If you haven’t been to China yet, and want to visit this country for the first time in order to have a basic knowledge about it, how to arrange your trip? What to visit first, how to set your route, for how long time? If you are just looking for beaches, then you focus on the sea coast destinations. If you are looking for adventures, then you would focus on more adrenalin places like canyons, waterfalls, peaks, diving spots and something like this. And you are looking for history and culture, you would focus on old town complexes, temples, and ancient buildings. But if you just want to initially “taste” of everything featuring this country, how to build your itinerary, your first travel to China?
First, take a look at the map of China. It is one of the few largest countries in the world. It is large as a whole continent. So, to see everything that this country represents is impossible just for a short trip. China has almost everything- from the coldest geographical areas, same as the polar regions, to the hottest jungles in the south. Besides, China has a very long and rich history and many ethnic groups with various cultures.
However, China can be divided into a smaller Eastern part and a larger Western part. The Eastern part is lower and is the main area of the Chinese civilization and culture. And the rest of China- the Western part, is higher, mainly drier, and features some of the most beautiful and stunning landscapes in the world, home of few other civilizations: Tibetan, Mongolian, Uyghur-Muslim and many other smaller ethnic groups and their culture.
So, the first trip to China should be focused on the Eastern part. With a “glimpse” of touch to the Western part. And the Western part itself is worth to be planned for other few trips.
Table of Contents
THE MAIN DESTINATIONS OF CHINA
There are few main destinations in China, representing the country. They are all in the Eastern part and only one- at the beginning of the Western part.
It is the capital of China, its political and cultural center, its symbol. And it is a must to visit, since it has a very important representation role about the country. There are few main destinations in Beijing:
– Tiananmen square （天安门）
the central square of Beijing, with important historical role, one of the largest squares in the world. It features the Mausoleum of Mao, the big Front Gate, the Chinese flag pylon, and few other units.
– Forbidden city – Gu Gong（故宫）
the imperial palace complex of the last two dynasties- Ming and Qing, showing a lot about the history of China from 15 to 20 centuries, a great architectural masterpiece. Entrance gate: 60 RMB
– Hutong quarter （胡同） and South Luogu street （南锣鼓街）
It is located in the north of the Forbidden city and represents the old Beijing architecture. You can enjoy the beautiful gray houses in traditional style. Then, walking north, you can visit the nearby South Luogu street- a shopping street for souvenirs, street food and many other attractions- all in old traditional atmosphere.
– Wangfujing street （王府井）
It is the main pedestrian street of Beijing. There are a lot of malls, nearby restaurants with Beijing’s specialty “Beijing Roasted Duck”, a big 8 floor bookstore and many other points. But the most attractive of them is the open market in Wangfujing’s west side. It is full of souvenirs, small goods of every kind, where you can play a bargain game, and especially the exotic street food, such as roasted scorpions and many others.
– Beihai （北海）and Jingshan （景山） parks
These are two important parks, located north and west of the Forbidden City. Both situated on hills. Jingshan Park is closely related with the Chinese history. Beihai park represent long lake and beautiful alleys beside it, as well as a big White Tibetan stupa on the top of its hill. Entrance gate for the White Stupa- 30 RMB, for Jingshan park- 2 RMB
– Temple of Heaven- Tian Tan （天坛）
It is one of the symbols of Beijing. It has been a place, where the Emperor used to worship the Heaven for a good harvest. The tradition is a distant echo from the deep ancient past, when there has been a monotheistic religion in China. Now there is a big central round Pagoda, a road to a smaller Pagoda, a worship circle, few Museum buildings, all surrounded by a beautiful park. Entrance fee: 15 RMB
– Summer palace – Yi He Yuan（颐和园）
It is a famous park in the northwestern part of Beijing, a summer residence of the late Chinese emperors. There is a special exhibition of Empress Ci Xi too. The park features a large lake- Kunming lake, where you can float on a boat, a hill with pagodas, residence complex and a lot of nice walking alleys. Entrance fee: 30 RMB
– The Great Wall of China （长城）
This is maybe the most important symbol of China. The Great Wall consists of many sections, some well restored and some almost destroyed. It is built to protect China from the north barbarian peoples. Now there are few points of entry near Beijing to visit the Wall. Most visited are Badaling, Simatai and Mutianyu. There are many companies organizing a half day trip to the Wall. The price can be different, but average is around 200-300 RMB, including the transport from Beijing, as it is here (http://www.happydragonhostel.com/mutianyu-great-wall-one-day-tour-daily/)
It is the most populated city in China, representing the economic and technical growth of the country. The most important areas and destinations in Shanghai are near the Huangpu River, dividing the city into two parts:
– The Bund （外滩）
It is the most representative site of Shanghai. Located on the west coast of Huangpu River, it is a great panoramic place with a magnificent view of the skyscraper’s complex Lujiazui and its Orient Pearl TV Tower.
– Yu garden （豫园）and the old town complex
Southwest of The Bund is Yu garden and its Old town complex. Actually it is a small quarter with rich Chinese traditional style buildings, now used for souvenir shops and fast food restaurants. There is a small artificial lake with lotus flowers in the complex. And beside it, as a part of the complex is Yu Garden. Entrance fee (for the Garden only): 40 RMB
– Nanjing road （南京路）
This is the main pedestrian street of Shanghai. It features a lot of malls, street food, restaurants, shops and stores, as well as many attractions on the street itself. You can arrive by metro to People’s Square, then walk on Nanjing road eastward to The Bund.
– Lujiazui （陆家嘴）and the Orient Pearl TV tower （东方明珠塔）
This is the super-modern center of Shanghai, with some of the highest skyscrapers not only in China, but in the whole world. You can go there from The Bund by ferry (for 2 RMB in one direction), by Attractive underground train (it starts from The Bund too- 50 RMB) or by metro from Nanjing East road. Then you can explore the Oriental Pearl TV tower- 180 RMB, and other attractions- World Finance Center skyscraper, Jinmao Tower, Central Green Space, Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, Shanghai International Finance center and others.
Other attractions in Shanghai include Jing An Temple, Shanghai Museum, The French Connection, Xujiahui Cathedral and China Art Museum.
Hangzhou （杭州）, Suzhou （苏州）, and the “river canal towns”
These places are located mainly west of Shanghai, on the flat plain near Yangtze river mouth. They are famous with their river channels and old traditional houses around them, forming a landscape like “the Eastern Venice”. Other important destinations in this area are the gardens and parks- again featuring the old traditional Chinese architecture, combined with beautiful gardens, lakes, flowers and many other Chinese romantic spots. Most important of these destinations are:
– Hangzhou’s West lake （西湖）
Hangzhou is a big and modern city, full of modern culture. But its famous feature is its West lake and the park around it- best representing the park art of China through its tradition and history.
– Suzhou （苏州）
It is a famous Chinese traditional city, featuring the best classical complex gardens and old town river canals. There you can visit Humble Administrator Garden, Lingering (Li) Garden, as well as the Old town complex with its river canal.
– Other destinations in this style include Jiading, Xitang, Tongli, Zhouzhuang, Wuzhen. They all represent old traditional houses with river canals, showing a lot of Chinese culture and beauty.
This is the most important ancient capital of China. It has been the country’s political center since 1000 BC, capital of the famous Chinese dynasties Qin, Han, Tang and others. It has also few very important destinations:
– Terracotta Army Museum- Bing Ma Yong (兵马俑)
It is one of the famous symbols of China. There are hundreds of terracotta warriors, made in natural size, every one with a unique face, representing the army of the first Chinese emperor Qin Shihuan. Now they are exhibited in this museum complex, some 20 km from the city. Entrance fee: 150 RMB (120 RMB in the low season)
– Qin Shihuan tomb （秦始皇陵）-
It is a hill near the Terracotta Army Museum, which is said to be the first Chinese emperor’s tomb. Entrance fee: 90 RMB (65 RMB in the low season)
– Drum tower （鼓楼）and Clock tower （钟楼）-
These are two beautiful pagodas, located in the perfect center of the city. Entrance fee for the two towers- 35 RMB.
This area is the place, where you can taste a little of the Western part of China and its cultures, with a wish to arrange more trips to the West. Yunnan province is a meeting place of three main geographical and cultural zones: Chinese, Tibetan and Southeast Asian. It is the richest of minorities province, and richest of natural forms- with few very important deep valleys of some of the longest rivers in Asia- Yangtze, Mekong and Salween, with tropical jungles and high snowy mountains. There is an important route, which is worth to be passed for few days, represented by the following destinations:
– Kunming （昆明）–
It is the capital of Yunnan. The most important point of it is its Village of tribes （民族村）, representing all the minorities in the province. Entrance fee: 90 RMB.
– Dali Old town （大理古城）-
It is a beautiful Old town complex, located at the coast of Ear lake, representing Bai minority’s culture. Here you can enjoy its beautiful traditional architecture, as well as its artistic evening life. You can also make a bicycle walk at the nearby Ear lake. And you can visit one of Yunnan’s landmarks- the Three Pagodas complex, representing three ancient towers and a local monastery. Entrance fee for the Three Pagodas: 120 RMB.
– Lijiang （丽江）-
It’s a famous city, an important point of the southern version of the Silk Road, featuring one of the largest Old town complexes and Naxi minority culture. It is full of old traditional culture, souvenirs, street food and local art evening life with its typical Old town atmosphere. Entrance fee (from 8:30 to 19:00): 80 RMB. Another famous destination nearby is the high Nephrite Dragon mountain （玉龙雪山）. Its highest peak is 5596 m altitude. You can take a lift to about 4450 m, or a short lift to 3200 m altitude and take a walk around. Entrance fee: 225 RMB.
– Shangri La （香格里拉）-
It is a Tibetan town located in 3180 m altitude, on a beautiful grassland. It is in the beginning of the Tibetan land and represents the Tibetan Kham culture. There is an Old town (damaged by fire few years ago, but now restored) and a big Songzanlin monastery. It is also famous with its largest prayer wheel in the world. Good to visit if you want to touch and taste Tibet for a while, “marking it” for your next “First trip in Tibet”.
Among many other features, South China is famous for its limestone hills, presented in many Chinese pictures and other art pieces. The most famous of them is Guilin limestone hills area, located in Guangxi province. The whole area has a lot to offer. There are many other limestone hills area in South China of this kind, but this combines the hills with a big river- Lijiang, old town complexes, such as Yangshuo town （阳朔）, temples, pagodas and many more. There are also rice terrace areas, such as Longji, and many caves. You can make cruises on the river in Guilin and Yangshuo or use many other ways to explore the area.
Hong Kong （香港）
Hong Kong is a special area, like another country within China, yet it is still China, although many Hong Kong people don’t confess it. The city is famous with its international image, economic growth, movie stars and many other features. There are few main destinations of Hong Kong, which are worth to visit:
– Tsim Sha Tsui （尖沙咀）
It is the main attractive zone of Hong Kong. Situated at the north coast of Victoria harbour, with a great panoramic view to Hong Kong island and its skyscrapers, it has a walking alley of the movie stars, called Avenue of Stars (there you can see some famous movie stars’ seals, such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Jet Lee and many others), and there is a light show every day at 8:00 pm.- the biggest light show in the world, across the whole Victoria harbour.
– Hong Kong island skyscrapers zone
It is the most thick skyscrapers zone in the world- a maze of skyscrapers, streets in their eternal shadows, overpass alleys and subways, with many trade centers, malls and all kind of luxury buildings. And here you can visit Hong Kong’s symbol- the Bauhinia flower.
– Victoria Peak
It is the main peak of Hong Kong island. You can take the famous tram from Hong Kong skyscrapers zone to the peak. Then there is a Sky Terrace on the peak, offering 360° panorama. The tram tickets are 37 HKD one way and 52 HKD two ways. And if you want to include the Sky terrace, the tickets are 84 with one way and 99 HKD for two ways.
– Lantau Island
It is a big island southwest of the main city zone. There are only small quarters and villages, as well as the Hong Kong airport. The rest of the island is a mountain land, covered with rich subtropical forest. And there is a giant Buddha statue on its peak, called Tian Tan Buddha, as well as Po Lin monastery. And of course- great panoramic views all the way. You can go there by train to Tung Chung station, then take the Ngong Ping cable car. A Standard Cable car round trip is 210 HKD.
– Mong Kok （旺角）and Yau Ma Tei （油麻地）
This is the shopping zone of Hong Kong- a thick colorful jungle of malls, various kinds of shops, restaurants, small hotels, markets and advertisements. Here you can visit the Ladies market- the most famous of the markets of Hong Kong and buy many things with bargain opportunities. Or just to enjoy the typical city atmosphere of the city.
There are many other places in Hong Kong, such as Disneyland, Repulse Bay sea resort, many local fishing villages, small islands, mountains, even some small wild beaches with camping sites.
A BASIC ITINERARY FOR FIRST TIME CHINA TRAVEL
In this itinerary, I recommend Shanghai as a starting point and Hong Kong as leaving point.
Arrive in Shanghai. By Maglev move to the city center. Depending on the time of arrival, the first day you can just walk around the streets near your hotel, for your first Chinese impressions.
Shanghai: exploring the city. Go to People’s Square (by metro or other transport), then walk on Nanjing road to the east, to The Bund. Then you can cross the Huangpu river by a regular ferry (2 yuan in one direction), and walk around Lujiazui. In Lujiazui, you can visit the Orient Pearl TV tower and the other points of the area. Then back to The Bund and walk to Yu garden and the Old town complex. If you have more time, you can walk around the modern quarters in Shanghai. Then evening is worth to back to The Bund and watch the stunning night skyscraper’s landscape. Accommodation: hotel in Shanghai.
Shanghai- Hangzhou – Suzhou: In the morning you can go to Hangzhou by speed train or bus, from Shanghai South railway station (you can reach there by metro). If you travel by bus, you will arrive in Hangzhou for about 2 hours. Then you can go to visit West Lake, walk around and have lunch. At afternoon take the bus to Suzhou. You can make a night walk around Suzhou Old town. Accommodation: Suzhou hotel
Suzhou – Beijing: In the morning and noon you can proceed walking around the gardens and Old quarters of Suzhou. Then at afternoon, you can take the speed train to Beijing (for about 5 hours), the airplane to Beijing, or the slow train in a sleeping carriage (it is slower, but you can avoid the hotel in Beijing).
Beijing: Exploring Beijing: Start from Tiananmen Square. Then enter the Forbidden city and proceed beyond its northern gate- to Jingshan and Beihai parks, or Hutong quarter and South Luogu street. You can use rickshaw for faster (and more attractive) moving. Then at afternoon proceed by metro to The Temple of Heaven. Finally evening is the best time for Wangfujing street and its live market with a lot of souvenirs and exotic things to eat (such as scorpions and many others). Accommodation: Beijing
Beijing: Now is time for the Great Wall of China. The best way to go there is by One day tour, which you can apply at least a day before. The other ways include trains, taxis or buses, but they are not so convenient, since they are too slow, leading not exactly to the Wall gate, or too expensive. So, if you go there by a tour, usually it includes Ming 13 Tombs destinations- the tombs of Ming emperors, and back to Beijing at afternoon. Then they guide you to the Olympic complex, the spot of the Olympic games in 2008. Accommodation: Beijing hotel
Beijing – Xi’an: There is one more important destination in Beijing- the Summer Palace. And morning is a good time to visit it. Then you can go to the airport, or to Beijing West railway station, where you can go to Xi’an by speed train, again for around 5 hours. You can spend the evening walking in the center of Xi’an, around Drum and Clock towers, and the big market and food street nearby. Accommodation: Xi’an hotel
Xi’an – Kunming: Now is time to explore the best landmarks of Xi’an- the Terracotta Army Museum and Qin Shihuan tomb. Again- the best way to do it is by organized tour. Or you can go there by city bus or taxi. However bus or taxi is better to use here, than to the Great Wall. Then at afternoon you back to Xi’an and proceed to Xi’an airport. The best way to go to the next destination is by plane. You arrive in Kunming at evening and you can spend the rest of the day walking around the city or relaxing.
Kunming – Dali: In the morning you can visit the Village of the Tribes and explore the culture of Yunnan minorities. Then you can go by bus or by train (the last proper train is in 11:15 am) to Dali. You arrive at late afternoon, move to the Old town of Dali, a enjoy the nice evening in there. Accommodation: Dali hotel or hostel
Dali – Lijiang: In the morning you can make a walk (the best way is by bike) on Ear lake coast. Then you can visit Dali’s famous landmark- The Three Pagodas. Finally at afternoon you can take the bus from Old town bus station to Lijiang. You arrive to Lijiang at late afternoon or evening, and you can enjoy Lijiang Old town’s evening life. Accommodation: Lijiang
Lijiang – Shangri La: This day you can touch the feeling of the Tibetan civilization. But before that you can make a trip to Nephrite Dragon Mt. There you can take the lift to the high zones (but remember, you can feel uncomfortable, since the lift goes up to 4400 m altitude, so if you are not sure about your acclimatization, it is better to go only to the small lift on the mountain’s north side- only to 3200 m. Then you back to Lijiang and take the bus to Shangri La. You can arrive there at late afternoon or evening. Then you can enjoy a Tibetan life performance in one of the Tibetan traditional houses. Accommodation: Shangri La
Shangri La – Guilin: There is a flight from Shangri La to Guilin at noon (13:50, for around 2750 yuan). Until that time, you can spend the morning walking in the Old town, exploring the biggest prayer wheel in the world and even walk on the nearby grasslands. Then you take the plain to Guilin, which transfers in Xi’an and arrive to Guilin at 20:40. Accommodation: Guilin
Guilin: This day you can explore Guilin city and its landmarks, and take a cruise on Lijiang river. Then you can go to Yangshuo. You arrive there at afternoon and enjoy the beautiful local evening in its Old town. Accommodation: Yangshuo
Guilin – Hong Kong: In the morning you can back by bus to Guilin and take the plane to Hong Kong at 11:25am (the price is around 1415 yuan). You arrive in Hong Kong at 12:55. After you put your luggage in the hotel, you can spend the afternoon and evening walking in Kowloon and Hong Kong island’s central parts, shopping in Mong Kok area, walk-in Tsim Sha Tsui, cross to Hong Kong island by ferry, walk-in Hong Kong island and back to Tsim Sha Tsui. I recommend to back to Tsim Sha Tsui before 20:00 at evening, thus you can watch the light show across the straight. Accommodation: Hong Kong hotel.
Hong Kong, last day: This day you can go to Hong Kong island again and travel by tram to Victoria Peak. There you can enjoy the stunning view of the city and the whole mountain & sea area. The rest of the day can be used for relaxing, shopping or even a short trip to some nearby small island, such as Changzhou or Lamma island. Or you can go to Lantau island, then to its peak by cable car. Everything according to the time of your flight. You can fly this day evening or next day morning.
OTHER VERSIONS OF THE BASIC ITINERARY
If 15 days is too long time for you, but you still want to make an introductory trip to China, which destination can you skip? I propose you can skip Yunnan, and fly directly from Xi’an to Guilin. Why? Because Yunnan can be “reserved” for another trip, related with another topic- for example, Tibet, part of Southeast Asia, or South China minority areas (Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi). Thus your itinerary can be reduced to 11 days. And another reason is that Yunnan part of the trip is the most difficult and expensive (from the transport point of view).
EXTENDED BASIC TRIP TO CHINA
If you have more time and want to add more to this itinerary, which destinations are proper to visit? There are a lot of places in China (China is a very rich of travel points country), but I would recommend the following destinations:
Chengdu （成都）– the capital of Sichuan province- another big city, full of unique culture, long history, and attractions, famous with one of the symbols of China- the giant panda. It can be added to the itinerary between Xi’an and Kunming.
Avatar mountain (Zhang Jia Jie， 张家界) in Hunan province- it is an amazing place with an almost unreal landscape, with relief forms quite reminding of the movie Avatar. It can be added between Shangri La and Guilin.
Huashan mountain （华山） in Shaanxi province. It is a breathtaking place with extreme landscapes and adrenaline attractions. It is near Xi’an, so you can add two more days to visit it before proceeding to Kunming.
Three Gorges on Yangtze River （长江三峡）. It is a canyon on the Yangtze, with stunning views of the river and the surrounding mountains. Traditionally there are cruises arranged from Chongqing city. It can be added between Xi’an and Kunming.
Deqin and Meili Snow mountain （梅里雪山）. Meili Snow mountain, with its highest peak Kawagebo (6774 m) is one of the most beautiful mountains in China. When you arrive in Shangri La, before you proceed to Guilin, you can make a few days trip by bus to Deqin, then to Meili Snow mountain’s glaciers (it is worth to do it if you go in May or late September to November, because summer is the rainy season time and it is almost impossible to see the beauty of Meili Snow mountain, which will be hidden in clouds and fog).
Shaolin monastery （少林寺）. This monastery is famous for its kung-fu art, presented in many movies. It is located in Henan province and this destination can be added between Suzhou and Beijing, or between Beijing and Xi’an.
BEST TIME FOR THE TRIP
Since we are talking mainly about Eastern China, the climate in a large part of it is sub-tropical, and moderate in the north. Spring is usually more rainy and wet. Summer is very hot and wet too. Winter is cool, it can be quite cold in the north too. But the main problem is that there is no interior heating in South China (usually there is a heating in some more expensive hotels, using the hot air conditioner, but not all). So, in my opinion, the best time for a basic China trip is in autumn. But avoid the days between September 25 and October 10, because the first one week of October is the Chinese National holiday and during that time, including the few days before and after it, millions of Chinese go to travel, and it may be impossible to buy any tickets. Besides, all these destinations are usually extremely crowded, and many roads are blocked by a traffic jam.
China is a country that requires a visa for most foreigners. There are exceptions for only a few countries for a limited stay in China without a visa, such as UAE, Serbia, Bosnia, Singapore, and few more. All other foreigners must obtain a Chinese visa in advance from any Chinese embassy or consulate. Foreigners can also obtain a tourist visa (L) from Hong Kong, which has a different visa policy. The cost is different for the different countries. Now there are some areas around the big cities in China, where 72 or 144 hours visa-free stay is allowed, but not for all countries. And of course, it is not proper for the first trip to China. About Hong Kong- it is visa-free for most of the countries, again for different periods of time. For more information see visa policy of China and visa policy of Hong Kong.
CURRENCY AND CHANGE
The official currency in China is the Chinese Yuan (RMB). Currently 1 USD = 6.35 RMB. There are no change street offices in China (there are some exceptions only at some border areas), and the only way to change money is in the local banks. Or you can use your bank card too.
In Hong Kong the currency is different- it is Hong Kong Dollar (HKD) and there are change offices in Hong Kong. Currently 1 USD = 7,85 HKD.
So when you arrive in Shanghai, it is better you exchange some USD for RMB in the airport, but not too much, because the rate is higher there. Then go to a normal bank in Shanghai and exchange more. Have in mind that the change procedure is slow, you must show your passport and to be patient for at least 5 mins. after your turn on the queue comes.
Same when arriving in Hong Kong, but later you can change your USD or remained RMB much easier and faster in every change office on the street (and there are a lot around Tsim Sha Tsui and nearby).
For the first trip to China, since the distances are huge in this large country, the most proper are the fast ways of transport- airplane and speed train. The normal slow train can be used too and you can sleep on the train, instead of the hotel in a city.
Domestic flights are the most proper way of transport between the main destinations of China since the distances are very long. The price between the big cities is usually cheaper- average around 500 to 800 RMB between Shanghai and Beijing, Beijing and Xi’an, Xi’an and Kunming. And the best time to buy air tickets is 20 to 30 days before the flight- the cheapest tickets can be found usually at that time. The price between the smaller airports is usually more expensive- 1200, 1500, even 2000 RMB and more, but again, 20-30 days before the flight you can find the cheapest price. The flight time between the main destinations is usually around 1:30 or 2 hours
The speed train network system is rapidly developing for the last 10 years. Usually, the time of the trip between the main destinations is around 4-5 hours. It can be used between Shanghai, Suzhou, and Beijing, Beijing, and Xi’an, Guilin, and Shenzhen, then to Hong Kong. The price is usually around 400 – 500 RMB and is stable. However, it is often impossible to buy tickets directly from the railway station, some 30 mins before departure. So it is better to buy tickets online. There are many convenient websites for selling tickets, but most of them in Chinese. The best website that foreigners can use is www.english.ctrip.com. Highly recommend buying tickets at least 10 days before departure, otherwise, there may be no seats. Then, when you go to the railway station, you have to go to the ticket office, give your passport with the number of booking, and they will give you the paper ticket, which you must keep until arrival and go out of the railway station.
Usually, the travel time of the slow train between the main destinations is 10 to 15 hours, even more. But it is convenient if you want to save money. First- it is cheaper: the price for “hard sleeping carriage” is usually around 250-350 RMB, for “soft sleeping carriage”- around 500 RMB. And second, you will save money for a hotel, because you will sleep on the train. “Hard sleeping carriage” has 6 narrow beds (3 on the left and 3 on the right) and there is no door for the compartment. “Soft sleeping carriage” has 4 beds (2 on the lest, 2 on the right), there is a door which can be locked, and there is a charger for your mobile. For the shorter distances such as Kunming to Dali (less than 7 hours), you can buy just a seat ticket. Another good thing is that slow train is a good way to meet and talk with locals (if you can resolve successfully the language barrier). Again- there are many people traveling by slow train, so buy tickets in advance, including seat tickets! The procedure is same as the speed train.
There are long-distance sleeping buses between the main destinations, but it is more difficult to buy tickets in advance. So it is not a proper option between Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Kunming, Guilin and Hong Kong. However, the bus is convenient and the only proper option between some near destinations, such as Lijiang to Shangri La, Yangshuo to Guilin, Hangzhou to Suzhou. There are many buses daily traveling on these routes, but again, it would be better to buy tickets as early as possible (but no need to be 10 days in advance, actually in most cases its impossible). The price for these short distance routes is around 80 to 150 RMB.
In China is not allowed to use your non-Chinese driving license. You must have a Chinese driving license in order to drive a car in China. If you try to rent a car, they will reject if you don’t have it. The only way to travel by car is if you hire a driver, or travel with a friend with Chinese driving license. However, it is inconvenient to do it for the long distance routes since you don’t back to the start point- it is possible but more expensive. But it can be convenient for some short distances if you are a bigger group which can share the money. The price can be around 1000 RMB per day.
Taxis, “Di Di cars” and motorcycles:
They are convenient inside the cities. Taxis and motorcycles can be stopped directly on the street (usually you can’t call them in advance, and it is very unlikely they would know English). Motorcycles are not expensive and they are used usually in the smaller cities and towns- they would require around 5 to 15 RMB (depending on the distance), but you can bargain. Taxis are more expensive- within a big city they can charge 30 to 100 RMB, even more (I say it roughly, having in mind the size of the big cities), and usually, they use the counter. I recommend you require using the counter. Some of them say final price before departure, but it is often higher than the real price from the counter. “DiDi cars” are very popular among the Chinese- they are just normal private cars, which have to be ordered in advance and pay at any time (but only online, using the Chinese chat WeChat). But it is inconvenient for foreigners. However, since they are cheaper than the taxis, you can ask the hotel reception to order for you.
Public city bus:
It is slower of course but cheaper and with more “local feeling” than the taxis. Usually, the price is 2 RMB, no matter the distance if it is within the city zone. For the suburbs, it can be a little more expensive, but not too much. You just need to have some little money (many coins or banknotes of 1 yuan), then enter the bus from the front door and put the money in the box. Of course, you have to know the numbers and routes of the buses, and since everything is in Chinese, you can ask the hotel for help.
There is a metro system in every big city in China now. It is very convenient too since it is free of a traffic jam on the street (which is very possible in the big cities). Usually, the price is between 2 and 8 RMB, depending on the distance. You have to prepare banknotes of 5 and 10 RMB, you have to know your destination metro station, get a metro coin from the machine and you are in.
There are some destinations, where biking is really a pleasure. One of these places is Dali, in Yunnan. There are rent-a-bike points in many of the destinations, mainly near the parks.
The food in China is richly variable, depending on the geographical area. It is saltier and a little spicy in the north (around Beijing). More sweet taste can be experienced in Shanghai and the area around. Xi’an’s food has some Muslim influences, featuring tiny bread as one of the specialties. Yunnan and South China food is more tasteless, or just with weaker taste. There are two areas, famous for their spicy food, however, they are not included in the main itinerary, but in the additional destinations. The first one Sichuan food, famous for its spicy-fragrant taste, and the other one is Hunan, the most strong spicy food in China.
It may be difficult for some more sensitive foreigners to eat the Chinese food, and there are no much other options. There are some western restaurants, where you can eat pizza, spaghetti and some steaks. And there is a lot of McDonald’s and KFC fast food. But there is almost no chance to find a western, salty bread, as well as western cheese, only in some big mall supermarkets.
There are few ways to serve meals in the restaurants of China. The most simple way is in the small stalls- just order your meal (usually noodles, dumplings or something else), often with soup. The other way is in the bigger restaurant- few people eat together on a round table, and there are few dishes in the middle. Everybody can eat from every dish. Everybody can have a bowl of soup or rice. The Chinese usually don’t have drinks during the meals, but you can order. Another more special way is Hot Pot dish in some restaurants- the meal is cooking in front of you, you add the raw products in the pot by yourself and eat when you feel the products are ready. If you order chicken, duck or other bird, it usually comes with the bones, cut in many pieces. One of the few exceptions is the “Emperor chicken”, from Sichuan and North China, where the chicken is in small pieces without bones.
There are various kinds of hotels in China. The prices are usually cheap- for an average hotel, the price is between 150 and 300 RMB. For more luxury hotels- up to 500 and more.
However, notice! There are many hotels in China with do not accept foreigners! Usually, the hotels from Booking and Agoda accept foreigners, but not necessary. Until recently, we have been in some hotels which don’t have a license to accept foreigners, anyway they have been registered in the international Booking.com, just because the control from the government is more weak in their area. But this year (2018) the things are strengthened and the control is more serious. The hotels which accepted foreigners illegally before, now are afraid to accept, but at the same time, they still keep their names in Booking.com. You make a reservation, go there and they tell you “sorry, from last month we can’t accept foreigners”. So the only way is when you book a hotel in advance, you send a message to them to confirm can they accept you!
Beside this, there are many nice hostels in backpacking-adventurous style everywhere in the big cities, at cheap prices- usually around 40-50RMB per bed. So you can go there too, they are traditionally all presented in Booking and Agoda websites.
About Hong Kong, however, have in mind that the hotel prices are much more expensive than in Mainland China. The cheapest option is the famous Chongqing Mansion at Tsim Sha Tsui, as well as few other smaller cheap hotel buildings. These mansions are made with many small separate budget hotels, usually with few rooms- often 2, 3 or more such hotels in a floor. It is a little mess, the rooms are very small, but you can sleep there for 150-200 HKD.
MOBILE SIM CARDS
There are three main Mobile companies in China- China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom. The last is practically useless because although is cheapest, its SIM cards are incompatible with the non-Chinese mobile phones. For more information see How to buy the best SIM card in China..
Have in mind that all the international Social Media in China are blocked. You can’t visit Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, as well as Youtube, Vimeo, all of Google products and some others. The only way is to buy VPN in advance and install in your mobile or laptop. Almost all free VPN software is useless recently, even you install it, you still can’t enter Facebook.
SCAMS AND SAFETY
China is a very safe country. Guns are strictly forbidden for the people, except for the police and army. So the problems for you as a foreigner are related mainly with cheating and overcharging. When someone comes to China (and any other country), he or she is very exciting, everything is just a happy holiday vacation. However, in some people’s eyes, you can be just a “rich and stupid walking bank”. Some locals think that every foreigner is VERY rich, so they don’t hesitate to cheat foreigners if they see a chance. Fortunately is it very seldom, especially in the big cities where people are enough educated and their behavior is just normal and friendly.
Be aware of a “tea ceremony” scam. It has been very popular in Shanghai recently. Some young, friendly looking people (mainly girls) can come to you (if you are a man), firstly talk to with you very nice, just a friendly conversation, showing interest in the “other culture”. Then they tell you that “today is a festival of the tea” and invite you to see a tea ceremony. If you follow them, they guide you to a tea shop, usually somewhere in a hidden small street place, play a “tea ceremony” in front of you (which is not necessary to be authentic) and finally charge you with more than 1000 RMB.
Another problem may appear in the nightclubs if you try to be too close to some girls. There may be some boys who don’t like it and don’t like foreigners.
Also hold your belongings more carefully in the crowded places, there may be people who would secretly rob you.
COSTS AND FINAL CONCLUSION
So, what is the final conclusion and cost for a first time China trip?
Tourist visa: let’s say average 80 USD
Accommodation: For budget- following the basic itinerary, you have 13 nights in Mainland China and 1 or 2 nights in Hongkong. Let’s say average around 150 RMB per room in China and 250 HKD in Hong Kong (if you sleep in Chongqing Mansion or some other hotel mansion nearby), and the total is around 2000-2200 RMB average.
Transport: Planes- Beijing to Xi’an, Xi’an to Kunming and Guilin to Hongkong- average 800 RMB x 3 = 2400 RMB. Plane Shangri La to Guilin is more expensive- 1500 RMB. Speed train Suzhou to Beijing- 524 RMB. Shanghai-Hangzhou-Suzhou buses- total average around 180 RMB. Buses Kunming-Dali-Lijiang-Shangri La- total around 300 RMB.
Food: usually around 80-150 RMB per day (for budget travelers), but it can be cheaper if you eat only in small local fast food restaurants.
Additional transport (motorcycles, taxis within the city, public city bus, etc.): average around 2 to 10 USD per day. Maglev in Shanghai (from the airport to the city)- 50 RMB
Destinations entrance fees:
It can be different, but you can calculate around 1800 RMB for fees and short tours.
And of course, always prepare some more additional money. I mean not only for gifts and souvenirs but for various urgent cases.
So let’s say totally around 1500 – 1700 USD only within China. It is for the basic itinerary trip that I introduced above.
This information is for your first reference. Of course, there is a lot of detailed information about every destination, as well as every other detail of the trip. But I hope this article can help for planning your first trip to China.
Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.