By Aiah Yassin
China is a great country to visit, especially with the Gardens, the Temples, the people, and the culture. Some say it is a whole new planet to first-time visitors. It is a very different environment, but with smart planning and caution, your trip to China could be the best thing you will ever experience. Here are seven tips to be aware of before and during your trip to the world's most populous country:
1. Transportation: Unless you can read Mandarin, buy a subway map in your language before your trip, as they are usually expensive and hard to find. Learn the subway system; know which stop is closest to your hotel. Taking the subway generally will save you more than 95% of transportation costs. A taxi cab can charge you 200 RNB for the same trip a subway would only cost 2 RNB. If you really have to take a taxi, try to avoid the red taxi because it has the highest fares among all other taxi colors as they are unregulated by the government. Taxis will most likely only stop at the designated Taxi Stops, so you will be wasting your time waving at taxis at the corner of the streets. They will not stop for you; it is against the law.
2. Tours: To save yourself money and time it is best if you book the daily city or historic monuments tours. You can try to go to the landmarks on your own but it will take a lot more time than you think; between finding the right gate, standing in line to buy the admissions ticket, and learning about the landmarks, your day will be basically over. Being lost in China is a lot of work and frustration. You might be two streets away from the Forbidden City and you won't even know it. Book the tour from your hotel or hostel. This is a good idea because the same tour may have different prices based on the scale of hotels or hostels. If you are in a pricier hotel, the tour will most likely cost you a lot more than the same tour that you booked at the low budget hotel or hostel. The tours usually include all day transportation, expedited ticket admissions to all of your destinations, lunch and an English-speaking tour guide. The prices vary from 300 to 500 RBB (equivalent of $50 to $83) depending on the number of places you will visit.
3. Currency: Travel Checks are not as common as you think; only international banks can cash them for you. It is best if you carry cash when you are in China. Bring your money in U.S. Dollars as it has a higher rate to exchange your money in China than in the U.S. You will get more for your money if you do the currency exchange in China. Very few places take credit or debit cards but you can easily withdraw from an ATM machine. Make sure you call your bank and inform them when exactly your trip will be because many cards will be automatically deactivated if they are being used in a foreign country. ATM's are everywhere, but be sure you use the ones with the Visa or MasterCard logo on them; if they don’t, your transaction will be declined.
4. Shopping: Around the tourist-oriented areas, sales individuals will approach you to sell you things like fans, post cards and the like. Do not buy anything from them. They usually have counterfeit banknotes. The best thing to do is to ignore them. Saying “No, thanks,” actually will make them think you are interested. Street merchants will approach you more and push to sell you products. Pass on their merchandise and I guarantee that you will find the same products for the same price or cheaper in actual stores.
5. Packing: China is the origin of all the awesome products in the world. Do not over pack because you will be tempted to buy many interesting products like the “Permanent Match Lighter" or the "Hot Magic gel pack." Silk, pearls, and jade are China's authentic products. Save some room in your luggage for shopping or bring an extra tote bag in case you run out of even that. Washers and dryers are always available at hostels so you can do your own laundry. If you don't, you can always find a laundry woman at the nearest convenient store. It does sound bizarre but it is true: store owners are willing to wash your clothes for a low price (5 RBM/shirt). You can give them your clothes in the morning and when you come back from your tour, the clothes will be all washed and ready for you to conquer the next day.
6. Time Alone: Designate a time of your day just to wander off and explore the area surrounding your hotel or hostel. It is always very pleasant to take evenings to walk around and stumble upon the coolest cafes, shops, and people. This will be the best way to learn about the culture, try the local food, and watch locals dance the cha-cha, waltz, the tango or even do aerobics in the parks and squares of Chinese Cities as the night falls. Taking trips on your own will help you learn the prices of things so you don't get over-charged later.
7. Stay: If you are into Environmental Conservation and Being Green, then book a hostel bed at Far East International Youth Hostel Beijing Far East International Youth Hostel, which is in the middle of the preserved and protected Hutong (alleyways) area. The hostel is in a typical residency neighborhood and they have bicycle renting if you wish to wander around or even cycle to Tiananmen Square. If you love Paris and are interested in French Style housing, try Le Tour (Le Tour Shanghai Youth Hostel) in Shanghai's French Concession Area. A beautiful bed and breakfast really than a typical hostel that will make you not even believe you are in China. It is less than 2 blocks walk from two Subway Stations, talk about convenience. If you just want to relax and stay in a quiet relaxing hostel, I recommend Shanghai City Central Youth Hostel (Utels), which was awarded one of the top 3 'Most Popular' Hostels in Asia in 2010. You can stay at any of these hostels for less than $10 a night!!! Make sure to make your reservation 1 or 2 days in advance to guarantee a bed.
China is a big place, so relax, enjoy your time, and try to take it all in one temple at a time.