During our three weeks in China, a lot of things were eye opening. A country of 1.4 billion people and its history dating back to about 3000 years B.C., Chinese culture has gone through waves of revolutions of different kinds. China is probably a country that required the most work out of the countries we have been to. Having grown up in Taiwan, speaking the same language and sharing the same origin and most of the history, I still felt like a foreigner in China. Almost everything worked easily only for people with Chinese phone number and bank account. Payment, cellphone plan, Google maps, restaurant reviews, not so easy for us.
Originally we bought China Unicom (中国联通) SIM cards online that shipped to the US within a week. We picked a SIM card with service from Hong Kong, so that every website and endpoint works whether it is beyond the firewall or not. However, the website and the product (SIM card) were inconsistent – we picked a card with 30 day 3GB data, and received a card with 30-day 1GB data. I emailed customer service without response. We also were unable to add value for extra data, the website was beyond confusing.
After we ran out of 1GB after a week (too used to unlimited data with T-mobile in the US 😅), we walked into an official China Unicom store in Xi’an. At first I was very afraid of being upsold or pushy sales common to foreigners. Fortunately, the staff listened to our traveling situation (just about 1.5 weeks left in China, traveling to other provinces), and recommended us a 30 day 20GB SIM card for 200 RMB that two of us can share via tethering since we go to places together. This turned out to work out very well for us, despite the need of VPN still, but coverage and speed were great at an affordable price. China Unicom stores in China run completely independent of Hong Kong ones, it is not possible to buy Greater China SIM cards in China Unicom stores in China.
The Great Firewall
It was pretty crazy experiencing the firewall after a day or two. I have never thought not being to access certain apps and websites would be a big deal, but it actually got pretty frustrating. For me, the top pain points were switching sides of firewall, and IM/social apps. When these apps stopped working, I panicked – Google, Facebook series (Messenger, Instagram), IM apps (LINE, WhatsApp), Twitter and so on. In order to access them, VPN was in demand.
Available VPN vendors keep changing as they get blocked when they grow popular, I’d suggest researching close to the trip. A well known and long living one is ExpressVPN, about $12 per month and cheaper with longer subscription. We also tried TunnelBear (did not work on my iPhone 6s Plus), and Astrill (very outdated UI/UX and not always working on iPhone). In addition, Google quietly has a VPN service that allows developers to host themselves (e.g. on DigitalOcean) with Outline app (here’s a detailed blog post).
Towards the end of our time in China, my number 1 excitement was – no more firewall.
WeChat pay and Alipay are the mainstream payment methods for sure, from small street vendors to department stores. It is the most convenient and integrated payment method, however, it requires a Chinese bank account and/or a Chinese phone number. If you are able to get either payment app to work, definitely set it up beforehand. Some machines at the subway or vending machines don’t even take cash.
In Beijing, probably only 30% of the merchants we went to took VISA credit cards. In Xi’an, I only managed to pay credit card once out of 4 days. Even bigger restaurants like HaiDiLao in Xi’an did not take foreign credit cards.
For getting cash at ATM, we both used Charles Schwab debit cards that did not charge any fee. ATM machines at big Chinese banks (like ICBC, Bank of China) had served us well. Local ones usually don’t support foreign cards.
Not all cities have subways that reach everywhere, and we found the following very convenient while we traveled in major cities in China. For navigation, I used Amap (高德）in simplified Chinese – it had been consistently accurate, fast, and detailed with nearby search. For English maps, Google and Apple maps might be the best bet. Subway navigation works well with google maps, but we found points of interest outdated quite often on google maps.
It is the Uber of China after some bloody price war. Very affordable compared to the US, the price might be higher than subway ride, but it is door to door and reasonable price. We only used the express cars (like Uber X), the carpool option usually was not much cheaper.
We picked Mobike (orange) but Ofo (yellow) is another big one, and each city might have its own bike share as well. Mobike offers passes for foreign credit cards starting 5 USD, and each ride costs about 0.15 USD. Wow, Ford GoBike was USD 2.19 in the Bay Area, though there were no gears and lights on Chinese bikes. The convenience of dockless bikes also comes with the scenes of abandoned bikes in all kinds of conditions.
For security reasons, every subway stop in every city we went has X-ray machines that passengers had to scan every bag. Sometimes it was strict (security staff calling out to take bags off), yet sometimes people just walked through with bags without problem. It was the first country I have been that installed all the X-ray machines all over the country.
Most major cities in China are very hot in the summer, with potential rain. Definitely prepare a umbrella with UV rating, not only in case of rain, but also for shade under hot sun. Sunscreen is also a must, if you plan to be outside. Outdoors sights usually have longer hours in the summer as well, and it might be more comfortable planning sight seeing with longer outdoors walk/bike at later hours near or after sunset.
On days with thunder showers that could happen anytime, it might be convenient to bookmark a few places to spend time waiting for rain to stop — for me, coffee/tea shops, bookstores and department stores were great rain hideout spots.
Even at big cities like Shanghai and Beijing, lots of local vendors are Chinese and dialects only. If you are not traveling with anyone who speaks Chinese, it might be the best to plan ahead, if you like optimizing for recommended places like I do. The most popular sites for finding places to eat/go/anything is Dianping (大眾點評), like Yelp in the US. However, most interface and reviews are in simplified Chinese, web browser with Google auto translation might help. There are also quite some places with English reviews on Foursquare, but more from expats and visitors. One nice feature I like about Dianping is the average price of a place, very helpful for setting up expectation and ordering the “average” amount of food along with top items.
Speaking Mandarin Chinese myself, I still felt intimidated ordering at certain eateries like a famous lamb soup in Xi’an – I was asked if I would like “machine made” and I got super confused, and later realized the dough bits could be either hand torn by customer or by machine (everyone else at the shared table made their own dough!). Sometimes the best local food are many generations old, and less foreigner friendly, but the unease of ordering was so worthwhile.
I usually compile a list of key food items I want to try, find some restaurants best known for them, and wing the other dishes spontaneously.
It is a trend for me to forget at least one thing on every trip, or things in need but only realized when we were there. Here are a few chain stores in almost all big cities, in case you need to get anything.
A Hong Kong based chain pharmacy store, cosmetics and personal care items are the main focus. Things like sunscreen, mosquito repellent, shower, hair, oral, vision care and basic medicines are their common items. I’m very familiar with Watson’s since it is in Taiwan as well, and it is my go to place for cosmetics.
Watson’s has many locations in all cities we have gone on this trip – Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xi’an, Chengdu, Shenzhen.
This is a full size supermarket that sells groceries, dry food and many everyday items. We came here to grab snacks (Oreos) for our hiking trip to Huashan. It is in most big cities, but best to double check on Google or Google maps beforehand.
A well-known international brand from the US, Walmart is in a bunch of cities in China but probably just one per city. We went to a Walmart in Shenzhen, and it was so interesting seeing different promotions localized for China.
Wumart (物美) – Beijing only
We saw a few Wumart stores in different neighborhoods in Beijing, and shopped there twice. It has almost everything, like a smaller Walmart.
They are convenient store chains that are the most common, but usually the full price given the convenience. 7-11 in China (and Asia in general) are a lot different from the US. A lot more breakfast and food items, we got water, coffee drinks and breakfast onigiris (triangle rice balls) there a lot.
A French hyper supermarket chain, it is also a familiar brand for many countries around the world. Like Walmart, there are usually just one or two stores per city, often times outside of downtown area.
Local supermarket stores
There are also a few supermarkets we went that we found from Amap or Google maps, or just from passing by (I love exploring grocery stores and supermarkets in foreign countries).
China certainly was the country that required the most effort both before and during the travel among the countries I have been. From hours of waiting at China consulate in San Francisco early morning before its opening, to SIM card and firewall, it almost felt like it is intimidating to visitors. There is so much to see in China though, its history, culture and nature are so rich in the large territory.
If you are traveling to China, check out our itineraries in a few cities: