China is an incredible country, filled with some of the world’s most amazing sights, but it’s not the easiest to travel around and can be a bit of a culture shock.
Despite being so technologically advanced and with an economy growing at an astonishing rate, there can be a surprising number of challenges when travelling in the Middle Kingdom.
Don’t let this put you off though- China has so much to offer and with some planning, it’s not that difficult to navigate your way around. Whilst it may be frustrating at times, it’s well worth it.
In terms of solo travel, it’s a super safe country, even for lone females. I never felt unsafe and was quite relaxed about using my phone when out and about, walking around at night etc. I did quite a lot of research before my trip and didn’t come across any horror stories as can be the case for a lot of Asian countries.
Here’s my list of all the things to consider and prepare for when travelling to China for the first time, with some specific tips for solo travellers.
Before you go
Buy and download a good VPN
You’ve heard of the Great Wall of China, but have you heard about the Great Firewall? Popular websites and apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Google and WhatsApp are completely banned, meaning that you’ll be unable to access these when there without a VPN.
If you require access to these, ensure you download a VPN on to all your devices BEFORE YOU ENTER CHINA. Once there, you’ll be unable to download the apps that power VPNs.
I used Express VPN for my trip, as I’d read lots of great reviews online. I agree with these- it’s an affordable option that works well.
I opted for the 1 month subscription and it cost just under £10. Money well spent!
It’s a good idea to take a portable phone charger if you’re going to be using your VPN a lot- I found that it really drained my battery whilst I had it switched on.
Download a translation app
Another essential for getting around China. Even in the larger cities, the majority of people do not speak English and so having an translation app will be a big help.
Google translate or iTranslate are both good options.
Download an app with offline maps
Even if you plan to get a sim card (more on that later…), having an offline map will be invaluable!
I used maps.me and it worked well, just make sure you’ve downloaded the maps you need before you go or when you have wifi.
Choose trains over planes
China’s flights are regularly delayed; they can randomly change take-off times to allow military planes to fly by.
I had a flight booked from Shenzen to Chengdu and it ended up being delayed by nearly 4 hours! For a flight that was only a couple of hours long, it was very frustrating! With the language barrier, I was given basically no information on the situation and just had to wait it out in the airport until we were called to board.
In comparison, the high-speed trains I took left and arrived exactly on time. They’re also cheaper than flights (although not by much) and are super fast, efficient and clean. I’d recommend taking a train wherever possible.
Book train tickets (Trip.com)
Trains do get booked up in advance, so your best bet is probably to buy tickets online before you leave.
Otherwise, you’ll need to queue up to buy a ticket at the station a few days before you intend to travel to ensure that there’s space.
I travelled in second class, which is the cheapest option but it was perfectly fine. Much better than normal class in the UK! You can even fit large suitcases in the luggage rack above you, so don’t need to worry about not being able to keep your things close by.
I booked my tickets on Trip.com and would highly recommend this. It costs slightly more due to a small service fee, but it provides peace of mind and is really convenient.
You order online and get send a confirmation. Take that along to any station in China, along with your passport, and you’ll be able to collect your tickets. It’s really easy and you don’t need to speak Mandarin to do so. Download their app for easy access to your booking confirmation.
The only thing I would say if you’re picking up your tickets on the day of travel is to leave yourself plenty of time, there can be large queues at the ticket office and the stations are pretty big.
Research places to eat
One of the things I really struggled with in China is that it’s not really the type of place where you can spot a restaurant that looks nice and just walk in if you’re not with a local.
The language barrier is an issue and as a solo traveller, I didn’t feel comfortable just walking in to somewhere spontaneously as I do in other countries.
You might be braver than me and willing to take a leap of faith but I’d recommend that you find a few places that you’d like to eat beforehand.
Some more tourist-friendly places are listed on Trip Advisor and it’s always a good idea to ask the staff at your hotel/hostel for local recommendations.
Whilst you’re there
Get a local sim card
Getting hold of a local sim card is super useful anywhere where roaming is expensive, but I’d say this is the case even more so in China.
As you can’t easily ask for directions etc., it’s helpful to have access to the internet whenever you need, just in case. Especially if you’re a solo female traveller.
I got a sim card from China Unicom, which offers a few pay as you go options for foreigners. I felt like the sim card was actually pretty expensive for the amount of data I got but I just made sure that I used wifi when I could so that I didn’t need to top up again.
I got the sim card from the hostel I stayed in but you can go to a China Unicom store if you need. Ask your hotel/hostel to write down what you require, the language barrier could pose a problem otherwise.
There are other option; China Mobile is the biggest telecoms provider in the country but I’ve read that it isn’t as foreigner friendly.
As usual, make sure your phone’s unlocked so that the sim card works.
Ensure that you’re carrying enough cash
By far the biggest challenge I experienced in China was finding an ATM that would let me withdraw money with a foreign card! It was a bit ridiculous for such a developed country to be honest. I spent more than three hours trying to find a bank where I could draw out cash for my airport taxi on my final day in Beijing!!
The only branches that seemed to accept MasterCard and Visa were Bank of China and ICBC. Also note that some banks on Google Maps are not actually there- since Google is banned in China, I assume they struggle to keep maps completely up to date.
Carry around enough cash to last you for a while and have a plan of when you’ll make it to an ATM that works. Your hostel/hotel should be able to point you in the right direction.
Hardly any shops or restaurants accept card. Chinese people use their version of WhatsApp, We Chat, to pay for pretty much everything. A really cool and convenient concept but not for foreigners- you’d need a Chinese bank account to set yourself up with this.
Carry toilet paper and antibacterial gel
As is the case with a lot of countries in Asia, squat toilets are everywhere when you’re out and about, and there usually isn’t any toilet paper.
Be sure to pack plenty, plus antibacterial hand gel.
Use your haggling skills
Again similar to other Asian countries, when buying from most markets and souvenir shops, you are expected to haggle.
Vendors can start at as much as 5 or 6 times what they’d actually sell for. It feels awkward, especially if you’re talking pennies, but haggling is very much expected.
Be prepared to feel like a celebrity!
As a foreigner, you’ll inevitably be stared at in the streets of China, even within the big cities! It’s a bit daunting and weird at first, but you’ll get used to it.
Some people may even ask for a photo of you or if you’ll get in their selfie!
The only thing I really didn’t like was people taking photos of me not so subtly without asking if they could. I started to understand how famous people must feel when they’re just trying to go about their every day life and everyone is getting their phone out taking snaps of them!
Still, most people I came across were friendly along with their curiosity. The babies and small kids were hilarious- they either loved me and were waving like crazy, or looked completely terrified of me!
Take care when ordering food if you’re veggie/vegan
China does not do veggie food very well. Everything seems to come with meat, even when you don’t expect it to.
I ordered braised aubergine one evening after seeing a delicious-looking photo in the menu. There was no mention of meat. When the dish arrived, it was filled with rich, minced pork. I’m not vegetarian but at this stage of my trip, I was desperate for some food without meat.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, double check what you’re ordering, just in case. It would probably be a good idea to research some veggie friendly restaurants before you leave.
Follow these tips and your trip should be relatively smooth and trouble-free. China isn’t the easiest country to travel to but it really is worth it, you’ll have some amazing experiences!
Have you been to China? Would you add any other tips?