotels have VPN’s built into their internet already but if you want to be connected at all times, I would recommend purchasing one. You can find a few online for free or for very cheap but the best one is ExpressVPN. It is an app you can download on multiple devices and always works. It will cost you $12US for the month, but it is worth it if you are the type of person that needs to be connected to social media and news. Websites that are banned in China include:
- All Google owned sites including Gmail, YouTube, Google maps and Google docs
- Social media sites: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter
- Media sharing sites: Dropbox, Vimeo, SoundCloud
- News sites: Bloomberg, BBC, The Economist, TIME, Blogspot
- Download a Chinese/English translation app to help you communicate with locals. Waygo or iVoice Translator Pro are good choices.
- When taking taxis make sure you have the Chinese address of your destination written down as most taxi drivers don’t speak English.
- A variety of electrical outlets can be found in China, including Type A, the ones we are used to in North America. Type C (rounded two pronged) outlets can also be found but the most common one seen is the Type I, a 3 pronged flat blade plug in the shape of an inverted V. The electric voltage is 220V, 50Hz alternating current.
- There is no tipping in China.
- Do not drink the tap water. Always buy bottled water.
- Bring lots of hand sanitizer and small tissue packs. China isn’t the cleanliest place and most public restrooms may not have toilet paper or soap.
- Be aware that most public toilets are squat toilets so take advantage of the places that you know have western toilets.
- The Chinese culture is quite different than the Western culture that we are used to. Here are a few Do’s and Don’ts while visiting China:
- When presenting and receiving gifts or business cards, use both hands.
- If wrapping a gift, be aware that the color of the wrapping matters. Red is lucky, pink and yellow represent happiness and prosperity, and white, grey and black are funeral colors.
- Attempt to use chopsticks, even if you don’t know how.
- If you are a guest at a lunch or dinner, wait to be seated.
- Negotiate for everything with street vendors. Start with 10-20% of the asking price and you may get that or even lower as most vendors will try to get the most from tourists. If you tell them your best price and walk away, they will likely give it to you at that price.
- Do not place a business card in your wallet or bag after receiving it. Place it on the table for the duration of the meeting as it is considered impolite to do otherwise.
- Avoid physical contact when meeting new people.
- Gifts to avoid: white or yellow flowers (as they are used for funerals), pears (considered bad luck), clocks of any kind (signifies end of life), knives/scissors etc. (implies severing a relationship).
- Don’t stick your chopsticks in your rice bowl as this is what is done when someone dies.
- Leave chopsticks on the chopstick stand and not across the bowl.
Currency and Payment
The Chinese currency is officially called Yuan (¥) but in China you will notice that they only use RMB (Ren Min Bi), which is the same as Yuan. $1USD is equal to about 6.6RMB and $1CAD is equal to 5.1RMB. You must bring your passport when exchanging money. Also, money exchange booths are not easy to find on the streets. Major credit cards are accepted in most of the larger stores and restaurants. However, ask first because sometimes the Visa sign in smaller shops only refers to locally issued credit cards. Taxis don’t take credit card here and when shopping in the markets and bargaining, make sure you have enough cash and smaller bills as well.
When receiving change from vendors in the markets and taxi drivers, check to make sure that the bills they gave you aren’t fake. Many tourists will find themselves with fake bills that they cannot use because of this. Also, if you give a large bill to a taxi driver, make sure you keep an eye on it because sometimes they will exchange them for fake bills and give them back to you and tell you that they are fake.
Taxis are not very expensive here and it is a good way to get around when you are going to places that the metro doesn’t stop at. They only take cash though and most taxi drivers don’t speak English so make sure you have the address of your destination written down in Chinese. Another good thing to do is mark the destination ahead of time on a map (maps.me is a good app that works well in China) and to show the driver this as well.
The airport is quite far from the city center, and it can take up to an hour and fifteen minutes in a taxi to travel the 32km if you hit bad traffic. A taxi from the airport will cost you around 90-120RMB, depending on where you go and how the traffic is at that time. Make sure that you don’t take a black taxi though as they are unofficial and will try to charge you as much as 500RMB to go to the city center. They usually are standing right outside the exit of the airport so just make sure you head to the taxi line. Also make sure that the taxi puts on the meter. The best way to get into the city from the airport is by metro, via the Airport Express Line. It takes about 20 minutes and costs 25RMB. It runs from about 6:30am to 11pm. The metro lines cover most of the city. You can buy a card to refill and if you are traveling only a few stops away, it will likely only cost between 4-6RMB. The most you will pay is 12-15RMB if you are crossing the city.
What to Do
- Take a walk along the Great Wall – go to the Mutianyu gate and purchase a ticket for the chair lift up and the toboggan ride down! If it is raining though, the toboggan won’t be open. Entrance to the Great Wall will cost you around $25US.
- Visit the Forbidden City (The Palace Museum) – buy tickets ahead of time to this UNESCO World Heritage Site as they sell out quickly. You can buy them here: http://gugong.228.com.cn./. It costs 60RMB per person to enter April-Oct, and 40RMB during Nov-March. Student with valid ID can enter for 20RMB. There is also a Treasure Museum and Watch Museum on site (that you have to pay extra for) but they aren’t really worth seeing for the price.
- Visit Jingshan Park if you want a good view of the Forbidden City.
- See the Temple of Heaven and walk around the surrounding park – ticket to enter is 20RMB. To rent an audio guide for the Temple of Heaven, it will cost you 40RMB plus a 50RMB deposit that you will get back once you return the guide.
- Visit the Summer Palace – this royal park is about 15km northwest of the city center and will cost 20-30RMB to enter depending on whether you visit during high season.
- Explore a Hutong – an Old Village where families still live and use shared public bathrooms as they don’t have any in their houses. Wangzuo Alley is a good Hutong to visit.
- Shop at the Silk Market – a large, now indoor, market that has everything from fake purses to electronics to any type of clothing. Make sure you bargain and pay no more than half the starting price here. Here are a few ballpark prices that you can get items for to give you an idea:
- Silk Scarves: $3-$4US each depending on quantity you purchase
- Boxers: $2-$2.50US each if you purchase 5 pairs
- Chopsticks: $3-4US for a box of 5 wooden chopsticks and holders with a nice design
- Glass Phone Screen Cover: $3 including installation
- Shop at the Houngqiao Market – located across from the Temple of Heaven, this is a good alternative to the Silk Market if you don’t want to make an additional stop to the Silk Market.
- Book a one or two day tour with China Highlights. Prices are not super cheap but if you are short on time, this may be a good thing to do as you won’t have to worry about purchasing tickets to each of the tourist attractions or getting from one place to another. Also, if the tours don’t fill up they may drop some of the prices a day or two before to sell them out.
- If you happen to visit during the first week of October and are a tennis fan, go check out the China Open, an ATP 500 tournament that attracts quite a few large players but doesn’t get too crowded.
Where to Eat and Drink
I didn’t get to explore many of the restaurants or bars in Beijing but here are a few notes I took:
- Da Wan Ju is a good local restaurant near the Temple of Heaven that is very reasonable and offers many local dishes.
- There is a good hot pot restaurant at the South Gate of the Temple of Heaven. I’m not sure of the name but it has a big yellow sign above with six green Chinese characters.
- Houhai Bar Street is a good place to eat dinner and have drinks.
- There isn’t one spot to go to for street food anymore. Mount Fujini Street was the area to go to but the government recently shut it down because of traffic.
The metro is the easiest way to get around the city and it is very cheap. Taxis are also pretty cheap and won’t hurt your budget if you take them every once in a while. As a reminder though, taxis only take cash and most taxi drivers don’t speak English so make sure you have the address of your destination written down in Chinese. Another good thing to do is mark the destination ahead of time on a map (maps.me is a good app that works well in China) and to show the driver this as well.
Shanghai has two airport, the Pudong Airport and the Honqiao Airport. If you are flying domestically, you will likely fly into Honqiao Aiport which is closer to the city. From here, you can take the metro into the city for only a few dollars. But when returning back to this airport to fly out, make sure you take Line 10 if you are flying out of terminal 1 as Line 2 doesn’t stop there.
Where to Stay
- Rock & Wood International Youth Hostel – great common areas and perfect if on a budget
- Penta Hotel – for a reasonably priced hotel with a good atmosphere
What to Do
- Walk along The Bund (Wai Tan) – famous for its colonial style architecture, The Bund’s 52 buildings represents many different architectural styles such as Gothic, Baroque, Roman, Renaissance, British and French. Here you will also find a great view of the Shanghai (Pudong) Skyline.
- Visit the Yu Garden – consists of a temple, a teahouse, and a zig-zagging bridge and is surrounded by shopping alleyways. Free to enter.
- Shop at the Hong Qiao Pearl Market – open from 10am-9pm, this market is probably the best for bargain shopping in Shanghai.
- Shop at AP Plaza – Shanghai’s biggest fake market located underground in the Science & Technology Museum Station Line 2.
- Explore Tianzifang – an old Chinese neighborhood located in the back alleys of buildings with shopping stalls, food stands and bars. Enter from Taikang Road.
- Walk though Xintiandi – an old Chinese neighborhood that has been modernized and now is home to high end restaurants and nice shops.
- Visit People’s Square which where the Shanghai Art Museum is located.
- If you have time, you can also visit the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center (Mori Building) and head to their observation decks. Take the ferry to Pudong from the Bund to get there.
Where to Eat and Drink
- El Patio and El Piso for Spanish food.
- Tianzifang area for some food stands and cool bars.
- Xintiandi for dining in higher end restaurants.
- Ye Shanghai restaurant, located in Xintiandi, for a fusion Shanghainese dinner. Get the hairy crab here if you go during October to December as this is when they are in season and are a specialty of Shanghai. Male crabs are better in October to the beginning of November, and female crabs are better mid-November to end of December.
- CJW (Cigar Jazz Wine) bar for drinks, located in Xintiandi. They have a live band every night.
- Yu Garden food court for local street food stands.
- Tree Lounge for drinks.
- Lao Wai Jie 101 street across from Pearl Market for pedestrian alley full of restaurants and bars.
- Peninsula Hotel on the Bund for traditional afternoon tea. This is expensive though.
Guangzhou is one of the biggest cities in China located in the south, a few hour drive from Hong Kong. Known for its jade and wood carvings, porcelain and embroidery, this city also is home to many car factories.
When to Go
There are many festivals celebrated in Guangzhou. Check to see if any of them fall within the time frame you are visiting the city. Some of the main festivals include:
- Lantern Festival (February)
- Lychee Festival (July)
- International Festival of Lights (September)
- International Food Festival (November)
The Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport is the second largest airport in the country, in terms of handling capacity. There are direct flights to here from many cities in North America including Toronto, Vancouver, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. From Asia, cities you can fly direct from include Bali, Osaka, Dubai, Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Seoul, Singapore and Yangon.
Located only 3 hours from Hong Kong, one of the easiest ways to get here is to take a car from Hong Kong. This is the most efficient way as a private car will take you door to door and you don’t have to exit the car for Hong Kong and Chinese immigration. This can get expensive though (around $300US for one way), but if there is a group of you, it might make more sense. There is also a high-speed train that takes 2 hours to get from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and there are about 12 trains that run daily. It will cost you 210RMB. Try to take the Hong Kong trains (Ktt) as opposed to the Chinese trains (25T) as these are cleaner and nicer. If coming from Beijing, there is a high-speed train (the longest in China) that can get you there in about 8 hours for 709RMB (second class seat). This sometimes is better than flying as it takes three and a half hours to fly plus the allocated airport time.
If you are only stopping through for the day or layover, you can store your luggage at the airport. There are many places to do this but there is a large one right across from the tourist info booth on the arrivals level. This is open 6am to 10pm. Costs vary depending on the size of your luggage but it isn’t expensive.
Guangzhou has 8 metro lines which cover most of the city. The metro is very easy to use and it is very cheap. From the airport, it will only take about 30-40 minutes (depending on where you are going) and about $2-3 US. Taxis are very cheap here as well (cheaper than Beijing and Shanghai) and won’t cost more than a few dollars to get around the city center.
What to Do
- Visit Yuexiu Park, famous for its stone statue of the Five Rams.
- Go see the Zhenhai Tower, the most historical and cultural landmark of the city.
- Go to the top of the Guangzhou TV Tower. At 600m tall. This is the tallest TV and sightseeing tower in China. Up top you will find the world’s highest free fall ride as well as a Ferris wheel.
- Take a river cruise down the Pearl River. You can do this during the day or at night and see all the lights. It lasts two hours and costs between 40-90RMB depending on which boat you go with.
- Go to the 70th floor Atrium lobby of the Four Season’s hotel for a great view of the TV Tower and city. If you have some time, sit and have a drink while you enjoy the view.
- There are a few nice hot springs around the area but it isn’t worth going to because the Chinese aren’t the cleanliest people. Save the hot springs for Japan J
Where to Eat
Cantonese food is my favorite type of Chinese food. Here are a few local foods you should try while visiting:
- Congee (rice porridge) is usually served for breakfast and there are a variety of toppings and flavors you can order.
- Rice Noodles
- Mango Juice
- Moon Cakes
Some good restaurants to try are:
- Hoi Fan Restaurant for traditional Cantonese at a very reasonable cost. There are a few around the city but the one in Canton Place is nice.
- Tiger Prawn for delicious Vietnamese.