By now I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about my China trip. (But oh my gosh, I went to China!!!)
Having never been to China before (and being slightly neurotic), I researched to make sure I was totally prepared. But as they say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Ultimately I was not prepared for everything, and so I’ve made this guide about things you didn’t know you needed to know when traveling to China!
#1 Squat Potties
I am happy to say I was, however, absolutely prepared for squat potties. Our organization (ASTA) did a great job impressing upon us that most toilets outside of our hotels would be squat style. (Not to be confused with the Squatty Potty and their adorable commercial with unicorns.)
Most of the squat potties I encountered flushed, but beyond that they were only a hole in the ground. Squat potties usually did not have toilet paper, so we brought our own. Let me drive this point home: BRING YOUR OWN TOILET PAPER. Only one or two of the myriad of bathrooms I visited had toilet paper.
Also, do not flush your toilet paper. Every stall should have a trash can (but you can check before committing). Those toilets generally don’t have the plumbing capabilities to flush toilet paper. Most bathrooms did not have soap either, and unfortunately in that vein, I was unprepared. But, luckily, I could always borrow hand sanitizer from a fellow travel agent.
A final TMI tip about squat potties: ladies, don’t pull your pants down past your knees—you’ll end up peeing all over your pants. Just keep your pants above the knee and you’ll be fine.
In closing, two things to always take with you in China: toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
(Note: If you are physically incapable of using squat potties, there are usually one or two handicap stalls that have Western style toilets. So don’t worry!)
The biggest thing that blindsided me was that China blocks anything Google. I knew they blocked Facebook, and suspected they blocked Instagram. So when I accessed the hotel’s Wi-Fi, ready to email my family to let them know I’d made it, I was distressed to see I couldn’t email.
But later in the week, I noticed colleagues checking their Gmail no problem.
What was going on?
Well it turns out that they were using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to mask their IP addresses. China blocks a lot of apps and websites, but if you mask your IP address websites and apps can’t tell that you are in China, so nothing is blocked any longer.
I’m not tech savvy enough to go into how to get a VPN on your phone or computer, so I’ve included a link. Just know that it’s not very difficult and there are lots of options. But absolutely do NOT go to China without one. (Unless you’re trying to have a tech detox.)
I don’t know if it’s because China has its own app that functions as Facebook, Google, etc. that they block those apps, or if it’s because those apps are blocked but WeChat is the result. WeChat works as a messenger, email, wallet, and other things I’m not even remotely aware of.
Most people in China (I was told by our guide Xiao Xiao) no longer carry currency. They just make all of their payments through WeChat. Most interactions through smartphones are made through WeChat. WeChat is handy if you make new friends in China and want to connect with them, or if you don’t feel like carrying around yuan. But if you don’t have an international plan on your phone, you may find WeChat useless.
#4 Cold Drinks
I was told by a fellow travel agent who specializes in China, lived in China, and is married to a Chinese woman that in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the drinking of cold drinks is thought to negatively affect the qi. So cold drinks are not something you’ll come across unless you specifically request them. Whenever we’d ask for water we were served lukewarm or hot water. Beer and soft drinks were served to us at room temperature.
Depending on how fancy or Western the restaurant you’re in is, you might encounter ice, but you may have to resign yourself to tepid drinks during your stay. If you’re a heavy water drinker, I would also recommend bringing your own water with you wherever you go. Even though we were part of a tour group that had arranged meals at restaurants far in advance, they did not always have water to offer us. If you’re not picky about what you drink, don’t worry about it, but if you need water, bring your own!
When I really think about it, it’s incredible to me that in the US we have access to hundreds of boneless options when it comes to our meat. The last time I bought chicken it was boneless chicken breast. And the last time I ate steak (years ago) there were no bones. Even fish rarely has bones anymore.
In China, the meat is much fresher. We were served chicken and duck that still had the head on. (You would often see cages of live chickens outside of restaurants.) Fish that was not served in a soup was served full body. Everything fresh! But since these were minimally processed everything still had bones. The fish were chock full of bones, even in the soups. The poultry was the same.
My point is be careful when you eat meat in China—you don’t want to choke on any bones!
If you didn’t already know, dogs are food in China. Not everywhere, but definitely in some of the more rural regions I saw restaurants with stickers advertising their dog.
If you want to avoid eating dog (which I did—it’s akin to cannibalism to me), there are several ways to avoid it. Eat only vegetarian food; eat only seafood; eat only poultry; avoid any sort of ground meat. During our trip we were quite coddled and essentially ate only at restaurants in five star hotels with a history of catering to Western tastes. That is also an option. The Hyatt Regency in Guiyang had a fabulous Chinese restaurant with a menu in English, so I didn’t feel I missed out on authentic food.
Even in the capital of Guizhou—the poorest province in China—traffic was a nightmare. Things like four-way stops and right-of-way don’t really exist I noticed. Pedestrians never have the right-of-way so it’s essential to be careful when crossing streets. (The good news for us Americans is that the Chinese drive on the same side as us, except in Hong Kong.)
I also would not recommend driving in Chinese cities unless you have experience driving in chaos already.
The highways are a bit of a different story, except larger vehicles don’t always like to stay in their lane, so you must always be vigilant while driving. Alternatively you could use public transportation, the phenomenal bullet trains, or hire a driver.
Have any other tips for traveling in China? Please share in the comments!
Now get out there and go!