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9 Essential Things to Know Before You Visit China

If you like to travel on your own, don’t let China’s vast size and foreignness deter you from visiting this fascinating country. As both an independent solo traveler and a senior, I found last year that it was surprisingly easy to visit China, thanks to an efficient public transportation system, friendly locals, and affordable hotels and taxis. If you’d rather skip the group tour in favor of independent travel to China, read on; I returned home with the following essential China travel tips.

It’s Easy to Visit China’s Primary Tourist Centers

When you visit China, you’ll likely want to see many of the following areas that are popular with tourists:

  • Beijing, for the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square
  • Chengdu, for the pandas
  • Guilin, for its unique karst hills and Liang River cruises
  • Shanghai, for its dynamic economic center and as a cruise starting point
  • Xian, for scenery and many monuments
  • The Yangtze River, for cruising in the Five Gorges area
  • The gateway complex of Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen in the Pearl River Delta

You can fly non-stop from one or more big U.S. and Canadian cities to Beijing, Chengdu, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Xian; you reach Guilin by train or connecting flight. And if you keep track of airfares at sister site Airfarewatchdog, you can often catch some really great economy deals. Although somewhat rarer, I snagged an incredibly low business-class fare of around $1,500 for my trip.

China’s Gateway Airports Are Huge but Easy to Navigate

Signage is in both Chinese and English. Beijing, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen airports have in-terminal metro stations. And they have just about all the usual airport facilities you could expect, including airport hotels if you like to crash for a day or two after a long flight before you start touring.

Taxis Are Cheap

When you visit China, a typical 40-minute trip from an airport to a hotel costs less than $10, with no tip expected; in the U.S., such a ride would cost $50 or more. Taxi lines at airports and rail stations can be long, but they move quickly.

When you use a taxi, however, it is imperative that you have the destination printed out or visible on a screen in Chinese: There is no such thing as phonetic translations to and from English. And be careful when arriving at a terminal. You can expect to be bugged to exasperation by independent non-taxi drivers looking to take you somewhere for about double the taxi fare.

Local Subways Are Easy to Use

I used subways in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, and found that system maps, ticket machines, station names, and recorded announcements are all presented in both Chinese and English. Trains are air-conditioned, and fares are low. The main problem is that metros are crowded at most times and packed at rush hours. But in metro-less cities such as Guilin and Xiamen, buses are much more difficult. Grab a cheap cab instead.

The High-Speed Rail System Really Works

China has more miles of high-speed rail lines than the rest of the world combined, and the trains are fast, comfortable, and easy to use. You can buy tickets and seat reservations at the big stations, where at least one window is supposed to be staffed with an agent who speaks English. But a big-city station may have eight or 10 different ticketing centers, and finding the one window with the agent who serves foreign tourists can be a task in itself. Instead, I recommend buying tickets and making reservations through a specialist agency such as China Highlights or China DIY Travel. Fares are low, so consider booking a seat in first class, which offers more legroom and fewer seats per row.

The Big-City High-Speed Rail Stations Can Be Daunting

The rail stations are huge, and many of them are as far out of the city center as the local airport. You deal with the huge part by sticking to the numbers. Your ticket shows the numbers for your train, car, and seat; giant departure boards list times and tracks by numbers as well as in Chinese—with an occasional English version, too. And you deal with the distance by using the local metro or grabbing one of those inexpensive taxis.

Note that you have to pass through a minimal security screen to get into high-speed train stations, so allow a little extra time. Restrooms are primitive; avoid if possible.

Not All Key Tourist Spots Are Accessible by Public Transit

Some big-ticket sights, such as the Great Wall, are reachable by metro or regional rail; others, such as Guilin-area river tours, are not. In areas where public transit doesn’t look promising, take a day tour.

Hotel Prices Are Low Compared with the U.S. or Europe

For a variety of reasons, I suspect that most U.S. visitors to China would prefer to stay in hotels that are a notch more upscale than their usual choices. Fortunately, rates for four-star and even five-star properties are a lot lower than you might expect. In Shanghai, for example, I splurged at the five-star J.W. Marriott for about $200 a night, including breakfast, for a room on the 51st floor with a fantastic view—accommodations that would have cost at least $500 in New York or San Francisco. The very comfortable Golden Oriole in Guilin was only about $80 a night.

The Chinese People Are Very Helpful to Visitors

At least, they were to me. Twice, when I was schlepping my suitcase up or down an long stairway, a young man offered to carry my suitcase.

I can’t comment on two other options you might consider. I did not try driving a rental car, although the main highways I saw provided English as well as Chinese signs. And all my trips within China were on the high-speed rail system rather than a local low-fare airline. But my guess is that you can readily cope with either or both.

All in all, I found it easy—and extremely rewarding—to visit China as an independent traveler. Give it a try!

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