How to go to China ?

 

You will find here most of the practical information you need to prepare your trip :

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Getting there and away ?

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Visa ?

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When to visit ?

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How long ?

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Money ?

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How much ?

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Health ?

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Danger & annoyances ?

 

Getting there & away ?

Air :

Most of the people will arrive in China via Beijing or Hong Kong. Shanghai is also a possibility from western countries. More cities can off course be reached from Asian countries...

Of all the above, Hong Kong is probably the best choice as you can get the cheapest and longest visa there, it is not too far from the favorite backpackers' areas, it is itself very interesting and it will give you a transitional period before the real adventure... Also, plane tickets tend to be slightly cheaper to HK than to Beijing. 

Another good idea would be to arrive in one point and depart from another. Check with your itinerary and travel agent.


Land :

The following countries/areas offer land crossing with China :

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Hong Kong, obviously >> see How to go HK for all the options

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Macau, why not indeed ?

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Tibet but is this not now a part of China ? Note that it is much more expensive & tricky to go to Tibet from China than to China from Tibet. 

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Pakistan via the Karakoram Highway to Kashgar (Xinjiang Province)

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Kyrgyzstan via Turugart Pass to Kashgar (Xinjiang Province) but apparently tricky & expensive

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Kazakhstan, from Almaty to Urumqi or Yining (Xinjiang Province)

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Laos, from Boten to Mengla (Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province)

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Nepal via Tibet 

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Vietnam, at three different points : Friendship Pass (Nanning), Lao Cai (Kunming) or Mong Cai (Dongxing)
From Vietnam, your cheapest bet is to buy a night local train ticket to Dong Dang, hire a motorbike for the few kilometers up to the Friendship Pass (Huu Nghi Quan in Vietnamese, Youyi Guan in Chinese), wait eventually for the border to open (7am to 4pm), cross it, set your watch to Chinese time (1 hour later), resist the Chinese taxi who will insist there is no bus available, walk down to the main road (a few hundred meters), wait at the road for a bus to Pinxiang (10km away) and from there change for a frequent bus to Nanning. Once in Nanning, you can continue to Guilin by sleeper bus...
An easier but much more expensive option would be to take the twice weekly (Tuesday & Friday) international train from Hanoi (departure 14:00) to Beijing (arrival 2 days later at 17:18) up to Pinxiang (00:56, inconvenient time !), Nanning (8:43) or Guilin (17:18). The other way, from China to Vietnam, see Trains Guangxi
For Kunming, you should board a night local train to Lao Cai, cross the border and then take a Chinese train/bus to Kunming at Hekou. There is also a twice weekly (Friday & Sunday) international train from Hanoi (departure 21:30) to Kunming North Station (arrival 7:25 two days later) via Lao Cai (6:30) and Hekou (10:30) but it is much more expensive. The other way, from China to Vietnam, see Trains Yunnan

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And, last but not least, Mongolia or Russia with the mythic Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Siberian...


Sea : 

If you are looking for originality, you could arrive to China by boat from Japan, South Korea & Vietnam or, far more common, from HK (see How to go HK for some boat options)

 

Visa ?

Tourist visa : "L" visa (luxing, travel)

The best place to get a Chinese visa is definitively Hong Kong (you do not need a visa to visit the former colony, now defined as HK Special Administrative Region) : the basic 3 months' visa obtained in 2 working days cost around HK$130 in selected agencies. In western countries, a one to three months visa should cost twice as much and requires more paperwork...

The cheapest place to get a tourist visa in Hong Kong is at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC in Wanchai (5/F, Low Block, China Ressources Bldg, 26 Harbour Road, Tel : 2585 1794, open 9-12:30 & 14-17:00 Mond to Frid and 9-12:30 Sat) : HK$100 for next day service.  For this price you should however get a one month visa only.

Note : You can also get a three months tourist visa straight at Gongbei border in Macau for HK$140 plus one ID photo (price increase since China Travel Service took over). If you take the ferry to Zhuhai port from Hong Kong, the visa fee is still 100 HK dollars. However, British citizens can not get visa upon arrival at the border. (info submitted by Hong Xiu Ping, China)

On the form, you will be asked for your occupation : "migrant", "traveler", "journalist" or "human right activist" are wrong answers. "Student" or any kind of "Manager" are perfect. Nobody should check anyway.

Visas are usually activated from the date you enter China but there are also some starting from the date of issue. The longer the validity, the higher the risk. Ask your agency if you are concerned by the problem.

A tourist visa is usually extendable up to a total of 4 months : this means that your 3 months visa is extendable only one time while a one month visa should be extendable 3 times. At least in theory. In practice, the third extension could be problematic in some places while accepted in others. As a rule, it is preferable to ask for an extension in small to medium sized cities (the worst place to ask is Beijing). A one month extension should cost around Rmb110. 

After 4 months, you must leave. Some people have managed to get another month extension but do not count on it. Some students in Shaolin have managed to stay more than a year with a 3 months tourist visa but it involved taking a costly "back door"...

Business visa : "F" visa (fangwen)

In theory, you must justify a business activity in China to be allowed this 6 months visa. Some agencies in HK therefore ask for a business card and an introducing letter. But other agencies with good connections ask for nothing but the two usual ID photos (see our addresses in HK)

This multiple-entry visa however is not cheap at around HK$500 and it is not extendable ! If you plan to leave China half a dozen times over 6 months or need a complete 6 months' stay, why not ? But otherwise, the tourist visa will be a cheaper option...

Visas variations :

Tourist or business ? Single, double or multiple entry ? One, two, three or six months ? Half, one or two working days to get it ? Prices in HK vary according to those factors. Make sure you order what you need and check your receipt ! Particularly avoid one kind of Business multiple-entry visas which allow you to stay only 30 days at a time and is still not extendable... 


Group Visa : 

This one is to be avoided as you will be stuck with a group and unable to arrive earlier or leave after everyone else. The only advantage is that you do not need to provide your passport to the Embassy as there is no stamp. 


Overstaying ? 

If you overstay your visa, the penalty can be a warning, a fine of Y500 per day with a total sum of fine not exceeding Y5000 or 3 to 10 days of detention (Article 42) so this is definitively a very bad idea...

    The Law on the Entry and Exit of Aliens

Passplanet's update (April 08):
Tensions between China and the Western countries due to Tibet have resulted in more delays and paperworks in obtaining the visa. Some visas are no longer available (multiple entries) while the basic tourist visa may nowadays require an hotel reservation. As usual, the best way to get a visa is via Hong Kong, as the numerous travel agencies have probably found a way to keep the business running...

Backpacker's Tips : John Chuk, USA (Nov 99)
« You may obtain a 5 days visiting Visa to China right at the border of HK and China (Lo Wu). It cost HK$100. All you need to fill up a simple form, show them your valid passport and pay the fee. You don't need a photo for that. You'll need to go up the stair case to apply for that Visa after you passed through the HK immmigrations.
Technically speaking, this is only good for Shenzhen (Special Economic Zone).  The real true, they never check on your way up to Guangzhou or etc. Very seldom, one police (mostly man) may check one couch on one South bound train randomly. However, they'll only check the Chinese ID's. They'll never check any foreign passports since they don't know how to talk to you as well as how to read your passport. They mostly care about the Chinese coming from the North to jam up the Special Economic Zone. I've done that at least 10 times in the past 2 years. I've bumped into one of those inspectors once. They didn't look at my passport even so I am Chinese with US passport.
»

Important Note : British people can not benefit from the above border's visa and have to apply in advance in HK.

 

When to visit ?

From the weather point of view :

China is big and so are the climatic differences between the areas. A line could be drawn at the level of Shanghai. On it and above it, it is compulsory for offices to be equipped with heaters : indeed, winters are cold, with an average in January of 3.5C for Shanghai, -4.6C for Beijing or -19.4C for Harbin. 

South of the line, it is warmer all year round but, with the exception of the tropical Island of Hainan or the southern part of Yunnan, it can also be cold for a couple of days or months.

Heat and humidity during summer is another problem that affect nearly all China. Central China is particularly affected, with the cities of Chongqing, Wuhan and Nanjing, dubbed "the 3 furnaces", receiving first prize.  

Summer also brings heavy rains and flooding now seem to be a recurrent event every year. Those can be devastating. In addition, the South-East can also be hit by typhoon from July to early October. 

Globally, the best time to thoroughly visit China is therefore autumn : not too hot, not too humid, not too cold. Spring would be the second best. If you have no choice but to follow the flow of tourists during summer, do not worry however : statistically, most of them survive the experience and it is still possible to find fresh air in the mountainous areas...

See each Province for indications about temperatures & rains, when available.

    Weather in China


From the cultural point of view :

Traveling in China during any cultural event or local holidays is a bad idea as the already full trains are even more packed and tickets even more tricky to get. The worst time of all is the Chinese New Year also known as Spring Festival, on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar (a new date every year). 

Other officials holidays, which do not follow the lunar calendars, are : New Year's Day (January 1st), International Women's Day (March 8th, women only), Labour Day (May 1st), Youth Day (May 4th), International Children Day (June 1st), Birthday of the Chinese Communist Party (July 1st), Anniversary of the founding of the PLA (August 1st) and National Day (October 1st-2nd).

Both May 1st and October 1st have now extended to a full week for numerous Chinese, making it other bad times to travel around.

Locally, cultural events brings color and originality but also hordes of Chinese tourist and inflated prices. Interesting, maybe. Relaxing and cheap, certainly not ! 

The major Festivals or Events are :

Festival / Events Lunar Date Year 2000 Where ?
Ice Lantern Festival na Jan 5 - Feb 15 Harbin
Lantern Festival 15th day of 1st moon February 19 Everywhere
Guanyin's Birthday 19th day of 2nd moon March 24 Taoist Temples
Tomb Sweep Day na April 4 or 5 Cemeteries
Water Splashing F. na Mid-April Xishuangbanna
Third Moon Fair 15th-21th day 3rd moon April 19-25 Dali
Mazu's Birthday 23rd day of 3rd moon April 27 Taoist T. in coastal areas
Dragon Boat F. 5th day of 5th moon June 6 Big cities with water
Ghost Month 7th moon for 15 days July 31 Everywhere
Naadam Fair na Mid-August Inner Mongolia
Mid-Autumn "Moon F." 15th day of 8th moon September 12 Everywhere
Birthday of Confucius na September 28 Confucius Temples

 

How long ?

As long as possible off course !

From a practical point of view, the basic 4 months tourists allowance is actually enough for a good tour of all the interesting areas, as demonstrated by our itineraries. Most travelers will be happy to quit China after this period anyway as traveling there is slightly exhausting...

Less than 4 months will require to make a selection, take the plane or travel real fast... 

But do not despair : it is still possible to cross the country in around two months and as little as three weeks is enough for an interesting circuit in one area (check our itinerary in South-West China).  Whatever your time, you should find an attractive solution...

 

Money ?

The value of the Renminbi ("People's Money", RMB) is fixed to the US$ by the Government, not the market. The unit of RMB is called the yuan (Y), itself divided into 10 jiao, themselves divided into 10 fen. See the banknotes

At the moment, the official rate to the US$ is Y8.07 for cash and Y8.27 for traveler cheque. Hong Kong's currency is tied to the US$ at HK$7.80. 

There is a 0.75% change's commission. Changing money in China is done exclusively by the Bank of China, the big Hotels and in some department stores. The rate is the same. In some remote places, the local Bank of China can change only cash. In other places, only one branch of the bank can change money. US$ is by far the easiest currency to change.

Avoid changing at the black market. The risks of rip-offs, short-changing or getting counterfeit currencies are high. What is more, this is illegal. Counterfeiting is a problem in China and everybody will check in the light the Y50 and Y100 bank notes. So should you. You should also refuse bills in bad conditions as they might be only exchangeable at the Bank of China. This is also true with foreign currency : they should be in good condition to be accepted anywhere. 

Credit Cards can be used at some tourists hotels, department stores, at the Bank of China to get a cash advance (against a commission) or in a few scattered ATM machines in the major cities. As a general rule, it is best not to rely on plastic in China.

  Currency Converter

 

How much ?

China might be the most expensive developing country in Asia but it remains quite reasonable by western standards. 
There is however a huge price difference for accommodations between localities : you can find a comfortable room for Y20 just north of Guilin but the same kind of room will set you back Y150 on the east coast or the big cities. A bed in a dormitory also varies from Y5 to around Y80 according to the development of the area.  

A good dinner in a basic "restaurant" should cost around Y10-Y15, twice as much in a better looking one. Good snacks (for lunch ?) can be found for as little as Y2. Beers are very cheap at Y2 to Y4 for a 770ml local bottle. 

Transportation is not cheap but travel distances aren't short either... Chinese and foreigners now pay the same prices for trains, bus or plane, with however a few annoying local exceptions. See our transportations charts for more details. 

Entrance fees to the sights (including the natural scenery !) are relatively expensive for the country. If foreigners now pay the same price as the Chinese, it is because most of the prices have been increased to the former foreigners' levels. Only the rich Chinese can visit their country... With a few exceptions, major attractions like the Terracotta warriors in Xi'an cost around Y60.  It cost the same to access a famous mountain or a natural area. Temples are cheaper at around Y10. Public Parks cost only a few yuan but famous ones like those in Suzhou are more expensive. As a rule, the most famous the place, the more expensive the ticket (one exception, the Forbidden City cost only Y30)... 

On average, if you do not travel too fast, avoid the plane & a long stay on the east coast, and eat in small restaurants count on US$10-15 all inclusive a day if you stay in dormitory or US$15-20 if you stay in a private room.

See Passplanet's Cost Table for more details.

 

Health ?

China is a relatively healthy country to travel in and the Chinese medicine (including drugs) is efficient to cure all the small basic sickness that can affect travelers. Even so no vaccination is required, it is a good idea to be protected against Hepatitis A & B. Also, make sure you are up-to-date with the essential vaccinations : Diphtheria & Tetanus, Polio and Typhoid.

Cases of Japanese encephalitis have been reported so you might consider vaccination if staying in rural areas for a long period. Rabies is also a risk in rural China & Tibet.

Food is usually no problem as eating is a nation-wide pastime and obsession. Still, exert a minimum of caution and avoid empty restaurants. The appearance of the kitchen should not be a concern however as the food should be thoroughly purified by the cooking. Just make sure everything is properly cooked.

Tap water (fluid or iced) is to be avoided. Indeed, less than 20% of all municipal waste receive any treatment before being dumped into the waters. Consequently, about 80% of the Chinese drink partially polluted water. No restaurant will dare serve you cold water but it is not sure that they wash the vegetables with tea. If you are health conscious, avoid uncooked greenery or salads and stick to mineral water or beers.

You should also avoid swimming in fresh water, except if well-chlorinated, to avoid infection with schistosomiasis. 

The HIV epidemic is starting to reach dramatic levels. Specialists estimate that more than 600,000 people are affected today. The number could reach 10 millions by 2010 if nothing is done. Historically, 75% of all cases were registered in Yunnan Province, bordering Myanmar and Laos. Drug would indeed be responsible of nearly 70% of all the cases. However, distributions of contaminated plasma have spread the decease and, in some villages in Henan (central China), 65% of the inhabitants have been tested positive !  Having sex in China has never been so risky... [update in Sept 01]

    Latest Health Recommendations

 

Danger & Annoyances ?

A good news and a bad news. The good one : there is, as a whole, little danger traveling in China. Crime is rising but there is still statistically little violence toward westerners (this being said, agressions do happen so be discreet with your luxury items & avoid spending too much time alone in small alleys of big cities at night) . The roads aren't safe (officially, 73655 deaths in 1996 with 788 accidents per day) and there is no sign of improvement but it is not specific to China...  As in any other developing countries, be however very careful with strangers approaching you under the pretext of "practicing English" or just "make friend". Some will then suggest to go to a nice bar and will start ordering food, drinks and maybe even girls. Be ready for a shock when the bill will arrive : a few thousands yuan is not unusual...  

The bad news : there are plenty of potential annoyances. Most are due to the very natural way of life of the Chinese people : if you are obsessed by the western style of politeness, avoid China or stick to a tour... Below are some of the things you might find irritating :

The spitting Chinese : A very audible problem that affect nearly the whole population, male or female, and spreads the "China Syndrome" (chronic bronchitis) on the pavement. Developed cities are now less affected, thanks to the campaigns of the government, ashamed of the image of their countrymen in the eyes of western diplomats. 

The littering Chinese : As for the above, educational campaigns are regularly launched to educate Chinese to go to the bin. So far, cleaners still do not risk to loose their jobs...

The greeting Chinese : "Laowai !" This is not so much a nuisance considering that "Laowai" can be translated as "friend from outside" (Lao means "old" but is also a polite form of address). It becomes one when you hear it every 10 meters... If you are fed up with it, you can reply by "xiaonei !" ("young from inside") if you address a young Chinese or "laonei !" ("old from inside") if you are dealing with an older one. Those invented words are however not to use if you want to travel discretely as they seem quite popular with the sense of humor of the locals.

The staring Chinese : a variation of the above, especially in the remote un-touristy areas

The touching Chinese : As if staring was not enough, some Chinese are also physically attracted toward western's hairs. This is natural : they have only seen that kind of things on monkeys at the zoo...

The singing Chinese : Japan eventually managed to dominate China (and the rest of Asia as well). The weapon is called Karaoke ("empty voice") and it has now become an integrate part of Chinese life. Every household must possess one and a Chinese will only be considered successful if he can afford to spend the evening in a Karaoke parlor. Once with a micro in hand, the objective is to sing as bad and loud as possible. Most of them succeed. 

The shouting Chinese : When they do not sing, quite a few Chinese like to shout.

The smoking Chinese : This is part of the deal : if you are born a male Chinese, then you smoke. 300 millions follow the rule (this is more than in all the developed world) and help to the development of their country by providing their Government with US$10 billion of tax revenues every year. But this might backfire as it is expected that quite a few millions will eventually develop cancer. Timid educational campaigns have therefore started and it is now forbidden to smoke in airplanes, train and some "luxury" buses. 

The unqueeing and pushing Chinese : It has been said that one of the greatest achievement of the English in Hong Kong was to teach the Chinese how to queue... China is not HK and a queue here is an invitation to gain face by overtaking it. The fact that you are a foreigner adds to the pleasure : once arrived at the ticket desk, you will almost always have to fight back the hands trying to get a ticket before you. If you do not speak Chinese, there is little you can do except pushing them away and giving them an angry look. Getting on the bus is another perilous exercise : even if there will be enough seat for everybody, racing toward them by crushing the competitors is the rule of the game.


Other annoyances are more political or structural :

The guesthouses/hotels rules : As a foreigner, you are invited to stay in selected places only. Those are not always the cheapest but this is apparently the only method found by the government to help prostitutes to locate the rich westerners in the cities. The fact that you are not given the key of your room and that there is always a staff staring at each floor means that only professionals' ladies well connected to the Hotel will be allowed in... maybe just before the police !

Some ridiculous entrance prices : To pay 1/10th of the average Chinese salary to visit a monument is acceptable only by the need and cost of the maintenance & restoration works. To pay the same to go up a mountain, access a village or see a waterfall full of rubbish is slightly more annoying...

The trains' jungle : Buying a ticket at the train station is a very possible task but usually a stressful one, due to the huge competition involving the locals. Getting only a hard seat when you asked for a sleeper sometimes happen. See our Travel Tips on how to behave in the train stations.  

The Chinese Political system : At Passplanet, we try not to deal with politics. Allow me one word only : I believe that a stable political system is essential to the development of China and I realized on the spot that most of the Chinese people support their Government in its huge task of modernization. Still, I understand that some Westerners, in particular those who have never been to China or watch too much TV, might be less supportive...

The sanitary & toilets : The atmosphere of the Chinese toilets is one of those things that permanently affect the subconscious...

The language barrier : Obviously, it is easier to travel in China if you speak a bit of Chinese. But do not worry if you do not have three years to learn : most of the visitors uses English only and they all survived !

The sights of beggars : An increasing annoyance in the cities due to the rising unemployment and the "two-speed economy". 

The traffic in the cities : More people trying to make fortune in the cities. More people owning a car. Patience is really becoming a Chinese virtue...

The pollution : As discussed previously, it is better to visit China than to live or work there... The smog & air pollution is particularly irritating in the big cities in the summer months but winter is bad as well, thanks to the coal heating. A yellow haze is sadly common...


Notwithstanding the above, let's remind you that 97% of the backpackers we asked said they liked China, that 96% would happily come back and that 94% would recommend it around ! See Why Go for more details...

 


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