Travel Diary: What You Need To Know Before Visiting China
Of all the places my husband and I have visited since moving to Hong Kong, we spent the most time planning our trip to mainland China. Between the language barrier, cultural differences, inaccessible internet and overwhelming number of things to see, do and eat, there’s a lot to research ahead of time.
We turned to our good friend and world traveler Dan Herszberg for guidance. Dan used to live in Beijing, speaks Mandarin and has been to more places in China than I have visited in the continental United States. If you don't already follow him on Instagram, you must. He sent us lists of recommendations, including a section called, “Before You Go,” which I found most helpful. And because he’s the nicest person ever, he’s letting me share his list with you. I’ve mixed in some of my own tips since returning from our trip, too. So without further ado:
Before You Go
1. Download these apps:
- Betternet — You’ll need to use a VPN when connecting to the internet to safely access all the sites you’re used to using like Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc.
- Maps.me — This offline maps app was our lifeline while moving around the cities. Google Maps worked at some points but was unreliable, so having Maps.me is crucial. Just make sure to download the maps of areas you’re visiting before you go.
- BeijingSubway — Beijing’s subway is easy to use and convenient, so make sure you have this map of the system before heading on your trip. If you're visiting more cities than Beijing, download those subway maps ahead of time, too.
- Pleco — I used this Chinese translation app in situations from communicating with taxi drivers to ordering in restaurants. It is a lifesaver.
2. Print out hotel addresses and dietary restrictions written in Chinese.
Hotels will often give you taxi cards with the property’s name and address written in Chinese as well as the city’s top sites, but you still have to get from the airport to your hotel. So make a document with hotel addresses and another one with food-related requirements and keep them on you as you explore the city.
3. Consider purchasing pollution masks.
You can look up Beijing’s air quality on this website, which also recommends which pollution masks to purchase. I did see masks sold in the equivalent of 7-11 type stores throughout Beijing, but I’m glad we had them with us so we could hit the ground running.
4. Bring some necessities and creature comforts.
Traveling around China is an adventure, and you will find yourself in many situations that are surprising, uncomfortable, challenging and exciting. Having these items on hand may prove useful:
- Pocket tissues — While China may be in the midst of a “toilet revolution” — a $290 billion investment into tourism over the next four years that includes upgrading 100,000 public toilets — you’re going to encounter squat toilets (yes, those hold-in-the-ground situations) everywhere. They’re BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper), so be prepared with pocket tissues. Which brings me to my next must-have:
- Hand sanitizer — Don’t assume there will be fully functioning sinks with soap for you to wash your hands after using the bathroom. Hand sanitizer to the rescue.
- Tampons — I could not easily find tampons in Beijing, so I highly recommend bringing your own even if you’re not expecting your period. I read in the LA Times after I returned to Hong Kong that tampons aren’t exactly widely accepted in China. In fact, Chinese manufacturers made 85 BILLION sanitary napkins in 2015, but not one tampon. That probably explains why I went into grocers, pharmacies and convenient stores and had no luck. I also had more than one unsuccessful conversation with male staffers manning the concierge desk at my hotel that involved awkward hand gestures. No luck. I finally found them at a very fancy grocery market catered to Westerners in a mall. In sum, just bring your own with you. (This also goes for any medicine you might need/want, too).
- Granola bars — Beijing is massive, it takes time to get from one neighborhood to the next, and my husband and I can go from satiated to hangry in a matter of minutes. We found it incredibly convenient to have bars on us so we could snack on the go.