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A Helpful Guide to Plan a Trip to China

A Helpful Guide to Plan a Trip to China

China keeps on appearing on the travel wish lists of people the world over, and a single visit to China is never enough. Here's a brief guide to help you plan your trip to the most populated country in the world.
Sucheta Pradhan
I drift like a cloud,
Across these venerable eastern lands,
A journey of unfathomable distances,
An endless scroll of experiences...
Lady Zhejiang here we must part,
For the next province awaits my embrace.

― Tom Carter, China: Portrait of a People
Sharing its terrestrial borders with as many as 14 countries, and coastal boundaries with five, the East Asian sovereign state of China, officially the Republic of China, is the world's second-largest country by land area, and also the most populated one. For people from across the world, China seems a familiar country, not just because it keeps appearing in the news every now and then. But more importantly, because there is a huge Chinese diaspora overseas. Chinese culture and traditions have penetrated and assimilated into different cultures around the world, and hence, it may not seem an unknown land, unless you decide to actually visit it. It is only then that you realize that you have, in fact, known nothing about China.
If you thought China was outwardly urban and very similar, culturally, to America or some European countries, you will find that it is indeed all that you thought, and yet, nothing of it. It is urban yet rural, conservative yet progressive, and modern yet old-fashioned, and it is these incredible diversities which make China not only a mystical land in its own right, but also an eye-opener for the rest of the world.
Planning a Chinese Vacation
From slick skyscrapers to ancient palace complexes, from the Great Wall to the famous Terracotta Warriors, from dragon dances to kung fu, and from out-of-this-world flavors to breathtaking landscapes and scenery, China has it all. And, if you still want more, be rest assured that you would surely have it. If China is on your travel wish list, this write-up will help you plan your trip, but if it's not, we bet that this article will surely strike a chord.
Best Time to Visit
China is a huge country with extreme climatic diversity that ranges from freezing cold to scorching heat. Every second region of China experiences a different climate from the other, and hence, the time of your visit should be largely based on your itinerary.

In general, China can be visited throughout the year if you are ready to face what the seasons have in store for you. However, it is always better to study the climate before embarking on your journey.

The best time to visit China is either between March and May (when it is spring) or between September and early November (when it is autumn). During these times, the weather is particularly pleasant throughout the country, except, of course, the regional variations.

The peak tourist season, however, falls in summer (between June and August), when the country is crowded with tourists, domestic and international alike.

Note: If you plan to travel during summer, book your flights and accommodations well in advance, in order to grab the best deals. It is needless to say that accommodation prices are sky-high during the peak season, and getting last-minute bookings can be extremely difficult.

The off-season to travel to China is between the months of November and March (winter months). There is much less tourist influx during this time, owing to which, it may be a good time for those traveling on a tight budget, and wanting to avoid crowds.

Warning: Do not underestimate the Chinese winter; if you're traveling to high-altitude areas, the temperature can plummet well below freezing.

On major public holidays, such as the Chinese New Year or the week-long May Day holiday (one week from May 1), tourist spots in Mainland China (and even in Hong Kong and Macau) are crammed with visitors.

No doubt that you would get some of the most entertaining and colorful glimpses of China on these days, but the accommodation prices are at their peak, public transport is overcrowded, and it is often difficult to acquire train tickets.

Tip: Be flexible with your travel dates, and ensure, as far as possible, that you are not in China on one of these days (unless that is the reason of your visit). This way, you will be able to avoid heavy crowds and save a substantial expenses on travel and accommodation.
Planning the Itinerary
From a geographical point of view, China is super-colossal, literally. The country's landscape features some of the world's highest mountains, seemingly endless expanses of deserts, grasslands, and jungles, and some of the largest and the most-developed cities in the world. So, touring the entire country in one go may seem possible, but in reality, it may prove to be otherwise.

In order to do justice to your trip, it is important that you research well and plan your itinerary so as to avoid disappointment. Therefore, it is extremely vital that you focus your itinerary on one particular region and/or province, and explore it properly.

Moreover, as mentioned before, your itinerary will also depend on the season during your visit. So, in summer, you can opt for high-altitude areas such as Tibet and Qīnghǎi, while you may choose to go to the Cháng Jiāng (Yangtze River) region during winter, and so on.

It is very important that you research well before planning your itinerary, especially if you are traveling on your own. However, if you are going through a tour operator, he/she will design an appropriate and convenient itinerary for you.

Warning: Please check your tour operator's reputation and past record, in order to ensure a hassle-free trip. Do not opt for a tour operator who asks you to make all payments in advance and/or to sign blank forms.
Travel Documents and Visas
All visitors to Mainland China, except the nationals of Singapore, Japan, and Brunei, are required to have a valid visa on entry. A standard single-entry visa is valid for 30 days, and needs to be used within three months from the date of issue.

Multiple-entry visas, lasting from 60 to 90 days, are issued to travelers, but not always. The procedure for acquiring these visas is fairly tedious. In case you extend your stay, both single and multiple-entry visas can be renewed in China.

You can apply for a visa at the Chinese embassy in your home country; however, in certain countries like the US and the UK, the embassy has outsourced the visa service. The entire process takes up to three weeks time.

If you intend to visit Hong Kong, and are a citizen of the EU, the US, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, you will not need a visa for a 90-day stay. Similarly, nationals of the UK are allowed to stay in Hong Kong for 180 days without a visa, and those of South Africa are allowed to stay for 30 days.

For all other nationals, visa will be required to visit Hong Kong, which they can procure from Chinese consulates in their home countries.

Note: Visitors wanting to enter Hong Kong from China are required to have a multiple-entry visa, if they want to re-enter China. However, if they don't have one, they will have to get a new visa for Mainland China from Hong Kong.

If Macau is where you are headed to, citizens of most countries can get a 30-day visa on arrival. However, nationals of the EU, the US, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia are exempt from this rule.

Again, those wanting to re-enter Mainland China from Macau require a multiple-entry visa to be able to do so.

Tip: Your Chinese visa application form will ask you the details of your itinerary. Note that if you provide an in-depth point-to-point itinerary (some places such as the Tibet Autonomous Region are politically very sensitive), your visa processing may get complicated. So, as far as possible, try to list only standard tourist destinations like Shanghai, Beijing, etc., as this list is not binding in any manner. You can then visit other unlisted places once you get there, and also acquire special permits while you are there, in case they are required for visiting certain locations.
The Overall Budget
China's diversity is also reflected in the amount of money one may need to spend at different places, especially for food and accommodation.

The priciest cities are Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, etc., but, even these cities contain a lot of options suited to every budget.

If you are a budget traveler, opt to stay in dormitories instead of hotels, and eat in small restaurants and street stalls instead of expensive restaurants.

Note: Macau is cheaper than Hong Kong, but prices do shoot up significantly on weekends.

Shopping can be tricky in China, if you are not cautious enough. Look around, see where the locals shop.

Tip: Befriend a local if possible, and take him/her along everywhere you go. This way you can escape the numerous tourist traps on the streets of China.

Western and southwestern China, and the interiors of the country are comparatively cheaper than the big cities. This is why many of them have developed into popular backpacker getaways. Some of these regions include Yunnan, Tibet, Hunan, Sichuan, etc. There are a lot of budget accommodations and inexpensive eateries in these areas.

While food is reasonably priced throughout China, what is even better is that restaurants do not ask for or accept tips. However, these days, several mid-range and high-end restaurants do ask for a separate service charge. But this trend is not seen in smaller, cheaper eateries.
Public transport is reasonably priced in China. Long-distance bus service is not only extensively interconnected, but is also faster and way cheaper than trains.

Bikes can also be hired at affordable prices for getting around the city, and if you are in the interiors of the country, such as some rural region, you can take a blissful walk around the countryside, which is obviously free-of-cost.

Boat services are available but only around the coastal areas. These boats and ferries sail through several inland routes as well as to a myriad of offshore islands.

Another option to travel around the cities and even long distances are private taxis which, though costlier than buses, are still affordable. Like restaurants, even taxi drivers in China do not accept tips.

Warning: While hitchhiking is not safe in China, it remains your only option if you want to get to some of the remote and isolated outposts, which have extremely poor public transport. If you decide to hitchhike (it is not recommended), please ensure that you are not alone, and keep someone posted as to where you are going, in order to ensure safety.
Other Important Tips
For traveling to China, you are expected to take certain vaccinations, apart from the routine ones recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Make sure that you are up-to-date on your immunization shots, and also carry documented proof of the same with you. For further information, visit CDC's official website.

Remember to purchase appropriate travel insurance before commencing your journey. See to it that it covers not only health issues, but also contingencies such as loss of luggage, cancellation of journey, and so on. Carry your insurance papers along as well.

Language can be a big problem in China, especially for first-time visitors, and so, it is a good idea to learn some basic words and phrases before you get there. If possible, enroll for a crash course in Mandarin Chinese. Moreover, carry a Chinese-to-English pocket dictionary, and it is also advisable to get a translator app on your mobile phone. Most importantly, carry Chinese language business cards of your hotel and other places you intend to visit, for showing it to taxi drivers, bus conductors, etc.

While China may lack familiar culinary flavors, do not hesitate to try out authentic Chinese food. After all, it is an inevitable part of their culture. Do not avoid eating street food; it will provide an opportunity to sample some of the most authentic local flavors. Moreover, try eating with chopsticks even if you don't know how to. It's absolute fun, and you cannot miss it while in China!
So, pack your bags, explore China to the fullest, venture into the unknown, and try to unravel the mysteries of one of the most mesmerizing lands on the planet. You will surely want to return for more!