What you need to know before traveling to China
China is an interesting destination that speaks to the imagination. It’s the type of country that some of us love, while others…not so much. There are loads and loads of cool places to visit in China!
Because of the vast difference in culture and habits, we made a list of things to know before traveling to China. China has a rich history and with that, weird habits were born.
Are you visiting China for the first time? For us, it was an expected culture shock. With that I mean: we knew it would be very different. We also knew there would be a culture shock. But then experiencing that culture shock personally… well yeah. Still a shock :p
Be prepared to leave your comfort zone far behind you!
So here they are:
1. Small cities still hold billions of people
China is obviously a massive country with a lot of inhabitants. Their cities are huge and hold millions, if not billions. When we, Europeans, refer to a small city, we’re thinking tens of thousands of people. But when Chinese are talking about a small city, they’re thinking: only a few million people.
Shanghai, for instance, is the largest and most populated city in China. It houses more than 23 million people, with a density of 6000 people per square kilometer.
More than 100 cities in China have a population of over 1 million inhabitants.
2. Aside from cities, China is empty
Everyone in China appears to live in the city. Because aside from these massive cities that you can find mostly in the East of the country, China is basically empty.
The cities have an average population of around 5000 people per square kilometer.
The average population density for the entire country is only 145 people per square kilometer.
If you’re a math wizard, you can calculate how many kilometers of China are inhabited. I can’t 🙂
3. China has Ghost Cities
On top of the other weird facts about China, they also have dozens of ghost cities, spread over the country. Due to a large growth in Chinese population, cities were built with a hope to fill them with inhabitants. Some are now inhabited, while others are no more than ghost cities, built to house thousands of people.
4. Fast trains and night trains
Distances in China are large. One hour of sitting in a train won’t bring you to the next big city, as it is in Europe.
The recommended way of travel is taking high-speed bullet trains or night trains. Traveling by night train in China lets you peek deep into the weird Chinese culture and and you haven’t explored the real China if you haven’t traveled by night train.
Most Chinese people don’t speak English, so it’s worth the effort to get your train tickets in advance.
Read this guide to train travel in China!
5. Weird food habits
One alinea won’t do to sum up all the weird food habits in China, but let me try!
- Drink hot water to stop your tongue from burning
- Ah! What the heck! Hot water for everything else as well!
- They have hundreds of variations on noodles
- Chinese eat everything on a stick
- They also eat everything, just everything: spiders, cockroaches, scorpions, duck heads, seahorses, lizards, worms …
- Everything has to be fried
- You want noodles or rice or noodles… or rice?
You can find a few other weird dishes you can try in China here!
6. Restaurant habits
Eating in a Chinese restaurant is not really the same as at home. Of course not, you say! There’s still a lot to take into account when you’re visiting China for the first time/
- Slurping is a sign of appreciation
- Not slurping is offensive
- You can smoke everywhere
- It’s normal to throw food and trash on the floor
- there’s huge bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere (we could use that in Europe)
- Everybody eats from the same dishes. They are placed on a revolving plateau on the table so you just spin the plateau to get some spoonfuls of the dish you like onto your own plate.
- But don’t forget to only spin clockwise, otherwise this means bad feng shui!
7. You can't use Facebook or Google in China
The mainland of China, which doesn’t include independent regions like Hong Kong, has an internet censorship policy. The Chinese censorship policy is one of the most strict in the entire world. China also has the highest number of journalists and internet ‘mis’ users imprisoned.
More than 10 thousand domains are blocked and people in China are not allowed to see or read them.
All Google web domains, like Gmail, Youtube, or the Google search engine are blocked. So is Facebook. But it doesn’t end there!
Check this Wikipedia list to get an idea of the websites that are blocked by the internet censorship policy.
Forget about using Google Translate to overcome the language barrier!
For this reason, most Chinese people use a VPN service. If you plan on staying in China for a while, make sure to check out VPN services as well!
8. Chinese food as we don't know it
We already mentioned the weird food habits in China. Let’s talk about the awesome food habits now!
At home, we like to take out Chinese food every once in a while. We know all the numbers on the menu and we actually like a lot of it.
When visiting China for the first time, we discovered that none of that food exists in China. It’s all different. Luckily, most of it is much better though.
We were very happy to have a Chinese guide to help us with ordering food. Thanks to him, I managed to eat some of this delicious food without getting allergies!
This is something we miss about China: the awesome food!
It’s even possible to find vegetarian dishes in China!
9. Don't drink the tap water!
As is the case in many countries we traveled to before, you can’t drink the tap water in China.
Whether or not you want to use it to brush your teeth, is up to you. If you’ve used unsafe drinking water to brush your teeth before, you’re just fine. Many travelers use bottled water for brushing their teeth.
10. Toilets in China - Privacy is overrated!
It’s not unusual to find common toilets in China.
By that I mean that there are no walls nor doors whatsoever.
The toilets are of the old French hole-in-the-ground squat type and there are many of those in one large room.
Luckily, not all toilets in China are like these. But don’t be surprised to find these in malls or public spaces. Sometimes the separate toilets have walls, but no doors.
And don’t forget to bring your own toilet paper!
11. Spit everywhere
In China, you can spit everywhere, all day long. Not that you might want to, but you can. It doesn’t matter if you’re indoors or outdoors. Floors are covered in spit everywhere. We actually threw our shoes out as soon as we got back home.
Chinese also never blow their nose.
Using a handkerchief is considered dirty. When doing that in China, you get weird looks and people stare at you as if you’re mentally ill. You’re supposed to spit!
12. You need to get your China Visa in Advance
Entering China isn’t the easy part of traveling to China. You need to get a visa to enter the country in advance. You don’t get that on arrival as is the case with many other countries. When you apply for your Chinese Visa, they need to know everything!
When we thought about a spontaneous train trip to Asia, we hoped it to be a little more free-minded. But it isn’t.
For your visa application, you need to know the exact date and time of entering and leaving the country. ‘We want to take a train to Vietnam around that date…’ It’s not good enough.
You also need proof of travel insurance in order to get your visa.
You also need a ‘letter of recommendation’. So you need a Chinese citizen to recommend you as a good visitor. This almost obliges you to book a guided tour where this is included.
For travel to independent regions like Hong Kong and Macau, you don’t need a visa.
13. Lucky number 13
Opposite to Western belief, the Chinese consider number 13 a lucky number. The reason for that is the sound you make when pronouncing this number in Chinese. If the sound is happy, it’s a lucky number!
Seven is one of those lucky numbers because the pronunciation sounds like “wife”. In the picture below, number seven isn’t such a happy pizza though!
All numbers have an extra meaning in Chinese depending on the sounds of pronunciation. Some numbers mean: “I want a wife”, while others are pronounced “I want to die”.
In China, number 4 is considered bad luck. They even go as far as skipping the fourth floor in hotels and other numbered places.
14. Chinese roads and drivers
If you plan on driving a car in China, just don’t. Chinese roads and drivers are just crazy and dangerous.
Chinese drivers honk their horn constantly and they seldom use their direction lights.
In short, Chinese roads are complete madness.
Even when sitting in the car with a driver who does driving as his full time job, I didn’t dare watch him do it! We could have died a dozen times in just five minutes.
Officially, if you want to drive in China, you need to get a Chinese driving license. Although I don’t understand why. It doesn’t look like any of the drivers actually has a driver license.
15. Crowds and personal space
Personal space is overrated!
When visiting China for the first time, this is something we had a hard time adapting to.
I don’t know if it’s because they all live in cities of millions or even billions. But Chinese people don’t mind being very close to each other. Everything in China is done en masse. It seems like they’re used to it.
For me, crowded places make me anxious. But Chinese thrive in crowded places.
16. Forget about waiting in line
People don’t wait in line. They wait in an unorganized bunch.
Actually, they don’t wait. They push, shuffle, and intrude your personal space.
This behaviour has the power to make large spaces feel very small.
An entire waiting room can be completely empty, while hundreds of people are breathing down each others necks in a few square meters.
They’re all battling to be the first. The first in line, the first on board, the first to get off. It seems like the Chinese culture has an urge to be first.
So forget about personal space and prepare to get competitive.
By the way, if you don’t play the same game and decide to leave a bit of space in front of you, you’re bound to lose that bit of space. People will take in that space too!
17. Prepare to be a celebrity
Foreigners are treated like celebrities in China.
The first time it happened, we thought it was just a one time thing. But it kept happening the entire time we were in China.
People wanted to take pictures with us, loads of pictures!
We’d be happy if they had the courtesy to ask us to take a picture first.
Most of the time, we just noticed someone standing next to us while a companion was taking a picture. Or some times a person suddenly popped his head in between our heads and snap! Picture taken!
We weren’t even looking at the photographer and I don’t think any of those pictures is pretty at all. But hey, the life of a celebrity, it’s not always easy!
One time, a kid threw his ball just past us in a restaurant. He then went to pick it up and as he stood back up, he popped his head in between us and smiled at the camera.
How weird is that!
18. Pollution and face masks
Some cities in China have a serious pollution problem. We’re not the ones to blame them for that, because it’s a fact that China is the factory of the world. Nobody bats an eye when they read the ‘Made in China’ label on the stuff they buy. Being the factory of the entire world has consequences.
It’s good to know things like that before traveling to China. In some cities, you might need to wear a face mask to keep the smog from penetrating your lungs.
19. China has beautiful nature!
Many travelers visit large cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong. We did the same thing. But I must admit that I would love to go back to only visit Chinese nature. Aside from these massive cities of millions, China has loads of stunning nature to offer.
From lush green rice terraces to deserts and stunning mountain ranges, like Tianmen Mountain.
China has it all. Thanks to the vast area over which China expands, there’s a lot of territory most tourists skip.
The same goes up for the Great Walls of China. Thousands of travelers flock the same 100 meters of wall each year, while the Chinese Wall covers many thousands of kilometers. Most parts are simple deserted and overgrown.
20. Strange Chinese hypes
As is common with hypes, they tend to change frequently. So things that were a hype a while ago, probably aren’t right now.
At the time we were visiting, loads of people had weird clips in their hair. Really weird clips! Most of them looked like some sort of tiny plant, but there were other things as well.
Other strange Chinese trends are:
- sprout hair pins
- painting your dog to look like a tiger or panda
- face-kini to cover up your entire face. It is a bikini for your face!
- lensless glasses
- fake braces to look wealthy
- being so skinny that you are able to almost disappear behind an A4 paper
- cat ear tiara
21. You can't visit Tibet with your China visa
Even though Tibet is a part of China, you’re not allowed to visit the protected area of Tibet with your China Visa.
For visiting Tibet, you need to apply for a visa in Tibet. You’re not allowed to visit the region on your own. Actually, you need to be accompanied by a licensed tour guide during your entire visit.
22. One Child Policy
In 1979, China introduced the one-child policy in order to slow down the immense population growth in the country. Penalties were set for families that broke this law.
This is one of the most extreme forms of birth planning in the world.
People used to believe that boys would bring in more wealth for the family. So everyone wanted sons instead of daughters. That then resulted in a generation of single men, since there were no women.
The one-child policy is still enforced, but the regulations vary depending on where a family lives and other factors.
23. Pre - Wedding Photography
Pre-wedding photography is a big thing in China. Not only are they going all the way with these shoots, they also take these pictures when they just had a few dates. How does this work?
Pre-wedding photoshoots are a serious thing and Chinese couples pay thousands of euros in order to get the coolest images ever. They play shots from action movies or set up fake villages that look like they’re abroad.
Not everyone has that amount of money to throw at wedding photography, so most agencies have set packages for different prices. With these packages, a wedding suit and dress are included. The couples are lined up and photographed one after the other.
Wedding photography is booming in China. Couples start taking their pictures months before the actual wedding. If you’re visiting China for the first time, you’ll see the couples in the city parks everywhere.
Conclusion: what you should know before traveling to China
These 23 things to know before traveling to China are just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the surface there’s a huge iceberg called ‘Chinese Culture’. People who move to China permanently can probably give you a million examples about all the weird stuff going on in this vast country. We stopped at 23 and these are the items you will definitely notice when you’re visiting China for the first time.
I hope you enjoyed our list along with our China travel tips.
Feel free to add extra weird things about China in the comments below!