Work and travel in China: questions and answers
Why come to China?
Why to come?
China has a myriad of places of interest, a fascinating culture and a very diverse landscape ranging from tropical rainforests in the south to the breath taking peaks of the Himalayas in the west. A country with a turbulent past, from Confucius to Genghis Khan, which was cut off from the west for years. It has a history of prolonged, strict, communist rule and the government is probably the most controversial in the world. All of this makes China a very interesting destination.
China is a huge country with countless sights and attractions. Be prepared to be pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised by the extraordinary nature of Chinese culture, people, cities and environment.
- You can follow the historic Silk Road by train, via the Karakoram Highway towards Pakistan.
- Admire the terracotta army found in the pleasant town of Xi’an. This archaeological find of 9099 terracotta figurines, was a burial gift to Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China
- Visit the Great Wall of China. The 6259 kilometre long defence wall was built to protect the Chinese empire against enemies. It was named one of the seven new world wonders in 2007.
- Explore the Tiger Leaping Gorge. This twenty kilometre long gorge is only thirty meters wide at its narrowest. A big rock in the river marks the narrowest point. According to legend, a tiger was seen leaping across the canyon using this rock, hence the name.
- Enjoy seeing the giant panda in the wild, for example in Jiuzhaigou National Park in the north of Sichuan Province or the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Wenchuan County, in the centre of Sichuan Province. Or visit Sichuan’s capital Chengdu, home to Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Base, a research facility open to visitors.
- Chengdu is also a good base to visit Leshan, a little village where you can find one of the tallest, 71 meters, sitting Buddha’s in China.
- Travel from Guilin to the beautifully vast and unspoiled Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces (also known as Longji Rice Terraces) in Longsheng. You can book a daytrip but also explore the area on a scooter on your own.
- Peking Opera: a visit to a traditional Peking Opera is a very special experience. The costumes, make-up, music and combination of vocal, acrobatic and mime performance are a sensory delight.
- Visit Tibet: Tibet’s sovereignty is disputed. Since the invasion in 1950-1951, China claims Tibet as part of its territory. Tibet challenges this claim and considers itself occupied by China. The much revered Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan people, is an outspoken advocate for independence which has kept the discussion very much alive and current. The conflicted status makes visiting Tibet relatively hard but the effort is worth it. The region is home to the world’s highest mountains (Mount Everest’s northern face most notably), many deep blue lakes and an abundance of beautiful monasteries. It has its own culture, language and people. Do make sure you organise your visit well. The political situation is changing rapidly so check for the latest travel restrictions (such as filing for a permit and signing up with an organised tour) before you go. The region has its own culture, language and people.
- Beijng: there is plenty to explore in China’s capital. Visit the Forbidden City, the former imperial palace which, contrary to its name, is now open to visitors. Set foot on historic Tiananmen Square (Gate of Heavenly Peace), known for the student revolt in spring 1989 and home to the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Escape the skyscrapers and the crowds in one of the many parks where the Chinese play Mah-Jong and card games and relax. Walk through the picturesque Hutongs, narrow streets and alleys connecting the traditional courtyards and full of restaurants and bars.
- Stop by Hong Kong: let yourself be blown away by the impressive skyline, take a breather on one of the beached and party in one of the many clubs.
- Pinyao: a walled in architectonical paradise where historical buildings, streets and houses from the Ming and Qing dynasty have been well preserved.
- Xian: the original starting point of the Silk Road and the city connecting China with the Roman empire. The 14 kilometre long and 12 metre high city wall dates back to the seventh and ninth century and is mostly still intact.
- Hangzhou: one of the biggest tourist attractions of China, this city is known for its natural beauty and cultural heritage.
- Suzhou: known for its abundant and classical gardens. Visit the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the Lingering Garden and take a tour on one of the many canals.
- Lijiang: one of the prettiest cities in China. Explore the historic centre and enjoy the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside and Lijiang Valley. Built where the river Jade forks three ways, the city’s many waterways and bridges have earned it the moniker Venice of the East.
- Travelling through China can be challenging because the Chinese either can’t or are afraid to speak English. Traffic signs, menus, street signs, are all in Chinese. However, Chinese are very willing to help but are traditionally unwilling to lose face, so may send you the wrong way rather than admit they don’t know the route. Be patient, allow for extra travel time and keep an open mind.
- Pollution is a pretty serious problem in China. Be prepared if you suffer from allergies, skin problems or have problems with your airways or eyes.
- If you don’t like crowds, it’s best to avoid travelling in China altogether or do your research well to find proper off the beaten track destinations. The economic growth has increased people’s mobility so the Chinese now also have the change to travel around and see their country. You will inevitably be faced with crowds and big groups of tourist, especially at popular tourist spots.
- Don’t exchange money on the black market, you’re bound to be scammed.
- Don’t bad-mouth the government. You never know who’s listening in and anti-government speech can result in severe prison sentences.
When to go to China?
- The northeast around Beijing has a continental climate with hot summers and cold winters. July and August see a lot of rain. Best time to travel this region is in spring or autumn.
- The area around Shangai has very changeable weather. Rain is always looming. Summers can last quite long and are hot and humid and winters are very cold.
- Tropical storms can occur between July and October.
- The weather in the Yangtze valley is mild. The south, around Guanzhou, has a tropical climate. The hot, humid summer lasts from April to September with a lot of rainfall between June and September and tropical storms in the coastal areas.
- Northwest China has a desert climate with hot summers and cold winters.
Best time to go
- The best time to go differs per area. In general you can adhere to the following rule: April, May, September and October are the best months to go.
- Autumn is the best time to visit Beijing.
Alternative time to go
- Winter months are a good time to visit the south as it will be quieter.
- Winter is also the time to enjoy some traditional and interesting festivals such as Chinese New Year, confusingly also known as the Spring Festival even though it falls on the new moon between January 21 and February 20.
Restrictive time to go
- Chinese winters (December to March) tend to be very cold. Some areas will be very hard or impossible to reach.
- Trekking the Himalaya is out of bounds in winter.
- July until September is typhoon season in China, the peak being August. They affect mainly the south but the can cause problems anywhere from the South China See, the Pacific Ocean and the southern and eastern coastal regions all the way inland.
Hours of sun
- The average hours of sunshine are very different in every region, but in general the sunniest days are in August and September and the least sunny in January and February.
- Sea temperatures in China are generally warm. They vary from 13 degrees around Dalian to 28 degrees around Yongshun and Nansha. On average the sea temperature lies around 20 degrees.
Visa or permits for China
- A tourist visa is mandatory and is valid for up to a maximum of 90 days.
- Visa requirements change often so check before you travel.
- Your passport needs to be valid for six months after your visa expires.
- You need an entirely empty page in your passport.
- You need a flight confirmation proving onward or return travel.
- You need a booking confirmation from a hotel.
- You need to provide an official invitation and general personal information when staying with friends or relatives.
- Visa requirements are different to Hong Kong and Macau.
- Obtaining a visa to travel to Tibet is relatively complicated and the requirements change often.
How to stay healthy in China?
- DTP and Hepatitis A are recommended.
- Yellow fever is mandatory when travelling from a yellow fever country.
Risk / long term travel
- For certain travellers, areas and duration of travel, other vaccinations such as Typhoid, Japanese Encephalitis, Rabies, Hepatitis B and Schistosomiasis are recommended.
- There is Dengue in China, mainly in the southern parts.
- There is Malaria in China but only in remote and rural parts.
How to stay safe in China?
- In general, China is a safe country for travellers. The strict safety measures and tough punishments for small crimes are a strong deterrent for would be criminals. Be aware that the rules apply as strict – if not stricter – to visitors.
- On occasion, tourists do become victims of pickpockets, especially in crowded tourist spots, national holidays such as the Chinese New Year, or at bus and train stations. Keep your valuables safe or leave them in the hotel.
- Homosexuality remains a sensitive topic in China. Despite the more tolerant attitude in recent years, it’s still frowned upon to show your sexuality publicly.
- In big cities like Shanghai and Beijing, you’ll find some gay bars but that doesn’t mean you can express your sexuality freely. The locals may still take offence and reactions can be unpredictable.
- The Chinese government monitors social media closely.
- Online censorship is common in China. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube but also international news websites may be blocked.
- Refrain from expressing anti-government opinions publicly.
Forces of nature
- Typhoons and tropical storms can hit China anytime between May and November but are most prevalent between July and October.
- Flooding and landslides can occur between May and November due to heavy rainfall.
- The west of the country is prone to the occasional earthquake.
- Be vigilant in traffic, motorists can be inexperienced.
- All drugs, hard and soft, are illegal. Possessing or using drugs, any drugs including marihuana or prescription drugs for which you can’t provide the prescription, is punished severely. Bring a Medical Passport or an official prescription when using medication, especially any sedatives and strong painkillers containing codeine.
- In China, criticising the government is strictly forbidden and punished severely.
- Non-Chinese and international driver’s licenses are not recognised.
What are payment options in China?
- The Yuan – the Chinese currency – is highly susceptible to inflation so the exchange rate can differ massively from one day to the next. Keep an eye on the official rates.
- It’s always good to have some cash on you.
- Euros can be exchanged at the bigger (chain) hotels, at airports and in the bigger branches of the Bank of China.
Cashpoint / ATM
- Cashpoints are easy to find in the bigger cities and more are being installed outside the urban areas.
- Instances of cashpoints being out of service are relatively high though so be prepared and always have some cash on you, especially if you venture off the beaten track.
- Credit cards are increasingly accepted. However, not all types are accepted and not all restaurants and hotels accept them so do check beforehand.
- Be mindful that although stickers may advertise differently, they still may only accept Chinese cards. Again, do check.
- You can use your credit card for cash withdrawals but only at the larger branches of the Bank of China.
How to get around in China?
- Because of its huge size, domestic flights with local carriers are a good option to cover large distances.
- Trains are one of the most commonly used means of transport for tourists and are generally reliable and safe.
- Do keep in mind that because of the vastness of the country, train journeys can be extremely long. If you’re in a hurry, domestic flights are a good alternative at almost the same cost.
- Please note: Booking confirmations are generally sent via text message and not via email, a Chinese mobile could therefore come in handy. The message will commonly be in Chinese.
- Travelling by bus is another good means of travel in China. Journeys can be long and buses crowded, however the prices are low and journeys frequent.
- The boat is a fun way to travel but more for the experience than to cover long distances. A popular boat trip on the Yangtze is the journey from Chongqing to Yichang.
- Taxis are relatively cheap when travelling short distances.
- Chinese taxis work with a meter so make sure yours is turned on.
- Write down your destination on a bit of paper if you don’t speak Chinese.
- Cash is the preferred payment method.
- Chinese driver’s licenses are the only ones accepted in China.
- Visitors can rent a car but with restrictions: only with a special license plate specifically for foreign motorists, only at the bigger airports such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong and you can’t leave the city. If you want to take a car outside of the city, you’ll have to hire a chauffeured car.
- Rickshaws are a good option for short distances in cities – they come motorised and non-motorised.
Where to stay and what to eat in China?
Where to sleep?
- There’s a plethora of accommodation options in China, from cheap and cheerful homesteads including a hot meal and dorm rooms in youth hostels to luxury boutique hotels, and anything in between.
- Camping is quite popular in China so there are lot of places you can pitch your tent. Don’t expect campsites with lots of amenities though, camping in China is truly back to basics. Wild camping is common but the laws around this are sketchy and enforcement can differ from place to place.
- For that out of the ordinary experience, you can also stay in a monastery or temple.
What to eat and drink?
- Chinese cuisine is second to none and much more than the standard Chinatown fare known in the West so do step away from your trusty takeaway staple and explore the unknown corners of the menu.
- Given the size of the country, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the cuisine on offer is tremendously diverse. Every region has its own specialities and it’s impossible to speak of Chinese cuisine as a whole. It simply varies too much. A common theme however are rice based, wok prepared and spicy dishes and a nothing goes to waste mentality. So be prepared to savour pig’s trotters, chicken feet and every bit of offal under the sun.
- Peking Duck, a dish local to Beijing. The honey and sherry marinated duck is traditionally air cured for days and then slow roasted ‘till the skin is crisp and golden brown. Usually served whole and sliced at the table.
- Dumplings: small meat parcels with varied fillings of meat, fish and vegetables. Served steamed or fried.
- Baozi: small steamed (sometimes fried or bakes) rolls with many types of fillings. Only eaten for breakfast or lunch.
- Douhua or doufuhua: a traditional Chinese pudding made of very soft tofu. Also referred to as tofu or soybean pudding.
- Drunken shrimps: a cruel dish perhaps, drunken shrimps are served alive. The alcohol in the rice wine they are served in does however numb them before you put them in your mouth.
- The Chinese nothing goes to waste philosophy is perfectly exemplified in the traditional pig’s head dish. It’s an acquired taste so you won’t find it on all menu’s. Do ask for it if you feel adventurous as it’s considered a delicacy. Traditionally you give the eyes to someone you respect, an older person or your partner. Pig’s ears are another treat commonly enjoyed in China.
- Jelly fish is another remarkable dish. It is served warm with sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and sugar.
- Beer brands are too many to mention but the most popular are Qingdao and Liquan. Beer is called pijiu in Chinese.
- The Chinese prefer spirits (jiu). Try a Maotai, a liquor made from sorghum and wheat.
- Baiju is one of the most consumed beverages in the world, even though it’s hard to find outside of China. It’s a spirit with 60% alcohol, a pungent aftertaste and a faint whiff of petrol in its bouquet.
- Those who do not particularly like the hard stuff can try Nuomijiu, a glutinous, fermented rice wine (16% vol). It’s usually consumed lukewarm.
- Tea is a very popular choice in China and the Chinese were the first to grow it. Green tea is the most common option.
What to do in China?
Entertainment & Activities
- Even though the Gregorian Calendar is now officially used, the traditional Chinese calendar – which is a lunisolar calendar built around astronomy – still informs many celebrations and festivals to this day.
- Please note that official public holidays change regularly and are announced annually. Improving the national standard of living and expanding tourism can motivate an increase in public holidays yet the detrimental effect on the economy of these unproductive periods results in reducing the number of official holidays.
- The Chinese government has been known to suddenly announce a national holiday (sometimes lasting up to a week), for example when an international congress is upcoming. To ease the crowds and smog, schools and tourist attractions are closed and people asked to stay at home.
Public holidays, traditional celebrations & festivals
- Chinese New Year is celebrated in the first month of the traditional Chinese calendar and marks the beginning of the Spring Festival. It falls between January 21 and February 20 of the western calendar.
- Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping, Ancestor’s and Memorial Day, honours ancestors by literally sweeping clean and looking after tombs and gravesites. It is also a day to remember those who perished during the war. It’s held in early April.
- Duanwu Festival, also known as Dragon Boat Festival, takes place in June near the summer solstice. The festival has many different origin stories. It is celebrated with dragon boat races and by dropping little sticky rice figurines in the river.
- The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated during full moon in late September or early October and celebrates the annual harvest.
- One of the only set dates, National Day of the People’s Republic of China celebrates the ceremonial forming of the Central People’s Government on Tiananmen Square on 1 October 1949.
- As big as the country, as diverse the activities to choose from. Ice skating inside Peking University, horse riding the remote mountains around Tibet, hiking the endless walking tracks. It’s all possible. Just ask around if your favourite activity is on offer.
- Do try your hand at cooking, every region offers their own traditional cooking classes.
- A special activity is kite making classes where you learn the traditional skill from local experts.
- Join a Tea Making Ceremony workshop and get to know this Chinese tradition based around showing respect to elders, family gatherings and celebrating special occasions such as weddings.
How to communicate in China?
What about communication?
- As can be expected from a country the size of China, there are many different languages spoken by its people. Besides Mandarin, the official national language, there are around ten regional groups of main languages which are all called Chinese. However, they are very dissimilar languages. Many differ so much that its users do not understand each other.
- Chinese characters are also not all the same. The Simplified Chinese Characters and the Traditional Chinese Characters are the standardised characters for official use in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and overseas Chinese communities. The Romanised version of these characters are called Pinyin.
- Around Hong Kong, Cantonese is the most commonly used language.
Words in Mandarin (in Pinyin)
- Hello: Nihăo
- Good morning: Zaoshàng hăo
- Good evening: Wănshàng hăo
- Bye: Zàijiàn
- Yes: Shì
- No: Bùshì
- Please: Qĭng
- Thank you: Xièxie
- You’re welcome: Búkèqi
- Excuse me: Duìbùqĭ
Communicating with home
- China’s mobile phone network is good and almost everyone has a mobile phone. Landlines are still in use and can be quite cheap. Common practise is to pay after you make a call so check the tariffs beforehand.
- Make sure your mobile phone is unlocked if you’re planning to use it in China. Sim cards for temporary use are widely available. Be sure to cancel the card before leaving the country.
- Fast Wi-Fi is widely provided by hotels, bars, restaurant, cafes and also in public places. You may however sometimes need a Chinese email address or phone number to access it.
- Censorship is commonplace in China. Be prepared to go without websites and apps such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and many news outlets during your stay and change to locally used apps. Keep in mind that your email account could also be inaccessible, especially the larger ones such as Gmail. Using a VPN is a good, if sometimes slow, option to circumnavigate the censorship; download and install before you travel.
- Internet cafes are common but are often hidden away from public view and frequently require a Chinese ID to enter. Cafes in big cities and around train stations and big tourist hubs can be less strict.