China travel guide
1. How do I get a China visa?
Unless you’re bound for Hong Kong and Macau, you’ll need a tourist visa to stay in China. At visaforchina.org, you can download a visa application form and book an appointment to submit it in person, along with photos and a passport valid for more than six months after your travel dates. If you’re not near an official centre in London, Edinburgh or Manchester, you can do it by post. Processing takes about four working days.
If you’re stopping to see tourist attractions in Beijing, Guangzhou, or Chongqing en route to somewhere beyond China, you can spend up to 72 hours in these major cities without a visa (in Shanghai, up to 144 hours). You can’t travel elsewhere in China, though, and you’ll need proof of your onward flight booking (not your UK return ticket).
2. How long do I need for a trip to China?
Shanghai and Beijing are travel destinations where you’ll want to spend three nights at the very least in, plus full days tacked on for side trips to the sections of the Great Wall, historic water towns around Shanghai, including Zhujiajiao and Tongli, as well as ancient cities such as Hangzhou. Most travel guides will advise factoring in another two days for a sojourn in the Silk Road city of Xi’an, site of the spectacular 2,200-year-old Terracotta Army.
A classic two-week holiday could start in Beijing with a day-trip to the Wall, connect to Xi’an by air, then fly on to Shanghai, with a night by Hangzhou’s West Lake. (Drop Xi’an, and you can connect to Shanghai from Beijing in less than five hours by high-speed rail.) Add a further two nights in Hong Kong, for best-ever dim sum and a harbour cruise.
If you’re looking to visit Beijing’s Forbidden City, plan to arrive at the gate after 12.30pm, once most early birds have fled for lunch. That leaves four hours still to explore the exquisitely tiled, hip-roofed halls deep into the Inner Court, where 24 Ming and Qing emperors lived in lacquered villas with their families (and concubines).
3. What’s the food like in China?
You could go a lifetime without a chicken foot passing your lips as there are plenty of hotels and restaurants that cater for Westerner-focused meals. Modern tastes have caught on in the cities, and chefs from India to Australia cater to them all. If you’re ‘going local’, remember that food from markets and street stalls usually involves hidden nuts, gluten and pork.
5. Are there any etiquette pitfalls?
In true Chinese culture, use both hands to offer money or business cards. Leave the last bite on your plate to show you weren’t underfed. And never leave your chopsticks in your bowl (it’s a symbol of death).
By contrast, don’t hesitate to push through a scrum or queue — neither personal space nor line-order is taken too seriously here.
6. Do I need to use a tour operator?
A tour operator can pre-arrange transport, tickets, tables, and refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer, whereas without Mandarin skills, you might be faced with baffling refusals from drivers, merchants or restaurateurs. But solo travel in China can be a delight if you plan ahead — especially how to get around.
Before flying, print or screen-shot the Chinese address of your first hotel, and present it to your taxi driver from the airport. Keep your hotel’s business card on you to simplify getting back after day trips, and screen-shot the Chinese address of your destinations thereafter, to make communication with drivers and hosts much easier.
Most local maps come with all text printed in both English and Chinese — and download offline maps to your Google Maps app, so you can navigate without roaming charges. Just beware: GPS in China tends to be unreliable.
7. How strict is China?
Expect a social-media blackout. Twitter and Facebook are inaccessible, and Google is frustratingly slow, though downloading a Virtual Private Network may help you log on by rerouting your online activity through a Western nation.
Show respect to any uniforms guarding a site or directing traffic — and refrain from taking their photographs. Local law enforcement is tough on crime, but take a little care anyway: be vigilant about your belongings, and check your money when exchanging.
8. How can I see the giant pandas?
Try this trip…