12 Things I Wish I Had Known About Travel in China

 Travel in China is not easy. When I came back, I kept finding myself saying, "Did you know ___?" I am pretty sure it drove my friend's crazy for a while, but my mind kept thinking of things that were different, interesting, and I just had no clue about before visiting. So I wanted to create a post with all the things I wish I had known. Here are 12 things I wish I had known about travel in China.

Yes, some of these are travel tips for many countries, but were may more pronounced or important in China.

1. Visas are hard to get – no joke. Start way ahead of time and be prepared to possibly have to retry getting a visa. Mine was denied twice. On the third try, my visa was finally accepted. You MUST go to an embassy to get it. Someone can go for you, for a fee – I used Passports and Visas . Check all the updated rules on your government's website. NOTE: These are the rules currently for US citizens, other countries have different rules.

2. Many tours include visits to factories and markets. These visits are often not related to the tour and are more about selling products. Be careful of these situations on tours for two reasons. First, they can be a scam. Second, they can take most of the time you are on a tour. I saw many complaints before I went to China of this happening to people on tours and it happened to us once. Research the tour carefully, ask if you can spend less time in a factory and more time at the location.

3. Expect problems to arise/Plan ahead as much as possible. The train schedules will change, something will not be located where it was listed online, and you might not be able to talk to everyone you need to. Build in time and expect these problems to happen. This is not an easy place to go if you don’t know the language. There were times we just didn't know what to do and I planned ahead a lot. If you are not going with a tour group, take time to research as much as you can!

The picture above is from when things did not go according to plan for us. We were supposed to go visit my friend James in Hangzhou and ended up missing a train so instead went to Suzhou. Well, this was fine until we ended up on an all Chinese tour and were unable to communicate with anyone on the tour at all. We saw many beautiful things and hung out for a long time in some factories. the best part was that at the end we found out a family on the tour was from Michigan and spoke English the whole time. So we could have communicated with our guide or asked questions about where we were if we had only known... Still unsure what all we saw to this day, but it was beautiful and one of those moments where you just look back and laugh.

So while this isn't a separate tip... Be gracious to yourself and allow mistakes. This one was a big lesson for me. I learned that I will make mistakes when traveling, especially somewhere so different than I am used to. I made some mistakes that cost us a day of our trip, but in the end, things worked out and everything was okay. It wasn't my fault we didn't know the rules for the train, but we learned (don't lose a ticket - they can't really be replaced).

4. Trains have different classes and they are vastly different. 

On bullet/ high speed trains (C, D, G trains): first class seat, second class seat, business class seat, VIP seat, soft sleeper, luxury soft sleeper. Bullet trains are usually divided into six classes. Among them, second class has five seats in a row; first class has four seats, while VIP class and business class have three seats in a row. We took second class seats on a bullet train and it was very nice.

On non-bullet trains (Z, T, K, Y, K, S trains): hard sleeper, soft sleeper, luxury soft sleeper, hard seat, soft seat. Non-bullet trains have six classes of seats. Third, fourth, and fifth class are all in the same cars. Third class has reserved seats on bench hard seats, forth class seats are for those without a reserved seat, and fifth class seats are standing room only. I don't recommend these seats. We had people already sitting in our seats when we got on. A man was lying on the table in the middle of the six seats where I was sitting and another person brought their own stool and was lying against my bench seat. It was a bit stressful of a situation for me, but very very cheap.

We also took an overnight train and had hard sleeper tickets. The hard sleeper rooms are quite crammed together as well, but were better than the third class tickets. We used this to get to and from Xi'an. This was an experience I wouldn't discourage as long as you are prepared for dirty bathrooms and sharing space with five other people!

Also, each of these trains has different facilities offered. You can look up the specific train by looking at it's letter. This also tells you if it is a bullet train or not!

5. Don’t pack in too much too fast. We only had 8 days and packed in a ton. Stay longer, adjust to the time difference. I had a whole month, my friends only had 8 days. I would have wanted to spend more time in Shanghai especially. There was more to see and do! We were so tired going through that we didn't fully appreciate it.

6. Social Media is blocked so get a VPN if you want your social media (I used ExpressVPN.). Most social media sites are blocked in China including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google which can be a hassle all solved by having a VPN!

7. China's cheap, like really cheap – we only spent about 700 – 800 including the food, souvenirs, internal flights/train rides, and tours/tips (see my last post for how we spent it).

8. You will be popular if you are a westerner. It is still not common to see many Westerners while in China even though it is getting more popular. People are interested in foreigners – not in a bad way. Here my friend and I were being interviewed for an app (this happened over and over!). We got asked to take photos and people who knew English were always interested in talking to us.

9. There are so many people in China everywhere. This is true everywhere. I read online about Suzhou being a smaller city. It has over 2 million people living there which is still larger than DC which I would consider a large city.

10. Don’t expect to hear or see much English beyond “Hi.” Many people even in touristy areas do not speak English, even in Beijing or Shanghai. The picture below is one of my favorite examples of English in China - how to eat pizza!

11. Food is good, but be careful. Food regulations are very different and you can get sick from the food. We looked around carefully before choosing a place to eat.

12. Bathrooms are holes in the ground, even in the touristy places. Hotels and homes will have western toilets. However, when out in public places bring your own toilet paper and prepare to squat when you need to go.


Honestly - China is so much fun and you shouldn't be intimidated by the planning needed. You will have a great time there! I know we did!

If you liked this article, you may also like...

  • I’ve been debating whether or not I should travel China. It seems a bit stressful but knowing all of this makes it seem a bit more manageable. I still don’t know whether I want to or not though!

    • I hope you decide to go! I have a whole document with links to everything I used/did if you are interested in how I planned let me know. I also think that planning ahead is how to make it manageable!

  • Ariane Petit

    Your post is quite informative of what problems to expect while travelling to China. I think also that visiting factories & markets on tours is not only related to tourism in China… unfortunately this happens a lot everywhere… that’s why I decided never took take tours. I think you can always somehow get around those totaly organised tours, whatever country you are visiting.
    I am happy though that you had a great time in China and I’m looking forward to visit this extraordinary country 🙂

    • Agreed. This does happen everywhere! I hope by mentioning it, people can vet their tours better! In China, it is almost impossible to visit some places without a tour guide simply because nothing is posted in English and you would end up walking through a place without knowing or learning anything about it (and for some travelers, this is ok!). For example, the terracotta warriors were incredible, but nothing was in English! Without a guide, we would not have learned much about what we were seeing. We didn’t stay with an organized tour the whole time we were there, but on certain days, we needed it! Just look up places before you go to see what is available there.

  • Outdoorsy Diva

    The tip about using the VPN is great! I didn’t know there was a way around the internet blockage! That train tho?! No ma’am. I don’t think I could handle the overnight situation lol

    Also it’s so interesting to see that you were interviewed and asked for pictures by locals. I have read from many black travelers they experience this and I guess we all assume it’s because they don’t see people like us with our hair and skin but you have shown me that it’s not just because we are black. It’s westerners in general that fascinate them.

    Great post!

    • The overnight train can be pretty crazy. We ended up staying with the nicest people though so it was okay! Yes – all foreigners are pretty susceptible to this. Especially outside Shanghai or Beijing. We experienced it a lot in smaller cities (and by smaller, I mean cities of like 12 million haha)

  • Ellis Veen

    Great post. Lots of useful information. Thinking of going overland from China to Central Asia. Glad to read a bit about china before and the different classes in the trains

    • Thanks Ellis! The trains were hard to figure out for me, glad it was helpful!

  • Sheila Berríos Nazario

    Wow, very useful information. Seems every westerner that goes to China returns very surprised with their culture and way of life. I know someone that said a few of the things you mentioned in the post, but also said a visit it’s still worth it. Good post.

    • Thanks! Yes, it is very different. I wrote this post in hopes that people wouldn’t come back shocked. I took a while to adjust, but loved it. Hopefully others will know ahead of time and not experience the same shock!

  • Olena Kagui Kahujová

    Great post! I live in China so I can totally relate to everything you wrote about! Especially #3. Did you know that expats call days when nothing goes as planned a “China day”? 😛 thanks so much for sharing!

    • That is so funny! I may have heard that before, but it has been a while. Thanks for reading. Will have to remember that phrase! 🙂

  • Jodie Bickhoff

    Thanks for sharing, can’t believe you can’t access social media there that’s nuts! Thank God for the VPN!

  • Megan

    This is all super good to know! I’ll definitely come back to this when I go to China. I almost went last year for a few days between the Philippines and home, but ended up not. It sounds amazing, but a little intimidating.

    • Thank you! Hope you are able to go. It is a wonderful place. A little intimidating, but totally do-able!

  • OMG! Great tips. I visited China for 4 days on a business trip and almost 90% of my time was dedicated to work and hardly had time to see places, but then I did a bit. Its actually funny if I think of it today – language was just impossible to comprehend to and I got cheated by a cab driver who over charged me!!!

    • Oh wow! That can happen when you don’t know the language. We got cheated with counterfeit money… 🙁 but it was only like a $5 bill so we weren’t too upset by it! Haha

  • Stacey Sandlin Veikalas

    Great information, and really nice to know! We have only had a one day layover but plan to go back one day! Thank you for sharing!

  • Suruchi Mittal

    China is on my bucket list. It is such a informative post. I completely agree to be careful with tour operators as they always are in the process of selling. And unfortunately this happens in all the countries. But still you seem to had an amazing time in China.

    • Yes, it is definitely not a China only problem! They are very upfront on their websites about it too. That makes it easier to find one that gives options. We went on one in Xi’an and in Beijing that let us opt out of those things which was nice!

  • Adventurous Travels

    Good to know! I had no idea it’s difficult to get the visa to China. I can see it’s like a mix between India, South East Asia and Russia/Kazakhstan. Can be crazy, few people speak the language, you can get tricked, and the tours with things for you to buy… They are so awkward. Thanks fr the info!

  • I wouldn’t have though that China would have such a language barrier when visiting as a tourist. I’ve always heard of the big culture shock, and after reading your post I can understand why. I’ve been thinking for a long time about travelling solo around China for at least a couple of weeks, but it’s a bit daunting… it looks like such an amazing culture though!

    • Traveling solo in China could be difficult because of the language barrier, but you will have lots of people who do speak English coming to talk to you! You would definitely need to be okay with possibly having trouble getting around and such. China is incredible though, hope you are able to visit!

  • China does have a language barrier… one of my friends mentioned she had to draw out everything she wanted to est. 🙂 Thanks for the tip on Visa. Haven’t been to China yet but longing to get there some day.

    • Oh wow! We drew out a lot of things too. Having google translate really helped us too. Thanks for reading!

  • I feel like Chinese people especially those from the mainland doesn’t really try to communicate beyond their language.

    I didn’t know that social media is blocked in China. Why is that?