China—old and new—is a feast for the senses. The vast, awe-inspiring landscapes run the gamut from river deltas, subtropical jungles, and deserts to pulsing megacities with space-age skylines. Tranquil palaces and fog-wrapped mountain peaks evoke the Taoist philosophers of yesteryear. Hong Kong’s and Beijing’s dizzying modernity exhilarates city culture vultures. Full of diverse peoples and traditions, this fast-changing country reveals its riches to travelers who seek them out, from foodies on a quest for the best dumplings to explorers trekking the Silk Road.
Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong are China’s three major international hubs. You can catch nonstop or one-stop flights to Beijing from New York (13¾ hours), Chicago (13–14 hours), San Francisco (11½–12½ hours), Los Angeles (11½–13 hours), London (10½–11½ hours), and Sydney (14–16 hours). Though most airlines say that reconfirming your return flight is unnecessary, some local airlines cancel your seat if you don’t reconfirm.
Airline and Airport Links.com. Airline and Airport Links.com has links to the websites of many of the world’s airlines and airports. www.airlineandairportlinks.com.
If you are flying to China on a SkyTeam airline (Delta, for example), consider the Go Greater China Pass, which covers 148 destinations in China, including Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. After you purchase your international ticket to mainland China or Taiwan on a SkyTeam member airline, you can take between 3 and 16 flights within China on China Airlines, China Southern, China Eastern, or Xiamen Airlines. If you are a member of a frequent-flier program, these flights will count toward miles. The price of the pass is between $270 and $1,300, depending upon the distance you plan to fly.
Beijing, Xiamen, and Hong Kong are three of the cities included in the OneWorld Alliance Visit Asia Pass. Cities are grouped into zones, and a flat rate is levied for each flight based on the zone in which the city is located. It doesn’t include flights from the United States, however. Inquire through American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, or any other OneWorld member. It won’t be the cheapest way to get around, but you’ll be flying on some of the world’s best airlines.
Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) is Northern China’s main hub, 20 miles northeast of the Beijing city center. Plans are underway to have a new airport built in Beijing by October 2018 that will handle domestic flights. Shanghai has two airports: Pudong International Airport (PVG) is newer and flashier than Hongqiao International Airport (SHA), but Hongqiao is more efficient and closer to downtown. The main hub in southern China is the sleek and modern Hong Kong International Airport (HKG), also known as Chek Lap Kok.
There are also international airports at Guangzhou (CAN), Kunming (KMG), Xiamen (XMN), Shenzhen (SZX), Xi’an (XIY), Chengdu (CTU), and Guilin (KWL), among others.
Clearing customs and immigration in China can take a while, especially in the morning, so arrive at least two hours before your scheduled flight time.
While you’re wandering through Chinese airports, someone may approach you offering to carry your luggage, or even just give you directions. Be aware that this “helpful” stranger will almost certainly expect payment. Many of the X-ray machines used for large luggage items aren’t film-safe, so keep film in your carry-on if you’re still using a non-digital camera.
Flights To and From China
Air China is China’s flagship carrier. It operates nonstop flights from Beijing and Shanghai to various North American and European cities. Although it once had a sketchy safety record, the situation has improved dramatically, and it is now part of the Star Alliance of airlines worldwide. Don’t confuse it with the similarly named China Airlines, which is operated out of Taiwan.
Air Canada has daily flights to Beijing and Shanghai from Toronto, and daily flights to Hong Kong from Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver. Cathay Pacific flies to Beijing via Hong Kong. China Eastern and China Southern airlines fly from China to the West Coast of the United States. Japan Airlines and All Nippon fly to Beijing via Tokyo. United flies to Beijing and Shanghai.
Air China is the major carrier for domestic routes, flying to more than 180 cities in China. Its main rivals are China Southern and China Eastern. Smaller Shanghai Airlines has a growing number of national routes, mostly out of Shanghai.
The service on most Chinese airlines is on a par with low-cost American airlines—be prepared for limited legroom, iffy food, and possibly no personal TV. Always arrive at least two hours before departure, as chronic overbooking means latecomers just don’t get on. In southern China typhoons often ground airplanes, so be prepared for delays if you are traveling between July and October.
You can make reservations and buy tickets for flights within China through airline websites or with travel agencies. It’s worth contacting a travel agency to compare prices.
Bicycles are still the primary form of transport for millions of Chinese people, although the proliferation of cars and smog make biking in the cities a chore. Large cities like Beijing, Chengdu, Xi’an, Shanghai, and Guilin have well-defined bike lanes, often separated from other traffic. Travel by bike is common in the countryside around places like Guilin, for locals and tourists alike. Locals don’t use gears much—take your cue from them and just roll along at a leisurely pace. Note that bikes have to give way to motorized vehicles at intersections. If a flat tire or sudden brake failure strikes, seek out the nearest street-side mechanic (they’re everywhere), easily identified by their bike parts and pumps.
In major cities, some lower-end hotels and hostels rent bikes. Street-side bike rental stations are also proliferating. Otherwise, inquire at bike shops, hotels, or even corner shops. The going rental rate is Y15 to Y30 a day, plus a refundable deposit. You will usually be asked to leave some form of ID. Check the seat and wheels carefully.
Most rental bikes come with a lock, but they’re usually pretty low quality. Instead, leave your wheels at an attended bike park—peace of mind costs a mere Y0.50. Helmets are nearly unheard of in China, though upmarket rental companies catering to foreign tourists usually stock them. They charge much more for their bikes, but they’re usually in better condition.
If you’re planning a lot of cycling, note that for about Y150 to Y200 you can buy your own basic bike, though expect to pay three or four times that for a mountain bike with all the bells and whistles or for a “Flying Pigeon,” the classic heavy-duty model.
Bikes in Flight
Most airlines accommodate bikes as luggage, provided they are dismantled and boxed; check with individual airlines about packing requirements. Some airlines sell bike boxes, which are often free at bike shops, for about $20 (bike bags can be considerably more expensive).
Trains and planes are fast replacing China’s boat and ferry services. The China-Japan International Ferry Company operates the Shanghai Ferry Boat that has a weekly ferry every Tuesday to Kobe or Osaka. The company maintains an English-language website with timetables.
Four- to seven-day cruises along the Yangtze River are the most popular, and thus the most touristy of the domestic boat rides. Both local and international companies run these tours but shop around, as prices vary drastically.
China has some reasonably comfortable long-distance buses running between most major cities. These luxury coaches are equipped with air-conditioning, soft seats, and screens playing nonstop movies, usually at deafening levels. Bring earplugs if you can’t stand the noise.
Though securing a bus seat is easier than on a train, buying tickets can be complicated if you don’t speak Chinese—you may end up on one of the cramped, old-fashioned buses, much like school buses (or worse). The conditions on sleeper buses are especially dire. Taking a train or an internal flight is much easier and safer, especially in rural areas where bad road conditions make for dangerous rides. Bus breakdowns are also frequent.
Big cities often have more than one bus terminal, and some companies have their own private depots. Buses usually depart and arrive punctually, and service is frequent. To avoid hassles, buying tickets through your hotel is usually worth the small surcharge.
Driving yourself is not a possibility in mainland China, as the only valid driver’s licenses are Chinese ones. International Driver’s Permits (IDP) are not recognized by Chinese authorities. However, this restriction should be cause for relief, as city traffic is terrible, drivers manic and maniacal, and getting lost inevitably for first-timers. Conditions in Hong Kong aren’t much better, but you can drive there using a U.S. or international license.
A far better idea is to put yourself in the experienced hands of a local driver. All the same, consider your itinerary carefully before doing so—in big cities, taking the subway or walking is often far quicker. Reserve the car for excursions farther afield.
The quickest way to arrange for a car and driver is to flag down a taxi. If you’re happy with a driver you’ve used for trips around town, ask if you can hire him for the day. After some negotiating, expect to pay between Y350 and Y600, depending on the type of car. Most hotels can make arrangements for you, though they often charge you double that rate.
Another alternative is American car-rental agency Avis, which includes mandatory chauffeurs as part of all rental packages. A car and driver usually cost Y740 to Y850 ($118 to $136) per day. The company’s headquarters are in Shanghai, with locations in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Chengdu.
China’s enormous rail network is one of the world’s busiest. Though crowded, trains are usually safe, efficient, and run strictly to schedule. The high-speed rail system makes getting around the country very easy. In 2012, the Beijing–Guangzhou line opened, cutting travel time between the two cities from 30 hours to about 9 hours. At 1,428 miles, the line is the longest in the world.
There are certain intricacies to buying tickets, which usually have to be purchased in your departure city. You can buy most tickets up to 18 days in advance; 3 to 4 days ahead is usually enough time, except during the three national holidays—Chinese New Year (two days in mid-January–February), Labor Day (May 1), and National Day (October 1).
The cheapest place to purchase tickets is the train station, where they only accept cash and English is rarely spoken. In larger cities like Shanghai or Beijing, there is a special ticket window for foreigners with a staff that speaks some English. There are also train booking offices scattered around most cities. Fighting the crowds in train stations can be a headache—most travel agents or hotels will book your tickets for a small surcharge. Consider it money well spent! Travel China Guide has an online booking service that caters to foreigners. The company will deliver the tickets to your hotel or arrange for you to pick them up at the train station. Avoid the scruffy-looking individuals who try to sell you tickets outside the stations—these tickets are inevitably fake and could land you in trouble with the authorities.
The train system offers a glimpse of old-fashioned socialist euphemisms. There are four classes, but instead of first-class and second class, in China you talk about hard and soft. Hard seats (yingzuo) are often rigid benches guaranteed to numb the buttocks within seconds; soft seats (ruanzuo), common on short day trips, are more like the seats in long-distance American trains. For overnight journeys, the cheapest option is the hard sleeper (yingwo), open bays of six bunks, in two tiers of three. They’re cramped, but not uncomfortable; though you share the toilet with everyone in the wagon. Bedding is provided but you might want to take your own. Soft sleepers (ruanwo) are more comfortable: the closed compartments have four beds with bedding. Trains between Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Xi’an also have a deluxe class, with only two berths per compartment and private bathrooms. The nonstop Z-series trains are even more luxurious. Train types are identifiable by the letter preceding the route number: Z is for nonstop, T is for a normal express, and C, G, and D are high-speed trains.
Overpriced dining cars serve meals that are often inedible, so do as the locals do and use the massive thermoses of boiled water in each compartment for your own noodles or instant soup. Trains are always packed, but you are guaranteed your designated seat, though not always the overhead luggage rack. When you board a train, the staff will take away your ticket and give you a plastic card with your seat or bed number. When you disembark you give the plastic card to the attendant and receive your ticket back. Note that theft on trains is increasing; on overnight trains, sleep with your valuables or keep them on the inside of the bunk.
You can find out just about everything about Chinese train travel at Seat 61’s comprehensive website. China Highlights has a searchable online timetable for major train routes.
In China’s major cities you shouldn’t have any trouble getting online. Wi-Fi is growing exponentially—most hotels offer it for free. Many also have computer terminals in their business centers that you can use if you didn’t bring along a laptop. Internet cafés are ubiquitous in big cities, and are rapidly spreading to smaller destinations. Known as wang ba in Chinese, they’re not usually signposted in English, so ask your hotel to recommend one nearby. Prices (and cleanliness) vary considerably, but start at about Y3 to Y10 per hour.
Remember that there is strict government control of the Internet in China. Authorities frequently shut down Internet cafés, citing “spiritual pollution.” There’s usually no problem with accessing your email, but you may be unable to access news sites and even some blogs. To get around the restrictions, you can subscribe to a Virtual Private Network or use proxy servers to access certain sites. AnchorFree offers a free service called Hotspot Shield, although it includes annoying pop-up ads. More reliable VPN services, like those from WiTopia, cost about $50 a year for safe, fast surfing. If you’re going to be in China for a while, investing in a VPN is worthwhile.
The country code for China is 86; the city code for Beijing is 10, and the city code for Shanghai is 21. Hong Kong has its own country code: 852. To call China from the United States or Canada, dial the international access code (011), followed by the country code (86), the area or city code, and the eight-digit phone number.
Numbers beginning with 800 within China are toll-free. Note that a call from China to a toll-free number in the United States or Hong Kong is a full-tariff international call. If you need to call home, use your computer and a service like Skype. Be sure to download the U.S. version of Skype, because the Chinese TOM-Skype is constantly monitored by the government.
Calling Within China
The Chinese phone system is cheap and efficient. Local calls are usually free, and long-distance rates are very low. Calling from your hotel room is a good option, as hotels can only add a 15% service charge.
Chinese phone numbers have eight digits—that’s usually all you need to dial these when calling somewhere within the city. To call another city, dial 0, the city code, and the eight-digit phone number.
For directory assistance, dial 114. If you want information for other cities, dial the city code followed by 114 (this is considered a long-distance call). For example, if you’re in Beijing and need directory assistance for Shanghai, dial 021–114. The operators do not speak English, so if you don’t speak Chinese you’re best off asking your hotel for help.
Calling Outside China
To make an international call from within China, dial 00 (the international access code) and then the country code, area code, and phone number. The United States country code is 1.
IDD (international direct dialing) service is available at all hotels, post offices, major shopping centers, and airports. Simply dial 108 (the local operator) and the local access codes from China: 811 (southern China) or 888 (northern China) for AT&T, 12 for MCI, and 13 for Sprint. Dialing instructions in English will follow.
Calling cards are a key part of the Chinese phone system. There are two kinds: the IC card (integrated circuit; aicei ka), for local and domestic long-distance calls on payphones; and the IP card (Internet protocol; aipi ka) for international calls from any phone. You can buy both at post offices, convenience stores, and street vendors.
IC cards come in denominations of Y20, Y50, and Y100, and can be used in any payphone with a card slot—most urban payphones have them. Local calls using them cost around Y0.30 a minute, and less on weekends and after 6 pm.
IP cards come with face values of Y20, Y30, Y50, and Y100. The going rate for them might be half that, so bargain with the vendors. To use IP cards, first dial a local access number. You then enter a card number and a PIN, and finally the phone number, complete with international dial codes. There are countless different card brands; China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom are usually reliable.
If you have a tri-band GSM or a CDMA phone, pick up a local SIM card (sim ka) from any branch of China Mobile or China Unicom: there are often branches at international airports. You’ll be presented with a list of possible phone numbers, with varying prices—an “unlucky” phone number (one with lots of 4s) could be as cheap as Y50, whereas an auspicious one (full of 8s) could fetch Y300 or more. You then buy prepaid cards to charge minutes onto your SIM—do this straightaway, as you need credit to receive calls. Local calls to landlines cost Y0.25 per minute, and Y0.60 to cell phones. Rates can vary depending on the services you sign up for or add to your SIM. International calls from cell phones are very expensive.
Remember to bring an adapter for your phone charger. You can also buy cheap handsets from China Mobile—if you’re planning to stay even a couple of days this is probably cheaper than renting a phone.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
Except for the usual prohibitions against narcotics, explosives, plant and animal material, firearms, and ammunition, you can take anything into China that you plan to take away with you. Cameras, video recorders, GPS equipment, laptops, and the like should pose no problems. However, China is very sensitive about printed matter deemed seditious, such as religious, pornographic, and political texts, especially articles, books, and pictures of Tibet or Xinjiang. All the same, small amounts of English-language reading matter aren’t generally a problem. Customs officials are for the most part easygoing, and visitors are rarely searched. It’s not necessary to fill in customs declaration forms, but if you carry in a large amount of cash, say several thousand dollars, you should declare it upon arrival.
You’re not allowed to remove any antiquities dating to before 1795. Antiques from between 1795 and 1949 must have an official red seal attached—quality antique shops know this and arrange it.
In China, meals are really a communal event, so food in a Chinese home or restaurant is always shared—you usually have a small bowl or plate and take food from central platters. Although Western-style cutlery is often available, it won’t hurt to brush up on your use of chopsticks, the utensil of choice.
The standard eating procedure is to hold the bowl close to your mouth and shovel in the contents without any qualms. Noisily slurping up soup and noodles is the norm. Place bones or seeds in a small dish or on the table beside your bowl. It’s considered bad manners to point or play with your chopsticks, or to place them on top of your rice bowl when you’re finished eating (place the chopsticks horizontally on the table or plate). Avoid leaving your chopsticks standing up in a bowl of rice—they look like the two incense sticks burned at funerals.
If you’re invited to a formal Chinese meal, be prepared for great ceremony, endless toasts and speeches, and a grand variety of elaborate dishes. Your host will be seated at the “head” of the round table, which is the seat that faces the door. Wait to be instructed where to sit. Don’t start eating until the host takes the first bite, and then simply help yourself as the food comes around, but don’t take the last piece on a platter. Always let the food touch your plate before bringing it up to your mouth; eating directly from the serving dish is bad form.
Meals and Mealtimes
Food is a central part of Chinese culture, and so eating should be a major activity on any trip to China. Breakfast is not usually a big deal—congee, or rice porridge (zhou), is the standard dish. Most mid- and upper-end hotels do big buffet spreads, whereas café chains in major cities serve lattes and croissants.
Snacks are a food group in themselves. There’s no shortage of street stalls selling grilled meats, bowls of noodle soup, and the ubiquitous baozi (steamed buns stuffed with meat or veggies). Many visitors are hesitant to eat from stalls—you’d be missing out on some of the best nibbles around, though. Pick a place where lots of locals are eating to be on the safe side, and bring along your own chopsticks.
The food in hotel restaurants is usually acceptable but vastly overpriced. Restaurants frequented by locals always serve tastier fare at better prices. Don’t pass by establishments without an English menu—a good phrasebook and lots of pointing can usually get you what you want.
If you’re craving Western food (or sushi or curry), rest assured that big cities have plenty of international chain restaurants. Most higher-end Chinese restaurants have a Western menu, but you’re usually safer sticking to Chinese food.
Meals in China are served early: breakfast until 9 am, lunch between 11 and 2, and dinner from 5 to 9.
At most restaurants, you ask for the bill (mai dan) at the end of the meal, as you do back home. At cheap noodle bars and street stands you often pay up front. Only very upmarket restaurants accept credit cards.
Reservations and Dress
Regardless of where you are, it’s a good idea to make a reservation if you can. In some places (Hong Kong, for example), it’s expected. We only mention them specifically when reservations are essential (there’s no other way you’ll ever get a table) or when they are not accepted. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.) We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Forget tea, today the people’s drink of choice is beer. Massively popular among Chinese men, it’s still a bit of a no-no for Chinese women, however. Tsingtao, China’s most popular brew, is a 4% lager that comes in liter bottles and is usually cheaper than water. Many regions have their own local breweries, and international brands are available.
When you see “wine” on the menu, it’s usually referring to sweet fruit wines or distilled rice wine. The most famous brand of Chinese liquor is Maotai, a distilled liquor ranging in strength from 35% to 53% proof. Like most firewaters, it’s an acquired taste.
There are basically no licensing laws in China, so you can drink anywhere, and at any time, provided you can find a place to serve you.
The electrical current in China is 220 volts and 50 cycles alternating current (AC), so most American appliances can’t be used without a transformer. A universal adapter is especially useful in China, as wall outlets come in a bewildering variety of configurations: two- and three-pronged round plugs, as well as two-pronged flat sockets. Although blackouts are rare in Chinese cities, villages occasionally lose power for short periods of time.
Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and cell-phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts), so require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure.
If you lose your passport, contact your embassy immediately. Embassy officials can also advise you on how to proceed in case of other emergencies. The staff at your hotel may be able to provide an interpreter if you need to report an emergency or crime to doctors or the police. Most police officers and hospital staff members don’t speak English, though you may find one or two people who do.
Ambulances generally offer just a means of transport, not medical aid; taking a taxi is quicker, and means you can choose the hospital you want to go to. Where possible, go to a private clinic catering to expats—prices are sky-high, but their hygiene and medical standards are better. Most have reliable 24-hour pharmacies.
The most common types of illnesses are caused by contaminated food and water. Especially in developing countries, drink only bottled, boiled, or purified water and drinks; don’t drink from public fountains or ask for beverages with ice. You should even consider using bottled or boiled water to brush your teeth. Make sure food has been thoroughly cooked and is served to you fresh and hot; avoid vegetables and fruits that you haven’t washed (in bottled or purified water) or peeled yourself. If you have problems, mild cases of traveler’s diarrhea may respond to Imodium (known generically as loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids; if you can’t keep fluids down, seek medical help immediately. Tap water in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai is safe for brushing teeth, but buy bottled water to drink and check to see that the bottle is sealed.
Infectious diseases can be airborne or passed via mosquitoes and ticks and through direct or indirect physical contact with animals or people. Some, including Norwalk-like viruses that affect your digestive tract, can be passed along through contaminated food. If you are traveling in an area where malaria is prevalent, use a repellant containing DEET and take malaria-prevention medication before, during, and after your trip as directed by your physician. Condoms can help prevent most sexually transmitted diseases, but they aren’t absolutely reliable, and their quality varies from country to country. Speak with your physician and/or check the CDC or World Health Organization websites for health alerts, particularly if you’re pregnant, traveling with children, or have a chronic illness.
Shots and Medications
No immunizations are required for entry into China, but it’s a good idea to be immunized against typhoid and Hepatitis A and B before traveling, as well as to get routine tetanus-diphtheria and measles boosters. In winter a flu vaccination is also smart, especially if you’re infection-prone or are a senior citizen. In summer months malaria is a risk in tropical and rural areas, especially Hainan and Yunnan provinces—consult your doctor four to six weeks before your trip, as preventive treatments vary. The risk of contracting malaria in cities is small.
Specific Issues in China
At China’s public hospitals, foreigners need to pay fees to register, to see a doctor, and then for all tests and medication. Prices are cheap compared to the fancy foreigner clinics in major cities, where you pay $100 to $150 just for a consultation. However, most doctors at public hospitals don’t speak English, and hygiene standards out of the major cities can be low—all the more reason to take out medical insurance.
Hong Kong has excellent public and private health care. Foreigners have to pay for both, so insurance is a good idea. Even for lesser complaints, private doctors charge a fortune: head to a public hospital if money is tight. In an emergency you’ll always receive treatment first and get the bill afterward—Y570 is the standard ER charge.
The best place to start looking for a suitable doctor is through your hotel concierge, then the local Public Security Bureau. If you become seriously ill or are injured, it is best to fly home, or at least to Hong Kong, as quickly as possible. In Hong Kong, English-speaking doctors are widely available.
Pneumonia and influenza are common among travelers returning from China—talk to your doctor about inoculations before you leave. If you need to buy prescription drugs, try to go to the pharmacies of reputable private hospitals or to bigger chain stores like Watsons.
Most pharmacies in big Chinese cities carry over-the-counter Western medicines and traditional Chinese medicines. You usually need to ask for the generic name of the drug you’re looking for, not a brand name. Acetaminophen—or Tylenol—is often known as paracetamol in Hong Kong. In big cities, reputable pharmacies like Watsons are always a better bet than no-name ones.
HOURS OF OPERATION
Most banks and government offices are open weekdays 9 to 5 or 6, although closed for lunch (sometime between noon and 2). Some bank branches keep longer hours and are open Saturday (and occasionally Sunday) mornings. Many hotel currency-exchange desks stay open 24 hours. Museums open from roughly 9 to 6, six or seven days a week. Everything in China grinds to a halt for the first two or three days of Chinese New Year (sometime in mid-January to February), and opening hours are often reduced for the rest of that season.
Pharmacies are open daily from 8:30 or 9 to 6 or 7. Some large pharmacies stay open until 9 or even later. Shops and department stores are generally open daily 8 to 8; some stores stay open even later in summer, in popular tourist areas, or during peak tourist season.
National holidays in mainland China include New Year’s Day (January 1); Spring Festival aka Chinese New Year (late January/early February); Qingming Jie (April 4); International Labor Day (May 1); Dragon Boat Festival (late May/early June); anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (July 1); anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (August 1); and National Day—founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (October 1); Chongyang Jie or Double Ninth Festival (ninth day of ninth lunar month). Hong Kong celebrates most of these festivals, and also has public holidays at Easter and for Christmas and Boxing Day (December 25 and 26).
Sending international mail from China is extremely reliable. Airmail letters to any place in the world should take 5 to 14 days. Express Mail Service (EMS) is available to many international destinations. Letters sent within any city arrive the next day, and mail to the rest of China takes a day or two longer. Domestic mail can be subject to search, so don’t send sensitive materials such as religious or political literature, as you might cause the recipient trouble.
Service is more reliable if you mail letters from post offices rather than mailboxes. Buy envelopes here, too, as there are standardized sizes in China. You need to glue stamps onto envelopes, as they’re not self-adhesive. Most post offices are open daily between 8 am and 7 pm; many keep longer hours. Your hotel can usually send letters for you, too.
You can use the Roman alphabet to write an address. Do not use red ink, which has a negative connotation. You must also include a six-digit zip code for mail within China. Sending airmail postcards costs Y4.50 and letters Y5 to Y7.
Long-term guests can receive mail at their hotels. Otherwise, the best place to receive mail is at the American Express office. Most major Chinese cities have American Express offices with client-mail service. Be sure to bring your American Express card, as the staff will not give you the mail without seeing it.
It’s easy to ship packages home from China. Take what you want to send unpacked to the post office—everything will be sewn up officially into satisfying linen-bound packages, a service that costs a few yuan. You have to fill in lengthy forms—enclosing a photocopy of receipts for the goods inside isn’t a bad idea, as they may be opened by customs along the line. Large antique stores often offer reliable shipping services that take care of customs in China.
International courier services operating in China include DHL, Federal Express, and UPS—next-day delivery for a 1-kilogram (2.2-pound) package starts at about Y300. Your hotel can also arrange shipping parcels, but there’s usually a hefty markup.
China is a cheap destination by most North Americans’ standards, but expect your dollar to do more for you in smaller cities than in pricey Shanghai or Beijing. The exception to the rule is Hong Kong, where eating and sleeping prices are on par with those in the United States.
In mainland China, the best places to convert your dollars into yuan are your hotel’s front desk or a branch of a major bank, such as Bank of China, CITIC, or HSBC. These charge standardized government rates—anything cheaper is illegal, and thus risky. You need to present your passport to change money.
Prices throughout this guide are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
Although credit cards are gaining ground in China, for day-to-day transactions cash is definitely king.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank.
PINs with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in many countries. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
ATMs are widespread in major Chinese cities. The most reliable ATMs are at HSBC, which also have the highest withdrawal limit, which offsets transaction charges. Of the Chinese banks, your best bet for ATMs is the Bank of China, which accepts most foreign cards. That said, machines frequently refuse to give cash for mysterious reasons—move on and try another. On-screen instructions appear automatically in English.
ATMs are everywhere throughout Hong Kong—most carry the sign ETC instead of ATM. Subway stations are a good place to look.
American Express, MasterCard, and Visa are accepted at most hotels and a growing number of upmarket stores and restaurants. Diners Club is less widely accepted.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether or not he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.
Currency and Exchange
The Chinese currency is officially called the yuan (Y), and is also known as renminbi (RMB), or “People’s Money.” You may also hear it called kuai, an informal expression like “buck.”
Old and new styles of bills circulate in China, and many denominations have both coins and bills. The Bank of China issues bills in denominations of 1 (burgundy), 2 (green), 5 (brown or purple), 10 (turquoise), 20 (brown), 50 (blue or occasionally yellow), and 100 (red). There are 1-yuan coins, too. The yuan subdivides into 10-cent units called jiao or mao; these come in bills and coins of 1, 2, and 5. The smallest denomination is the fen, which comes in coins (and occasionally tiny notes) of 1, 2, and 5. Counterfeiting is rife in China, and even small stores inspect notes with ultraviolet lamps. Change can be a problem—don’t expect much success paying for a Y3 purchase with a Y100 note.
Exchange rates in China are fixed by the government daily, so it’s equally good at branches of the Bank of China, at big department stores, or at your hotel’s exchange desk. Any lower rates are illegal, so you’re exposing yourself to scams. A passport is required. Hold on to your exchange receipt, which you need to convert your extra yuan back into dollars.
In Hong Kong, the only currency used is the Hong Kong dollar, divided into 100 cents. Three local banks (HSBC, Standard Chartered, and the Bank of China) all issue bills and each has its own designs. There are no currency restrictions in Hong Kong. You can exchange currency at the airport, in hotels, in banks, and through private money changers scattered through the tourist areas.
Most Chinese people dress for comfort, so you can plan to do the same. There’s little risk of offending people with your dress: Westerners tend to attract attention regardless of their attire. Fashion capitals Hong Kong and Shanghai are the exceptions to the comfort rule: slop around in flip-flops and worn denims and you will feel that there’s a neon “tourist” sign over your head. Opt for your smarter jeans or pants for sightseeing there.
Sturdy, comfortable walking shoes are a must: go for closed shoes over sandals, as dust, rain and toe-stomping crowds make them impractical. Northern Chinese summers are dusty and baking hot, so slacks, capris, and sturdy shorts are best. A raincoat, especially a light Goretex one or a fold-up poncho, is useful for an onset of rainy weather, especially in Southern China. During the harsh winters, thermal long johns and thick socks are a lifesaver—especially in low-star hotel rooms.
That said, in urban centers you can prepare to be unprepared: big Chinese cities are a clothes shopper’s paradise. If a bulky jacket’s going to put you over the airline limit, buy one in China and leave it behind when you go. All the other woollies—and silkies, the local insulator of choice—you’ll need go for a song, as do brand-name jackets. Scarves, gloves, and hats, all musts, are also easy to find.
Most good hotels have reliable overnight laundry services, though costs can rack up on a long trip. Look outside your hotel for cheaper laundries, and bring some concentrated travel detergent for small or delicate items. Note that it’s often cheaper to buy things than have your own laundered, so if you’re even a little interested in shopping, consider bringing an extra, foldable bag for carting purchases home.
Keep packets of tissues and antibacterial hand wipes in your day pack—paper isn’t a feature of many Chinese restrooms, and you often can’t buy it in smaller towns. A small flashlight with extra batteries is also useful. The brands in Chinese pharmacies are limited, so take adequate stocks of your potions and lotions, feminine hygiene products (tampons are especially hard to find), and birth control. All of these things are easy to get in Hong Kong. You may also want to bring along a face mask to protect yourself from dust and pollution, especially in the smoggy winter months.
In your carry-on luggage, pack an extra pair of eyeglasses or contact lenses and enough of any medication you take to last a few days longer than the entire trip.
If you’re planning a longer trip or will be using local tour guides, bring a few inexpensive items from your home country as gifts. Popular gifts are candy, T-shirts, and small cosmetic items such as lipstick and nail polish—double-check that none were made in China. Be wary about giving American magazines and books as gifts, as these can be considered propaganda and get your Chinese friends in trouble.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
All U.S. citizens, even infants, need a valid passport with a tourist visa stamped in it to enter China (except for Hong Kong, where you only need a valid passport). It’s always best to have at least six months’ validity on your passport before traveling to Asia.
Getting a tourist visa to China (known as an “L” visa) in the United States is straightforward. Standard visas are for single-entry stays of up to 30 days and are valid for 90 days from the day of issue (not the day of entry), so don’t get your visa too far in advance. The cost for a tourist visa issued to a U.S. citizen is $140; citizens of other countries can expect to pay between $30 and $90.
Children traveling with only one parent do not need a notarized letter of permission to enter China. However, as these kinds of policies can change, being overprepared isn’t a bad idea.
Under no circumstances should you overstay your visa. To extend your visa, stop by the Entry and Exit Administration Office of the local branch of the Public Security Bureau a week before your visa expires. The office is known as the PSB or the Foreigner’s Police; most are open weekdays 9 to 11:30 and 1:30 to 4:30. The process is extremely bureaucratic, but it’s usually no problem to get a month’s extension on a tourist visa. You need to bring your registration of temporary residency from your hotel and your passport, which you generally need to leave for five to seven days (so do any transactions requiring it beforehand). If you are trying to extend a business visa, you’ll need the above items as well as a letter from the business that originally invited you to China saying it would like to extend your stay for work reasons. Rules are always changing, so you will probably need to go to the office at least twice to get all your papers in order.
Public restrooms abound in mainland China—the street, parks, restaurants, department stores, and major tourist attractions are all likely locations. Most charge a small fee (usually less than Y1), but seldom provide Western-style facilities or private booths. Instead, expect squat toilets, open troughs, and rusty spigots; WC signs at intersections point the way to these facilities. Toilet paper is a rarity, so carry tissues and antibacterial hand wipes. The restrooms in the newest shopping plazas, fast-food outlets, and deluxe restaurants catering to foreigners are generally on a par with American restrooms. In Hong Kong, public restrooms are well maintained. Alternatively, dip into malls or the lobby of big international hotels to use their facilities.
There is little violent crime against tourists in China, partly because the penalties are severe for those who are caught—China’s yearly death-sentence tolls run into the thousands. Single women can move about without too much hassle. Handbag-snatching and pickpocketing do happen in markets and on crowded buses or trains—keep an eye open and your money safe, and you should have no problems. Use the lockbox in your hotel room to store any valuables, but always carry your passport with you for identification purposes.
China is full of people looking to make a quick buck. The most common scam involves people persuading you to go with them for a tea ceremony, which is often so pleasant that you don’t smell a rat until several hundred dollars appear on your credit card bill. “Art students” who pressure you into buying work is another common scam. The same rules that apply to hostess bars worldwide are also true in China. Avoiding such scams is as easy as refusing all unsolicited services—be it from taxi or pedicab drivers, tour guides, or potential “friends.”
Distribute your cash, credit cards, IDs, and other valuables between a deep front pocket, an inside jacket or vest pocket, and a hidden money pouch. Don’t reach for the money pouch once you’re in public.
Chinese traffic is as manic as it looks, and survival of the fittest (or the biggest) is the main rule. Crossing streets can be an extreme sport. Drivers rarely give pedestrians the right-of-way, and don’t even look for pedestrians when making a right turn on a red light. Cyclists have less power but are just as aggressive.
The severely polluted air of China’s big cities can bring on, or aggravate, respiratory problems. If you’re a sufferer, take the cue from locals, who wear surgical masks, or a scarf or bandanna as protection.
There is no sales tax in China or Hong Kong. Mainland hotels charge a 5% tax; bigger, joint-venture hotels also add a 10% to 15% service fee. Some restaurants charge a 10% service fee.
Tipping is a tricky issue in China. It’s officially forbidden by the government, and locals simply don’t do it. In general, follow their lead without qualms. Nevertheless, the practice is beginning to catch on, especially among tour guides, who often expect Y10 a day. Official CTS representatives aren’t allowed to accept tips, but you can give them candy, T-shirts, and other small gifts. You don’t need to tip in restaurants or in taxis.
In Hong Kong, hotels and major restaurants usually add a 10% service charge; this money rarely goes to waiters and waitresses. Add on up to 10% more for good service. Tipping restroom attendants is common, but it is generally not the custom to leave an additional tip in taxis and hair salons.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.