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image: David Brodie

Travel China starter info

Cities – travel

The bigger cities have metro (subway / underground) systems that are modern, superbly clean and efficient. They also have English language signs and announcements, so they are very easy for visitors to use.

 

A downside is that people will try to get on before you have got off, partly due to competition with each other for seats. (Be patient – you're a guest, remember.) An upside is the people will almost always offer their seat to a pregnant woman or a person with a small child, and sometimes for an older person.

image: David Brodie

A bus in traffic on an urban road

Buses are not so easy, unless you get hold of a route map and know which number you need, and where to get off. They are also less comfortable; you tend to get thrown around, especially if you are standing (as is often the case).

Taxis in most larger cities are reliable, but make sure that the meter is used. It's a good idea to have the destination in written Chinese. Didi private car systems also exist – the drivers usually have little English but an English language APP is available.

Bicycles for hire – just get on where you find a bicycle and leave it for someone else when you reach your destination

image: David Brodie

Bicycle sharing systems are available in most cities. You need to download approproriate APPs, such as for Mobike. You then need to provide passport information and a deposit. Hotel staff may be able to help.

Walking in cities is a good option. There are clear traffic signals at important junctions to allow crossing, but don't assume that a 'green man' means that there will be no traffic coming your way. Also, look out for the bikes (including motorised ones) where, in the West, there will only be pedestrians.

International drivers' licenses are not valid in China, and it is necessary for a foreigner to take a computer test on Chinese law. The test is available in English, but in general we advise against driving.

 

Road etiquette is not the same as in the West, but (though it may be a wonder to a Western observer) it works. Road rage is relatively rare.

A train arriving at a metro (subway) station

image: David Brodie

A taxi in a night-time urban scene

image: David Brodie

City cyclist

image: David Brodie

Urban highway, Shenzhen, Guangdong province

image: David Brodie

Cities: manners and safety

Chinese friend:  “After you’ve lived in China and returned home, what do you miss most?”

American female:  “Freedom.”

image: Adobe Stock

image: Adobe Stock

Young western man with backpack, in a Chinese street
A busy Chinese city, with a zoom effect

‘Sidewalk etiquette’ is not the same as many visitors experience at home. For a start, there are bikes, motorized or not. Be especially careful about stepping sideways – there may be a cycle coming up behind you. There is also ‘last minute evasion’, where people apparently don’t notice you until you think it’s too late, but somehow they miss.

It’s true that news in China focuses on the positive. Bad things are less reported than in Western countries. But people feel safe in Chinese cities. There are many cameras, and junior security officers (not policemen, and not very active, but creating a sense of neighborhood security). The result is that 3am in a large Chinese city is almost certainly safer than Manhattan, Manchester or Marseilles.

Some foreigners will find noisy phlegm clearance and spitting unpleasant. The phlegm is regarded as bad for the body, and so ‘better out than in’. In China, it’s normal.

 

In Chinese culture, personal space is not a priority. Physical contact is not regarded as a problem. If the person behind you is closer that you're used to ... it's normal.

 

Public aggression is very rare. Apparent obliviousness to inconvenience caused to others is not. It's how it is.

 

A rule for all travellers, anywhere, is: Good guests do not tell the hosts how to behave in their own home.

Chinese people speak of the ‘people mountain, people sea’ – the heaving, bustling, squeezing (and. yes, sometimes pushing and shoving) crowds travelling for the Spring Festival, or Chinese new year, may have given rise to the expression.

A southern city park with bright flowers and tropical trees

image: David Brodie

Many apartment blocks at night, with their lights reflected by an inlet of the sea, Hong Kong

Population density in the cities is high

image: David Brodie

Urban Architecture in Shenzhen, Guangdong province

image: David Brodie

Parks and gardens are serious business

Urban architecture at its best

In-Country Travel

Booking hotels, trains and flights within China is as easy as it is anywhere else. Sites such as 'ctrip' have good English and provide a reliable service  (except that  hotel maps are frequently vague.)

 

The train system is excellent – fast, fast, fast. Unfortunately the queues in stations are slow, slow, slow at most times, and gruesome during holidays. This very significantly undermines the benefit of fast trains. Even if you book in advance you’ll need to queue to collect tickets, unless you have a Chinese ID card so that you can use the machines.

 

Buses are a whole different challenge. Online timetables may be hopelessly inaccurate.

A high speed train at a station

image: Adobe Stock

Rail track separating yellow fields from snowcapped mountains, Xinjiang province

There are ordinary trains and there are the more recent high speed ‘bullet trains’, or gao tie. They are indeed fast so that the journey from the capital Beijing to Guangzhou, a distance of 2000 km, takes about ten hours. Tickets are available in Standard, First and Business classes. Seats are bigger in First than in Standard class, but carriages are just as busy. The significantly more expensive Business class coaches provide greater comfort.

A rail line crosses Xinjiang in China's far west

image: unknown, attribution to follow

City roads are crowded, but there is now a network of fast roads across China, and rural highways are often almost empty.

 

International driving licenses are not valid in China, so, unless you want to take a special computer test on the rules of the road, car hire is not an option. As well as taxi services, there are those such as Didi (similar to Uber), which work well if you get the English language APP. Some hotels may help to hire a driver for longer periods, and most will help with booking minibus rides to tourist attractions.

busy city traffic

image: Adobe Stock

Quiet road amongst karst mountain scenery, Guangxi province

image: Adobe Stock

Internal flights are generally inexpensive, with very frequent service on major routes, so that the airspace over China is very busy (with a consequence that punctuality can be an issue).

 

Apart from the usual security arrangements, as found everywhere, the process is quite painless, although allow time for queues. Airports are usually modern, with good facilities (including expensive coffee etc). Planes and their service are like short-haul services anywhere (but note that because of the size of China some of these ‘short-haul’ flights take more than four hours).

Airport interior

image: David Brodie

Hotels, food

Many of the international 'brand name' chains have hotels in the cities and honeypots (see below) across China. They offer very good accommodation and service, of course.

 

However, high quality hotels are available at much lower price, but without the international brand name. Also, western booking agencies charge western prices, which are much higher than traditional Chinese equivalents.

image: David Brodie

image: David Brodie

Eating out in Chinese towns and cities is a regular event – often the restaurant provides food as inexpensively as people can at home, with the benefit of a social environment.

These are simple 'local' restaurant foods – spicy soup with noodles, vegetables, egg and a slice of meat on the left, and potato with onions and chillies on the right.

Even many small restaurants often have photographs to help you to choose from the menu, and larger ones usually have English (or, sometimes, Chinglish, but you can usually get the idea).

Spicy soup with noodles, egg, vegetables and meat
Spicy potato with onions and chillies, served on a sizzling plate

And of course, chopsticks. They just take a little practice.

Using chopsticks to eat Chinese foods

image: Adobe Stock

There are many delights.

 

One of these is surely hotpot, where you cook your own food in a basin of boiling water at the table centre. There are selections of sauces and spices available.

In places in south-central China, such as Hunan and Sichuan Provinces, food is spicy. Very spicy. But you can specify - if you are cautious then you can ask for 'boo laa' (an approximation to the Chinese, which, if you are lucky, will be understood, meaning 'not spicy').

 

A hotpot table loaded with food

image: Adobe Stock

Steamed foods like dim sum and 'baozi' (small packages of meat and vegetable) are popular.

Most food is fried, barbecued, steamed or boiled, and then untouched by human hands. Standards of hygiene are a minor, but not insignificant, cause for concern. In big city chain restaurants, uncooked food is generally fine. But the wise traveller carries pills that, from personal experience more than once, are effective in subduing intestinal violence.

Being a vegetarian in China is not easy, but possible. Many dishes have a mix of meat and vegetable, but there are alternatives such as tofu.

Steamers for heating dim sum and baozi

image: Adobe Stock

Teapot and cups in traditional style, set against bamboo leaves

Tea is served as a matter of routine in most restaurants, and is often used  by diners to wash bowls and chopsticks at the start of the meal.

image: Adobe Stock

Drinking wine is not a Chinese tradition, but is becoming much more widespread. If you have brandy, don't be surprised if it's served with ice.

 

Beer in restaurants is usually Qingdao, or Tsingdao, but, again, this is not part of a long-standing tradition. The brewing company was started by German brewers, albeit very many years ago, in the city of the same name.

 

At formal and not so formal meals, especially business meals, 'baijiu' (by joe, very approximately) is consumed. This is sometimes translated as 'white wine', but it is a very strong spirit. Drinking baijiu in a group is a wonderful experience, and is used as a way of establishing business trust. However, consume with caution.

Tourist honeypots

These all have wonderful beauty or cultural importance at a global level. They are all worth visiting; our very strong advice is to avoid peak holiday times (National holiday at the start of October and Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, which falls between late January and late February).

A selection of Honeypot Sites

 

• The Great Wall               • The Forbidden Palace

• The Summer Palace      • Suzhou Gardens

• Jiuzhaigou                      • Hong Kong

• Macao                            • Lijiang and Dali

• Zhangjiajie                      • Hainan Island

• Guangxi rice terraces     • Pingyao old town

• Wutaishan                      • Yangdanshan

• Ermei shan                     • Huang shan

• Fenghuang old town

• Harbin’s festival of ice sculpture

• Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors

• Guilin, the  Li River and Yangshuo town,

One of the terracotta warriors, showing close detail

The terracotta warriors, 2300 years old, at a site near Xi'an in Shaanxi Province, are a reason in themselves to visit China. But avoid the peak holiday times.

image: David Brodie

Outdoor activity

The rapidly increasing prosperity of the last few decades means that more and more Chinese people have the opportunity to explore their own country. Outdoor exploration including hiking, climbing and photography are ever more popular. However, individual adventure (as opposed to closely channelled visits to key sites) remains a minority activity.

Photographers, showing photography as a very popular hobby

image: David Brodie

To a Westerner looking for independent exploration, the regulation of popular and not-so-popular locations can seem over-protective. Mass leisure travel within China is a relatively new phenomenon, and official cautiousness is well-meaning.

 

However, for those with the right experience, the right equipment, and the right research, adventure is there to discover, as here in Sichuan Province.

Sign in Chinglish suggesting that a path is dangerous, discouraging use by tourists, Guangxi province
Riding, crossing a small river, Siguniangshan, Sichuan province

image: David Brodie

image: David Brodie

Looking up to high peaks with clouds and small glacier, Siguniangshan

image: David Brodie

 

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