If you’re visiting China for the first time, it can be a pretty intense cultural experience. It’s a vast country, with huge cities and sweeping landscapes, not to mention an enormous population. Whether it’s architecture, history, culture, or natural splendour, China doesn’t do things by halves; think the Great Wall, the giant Buddha at Leshan, the snow-capped peaks at Tiger Leaping Gorge, the sacred mountain of Emei Shan, and the Forbidden City in Beijing. To help take the edge off the overwhelm, here’s a few things to bear in mind before your overland trip to China.
You need a Visa to enter China
China doesn’t offer visas on arrival like many other Asian countries, and you’ll need to allow plenty of time to arrange your visa before your date of travel. The application procedure is different from country to country; if you’re a traveller from the UK between the ages of 14 and 70 inclusive, you need to make your application in person at a Visa Application Centre, during which you’ll have your fingerprints scanned.
There are agencies which can help you fill in the necessary paperwork in advance, and who can often minimise your waiting time when you arrive at the Visa Application Centre. Obviously there’s a cost to using these services, but it does make the process much simpler.
Carry your passport with you
It’s also a good idea to keep your passport close to hand throughout your trip to China, as you’ll need to present it at each hotel desk and at the entrance to most museums and other tourist attractions.
Also bear in mind that your passport will need to have at least six months’ validity in order to enter China.
You’ll need a VPN to access many popular websites
In China, many popular websites such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and a lot of news websites, are blocked by the Great Firewall. If you want to access these websites while in China, you’ll need to get a VPN (Virtual Private Network) before you arrive.
In simple terms, a VPN allows your phone, tablet or computer to connect to another device, or server, somewhere on the internet and browse the web using that device – so by connecting to a device in another country, it will appear as if your web traffic is coming from that country. There are many different VPNs available, such as ExpressVPN and NordVPN, but a quick web search should help you find one which best suits your needs.
Download maps and translations before you travel
It’s a good idea to download city maps and dictionaries offline before you travel – especially if you choose not to use a VPN. Since Google isn’t available in China, you can’t download maps to use offline with Google Maps, but Maps.me is an excellent alternative, which includes most of the trekking trails you’ll follow too! The Google Translate app does work offline, and its camera function can be particularly useful in China for translating hanzi (Chinese characters) on food menus, etc.
Don’t leave a tip
Tipping in China is uncommon, and in some situations is even considered rude or embarrassing. Some travellers report having been chased down the street in order to have a tip they’d left on the table returned to them.
Similarly, when offering and receiving money, it is considered polite to do so with both hands.
Carry cash and use ATMs for withdrawals
Although mobile payment methods such as WeChat Wallet, Alipay, and Apple Pay are becoming more and more common, cash is still accepted throughout China, and is easiest for Western travellers. Foreigner-friendly Chinese banks include the Bank of China and ICBC, although there are many others - just make sure you see the logos for Visa and MasterCard above the ATM. If you need help locating an ATM, just let your tour leaders know and they can point you in the right direction.
Don’t drink the tap water
Tap water in China is not safe to drink, unless it has been boiled. Bottled water is cheap and widely available, but in line with Dragoman’s Responsible Travel Policy, we encourage all our passengers to bring their own water bottles which can be refilled from the 350-litre drinking water tank on board each of our trucks in order to minimise our use of single-use plastics. Dragoman passengers are also eligible for a 25% discount on Water-To-Go refillable water bottles. Water-to-Go’s filtration system removes up to 99.99% of microbiological contaminants in water.
It’s safe to use the tap water in China to brush your teeth, take a bath or shower, and to wash your face, hands and clothes.
Watch out for traffic – even on the pavement
Traffic in China can be pretty chaotic, even on the pavement – you’ll encounter a lot of Chinese people driving scooters along the pedestrian walkways. Although Chinese drivers are usually pretty alert, it never hurts to keep your own wits about you.
Fortunately, if you’ve chosen to join an overland group tour, you won’t have to drive on the roads yourself, and are free to enjoy the stunning scenery without worrying!
Prepare for a different kind of bathroom experience...
Although hotel toilets in China are normally the kind you’re used to, many public toilets in China are squat toilets, and at some point during your trip, particularly as we journey off the beaten track, you may well have to use one... If you want to avoid it, make sure you plan ahead and use the toilets in the hotels and guesthouses before you head out. Squat toilets aren’t all that bad, however, and in fact many people believe squatting is better for your system.
It’s also a good idea to bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer when using public bathrooms, as this isn’t always available. Both will be available to you on the Dragoman truck.
Eat where the locals do
Whether you’re dining in a restaurant or choosing among street food vendors, check to see where the locals are dining. If there are plenty of people waiting, it’s probably a good choice. On your Dragoman Overland trip, your group will be accompanied by a local Chinese guide, and when you dine as a group they’ll help you choose the best places to eat.
Most restaurants will only provide you with chopsticks to begin with, but often you can request other cutlery if you’d prefer.
Chinese people don’t queue and aren’t worried about personal space
When waiting for something, whether it’s street food or a shuttle bus, don’t stand patiently in line – instead do as the locals do and just get in there. And don’t take it personally if you get jostled or elbowed. It’s just the way they do it.
Be prepared to have your picture taken
Western travellers are still relatively uncommon in China, so expect to be stopped occasionally and asked to have your picture taken. You may also notice people taking your picture from a distance, sometimes subtly, sometimes not-so-subtly.
Similarly, the Dragoman truck draws a lot of attention in China, especially when we head off the tourist trail and into some of the country’s more remote regions.
Don’t worry – China is safe
China is a safe country for travellers. Because it has such tight security measures in place, it has a very low crime rate, and it’s possible to feel completely at ease as you walk about, even when you venture away from the tourist hotspots.
That said, Chinese locals are very friendly and welcoming, and it’s hard to believe that even in the absence of such a strict regime that they’d be any different. Most people seem genuinely curious about why you’re visiting China and what you think about their country, and some might even ask you to help them practice their English.