A year and a half ago, I got the opportunity to teach for a summer in China through an organization that offered to pay for my flight and apartment while I was there. It was an amazing opportunity that I had to take. They offered to let me choose the dates for my trip and without knowing who I would go with or what I would do if I ended up solo, I got my ticket for 8 days before the teaching position was to start. When I told them I wanted to come early, I didn’t think anyone would end up coming, but I knew that a free flight to China was something I couldn't waste. I was tired of maybes, ifs, whens, and afters. I just had faith someone would be as adventurous as me
My gut was right, I reached out to friends and two - TWO of my friends ended up wanting to come. I was not alone in my sense of adventure and excitement about China. They both booked their flights and asked, “What’s next?” So I started researching. There are so many things I wish I had known about traveling in China when I started planning. Researching China is tough. It is ever changing and evolving. It's hard to know what to expect. I didn't book a tour for the 8 days. I opted to save money and book things on my own.
NOTE: I owe a HUGE thank you to the people who made this trip possible - to TIS for hiring me and being flexible, to my school for giving me a few days off, to Megan and Matt for letting me stay at their place when my lease ended, and to Nancy who watched my adorable cat for a whole month! And finally, Elizabeth and Adam who put up with my worries about planning this trip and being understanding when things went wrong. There are a lot of amazing people out there who supported my dream and made it happen.
This is the first trip internationally (besides a cruise) that I planned myself and it was very overwhelming at first. I remember calling my mom (who was going to China on a tour just a month before I was going) and saying I didn’t know where to start. She assured me that if I planned ahead and used my planning skills... I am a crazy lover of planning... that I would be fine. I took a deep breath and jumped in.
When I started to write this post, I planned on writing about each place in the post like I did for Peru, but the post was getting extremely long. Honestly, there were so many things I wanted to include that I was looking at an insanely long article that would probably take for ever to load. So instead, I am doing different posts for each city we visited. This post contains the overview for my travels in China. Stay tuned for more details on each city later!
8 DAYS IN CHINA:
Total cost (remember, I had no international flight): $702
Average food cost per day: $15
Day 1: Arrive
Day 2: Beijing
Tour Tienamen Square
Temple of Heaven
Day 3: Beijing
Day 4: Shanghai (flight from Beijing)
Big Bus Tour
Jin Mao Tower Observation
Day 5: Hangzhou (ended up going to Suzhou, by train)
One hour train ride from Shanghai
Day 6: Beijing (by train)
Day 7: Xi’an (by overnight train)
Bike City Wall
Visit Muslim Quarter
Day 8: Beijing (by overnight train)
Why this order and going back to Beijing? Well, for one, Elizabeth came in on day 3 so we had to plan a way for her to get to the Great Wall. Second, getting from Shanghai to Xi’an was much more expensive, like $150 more for the flight. So… to save money we came back to Beijing oddly enough and did the Great Wall in between. If you have the option, don't do it this way. It made for a lot of days of travel and we were tired.
Here are some things I wish I had known when planning my trip…
China is very affordable once you are there. I’ve seen that a lot of flights are getting cheaper too. We paid $70 a night for our hotel and took private tours the whole time. The average cost per day was less than $100 once it’s all laid out. You can get pretty nice accommodations for fairly cheap. Train rides are also less than $100 and domestic flights were less than $100. I was impressed with how we were able to stay and do so many things for so cheap. Food is also really cheap and you can eat a lot there without spending much. Most expensive thing was water bottles which you have to buy because the water is not even safe for the Chinese to drink.
Because it is cheap it is easy to overpay. Check and see what you can do and how much it costs with other companies. I have seen guided tours with flights for less than $1000 lately, which is amazing! Even if it is not the best tour, if they can get you there for cheap and then you can plan your own things for cheap, I would do it.
We took an overnight train to and from Xi’an. This was an experience all in itself. The bathrooms were terrible, the beds were hard, and we shared space with three other people. However, people were friendly, we were in it together, we learned a lot about being a millennial in China, and we tried many delicious snacks.
We ended up not showering for three days which was not the best either, but honestly, who really cares?! The train saved us money and makes a great story. I do recommend taking an overnight train, but know what you are getting into! Look carefully at the ticket you are getting. The trains will be full, and I mean full. We chose second class tickets and ended up with beds that were 3 levels high and 3 people we didn’t know. It was fine, but we just didn’t know what it would be like.
Also, they sell 5 classes of tickets. 3rd, 4th, and 5th class are very packed and all in the same car. We took a 3rd class train once and we were with the 4th and 5th class passengers as well. 3rd class has reserved seats, 4th class seats allow you to sit in an open spot, and 5th class is standing room only. This makes it extremely crowded and standing room only people bring their own stools and sit in the isles.
Public transit within the major cities (Shanghai, Tianjin, and Beijing) had signs in English, outside public transit, we did not see very much English. They also use a color system to tell you where a train is headed. Be careful. We found the lights were not as reliable and went the wrong way a few times.
English in China
There will not be very much English in China and you will find that the English written places will often not make sense or just be a popular American phrase they places for the sake of trendiness (we do this in the US too, although not as much).
If someone speaks English, they will usually walk right up to you and start speaking it. People will also say hello to you a lot, but then not know much English beyond that. People in China are very friendly and like to interact with foreigners, but are often not able to speak English.
Look for English speaker lines when buying train tickets or tickets into major attractions. Some places have different lines with an English-speaking attendant. We found this in Shanghai and Beijing. It was very helpful!
I found these phrases to be the most helpful:
Zhege (said jegga) : this
Nage (said negga) : that
XieXie (said shay shay): thank you
Money in China
Be careful of the size of your bills. We were given 100s when we exchanged our money. This is a large bill (even though it’s really about $10 in American money). Many places did not have change and we ran into problems trying to pay for things. If you can, get smaller bills or use your large bills each chance you can until you have smaller bills.
Many places will not take cards. Choose an ATM wisely when you take out money. Any ATM with Union Pay is usually considered safe choices.
We bought something in a small shop and received counterfeit money. We have no idea where the money came from, but it was not Chinese. Here is a list of Chinese bills. If someone hands you a bill you don’t recognize, hand it back and make sure they give you the right one.
Get a VPN and a phone with data
If you know Chinese, this isn't as important, but I cannot stress this enough. It saved us so many times. Google or social media sites we are used to in the west are all blocked. This includes Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter too. We got lost, needed translations, wanted an Uber (not blocked in China), to call tour guides, and just general help knowing what to do next. Without my phone working and a VPN, we would have been lost so many times.
A VPN allows you to access blocked sites in China by making your IP address show up outside the country. I chose to use ExpressVPN which allowed me to choose where my IP address would come from. I found California worked the best. If one location didn’t work, I could click in a different one and could always find a different location that worked.
T-Mobile includes service to over 150 countries. I am always able to use my phone at no extra charge in other countries. If you travel a lot, I recommend T-Mobile. If you want strong service in small towns throughout the US, it is not the best.
Security is Serious
We had to send a copy of our passport for everything we purchased. Each time we entered a tourist attraction, they scanned our passport. There are camera’s everywhere. You cannot go into sites with bags and have to lock them up away from major attractions. You have to have your passport on you at all times. On other trips, I have left my passport in my bag at the hotel and carried a copy. You cannot do this in China. Carry it with you at all times, expect them to scan it everywhere they go and before you can get a ticket into any tourist attractions.
China was an amazingly difficult first trip to plan. Most people go with a tour group to China. Traveling by yourself is possible! Things that helped make it possible:
- Flexible friends to travel with
- A phone with a VPN (I used Express VPN). It never stopped working and was very good the whole time I was there.
- Family and friends who had already planned a trip
- The glorious internet
Have you been to China? Have more questions? Feel free to comment below!