Before You Visit China: The Essential Information
This chapter contains the essential information required to transform China reverie into China reality. By the end of the chapter you should have a good understanding of how to make a China trip happen, as well as some indicative ideas on where to visit.
1、When to Go
This isn’t visiting Mediterranean Europe. There is no single best time to go. China can be perfect at all months of the year. It could also be avoided at all months of the year. Climatic regional differences are more pronounced than any other country in the world. So while one region is enjoying its prime visitor season, another is inaccessible due to mountains of show. Rural China will be -40oF in winter. Hong Kong midsummer hovers around 100oF. So think less about the ideal time to visit China and more about the ideal time to visit the destinations you’re most interested in. Best and worst seasons are included in the Where to Go section below.
As a general rule, summers in China are hot. Even the snowy summits can’t disguise temperatures that roast in the 80’s and 90’s. Summer is also the peak travel season due to local student holidays. Domestic tourists far outnumber foreign tourists in most of China, and this rush to explore the country is most apparent during summer. Winter is obviously colder. That makes some destinations inaccessible, but also brings central and southern China into pleasant and dry weather. Spring and fall are somewhere in between.
2、Planning an Itinerary
A China trip could last a few days. It could also last a few years. In reality, your trip is going to be somewhere in between. Despite the rapid improvements in transport, long journeys are likely to feature highly in any trip. Being overly optimistic and cramming dozens of destinations into two weeks invariably results in too many bored hours sat on a train or plane. Another major consideration is the size of most destinations. Most cities are on gargantuan proportions and it’s difficult to see anything if you’re just around for one day. Likewise, the natural attractions are vast and not easily glimpsed from afar. The best side of China is found when you really explore. And in this case, you can explore more by planning to do less.
In one week it’s advisable to stick to a single region. With two weeks you could also stay in one region. However, with more time it’s easy to immerse yourself in more than one region. Each of the destination chapters contains different itineraries, one covering the classic trip and others going more off the beaten track. These are based around the region’s transport hub and major city, like Shanghai or Hong Kong. These hubs are important because they’re almost unavoidable. This is where you’ll find airports with excellent domestic connections, and railway stations with lines scattering into all corners of the country.
3、Getting to China
Three major airports provide the most common entry to China. These are Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. International flights arrive from every continent and these hubs provide easy onward connection to anywhere in the country. Three other airports offer an alternative, each of them rapidly expanding and good choices for trips in the south: Guangzhou, Chongqing, and Chengdu.
As the domestic air network continues to spread its wings, arriving at any of these airports ensures that you can reach virtually any destination in China within a day. Budget airlines are beginning to operate, drastically reducing the cost and time of traveling cross country. It’s usually cheaper to find flights to one of the major airports and then book domestic connections separately, than find an airline that will offer the complete package.
It generally comes as a huge surprise, but China’s network of youth hostels are amongst the best in the world. They’re clean, affordable, indelibly social, and the best place to meet locals who can speak English. In many ways they’re a throwback to the original concept of youth hostels, offering a haven where travelers can come together and share the experiences. Prices vary across the country but expect to pay around $10-15 for a dorm bed and $30-40 for a double in the East. It could be less than half this price the further you travel west. Most travelers are surprised at the quality. In a country stereotyped for dirt, you might expect the hostels to be uncomfortably squalid. Which certainly isn’t true.
Budget hotels offer rooms for a similar price and they generally do their best to reconfirm the stereotypes and preconceptions. You’d be hard pressed to find a traveler who preferred budget hotels to hostels. Similarly, you’d struggle to justify spending more for a mid-range hotel. While the price increase may bring a bigger room, the lack of other travelers and limited English can be a frustration. Note that the majority of hotels are built to cater for a local business and tourist market. Think blaring televisions in each room and restaurants filled with smoke. It’s only at the high-end that services become more tailored towards foreign tastes.
In a country with the challenges of China, it’s the hostels that help keep people sane and offer a platform for an invaluable sharing of information. Other travelers are the chief source of up to date travel knowledge and over oodles of green tea they spread their stories. China’s hostels are predominantly staffed by young English speaking locals, often the ones that idolize the West and would much rather spend their time hanging out with foreigners. They are also invaluable in assisting with local travel plans. Many hostels collaborate together, so one hostel books your bed in the next destination, and so on and so on for months at a time. So while travel itineraries are very different, it’s common to bump into the same faces somewhere down the line. Populating China’s hostels are an eclectic bunch of travelers, everything from European families to retired Irish ladies, and gap year youngsters to middle-aged couples. China attracts a vast mix of nationalities and friendships are often forged over a communal hostel meal.
Towards the top end of the market, China has been building many tourist focused hotels and resorts. These are geared towards foreign and higher-end Chinese markets, in particular, visitors on short organized tours. They’re good value when compared to similar standard hotels in Europe and the US. Expect to pay $70 – 120 for a double. Most destinations have at least a couple of options. Further up the scale, the high-end hotels and resorts are also better value than Europe but you’ll have to pay for the luxury.
While it sounds daunting, local transport is also one of the great attractions of China. Yes the journeys are long, but just imagine how long they could have been. In general, visitors always have options.
Chinese Trains The vast train network provides the mainstay of long- distance travel in China. Around a quarter of the world’s total rail traffic is in China, a remarkable ode to the efficiency and complexity of the railways. The high-speed express lines in the east are amongst the fastest in the world, while the slower intercity services still hurtle along at around 80mph. Delays are very rare (certainly when compared to Europe), as the tracks cut across great swathes of the country. Furthermore, ticket prices are controlled by government to ensure the general population can afford to travel.
Most valuable to travelers is the preference for scheduling direct services to run overnight, maximizing time spent in a destination and meaning a saving in accommodation costs. Other than the 180mph lines that hurtle down the East Coast and inland to Guangzhou and Xian, you’re likely to be traveling overnight China has a variety of train types, from the new G-series to the old K-series, each going a slightly different speeds. There’s little point detailing them: the best bet is likely to be the quickest service to your destination. As a general rule, the trains are faster in the east and older in the west.
On most train services there are five classes. Also on board you’ll find a restaurant car and a couple of obsequious vendors wandering around with trolleys of snacks.
6、Traveling by Air
Airlines are cropping up all over China, leaving traveling with a sometimes baffling range of choice. The three main carriers are the international ones: Air China, China Southern, and China Eastern. Regional cities have added their domestic brands with every city seeming to roll out a plane and claim to have an airline: like Hainan Airlines, Shanghai Airlines, Hong Kong Airlines, Sichuan Airlines…you get the picture. While the major cities are obvious hubs, almost every state now has a well connected airport. Flying is cheap and quick and there is no longer a corner of China that isn’t connected.
7、Traveling by Road
Foreigners aren’t permitted to drive in China, unless they pass a local driving test and jump through a hundred administrative hoops. So a hire car is out of the question. Private hire taxis become an affordable means of transport when the cost is shared between a few passengers. Anywhere within a couple of hours drive should be affordable if you’re not solely picking up the bill.
Chinese buses are sometimes the only transport in mountainous regions. These can often be filled with cigarette smoke and cling to the edge of precipitous cliffs. Overcrowding is common, but not what it once was. In general, the more recognized the route, the better quality of bus. In rural areas, expect many preconceptions of Asian bus travel to be realized. They’re crowded, uncomfortable, painfully slow yet driven with dangerous abandon, and always a memorable experience. More so than with trains, deciphering your destination at a bus station can be complicated and confusing. Memorizing the symbols for your destination is essential.
In other areas, there’s absolutely no reason to go by bus rather than train: cost, comfort, safety and reliability, are all in favor of the railways.
Taxis are found everywhere. In cities they have standardized meters and costs. In other destinations, prices need to be negotiated and agreed in advance. Hostels usually have a couple of reliable English speaking drivers they use with set prices.
8、Getting a Visa
Almost all Western visitors to China will need to arrange a visa in advance. Embassy officials don’t ask many questions and the process is simple enough, as long as you’re near to a Chinese embassy. Visit the embassy, fill out the application form, pay the fee, and leave your passport. You may have to “prove” you’re a tourist, but this rarely requires more than writing down the destinations you intend to visit (although it’s slightly stricter for US citizens). Different embassies have vastly different processing times. Some will take a few days, others a few weeks. There will also be options to pay an additional fee to get your visa express.
A standard tourist visa will be valid for 30 days and must be used within three months of the date of issue. A double entry visa will usually be valid for two visits of up to 30 days within a six month period. However, neither of these are absolutely guaranteed and there are reports are visitors being given less time. For longer China trips a double or even multiple entry visas is worth the extra money.
Many travel agents and tour companies can obtain Chinese visas for an additional cost. The $50 is usually worth it considering you don’t have to travel to your capital city and wait in the embassy. Add on extra costs for having your passport sent by recorded mail.
Once in the country, it’s possible to extend a tourist visa for another 30 days at any of the regional administrative capitals. This is a relatively simple process but does take a few working days, which can mean a bored stopover if you arrive at the weekend.