Hi travelers! Today is the first episode in a new series called "Cultivating Culture" in which I'll share tips, hints, and local customs to visiting new countries.
I recently got back from a two week trip to mainland China where I spent some time in Beijing, hiked and camped along the Great Wall in the countryside, went to visit the Terra Cotta warriors in Xian, and ended my stay sightseeing in Shanghai.
Now while mainland China is a vast and diverse country, I did collect some helpful observations that I think will be useful on your journey.
Before you set out on your trip, you need to check with the Chinese Embassy to see if you are required to have a travel visa.
If your an American citizen, you'll definitely need one.
You'll need to set aside a little time for processing and also some time to fill out paperwork that will require you to outline your itinerary and the timeline of your visit.
Expect to pay a bit of a hefty fee that will cost you around $140 U.
One nice thing about China is that tipping is not required, especially when you take a taxi, get a spa service or eat at a restaurant.
In fact, some employers consider it offensive because if you leave a gratuity, it implies that they're not treating their staff well.
The few times you should tip is when you use a tour guide or the services of a bellhop.
If you're planning on using the internet and social media a lot while visiting China, you may want to think again.
Many popular sites and domains like: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Google including Google apps and Gmail, are blocked in the country.
If you want to see if a service you use is available, before you head out on your journey, check BlockedInChina.
Net Chinese cuisine is delicious and it varies from region to region.
One thing you need to get use to is using chopsticks.
It's rare to find forks and knives if you're not visiting a tourist-friendly restaurant.
Also, make sure never to leave your chopsticks standing straight up in your food because this is considered a symbol of death.
Being vegetarian was a little tricky in China.
I did a little research ahead of time and went on the internet and printed out the phrase "I am vegetarian" in Chinese.
I also was specific about my dietary needs, and mentioned that "I do not eat meat," and "I do not eat fish.
" I'm just going to warn you, the majority of restrooms in China consist of squatty potties.
Now what this is is a commode set into the ground that requires you to squat and let loose.
It's not that hard, I promise, once you get used to it.
But if that's not your thing, or you don't have the muscle power to do it, you do have some options: Look for the handicap stalls.
Those usually have the Western style seated toilets.
You'll also find those types of toilets at major airports, train stations, hotels, and Western franchises like McDonald's and KFC.
Be careful when crossing the roads, people! Just because the cars may be following certain traffic rules, does not mean that bicycles or mopeds are following them as well.
Unlike the United States, pedestrians do not have the right of way – the biggest vehicle in the street does.
Before your cross, look both ways and don't be surprised if people run red lights.
Traffic is bad enough to begin with in major cities, but during rush hour it's horrendous.
Public transportation becomes extremely crowded and it's also very difficult to hail a cab, even from a hotel during these times.
One of my biggest conerns traveling to China was the language barrier.
Chinese is the most spoken language in the world, so there's not really a need for people to learn English it makes sense! However, I did do a couple things before my trip that really helped facilitate travel.
Before I left, I found the name and address of my hotel in Chinese and printed it out so that when I got to the airport, all I had to do was hand my printout to the taxi driver and there was no confusion.
Once I got to the hotel, I also found that the concierge was really helpful in writing down address to points of interest While in China, only use licensed taxis.
Avoid black taxis which is a name for unregistered taxis.
They'll often charge you more and you have to negotiate the price, which is really difficult to do if you don't know the language.
The way to tell whether or not a taxi is licensed is that they'll have a light on the top of the roof, the name is usually spelled out on the side of the door, and once you get inside you'll see that there's a taxi meter and that the driver will display his identification on the dashboard.
Also in many cities like Beijing, the license plates of taxis will be marked with a special letter, like "B.
" China is notorious for having flights that are delayed or canceled.
Out of the three domestic flights I booked, ALL of them were delayed.
So what this means is if you have an important activity, like hiking the Great Wall, make sure to give yourself a little cusion and schedule it for the next day.
As you know, China has a huge population which means that their sense of personal space is probably much smaller than what you're used to.
The key is not to take it personally.
You're going to find that crowds are large, and that people are going to be pushy, shoving and people will cut in front of you if there even is a line.
What you have to do is stand your ground and not be scared to be aggressive and join in the chaos.
While I was in China, I noticed that a lot of people spit.
It makes sense because there is a lot of air pollution and does build up a lot of phlegm in the throat.
However, what surprised me was that people didn't just spit outside in the sidewalks or street, but you'd also see it happen in places like elevators, malls, and even carpeted floors.
Passing gas and picking your nose in public are not a big deal either.
Though it might horrify travelers, it's considered a part of your natural, bodily functions.
I visited China in June and it was already sweltering hot, especially in the city.
The combination of concrete, large crowds, and air pollution made it feel very grimy and oppresive.
There are a few things you can do to combat the heat.
First of all, always carry water with you and stay hydrated.
Secondly, do what the locals do and bring an umbrella.
This provides instant shade.
Another great tip is to go to the souvenir store and get a fan, it will help cool you off and is compact.
I also learned from my tour guide while at the Great Wall that these are great for hiking because they also double as a bug swatter.
You'll find that a lot of the men in China when it's hot will pull their shirts up to their chest and let their bellies protrude.
This is a common way to keep themselves ventilated.
So if you're a dude, I dare you to go try it.
(Not so popular for the ladies though.
) And now I want to hear from you! Have you traveled to mainland China? If you have any helpful observations or tips, please leave them in the comment section below.
And if you're planning a trip to China we would love to hear your questions.
You can also read the full details in our "Cultivating Culture"column on enroutetraveler.
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