“Ni chiguòle méiyou?” (“Have you eaten?”) seems like an unusual way of greeting someone, but only 15 years ago that was a common way of saying hello in China. Although food is still important, nowadays it’s more about “Ni chuan de shì shénme páizi?” (“What brand are you wearing?”) or more simply “Zenme yàng?” (“What’s up?”). China is a country that has cannonballed to modernity, and having grown up in Shanghai during the 90s, it has been phenomenal to witness the changes. Every time I return I’m drawn to it in a new way and find myself trying to convince others to go as well.
It’s impossible to be totally prepared for China, but that’s part of its charm. Embrace it, ride the wave, and have a read below for a few tips to make that ride a little smoother.
1. China is HUGE
I know this seems obvious but genuinely, China spans 5 time zones (although quite confusingly only sticks to one)! It’s easy to take for granted, and travellers often come up with a crammed schedule without realising the distances involved. Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai is a common loop, and it’s manageable, but give yourself time to enjoy it. I’d recommend just getting to know one region and then coming back - it’s worth the return journey.
2. Trains are way better than planes
China’s air network is very handy, but there can be severe delays. My advice is to ditch the planes and head for the trains. The train network is exceptional, and it’s definitely an experience in itself so give it a go, especially if you want to mingle. With all the new bullet trains you may even find it’s the quickest option. Buses are also brilliant, they’ll get you to all the places that trains miss out on and don’t be surprised if you’re sharing your seat with live-stock (in rural areas).
3. Bicycles are everywhere
In the words of Katie Melua… there are a hell of a lot of Bicycles! Everywhere you look there’ll be someone cycling - so get involved! A bicycle is your inner-city chariot and one way ticket to getting a little bit lost. Exploring the warren of lanes or the massive roads that tear through China’s cities is a serious adventure; definitely worth the sweat, tears and honking horns. You may get lost but there’ll be locals dying to help out. Bear in mind that bicycle parks will be rammed.
4. There’s a knack to queuing
There are crowds, and then there are CROWDS; China has the latter, and this can lead to massive queues. If you think you’re a seasoned queuer then think again, China takes the biscuit. There’ll definitely be a few pushes and shoves, but don’t get annoyed. Sharpen those elbows and accept the fact that someone will try and cut in. I’ve had many a Chinese friend remind me… “If you’re not kissing the person's head in front of you, then you’re not part of the queue.”
5. Chinese food is not just dumplings, rice and noodles (and there’s an etiquette to eating!)
The diversity of Chinese food is unreal. From pork dumplings and fried flying-fish, to lamb stews and beef kebabs, curried crabs and crispy crickets, there’s a serious amount to choose from so don’t just stick to what you know, try everything and be adventurous. However, before you tuck into that tofu there’s a couple of things to bear in mind. Always leave a bit of food on your plate to show that you’re full, and never stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice - this indicates that you’re offering it to the spirit of a dead person, a serious no-no.
6. Websites and apps may well be blocked
This sometimes catches travellers out and can be quite frustrating, particularly when you need to work or contact people. If you need to stay connected make sure you plan well (using VPNs/other websites). Or you could always just embrace the freedom!
7. Chinese fashion is pretty interesting
If you’re up for something a little different, travel to China with just the clothes on your back. You’ll find everything you need out there, and you’ll likely come back with the most phenomenal new outfits. China’s big cities are serious fashion hubs so you’ll find all the big brands and get some serious bargains. You may even find yourself wearing (or being forced to wear) the unexpected.