8 Pearls of Wisdom Before Travelling to China & Hong Kong


Just freshly returned from an eye-opening and eventful excursion through the heart of Hong Kong and mainland China, its time to share the pearls of wisdom with the ardent followers of our voyage stories here. During this maiden voyage through the very heart of mainland China, we took a total of 11 flights over these 16 day long excursion, covering 6 locations – Hong Kong, Zhangjiajie, Feng Huang, Xi’an, Zhangye and Beijing.

Before we embark on the location specific stories to share in detailed blogposts, we thought to share with you the general information first and foremost believing that this information will help you the most before and during the trip you may be planning to the Chinese wonderland. This general post is categorized in 8 topics which we think you need to consider for your voyage planning to China.

Visa

Is Hong Kong part of China? What is Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region)? If I apply for Chinese visa, do we need Hong Kong visa? Before you make any assumptions yourselves, make sure you confirm whether the passport you hold requires visa for both Hong Kong and mainland China or not. You may find this website useful to know more about the requirements and eligibility for Hong Kong visa and check out the website of the Chinese embassy in your own country for your country specific information.

Image courtesy: Google Image search

Note that some nationalities don’t require visa for visiting Hong Kong, some are granted visa on arrival and some nationalities do require visa which can take up to 6 weeks for processing. So confirm from the Immigration website which category you belong and plan accordingly. We recommend in this case to get your visa first before buying air tickets to be on safe side.

Even in airports in mainland China, we saw display boards treating flights to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as international flights. Note that the visas look the same in your passport, with the Hong Kong visa saying in ‘bold’ that it is for Hong Kong. Only the Chinese know better what is going on with their visas and these rules for Hong Kong and mainland which can be very confusing for foreigners.

Internal travels

China is the 4th largest country in the world in terms of land size. So it goes without saying that if you intend to travel to multiple cities and rural locations inside mainland China, you have to rely on domestic flights. You can certainly take the bullet train if you are only city hopping say between Beijing and Shanghai. But if you are an expert like us and want to reach out to the last mile, it is best you book your air tickets in advance via ctrip.com.

Our main objective for the trip was to save time, so we opted for air routes. However it is true that for the days we were travelling say from Hong Kong to Zhangjiajie via Shanghai or from Xi’an to Zhangye via Lanzhou, we had to dedicate the entire day for check-ins, airport security, transfer flights etc. If you have ample of amount of time in hand or your target destinations are a handful, you can ofcourse opt for the train journey which may be cheaper but certainly longer.

We had bought the return flights to Hong Kong from London and from Beijing back to London via a travel agency based in London. However for the domestic flights, we got the tickets via ctrip.com which was not straight forward actually. Even after completing a purchase online (ticket prices varied from £90 to £200 per person depending on the route), many times the payment was declined and we received a call from the ctrip.com customer service agents. They wanted to verify why we were making a purchase via their website using non-Chinese credit cards. They wanted to know what we do in the UK too! We had to even call our banks and credit card companies to find out if there was something wrong in their end or not. After the ctrip.com agents confirmed that it was OK to clear the purchase, we were able to get the reservations confirmed. So be prepared even for buying tickets from ctrip.com using a non-Chinese card.

Inside city travels

Hong Kong MTR Metro Octopus card

Hong Kong is well connected via its MTR metro system, ticket prices are cheap and trains are clean and efficient. Bigger cities in mainland China where we went this time – Xi’an and Beijing both have metro. In Xi’an we opted to take the taxi for short rides whereas in Beijing it would have been a mistake to get into the taxi because of Beijing’s notorious traffic jams. Instead, rely on the metro for going from point A to B in Beijing. Also check out whether the point of interest is in walking distance of your hotel or not. In our case, we stayed in central Beijing in Jingtailong International Hotel which was around 10 minutes walking distance from Tiananmen Square.

You may want to visit to Great Wall once in Beijing. You do have options of taking a bus or being part of a tour group. We recommend going to Jinshanling to see the Great Wall in an unparalleled fashion and for this we recommend just hiring a private taxi which will cost around 1200 yuan for the whole day return journey. Keep in mind though that group tours to Jinshanling are limited and hiring a private taxi is certainly very expensive comparing Chinese standards. We usually prefer to travel on our own because we have found the group tours most of the time restrict your liberty in terms of time and what to see. Jinshanling is also reachable by public transport (train, bus) which can be certainly cheaper but it will take precious time. We will dedicate a full post in the coming days to share in detail our amazing experience of spending the whole day hiking from one gate to another in the Great Wall at Jinshanling, so stay tuned. 

For the other locations we travelled to – Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiejie, Feng Huang and Zhangye, we took a private taxi because it saved a great lot of time and ensured convenience. In Xi’an for seeing the Terracota Army, best option is to take the bus from the central bus station and return via same method. Whenever we travel, we not only look for saving time first, but also to convenience and comfort. In Xi’an for example, the bus to Terracota Warriors was found to be not only economic but also comfortable too. In other words, it doesn’t always have to be taxi, depending on the circumstances and goal – you can always improvise.

General hygiene

If you want to invest in China and want to become rich quickly, the best thing you may want to export to China is toilet papers. Just kidding – but funnily the country which apparently invented paper has scarcity of toilet papers in public places. There are rumors that these get stolen but not having any toilet paper and liquid soaps in majority of the locations in both cities and rural areas indicated that there is something fundamentally wrong. You may wonder how do the locals clean up after themselves.

Our advice would be that you carry your own loo-rolls, pocket liquid soap, hand sanitiser and possibly disposable hand towels wherever you go. Overall, we also found that the general level of hygiene and cleanliness in restaurants and public places is actually rather bad. We have been to all types of restaurants in China both in big cities and also in rural towns which are not necessarily the provincial capitals. Except may be the five star hotels in big cities, no restaurant had liquid soaps or hand towels. Other than toiletries, the condition in which the toilets were found was also deplorable. And almost 90% public toilets in mainland China are Squat-style toilets.

Another challenge was in relation to cutlery and plates.

It is obvious that when in China, you can expect soup spoons to be used as a general spoon and forks have to be requested. Also a soup bowl is used as a substitute (or the main item) for a dinner plate in another sense. Not everyone can feel comfortable to eat with chopsticks so we had to request for forks from time to time. The sad part was that even if we were supplied with the ‘western cutlery’ they were either found to be dirty or still wet after a quick clean. Either way – not very appealing.  Worth mentioning that restaurants located within the 4 or 5 star hotels in big cities were certainly exception to what is found as soon as you step out of the big cities.

Food options

Although some argue that China is a friendly country for vegetarians, we found it to be completely opposite. If you consider pork pieces found in fish dish or pork chunks found in egg fried rice as ‘vegetable’ then you should be fine. But if you don’t eat any meat at all in whatever shape or form – then unfortunately your culinary options in China will be rather challenging, if not impossible.

Image courtesy: Google Image search
Image courtesy: Google Image search

Again, those who are up for a gastronomic adventure to try out the unknown (snake soup, crocodile meat or what not!)– you will love the Chinese food surprises but if you have limited options and want to stick to a ‘safe’ diet plan – you may have to go the extra mile to find the restaurant and the menu of your choice. So tough luck it may be for vegetarians or vegans. For example, Tanusree being a Pescatarian (who also eats chicken, if there is not enough options in the fish menu) had to look for and order fish wherever possible. But finding that a fish stew was made with pork stew with pieces of pork still visible was a major upsetting incident.

Language barrier

This tip is very simple. If you speak no Chinese at all – think twice before travelling to mainland China. Hong Kong, you may still get by but mainland China? No way. Most foreigners venturing outside big cities in China opt for an English-speaking tour-guide to navigate through the local communications at the ticket counters, taxi drivers, hotel receptions, shopping markets etc. Wherever we have traveled to earlier, we somehow managed to communicate with the locals even if it was a non-English speaking country. But in case of China – even the body languages seem to be miles apart, let alone the spoken language.

Image courtesy: Google Image search

Speaking a bit of Mandarin in our case helped to a great extent but in the rural parts, they spoke dialects which made the communication possible but extremely frustrating and challenging at times. For example, in Zhangjiajie while we were waiting in a mile-long queue of people waiting to get on to the famous Bailong Elevator, a few people who were behind us tried to jump the queue. When Shehzaad shouted out in Mandarin asking “What kind of an attitude is this!” – instead of taking note and being cautious, everyone around started laughing. We came to know later from our Chinese teacher in Beijing that the Chinese we had been learning for the last two years is to the best – a city speak – spoken mostly by educated people in the cities, a bookish and formal version of the language.

Out there in the midst of the Chinese mass, who speak in a variety of dialects, it was as remote as it was amusing to hear a foreigner speaking in formal Chinese to tell them off. But imagine if you had not spoken no Chinese at all? May be they would have seen through you instead of sharing a laugh.

Also make sure you know the rightly pronounced Chinese words for the most frequently requested room-service items because we found even the hotel room service team in hotels in smaller cities may not know what you want delivered to your room. On the contrary, hotel staff in bigger cities such as Xi’an and Beijing were able to communicate in way better English, broken – but manageable.

Money matters

Image courtesy: Google Image search

ATMs are widely available in Hong Kong and pretty much everywhere we have been to in mainland China. Note that credit cards may not be accepted in all locations, especially when you step outside of big cities. For example, our hotel in Zhangye was a four-star hotel with quality services and facilities but they only accepted Chinese credit cards. Given they did not accept foreign ones, we had no other way but to pay them cash for our stay. So it is best to keep cash on self at all times. Incase of any shortage, it is best to just withdraw more from a nearby ATM. In other words, 80% of all your transactions in China are likely to be cash-based. You may be able to use your credit card only for paying for your dinner in five star hotels may be. Otherwise – carry enough cash.

Tickets

Image courtesy: Google Image search

We bought tickets to all major sights of interest in China from the counter on the day itself. This is primarily because of the fact that the websites which we found which had the ticket information were mostly in Chinese. We learnt from our teacher also that tickets for Forbidden City for example – had to be bought online (from a website in Chinese) and tickets can be bought only using Chinese cards. So yes, feel free to explore the websites of the venue you want to visit, incase it is in Chinese and no English at all – you may just buy it during the visit itself. Have plenty of time in hand as the queue is always never ending. However, for attractions in Beijing, you may have to take help from someone already in China and can buy the tickets in advance using their Chinese cards.

General public manners

Image courtesy: Google Image search

It is hard to generalise when you are visiting the most populous country of the world. Not all the fingers of the hand are of the same size so you may have to take this advice with some salt on it. Could be due to lack of exposure to foreigners, could be due to their own engrossed and introvert social fabric – we found the general public to be indifferent to foreigners. However when it came to queuing up or addressing foreigners at airports – the last thing found in the way the crowd behaved was ‘manners’ – which practically did not exist. Elbowing, jumping queues, no consideration for foreign guests – it was all part of the experience of mixing with the mass – lets put it this way.

Very frustrating was the event when at Beijing airport, our pebble phone charger got confiscated at airport security. We tried to convince the airport security official that we had completed 10 domestic flights within China using 5 airports and we had no issues carrying this portable charger, then why on earth should we be having a problem at the last airport from where we were returning home? Obviously the officer did not speak any English and with his hand gestures he was merely trying to tell us to get lost. The whole experience proved to be rather ill-mannered and discourteous that staff in the airport of the capital city of a country like China would have a hard time explaining to foreigners what the rules were.

In summary – we must confirm that we are speaking from our experience and the final word is that inspite of all the practical challenges and difficulties we have come across, what we got to experience in the end, what we got to see afterwards was worth the trouble. The scenic beauty, the history, the cultural heritage of China seem largely undiscovered by foreigners – may be it is because of the issues we shared earlier. But if you are an avid traveler like us, you will have patience, the right tool, right mindset and right preparation to overcome those hurdles to be rewarded with the wonders this country holds.

We hope you will find the above 8 pearls of wisdom useful to right-size your expectations before you set sails towards the Chinese coast. In coming weeks, we will be sharing our experiences as per the locations and sights of interest around Hong Kong and mainland China. Meanwhile, if you have any questions on the general advice given above just leave a comment below.

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