China (中国; Zhōngguó) , officially known as the People's Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó) is a vast country in Eastern Asia (about the same size as the United States of America) with the world's largest population.
With coasts on the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea, in total it borders 14 nations. It borders Afghanistan, Pakistan (through the disputed territory of Kashmir), India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam to the south; Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the west; Russia and Mongolia to the north and North Korea to the east. This number of neighboring states is equaled only by China's vast neighbor to the north, Russia.
The 5000-year old Chinese civilisation has endured through millenia of tumultuous upheaval and revolutions, periods of golden ages and anarchy alike. Through the recent economic boom initiated by the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, China is once again one of the leading nations in the world, buoyed by its large, industrial population and abundant amount of natural minerals and resources. The richness and complexity of the Chinese civilisation, with its rich heritage, has fascinated Westerners such as Marco Polo and Gottfried Leibniz centuries past , and will continue to excite - and bewilder - the traveller today.
The recorded history of Chinese civilisation can be traced back to the Yellow river valley, said to be the 'cradle of Chinese civilisation'. The Shang, China's first recorded dynasty, and the Zhou ruled across the Yellow River Basin. During the end of the Zhou, China descended into a period of political turmoil, as it broke down into numerous small fiefdoms during the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States period, giving birth to the greatest thinkers such as Confucius, Mencius and Laozi, who made substantial contributions to Chinese thought and culture.
China was eventually unified in 221BC by Qin Shi Huang, the 'First Emperor', and the Qin dynasty instituted a centralised system of government for all of China, with the standardisation of weights and measures, Chinese characters and currency in order to create unity in his state, and a unified and strong centralised system is still strong in Chinese thought till today. However, due to despotic and harsh rule, the Qin dynasty lasted for only 15 years as the Han Dynasty took over in 206BC after a period of revolt. With the invention of paper and extensive trade with the West along the Silk Road, along with a relatively benevolent imperial rule, the Han was the first golden age of Chinese civilisation. Ethnic Chinese consider themselves to be part of the 'Han' race till this day.
After the collapse of the Han in AD 220, various dynasties and fiefdoms came and went, including the Three Kingdom Period, a heavily romanticised period in Chinese history, and the Sui . The Sui were instrumental for major public works projects, such as the engineering feat of the Grand Canal, which linked Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. Certain sections of the canal are still navigable today.
Along came the Tang dynasty, the golden age of Chinese poetry, Buddhism and statecraft. The Tang is considered by most Chinese to be the second golden age in Chinese civilization, and Chinatowns overseas are often known as "Street of the Tang People" (唐人街 Tángrén jiē) in Chinese. The Song again united most of China and although militarily weak, it reached a level of commercial and economic development unmatched until the West's Industrial Revolution. The Song was conquered by the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty in 1279, who ruled their vast Eurasian empire from modern-day Beijing.
After the defeat of the Mongols, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), was gradually involved with trade and exploration, with Zheng He's numerous trips and voyages to Southeast Asia, India and the Arab world. China gradually reaped the fruits of the Columbian exchange, with silver pouring in by the galleon through the trade of tea and china with various European powers. Famous buildings in Beijing, such as the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, were built in this period. The last dynasty of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty (1644-1911), saw the Chinese empire grow to its current size, engulfing the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, of which the current communist government claims legitimacy over till this very day. The Qing dynasty fell into decay in its final years to become the 'sick man of Asia', where it was nibbled apart by Western powers. The westerners established their own treaty ports in Canton, Shanghai and Tientsin and established the enclaves of Hong Kong and Macau as spoils of their victory in the Opium Wars.
The Republic and WWII
The thousand-year old imperial system collapsed in 1911, where Sun Yat-Sen (孙中山, Sūn Zhōngshān) of the Kuomingtang (KMT) founded the Republic of China (中华民国 Zhōnghuá Mínguó). Central rule collapsed in 1916 after Yuan Shih-kai, the second president of the Republic and self-declared emperor, passed away, and China descended into anarchy, with various self-serving warlords ruling over different regions of China. During 1919, student protests in Beijing gave birth to the "May Fourth Movement" (五四运动 Wǔ Sì Yùndòng), where various reforms to Chinese society, such as the use of the vernacular, as well as the development of science and democracy, were espoused. The intellectual ferment of the May Fourth Movement gradually gave birth to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the French Enclave in Shanghai, 1921.
After uniting much of eastern China under KMT rule in 1928, the CCP and the KMT turned on each other, with the CCP fleeing to Yan'an in Shaanxi in the epic Long March. Nevertheless, during 1922-1937, China grew economically under the Nanjing KMT government, with economic expansion, industralisation and urbanisation. Shanghai became a truly cosmopolitan city, as one of the world's busiest ports, home to millions of Chinese and 60,000 foreigners from all corners of the globe. However, underlying problems throughout the country side, such as civil unrest, famines and warlord conflict, still remained.
Japan established a puppet government, the Manchukuo, in Manchuria in 1931, and launched a full-scale invasion of heartland China in 1937. While the Kuomintang government fled to inland Chongqing, the Japanese initiated a brutal system of rule in Eastern China, culminating in the Nanjing Massacre 1937. Realising the urgency of the situation, the Kuomintang and Communist signed a tenuous agreement in 1937 to form a second united front against the Japanese in China, until their defeat in 1945 by the Americans - this set the stage for the civil war in the years to come, where full-scale conflict took place from 1945 to 1949, in which the Kuomintang was defeated and sent packing to reestablish themselves in Taiwan, hoping to recapture the mainland some day.
A Red China
Mao Zedong officially declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949. The new Communist government implemented strong measures to restore law and order and revive industrial, agricultural and commercial institutions reeling from more than a decade of war. By 1955, China's economy had returned to pre-war levels of output as factories, farms, labor unions, civil society and governance were brought under Party control. After an initial period closely hewing to the Soviet model of heavy industrialization and comprehensive central economic planning, China began to experiment with adapting Marxism to a largely agrarian society.
Massive social experiments such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign (百花运动 bǎihuā yùndòng), the Great Leap Forward (大跃进 dàyuèjìn), intended to industrialize China quickly, and the Cultural Revolution (无产阶级文化大革命 wúchǎn jiējí wénhuà dà gémìng), aimed at changing everything by discipline, destruction of the "Four Olds," and total dedication to Mao Zedong Thought, rocked China from 1957 to 1976 essentially delivering another civil war to mainland China. The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution are generally considered disastrous failures in China itself.
Mao Zedong died in 1976, and in 1978, Deng Xiaoping became China's paramount leader. Deng and his lieutenants gradually introduced market-oriented reforms and decentralized economic decision making. Economic output quadrupled by 2000 and continues to grow by 8-10% per year, but huge problems remain — bouts of serious inflation, regional income inequality, human rights abuses, ethnic unrest, massive pollution, rural poverty and corruption. While the larger cities near the coast like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have grown to become rich and modern, much of the more inland parts of the country remain poor and underdeveloped. The current president and CCP General Secretary, Hu Jintao, has proclaimed a policy for a "Harmonious Society" (和谐社会 héxié shèhuì) which promises to restore balanced economic growth and channel investment and prosperity into China's central and western provinces, which have been largely left behind in the post-1978 economic boom. China continues to develop economically at a breakneck speed, but what lies ahead for the Middle Kingdom is anybody's guess.
China is a one-party authoritarian state tightly ruled by the Communist Party of China. China has actually only experienced one open nation-wide election and that was in 1912. The government consists of an executive branch known as the State Council (国务院 Guó Wù Yuàn), as well as a unicameral legislature known as the National People's Congress (全国人民代表大会 Quánguó Rénmín Dàibiǎo Dàhuì). The Head of State is the President (主席 zhǔxí) while the Head of Government is the Premier (总理 zǒnglǐ). In practice the President holds the most power, while the Premier is the second most powerful person in the country.
China largely follows a centralised system of government, though the country is administratively divided into 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions and 4 directly-controlled municipalities. Each of the provincial governments is given limited powers in the internal affairs of their provinces. Autonomous regions are supposedly given more freedom than the usual provinces, one valid example of which is the right to declare additional official languages in the region besides Mandarin. In addition, there are the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of Hong Kong and Macau, both of which have separate legal systems and immigration departments from the mainland, and are given the freedom to enact laws separately from the mainland and therefore much more open and democratic in nature. Taiwan is also claimed by the PRC as a province, though no part of Taiwan is currently under the control of the PRC. Both governments support re-unification in principle and recently signed a trade pact to closer link their economies, essentially removing the danger of war.
People and habits
China is a very diverse place with large variations in culture, language, customs and economic levels. The economic landscape is particularly diverse. The major cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai are modern and comparatively wealthy. However, about 50% of Chinese still live in rural areas even though only 10% of China's land is arable. More than half the total population, some 800 million rural residents, still farm with manual labor or draft animals. Government estimates for 2005 reported that 90 million people lived on under ¥924 a year and 26 million were under the official poverty line of ¥668 a year. Generally the southern and eastern coastal regions are more wealthy while inland areas, the far west and north, and the southwest are much much less developed.
The cultural landscape is unsurprisingly very diverse given the sheer size of the country. China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups; the largest by far is the Han which comprise over 90% of the population. The other 55 groups enjoy affirmative action for university admission, and exemption from the one-child policy. The Han, however, are far from homogeneous and speak a wide variety of mutually unintelligible local "dialects"; which most linguists actually classify as different languages using more or less the same set of Chinese characters. Many of the minority ethnic groups have their own languages as well. Contrary to popular belief, there is no single unified Han Chinese culture, and while they share certain common elements such as Confucian and Taoist beliefs as a basis, the regional variations in culture among the Han ethnic group are actually very diverse. Many customs and deities are specific to individual regions and even villages. Celebrations for the lunar new year and other national festivals vary drastically from region to region. Specific customs related to the celebration of important occasions such as weddings, funerals and births also vary widely. In general contemporary urban Chinese society is rather secular and traditional culture is more of an underlying current in every day life. Among ethnic minorities, the Zhuang, Manchu, Hui and Miao are the largest in size. Other notable ethnic minorities include: Koreans, Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Kirghiz and even Russians. In fact, China is home to the largest Korean population outside Korea and is also home to more ethnic Mongols than the Republic of Mongolia itself. Many minorities have been assimilated to various degrees with the loss of language and customs or a fusing with Han traditions. The exception to the rule is the current situation of the Tibetans and Uighurs in China who remain fiercely defensive of their cultures.
Some behaviours that are quite normal in China may be somewhat jarring and vulgar for foreigners:
Some long-time foreign residents say such behaviors are getting worse; others say the opposite. The cause is usually attributed to the influx of millions of migrants from the countryside who are unfamiliar with big city life. Some department stores place attendants at the foot of each escalator to keep folks from stopping to have a look-see as soon as they get off - when the escalator behind them is fully packed. What the actual causes of such behavior is include suggestions that China has been largely an agriculturally based society for centuries thrust suddenly into the modern age and/or the ghosts of the Cultural Revolution still at play.
On the whole, however, the Chinese love a good laugh and because there are so many ethnic groups and outsiders from other regions, they are used to different ways of doing things and are quite okay with that. Indeed the Chinese often make conversation with strangers by discussing differences in accent or dialect. They are often very used to sign language and quick to see a non-verbal joke or pun wherever they can spot one. (A laugh doesn't necessarily mean scorn, just amusement and the Chinese like a "collective good laugh" often at times or circumstances that westerners might consider rude.) The Chinese love and adore children, allow them a great deal of freedom, and heap attention upon them. If you have children, bring them!
In general, 3, 6, 8, and 9 are lucky numbers for most of the Chinese. “Three” means “high above shine the three stars” while the three stars include gods of fortune, prosperity and longevity. “Six” represents smoothness or success. Many young people choose the dates with “six” as their wedding days, such as the 6th, 16th and 26th. “Eight” sounds so close to the word for wealth that many people believe eight is a number that is linked to prosperity. So it is no surprise that the opening ceremony for the Olympics started at 8:08:08PM on August 8 2008. “Nine” is also regarded as a lucky number with the meaning of everlasting.
“Four” is a taboo for most Chinese because the pronunciation in Mandarin is close to “death”.
Climate and terrain
Again given the country's size the climate is extremely diverse, from tropical regions in the south to subarctic in the north. Hainan Island is roughly at the same latitude as Jamaica, while Harbin, one of the largest cites in the north, is at roughly the latitude of Montreal and has the climate to match. North China has four distinct seasons with intensely hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Southern China tends to be milder and wetter. The further north and west one travels, the drier the climate. Once you leave eastern China and enter the majestic Tibetan highlands or the vast steppes and deserts of Gansu and Xinjiang, distances are vast and the land is very harsh.
Back in Mao's heyday, the rule was that buildings in areas North of the Yangtze River got heat in the winter, but anything South of it did not — this meant unheated buildings in places like Shanghai and Nanjing, which routinely see temperatures below freezing in winter. The rule has long since been relaxed considerably, but the effects are still visible. In general, Chinese use less heating, less building insulation, and more warm clothing than Westerners in comparable climates. In a school or an apartment or office building, even if the rooms are heated, the corridors are not. Double glazing is quite rare, students wear winter jackets in class, along with their teachers and long underwear is very common.
There is also a wide range of terrain to be found in China with many inland mountain ranges, high plateaus, and deserts in center and the far west. Plains, deltas, and hills dominate the east. The Pearl River Delta region around Guangzhou and Hong Kong and the Yangtze delta around Shanghai are major global economic powerhouses, as is the North China plain around Beijing and the Yellow River. On the border between Tibet, (the Tibet Autonomous Region) and the nation of Nepal lies Mount Everest, at 8,850 m, the highest point on earth. The Turpan depression, in northwest China's Xinjiang is the lowest point in the country, at 154 m below sea level. This is also the second lowest point on land in the world after the Dead Sea.
China is a huge country with endless and affordable travel opportunities. During holidays, however, millions of migrant workers return home and millions of other Chinese travel within the country (but many in the service sector stay behind, enjoying extra pay). Travelers may want to seriously consider scheduling to avoid being on the road, on the rails or air during the major holidays. At the very least, travel should be planned well well in advance. Every mode of transportation is crowded; tickets of any kind are hard to come by, and will cost you a lot more, so it may be necessary to book well in advance (especially for those traveling from remote western China to the east coast or in the opposite direction). Train and bus tickets are usually quite easy to buy in China, (during the non-holiday season), but difficulties arising from crowded conditions at these times cannot be overstated. Travelers who are stranded at these times, unable to buy tickets, can sometimes manage to get airplane tickets, which tend to sell out more slowly because of the higher but still affordable (by western standards) prices. For the most comfortable mode of transportation, air travel is the obvious choice. There is an emerging ultra-modern bullet train network which is also very nice, but you may still have to potentially deal with many insanely overcrowded, smoke-filled, cold, loud and disorganized train depots to get on-board. The spring festival (Chinese New Year) is the largest annual migration of people on earth.
The Chinese New Year and National Day are not one-day holidays; nearly all workers get at least a week for Chinese New Year, some get two or three, and students get four to six weeks. For National Day, a week is typical.
The Chinese New Year is especially busy. Not only is it the longest holiday, it is also a traditional time to visit family, much as Christmas is in the West, and the entire country is pretty much shut down during the period. More or less all the university students (twenty-odd million of them!) go home, and more or less all the migrant workers who have left their farms and villages for better pay in the cities go home. This is often the only chance they have. Everyone wants to go home, and China has a lot of "everyone"! Around the Chinese New Year, many stores and other businesses will close for several days, a week, or even longer, so unless you have close friends or relatives in China, it is not ideal to visit during this period.
Also, during early July millions of university students go home and in late August they return to school, jamming transportation options especially between the east coast and the western regions of Sichuan, Gansu, Tibet, and Xinjiang.
A complete list of Chinese festivals would be very long since many areas or ethnic groups have their own local ones. See listings for individual towns for details. Here is a list of some of the nationally important festivals not mentioned above:
In addition to these, some Western festivals are noticeable, at least in major cities. Around Christmas, one hears carols — mostly English, a few in Latin, plus Chinese versions of "Jingle Bells", "Amazing Grace", and for some reason "Oh Susana". Some stores are decorated and one sees many shop assistants in red and white elf hats. For Valentine's Day, many restaurants offer special meals. Chinese Christians celebrate services and masses at officially sanctioned Chinese Catholic and Protestant churches as well.
Non-guidebooks, either about China, or by Chinese writers.
For a complete list of provinces and an explanation of China's political geography, see: List of Chinese provinces and regions.
China has many large and famous cities. Below is a list of the nine most important to travelers in mainland China. Other cities are listed under their specific regional section. See the Dynasties and capitals section for a detailed list of China's many previous capitals.
Some of the most famous tourist attractions in China are:
Most travelers will need a visa (签证 qiānzhèng) to visit mainland China. In most cases, this should be obtained from a Chinese embassy or consulate before departure. Visas for Hong Kong and Macau can be obtained through a Chinese embassy or consulate, but must be applied for separately from the mainland Chinese visa. However, citizens from most Western countries do not need visas to visit Hong Kong and Macau.
The most notable exception to this rule is transit through certain airports. Most airports allow a 12-hour stay without a visa so long as you do not leave the airport, but Shanghai Pu Dong International and Shanghai Hongqiao International Airports permit a forty-eight hour stay without a visa.
Nationals of Brunei, Japan and Singapore do not need a visa to visit mainland China for a stay of up to 15 days, regardless of the reason of visit. Nationals of San Marino do not need a visa to visit mainland China for a stay of up to 90 days, regardless of the reason of visit.
To visit mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau residents of Chinese nationality need to apply at the China Travel Service, the sole authorized issuing agent, to obtain a Home Return Permit (回乡证), a credit card sized ID allowing multiple entries and unlimited stay for 10 years with no restrictions including on employment. Taiwan residents may obtain an entry permit (valid for 3 months) at airports in Dalian, Fuhzou, Haikou, Qingdao, Sanya, Shanghai, Wuhan, Xiamen and China Travel Services in Hong Kong and Macau. Visitors must hold a Republic of China passport, Taiwanese Identity Card and Taiwan Compatriot Pass (台胞证 táibāozhèng). The Compatriot Pass may be obtained for single use at airports in Fuzhou, Haikou, Qingdao, Sanya, Wuhan and Xiamen. The entry permit fee is ¥100 plus ¥50 for issuing a single use Taiwan Compatriot Pass. Travellers should check the most up-to-date information before traveling.
Tourist visa extensions can be applied for at the local Entry & Exit Bureaus against handing in the following documents: valid passport, visa extension application form incl. one 2-inch-sized picture, a copy of the Registration Form of Temporary Residence which you receive from the local police station at registration. In Shanghai, the Entry & Exit Bureau is located at 1500 Mingsheng Road, Pudong District. Processing time is five working days. 
Some travellers will need a dual entry or multiple entry visa. For example, if you enter China on a single entry visa, then go to Hong Kong or Macau, you need a new visa to re-enter mainland China. In Hong Kong, multiple entry visas are officially available only to HKID holders, but the authorities are willing to bend the rules somewhat and may approve three-month multiple entry visas for short-term Hong Kong qualified residents, including exchange students. It is recommended to apply directly with the Chinese government in this case, as some agents will be unwilling to submit such an application on your behalf.
Obtaining a Visa on Arrival is possible usually only for the Shenzhen or Zhuhai Special Economic Zones, and such visas are limited to those areas. When crossing from Hong Kong to Shenzhen at Lo Wu railway station, and notably not at Lok Ma Chau, a five day Shenzhen-only visa can be obtained during extended office hours on the spot for ¥160 (Oct 2007 price) for passport holders of many nationalities, for example Irish or New Zealand or Canadian. Americans are not eligible, while British nationals have to pay ¥450. The office now accepts only Chinese yuan as payment, so be sure to bring sufficient cash.
There may be restrictions on visas for political reasons and these vary over time. For example:
A few years ago, the Z (working) visa was a long-term visa. Now a Z visa only gets you into the country for 30 days; once you are there, the employer gets you a residence permit. This is effectively a multiple-entry visa; you can leave China and return using it. Some local visa offices will refuse to issue a residence permit if you entered China on a tourist (L) visa. In those cases, you have to enter on a Z visa. These are only issued outside China, so getting one may require a trip to Hong Kong or Korea. (Note that in Korea, tourists not holding an alien registration card must now travel to Busan, as the Chinese consulate in Seoul does not issue visas to non-residents in Korea.) They also usually require an invitation letter from the employer. In other cases it is possible to convert an L visa to a residence permit; it depends upon which office you are dealing with and perhaps on your employer's connections.
One option for foreigners married to Chinese citizens (see Marriage in China) is to obtain a six to twelve month visting relatives (探亲 tànqīn) visa. A visting relatives visa is actually a tourist (L) visa that permits individuals to remain in China continuously for the duration of their visa and does not require the visa holder to exit and reenter the country to maintain the validity of the visa. Individuals seeking to apply for a visting relatives visa should first enter the country on a different visa and then apply for a visting relatives visa at the local Public Security bureau in the city that your marriage was registered in, which is usually your Chinese spouse's hometown. Make sure to bring your marriage certificate and spouse's identification card (身份证 shēnfènzhèng).
It is possible for most foreigners to get a visa in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Here is the consular website . . At this time December, 2010, reservations for travel and hotel are acceptable. During busy periods, they may refuse entry after 11:00 am. There can be long lines so come early. Also be aware of major Chinese holidays, the Consular Section may be closed for several days.
Registering your abode
If staying in a hotel, guest house or hostel, the staff will request to see, and often scan, your passport, visa, and entry stamps at check-in.
If you are staying in a private residence, you are in theory required to register your abode with the local police within 24 (city) to 72 (countryside) hours of arrival, though in practice the law is rarely if ever enforced so long as you don't cause any trouble. The police will ask for (1) a copy of the photograph page of your passport, (2) a copy of your visa, (3) a copy of your immigration entry stamp, (4) a photograph, (5) a copy of the tenancy agreement or other document concerning the place you are staying in. That agreement might not be in your name but it will still be asked for.
(In Shanghai this is not required of holders of residence permits of any kind, only for visa holders)
As a result of the H1N1-flu pandemic there are some kinds of health-checks currently in effect. These may be as simple as a customs person judging your appearance to IR-cameras checking for elevated body temperature. If there is a suspicion of flu, you will be quarantined for seven days.
The main international gateways to mainland China are Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Almost every sizable city will have an international airport, but options are usually limited to flights from Hong Kong, neighbouring countries such as South Korea and Japan, and sometimes Southeast Asia.
If you live in a city with a sizable overseas Chinese community (such as Toronto, San Francisco, Sydney or London), check for cheap flights with someone in that community or visit travel agencies operated by Chinese. Sometimes flights advertised only in Chinese newspapers or travel agencies cost significantly less than posted fares in English. However if you go and ask, you can get the same discount price.
See also: Discount airlines in Asia
Airlines and Routes
China's carriers are growing rapidly. Airbus estimates the size of China’s passenger aircraft fleet will triple from 1,400 planes in 2009 to 4,200 planes in 2029.
Fliers may prefer Asian airlines as they generally have more cabin staff and quality service. Hong Kong based Cathay Pacific  is an obvious possibility. Other candidates include Singapore Airlines , Japan Airlines , and Garuda Indonesia . Korean Air  often has good prices on flights from various places in Asia such as Bangkok via Seoul to North America. Connecting flights may be cheaper than direct flights so keep this in mind. Korean Air also flies to more than a dozen Chinese cities, including Shanghai.
Flights between Europe and China
China can be reached by train from many of its neighboring countries and even all the way from Europe.
China has land borders with 14 different countries; a number matched only by its northern neighbour, Russia. In addition, mainland China also has land borders with the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, which are for all practical purposes treated as international borders. Most of the border crossings in western China are located in remote mountain passes, which while difficult to reach and traverse, often reward travellers willing to make the effort with breathtaking, scenic views.
Relations between the two nations are frosty, but the Nathu La Pass between Sikkim in India and Southern Tibet has recently reopened for cross-border trade. For now though, the crossing is not open to tourists, and special permits are required to visit from either side.
Entering China from Myanmar is possible at the Ruili (China)-Lashio (Myanmar) border crossing, but permits need to be obtained from the Burmese authorities in advance. Generally, this would require you to join a guided tour.
For most travelers Hanoi is the origin for any overland journey to China. There are currently three international crossings:
You can catch a local bus from Hanoi's eastern bus station (Ben Xe Street, Gia Lam District, tel: 04/827-1529) to Lang Son, where you have to switch transport to minibus or motorbike to reach the border at Dong Dang. Alternatively there are many offers from open-tour providers; for those in a hurry, they might be a good option if they offer a direct hotel to border crossing transfer.
You can change money with freelance money changers, but check the rate carefully beforehand.
Border formalities take about 30 minutes. On the Chinese side, walk up past the "Friendship-gate" and catch a taxi (about ¥20, bargain hard!) to Pingxiang, Guangxi. A seat in a minibus is ¥5. There is a Bank of China branch right across the street from the main bus station; the ATM accepts Maestro cards. You can travel by bus or train to Nanning.
You can take a train from Hanoi to Lao Cai for about 420,000 VND (as of 11/2011) for a soft sleeper. The trip takes about 8 hours. From there, it's a long walk (or a 5 minute ride) to the Lao Cai/Hekou border. Crossing the border is simple, fill out a customs card and wait in line. They will search your belongings (in particular your books/written material). Outside the Hekou border crossing is a variety of shops, and the bus terminal is about a 10 minute ride from the border. A ticket to Kunming from Hekou costs about ¥140; the ride is about 7 hours.
At Dongxing, you can take a bus to Nanning, a sleeper bus to Guangzhou (approximately ¥180), or a sleeper bus to Shenzhen (approximately ¥230, 12 hours) (March 2006).
From Luang Namtha you can get a bus leaving at around 8 a.m. going to Boten (Chinese border) and Mengla. You need to have a Chinese visa beforehand as there is no way to get one on arrival. The border is close (about 1 hr). Customs procedures will eat up another good hour. The trip costs about 45k Kip.
Also, there is a direct Chinese sleeper bus connection from Luang Prabang to Kunming (about 32 hours). You can jump in this bus at the border, when the minibus from Luang Namtha and the sleeper meet. Don't pay more than ¥200, though.
The Karakoram Highway from northern Pakistan into Western China is one of the most spectacular roads in the world. It's closed for tourists for a few months in winter. Crossing the border is relatively quick because of few overland travelers, and friendly relations between the two countries. A bus runs between Kashgar (China) and Sust (Pakistan) across the Kunerjab pass.
The road from Nepal to Tibet passes near Mount Everest, and through amazing mountain scenery. Entering Tibet from Nepal is only possible for tourists on package tours, but it is possible to travel into Nepal from Tibet
From Zamiin Uud. Take a local train from Ulaanbaatar to Zamiin Uud. Then Bus or Jeep to Erlian in China. There are local trains leaving in the evening most days and arriving in the morning. The border opens around 8:30. From Erlian there are buses and trains to other locations in China.
The sole border crossing to China is located at Khorgos. Buses run almost daily from Almaty to Urumqi and Yining. No visa-on arrival is available so ensure both your Chinese and Kazakh visas are in order before attempting this.
It is possible to cross the Torugart pass to/from Kyrgyztan, but the road is very rough and the pass is only open during the summer months (June-September) every year. It is possible to arrange crossings all the way from Kashgar, but ensure that all your visas are in order.
Alternatively, while less scenic, a smoother crossing is located at Irkeshtam to the south of Torugart.
There is a single border crossing between China and Tajikistan at Kulma, which is open on weekdays from May-November. A bus operates across the border between Kashgar in Xinjiang and Khorog in Tajikistan. However, it currently remains closed to foreigners (non-Tajiks/Chinese).
The most popular border crossing at Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia. Buses run from Manzhouli to Zabaikalsk in Russia. There are also ferries across the Amur from Heihe to Blagoveshchensk, and Fuyuan to Khabarovsk. Farther east, there are land border crossings at Suifenhe, Dongning, and Hunchun. Ensure both your Russian and Chinese visas are in order before attempting.
Crossing overland into North Korea is possible at the Dandong/Sinuiju border crossing, but must be pre-arranged on a guided tour from Beijing. In the reverse direction, the crossing is fairly straightforward if you have arranged it as part of your North Korean tour. Ensure both your Chinese and North Korean visas are in order before attempting this.
There are four road border crossings into the mainland from Hong Kong at Lok Ma Chau, Sha Tau Kok, Man Kam To and the Shenzhen Bay Bridge. A visa on arrival is available for some nationalities at Lok Ma Chau, but visas must be arranged in advance for all other crossings.
The two border crossings are at the Portas do Cerco and the Lotus Bridge. A visa-on-arrival can be obtained by certain nationalities at the Portas do Cerco.
Hong Kong and Macau
There is regular ferry and hovercraft service between Hong Kong and Macau to the rest of the Pearl River Delta, such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Zhuhai. Ferry service from Hong Kong International Airport allow arriving passengers to proceed directly to the mainland without having to clear Hong Kong immigration and customs.
There is a 2-day ferry service from Shanghai and Tianjin to Osaka, Japan. Service is once or twice weekly, depending on season.
Hourly ferries (18 departures per day) run between Kinmen and Xiamen, with the journey time either 30 minutes or 1 hour depending on port. There is also a regular ferry between Kinmen and Quanzhou with 3 departures per day. A twice-daily ferry links Matsu with Fuzhou, with journey time about 2 hours. From the Taiwanese main island, there are weekly departures from Taichung and Keelung aboard the Cosco Star to Xiamen.
Golden Peacock Shipping company runs a speedboat three times a week on the Mekong river between Jinghong in Yunnan and Chiang Saen (Thailand). Passengers are not required to have visas for Laos or Myanmar, although the greater part of the trip is on the river bordering these countries. the ticket costs 650 yuan
In the fall, several cruise lines move their ships from Alaska to Asia and good connections can generally be found leaving from Anchorage, Vancouver, or Seattle. Star Cruises operates between Keelung in Taiwan and Xiamen in mainland China, stopping at one of the Japanese islands on the way.
China is a huge country, so unless you enjoy spending a couple of days on the train or on the road getting from one area to another, you should definitely consider domestic flights. China has many domestic flights connecting all the major cities and tourist destinations. Airlines include the three international carriers: Air China, China Southern, and China Eastern, as well as regional ones including Hainan Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Sichuan Airlines and Shanghai Airlines.
Traveling between Hong Kong or Macau and mainland cities is considered an international flight and so can be quite expensive. Hence if arriving in, or departing from, Hong Kong or Macau it is much cheaper to fly to or from Shenzhen or Zhuhai, just across the border, or Guangzhou, which is a little further afield but offers flights to more destinations. As an example, the distance from Fuzhou to Hong Kong, Shenzhen or Guangzhou is about the same, but as of mid-2005 flying to Hong Kong cost ¥1400 while list price for the other cities was ¥880 and for Shenzhen discounts to ¥550 were available. Overnight bus to any of these destinations was about ¥250.
Prices for domestic flights are set at standard rates, but discounts are common, especially on the busier routes. Most good hotels, and many hostels, will have a travel ticket service and may be able to save you 15%-70% off the price of tickets. Travel agencies and booking offices are plentiful in all Chinese cities and offer similar discounts. Even before considering discounts, traveling by plane in China is not expensive.
For travel within China, it is usually best to buy tickets in China, or on Chinese websites (there are several available in English - they will deliver the tickets to hotels in major cities. Payment is made in cash to the person delivering the ticket/s). Overseas, especially online, vendors often charge much higher rates. Booking too far in advance on Chinese websites is not advisable as prices tend to remain high until 2 months before the flight date, at which point large discounts are usually seen unless a particular flight has been heavily booked far in advance.
Be prepared for unexplained flight delays as these are common despite pressure from both the government and consumers. For short distances, consider other, seemingly slower options. Flight cancellations are also not uncommon. If you buy your ticket from a Chinese vendor they will likely try to contact you (if you left contact information) to let you know about the change in flight plan. If you purchased your ticket overseas, be certain to check on the flight status a day or two before you plan to fly.
As everywhere in the world, prices for food and drink at Chinese airports are vastly inflated. Coffee that is ¥25 in a downtown shop is ¥78 at the same chain's airport branches. KFC seems to be the one exception; their many airport shops charge the same prices as other branches. Paying ¥20 or more for a KFC meal may or may not be worthwhile when there are ¥5 noodles across the street, but at the airports it is usually the best deal around.
Train travel is the major mode of long-distance transportation for the Chinese themselves. Their extensive, and rapidly expanding, network of routes covers the entire country. Roughly a quarter of the world's total rail traffic is in China.
China is in the process of building a network of high-speed trains, similar to French TGV or Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains. These trains are already in service on several routes. They are called CRH and train numbers have a "G", "C" or "D" prefix. If your route and budget allow, these are much the best way to get around. For more detail, see High-speed rail in China.
Chinese trains are split into different categories designated by letters and numbers indicated on the ticket. A guide to the hierarchy of Chinese trains from fastest to slowest are as follows:
On the regular non-CRH trains there are five classes of travel:
The soft seat and soft sleeper cars, and some of hard seat and hard sleeper cars are air-conditioned.
The CRH trains have usually five classes - second class (3+2 seat layout), first class (2+2 layout) and three VIP classes (2+1 layout just behind the driver's cabin). There are three different VIP classes, named "商务座" (business class), "观光座" (sightseeing class) and "特等座" (deluxe class). Unlike on airliners, 商务座 (business class) is in fact better than "一等座" (first class) on CRH trains. 商务座 (business class) and 观光座 (sightseeing class) priced the same, while 特等座 is usually more expensive than "一等座" (first class), but cheaper than 商务座 and 观光座.
At the point where a given train starts, train tickets can usually be bought up to seven days in advance. After the point where a given train starts, a small number of tickets might be reserved for purchase in larger towns along the route of travel. Usually these are the "standing" class. If you want to get a seat assignment (zuowei) or a sleeper (wopu), then find the train conductor and he will tell you if there is availability. The biggest demand is for hard seats and hard sleepers, so it' is a good idea to ask a local friend to buy hard seat tickets as the sellers are not always willing to sell them to foreigners although this is rapidly changing. As of January 2012, nationals and foreigners alike must present ID in order to purchase a ticket (e.g., national ID card or passport). The purchaser's name is printed onto the ticket and each individual is required to be present, with ID, to pick-up their ticket.
There are local state railway ticket agencies in many locations remote from train stations, clearly marked "Booking Office for Train Tickets" in English and Chinese and a locomotive emblem, but easily overlooked as these are simple "hole in the wall" shops. They are equipped with computers networked with the central booking system. Tickets purchased at these types of locations can be bought up to 10 days in advance at face value prices which can be half of what commercial travel agencies charge. Staff usually does not speak English.
Do not expect English-speaking staff at station cash desks either, even in big cities. And if the cashier finds some English-speaking colleague, don't expect that he can work with the reservation system. If you don't speak Mandarin, write the departure and destination station, date and time of departure, train number and required class on paper. You can write the station name in pinyin, as the cashier enters them in the same way to the reservation system. Beware that many cities have different stations for normal trains and high-speed trains. High-speed station names usually consist of city name and cardinal direction (for example Héngyángdōng "Hengyang East")
During busy seasons (Chinese New Year, for example) tickets sell out rapidly at train stations. It may be better to get tickets in advance through an agent. In major cities there are also agents who sell tickets in the normal time frame with a nominal markup. The convenience of avoiding a trip to the train station and waiting in the queue is well worth the small increase in cost. Travel agencies will accept money and bookings for tickets in advance but no one can guarantee your ticket until the station releases them onto the market, at which point your agency will go and buy the ticket they had previously "guaranteed" you. This is true anywhere in China.
The toilets on trains tend to be a little more "usable" than on buses or most public areas because they are simple devices that empty the contents directly onto the track and thus don't smell as bad. Soft sleeper cars usually have European throne-style toilets at one end of the car and Chinese squat toilets at the other. Be aware that on non-CRH trains if the train will be stopping at a station, the conductor will normally lock the bathrooms prior to arrival so that people will not leave deposits on the ground at the station.
Long distance trains will have a buffet or dining car, which serves hot, but generally overpriced, at ¥25 or so and frankly not very tasty, food. The menu will be entirely in Chinese, but if you're willing to take the chance, interpret some of the Chinese characters, or ask for common dishes by name, you can eat very well. If you are on a strict budget, wait until the train stops at a station. There are normally vendors on the platform who sell noodles, snacks, and fruit at better prices. Trains generally have boiled water available so bring tea, soups and instant noodles to make your own food.
Be careful with your valuables while on the train; property theft on public transportation has gone up in recent years.
On most higher-level trains (T, K, Z and CRH trains) pre-recorded announcements are made in Chinese, English and occasionally Cantonese (if the train serves Guangdong province or Hong Kong), Mongolian (in Inner Mongolia), Tibetan (in Tibet) or Uyghur (in Xinjiang). On local trains there are no English announcements so knowing when to get off can be harder.
Motion sickness pills are recommended if you are inclined toward that type of ailment. Ear plugs are recommended to facilitate uninterrupted sleep. In sleeper cars, tickets are exchanged for cards on long distance trains. The cabin attendants return the original tickets when the train approaches the destination station thus ensuring everyone gets off where they should even if they can't wake themselves up.
If you have some things to share on the train, you'll have fun. The Chinese families and business people traveling the route are just as bored as the next person and will be happy to attempt conversation or share a movie shown on a laptop. All in all, the opportunity to see the countryside going by is a neat experience.
You'll need your ticket to enter and exit the station - usually there will be an inspection at the departure hall entrance or the boarding gate and another at the exit gate. Once in the departure hall, follow the digital indicator boards to find the right boarding gate (they are in Chinese but will display the train service number which is printed at the top of your ticket). Approx 10 minutes before boarding your train and platform will be announced and the gate will be opened, just follow the crowd to the platform - at larger stations the train will already be waiting, in smaller stations look for your car number written on the platform edge - make sure you're waiting in the right place because often the train will only stop for a couple of minutes. Some newer stations have high-level platforms that are level with the door, but at smaller stations the platforms are very low and you have to ascend several steep steps to board the train so be prepared if you have a large suitcase. Generally passengers are friendly and will offer to help you with bulky luggage.
Smoking is not permitted in the seating or sleeping areas but is allowed in the vestibules at the end of each car. On the new CRH trains, the Guangzhou-Kowloon shuttle train and the Beijing Suburban Railway smoking is completely forbidden. Smoking is banned inside station buildings apart from in designated smoking rooms, although these places are often unpleasant and poorly ventilated.
Travelling by public city buses (公共汽车 gōnggòngqìchē) or long distance buses (长途汽车 chángtúqìchē) is inexpensive and ideal for in-city and short distances transportation.
City buses vary from city to city - generally expect plastic seats, many people, no English signs and unhelpful drivers. However, if you can understand the bus routes then they are cheap and go almost everywhere. Buses will normally have recorded announcements telling you the next stop - examples of which might include 'xia yi zhan - zhong shan lu' (next stop Zhongshan Road) or 'Shanghai nan huo che zhan dao le' (Shanghai South railway station - now arriving). Some major cities such as Beijing or Hangzhou will have English announcements on some major routes. Fares are usually about 1 or 2 yuan (the former for older buses with no air-conditioning, the latter for air-conditioned modern buses) or more if travelling into the suburbs. Most buses simply have a metal cash-box next to the entrance where you can insert your fare (no change - save up those 1 yuan coins) or on longer routes a conductor that will collect fares and issue tickets and change. Note that the driver usually prioritises speed over comfort so hold on tight.
A coach or bus in rural China is a different experience altogether. Signs in the station to identify buses will only be in Chinese or another local language, routes may also be posted or pasted on bus windows and drivers or touts will shout their destinations as you pass, the coach's license plate number is supposed to be printed on the ticket, but all too often that is inaccurate. Due to different manners and customs, foreigners may find bus personnel to be lacking in politeness and other passengers lacking in manners as they spit on the floor and out the window and smoke. The vehicle can get crowded if the driver decides to pick up as many passengers as he can cram into the bus. The roads in rural China are frequently little more than a series of potholes, which makes for a bumpy and painful ride; if you have a seat in the back of the bus you'll spend much of your trip flying through the air. Scheduled times of departure and arrival are only rough estimates, as many buses won't leave until every seat is sold, which can add hours, and breakdowns and other mishaps can significantly extend your trip. The misery of your ride is only compounded if you have to travel for 10 or 20 hours straight. As gut-wrenching as all this sounds, short of shelling out the cash for your own personal transport, rural coaches are the only forms of transportation in many areas of China. On the bright side, such rural coaches are usually more than willing to stop anywhere along the route should you wish to visit more remote areas without direct transport. Buses can also be flagged down at most points along their route. The ticket price the rest of the way is negotiable.
Everywhere in China drivers often disregard the rules of the road, if there are any, and accidents are frequent. Sudden swerves and stops can cause injury, so keep a good hold wherever possible. Horn honking is widespread among Chinese drivers, so a set of earplugs is a good idea if you plan on sleeping during the trip.
Getting a ticket can be fairly hard. Large bus stations have ticket counters who sell printed tickets displaying the departure time, boarding gate and license plate number of your bus (not always accurate) and have fixed prices. Smaller bus stations will have touts shouting destinations and will direct you to your bus where you pay on board. Even large stations have touts outside - generally they will call the bus driver of a departing bus, who will wait up the road while the tout takes you there on the back of a motorcycle to the waiting bus - you can then negotiate the fare with the driver. This is sometimes a complete scam and sometimes you can save around 30% of the fare - depending on your bargaining and Chinese abilities.
There is an alternative now with an Independent Travel Network that has been created by a western company. Dragon Bus China now operates an Integrated transport and accommodation network across most of China. The Network is a “Jump On & Off” style of travel which means that you can stay longer at any of the Cities that they travel through and be assured that another bus will be coming through that same City for you or you travel partners to board. This travel option has been operating for more than 25 years throughout Europe and is an extremely popular form of independent travel within New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Traveling by this method could greatly reduce the hassle of traveling by public buses and greatly increase the safety aspect.
Major cities — at least Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Shenyang, Xian, Chengdu and Nanjing — have a subway (地铁 dìtiě) system. Chongqing has monorail systems. Xiamen has a system of bus-only roads, mostly elevated. Generally these are modern, clean and efficient. The signs and ticket machines are in both English and Chinese.
Most of these systems are being expanded, and new lines are under construction (as of early 2009) in other cities such as Hangzhou, Xi'an and Chengdu. The long-term plans are quite ambitious, with multiple subway lines per city planned. By 2020 or so China seems likely to have some of the world's most extensive urban transport infrastructure. Subway systems which link into regional rail systems such as between Guangzhou and Shenzhen are planned in many regions.
Taxis (出租车 chūzūchē or 的士 dishì, pronounced "deg-see" in Cantonese-speaking areas) are generally common, and reasonably priced. Flagfalls range from ¥5 in some cities to ¥12 in others, with a per kilometer charge around ¥2. In most situations, you can expect between ¥10 and ¥50 for an ordinary trip within the city. There is no extra charge for luggage, but in many cities rates are a bit higher at night. Tips are not expected.
While it is not unheard of for drivers to cheat visitors by deliberately selecting a longer route, it is not that common, and usually shouldn't be a nuisance. When it does happen, the fare difference will usually be minimal. However, should you feel you have been seriously cheated on the way to your hotel, and you are staying at a mid- or high-range hotel that has a doorman, you can appeal to him and/or the desk staff for assistance: A single sharp sentence pointing out the deception may resolve the issue.
Also beware of taxi hawkers who stalk naive travelers inside or just outside the airport terminals and train stations. They will try to negotiate a set price to bring you to your destination and will usually charge 2x or 3x more than a metered fare. If you’re not familiar with the area then stick with the designated taxi areas that are outside most major airport terminals and insist that the driver use the meter. The fare should be plainly marked outside the taxi.
Finding a taxi during peak hours can be a bit hard. But it really gets tough if it is raining. Away from peak hours, especially at night, it is sometimes possible to get a 10% to 20% discount especially if you negotiate it in advance, even if with the meter on and asking for a receipt. As with everything else in China you should not tip. (It's seen as a form of corruption.)
Sitting in the front passenger seat of taxis is acceptable; some taxis even mount the taxi meter down by the gearbox, where you can only see it from the front seat. Be warned that drivers may start smoking without asking by just opening their window and lighting up. In some cities it is also common for drivers to try and pick up multiple passengers if their destinations are in the same general direction. Each passenger pays full fare but it saves the time of waiting for an empty cab at rush hour.
Even in major cities like Shanghai or Beijing, you are very unlikely to find an English-speaking taxi driver, though Beijing made progress toward this in preparation for the Olympics, and Shanghai has made some progress due to the World Expo. Anywhere else it is basically impossible. If you try say the name of your destination in Mandarin (but with your native pronunciation), you may not be understood. Therefore, it is advisable to keep a written note of the name of place where you want to go to by taxi. Chinese characters are far better for this than a romanized (pinyin) version, as many drivers cannot read pinyin, and the same pinyin may correspond to different characters. Get business cards for your hotel, and for restaurants you like, to show taxi drivers. It will be a good idea to equip yourself with sound tracked guide to conversation in Chinese. Such tools can be easily found on the Internet in different languages.
If you are in China for any length of time, consider getting a cell phone so you can call Chinese friends and let them tell the driver where to take you. Cellphones are inexpensive, and pay-as-you-go GSM SIM cards are readily available.
In some cities, taxi companies use a star-rating system for drivers, ranging from 0 to 5, displayed on the driver's name-plate, on the dashboard in front of the passenger seat. While no or few stars do not necessarily indicate a bad driver, many stars tend to indicate good knowledge of the city, and willingness to take you to where you ask by the shortest way. Another indicator of the driver's ability can be found on the same name-plate - the driver's ID number. A small number tells you he has been around for a long time, and is likely to know the city very well. A quick tip to get a taxi driver's attention if you feel you are being ripped off or cheated: Get out the car and start writing down his license plate number and if you speak some Chinese (or have a good phrasebook) threaten to report the driver to the city or the taxi company. Most drivers are honest and fares are not very high but there are the bad ones out there who will try to use your lack of Chinese skills to their advantage.
Chinese can sometimes be very assertive when it comes to finding a taxi. The person who flags down a particular car is not necessarily entitled to that ride. Having locals move farther up in traffic to intercept cars or being shoved out of the way while trying to enter a taxi is not unheard of. If there are others in the area competing for rides, be ready to reach your car and enter it as soon as possible after flagging it down.
Wear your seat belt at all times (if you can find it) however much the taxi driver insists you don't need it.
By tram (trolley)
Above ground, certain cities like Dalian or Changchun, offer transport via tram. Making more frequent stops than light-rail, they may offer a practical way of getting around if the touring city possesses one. Single-cart trolleys may also be in use. Both modes are susceptible to traffic jams.
Bicycles (zìxíngchē, 自行车), along with electronic bikes and motorcycle, are the most common form of transportation in China; at rush hour almost anywhere in China there will be thousands of them. Many are traditional heavy single-speed roadsters, but basic multi-geared mountain bikes are pretty common as well. For travelers, bicycles can be a cheap, convenient means of transport that is better than being squeezed into a public bus for hours on end.
There are two major dangers for cyclists in China:
In most tourist areas — whether major cities like Beijing or heavily-touristed villages such as Yangshuo — bicycles are easy to rent and there is a repair shop around every corner. Guided bike tours are also readily available.
Buying a bicycle is easy. Dahon, Merianda and Giant are three most popular brands in amatuer and semi-professional market and all cities have their distributors. Many supermarkets also carry a good stock of bikes. Prices vary from as little as ¥150 to over ¥10000. For a reasonably well-equipped mountain bike for riding to areas like Tibet, expect around ¥3000-¥4500 for a bike. Big cities like Shanghai and Beijing usually stock more professional upmarket bikes, but if you have very specific requirements, Hong Kong is still the last hope for buying them.
Bicycle repair shops are frequent apparently anywhere in cities and rural areas; Non-Chinese speaking tourists might find it a bit difficult, but you can just look for bikes and tires. For a quick fix to a sudden flat tire, there are also many people standing by along the road with a bowl of water and a repair kit ready. For special parts like disc brake, you may want to bring your spare one if you are not using them in big cities.
China is a vast country and it provides professional bikers with challenges to bike across mountains and desert. However, as of May 2010, if foreign tourists want to bike across Tibetan Plateau, you are required by law to obtain a permit and hire a tour guide.
See Karakoram Highway for one spectacular but difficult route. Companies such as Bike China and Intrepid Travel organize such tours for small groups.
See also: Driving in China
The PRC generally does not recognize International Driving Permits and does not permit foreigners to drive in China without a Chinese license. Note that Hong Kong and Macau licenses are also considered to be foreign and having one of them will not allow you to drive in the mainland. This supposedly changed in 2007 and short-term driving without a Chinese license became legal. However, as with many laws in China, official changes and changes in practice do not necessarily correspond; as of December 2008 it is still illegal for foreigners to drive without a Chinese license. Unless you have diplomatic status, importing foreign vehicles is nearly impossible.
Rented cars most often come with a driver and this is probably the best way to travel in China by car. Driving in China is not recommended unless you are used to extremely chaotic driving conditions. Even if you are used to chaotic driving conditions, note that driving in China's cities is not for the faint hearted, and parking spaces are often very difficult to find. Traffic moves on the right in mainland China. Many neighbors, such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan as well as the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau have traffic that moves on the left.
English directional signs are ubiquitous in Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities which see many Western tourists. However, they are spotty at best in other cities and virtually non-existent in the countryside. As such, it is always a good idea to have your destination written in Chinese before you set off so that locals can point you in the right direction should you get lost.
Foreigners should really avoid driving outside of major cities. "One Way" signs usually mean "mostly but not always one way". Expect someone who misses an exit ramp on a freeway to slow down just before the upcoming entry ramp and make a 270° turn to engage on that ramp. Expect drivers to take creative shortcuts at traffic circles.
As a pedestrian ALWAYS look both ways every time you cross any street. Not only may a bicycle come along traveling in the wrong direction, so may increasingly popular electric motorbike -- and they are silent.
See also: Driving in China#Motorcycles
Motorcycle taxis are common, especially in smaller cities and rural areas. They are usually cheap and effective but somewhat scary. The fares are negotiable.
Regulations for riding a motorcycle vary from city to city. In some cases, 50cc mopeds can be ridden without a driving license although many cities have now banned them or reclassified them due to numerous accidents. Riding a 'proper' motorcycle is much harder - partly because you'll need a Chinese license, partly because they are banned in many cities and partly because production and importing have slowed with the focus on automobiles and electric scooters. The typical Chinese motorcycle is 125cc, can do about 100km/h and is a traditional cruiser style. They are gnerally slow, mundane to ride and have little sporting potential. Government restrictions on engine size mean that sports bikes are rare but can still be found. Another popular choice is a 125cc automatic 'maxi' scooter based loosely on the Honda CN250 - it's a bit quicker than a moped and more comfortable over long distances but has the benefit of automatic transmission which makes negotiating stop-start urban traffic much easier.
Most cities will have a motorcycle market of some description and will often sell you a cheap motorcycle often with fake or illegal license plates - although a foreigner on a motorbike is a rare sight and it will grab the police's attention. Helmets are essential on 'proper' bikes but optional on scooters. Technically you'll need a license plate - they are yellow or blue on a motorcycle or green on a scooter and can cost several thousand RMB to register the bike yourself although fake plates are easily available at a lower price - do so at your own risk.
By pedicab (rickshaw)
Reports that "the drivers will frequently try and rip you off" probably refer to rip-off artists working tourist destinations, like Silk Alley, Wangfujing, and the Lao She Tea House in Beijing in particular. Perhaps the rule of thumb should be, "Beware of anyone selling anything near tourist traps."
If you see normal Chinese families using the "sanlun" - for instance, traveling between the Beijing Zoo and the nearest subway stop - then it's safe. Don't patronize any sanlun wearing some old fashioned costume to attract tourists. He'll try to charge you ten times the going rate.
Where possible try to choose pedicabs over motorized transport. You'll be helping the truly poor stay in business and preserving part of China's traditional charm. Electrified 3-whelled sanluns developed or converted from the pedicabs seem to be in the majority in Shanghai.
The official language of China is Standard Mandarin, which is mostly based on the Beijing dialect, known in Chinese as Putonghua (普通话, "common speech"). Mandarin has been the only language used in education on the mainland since the 1950s, so most people speak it. Unless otherwise noted, all terms, spellings and pronunciations in this guide are in standard Mandarin. As Mandarin is tonal, getting the four tones correct is necessary to be understood.
Many regions, especially in the southeast and south of the country, also have their own "dialect." These are really different languages, as different as French and Italian, although referring to Chinese dialects as separate languages is a touchy political issue. Like standard Mandarin, the "dialects" are all tonal languages. Even within Mandarin (the large brown language area on the map), pronunciation varies widely between regions and there is often a liberal dose of local slang or terminology to liven up the mix. After Mandarin, the largest groups are Wu, spoken in the region around Shanghai, Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu, followed by Cantonese, spoken in most of Guangdong Province, Hong Kong and Macau, and the Min (Fujian) group which includes Minnan (Hokkien) spoken in the region around Xiamen and in Taiwan, a variant of Minnan known as Teochew spoken around Shantou and Chaozhou, as well as Mindong (Hokchiu) spoken around Fuzhou. Most Chinese are bilingual in their local vernacular and Mandarin. Some who are older, less educated or from the countryside may speak only the local dialect, but this is unlikely to affect tourists. It often helps to have a guide who can speak the local language as it marks that person as an insider and you as a friend of the insider. While you can easily get by in most parts of China speaking Standard Mandarin, locals always appreciate any attempt to say a few words or phrases in the local dialect, so learning a few simple greetings will help you get acquainted with the locals much more easily. In general, an understanding of or appreciation for the local speech can be useful when traveling to more remote areas. But in those areas a phrase book that includes Chinese characters will still be a big help as written Chinese is more or less the same everywhere.
Formal written Chinese is for all intents and purposes the same regardless of the local dialect. Even Japanese and Korean use many of the same characters with the same or similar meaning. There is a complication in this, however. Mainland China uses "simplified characters", adopted to facilitate literacy during the mid-1950s. Traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and by many overseas Chinese, but also on the mainland in advertising and commercial signs. As a result you will just as often see 银行 (yínháng) as 銀行 for "bank". The simplification was however fairly systematic, which means that all hope is not lost for the traveler trying to pick up some sign-reading skills. On the other hand, native speakers usually do not encounter problems reading either script so learning how to write either one would usually suffice.
Note that in calligraphy, the number of scripts is much more varied as different painters use different unique styles, though these have been grouped into five different styles. They are zhuanshu(篆书／篆書), lishu(隶书/隸書), kaishu (楷书/楷書), xingshu (行书/行書) and caoshu (草书/草書), of which kaishu is the official script used in China today. When calligraphy is written in kaishu, it is usually traditional Chinese characters that are used due to their superior aesthetic value. The casual traveler can easily get by without learning the other four styles though learning them would certainly help those with a deep interest in traditional Chinese art.
In the far western reaches of the country, Turkic languages such as Uighur, Kirghiz, and Kazakh as well as other languages such as Tibetan are spoken by some of the non-Han ethnic minorities. In the north and northeast other minority languages including Manchu, Mongolian and Korean are also spoken in areas populated by the respective ethnic minorities. Yunnan, Guizhou, Hainan and Guangxi in the south are also home to many other ethnic minorities such as the Miao, Dong, Zhuang, Bai and the Naxi who speak their own languages. However, with the possible exception of the elderly, Mandarin is generally usable in these areas too, and most younger people are bilingual in their minority language and Mandarin. Sadly some of the minority languages such as Manchu are dying out.
For the last twenty years, Chinese students have been taught English as a compulsory subject starting from late elementary or middle school. Passing an English exam is a requirement to earn a four-year university degree, regardless of major. However, the focus of the instruction at all levels is formal grammar and, to a lesser degree, writing rather than speaking or listening. While knowledge of very basic words and phrases such as "Hello," "thank you", "OK" and "Bye bye" appears nearly universal, few are able to participate in an English conversation.
Even in the big cities, outside major tourist attractions and establishments catering specifically to foreigners, it is rare to find locals conversant in English. Airline staff and those at large hotels - particularly international chains - usually speak some basic to conversational English, although in-depth skills are seldom seen. Proficiency among university graduates, even those with degrees in English, ranges from nonexistent to fluent.
While English signage or menus are increasingly widespread in China, especially at or near tourist attractions, they are often written in grammatically incorrect English with the wrong sentence structure, unusual word choice, or even complete mistranslations of several words. Such signage can be difficult to read but as "Chinglish" follows certain rules, it can usually be deciphered. Oftentimes, translations are simply a word-by-word transliteration from Chinese which, like a word puzzle, can be pieced together with some thought.
When speaking, as anywhere English language skills are limited, it is helpful to simplify your English. Speak slowly, avoid slang and idioms, and use simple present tense declarative sentence structure. Don't say "Would you mind if I come back tomorrow?", stick to simpler, more abrupt phrasing like "Tomorrow I will return." This brings the phrase closer to its Chinese equivalent and is therefore not necessarily condescending.
One way to meet people is to ask about "English Corner" - a time and place in town where local residents, often with a foreign host or speaker, meet to practice spoken English. Typically, they are held on Friday evenings or Sundays in public parks, English training schools, bookstores, and university campuses. There may also be "Corners" for French, German, Russian and perhaps other languages.
See also: Learn
In the West, Chinese has an undeserved reputation for its difficulty. While it is very different from Western languages, a traveler may be surprised to learn that the basic grammar is pretty simple. Verbs are static regardless of subject and whether they are referring to the past, present or future. Genders of nouns do not exist, and there is no separate form of nouns for plurals. The main difficulties are the existence of several consonants not present in European languages and using tones.
Mandarin, like Vietnamese and Thai, is a tonal language that uses a pitch in sounds to inflict different meanings. "Ma" could mean mother, horse, numb, or blame, depending on the tone. Homophones are also common; the same sound at the same pitch usually has dozens of meanings. "Zhong1" ("Zhong" at the 1st tone) can mean China, loyalty, clock, chime, finish, a bowl, etc. All of them come with different Chinese characters, just the same sound at the same pitch. While homophones are unlikely a problem in most everyday conversations, it is very common for Chinese to ask how to write someone's name by identifying the characters one by one. "My name is Wang Fei (王菲). Wang is the "wang" with three strokes, Fei is the "fei" in "shifei"(gossip), with a grass on top."
Written Chinese looks like a mysterious secret code to some, but if you can recognize so many commercial logos -- usually not logically related, you will be impressed with your capacity to memorize so many characters - most of them are logically related and formed based on certain rules.
There are, in theory, more than 50000 Chinese characters. The good news is that more than 85% have become obsolete, or are rarely used. Like native speakers of many languages, most Chinese couldn't tell you how many characters are required to read a book and never bother to count how many characters they know. One may argue that junior students are supposed to learn at least 2000 characters and graduates in university 5000 characters.
To bridge the gap between recognizing and reading out loud, pinyin was developed, which uses Latin script as an aid to teaching Chinese. Pronouncing pinyin is not intuitive as certain letters and consonant clusters are used to represent sounds not present in European languages and are thus not pronounced as a westerner would expect. Nonetheless, learning pinyin at even a basic level has enormous practical value for the traveler. Written pinyin is less useful as most Chinese will not recognize place names or addresses in pinyin; it is always better to use characters for written information.
China's attractions are endless and you will never run out of things to see. Especially near the coastal areas, if you run out of things to see in one city, the next one is usually just a short train ride away.
Whether you are a history buff, a nature lover or someone who just wants to relax on a nice beach, China has it all from the majestic Forbidden City in Beijing, to the breathtaking scenery of Jiuzhaigou. Even if you live in China for many years, you'll find that there's always something new to discover in another part of the country. Perhaps unsurprising due to its sheer size and long history, China has the third largest number of UNESCO World Hertiage Sites, after Italy and Spain.
The gumdrop mountains and steeply sloping forested hills with bizarre rock formations favored by traditional Chinese artists are not creative fantasy. In fact, much of southern and southwestern China is covered in strangely eroded rock formations known as Karst. Karst is type of limestone formation named after an area in Slovenia. As limestone layers erode, the denser rock or pockets of different stone resist erosion forming peaks. Caves hollow out beneath the mountains which can collapse forming sinkholes and channels leading to underground rivers. At its most unusual Karst erodes to form mazes of pinnacles, arches and passageways. The most famous example can be found in the Stone Forest (石林 Shílín) near Kunming in Yunnan. Some of the most famous tourist areas in China feature spectacular karst landscapes — Guilin and Yangshuo in Guangxi, and much of central and western Guizhou province.
For sacred mountains, see the next section.
Several sites in China have famous Buddhist art:
China is home to many sacred mountains.
The Five Great Mountains (五岳 wǔyuè), associated with Taoism:
The Four Sacred Mountains (四大佛教名山 sìdà fójiào míngshān), associated with Buddhism:
The three main sacred mountains of Tibetan Buddhism:
There are also several other well-known mountains. In China, many mountains have temples, even if they are not especially sacred sites:
Revolutionary Pilgrimage Sites
Some itineraries cover trips that are entirely within China:
Others are partly in China:
Massage is available all over China, often both high quality and reasonably priced. Traditionally, massage is a trade for the blind in Asia. Expert work costs ¥15 to ¥30 an hour.
These three types of massage are often mixed; many places offer all three.
Some massage places are actually brothels. Prostitution is illegal in China but quite common and often disguised as massage. Most hot spring or sauna establishments offer all the services a businessman might want for relaxation. As for the smaller places, if you see pink lighting or lots of girls in short skirts, probably considerably more than just massage is on offer, and quite often they cannot do a good massage. The same rule applies in many hair salons which double as massage parlors/brothels.
The non-pink-lit places usually give good massage and generally do not offer sex. If the establishment advertises massage by the blind, it is almost certain to be legitimate.
It is possible to take a nap for a few hours in many massage places and even to spend the night in some. Hairdressers generally do not have facilities for this, but you can sleep on the table in a body massage place or (much better) on the couch used for foot massage. Fees are moderate; this is probably the cheapest way to sleep in China. Note, however, that except in high-end saunas with private rooms, you will share the staff's toilet and there may not be any way to lock up luggage.
Language for massage:
There are several ways a masseur or masseuse might ask a question. For example "does this hurt" might be asked as tòng bú tòng? or tòng ma?. For either, answer tòng or bú tòng.
If you are planning to spend a longer time in China then you may want to consider learning some of the traditional arts. Traveling to China is after all a unique chance to learn the basics, or refine already acquired skills, directly from master practitioners in the arts' home country. Many cities have academies that accept beginners, and not knowing Chinese is usually not a problem as you can learn by example and imitation. Calligraphy (书法 shūfǎ), a term that covers both writing characters and painting scrolls (that is, classical landscapes and the like) remains a popular national hobby. Many calligraphers practice by writing with water on sidewalks in city parks. Other traditional arts which offer classes include learning to play traditional Chinese instruments (inquire in shops that sell these as many offer classes), cooking Chinese cuisine, or even singing Beijing Opera (京剧 jīngjù). Fees are usually extremely modest, and materials you need will not exactly break the bank. The only requirement is being in the same place for a long enough time, and showing sufficient respect; it is better not to join these classes as a tourist attraction.
Martial Arts and Taichi
As with traditional cultural arts, those with the time and inclination may be interested in studying China's famed martial arts. Some, such as tai chi (太极拳 tàijíquán) can be studied by simply visiting any city park in the early morning and following along. You will likely find many eager teachers. Other martial arts require more in-depth study. Famous martial arts programs include those at the Shaolin Temple on Mount Song and Wu Wei Temple near Dali.
China has several traditional games often played in tea gardens, public parks, or even on the street. Players often attract crowds of on-lookers. Two famous strategy board games that originated in China are Go (围棋 wéiqí) and Chinese chess (象棋 xiàngqí). Mahjong (麻将 májiàng), a game played with tiles, is very popular and often (well-nigh always) played for money, although its vast regional variations mean that you will have to learn new rules everywhere you go. Among the most well known variants of this game are the Cantonese, Taiwanese and Japanese versions. Chinese checkers (跳棋 tiǎoqí ), despite its name, did not originate in China but can be found. Many Chinese are skilled card (扑克牌 pūkèpái) players; Deng Xiaoping's love for bridge (桥牌 qiáopái) was particularly renowned.
The official currency of the People's Republic of China is the renminbi (人民币 "People's Money"), often abbreviated RMB. The base unit of this currency is the yuan (元), international currency code CNY. All prices in China are given in yuan, usually either as ¥ or 元. The RMB is not legal tender in the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, both of which issue their own currencies although occasionally it will be accepted on an unfavorable 1 to 1 basis with Hong Kong Dollars.
The yuan is currently hovering at ¥6.2 to the U.S. dollar and slowly rising in value (Feb 2012).
The official subdivisions of the yuan are the jiao (角), at 10 jiao to the yuan, and the fen (分) at 10 fen to the jiao. The fen is extinct nowadays but may still be seen in less developed areas. A coin worth ¥0.10 will thus say 壹角 ("1 jiao"), not "10 fen", on it. But in colloquial Mandarin, people often say kuai (块) instead of yuan, and the jiao is also dubbed the mao (毛). A price like ¥3,7 would thus be read as "3 kuai 7" (although the trailing unit is usually omitted).
When dealing with numbers, note that for example wu bai san, literally "five hundred three", means 530 or "five hundred three tens", with the trailing unit dropped. The number 503 would be read as wu bai ling san, literally "five hundred zero three". Similarly yi qian ba, literally "one thousand eight", means 1800. When using larger numbers, keep in mind that Chinese has a word for ten thousand, wàn (万), and thus for example 50000 becomes wu wan, not wu shi qian.
A lot of Chinese currency will be in the form of bills — even small change. Bills are more common in some areas, coins in others, but both are accepted anywhere. Even the jiao, at just one tenth of a yuan, exists as both a bill (the smallest) and two different coins. Conversely, one yuan exists both as a coin and as two different bills. You should be prepared to recognize and handle either version.
Counterfeiting is a serious problem. Anyone staying in China for a few months would have certain experience on it. From ¥1 coin, to ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100 bills, all currency are subject to a risk. The very first lesson to survive in China is how to scrutinize notes and even coin. The main focus is on the texture of different parts, metal line, change of colors under different lights. Ask anyone how, all of them have their own way.
It is very common for a cashier to scrutinize the banknotes you use to pay a bill. Don't be offended; they are not suggesting that you're using counterfeit currency. They just need to be responsible. When you get change, do the same, scrutinize the banknotes you get, especially notes over ¥50. Salespeople may try to give you counterfeit money that they took from other customers as change.
Counterfeits from ATMs became a hot topic in recent years, although it is not common. If you are worried, withdraw your money from the bank counter and say "I worry about jiabi (counterfeit)". Bank staff seem to be very understanding on this.
It's not unheard of a non licensed money exchanger on China borders to change counterfeits to travelers. If you're not experienced in checking notes, you're highly advised to go to banks.
When you pay with a ¥50 or ¥100 banknote in a shop or taxi, it's socially accepted that you remember the last few digits of your currency number as you pass it. It's possible that they say that your banknote is fake, just make sure you get back what you gave them.
Although still restricted, the yuan is readily convertible in many countries, especially in Asia. The Hong Kong dollar, U.S. dollar, Canadian dollar, Euro, British pound, Australian dollar, Japanese yen and South Korean won can be easily changed in China. Southeast Asian currencies are generally not accepted, the exception being Singapore dollars. Currency should only be changed at major banks (Bank of China in particular) or with the licensed money changers usually found at airports or high end hotels although these offer very bad rates.
A black market for currency exchange does exist but you are highly advised to avoid as Counterfeiting is a major issue when exchanging money in China. Beware the private money changers found in markets and hanging around large banks. While their exchange rates may look attractive, unless you have a local friend to help you out, do not exchange money with them. It is not uncommon to exchange a large amount of cash only to find that most of what you got is fake. Stick with the official exchange counter in the Bank of China or one of the other large banks as even though you get slightly worse rates, the risk of getting counterfeit bills is close to zero.
Foreign exchange is under tight control in China. Private money changers, widely seen in many tourist spots or shopping malls around the globe, are still uncommon in China. In a bank, it usually takes 5 minutes to 60 minutes to process the exchange, sometimes a little faster in an hotel, depending on their experience. Generally speaking bank branches in major cities know the procedure and are relatively quick while even main branches in third and fourth tier cities can take much longer.
Regardless of location, you will need to fill a form and show your passport. Your passport will be photocopied and scanned. Keep the exchange receipt if you plan to leave the country with larger sum of money. Note that not all banks with the "Exchange" logo will exchange money for non-customers or for all currencies in cash. For example, Standard Chartered will only exchange cash for its customers and will only do US$ and HK$ in cash (but opening an account is quick and doable even on a tourist visa, and they offer a better cash exchange rate than most local banks).
Exchanging U.S. currency for RMB can be simple, but expect the bills to be heavily scrutinized before the exchange is processed. Opportunities to buy RMB before entering China, for example when coming overland from Hong Kong or Vietnam, should be taken, as the rates are better. The same is true going the other way - selling just across the border will often net a more favorable rate. Also, most international banks will allow you to get a cash advance via a debit or credit card at a Chinese ATM. However, the rates for such actions are often unfavorable and may include steep service charges. It's useful to carry an international currency such as British Pounds, US Dollars, or Japanese Yen to fall back on should you not have access to a cash machine.
ATMs are all over the country but most ATMs outside the large cities that accept Cirrus, PLUS, VISA and MasterCard network are owned by Bank of China or the Industrial and Commercial Bank. In big cities like Shanghai most ATMs will take Visa/Plus/MC/Maestro/Cirrus. However, cash advances from Diner's Club, American Express, or JCB cards are more difficult. For visitors from Hong Kong or Macau, the only ATMs that natively take JETCO cards are Bank of East Asia ATMs. Most ATMs will charge a small and flat fee.
Note: Minsheng Bank, Shenzhen Development Bank, and Bank of Shanghai ATMs will sometimes display PLUS/Cirrus/Maestro logos. In reality, only selected ATMs of theirs are linked into these networks, and there is usually no indication until you try. This is true of many other banks' ATMs, even Agricultural Bank of China (one of the big four).
Before traveling, find out if your home bank charges a currency conversion fee (often between 0-3%) on such transactions. It is worth opening a zero conversion fee account beforehand if possible. Otherwise it would be better to open a local account on arrival to store money in if staying for a sufficiently long time.
If you have trouble because the ATM requires a 6-digit PIN and your PIN only has 4 digits, try adding 2 zeros before it. If you find yourself in a town with a Bank of China branch but no international network-capable ATM, it is usually possible to get a cash advance on a credit card inside the bank. Just ask.
UnionPay, the local ATM card network, has made agreements with various ATM card networks across the globe. If your card is covered, any ATM in China will accept withdrawals and balance inquiries from your card. Currently covered are NYCE and Pulse in America (also applies to cash advances from Discover cards), Interac in Canada, and LINK in the UK.
Also, if your bank is part of the Global ATM Alliance, be aware that China Construction Bank is the local partner for fee-free withdrawals.
Most major banks and upscale hotels will exchange travelers' cheques. You will need identification and your signature on the cheques, your ID, and your signature in front of the teller will be scrutinized very closely. In second-tier cities you will need to go to the head branch of Bank of China or Merchants' Bank. Exchanging travelers cheques is usually slower than exchanging cash.
Foreign currencies, including the Hong Kong dollar or U.S. dollar, are rarely seen as a substitute for RMB except in several 5-star hotels, some shops on the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, and stock exchanges. You are unlikely to use other currencies in most transactions (after all, the average visitor comes to China to sight-see and shop, not to play day-trader, but for the curious, the minimum balance for US$ trading is US$1000 with US$19 A/C opening fee while the minimum for HK$ trading is HK$5000). If you are running out of money and only have dollars in your pocket, it usually means that you don't have money to pay the bill without a trip to a bank. Many shops won't accept it, having no idea on exchange rate or how to check if the bills are counterfeit.
Electronic money transfers to another country are no longer as difficult as they used to be. Just about every bank in the big cities offers this service nowadays. On the other hand, service charges are variable (depends on the sending and receiving bank), the staff is sometimes ill-trained, and the process can take up to a week to clear. Alternatively, you may choose to look for a Chinese branch of a foreign or Hong Kong-based bank to do transfers. This is easier in the big cities, though.
It will be MUCH easier to do transfers if you have an dual-currency account with the Bank of China - opened at the branch from which you plan to get your money. Electronic transfers to dual currency accounts incur no or very low fees although it will usually take about one week. Transfers to Chinese accounts from overseas also take from three to ten business days. All you need to start an account is your passport, visa and a small initial deposit (can be RMB) plus the new-account fee (¥10-20). If you open a foreign currency account or a dual currency account, be sure to check if you will be able to access it in another province or overseas. Alternatively, for visitors from the US, Wells Fargo offers a service called ExpressSend that allows someone to send money from the US and have it arrive at a China Agricultural Bank account on the same day.
Western Union has deals with China Agricultural Bank and with China Post so there are a lot of Western Union signs around. This is what overseas Chinese sending money to relatives, or expats sending money out of China, generally use; it is generally easier and cheaper than the banks. A list of locations is available through Western Union's website. There may, however, be problems. Their system may be down or the employee you deal with may ask for silly things — for an overseas transfer, the recipient's passport and visa numbers, or for a within-China transfer, cash in U.S. dollars. Just try another branch if you are having difficulties.
Outside of star-rated or chain hotels, major supermarkets, and high-class restaurants, credit cards are generally not accepted and most transactions will require cash. The most popular credit card in China is UnionPay, and due to an alliance between Discover and UnionPay, those with Discover credit cards will find that their card is much more widely accepted (under the UnionPay system) than those with Visa/Mastercard/American Express. Most convenience stores take UnionPay, as do most restaurant chains, stores selling high-value items, grocery store chains, and most ATMs. Beware of pickpockets.
Many department stores and large grocery stores have point-of-sale terminals for Chinese bank cards; typically these will not work for foreign cards (unless it is also a UnionPay card). However, because of the nature of Discover's agreement with the UnionPay network, it is treated as a domestic card at ATMs and point-of-sale. If you are going to spend a lot of time in China and use significant amounts of money, consider getting a Chinese bank account if signing up for a Discover card is impractical. Ideally, if in a big city and later traveling to smaller ones, try signing up for an account with smaller banks like Woori Bank or Ping An Bank; these offer free inter-bank ATM withdrawals anywhere in China (Ping An Bank also offers free withdrawals overseas, a plus if traveling to nearby countries later). Alternatively, Travelex offers UnionPay Cash Passports in certain countries.
While China is no longer the bargain destination it was during the 1990's, it remains quite affordable. Unless you are heading to Hong Kong or Macau, China is generally much less expensive - from a traveler's perspective - than industrialized countries. If you eat local food, use public transportation and stay in very inexpensive budget hotels or hostels then ¥200 to ¥300 is a serviceable daily backpacker budget. However, if you want to live an extravagant lifestyle and eat only Western food and stay in star-rated hotels, then even ¥3000 a day would not be enough. There is a high degree of variation in prices depending on where you go. Major cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou generally cost much more than second tier cities and rural, inland parts of the country. The boomtowns of Shenzhen and Zhuhai are also known for being expensive by Chinese standards. Nonetheless, many Hong Kong or Macau residents (who live just across the border from Shenzhen and Zhuhai, respectively), who are generally more affluent than Mainlanders, often go to these cities to shop, play golf, and enjoy services like massage as costs are far lower.
As a general rule, tipping is not practiced anywhere in China. When leaving a tip on your table, it is common to see a waiter chase after you to return the money you "forgot" to take.
In a hotel, it is widely accepted not to tip for room service, airport service, taxis or anything else. Masseurs in some areas such as Shenzhen have been known to ask for a tip. However, if they become pushy at getting tips most Chinese see this as extortion and an immoral practice, so just be firm if you don't wish to give any.
In China, compliments over service is usually expressed in implicit ways. If you are a smoker, you are expected to pass a cigarette to the service staff or manager. Else, you will be seen as selfish and egocentric. It is common to buy a bartender or pub owner a drink.
Tipping in the wrong way can lead to embarrassment, and can sometimes be insulting, because you are suggesting that the relationship is based on money, not friendship.
Opening a bank account in China is a very straightforward process. The "big four" banks in China are the Bank of China (中国银行), China Construction Bank (中国建设银行), Agricultural Bank of China (中国农业银行) and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (中国工商银行). For locally-owned banks you only need your passport with a valid visa (tourist visas are acceptable). Some banks such as Bank of East Asia will require proof of residence, but this restriction mostly applies to banks based in Hong Kong. For long-term travel or residence, a Chinese bank account is a very good idea. Depending on the bank, the PIN and/or ID may be required for withdrawals at the counter (ask beforehand; some foreign banks only require a signature for withdrawal; if you're not comfortable with that don't open an account there) although deposits can be made no questions asked if you have the bank book or card they issued with your account. Depending on the bank, the minimum initial deposit is ¥1-100 (some multinational banks like Citibank or DBS require five-digit minimum deposits; these banks are to be avoided for the average person). You may receive a bank book in which will record all transactions and balances - including foreign currency balances. However, most banks in big cities offer card-only accounts by default; if you want a bank book you'll have to ask unless they don't issue ATM cards at all (such as Shinhan Bank or Dah Sing Bank) Banks usually charge a fee (around 1%) for depositing and withdrawing money in a different city than the one you opened your account in (if opening with Woori Bank, they offer unlimited ATM withdrawals at any ATM in China until June 2011, and Wing Hang Bank offers free withdrawals anywhere in the world, with the card fee waived until 2014). ATMs are now present in almost all towns and cities except in the most remote areas. Many ATMs accept Visa, Mastercard, AMEX, Maestro, and Plus debit and credit cards although some only accept UnionPay and Pulse, Interac, or Link ATM cards.
Also, in Shanghai, most of the smaller local banks have relations with each other allowing for no-fee interbank deposits for any amount and withdrawals over ¥3000. Also, any Bank of Shanghai deposit-capable ATM can do deposits for any bank with a Shanghai-issued account.
Bank of China Bank of China ATMs are occasionally the only ATMs where an international bank card will work. This bank has good international banking experience.
China Construction Bank & Bank of America Bank of America and China Construction Bank have business ties, and because of this, Bank of America customers can use China Construction Bank ATM's without any fees to withdraw RMB.
China Merchants Bank This bank gets best reviews from expatriates as of July 2009.
Standard Chartered This bank is also very expat-friendly (it is based in the UK), however branches outside the big cities are lacking. They offer unlimited interbank ATM withdrawals within the city the card was issued in as long as the amount drawn is over ¥2000 each time and they also offer multiple foreign-currency investment products.
Woori Bank It has even fewer branches than Standard Chartered, but offers the Shanghai Tourist Card, which gives discounts at assorted restaurants and half-price tickets to various attractions, as a debit card. Locally-owned banks only issue this as a credit card, which foreigners can't get, so this is the better choice if traveling to Shanghai. They also offer unlimited free ATM withdrawals anywhere in China. As a Korean bank, they typically cater to Koreans and it shows in the level of customer service.
ICBC Very difficult to get complete bank statements from them. The largest bank in China.
Do note that if you are employed in China, you may not get a choice: many companies and schools deposit into only one bank, and therefore you must have an account with that bank to get paid.
Do not expect everything to be cheap. The prices of imported brand name items, such as camping equipment, mountain bikes, mobile phones and electronics, cosmetics, personal care products, sportswear, cheese, chocolate, coffee and milk powder are often higher than overseas. Many Chinese tourists would buy such items in Hong Kong, not in mainland China.
In most brand name shops, upscale malls and supermarkets, the prices already have Value-Added Tax (VAT) and any sales tax included. Thus, anything with a marked price tends to be sold at that price or, perhaps, slightly below especially if you pay cash and do not require a receipt for your purchase. For unmarked goods, there is wide room for bargaining.
Regarding discounts, Chinese make sales using the character: 折 (zhé) which represented the fraction of the original price you pay. For example, 8折 refers to 20% off; 6.5折 is equal to 35% off.
China excels in handmade items, partly because of long traditions of exquisite artisanship and partly because labor is still comparatively inexpensive. Take your time, look closely at quality and ask questions, but don't take all the answers at face value! Many visitors come looking for antiques, and hunting in the flea markets can be great fun. The overwhelming majority of the "antique" items you will be shown are fakes, no matter how convincing they look and no matter what the vendor says. Do not spend serious money unless you know what you are doing, since novices are almost always taken for a ride.
Luxury goods such as jade, expensive ceramics and other artwork, antiques or carpets are risky. Most of the antique furniture available today are replicas. Much of the jade is either glass or low quality stone that has been dyed a nice green; some is even plastic. Various stone carvings are actually molded glass. The samurai swords are mostly either inferior weapons mass produced for the Japanese military and Manchurian soldiers in World War II or modern Chinese copies. At the right price, any of such goods can be a very good buy. However, none of them are worth anywhere near the price of real top-quality goods. Unless you are an expert on whatever you want to buy, you are quite likely to get sold low quality merchandise at high prices.
There are two solutions. Either stick to the cheaper products, some of which are quite nice as keepsakes, or if you do decide to spend a substantial amount, then deal with a large and reputable vendor; you may not get the bargains an expert could find elsewhere, but you probably won't get cheated either.
China is one of the world's leading manufacturers of clothing, shoes and accessories. Name-brand goods, whether Chinese or foreign, tend to be expensive when compared with the unbranded clothing sold in markets throughout the country. See next section for additional comment. Chinese brands, similar in look, feel and style to their foreign counterparts, are often an excellent deal. Cheap unbranded clothing is also often cheaply manufactured; check the seams and stitching before making a purchase.
Travelers would be wise to try on any item they wish to purchase as sizes tend to be very erratic. Items of clothing which may be a size XL in the U.S. can be anywhere from an L to a XXXL in China. Most nicer stores have a tailor on call who will adjust the length and hem of pants in 15-30 min for free.
There are very affordable tailors anywhere in China. In the major cities, some of them can make a fine job of Western-style garments. Shirts, pants and suits can be measured, fitted, assembled and delivered within three days in many cases. Some tailors have their own fabric selections while others require customers to purchase it in advance from fabric markets. The quality of the tailors, as everywhere, varies widely. More reputable tailors will often come to hotels to do measurements, fittings and final sales.
Items with big worldwide brand labels sold in China may be bogus, especially expensive and exclusive popular brands. By no means all are bogus; virtually all major brands market in China, but some will be unauthorized or downright bogus. If you are buying genuine branded foreign goods, particularly haute couture brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada, or popular brands such as Nike or Adidas, be aware that they will not be cheaper than buying them in Western countries. Wealthy Chinese who can afford to travel often purchase luxury brand name goods in Hong Kong or overseas, as it is significantly cheaper than buying them in mainland China.
There are a number of sources of potential knock-offs or fake brand name goods.
Fake brand oddities include items such as a reversible jacket with "Adidas" on one side and "Nike" on the other or shirts with more than one brand. While these might be interesting curiosities, they obviously are not genuine examples of either brand.
There are two basic rules for dealing with expensive brand name goods in China.
Bogus goods can cause legal problems. Selling "pirate" DVDs or forged brand name goods is illegal in China, but enforcement is lax. It is generally much less lax at customs for travelers' home countries. Customs officials will seize pirated DVDs or bogus brand name goods if they find them. Some Western travelers have even reported having to pay hefty fines after being caught returning home with bogus products.
Counterfeit and swing production markets in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing are nonetheless fantastically amusing and a great place to get a completely new "designer" wardrobe for a fraction of the cost in a Western country. Feel free to purchase these items but remove the tags prior to taking them home. If you have a suitcase full of brand new tagged designer knock-offs or swing produced clothes, you are likely to be hassled by customs. The likely worst case scenario is you will lose the items and receive a fine; the best case scenario is you will lose the items. Simply remove the tags and they will almost certainly go unnoticed with the rest of your belongings.
Software, Music and Movies
Most CDs (music or software) and DVDs in China are unauthorized copies. The ones that sell for ¥6-10 and come in cheap flat paper envelopes are absolutely certain to be bogus. Some of the ones at higher prices with better packaging might be legal copies, but it can be hard to tell. Probably the best way to avoid bogus discs is to buy at one of the larger bookstores or department stores; most of these have a CD/DVD section. The prices are ¥15-40.
Some good checks, or dead giveaways, for a fake are:
In stores, it is usually acceptable to ask the owner to test the DVD to make sure it works and has the correct language soundtrack.
If you buy DVDs or CDs and plan to take them home, be sure to get a receipt that will prove your good faith to Western customs officers.
There are products that are fairly common in China which you should avoid purchasing — coral, ivory, and parts from endangered animal species. China's economic miracle has been a disaster for the world's wildlife and has left such species as the elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, Tibetan antelope and Snow Lotus decimated or on the verge of extinction. The city of Pingyao and several markets on the outskirts of Beijing are notorious for selling rare animal skins, furs, claws, horns, skulls, bones, and other parts from endangered (even extinct) species. Anyone purchasing such items is encouraging the further destruction of the species in question.
It is illegal to trade in such products in nearly all countries, including China, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Enforcement in China is somewhat lax, but anyone buying such products risks serious hassles either when trying to leave China with them or when trying to import them into another country. This can bring substantial fines and/or jail time. So if a store clerk seems eager to sell you a leopard skin or an ivory trinket, use your better judgment and move on.
Ivory is an odd special case. Trade in modern ivory is illegal worldwide, but some antique ivory items are legal. If you want to take any ivory items home, there will be paperwork — at an absolute minimum, you will need a letter from a reputable dealer stating the date of origin. Check with your own country's customs department for other requirements. Also remember that China restricts export of anything older than 1911 (see infobox), and that many of the "ivory" items in China are fakes made from various synthetics or ground bone.
See also: How to haggle
Bargaining is a national passtime in China. You can bargain over almost anything, and sometimes it's even possible to ask for discount in a restaurant at the last minute before you check the bill. Many restaurants or bars will willingly offer a free dish or two (such as a fruit plate in a KTV) if you have made a particularly large order. Shopping malls are less willing to bargain, but why not ask "Will I get a gift?"
Unlike many southeast Asian countries, the tourism industry in China is overwhelmingly dominated by Chinese businesses, not westerners running businesses for their own such as seen in places like Bangkok's Khao San Road or Saigon's Pham Ngu Lao. Merchants in touristy areas, particularly street and sidewalk-stall sellers, are masters in exploiting the wallets of foreigners. They can also be very pushy, sometimes even grabbing your hands. Prices are almost always posted, but they are all substantially marked up, normally 2-3 times. Some items like silk fans (largest size: 1'2") are posted as ¥60-75, but the lowest price is actually just ¥10. Therefore it's often better to buy souvenirs somewhere just a few blocks away from the tourist spots. Local Chinese tourists have no issue with posted prices because they are all well trained in the art of bargaining. Foreigners always pay more for everything negotiable in China but remember that Chinese whose accents identify them as being from other provinces also pay higher prices than locals.
The purchasing power of the nouveau riche in China makes the place not always cheap anymore. When you go to tourist spots, it is possible to see a ¥1,000 skirt tailor made by a designer, ¥2,000 per a bag of tea, or dozens of thousands for silverware.
It is hard to tell what price to offer when starting negotiations. Depending on the city, product or market in question, 5% to 50% of the posted price or vendor's first offer is common. Do note that if someone offers you too-great-to-be-true discount, it could be a sign that the goods are of less than great quality. The rule of thumb is to walk around and compare. In tourist spots, it's common to ask for a 30-50% discount, but in a place catering to local people, asking for a 50% discount will only make a fool of yourself.
In a tourist places, don't take what merchants say seriously. When you ask for a 50% discount, they may be appalled and show scorn; it's a favorite drama. Souvenirs, including "antiques", are almost all standard products from factories. Compare more. Do be aware that in tourist markets, the room for negotiation is not as wide as it used to be. With so many tourists all shopping for the same products, vendors know they can make high margins and may not be as amenable to negotiating. If your starting price is too low, they may dismiss you because trying to get the margin they want isn't worth their time.
In this former communist country, most local people still expect a standard price for grocery products and see it as 'black-hearted' (黑心 hēixīn) to charge too much, even if the shops are in a major business district. However, in a tourist place where rental payments are skyrocketing, if someone sells you a bottle of Coca Cola for ¥5 (usually ¥3 in most places), you may have a chance to bargain a little bit too. It sometimes works, but not all the time.
Souvenir shops for jewelry, herbs, and tea recommended by hotel staff can also be tricky. While it is common that the staff takes tourists to places that give them commission, it is also common that they take you to certain places because the establishment actually offers decent products and prices. If you make a show of being overly cautious, it is likely to offend your hosts because you are suggesting a 'good guy' is actually a cheater.
In several places like the Lijiang Ancient City, when the ethnic horse carriage drivers stop by a souvenir shop, assume that you're paying commission. These carriage operators are notoriously known for extorting money from shops, or creating trouble if the shops refuse to pay. The local government usually avoids intervening in these cases where minority ethnic groups are involved.
Many group tours include mandatory visits to Chinese medicine hospitals such as the National Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, silk , tea, or jade factories or similar shops. The goods are often expensive and include a commission for the tour guide or group. Use your judgment if you want to buy anything. However, the shops visited on tours can offer competitive prices and safe, reliable, international shipping for goods like silk and jade.
Areas with large expatriate communities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have specialty grocery stores catering to those communities. These are often no larger than a 7-Eleven. They usually stock imported snacks, alcohol, and specialty groceries such as meats and cheeses and are often very expensive. See individual articles for details.
Several Western-owned supermarket chains are widespread in China — Wal-mart (沃尔玛 Wòěrmǎ), Metro (麦德龙 Màidélóng), and Carrefour (家乐福 Jiālèfú). All have some Western groceries - often at high prices. However, the availability of foreign products diminishes at their branches in second or third-tier cities. Metro is probably the best of these; in particular it usually has a fine selection of alcohol. Asian-owned chains include Jusco (佳世客 Jiāshìkè), RT-Mart (大潤發 Dàrùnfā) , LOTTE Mart (乐天玛特 Letianmate) and SM; these also carry imported goods. Some larger Chinese chains such as Beijing Hualian (北京华联 Běijīng Huálián) also carry a limited selection of foreign products.
While China has experienced a declining trend for smoking, it is still a popular habit and cigarettes (香烟 xiāngyān) are generally cheap. Cigarettes can be purchased from small neighbourhood stores, convenience stores, counters located in supermarkets and in department stores.
Most mainstream Chinese brands sell at around ¥5-20 for a 20-pack. Popular national brands include Zhongnanhai (中南海 zhōngnánhǎi), Honghe (红河 hónghé), Baisha, Nanjing, Liqun, and Double Happiness (双喜 shuāngxǐ). Some local brands sold in certain regions can be much cheaper whilst others are more expensive. Chinese cigarettes are stronger than many foreign cigarettes (13 mg tar is the norm) although Zhongnanhai is popular with foreign visitors, having a similar taste to Marlboro Light but only half the price. Western brands are available including Marlboro (万宝路 wànbǎolù), 555 (三五 sān wǔ), Davidoff (大卫杜夫 dàwèidùfú), Kent, Salem and Parliament. Western cigarettes are a little more expensive - stick to major convenience store chains such as C-Store or Kedi as many smaller stores sell counterfeit or illegally imported cigarettes.
Premium-brand cigarettes are often ridiculously overpriced and are vary rarely smoked personally - they are usually offered as gifts or bribes as an expression of wealth. The two most famous 'premium brands' include Zhonghua (中华 zhōnghuá) (¥60-100) and Panda (¥100). If you choose to buy them then stick to major department stores - those sold in neighbourhood cigarette stores are likely to be fake. Rolling tobacco and papers are rare in urban China. Lighters (打火机 dǎhuǒjī) are usually cheap (about ¥1) but flimsily made. Zippos are widely available but expensive.
Cigars can be bought from some specialist tobacco stores and Chinese-made cigars are surprisingly good - expect to pay around ¥20-30 for 10 locally produced cigars. Beware of fake western-brand cigars sold in bar-districts; they are usually terrible and ridiculously overpriced. Genuine Cuban cigars are available in cigar bars and upscale establishments in large cities but are often very expensive.
Duty-free stores in international airports, international rail stations (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou East) and at land borders sell a greater range of imported brands - expect to pay between ¥80-150 for a 200-cigarette carton.
Food in China varies widely from region to region so the term "Chinese food" is pretty much a blanket term, just like "Western food." While visiting, relax your inhibitions and try a bit of everything.
Do keep in mind that undercooked food or poor hygiene can cause bacterial or parasitic infection, particularly during warm or hot weather. Thus it is advisable to take great care about (and perhaps abstain from) eating seafood and meat on the street during the summer. In addition, unless you're in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai or other large cities, raw meat and seafood should be avoided. That all being said, the hygiene conditions of a restaurant are usually satisfactory which means that diarrhea is usually not a risk to most people.
Chinese gourmands place emphasis on freshness so your meal will most likely be cooked as soon as you order it. Searing hot woks over coal or gas fires make even street food usually safe to eat. Indeed freshly prepared street food, as noted by many travel writers, is often safer than food sitting on the buffet lines of 5-star hotels. China is no exception.
The two-menu system where different menus are presented according to the skin color of a guest remains largely unheard of in China. Most restaurants only have one menu - the Chinese one. Learning some Chinese characters such as beef (牛), pork (猪), chicken (鸡), fish (鱼), stir-fried (炒), deep-fried (炸), braised (烧), baked or grilled (烤), soup (汤), rice (饭), or noodles (面) will take you a long way. As pork is the most common meat in Chinese cuisine, where a dish simply lists "meat" (肉), assume it is pork.
Certain Chinese dishes contain ingredients some people may prefer to avoid, such as dog, snake or endangered species. However, it is very unlikely that you will order these dishes by a mistake. Dog and snake are usually served in specialty restaurants which do not hide their ingredients. Obviously, products made from endangered ingredients will have astronomical prices and would not be listed on the regular menu anyway.
Generally speaking, rice is the main staple in the south, while wheat, mostly in the form of noodles, is the main staple in the north.
Various types of Chinese food provide quick, cheap, tasty, light meals. Street food and snacks sold from portable vendors can be found throughout China's cities. Wangfujing district's Snack Street in Beijing is a notable, if touristy, area for street food. In Cantonese-speaking areas, street food vendors are called gai bin dong; such ventures can grow into a substantial business with the stalls only barely 'mobile' in the traditional street food sense. Various quick eats available nationwide include:
The Western notion of fast food is arguably as popular as the domestic variety. KFC (肯德基), McDonald's (麦当劳), Subway (赛百味) and Pizza Hut (必胜客) are ubiquitous, at least in mid-sized cities and above. There are a few Burger Kings (汉堡王), Domino's and Papa John's (棒约翰) as well but only in major cities. Chinese chains are also widespread. These include Dicos (德克士) - chicken burgers, fries etc., cheaper than KFC and some say better - and Kung Fu (真功夫) - which has a more Chinese menu.
China is the birthplace of chopsticks and unsurprisingly, much important etiquette relates to the use of chopsticks. While the Chinese are generally tolerant about table manners, you will most likely be seen as ill-mannered, annoying or offensive when using chopsticks in improper ways. Be stick to the following rules:
Other lesser important dining rules include:
In China, restaurants and pubs are very common entertainment places and treating plays an important part in socializing.
While splitting the bill is beginning to be accepted by young people, treating is still the norm, especially when the parties are in obviously different social classes. Men are expected to treat women, elders to juniors, rich to poor, hosts to guests, working class to non-income class (students). Friends of the same class will usually prefer to split the opportunity to treat, rather than split the bill, i.e. "This is my turn, and you treat next time."
It is common to see Chinese competing sweatily to pay the bill. You are expected to fight back and say "It's my turn, you treat me next time." The smiling loser will accuse the winner of being too courteous. All these dramas, despite still being common among all generations and usually played wholeheartedly are becoming somewhat less widely practiced among younger urban Chinese.
Unless you only hang out with non-Chinese tourists, you will have fair chances of being treated. For budget travelers, the good news is that Chinese tend to be eager to treat foreigners, although you shouldn't expect much from students and grassroots working class families and individuals.
That being said, Chinese tend to be very tolerant towards foreigners. If you feel like going dutch, try it. They tend to believe that "all foreigners prefer to go dutch". If they try to argue, it usually means that they insist on paying for your bill as well, not the opposite.
The Chinese love a tipple and the all-purpose word jiǔ (酒) covers quite a range of alcoholic drinks.
Chinese toast with the word gānbēi (干杯, literally "dry glass"). Traditionally one is expected to drain the glass in one swig. During a meal, the visitor is generally expected to drink at least one glass with each person present; sometimes there may be considerable pressure to do this. And it can be considered rude, at least early during the meal, if you do not make a toast every time you take a drink.
Exercise caution. Fortunately, the glasses are usually small — even beer is often drunk from an oversized shot glass. The Chinese liquor, baijiu, is definitely potent (up to 65% alcohol). Baijiu is often drunk in small shot glasses for a good reason. US president Nixon practiced drinking before his first trip to China to be ready to drink with Mao Zedong. Unless you are used to imbibing heavily, be very careful when drinking with Chinese.
If you want to take it easy but still be sociable, say suíbiàn (随便) before you make the toast, then drink only part of the glass. It may also be possible to have three toasts (traditionally signifying friendship) with the entire company, rather than one separate toast for every individual present.
Beer (啤酒 píjiǔ) is very common in China and is served in nearly every restaurant. The most famous brand is Tsingtao (青島) from Qingdao, which was at one point a German concession. Other brands abound and are generally light beers in a pilsner or lager style with 3-4% alcohol. In addition to national brands, most cities will have one or more cheap local beers. Some companies (Tsingtao, Yanjing) also make a dark beer (黑啤酒 hēipíjiǔ). In some regions, beers from other parts of Asia are fairly common and tend to be popular with travellers — Filipino San Miguel in Guangdong, Singaporean Tiger in Hainan, and Laotian Beer Lao in Yunnan, The typical price for beer is about ¥2.5-4 in a grocery store, ¥4-18 in a restaurant, around ¥10 in an ordinary bar, and ¥20-40 in a fancier bar.
Unfortunately, most places outside of major cities serve beer at room temperature, regardless of season, though places that cater to tourists have it cold.
Locally made grape wine (葡萄酒 pútaojiǔ) is common and much of it is reasonably priced, from ¥15 in a grocery store, about ¥100-150 in a fancy bar. That said, most of the stuff bears only the faintest resemblance to Western wines. The Chinese like their wines red and very, very sweet, and they're typically served over ice or mixed with Sprite. Great Wall and Dynasty are large brands with a number of wines at various prices; their cheaper (under ¥40) offerings are generally not impressive. Chang Yu is another large brand; some of their low end wines are a bit better. If you're looking for a Chinese-made, Western-style wine, try to find these labels:
There are also several brands and types of rice wine. Most of these resemble a watery rice pudding, they are usually very sweet and only have a very small amount of alcohol for taste. These do not generally much resemble Japanese sake, the only rice wine well-known in the West. Travelers' reactions to these vary widely.
Báijiǔ (白酒) is distilled liquor, generally 80 to 120 proof, made from sorghum and sometimes other grains depending on the region. As the word "jiǔ" is often loosely translated as "wine" by Chinese beverage firms and English speakers, baijiu is frequently referred to as "white wine" in conversation. Baijiu will typically be served at banquets and festivals in tiny shot glasses. Toasts are ubiquitous at banquets or dinners on special occasions. Most foreigners find baijiu tastes like diesel fuel, while a liquor connoisseur may find high quality, expensive baijiu quite good. Baijiu is definitely an acquired taste, but once the taste is acquired, it's quite fun to "ganbei" a glass or two at a banquet.
The cheapest baijiu is the Beijing brewed èrguōtóu (二锅头) (¥4.5 per 100 mL bottle). It comes in two variants: 53% and 56% alcohol by volume. Ordering "xiǎo èr" (Erguotou's diminutive nickname) will likely raise a few eyebrows and a chuckle from working class Chinese.
Máotái (茅台), made in Guizhou Province, is China's most famous brand of baijiu and China's national liquor. Made from sorghum, Maotai and its expensive cousins (such as Kaoliang in Taiwan) are well-known for their strong fragrance and are actually sweeter than western clear liquors as the sorghum taste is preserved - in a way.
Chinese brandy (白兰地) is excellent value, about the same price as grape wine or baijiu, and generally far more palatable than either. A ¥16-20 local brandy is not a ¥200+ imported brand-name cognac, but it is close enough that you should only buy the cognac if money doesn't matter. Expats debate the relative merits of brandies from French-owned Louis Wann , Chinese brand Changyu , and several others. All are drinkable.
The Chinese are also great fans of various supposedly medicinal liquors, which usually contain exotic herbs and/or animal parts. Some of these have prices in the normal range and include ingredients like ginseng. These can be palatable enough, if tending toward sweetness. Others, with unusual ingredients (snakes, turtles, bees, etc.) and steep price tags, are probably best left to those that enjoy them.
Bars, discos and karaoke
Western style pubs are becoming increasingly popular across the country. Especially in the more affluent urban centers such as Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Hangzhou one can find painstakingly recreated replicas of traditional Irish or English pubs. Like their Western counterparts most will have a selection of foreign beers on tap as well as provide pub food (of varying quality) and often feature live cover bands. Most of these pubs cater to and are frequented by the expatriate communities so you should not expect to find many Chinese in these places. Be aware that imported beer can be very expensive compared to local brew.
To just go out for a few drinks with friends, pick a local restaurant and drink beer at around ¥5 for a 600 ml bottle. It will be Chinese lager, around 3% alcohol, with a limited choice of brand and may be served warm. Most mid- to high- range restaurants will have small private suites for gatherings (usually offered free if there is more than around 5 people), and the staff will generally not try to hustle you out even if you decide to stay until closing time. Many residents frequent outdoor restaurants or roadside stalls and barbecues (shāokǎo - 烧烤) for a nice and inexpensive evening.
In discos and fancy bars with entertainment, you normally buy beer ¥100 at a time; this gets you anywhere from 4 import-brand beer (Heineken, Bud, Corona, Sol, ..) to 10 local beers. A few places offer cocktails; fewer have good ones.
Other drinks are sold only by the bottle, not by the glass. Red wine is in the ¥80-200 range (served with ice and Sprite) and mediocre imported whiskeys (Chivas, Johnny Walker, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels; extremely rarely single malts) and cognacs, ¥300-800. Both are often mixed with sweet bottled green or red tea. Vodka, tequila and rum are less common, but sometimes available. Bogus "brand name" products are fairly common and may ruin your next day.
These places often have bar girls, young women who drink a lot and want to play drinking games to get you to consume more. They get a commission on whatever you buy. In general, these girls will not leave the bar with you; they are professional flirts, not prostitutes.
Karaoke (卡拉OK) is huge in China and can be broadly split into two categories. More common is the no-frills karaoke box or KTV, where you rent a room, bring your friends and the house gives you a mike and sells you booze. Much favored by students, these are cheap and fun with the right crowd, although you need at least a few people for a memorable night. Bringing your own booze can keep the price tag down but must be done on the sly - many places have windows in the door so the staff can make sure you only drink liquor they sold to you.
Rather different is the distinctly dodgier special KTV lounge, more oriented to businessmen entertaining clients or letting their hair down, where the house provides anything and everything at a price. At these often opulent establishments — over-the-top Roman and Egyptian themes are standard — you'll be joined by short-skirted professional karaoke girls, who charge by the hour for the pleasure of their company and whose services may not be limited to just singing badly and pouring your drinks. It's highly advisable not to venture into these unless you're absolutely sure somebody else is footing the bill, which can easily run into hundreds of dollars even if you keep your pants on.
As elsewhere, never never accept an invitation to a restaurant or bar from an available-looking woman who just picked you up in the street sometime after sundown. At best, suggest a different place. If she refuses, drop her on the spot. More than likely, she will steer you into a quiet little place with too many doormen and you will find yourself saddled with a modest meal and beer that will cost you ¥1,000 or worse. And the doormen won't let you leave till you pay up. This is somewhat rare. But it does happen.
China is the birthplace of tea, and at the risk of stating the obvious, there's a lot of tea (茶 chá) in China. Green tea (绿茶 lǜchá) is served up for free in some restaurants (depending on region) or for a small fee. The most common types served are:
However, specialist tea houses serve a vast variety of brews, ranging from the pale, delicate white tea (白茶 báichá) to the powerful fermented and aged pu'er tea (普洱茶 pǔ'ěrchá). Tea in Chinese culture is akin to wine in Western culture, and even the same type of tea will come in many different grades. Always check prices carefully before ordering as some of the best varieties can be very pricey indeed. Most tea shops have some teas at several hundred yuan per jing (500 g) and prices up to ¥2,000 are not uncommon. The record price for top grade tea sold at auction was well over ¥7000 a gram.
Various areas of China have famous teas. Hangzhou, near Shanghai, is famed for its "Dragon Well" (龙井 lóngjǐng) green tea. Fujian has the most famous oolong teas, "Dark Red Robe" (大红袍 dàhóngpáo) from Mount Wuyi and "Iron Goddess of Mercy" (铁观音 tiěguānyīn) from Anxi. Pǔ'ěr in Yunnan has the most famous fully fermented tea, pǔ'ěrchá (普洱茶). This comes compressed into hard cakes, originally a packing method for transport by horse caravan to Burma and Tibet. The cakes are embossed with patterns; some people hang them up as wall decorations.
Most tea shops will be more than happy to let you sit down and try different varieties of tea. "Ten Fu Tea" is a national chain and in Beijing "Wu Yu Tai" is the one some locals say they favor.
Black tea, the type of tea most common in the West, is known in China as "red tea" (紅茶 hóngchá). While almost all Western teas are black teas, the converse isn't true, with many Chinese teas, including the famed Pǔ'ěr also falling into the "black tea" category.
Normal Chinese teas are always drunk neat, with the use of sugar or milk unknown. However, in some areas you will find Hong Kong style "milk tea" (奶茶 nǎichá) or Tibetan "butter tea". Taiwanese bubble tea (珍珠奶茶 Zhēnzhū Nǎichá) is also popular and widely available.
Coffee (咖啡 kāfēi) is becoming quite popular in urban China, though it is nearly impossible to find in smaller towns.
Several chains of coffee shops have branches in many cities, including Starbucks (星巴克), UBC Coffee (上岛咖啡), Ming Tien Coffee Language and SPR . All offer coffee, tea, and both Chinese and Western food, generally with good air conditioning, wireless internet, and nice decor. ¥15-40 or so a cup.
There are also lots of smaller independent coffee shops or local chains. These may also be high priced, but often they are around ¥15 a cup. Quality varies from excellent to abysmal.
For cheap coffee just to stave off withdrawal symptoms, there are several options. Go to a Western fast food chain (KFC, McD, etc.) for some ¥8 coffee. Additionally, almost any supermarket or convenience store will have both canned cold coffee and instant Nescafé (black or pre-mixed with whitener and sugar) - just add hot water.
Many drinks that are usually served chilled or with ice in the West are served at room temperature in China. Ask for beer or soda in a restaurant, and it may arrive at room temperature, though beer is more commonly served cold, at least in the summer. Water will generally be served hot. That is actually good, because only boiled (or bottled) water is safe to drink, but it's not pleasant to drink hot water in the summer.
You can get cold drinks from small grocery stores and restaurants, just look for the cooler (even though it might not actually be cool). You can try bringing a cold beverage into a restaurant. Most small restaurants won't mind--if they even notice--and there is no such thing as a "cork" charge in China. Remember that most people will be drinking tea, which is free anyway, so the restaurant is probably not expecting to profit on your beverage consumption.
Asking for ice is best avoided. Many, perhaps most, places just don't have it. The ice they do have may well be made from unfiltered tap water and arguably unsafe for travelers sweating bullets about diarrhea.
Availability of accommodation for tourists is generally good and ranges from shared dorm rooms to five-star luxury hotels. In the past, Chinese laws restricted foreign tourists' ability to stay in the cheapest hotels, although this is slowly changing. However, this traditional prohibition, still widely practiced, is not always a bad thing. Some cheap establishments are still locally state-run affairs and haven't changed much since the Maoist era. Other ultra-cheap options are used as temporary housing by migrant workers and would not appeal to most travelers for security and cleanliness reasons. That said, there's a dizzying number of sleeping options in most Chinese towns, and despite language and legal barriers you should be able to find something in your budget and comfort range.
Finding a hotel when first arriving in a Chinese city can be a daunting task: a mob of passengers is pushing to disembark from the train or bus, touts are tugging at your arm and screaming in your face to go with them, everything is in incomprehensible Chinese and you are just looking for a place to put down your bag. It doesn't get any better once you get in a cab because the driver doesn't speak any English and every hotel in your guide book is full or closed! This can be the experience for many travelers in China, but the pains of finding a hotel room can be avoided if you know where to look and what you're looking for. In addition, star ratings especially for two and three-star hotels generally cannot be trusted in China. Pricing is a much better guide.
If you're willing to pay ¥200 or more for a room, then you'll probably have little problem finding a room. But if you want something cheaper yet still comfortable, you'll need more information than many guide books provide. The cheapest options include hostels, dorms, and extra rooms called zhusu. Every city has plenty of hotels charging ¥150 and up. Sleeper trains and sleeper buses can also be a decent option if you schedule your long-distance travel overnight (see the Get around section of this page for more information). If you're in a town and you can't find a hotel, try looking near the bus or train station, an area that typically has a larger selection of cheap hotels. Hotels that are not licensed to accept foreigners can be heavily fined if they are caught housing foreign occupants, but enforcement of this law appears spotty and many unlicensed hotels will find you a room anyway.
In the cheapest range of hotels it is important to ask if hot water is available 24 hours-a-day (有没有二十四个小时的热水 yǒuméiyǒu èrshisì ge xiǎoshí de rèshuǐ), and check if the shower, sink and toilet actually work. It is also advisable to avoid checking into a room next to a busy street as traffic may keep you up late and wake you up early. If you do plan on just showing up in town and looking for a place to sleep, it's best to arrive before 6PM-7PM. or the most popular places will be booked for the night.
Note that if you are absolutely at a loss for finding housing, you should seek out the local police (警察) or Public Security Bureau (公安局). They can help you find a place to crash - at least for one night.
Prices are often negotiable, and a sharp reduction from the price listed on the wall can often be had, even in nicer hotels, by simpy asking "what's the lowest price?" (最低多少 zuìdī duōshǎo). When staying for more than a few days it is also usually possible to negotiate a lower daily rate. However, these negotiating tactics won't work during the busy Chinese holiday seasons when prices sky-rocket and rooms are hard to get. Many hotels, both chains and individual establishments, have membership cards offering discounts to frequent guests.
In mid-range and above hotels, it is common for guests to receive phone calls offering "massage" services; this is actually a thinly-veiled front for prostitution.
Booking a room over the Internet with a credit card can be a convenient and speedy method of making sure you have a room when you arrive at your destination, and there are numerous websites that cater for this. Credit cards are not widely used in China, particularly in smaller and cheaper hotels. Such hotels usually ask to be paid in cash, with a security deposit, up front. Some new online services  allow you to book without a credit card and pay cash at the hotel. During Chinese holidays, when it is difficult to get a room anywhere, this may be an acceptable option, but in the off-season rooms are plentiful almost everywhere and it may be just as easy to find a room upon arrival as it is to book one over the Internet.
There are various ways to sleep very cheaply in China: hostels, dorms, zhusu, massage shops, saunas, and spas.
The next level of hotels, which cater to Chinese clients, are usually officially off-limits to foreigners but you may be able to convince them to accept you, especially if you can speak a smattering of Chinese. The cheapest range of Chinese budget hotels (one step above the zhusu) are called zhāodàisuǒ (招待所). Unlike zhusu these are licensed accommodations but are similarly spartan and utilitarian, often with shared bathrooms. Slightly more luxurious budget hotels and Chinese business hotels may or may not have English signs and usually have the words lǚguǎn (旅馆, meaning "travel hotel"), bīnguǎn or jiǔdiàn (宾馆 and 酒店, respectively, meaning "hotel") in their name. Room options typically include singles and doubles with attached bathrooms, and dorms with shared baths. Some budget hotels include complementary toiletries and Internet. In small, rural towns a night's stay might be as cheap as ¥25; in bigger cities you can usually get a room for ¥80-120. One problem with such hotels is that they can be quite noisy as patrons and staff may be yelling to each other across the halls into the wee hours of the morning. Another potential inconvenience is booking a room with a shared bath as many of these hotels have one bathroom for twenty or thirty rooms. You may have to wait a while to use the toilet and half an hour or more to take a shower. In smaller budget hotels the family running the place may simply lock up late at night when it appears no more customers are coming. If you plan on being late, try to explain this in advance or else you may have to call the front desk, bang on the door, or climb over the gate to get in.
These are usually larger hotels, clean and comfortable but not too expensive, with rooms ranging from ¥150 at the low end to over ¥300. Frequently the same hotels will also have more expensive and luxurious rooms. The doubles are usually quite nice and up to Western standards, with a clean private bathroom that has towels and free toiletries. A buffet breakfast may be included, or a breakfast ticket can be purchased for around ¥10.
Sprouting up around China are a number of Western-quality budget hotels that include the following chains, all of which have rooms in the ¥150-300 range and on-line advance booking in English:
At the high end of the hotel food chain are international hotel chains and resorts, such as the Marriott, Hyatt and Shangri-La and their Chinese competitors. These charge hundreds or thousands of yuan per night for luxurious accommodations with 24-hour room service, satellite TV, spas, and western breakfast buffets. There are suites in Shanghai, for example, for over ¥10,000 a night. Many of these establishments cater to traveling business-types with expense accounts and charge accordingly for food and amenities (i.e. ¥20 for a bottle of water which costs ¥2 at a convenience store). Internet (wired or wireless) which is usually free in mid-range accommodations is often a pay service in high-end hotels. Some hotels in the ¥400-700 range such as Ramada or Days Inn are willing to lower their prices when business is slow. Chinese three and four-star hotels will often give block pricing or better deals if you negotiate or book a room for more than 5 days. If you are coming to China on a tour, the tour company may be able to get you a room in a true luxury hotel for a fraction of the listed price.
Foreign students have different educational needs. China's universities offer many different types of courses and teaching methods to cater to these needs as well as to the different educational levels of the students that come from abroad. Peking University (北京大学) and Tsinghua University (清华大学), both based in Beijing, are China's most prestigious universities, and are regularly ranked among the top universities in the world.
Language trainees Universities accept students who have achieved the minimum of a high school education for courses in the Chinese language. These courses usually last 1 or 2 years. Students are given certificates after they complete their course. Students who do not speak Chinese and want to study further in China are usually required to complete a language training course.
Undergraduates Undergraduate degrees usually require 4-5 years of study. International students have classes together with native Chinese students. In accordance with each student's past education, some classes of a degree course can be cancelled and some have to be added. Students receive a Bachelor's degree after passing the necessary exams and completing a thesis.
Postgraduates Master's degrees are granted after 2-3 years of study. Oral examinations are also taken as well as written exams and a postgraduate thesis.
Doctoral students Usually 4-5 years of study are needed to obtain a PhD.
Research scholars Research is usually conducted independently by the student under the supervision of an assigned tutor. Any surveys, experiments, interviews, or visits that a research scholar has to make need to be arranged beforehand and authorised.
Short-term training courses Short-term courses are now offered in many areas such as Chinese literature, calligraphy, economics, architecture, Chinese law, traditional Chinese medicine, art, and sports. Courses are offered in the holidays as well as during term time.
Foreign students are encouraged to continue their studies and obtain Master's or doctoral degrees in China's universities, and those who have graduated in China are welcome to return for further education. Some universities offer courses taught in foreign languages, but most courses are in Chinese, and you need to demonstrate a sufficient proficiency in Chinese before you can enroll. You do this by passing the HSK test (汉语水平考试 hànyǔ shuǐpíng kǎoshì), the official way to certify your skills on a Basic, Intermediate or Advanced level. The test involves reading, writing and listening, but no speaking. See the HSK homepage  for dates and locations.
In order to promote its culture and language, the Chinese government offers scholarships to foreigners who want to study in China. Partial scholarships will cover the tuition fees of the study of your choice. Full scholarships cover pretty much everything, including books, rent, some medical coverage, and a monthly allowance for food and expenses. Although studying pins you down to a specific city and limits the time you can spend travelling, a scholarship is a great way to help you cut through some red tape, get a Residence Permit, and, if you're lucky, live in China practically for free.
To inquire about scholarships, you can directly contact the embassy in your area, or ask around at universities and language schools that have China-related courses. Scholarships are pre-distributed by quota to every country, so if too many people want one, you will be competing against your fellow citizens, not against the entire world. The procedure varies from country to country, but normally requires the following paperwork :
All of this is shipped by the embassy to Beijing, which then decides who is accepted, where, and under what modalities. Application usually rounds up by the end of march, and the answer may not come until as late as august, with classes starting in September.
If all goes well, this will net you a letter of acceptance by the university of your choice, plus a visa that lets you stay in China for about two months. Once in China, you will have to do the medical tests all over again, and upgrade the visa to a residence permit. This however is where being part of a university comes in handy, as they should be able to handle all of the paperwork, going so far as to bring a medical team on campus to check you up — much preferable over you running from police station to hospital to consulate, especially if you don't speak Chinese!
When all is said and done, you will have a residence permit that lets you stay one year in China, lets you leave and enter the country as you want, and a fair ability to travel during weekends, holidays, and the occasional class-skipping stint.
Teaching a language, most commonly English, is a very popular source of employment for foreigners. There are English-teaching jobs all over China. The market for teachers of other languages is more limited. However most universities require all English majors to study another foreign language as well, and there are specialised universities for foreign languages in major cities such as Beijing , Guangzhou , Xi'an , Dalian and Shanghai  which teach most major world languages. Guangzhou is establishing itself a reputation as a hub for so-called rare languages.
Requirements and qualifications range from just having a pulse and speaking a bit of English up to needing an MA and experience. Typically the good jobs want at least one, preferably two or three, of:
If you want to go and do not already have good qualifications, get a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate. It really helps.
There are a fairly strong preferences for native English speakers and for citizens of major English-speaking countries. Job ads routinely include a list of acceptable passports; UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are on every list, Ireland and South Africa on most. Some schools will not even read the rest of your resume if you do not have one of those passports. Various prejudices may also come into play; overseas Chinese (even with perfect English), Filipinos, Indians, Malaysians, American Blacks, and especially Africans all report some difficulties finding jobs, or getting lower offers. Members of all those groups are happily employed in other schools, and many are well-paid, but getting a job is easier for people who fit a stereotype — Caucasians especially Americans or British. Some schools want blue-eyed blondes, because they hope that will help their marketing. Accent can also be an issue; Chinese people generally hope to acquire American accents, so a really thick Scots or Aussie accent will bother some employers, for example.
Pay and conditions vary greatly depending on location, experience and qualifications. Free accommodation, provided by the institution, is common. Generally this means an apartment of your own, though some tightfisted schools want teachers to share. Most jobs pay for all or part of an annual trip home. Teachers nearly always make enough to live well in China, though some have a problem in summer because many university or high school jobs pay for only the 10 months of the academic year. It is often possible to teach private lessons on the side - in fact your students or their parents may ask about this incessantly. Foreign teachers generally earn two or three times their Chinese colleagues' salaries but the differences are gradually narrowing. A public college or university will often pay less than a private school, but will also require fewer teaching hours.
Make certain you understand your employer's policies on outside work as some are quite restrictive. The standard government-provided contract, which most schools use (perhaps amended a bit), prohibits it enitirely unless you get permission from the employer.
If you plan to work as a teacher in China, research very carefully. You might get your dream job or a nightmare. Take great care in your selection of employer; broken contracts and general unscrupulousness and dishonesty are common. As a rule, government schools give the best all-around deals and if there is any dispute, you can appeal to the Foreign Experts Office of the provincial education ministry. If you can document your case and it is a valid one, they will take action. And it tends to be fast. Before filing an appeal, try to resolve the issue through direct discussion. If that fails, ask someone to function as a go-between -- a Chinese if possible, but otherwise another expatriate will do. Only appeal as a last resort: as in other aspects of life everywhere, the threat of action is often more effective than action itself.
See also Teaching English.
To work as a teacher in China you need either a Foreign Teacher's Certificate (FTC) or a Foreign Expert's Certificate (FEC). Both are issued by the State Administration for Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA) . In theory, the FTC is for elementary or high school teachers and the FEC is for tertiary education. In practice, everyone seems to get the FEC. In theory, both require a degree; this is usually, but not always, enforced. Whether it is depends at least on where you are, how well-connected your school is, and how much trouble they are willing to go to. If you lack a degree, it helps if you have other certifications or diplomas.
Once you have the FEC, getting a Residence Permit is routine. The Residence Permit is generally good for a year and it acts as a multiple entry visa; you can leave China and return with no problem.
There can be difficulties. Universities and other public institutions can easily get Foreign Expert Certificates for staff, but not all private schools can. Before they can even apply for certificates, they must be authorized to employ foreigners by SAFEA. Getting the authorization takes many months and a significant amount of money. They also have to comply with SAFEA standards such as providing housing, health insurance and annual air fare home for all staff. Large established schools have the permission, but many of the smaller ones don't want the expense, so all their teachers are illegal. Some lie to teachers about this.
People over 60 often have trouble getting visas because of their age, and some job ads specify an age range. There are conflicting reports on whether this is SAFEA policy, SAFEA advice to provincial departments that make their own policies, or a question of health insurance. There are some exceptions, including a few people in their seventies still working legally.
The Foreign Expert's Certificate may get you a teacher's discount on some products and services including domestic flights.
Much the safest way to come to a job in China is to enter the country on a Z visa. There can be some confusion with the terms; a few years ago, the Z was a one-year working visa but now the Residence Permit is the long-term visa and the Z is just an entry visa good for 30 days, long enough to get the FEC and Residence Permit. The Z visa can only be obtained outside of China, and it requires a letter from the employers to accompany your passport when you apply. Generally the school will request a signed contract, a health certificate from a health professional, a copy of your passport details, and a copy of your diploma. If you are over 60 and they are asking for their provincial office to accept you, they may also require that you have your own health insurance.
It used to be common for people already in China to go to Hong Kong or Macau for the Z visa. Around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the rules tightened up considerably; they have relaxed some since, but not entirely. This is also true for getting Chinese visas in other nearby countries such as Vietnam, Korea, Japan or Singapore. Some people have been told they must return to their home countries to obtain a Z visa. Others have been able to get a Z in Hong Kong, provided the invitation paperwork clearly stipulates it.
Some employers ask teachers to come in with a tourist visa, and say they can get a residence permit from that. The official regulations require the Z but moving from a tourist visa to Residence Permit is sometimes possible, depending on policies at the local PSB (Public Securty Bureau, the cops) office and the employer's contacts there. On the other hand, working on a tourist visa is illegal and some of the employers who want you to come on one are stringing you along; they do not have SAFEA permission to hire foreigners legally and are trying to wriggle around that. Do not even consider taking a post anywhere that wants you to come on a tourist visa unless you have talked to current foreign teachers already there and been assured that they came that way and had no problem getting FEC and Residence Permit..
If you complete your health certificate in your home country, be sure to get copies of the x-ray, lab reports and other machine documents. Also have the form stamped with the official seal of the hospital. Even though you do all of this you may，and most likely will, be required to take another physical in China. Request before coming to China that if the physical is required inside of China after you arrive, that the school pay for the service. The physical is usually very quick: EKG, chest x-ray, sonogram of heart and stomach area, blood test, and urine check. However, the time of completion and various tests may change depending on the province.
An appearance at the local PSB is required to get your residency permit. Again, negotiate with the school for them to pay for the permit prior to your leaving for China. Children and spouse going with you may require an even higher amount for their residency permit.
Schools range from completely reliable to crooks who leave foreigners stranded without a legitimate work visa after they arrive. It is illegal to work with a tourist visa, but some schools want teachers to do that, and some even want you to foot the bill for "visa runs" to Hong Kong to renew it, although with restrictions on renewals this has become more difficult. Be sure to speak with current or former teachers from the school before you sign up. If the school won't put you in touch with them, or if current teachers don't have Foreign Experts Certificates, don't go near the place.
China is a huge country that shows a huge regional difference over crime rates but in general it poses no more risk than most western countries. Although you may hear locals complaining about increasing crime rates, violent crime remains rare. Many tourists will more likely feel safer in China than in their home country.
Generally speaking, crime rates are higher in the larger cities than in the countryside. The larger the cities, the more the crime rate. Nevertheless, they are no more dangerous than the likes of Sydney, London or New York in the Western world, so if you avoid seedy areas and use your common sense, you'll be fine.
Bicycle theft can be a problem. In big cities you may hear a stories of locals who have lost 3 bikes within one month, but in some other places, local people still casually park their bikes. Follow what local people do. If you see bikes are parked anywhere, just park yours or, better, tie it to a pole. In a place where everyone takes their bikes inside restaurants or internet cafes, it's a warning sign. Assume your expensive lock won't help at all. Professional thieves can break virtually any lock. In China, bike parking is common outside supermarkets or shopping centers, and usually charges RMB1 to 2 per day (usually until 8-10pm). If you have an electric bicycle or scooter, pay extra caution as the battery-packs may be targeted.
On long journey buses, there have been a handful of reports that groups of robbers have mugged all the passengers on board, especially on buses leaving from Shenzhen. Today, all passengers are required to take a mug shot before boarding. You're expected to follow the norm rather than discussing any privacy issues this may raise. Since this measure was introduced, reports of muggings have dropped drastically.
While it's true that China claims more lives in car accidents than any country in the world, that is mainly due to its extremely high population. Its mortality rate per head remains lower than that of many Western countries. But that said, in general, the driving in China can range from anywhere from nerve-rattling to outright reckless.
Traffic rules are usually practiced half-halfheartedly and rarely if ever enforced. Cars are allowed to turn right on a red light and do not stop for pedestrians, regardless of the walk signal. Bikers and electro-bikes tend to do as they like. Don't be fooled by following any signs and pedestrian paths; it is very common to see a motorcycle driving in a pedestrian lane. On occasion even cars will take to bike lanes and motor bikes to the sidewalk. Equally, pedestrians often walk in the roadways, especially at night, as they are better lit. Look in all directions when crossing! Expect or assume that anything will come at or behind you from any direction at any time.
See also driving in China.
Chinese people traditionally hold strong negative views against begging, so unsurprisingly, begging is not a major issue in most places. It's however never off the scene and particularly common just outside the main tourist attractions and in major transportation hubs.
Be aware of child beggars who could be victims of child trafficking. While it is becoming less common, you should avoid giving them any money. There have been several reports in local media about begging con artists who abduct children and pretend to be their mother to beg for money.
In China, local people usually only give money to those who have obviously lost the ability to earn money. Professional beggars have very clear deformities. If you feel like giving them some, bear in mind that many Chinese make only ￥30-70 a day doing hard labor jobs.
See begging for more detailed discussion.
Pollution is a serious problem in the world's factory. Beijing, by some accounts, is the most polluted city in the world. 16 out of the worst polluted cities in the world are in China. Talking about air pollution has become a part of life for both locals and expatriates. Even the countryside, depending on the province in question, is not immune.
Places at higher altitudes or plains like parts of Yunnan and Sichuan, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and outlying islands such as Hainan usually have good air quality. Visitors should be prepared to see smog, which can be quite heavy, in nearly all large cities, including those on the coast.
You will also hear a lot of noise. Construction and renovation are full-time activities. Chinese and long-time residents' ears are trained to filter and tolerate it.
Touristy parts of Beijing and Shanghai have become notorious for various scams. The most notorious is the "teahouse scam." Variants can be seen at bars and cafes as well. While some scamming teahouses have been raided by the police in recent years, there are still a considerable number of scam reports from travelers and even local Chinese.
Around Tiananmen Square and Wangfujing in Beijing and the Bund, People's Square, and Nanjing Road in Shanghai, a scam artist(s) may start a conversation in relatively fluent English. They sometimes help you bargain and show you around. Everything is fine until they invite you to go to a teahouse, cafe or pub, place the orders before you have a chance to speak (or the tea and drinks were already laid out) and leave you facing an extortionate bill. At times, the scammers work in teams to increase the amount which can be ordered. Never begin sampling tea or other items without first getting, examining and keeping the written menu. Be sure to do the ordering or else agree with your hosts on anything which will be purchased.
While not exactly a scam, tea house staff will bring snacks to your table and ask if you want something. The prices are not listed and neither are they mentioned when you take something. Note that the peanuts, sunflower seeds, raisins, etc, you take are not complementary. You will have to pay for them.
Another scam, especially around Wangfujing, is to claim to be "art students" with an exhibition. You will be taken to small shabby art shops and pressured to buy overpriced reproductions.
Even scam victims are not without recourse, however. For example, in 2007, a French tourist, while strolling the Bund, was invited to a teahouse by a group of women and ended up being charged ¥7,455 for the tea and snacks. When he refused to pay, the teahouse manager threatened him. According to the local news, the Frenchman called the police and the teahouse was raided.
In a case where you have obviously been scammed like this one, you should always call 110 and report the scam. In China, you have a right to ask for a "fa piao" (发票) - an official sales invoice issued by the taxation department. It is against the law for an owner to refuse to give it to you. For scams, they generally will refuse since it is an official receipt of their extortionate price. If you have already been a victim, go back to the shop with more tourists, ask for a refund and threaten to call the police. If you pay by a credit card, try to negotiate with your bank to get the money back.
Please note that while it is important to avoid being scammed, bear in mind that it is still common for English-speaking Chinese to genuinely want to start a conversation with you - even in touristy areas, show you around, and invite you for a drink and a meal. If you are paranoid about all invitations and interactions with the Chinese, it will ruin your travel experience.
When a stranger on the street invites you for tea or a drink, you should choose your own place, stating that you feel like eating or giving some other reason for your choice. If they are weirdly persistent at going to their "place" and make endless excuses to turn down your suggestions, use your common sense to tell if it's a scam.
Finally, high prices do not necessarily indicate a scam. In a teahouse or bar, ¥50-200 per cup or pot of tea (including hot water refills) and ¥15-60 per bottle of beer is not uncommon. Tea samplings may also charge high prices for each sample. Once again, to avoid being scammed, simply ask for and keep the menu. Although it is perfectly possible to pay RMB1000 or more for a single pot of tea in a high-end teahouse, run-of-the-mill teas should not be nearly this expensive. Such delicate tea would only be offered to tea gourmets, not a casual tea taster. Furthermore, it is considered socially offensive to take a new friend to spend so much money and expect them to pay the bill. If someone takes you to an expensive place and expects you to pay, it is most likely a scam.
Possession or trafficking of illicit drugs is a very serious offence in China, and possession of certain drugs may lead to capital punishment. Be particularly wary in the provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, as these provinces border Southeast Asia, which is a major drug producing region. Random searches of cars may occur in the countryside and if caught with drugs, do not expect any more lenient treatment from the police than a local would receive.
The Chinese government is known to try to control the media. Books, magazines and CDs can be confiscated if the content is considered inappropriate, although customs usually doesn't bother to take English books away if there are no explicit photos depicting politics of China. In general, use common sense.
Outside major cities, public washrooms vary from mildly unpleasant to utterly repulsive. In cities, it varies from place to place. High quality bathrooms can be found inside major tourist attractions (e.g., the Forbidden City), at international hotels, office buildings, and upper-class department stores. Washrooms in McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, or any of the coffee chains listed in the drink section are usually more or less clean. While those in common restaurants and hotels are barely acceptable, those in hotel rooms are generally very clean. Some public facilities are free, others cost from a few mao up to one or two kuai (¥1-2). Separate facilities are always provided for men (男 nán) and women (女 nǚ), but sometimes there are no doors on the front of the stalls.
The sit-down toilet familiar to Westerners is rare in China in public areas. Hotels will generally have them in rooms, but in places where Westerners are scarce, expect to find squat toilets more often than not. Many private homes in urban areas now have sit down toilets, and one major benefit from having a local host is that they have clean bathrooms. As a rule of thumb, a western establishment such as McDonald's will have a western toilet.
Carry your own tissue paper (卫生纸 wèishēngzhǐ, or 面纸 miànzhǐ) as it is rarely provided. You can sometimes buy it from the money-taker at a public toilet; you can also buy it in bars, restaurants and Internet cafes for ¥2. Put used paper in the bucket next to the toilet; do not flush it away as it may block the often poor plumbing systems.
The Chinese tend to distrust the cleanliness of bathtubs. In hotels with fixed bathtubs, disposable plastic bathtub liners may be provided.
Wash your hands often with soap, or better carry some disposable disinfectant tissues (found in almost any department or cosmetics store), especially after having used public computers; the main cause for getting a cold or flu is through touching your face, especially the nose, with infected hands.
Food & drink
There are no widely enforced health regulations in restaurants. Restaurants generally prepare hot food when you order. Even in the smallest of restaurants, hot dishes are usually freshly prepared, instead of reheated, and rarely cause health problems. Most of the major cities have chain fast food places, and the hygiene in them tends to be good. Use common sense when buying food from street vendors. This is especially true for meat or seafood products; they can be very unsafe, particularly during warm weather, as many vendors don't have refrigeration.
A rule of thumb regarding street food is to make certain it is cooked thoroughly while you are watching; also, visit stalls frequented by locals, and look for plastic-wrapped disposable chopsticks. Minor stomach discomfort may still be experienced from street food and restaurant food alike, but is said to pass as one becomes accustomed to the local food. Ginger is effective against nausea, though it does not kill bacteria.
Even in the cities, Chinese people do not drink water straight from the tap, and you should not either. All hotels (even boats!) provide either a thermos flask of boiled water in your room (refillable by your floor attendant) or - more commonly - a kettle you can use to do it yourself. Generally, tap water is safe to drink after boiling. Purified drinking water in bottles is available everywhere, and is generally quite cheap. ¥1 is normal for a small bottle, but it will be more in some places. Check that the seal on the cap is not broken. Beer, wine and soft drinks are also cheap and safe.
Drugs are generally available from a pharmacist without prescriptions. You can usually ask to see the instructions that came with the box. Western medicine is called xīyào (西药).
Ensure that needles used for injections or any other procedure that requires breaking the skin are new and unused - insist on seeing the packet being broken open. In some parts of China it is acceptable to re-use needles, albeit after sterilization.
For acupuncture, although the disposable needles are quite common in mainland China, you can provide your own needles if you prefer. The disposable type, called Wujun zhenjiu zhen (无菌針灸針, Sterilized acupuncture needles), usually cost ¥10-20 per 100 needles and are available in many pharmacy. Note that there should be minimal to no bleeding when the needle is inserted and removed if the acupuncturist is sufficiently skilled.
While Traditional Chinese Medicine is widespread in China, regulation tends to be lax and it is not unheard of for Chinese physicians to prescribe herbs which are actually detrimental to one's health. Do some research and ensure you have some trusted local friends to help you out if you wish to see a Chinese physician. Alternatively, head to Hong Kong or Taiwan instead, as the practice is better regulated there.
If making more than a short trip to China, it may be a good idea to get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and Typhoid as they can be spread via contaminated food.
China has only officially recognised the threat of an AIDS/HIV epidemic since 2001. According to the United Nations "China is currently experiencing one of the most rapidly expanding HIV epidemics in the world. Since 1998, the number of reported cases has increased by about 30% yearly. By 2010, China could have as many as 10 million infections and 260,000 orphans if without intervention"; Chinese President Hu Jintao has recently pledged to fight the spread of AIDS/HIV within China. Sex workers, clients of sex workers and injecting drug users are the most infected groups.
New diseases are sometimes a threat in China, particularly in its more densely populated parts. In 2003 China experienced a serious SARS outbreak; this is no longer considered a major threat. More recently, there have been cases of bird flu; avoid undercooked poultry or eggs. Partly as a result of the SARS experience, China's government has taken the global threat of Swine Flu very seriously. If you are running a fever or otherwise obviously ill, as of Summer 2009, it is possible you will face several days in quarantine upon entry into China. If you speak the local tongue or Standard Mandarin, DO NOT mention you are a foreigner.
A few basic guidelines and tips can help you avoid faux pas in China.
Gay and lesbian travelers
Homosexuality was de-criminalised in 1997 and taken off the state list of mental disorders in 2001. Chinese people tend to have mixed opinions when it comes to sexuality. Though there are no laws against homosexuality in China, films, websites, and television shows involving themes of homosexuality tend to be censored or banned. There is no obvious gay scene or community in China, and most Chinese are reluctant to discuss their sexuality in public, as it is generally considered to be a personal matter. In addition, homosexual marriages and unions are not recognised anywhere in the country. Nevertheless, while openly displaying your sexual orientation in public is still likely to draw stares and whispers, gay and lesbian visitors should generally not run into any major problems, and unprovoked violence against homosexual couples is almost unheard of.
Electricity is 220 volts/50 hz. Two-pin European and North American, as well as three-pin Australian style plugs are generally supported. However, be careful to read the voltage information on your devices to ensure they accept 220V (twice the 110V used in many countries) before plugging them in — you may cause burnout and permanent damage to some devices such as hairdryers and razors. Universal extension cords that can handle a wide variety of plug shapes (including British) are widely used.
Names of long streets are often given with a middle word indicating the part of the street. For example, White Horse Street or Baima Lu (白马路) may be split up into Baima Beilu (白马北路) for the northern (北 běi) end, Baima Nanlu (白马南路) for the southern (南 nán) end and Baima Zhonglu (白马中路) for the central (中 zhōng) part. For another street, dōng (东 "east") and xī (西 "west") might be used.
In some cities, however, these names do not indicate parts of one street. In Xiamen, Hubin Bei Lu and Hubin Nan Lu (Lakeside Road North and Lakeside Road South) are parallel, running East-West on the North and South sides of the lake. In Nanjing, Zhongshan Lu, Zhongshan Bei Lu and Zhongshan Dong Lu are three separate major roads.
Laundry services may be expensive or hard to locate. In upper end hotels it will cost ¥10-30 to wash each article of clothing. Cheap hotels in some areas do not have laundry services, though in other areas such as along the Yunnan tourist trail the service is common and often free. In most areas, with the exception of the downtown areas in big cities, you can find small shops that do laundry. The sign to look for on the front door is 洗衣 (xǐyī), or spot the clothes hanging from the ceiling. The cost is roughly ¥2-5/item. In even the smallest of cities dry cleaning (干洗 gānxǐ）outlets are widely distributed and may be able to wash clothes. But in some areas you're going to be stuck washing clothes by hand, which is time consuming and tiresome. It may take days for a pair of jeans to dry, which is especially difficult if you're in a dorm room with no hangers, so fast drying fabrics, such as polyester or silk, are a good idea. If you do find a hotel that does laundry, usually they will put all your clothes into the wash together or even with other items from the hotel, so lighter colours are best washed by hand.
Smoking is banned in public buildings and public transport except for restaurants and bars (including KTVs) - many of which are outright smoke dens, although many multinational restaurant chains do ban smoking. These bans are enforced across the country. Generally, smoking laws are most strict in Shanghai and Beijing, whilst they are more lightly enforced elsewhere. Many places (particularly train stations, hospitals, office buildings and airports) will have smoking rooms, and some long-distance trains may have smoking areas at the end of each car. Facilities for non-smokers are often poor; most restaurants, bars and hotels will not have non-smoking areas apart from top-end establishments although many modern buildings have a smoke extraction systems which suck cigarette smoke out of the room through a ceiling vent - meaning that the smoke doesn't hang in the air. The Chinese phrase for 'May I smoke?' is 'kěyǐ chōuyān ma?' and 'No Smoking!' is 'bù kěyǐ chōuyān!'.
China has more Internet users than any other country in the world. Internet cafes (网吧 wǎngbā) are abundant throughout China. Many of them are designed mainly for gaming though and are not useful places to do business. It is cheap (¥1-6 an hour) to use a computer, albeit one with Chinese software. Internet cafes are supposed to require users to show identification (passport), but enforcement varies by region. Traffic may be monitored.
It may be difficult to find an Internet-cafe with any service beyond simple access. If you need to use a printer or burn a CD, expect to search for the service, paying a fairly high price when and if you find it. The exception is tourist areas such as Yangshuo where these services are fairly readily available, though still at a price. In general: printing, photocopy, fax and other business services can be provided by small shops in every town. Look for the characters 复印 (fùyìn) meaning "photocopy" and you will likely be able to get the service you need. Printing costs about ¥2 per page and photocopies are ¥0.5 per page. These shops may or may not have Internet access so bring your materials on a flash drive.
Some hotels provide access from the rooms that may or may not be free; others may provide a wireless service or a few desktops in the lounge area.
Also, quite a few cafes provide free wireless Internet service — for example, Costa Coffee, Italy cafe, Feeling4Seasons Cafe in Chengdu, Padan cafe in Shanghai, etc. Some cafes, especially in tourist areas such as Yangshuo, even provide a machine for customer use. International chain MacDonalds does NOT provide free wifi in China, Starbucks does.
A word of caution: as elsewhere, public computers and the Internet are not secure. Assume that anything you type is not private. Do not send extremely sensitive data such as banking passwords from an Internet cafe. It may be better to purchase a mobile data card for use with your own computer instead (these generally cost ¥400 and data plans run ¥10-¥200 per month depending on your usage). Wi-Fi is the least secure of all.
If you are connecting to the Internet with your own computer, be aware that some places (especially college campuses) require you to use Microsoft Internet Explorer and to install dedicated software on your system and/or accept certificates to use their services. For Macintosh or Linux users, look into using a browser that can pass itself off as Microsoft Internet Explorer, such as Opera.
E-mail access through an Internet based service is very helpful to have. Free examples include Yahoo, Google, Hotmail, etc. But, keep in mind that almost all of these have co-operated with, and given personal information to, the authorities. As elsewhere, if your email provides evidence of a crime, do not be surprised if you get caught.
Internet censorship is widely practiced in China, but does not apply to Hong Kong and Macau. In mainland China, pornographic and political sites are routinely blocked, and many other sites with a broad range of content are also subject to censorship of varying degrees.
As of May 2010, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Angelfire, LiveJournal, Xanga, Blogspot, and Picasaweb are all banned. Wordpress and DropBox are still functional.
Google, Wikitravel, Wikipedia, and Flickr are available, although webpages that contain sensitive keywords will almost certainly trigger the censorship system, called the Golden Shield (金盾) (or euphemistically, the Great Firewall or GFW ) and result in the message "your connection has been reset". The same sometimes goes for international news sites such as BBC, CNN, Reuters and The Economist. However as of March 2011 all of these sites are freely accessible.
Censorship is often tightened during certain sensitive periods, such as the annual meeting of China's parliament in March, the CCP congress every fourth October, and anniversaries such as the National Day in October and the Tiananmen massacre in June.
The simplest way to access blocked sites is to use a proxy server but even then, most sensitive political issues will be blocked as the contents are not encrypted. Other ways to bypass censorship include downloadable software such as Freegate, Tor  and Psiphon . These introduce certain levels of encryption, and therefore so-called sensitive content can be seen. These should be downloaded before entering China as access to their official websites are blocked. A serious internet user may wish to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) which usually provides users with more stable and reliable access to banned websites for a fee starting from a few dollars per month.
It is a legal offence to upload and submit any materials seen as subversive. However, regular internet users, especially English-speakers without political backgrounds, are usually free to write and send anything without a problem.
Certain companies like Yahoo have a track record of helping the government crackdown on political dissidents. In 2005, Shi Tao, a journalist in China, was imprisoned for ten years for releasing a document of the Communist Party to an overseas Chinese democracy site after Yahoo! China provided his personal Yahoo emails to the Chinese government.
China Daily is an English language newspaper available in hotels, supermarkets, and Beijing newstands.
There are also a few English magazines such as China Today and 21st Century.
There is no longer any problem getting most foreign news in China.
The Chinese Post Office is generally reliable and sometimes quick. There are a few things you need to adapt to:
International fax (传真 Chuánzhēn) services are available in most large hotels for a fee of a dozen renminbi or more. Inexpensive faxes within China can be made in the ubiquitous photocopy outlets that have the Chinese characters for fax written on the front door.
Telephone service is more of a mixed bag. Calling outside the country is often difficult, and usually impossible without a calling card, which can often only be bought locally. The good news is these cards are fairly cheap, and the connection is surprisingly clear, uninterrupted and delay-free. Look for IP Telephone Cards, which typically have a value of ¥100 but sometimes can be had for as little as ¥25. The cards have printed Chinese instructions, but after dialing the number listed on the card English-spoken instructions are available. As a general indication of price, a call from China to Europe lasts around 22 minutes with a ¥100 card. Calls to the U.S. and Canada are advertised to be another 20% cheaper.
If your line allows for international direct dialling (IDD), the prefix for international calls in China is 00. So if you wish to make an overseas call, you would dial 00-(country code)-(area code)-(tel number). Note that calls from the mainland to Hong Kong and Macau require international dialling. IDDs could be very expensive. Ask the rate before calling.
Cellular phones are very widespread and offer very good service in China. They play an essential role in daily life for most Chinese and for nearly all expatriates in China. The typical expat spends a few hundred yuan buying a phone, then about ¥100 a month for the service; tourists might use it less.
If you already have a GSM 900/1800 cellphone, you can roam onto Chinese networks, but calls will be very expensive (¥12-35/minute is typical). UMTS/HSDPA roaming is not available with every carrier, but you can buy a local SIM card for 3G data access (see below). Chinese CDMA networks require R-UIM (SIM card equivalent), so American CDMA phones will not work off the bat, but it's possible to program a new Chinese prepaid number into one at some shops for a fee of ¥100-400 — just don't forget to restore your old number before you leave.
For a short visit, consider renting a Chinese cell phone from a company such as Pandaphone . Rates are around ¥7 a day. The company is based in the US but has staff in China. Toll free numbers are 866-574-2050 in the U.S. or 400-820-0293 in China. The phone can be delivered to your hotel in China prior to your arrival and dropped off there at the end of your trip, or shipped to you in the US. When you rent the phone, they will offer you an access code for calling to your country, which is cheaper than buying a SIM card from a local vendor and dialing directly.
If you're staying for more than a few days, it will usually be cheaper to buy a prepaid Chinese SIM card; this gives you a Chinese phone number with a certain amount of money preloaded. Chinese tend to avoid phone numbers with the bad-luck digit '4', and vendors will often be happy to offload these "unsellable" SIM-cards to foreigners at a discount. If you need a phone as well, prices start around ¥100/200 used/new. Chinese phones, unlike those sold in many Western countries, are never "locked" and will work with any SIM card you put in them.
China's two big operators are China Mobile  and China Unicom . Most SIMs sold by the two work nationwide, with Unicom allowing Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan usage as well. There is usually a surcharge of about 1RMB/min when roaming outside the province you bought the SIM, and there are some cards that work only in a single province, so check when buying. You may also need to manually activate national roaming, which may incur a small daily surcharge as long as it's active. Avoid the cheaper wireless phones called PHS (小灵通 xiǎolíngtōng, see "Area Codes"); they only work in one city. PHS are excluded from networks now. For China mobile, you can get your credits balances by calling 1008611 and get a sms with balance.
International calls have to be enabled separately by applying for China Mobile's "12593" or China Unicom's "17911" service; China Mobile requires a 1000 RMB ($151 USD) deposit to enable this service, while China Unicom works by default. Once the service is enabled, punch in the code before the number you want to call and you're set. At time of writing, China Mobile is the cheaper of the two with calls to North America/Asia around ¥0.4/min. You can also use prepaid cards for international calling; just dial the number on the card as with a regular landline phone, and the charges will go to the prepaid calling card. However, if you are going to stay on the mainland for a decent period of time, go to a China Mobile location and buy a sim card (50RMB) and enable international calling. Usually there will be an English speaker, and let him/her know what you want. Ask for a "special" dialing code, and for a few RMB extra, this will be provided to you. Enter the code, the country code, then the local number and you will be talking cheaply in no time. Don't be fooled by cellphone shops with the China Mobile signage, be sure to go a to a location. The employee's will wear a blue uniform and there will be counter services. As of February 2012, no deposit is required for China Mobile to enable international calling.
To recharge, visit the neighborhood office of your mobile service provider, give the staff your number and pay in cash to recharge your account. Alternately, many shops will sell you a charge card, which has a number and password that must be used to call the telephone company to recharge the money in your account. You will be calling a computer and the default language is Chinese, which can be changed to English if you understand the Chinese. Charge cards are sold in denominations of ¥30, 50 and 100. (If you're on Unicom, you have a local bank account, and you understand Chinese, you can recharge by bank transfer online; this is cheaper and sometimes there will be special offers for recharging this way)
For mobile data addicts, the "Wo" 3G USIM from China Unicom starts at ¥96/month for 240 nationwide minutes, 10 videocall minutes, 300MB data, and some free multimedia/text content (ringtones, mobile news reports, wallpapers, music videos, etc). Incoming transmissions (video/voice call, text) from anywhere is completely free. For short-term use there is no longer a basic service fee, with calls around ¥1/3 min, text messages ¥0.10 each and data ¥10/MB (overage for the ¥96 plan is a more reasonable ¥0.15/min, ¥0.10 per text ¥0.3/MB). The student plan (¥66 for 50 minutes, 240 texts, everything else same as ¥96 plan) is also an option. China Mobile offers their "Easy Own" prepaid card, the offer also includes the option of grps/edge-packs: ¥100 or ¥200 for 1 or 2 GB of data a month. It's possible to de-/activate this service with a short message to the number 10086. There is also a 5 G cap (maximum charge per month) of ¥500.
See also cell phones.
The country dialing code for mainland China is 86. Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan have their own separate country dialing codes which are 852 for Hong Kong, 853 for Macau and 886 for Taiwan.
The following emergency telephone numbers work in all areas of China; calling them from a cell phone is free.