China – my top tips for travellers

A friend asked me for some advice on planning a trip to China (I’m assuming a three week trip), here’s what I said (based on our trip, September-October 2007):

  • I’d really recommend China – it’s a very interesting place, not particularly difficult to travel independently, good value. It’s a huge growing world power and travelling there is a great way to get an insight.
  • China is richer, more educated (more globalised, lots of English spoken) and far easier to travel around if you stick with the east and south half of the country, for example from Beijing to Shanghai to Hong Kong. The far North and far West are cheaper and maybe more exciting but will be harder work and it would be harder work to get by independently. That’s a broad generalisation but if you’re planning a short trip and you want to travel around then the East will be easier for you.
  • Don’t let language put you off (at least for the south and east of China) – people speak lots of english, lots of signs in english and where there’s no english spoken they’re really friendly and keen to get by with phrase books (take one – the Lonely Planet Manderin/English one was good), hand-waving, drawing pictures, taking you to show you what they’re talking about, etc.
  • Train services are great, overnight sleepers are fine (our longest was 25 hours Shanghai to Guillin, very pleasant and quite relaxing). The harder bit was buying the tickets – not that hard really (especially if you avoid being there during national holidays and if you avoid the Beijing-Lhasa line which is booked solid by travel agents). You can make train tickets very easy by using an agency, there’s plenty of them, they speak English and they’ll charge a few quid extra per ticket (not too much).
  • There are loads of internal flights – if you’re short of time then you might want to use them (and avoid 24-hour train journeys). That said, you can get a long way on the train overnight, it’s cheaper than a flight and more interesting than a hotel and less environmentally damaging. We didn’t use any internal flights.
  • Don’t plan to spend much time in Hong Kong or Macau, they could be interesting places but after you’ve seen the rest of China they’ll just feel like a Westernised/commercialised version of the same thing, more expensive and less interesting.
  • I really liked Beijing. It’s pretty well set up for Western tourists and very interesting. Don’t forget that 2008 is the Olympics, so it will be packed in the summer. It’s a pretty good place to start your trip (and easy to get flights).
  • Check the climate carefully when you’re planning when to go (eg. avoid the north in winter and avoid the south in summer)
  • Don’t try to see everything unless you’re there for a year or three, it’s a huge place, concentrate on seeing a few bits of China properly
  • Some specific stuff I’d recommend (see my blog):
    • Yangshou Culture House¬†http://www.2hostel.com/ (spend at least 3 nights, there’s loads to see/do around there)
    • Ping An or surrounding areas (stay in Ping An or somewhere else that’s on the rice terraces, far better than staying in one of the surrounding towns),
    • Qingdao was an interesting place (stay in the old town, maybe the Observatory Youth Hostel)
    • if you’re in Beijing then this tour is a good way to see the Great Wall (and see the Olympic Stadium as you drive past it)¬†http://tingstours.com/
    • Shanghai and near-by Hangzhou are each worth a couple of nights. The Urban Planning Museam (that may not be exactly the right title) is worth seeing if you’re there – good way to appreciate the scale of reconstruction in Shanghai (and in China in general)