People & Places
China – What to Know, Where to Go & How to Pack
July 09, 2019
It’s hard to accurately describe the size, scope and depth of a place like China. We can give you the facts: it has almost a fifth of the world’s population. It has quadruple the population of the USA, on roughly the same size of land. It is comprised of 56 ethnic groups over 23 provinces, speaking upwards of 300 different languages.
It has countless distinct traditions, reflected by the different landscapes, histories and philosophies of the country’s regions, and developed over three millennia. And all of it is governed in perpetuity by a single party, the Communist Party of China.
But those are only stats and facts. Just when you think you have a grasp on what exactly China is, it promptly reminds you that you don’t know anything. It is a country of maddening size, ambition and variance. It is also – perhaps because of all those features – an obscene amount of fun to travel through.
In this post, we’ll attempt to make some sense of the Middle Kingdom. This is the second post in this particular series (the first being our guide to Mexico, which we encourage you to also check out), and it functions a little like an abridged guidebook. We’ll give you a rundown on what you should know about the culture, climate, price and safety of China, and recommend some of our favourite destinations. Finally, we’ll offer a few tips of packing.
What to Know
This section will offer a quick rundown of things you should know before you travel to China. Think of it like the ‘Introduction’ section of a guidebook. We’ll look at China from four different angles here: culture, climate, money and safety.
The first myth we need to dispel is that China has a monolithic culture. It doesn’t; it has many different cultures, which nevertheless share a uniquely Chinese flavour. In that way, visiting China is like a choose-your-own-adventure. What do you want out of your experience?
Do you want the modern, fast-paced megalopolis experience of Shanghai? Do you want the nature-focused, agrarian lifestyle of Guilin? The lost-in-time village experience of a small town like Lijiang? The food-centric assault on your taste buds that you’ll find in the Sichuan province? The slow, serene island culture you’ll find on Hainan?
China is kaleidoscopic in its many cultural variations – and yet everywhere you go will be unmistakably Chinese. Despite its many different subcultures, China is bound together by a central identity, one that fuses the traditions, practices and philosophies of the country’s history with a decidedly contemporary outlook.
Food is also a big deal in China, whether you’re in the big cities or small towns. You can get a 20-course meal served banquet-style in a massive ballroom setting, or a humble bowl of noodles served to you in a back alley huton. And they’re both going to be delicious.
Dishes like hot pot, chuan (skewered meat), dumplings, noodle soups and egg custards – to name just a few culinary big-hitters – have all been embraced throughout the country despite their singular origins. But the biggest restaurant chain in China skews a little more modern – KFC is China’s most popular establishment, with almost 6,000 locations.
While in China, try to take in some of its historical sites. The Forbidden City in Beijing, the terracotta warriors in Xi’an, the Cemetery of Confucius in Qufu, the Giant Buddha of Leshan, the Great Wall – these sites are all well worth a visit for anyone interested in Chinese culture and history.
China is a big country – roughly the same size as the US (depending on how you calculate). And like the US, China plays host to all sorts of climates. Its numerous altitudes, latitudes and longitudes mean that there is a great diversity in climate.
Northern provinces, which share a border with Russia, might have more of a subarctic climate, where southern provinces, which border Southeast Asia or the South China Sea, have a tropical climate. This Travel China guide is the most comprehensive climate guide we’ve found, and is worth consulting before or after you book.
The pollution and smog can also affect the climate, exacerbating the humidity in city centres and making it almost unbearably sticky in the summer. Needless to say, you need breathable clothing like the comfortable merino wool tee shirts we offer. Especially if you plan on traveling between cities and more rural areas, it’s important to pack clothes that can hold up to a diversity of climates.
At the time of writing, one US dollar is worth 6.9 Yuan. So, perhaps the best way to get by in China is to brush up on your “7” multiplication table. In general, things are inexpensive in China as compared to countries in the West, though in a big, affluent city like Shanghai you can end up spending just as much.
In our Mexico article, we mentioned the site Numbeo, which is a database of the cost of things worldwide, as calculated by user contributions. They list the average inexpensive meal at a restaurant at around $3.50, a domestic beer at around one dollar, and a one-way ticket on local transport at around 30 cents. This is the average across China, but you can enter the specific city you plan on visiting for a more accurate picture.
At all but the most fancy restaurants, you don’t need to worry about tipping. Some people tip their drivers and/or tour guides, but that’s ultimately up to you. While a lot of establishments, especially in the cities, accept credit cards, it’s still a wise idea to carry cash.
China is a pretty safe place. Crime, especially crime against foreigners, is severely cracked down on by police. The worst that you might encounter is a pickpocket attempt, but even those are fairly rare. As with anywhere, though, you have to do your part not to escalate anything. There is a less-than-charming phenomenon in China of people budging in lines. If it happens to you, just keep a cool head and remember that not everywhere in the world has the same staunch civic devotion to queuing as where you’re from.
Stick with bottled water, which is cheap and ubiquitous. When you’re in the big cities and the air pollution is particularly bad, avoid outdoor aerobic activities like biking or running. In fact, if the smog is really bad, consider just doing an indoor activity, like going to the museum or a nice, air-conditioned mall.
Where to Go
As mentioned, China is a choose-your-own-adventure kind of country, with oodles of diversity to experience. Whatever you do, don’t just stick to the tourist centres of the big cities. There are pockets of Shanghai that could be anywhere in the world, filled with high-rise office buildings and a Starbucks on every corner. Leave the comfort of these zones and you’ll find a lot to love.
Here’s our list of must-see spots in China. It’s by no means comprehensive, but each one of these places is amazing in its own right.
Beijing: The capital of China is also one of your best bets for soaking in some Chinese culture. The Forbidden City is a sprawling, regal centrepiece in the city, and a can’t-miss addition to your Beijing itinerary. Also be sure to explore the winding network of back alleys – called hutons – where you’ll find a vibrant, authentic side of the city.
Shanghai: Shanghai is fun. This business-forward city knows how to party when the sun goes down. Follow the crowds to the various outdoor markets, nightclubs, bars and music venues. And for the love of everything good: try the Shanghai dumplings while you’re there.
Chengdu: Your best chance to interact with a real-life panda is in Chengdu. Not in nature, of course, but at the Chengdu zoo, where you can pay to hold a panda cub, and even feed it with a baby’s bottle. After that sublime cute-attack, try the local Sichuan cuisine, famous for its liberal use of chillies and the tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorn.
Guilin: Guilin is famous throughout China for its sweeping, dramatic vistas, characterized by rolling rice terraces and imposing vertical karsts. For scenery-buffs, this is essential viewing.
Qingdao: This coastal city is notable for its architecture and love of beer – both bestowed upon it by German settlers. The local brew – Tsingtao – is famous worldwide, but it’s freshest here in Qingdao, where local vendors will sell it to you in plastic bags with straws (because why not?). The German-style buildings amid the Chinese architecture make for an interesting sight, and the seafood is some of the country’s best.
Lijiang: Consider this entry a plug for the entire Yunnan province, the southwest province bordering Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. Home to many Chinese and Southeast Asian minority groups, Yunnan is unlike anything else in China. And perhaps its most charming town is Lijiang, a fully preserved, UNESCO-recognized old town with cobblestone streets, old Chinese architecture and beautiful market squares.
Harbin: Up north – way north – you’ll find Harbin, near the border with Siberia. Its mix of Russian culture and architecture with the Chinese is fascinating. Visit in winter to witness the Ice Festival, an international showcase of massive ice sculptures. It’s Siberia-levels of cold, so be sure to pack a warm and compact wool hoodie and some sturdy winter boots.
What to Pack
If going in summer, pack for heat and humidity. Especially if you’re spending time in the city-centres, where the heat can get very heavy, pack breathable, light articles of clothing like our unbound merino women's t shirt or men’s short-sleeve tee. A lot of men roll up their t-shirts so it sits just atop the belly – it’s certainly a look, but we think you can pull it off! Pack shorts as well – many Chinese people, both men and women, wear them in the summer, so you won’t seem out of place.
If travelling in the winter, especially up North or in the central provinces, pack for warmth. Consider packing thermal underwear, as well as a heavy down coat.
If traveling to certain western Chinese provinces that are predominantly Muslim, like Xinjiang, bring more conservative clothing. Regardless of the heat, pack pants and shoes.
For warm trips, pack your sandals as well as a good pair of walking shoes. If you’re planning on walking the Great Wall, consider packing hiking boots, as the sustained travel over the stone walkways can be hard on your feet without proper support. For winter trips, pack for snow with a pair of winter boots.
For the most part, your list of toiletries should be the same as any other country: deodorant, toothbrush, shampoo, razor, hair product, makeup, etc. Additionally, it’s not a bad idea to get a pollution mask (as many of the locals do). Toilet paper is a non-existent in many Chinese bathrooms – especially those at public monuments, train stations, fast food restaurants, etc. – so pack yourself a roll or two of TP.
If you’re going during a sunny season, pack sunscreen – do not plan on buying it when you get there. Most, if not all, sunscreens you will find in China have a whitener in them. Also, a bottle of hand sanitizer and a package of Pepto-Bismol will probably get you out of a one or two jams.
China’s sheer size and density can be daunting. But with a little forethought, some clever packing and the right know-how, you can travel this country pretty easily. Arm yourself with a light bag, a relaxed attitude and a few Mandarin phrases (or learn to point and say “Zhège”, or “This” when you want something!) and you’ll be set.
As always, if there are any China experts reading who want to weigh in with their two cents, feel free to comment below. Happy travels!