Travel China Independantly

Want to travel China independently but don’t speak Chinese? With a little planning you can easily travel around China without a tour.

If you’re thinking about travelling China independently, but are hesitant about language difficulties; book that cheap flight to Guangzhao or Kunming because it’s never been easier to travel China without a tour, using these handy travel tips.

Quick facts

  • Capital ~ Beijing
  • Currency ~ Chinese Yuan (AUD1 = CNY5)
  • Languages ~ Chinese Mandarin (North), Chinese Cantonese (South), English (limited in rural areas)
  • Airport Gateways ~ Shanghai (SHA), Beijing (BJS or PEK), Guangzhou (CAN), Chengdu (CTU), Xi’an (XIY), Kunming (KMG) and Xiamen (XMN).

How travelling in China has changed in 30 years

My first trip to China was in 1989. I was 11 years old and mum and I caught the slow-boat from Hong Kong to Shanghai. It was the first cruise I’d been on and despite the oddities (everyone was walking around in their pyjamas from 5pm and at breakfast, they served rice and dust, which I later found out was called pork floss). There was nine other foreign backpackers on the boat, and coincidently we had all booked the same accommodation; an orphanage-styled hostel called the Peace Hotel with huge rooms, twenty single beds, all evenly spaced apart. The Russian embassy was opposite and at night, we caused quite a flutter, flashing torch lights into the embassy; someone always flashed back. If only I knew morse code I might have been privy to some top secrets.

Smoking was commonplace (still is) and every stairwell, lift entrance or doorway was marked by a large pot (40cm/ a foot high) filled with all the slimy expulsions of many passerby’s. On the wide and dusty streets of Shanghai, everyone rode bicycles and wore dark blue pants and shirts. Back then, there was two currencies, one for locals (Renminbi) and one for foreigners (Yuan) which meant we paid up to ten times more than locals.

Thankfully, the spittoons are mostly gone (as odd as China’s government policies seem to western nations, when things need to change, they get stuff done.) Since then, entire cities have been constructed to move villages out of the flood zone for the Three Gorges Dam. The largest engineering project on the planet, which was over a hundred years in the planning. Panda’s have been brought back from near extinction through an IVF program at the Chengdu Panda Research Base and the first group to be released into the wild is happening, any moment.
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© Jade Jackson

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Found only in China, pandas were almost wiped to extinction but through a breeding program, cleverly funded by zoos worldwide (by renting out pandas to zoos worldwide), China has brought them back from near extinction. You can never have too many pandas in your life. Image is high resultion and can be printed up to 500mm X 700mm without any loss of quality.

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I’ve been to China six times since ’89 (including traveling the Trans-Mongolian Railway) and on my most recent trip which was to attend the grand opening of Shanghai Disneyland. Other highlights worth considering are:

  • Guangzhou – 2 Hours by train from Hong Kong and the home of Yum-Cha, famous for it’s dumplings.
  • Kunming – Pleasent weather all year round and close to the Kingdom of the Little People
  • Chengdu – Famous for it’s Panda Research Base which has bred so many they have saved them from extinction
  • Xi’an – Famous for being a walled city and near the Terracotta Warriors
  • Yichang- Closest city to the Three Gorges Dam
  • Huangzhao – The Venice of China, a wooden town, built on water which houses the foot-binding museum (2 hours by bus from Shanghai)
  • Shanghai – Huge metropolis of European and ancient Chinese architecture, now home to Disneyland

Getting money, booking hotels and flights.

So much has changed in China in recent years, yet getting money out of ATM’s or paying with credit cards is just as difficult, as trying to obtain Chinese Renminbi off the black market was, back in 1989.

What makes it confusing is there are multiple banks with similar names like Bank of China (can withdraw cash with foreign cards), Peoples Bank of China, China Bank etc. Often, the ATM’s would run out of money and wouldn’t be filled again for a few days. I had a China Union Pay travel money card (from Australia Post) which is the leading credit card in China, but it didn’t always allow cash-out at ATM’s. I was however, able to make purchases in shops using EFTPOS, with my China Union Pay Card. Look for the Visa or MasterCard logo on ATM’s before using.

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©️ Jade Jackson

Booking Independent Travel

If you’re trying to book public transport in China, all sites require a Chinese cell-phone number, as a security precaution, which makes it difficult to book independent travel before arrival. Obtaining a pre-paid sim-card involved walking around to several convenience and phone stores before one would finally sell one to me, but I felt like I was doing an ‘under the table’ type deal. It was cheap, about CNY100 and included enough credit for a week. I was still able to receive calls without credit.

Flights and trains

The first app you should download in preparation is Trip.comit’s a travel booking site, that can arrange hotels, flights, and trains, all in real time, the same price as the provider (with a small service fee, which for convenient sake was totally worth it) and you can use your foreign credit card through the app). Trip.com (previously known as C-Trip) even refunded me without asking, because after purchasing a 1st class train ticket, I was downgraded and they refunded the difference. There are plenty of travel agencies in China, but most only speak Chinese and weren’t keen on booking a foreigner.
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©️ Jade Jackson

Airports in China are impressive on a grand scale. Built for the masses, some are so large, it’s not possible to see the last baggage carousel because it’s too far away. As a result of massive government spending on airports, there has been a huge boost in airlines starting up, to take advantage of this, and with China’s long distances to cover, air-travel makes sense.

All flights I took domestically in China (including Lucky Air, Xiamen Airlines, Jun Yeo Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern and Hainan Airlines) were on new Airbus A319’s or A320’s, with professional cabin crew. Seemingly gone are the days of ex-Russian planes being used for passenger transport in China.

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©️ Jade Jackson

Accommodation
I used Agoda , booking accommodation, a few days in advance. There’s a growing list of hotel chains becoming more prevalent such as Lavende Hotels (clean, simple apartments) and Accor has purchased a few Chinese chains, to expand it’s presence to the ever traveling Chinese domestic market. You can easily find a decent four or five star hotel for between AUD$50-AUD$80 per night, often including breakfast. There’s a big difference in standards between paying AUD$30 a night and AUD$50 a night so if you want to be comfortable, and can afford it, opt for the latter.

Using the internet in China is difficult. You can’t just Google flight prices and make a booking because Google is banned; which also means Gmail doesn’t work, as well as facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. All so the Chinese government can filter the information it’s people receive.

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©️ Jade Jackson

It was something I was aware of, but didn’t think about the practical applications until I needed to check my emails and book a flight. WeChat and Weibo is the Chinese equivalent of facebook and don’t be surprised if people ask to add you on WeChat to practice their english. My iCloud email account linked, to my phone worked fine because iPhones are sold in China. Yahoo search engine also worked and I was able to access some specific websites, like an airline website, if I was able to remember their site address. Once I discovered the Trip.com app, I just used that for all my flights and trains.

Previously, most Chinese used a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to access international sites, however the latest news is there is a Government crackdown on these and so their access was being blocked as well. I recently read an article on The Guardian News website, about a guy who received jail time, and a fine for selling access to a VPN.

Having a translation app is handy but many require internet use so find one that works offline. English is widely spoken in big cities like Shanghai, but less so in rural areas. I used Speak & Translate. Many hotels and coffee shops have WiFi, so you could plan ahead some phrases you might need to say (if you don’t have a download function), and keep screenshots. Google translate also has a download language function so it can be used offline and thus work in China. It can use your phones camera function to translate Chinese characters in live-view mode so you can figure out restaurant menus, although many restaurants had pictures of food you could order from as well.

Many cities have tourist transport cards that allow for unlimited travel for buses and metro trains for 1,3 or 5 days, which work out exceptional value and saves the hassle of trying to figure out the cost of where you need to get to each time. There can also be big queues in peak-hour. Also be aware of last trains as some lines finish as early as 7pm. Many stations only have steps so be prepared for plenty of walking up and and down many flights in a day. With a large population, expect to be bumped into, be pushed and squished on trains which are the tools to use, if you wish to have a seat.

Most recently I noticed costs had risen dramatically, and were on-par with costs in Australia. Cities were all starting to look the same, with central shopping districts, often with the same shops repeated and American fast food chains were more prominent.

Scams to look out for

A common trait if you book a cheap room, is for it to not include air conditioning (or it’s broken). I complained and was then put in a room with air-conditioning each time, but it happened all too often, so good idea to check before unpacking.

Some sights and attractions are only accessible by private car (Three Gorges Dam, Kingdom of the Little People) and hotel staff should be able to assist you in organizing a private driver. It’s more expensive than taxi’s but taxi’s won’t always take you if it’s too far. Always look up directions before getting in a taxi, they don’t always know or will feign it, happily driving up the metre ‘looking’ for your destination or taking the scenic route. For some reason, Yichang taxi’s were the worst and many refused to put the meter on when travelling to/from the airport because it works out cheaper (about CNY80-100), compared to the flat rate they ask for, which is usually around CNY400-500.

Likewise, all massages (there are lots of spruikers in shopping districts) will try and upsell you with a shower, a face mask, scented oil, facial, manicure, pedicure etc and if you refuse, they will get annoyed and give you a single finger back massage (basically just poking and prodding your back) whilst they chat to their friends on their cell phone. So a CNY40 massage can easily turn into a CNY500 massage if you say yes to everything.

For more detailed information about China, then you should consider buying the Lonely Planet Guide to China. Get it from the Book Depository for the cheapest price with free shipping!

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Modernisation can also be good

The train network in China is excellent and they are constantly building new lines and faster trains. The Maglev line between Shanghai Airport and downtown travels at over 400kph and takes 8mins, a trip that by taxi will take at least an hour. Avoid any travel in golden week (first week in October), you won’t get anywhere or see anything because all of China is on holiday too.

Likewise with the rise of middle-income families, there has been a surge in Chinese Airlines, mostly using brand-new Airbus A320’s. I flew so many different airlines, it got to the stage I wasn’t sure of the name of the airline I was flying with, until I got on the plane. Most include a snack or occasionally a full meal. Being Cabin Crew is a prestigious career for a young Chinese woman and the recruitment process includes a requirement of a university degree, a swimsuit line-up, and a strength test. Moral of the story, don’t mess with a Chinese flight attendant, they’ll outwit you, knock you out, and look fabulous doing it.

These days foreigners can stay in selected cities like Shanghai and Beijing for up to six days, without a visa. If you venture to other cities or stay longer, you’ll most likely need a visa. Obtaining a visa seems complicated when you fill out the application form, but the whole process is pretty straightforward, if you physically go to the visa processing office. Best to make an appointment in advance, otherwise you’ll be waiting hours.

China has a fascinating history, and has been running it’s own show for thousands of years, and offers unique sights and incredible food; with the increase of Chinese tourists traveling abroad, flight prices to China are now cheaper than ever. Make the most of it and explore a unique country, who’s a leader in implementing change.

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