essential tips for planning your first trip to China

Visiting mainland China can be seriously overwhelming. First, there's the size of the country to consider. Getting from one place to another is a mission in and of itself. Throw in a language barrier, 'The Great Chinese Firewall', and a different way of thinking altogether...even the most seasoned traveler has a big task on their hands. 

Here are my top tips for your first trip to China...

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Plan for your visa well in advance //

China requires visitors from most countries to have an entry visa. Getting said visa, even for those visiting can be a process. I suggest applying for your visa at least 6 weeks in advance of your travels. The best thing I did in the long, tedious process of obtaining my work visa was pay for a specialist to do the heavy lifting. Check your government's website for official visa rules and regulations. 

Install a VPN prior to arrival //

The Great Chinese Firewall is a real thing, guys. Should you be relying on Google for navigating, Pinterest for itinerary ideas, access to your e-mail or messaging systems other than WeChat, you will require a VPN. There are many to choose from, but it's important to know that many of the free VPNs on the market are unreliable and painfully slow. If you'll be traveling for an extended amount of time, it's worth it to pay for a VPN. 

If you don't install your VPN before you arrive, you won't be able to install it at all, so don't wait until you get to China. 

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Download a translation app or learn basic Mandarin //

The language barrier is steeper outside of the cities, but even in Nanjing, I've found myself in situations where it's impossible to communicate-- despite some of my best gestures. Say Hi is a great app for translating typed or spoken words. It's also helpful to know some of the local language. This is something I suggest no matter where you go! Knowing 'hello', 'bathroom', numbers 1-10, 'yes', 'no', and 'thank you' are always helpful, especially in places were communication obstacles exist. 

Take screenshots of your intended destinations' addresses in Chinese //

This has been my best travel trick for traveling around China! English addresses mean nothing to most taxi drivers. It makes more sense to have addresses stocked in your phone in either pinyin or Chinese. Before you travel, simply take a screenshot of your intended destinations so that you can show them to cab drivers or locals when you are forced to ask for directions {the Chinese are more than willing to help in most cases}. 

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Prepare for pollution //

During peak tourist season the pollution heightens. It's also worse during big holidays-- Christmas was nasty thanks to online orders being made in factories across the country. Pollution sickness feels a lot like a burning throat and an itchy throat. Some people also get locked sinuses. If you are traveling during times of the year when pollution is worse than usual, I highly suggest buying a face mask {everyone wears them, you won't stand out or look like a loser, promise}. I also recommend bringing throat lozenges or candies that you can suck on during your visit. 

Cash is king //

Despite China being a pretty modern place, cash is still the way to pay for just about everything. Unless you are traveling for a long enough bout that you make the decision to get a Chinese SIM card, create a WeChat or AliPay account, and pay via QR Codes {which has totally changed everything for me}, you need to have cash on hand. Your credit cards won't work here. They just won't. The Chinese are very upset by the thought of paying for anything with credit {since it's essentially money you don't have}. Exchange cash outside of the country, or prepare to fill out a lengthy form in Chinese and have your passport scanned to exchange upon arrival. 

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The more I see of China, the more questions I have. I find myself shocked by nothing anymore, not by China and not by people. It's a wild place to be, guys. But I highly recommend a visit! The cultural identity of the Chinese is strong and proud. The history is long and rich, and the surprises I find in daily life keep me filled with hilarious anecdotes from this chapter of my life.