Try to avoid travelling before Chinese New Year when transport services are very strained (Paolo Camera)
Article Words : Simon Lewis | 01 January

Travel in China: frequently asked questions

From climate to etiquette, language to trains, China expert Simon Lewis tackles the commonest questions from China first-timers

When should I go?

In such a big country it’s difficult to generalise but on the whole, spring and autumn are the most pleasant months, when the whole country enjoys fairly clement weather. Certainly those are the best times to visit Beijing or Shanghai.

During the winter Beijing, Xinjiang, the north-east and Tibet are very cold, often below freezing, but southern destinations such as Yunnan and Hong Kong are pleasant. Conversely, in summer head to Xinjiang, the Yellow River, western Sichuan or the Tibetan region. There is no rainy season.

Avoid visiting just before Chinese New Year (February), when the nation is going home for the holidays and transport networks are over-stretched. Also steer clear of the two-week-long public holidays at the beginnings of May and October when the whole country is out visiting and tourist destinations are overrun.

What should I take?

You can get just about anything here, and cheaper than at home. But it’s hard to find sunscreen and deodorant, so bring some. If you’re large you’ll have difficulty finding clothes and shoes to fit. Pictures of your home and family, and some stamps and coins, are great ice-breakers.

Can I get on the internet?

Wi-fi is common in cafés and most hotels, and cheap internet cafés full of game-playing kids are ubiquitous, even in one-yak Tibetan towns.

How much will it cost?

That varies a great deal. In big cities it is possible to spend Y750 (£50) on a meal and Y1,500 (£100) on accommodation, but if you are careful you can get around on Y150 (£10) a day. On the whole, the west of the country is cheaper, so that’s the area to head for if your budget is tight.

Are there any cultural mores?

The Chinese don’t have a highly developed sense of privacy and it’s quite normal for people to stare at anything out of the ordinary – such as a visiting foreigner. Most tourism is done in noisy groups, so solitary travellers will be greeted with bafflement. Behaviour that is seen as anti-social at home, such as spitting or smoking, is considered normal.

To avoid giving offence, a few things worth remembering include: don’t point with or wave chopsticks about; never direct a teapot’s spout towards anyone; and always remember to fill up your neighbour’s teacup (but not your own – leave that to your neighbour).

What’s budget accommodation like?

Much improved, and the days of cheap rooms being equipped with a spittoon, a broken TV and a faded red carpet are over. New and professionally run youth hostels have opened in all the major cities and tourist areas offering rooms for about Y150 (£10) a night and dorm beds for around Y45 (£3). Otherwise, new motel chains such as 168 (www.motel168.com) and Home Inn have good, clean rooms for Y185 (£12).

Is it terribly polluted?

China faces some huge environmental challenges. Be aware that the air quality in the cities, particularly Beijing and Xi’an, is sometimes very bad, so try to spend part of your trip in the much cleaner countryside.

How do I get about?

Easily – the days of three-hour queues to buy train tickets are long gone. Transport infrastructure is good, with new highways, upgraded trains and spruced-up stations, and a widespread cheap air network. In cities, new arrivals might struggle with confusing bus networks but taxis are cheap and ubiquitous. Tickets for onward travel can be arranged at tourist hotels for a small commission.

Are the locals friendly?

Yes – and curious, too. Many Chinese welcome the chance to talk to foreigners and to practise the English they have worked hard to learn at school. There are no barriers of religion or caste, and the pragmatic Chinese outlook is one that’s easy for Westerners to relate to.

The country is generally safe for foreigners. The authorities will not bother you and if you do come into contact with them you’ll likely find them helpful, if officious. One word of warning, though: there are a lot of con artists around, so be careful of over-friendly locals at tourist sites.

Is it safe for women?

Women will encounter very little sexual harassment, though girls on their own might be pitied for not having a husband.

Is it safe to talk about religion and politics?

It’s safe, but not always polite. To the Chinese, Tibet and Taiwan are part of the motherland – end of story. You won’t change anyone’s mind.

Do I tip?

Never. Really, never.

Do I have to barter for everything?

Sometimes foreigners are overcharged. In markets and small shops, politely ask for a discount, as the locals do. In touristy antique and souvenir markets the starting price might be 20 times the amount the seller will accept. Feign indifference, never show enthusiasm, walk away and let the vendor call you back. And if you don’t get it, never mind – the next stall along will sell the same thing. Ask around and practise, but be aware that if you name a price, you’ve agreed to pay it, so you shouldn’t then walk away.

Will I be able to make myself understood?

English is widely understood in the service industries, though not by taxi drivers – you’ll need to have your destination written down in Chinese characters. In restaurants there will generally be an English or picture menu. In the countryside, a little Chinese will help a lot, though plenty get by with a repertoire of expressive gestures, a phrasebook and a lot of patience.

Another option is to pre-register with new service chinaONEcall (www.chinaonecall.com), which offers access to English-Mandarin translators through your mobile for under £1 a minute.

Can I travel independently? Do I need a guide?

Independent travel is much easier than it used to be and presents fewer difficulties than in many other Asian countries. All you’ll need is a good guidebook and a phrasebook. If you are short of time a guide can help, but after a few days you’ll probably be confident enough to strike out on your own.

Given China’s human rights record, is it ethical to visit? Any other tips for responsible travellers?

Though these days the Chinese have a great deal of personal freedom China remains a one-party state. The Communist party brooks no challenge to its authority; the press and the internet are firmly controlled and dissidents locked up.

China’s human rights record is at its worst in the colonial territory of Tibet. But the biggest concern here is not repression but the massive internal migration of Han Chinese, which has left Tibetans a minority in their own land. With the arrival of the new railway there is a huge Tibet tourist boom, but Tibetans themselves are not benefiting much as they are marginalised in the tourist industry. Responsible travellers in Tibet should, wherever possible, support local businesses, using Tibetan guides, tour agencies and restaurants.

Don’t feel you should stay away – the Dalai Lama encourages people to visit his homeland – but do try to keep yourself informed of the issues and critically assess the carefully showcased propaganda.

Is it possible to get off the beaten track?

It’s easy – just get on a bus – though not always rewarding; in eastern China it can mean wandering into an industrial zone. The best places to get off the tourist trail are in areas of natural beauty, where you can chance across traditional villages nestling in mountain valleys and so on. The places to try this are the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guanxi and Tibet. You’ll find few people who speak any English and the quality of transport infrastructure deteriorates.

What books should I read?

You’ll need a good guidebook: try the Rough Guide (2005, co-written by Simon Lewis, the author of this article), the Odyssey guide (2006) or Lonely Planet (2007).

To take the temperature of modern mores, read a novel such as Beijing Doll (Riverhead, 2004) by Chun Sue or Shanghai Baby (Constable & Robinson, 2001) by Wei Hui. Classics include the entertaining Journey to the West, by 16th-century writer Wu Cheng’en, featuring the popular Monkey King; and the satirical True Story of Ah Q (Chinese University Press, 2002; first published 1921), by Lu Xun.

For travel writing, Ma Jian’s Red Dust (Vintage, 2002) is a Chinese On the Road, and the tall tales of China’s first Western tourist, Marco Polo, are a good read.