China adventure tips
June 25, 2007 6:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm traveling to china in a few weeks, for a few weeks. We're going from Beijing to several outer areas, staying in hostels, figuring things out as we go. What do we need to be prepared for?

Specifically I'm wondering:
  • what if any vaccinations we should get
  • what medicine to bring along (would anything be confiscated?)
  • what you recommend packing for this style of trip (in one medium backpack each, both clothes and entertainment for long bus rides)
  • other thoughts?
Here's our basic itinerary: Beijing - Datong - Hohhot (inner mongolia) - Xian - Chengdu - Chongqing - 3 Gorges River Cruise - Huangshan - Suzhou - Shanghai - Beijing.We have already handled visas. I'll of course be bringing my camera. Are batteries easy to come by? Should i bring my recharger?
posted by pithy comment to Travel & Transportation around Beijing, China (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Vaccinations: there is an oral vaccine for cholera and traveller's diarrhea. Hep A and B.

Medicine: ibuprofen, pepto-bismol or equivalent, possibly benadryl. See if you can get a doctor to prescribe you some antibiotics also. I went to a travel clinic before going to China and they gave me a prescription for six antibiotics of some sort, which I was to use in case of stomach infection/diarrhea. I needed them.

Entertainment: the time-tested strategy for warding off boredom is books. They don't require batteries, and best of all, many hostels have small libraries where you can exchange books. That's a renewable resource.

Clothing: lots of underwear and socks, not too much of everything else. Thin t-shirts are good. If you need more clothing while you're there, you can just buy something cheap and toss it when you don't need it anymore. That's better than carrying around too much stuff that you'd regret throwing away.
posted by number9dream at 7:05 PM on June 25, 2007 for health stuff.
posted by nitsuj at 7:05 PM on June 25, 2007

I'd say learning some Mandarin would be good. Numbers to 24 for telling the time, hi, bye, do you have any?, how much is it?, and maybe practicing the characters for signs like exit, toilet, men/women, tickets.

Get an awesome, best-you-can-afford map of the country with rail lines before you leave, along with a guidebook.

Rosetta Stone Mandarin software at your library might be helpful too, but it's a little spendy - a couple hundred bucks - if you're saving for a big trip.
posted by mdonley at 7:08 PM on June 25, 2007

You should get all the vaccinations -- all the Hepatitis, and a booster for Tetanus if you haven't already. You might want to think about getting any other shots you haven't gotten -- like, if you never got the polio vaccine, get it.

This is so you can eat the street food.

Unless you're dirt, dirt, dirt poor you can easily travel through China living like a king for probably well under $30 per person.

You can buy pretty much anything you want in China. Batteries are everywhere but their quality can be shaky. Just bring your charger. They don't take up much space (a LOT less than buying packs of batteries) and you'll never regret it I promise.

This seems like a packed itinerary. I hope you're spending at least 1 1/2 months on this.

If you can move around your itinerary a bit I'd strongly recommend Kaifeng. It's off the beaten path a bit, has an awesome night market and an endearingly kitchy amusement park. The best thing about the town is you will be the only lowai there, the worst thing is you will be the only lowai there. (Yes, I know I spelled itwrong).

I always find I have packed too many pants. I'd recommend just two pairs if one of them are jeans. You can wear jeans forever.

Medicine will not be confiscated so long as it looks nothing like Drugs, you act totally cool, and it comes in prescription bottles (or clearly marked packages for over the counter).

Entertainment for long bus rides? I would say...the most entertaining thing to do is not to take the bus. Unless this is a must, take the train instead, as the buses were pretty grim in my experience. The most entertaining thing you can do is leave your iPod at home. Find a decent phrasebook and try to chat with the locals. Chinese people are real lovers of food, so this is something great to connect with them on. You should definitely learn how to eat sunflower seeds. I'm not sure what they put on those things but I think it might be crap. You want to get the packages labelled, "NOT FOR EXPORT".

Hostels are a must for Shanghai and Beijing, and useful for places where you know you want to use their Western-friendly excursion services. But for all other towns I would avoid hostels. Nothing gives you the genuine Chinese travelling experience like being dragged by a couple of touts to a seedy hotel in the red light district. Keep in mind that China is a relatively safe country, so you're going to be hassled (by lovely ladies offering Anmo) but not threatened or in danger. (For no good reason, I'm assuming you're mostly dudes. If this is not the case, maybe the red light district is not for you).

Eat everywhere and eat everything. China is your chance to sink you teeth into some really gross stuff. Frommer's Guide, at least the addition I had in 2004, has excellent entries on Chinese food and makes wonderful recommendations for restaurants, particularly in Beijing. You have to try the weird mutton soup -- can't remember its name -- when you are in Xian. Other delicacies to try are meat onna stick (I had chicken liver and gizzards with five spice, both delicious), eggs boiled in soy sauce, fish (get them to show it to you live and wiggling before they whack it) and vegetables (just keep in mind that veggies are almost always served individually, so if you try to ask for greens with onions and brocolli you will get 3 plates -- one filled with greens, one filled with onions, and one filled with brocolli).

Now is just about the latest time to go to China before the Olympics make it an unbearably crowded hell. Enjoy it there. I'm quite envious; you are going to eat very, very well. I remember that there's some kind of stewy thing with an egg in it that you might find someplace for breakfast. If you see it, order it right away. It's frikken amazing.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:13 PM on June 25, 2007

Link to a pretty good brand of map
Link to "I Can Read That," which will help with IDing useful characters
posted by mdonley at 7:13 PM on June 25, 2007

but I think it might be crap crack.

I think it might be crack, as in, these things are addictive and almost mind-numbingly delicous. I wrote crap because I'm tired and I should go to bed. so...gnight.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:15 PM on June 25, 2007

Wow. Deathalicious summed it up. We loved, loved, loved backpacking through China. Things that I found strangely helpful since we strayed off of the beaten path a lot and we often the only Westerners in town.

A very good book of pinyin. I spoke some basic phrases in Mandarin but mostly got along by pointing to the pinyin translations of things I needed in my phrase book.

Another thumbs up for the train. Seriously. We tried both trains and buses, and the trains were most awesome. If you can afford soft sleeper, it is really excellent. We recharged our digital camera batteries in the hallway outside of our compartment on the train. And, yes, hotels not hostels in the small towns.

You're going to be covering some major territory with that itinerary. Always have a Plan B or prioritize what you want to see. If you plan on covering that much ground, I hope you have at LEAST 6 weeks on the docket and possibly more.

Also encouraging you to try the local food. I brought my own chopsticks which made me feel better about eating at the market stalls. Bottled water is pretty plentiful. Avoid raw fruits and vegetables unless you can wash them in bottled water, yadda yadda. If you are addicted to coffee, um, there will be some places where there is not a drop of java to be found. Just FYI.

Negotiate, negotiate. I don't know about now, but in 2002, EVERYTHING was negotiable where ever we went (except bus or train fare, and items from the stores in Beijing). Hotel rooms, food, taxis, purchased goods...all of it. We actually didn't negotiate too hard to be dirt cheap, but showed a good faith effort in negotiating because it seemed to be expected. I'm not a negotiator but I was getting into the spirit after a few days.

I used my headlamp a lot. Caving near Yangshao, reading in my room at night, finding my way down stone steps at a village festival in a Miao town. Handy.

Depending on when you will be there and how long you will be taking to accomplish your itinerary, the weather could be pretty different between, say, Beijing and Hohhot. This week, it will be in the 90s in Beijing and in the 60s in Hohhot. We traveled between Hong Kong all the way up to Beijing in November 2002 and went from tropical weather to freezing within four weeks. Pack accordingly. Layers.

Have a great time. China is awesome.
posted by jeanmari at 10:12 PM on June 25, 2007

Do not mess around and do the medical things suggested upthread and bring Immodium, a hand sanitizer and a pack of tissues. Also, before going practice the fine art of squatting so you can use a pit toilet successfully.

About haggling. Oh yeah, haggle my friend. BTW you can haggle at the government shops for all products, yes jade and all that. Language is no barrier in the haggling because of the hand calculator that is used to show prices by the clerks and in which you punch in your counter offers. Be prepared to haggle with a string of managers which is part of the technique. Learn to haggle the fun way and not the angry way.
posted by jadepearl at 12:41 AM on June 26, 2007

just gotta say... most of that itinerary isn't an "adventure" trip... it's mainly massive cities with all the comforts of home - excepting, of course, the weird signs and languages in the street.

Think about getting out of the cities more. One of the more accessible places for foreigners without command of Mandarin is Yangshou in Guangxi. Rent bikes and spend five or six days going through the Yulong River valley. I stayed outside the town in a small village so I could be closer to the river.

Bring a phrase book. I like Lonely Planet's the best, though you might want to consider getting a non-pinyin book like Barrett's. Pinyin is a little tough unless someone helps you out... others have devised phonetic systems more closely related to English (pinyin was developed by Russians).

I've been living in China for a year without any vaccines. I've gotten three or so rancid stomach bugs, but I don't think a polio or TB shot would help much in that department.
posted by trinarian at 1:09 AM on June 26, 2007

One thing I would bring more of if I was going to China again would be food. I'm with Deathalicious in that there are some incredible dishes to be found, but after 2 months of travelling I was sick of MSG-laden fried stuff. In Xi'an I found myself passing up on the street food and often frequenting the Pizza Hut and McDonalds just to get a fix of plain bread, meat and cheese. I took a few packs of cereal bars and Complan + Oats (kind of fortified porridge that can be made up with boiling water) and was very glad I did. They're lightweight and enough to stave off the hunger pangs until you can find something palatable.

Medicine: Don't forget some antihistamine cream to treat mosquito bites. If you've got any caps/fillings one of you might want to pack one of those little dental emergency kits.

Other stuff: Remember the word 'mayo' - it means "don't want" or "not interested". You'll need that a lot. And listen out for the word 'lowai' (foreigner). You may hear it whispered/shouted all the time if you're in mono-cultural rural areas where you are the only non-Chinese people, often as a prelude to a seller preparing to double his prices.

I took a tiny key-chain LED torch to keep stuffed in a pocket and found it invaluable during the frequent unannounced blackouts.
posted by boosh at 5:14 AM on June 26, 2007

great info above.
Nth-ing the train with soft sleeper if you can. It was a fun time. You can buy snacks from the people that bing the cart by on the train.

I took nasal spray. I had a hard time breathing with all the smog in Beijing.
posted by nimsey lou at 5:19 AM on June 26, 2007

Yes, the smog in Beijing is brutal (and so will be the heat this time of year). Pack light (pack and then toss half the stuff you want to take -g).

Haven't been to Beijing in a while; spent most of my time on the back roads of Guangdong in southern China.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:59 AM on June 26, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the tips! We're definitely planning some night-trains. We have a friend living in Beijing o be our guide (an American, but he's pretty fluent). We are very flexible on the itinerary, and we're only going to be there for 2 weeks, so I'm guessing some stuff will get knocked out of the plan. But what else do you do in Xian, for example other than see the terra cotta warriors? I guess we're approaching this from a very touristish, see-as-much-as-you-can in this 'once in a lifetime' trip viewpoint.
posted by pithy comment at 7:15 AM on June 26, 2007

Chinese-American here, in Xi'an for the summer studying Mandarin (was in Beijing last year). I never get any vaccinations or take any medicine along and I'm always fine. Definitely eat street food and get the local specialties in hole-in-the-walls. There are places to eat everywhere and most food is generally good, so ignore Lonely Planet's recommendations - they always pick the touristy places anyway. Don't be afraid to try new things - there's a lot more to Chinese cuisine than "MSG-laden fried stuff." Also, I eat raw fruits and vegetables all the time and never get sick - nothing like some fresh watermelon on a hot summer day! I wouldn't worry too much about what you eat or general cleanliness - the worst that could happen is a bit of diarrhea after you arrive, but your stomach should adapt pretty quickly.

In my experience, buses are much easier to get tickets for (though a bit more expensive) - you can usually get same-day bus tickets for any destination, whereas sleeper train tickets are inevitably all booked up days in advance (you can try going to a ticket reserving place if you can't get any tickets at the station). With regards to comfort, it depends if you can get a sleeper train ticket or not - sleeper train is the best, but if there are no sleepers left, I would much rather prefer bus seats to train seats. There are also sleeper buses available to some very far destinations, so don't rule them out.

I also agree that you want to be staying in hotels rather than hostels, unless you like the whole "hanging out with grizzled foreigners" experience - Chinese hotels are usually just as nice as their Western counterparts, and (obviously) much cheaper. Try various hotels and always ask for a discount. Agree with everyone above mentioning bargaining.

Hmm, any other tips...

If you need money, take along a debit card and use ATMs - Bank of China will always work, ICBC will usually work as well, at least in bigger cities. Traveler's checks are usually a pain in the ass and not worth bringing along.

Always carry a small pack of tissue to use in public toilets, and get used to squatters.

If you don't like taro, avoid all snack foods/drinks/ice creams with purple food coloring. Purple always means taro.

If you like drinking cold things with your meal other than beer, buy it before you go into the restaurant (nobody will care).

If you like bubble tea, check out Be for Time or similar places where you can sit around, play Chinese chess, and enjoy as much bubble tea and ice cream as you like for 18kuai(sometimes cheaper!)

A lot less politeness is expected in China than what you may be used to - many foreigners seem ridiculously friendly in China. There's no need to grin and say "Ni Hao Ma??!" to every waiter, tout, and trinket seller. Also, remember the best way to get rid of random people who want your money is to ignore them.

Learning some Chinese will be useful, especially some characters to read shop signs or at least which bathroom to go into, but I've spoken to many foreigners who don't speak a word of Chinese who manage to get around by themselves. From what I've noticed, the treatment that groups of white-looking tourists get is amazing by Chinese standards.

You can drop me an e-mail if you have any other questions (address in the profile).
posted by pravit at 8:15 AM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

There is absolutely no way you will see everything on your list in two weeks. If I were to pick a two-week itinerary out of the places you mentioned, I'd do Beijing, Datong, then Shanghai and the surrounding areas(Suzhou, Hangzhou, etc.). There's so much stuff to see around Beijing that you could easily spend an entire week there. The Yungang grottoes in Datong are definitely worth a visit from Beijing. Shanghai's also a very nice place along with the cities nearby. Of course, with travelling, there's always the question of if you'd like to see a lot of places in one go, or see a few places but get to know them better. Transportation in China is not always the most convenient, so always plan for +- 1-2 days if you're going somewhere(especially more rural).

"But what else do you do in Xian, for example other than see the terra cotta warriors?"
Having been in Xi'an for a while, personally I wouldn't recommend making a special trip here on your first trip. I'll say only one thing about the terra cotta warriors - don't expect too much. They're definitely worth a visit if you come to Xi'an, though. Other sights - Big goose pagoda and the fountain show, the Bell Tower and the big empty shopping malls in the city center, the touristy Muslim street and the mosque, and the city walls(you can rent a bicycle and ride all the way around the walls). Outside of Xi'an - Terracotta warriors, some tombs, the Huaqing hot springs. Further away are Huashan and Wutai shan(have heard it's a really great place, but never been). Honestly, I think Shaanxi is a bit of a boring province - Gansu is pretty awesome, and I'm itching to go to Xinjiang later this summer. I've heard Tibet is more or less invaded by hordes of Western backpackers, so it may not be the most "genuine" place to go anymore.

Xi'an eating - try roujiamo(meat in a fried pita bread), paomo(a very hearty soup with beef or lamb meat, with lots of chunks of bread inside- tastes way better than it looks!), and whatever else looks good from the street. Hui food is pretty popular around here - try niuroumian(handmade ramen noodles with beef) or Xinjiangbanmian(Xinjiang-style thick noodles in a tomato-based sauce). There's also BiangBiangmian, one of Shaanxi's "ten great wonders"(it seems nobody can remember all of them) - with springy noodles long and thick as a belt. They're advertised with an extremely complicated Chinese character that looks like this:
DingDingmian is pretty good, too.
posted by pravit at 8:35 AM on June 26, 2007

A very good book of pinyin. I spoke some basic phrases in Mandarin but mostly got along by pointing to the pinyin translations of things I needed in my phrase book.

Uh, almost no Chinese person I met on my travels can read or understand written pinyan. Any phrase book you purchase MUST have the characters, especially since dialects change throughout the country but the written language doesn't.

If you get sick of the food, well, I never did but I was only there a couple of weeks. What I did for variety, though, was when I felt like eating something different, I just asked for it. Most restaurants can cook something on order. Yes, they throw MSG into nearly everything, just get used to it. But you can easily escape the fried bit by just pointing to different dishes in your phrase book. Again, the Frommer's is excellent for this as it has a very, very comprehensive list of both national and regional dishes. If you are in a respectable restaurant, you can point to almost any of the national dishes, and most likely the regional dishes, and they will do their best to accomodate you.

One thing you might want to also consider doing is bringing along one of these universal guides which has photographs of food instead of words. You can then point to the photograph of the food item you want and in general, assuming it is available in China, they will cook it for you.

I ate some raw fruit (I couldn't resist!) while I was in China, but pretty much only because I'd had the vaccinations. Ignore everyone who is lax about vaccinations, basically getting sick is a crap shoot and in the long run vaccinations and cheaper and less irritating.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:18 PM on June 26, 2007

But what else do you do in Xian, for example other than see the terra cotta warriors? I guess we're approaching this from a very touristish, see-as-much-as-you-can in this 'once in a lifetime' trip viewpoint.

Oh boy.

First of all, unless you have a lousy experience (which, to be fair, is almost guaranteed if you go the touristy route) you will make the decision to go back to China one day once you've been there. China is not a once in a lifetime thing, and you should take your time.

If you really are only there for 2 weeks, I would scrap pretty much all of your schedule except for one or two towns. If you're just going to Xian for the terra cotta army, why bother going? I can tell you what they look like -- soldiers, only they're made out of terra cotta. And there's a lot of them.

If you haven't been to a weird country yet, China is an excellent first choice. Spend as much time as you can in markets, weird streets, and eat everything you see that smells good. Limit yourself to one touristic site per day, max, and spend the rest of the time exploring where people live and what they do, which is a heck of a lot more interesting.

Here would be my recommended itinerary for 2 weeks:
  1. Since your friend has been living in Beijing, he should know it pretty well and will have loads of cool things to show you. Plan on at least 4 days in Beijing to start (you can spend another day or two in Beijing at the end of your trip). One day must be devoted to the Great Wall, not the crappy bit but one of the strenuous hikes of the more ruined bits.
  2. Head inland. I'd stop in Kaifeng. It's awesome. Check out the night market in the evening and the next day stroll through the city, possibly checking out the park if you have time. Then you should take a train somewhere else in the center or south of China. In my opinion Shanghai is really overrated unless you're specifically interested in the whole colonialism bit.
  3. Try to make it to one sacred mountain. If I remember correctly, there are 4 Daoist and 4 Buddhist mountains scattered around the countryside. You should be able to get to one along your trip. Stay overnight in the monastery there (it will be cold and damp but worth it for the crazy waking up to chanting experience) and hike up to the summit in the morning.
  4. The food in Chengdu is really fantastic and is almost worth going all the way out there by train. But you don't have to. Planes in China are nice and can be very, very cheap. Going all the way out to Sichuan is worth it just to try the numbing spice, which is used pretty much only there and is nearly impossible to find outside of China (I think it might even be illegal to import it into the States?)

posted by Deathalicious at 5:38 PM on June 26, 2007

...caving near Yangshao...

Omg, I still have nightmares about caving near Yangshuo - wth was I thinking? Mud diving in the dark at the bottom of a cave is definitely one of the most awesome and thrilling experiences during my 9months in China...

Lots of great advice here. I would add: wash your hands more often than you would at home, talk to people if you can (they will likely want to practice English if they know any), don't be afraid to try whatever is on offer foodwise, be prepared for stomach issues no matter how careful you are, and don't be afraid to deviate from your set plan in order to do something extra fun.
posted by gemmy at 6:38 PM on June 26, 2007

A very good book of pinyin. I spoke some basic phrases in Mandarin but mostly got along by pointing to the pinyin translations of things I needed in my phrase book.

Sorry, my mistake. It was characters not pinyin. I'm just going to blame that on my lack of sleep.

And, YES! Caving in Yangshao. Awesome.
posted by jeanmari at 7:23 PM on July 5, 2007

Also, this meal was prepared in a house without heat over a charcoal fire by our hosts. The pork in the dish had been killed that morning. There was no refrigeration so it was just hanging in their living room until they cooked it. It was pretty tasty.

We rarely ate in restaurants when we were in the rural areas. And frequently not when we were in town either. Over a month of hole-in-the-wall meals and neither of us fell ill. We didn't eat raw items, we washed our hands and any fruit that we bought on the street in bottled water. We took our own chopsticks.

I won't tell you what to eat or not to eat, but I think that our culinary adventures were some of the most rewarding of the trip. YMMV.
posted by jeanmari at 7:30 PM on July 5, 2007

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