A view of Yangshuo's karst mountain region.

I’ve been traveling through China for the last two weeks. It’s a fascinating country with amazing archaeological treasures, breathtaking scenery, and pandas. Yes, pandas. Although I’ve been here half a dozen times, I find travel here to be some of the most challenging in the world. It can be extremely frustrating because of language barriers and customs that Westerners don’t grasp. If you’re thinking of visiting, my list will really help you avoid common mistakes.

Don’t Go in the Summer

China has a growing middle class and between June and August, everyone goes on holiday. Billions of people visit the top tourist attractions with selfie sticks and crying kids in tow. Would you like a picture in front of the Temple of Heaven? You’ll have dozens of people you don’t know in your picture. If visiting pandas is on your agenda, they’re usually brought inside during the hot summer months, but cooler temperatures provide optimal viewing.

The off-season is much more pleasant because you won’t have to wait in long ticket lines, and China just happens to be the best travel bargain on the planet, starting in October. It’s common to see a 7- to 10-day vacation for under $500 with airfare, hotels, and tours included. 

Baby pandas in Chengdu.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Book a Tour Guide

If a tour group seems a little too inflexible for you,  a private guide can help you digest all the things you don’t understand in the country. My guide helped me book train tickets, answered my random questions about China, got me on a taxi to the right train station, and helped me get to all the highlights of the Xi’an warriors ahead of the mobs. She earned her money and saved me lots of frustration. 

If you decide against a tour guide, you can still get your hotel concierge or front desk person to arrange transport and write down where you’re going in Chinese. That’s always a better start than just winging it.

Get WeChat and Learn How to Use it

Facebook is still verboten in China, so everyone with a phone seems to be on the social media platform WeChat. Everyone has their own QR code so you can scan it like Snapchat and send messages and pictures without the formality of asking for names and trying to find an individual’s profile like you have to do on Facebook. You can also connect your account with a credit card and use it for purchases—it's easier to use than Apple Pay.

Google Translate: “I’d like two beers.”

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Get Google Translate

Google has built an amazing app that can change your entire experience in Asia. Can’t read a sign or a menu? Open the camera in the app and it will instantly translate everything into whatever language you choose. The app translates typed or spoken phrases, and also reads them aloud in Chinese. There’s even an option to translate handwriting. The app seems to lift the letters right off the page and transform them, from a full page of text to snapshots of what you want translated, changing everything into English.

Some phrases may not make perfect sense, but you can usually get the gist. This is the most useful thing you can possibly bring if you want to understand anything or ask a question. It has limited functions without internet access, but still works for basic translations anywhere with the language pack. You can pick up a cheap SIM card and use the internet for faster results.

Get Out of the Cities

There’s much more to China than Beijing and Shanghai, where crowds and traffic can be suffocating. The country is home to numerous natural wonders, including the Shilin Stone Forest outside Kunming, the water towns near Shanghai, and the karst mountains in Yangshuo. The Great Wall has less-traversed sections than touristy Badaling, and you can even hike and sleep on a section of the wall. Sichuan has bamboo forests, giant Buddha statues, and great opportunities to see pandas living in their natural habitat. You can also use night trains to get to unique places in the countryside. Travel while you’re sleeping and save money on hotel rooms. 

Prepare for Your Taxi

You can’t drive in China without a Chinese license, so you need to be able to navigate public transport, and communicate with taxi drivers. If they don’t understand you, they’ll quickly shoo you out of their car. Have your map ready on your phone—try the maps.me app or Google maps (if your phone has internet), or have your hotel write down the address of your destination for the driver. Always grab a hotel card so that you can get back. Some cab drivers can’t read, so they may need a local to tell them verbally. Google Translate can also do this, but that requires internet access.

Get a receipt from your cab. Take a picture of the license plate. If you forget something in the taxi, you can track down the driver. 

A donkey burger was one of the best things I ate in China.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Go Local

Instead of staying at a large hotel chain and having your Starbucks in the morning, get out of your routine and become one with the people. Honestly, that's impossible in China, but you can find hotels in the hutongs (traditional neighborhoods), and you can try the local food and drink. Venture outside your comfort zone with donkey burgers, fried chicken feet, and dishes that challenge your palate. Drink the local beer, Tsing Tao, have some green tea ice cream, and try some things you’ve never seen before—visit a night market and order a fried scorpion skewer. Scorpions taste just like pork rinds. Plus, your Facebook friends will revere you as a true travel foodie. 

Get Your Bearings

Have you ever noticed that Chinese restaurants often have a subheading like Cantonese, Szechuan, or Hunan? These are different provinces in China and they're quite different culturally and topographically. There are deserts, jungles, and radically different climates spread throughout this vast country. Some destinations like Hong Kong, Tibet and Macau have different currency, visa requirements and very little in common with the rest of the country. Knowing about the different regions and cultures can help you understand the people you meet, the food you eat, and aid you in customizing your itinerary.

Know How To Charge Your Phone and Get Online

The Chinese government blocks Facebook, Google Maps and many other random apps, but a VPN (virtual private network) fools servers into thinking you’re in the U.S., so can use your social and dating apps, watch Netflix, book tickets, and enjoy western internet benefits. There are some free VPN apps, but many have a monthly fee, which you can cancel after your trip.  Also handy? Investing in a charging station converter with USB ports and different plug options so your cell phones, cameras and extra battery packs can be charged despite the type of outlets or plugs available.

Carry Tissues and Don’t Expect a Toilet Seat

Eventually, you’re going to be confronted with an Asian toilet that defies all the hygiene and health codes you were raised with. You’re not going to change hundreds of years of bathroom traditions by complaining. Be prepared for the worst. Bring your own tissue. Think about how wonderful everything will be once you leave the stall. Wet wipes can also be useful, and come in handy for a quick facial refresh in dusty or polluted areas.

Understand the Money

Don’t get frustrated when you have to move to a different ATM machine when the first one spits out your card —some Chinese ATMs don’t work with U.S. cards. Few visitors use traveler’s checks anymore, finding a place to change cash can be difficult, and American Express cards are useless in China. Have a couple of credit or debit cards on hand, cash for emergencies, and stash back-up money and cards in a safe place in case you lose your wallet. Crime isn’t a big problem, but it’s easy to forget phones, bags and other belongings during endless security checks and the bustle of taxis.

Also, you’ll also need your passport to buy any kind of ticket or a hotel room, and you should know the currency exchange rate before you make any deals.

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