The People’s Republic is definitely not the easiest country to navigate. Not only those Chinese characters are intimidating, but the Great Firewall of China also prevents anyone from accessing Google, Instagram, Whatsapp, Facebook, Line, Youtube, Wikipedia and most Western news/media sites.
This inconvenience has become one of the many reasons for people to dismiss the idea of visiting this country or merely opting for the usual Chinese city trinity: Beijing Shanghai Xi’an. With a land size 2.2% larger than the USA and 56 recognised ethnic groups, there are so much to see in this vast country.
Granted the government has made it easier for foreigners — for instance, most street signs and all subway stops now have pin yin, but it is still far from easy to get around. Here’s a basic manual to prepare you on your holiday/move to this mind-boggling country:
VPN is necessary to access Google, Facebook and their offsprings. For free VPN, last time I checked Hotspot Shield still works fine here. Developed by a Chinese engineer, Shadowrocket is also a strong contender. The free app comes in both iOS and Android versions.
Windscribe comes in a free version, but for USD 9/month or USD 49/year, you receive unlimited access (instead of 2GB/month) and can be used on an unlimited number of devices. From experience, Astrill is the most stable paid VPN in China — it costs USD 100 for connection up to 5 devices. In my very personal opinion, Express VPN is the least worth it (USD 99.95/year and limited to 3 devices), albeit its 30-day money-back guarantee.
Can you imagine a life without Google maps? I hardly could, until I downloaded AMap 高德地图 which is a personal preference in comparison to Baidu Map 百度地图 but they are very similar. While it’s layout is completely in Chinese, AMap recognises English to a certain extent. For example, you can type “Forbidden Palace” (instead of 故宫) or “massage” in the search box and receive fairly reliable results.
The best feature though is the ride order function, which allows you to select multiple providers at the same time: all tiers of Didi rides; local taxis; 首都车, etc. This is much needed in Beijing where taxis are scarce during peak hours and late nights. Apple Maps works okay here but some point of interests are not listed on the app, nor does it support public transportation schedule.
Download Google Translate and its offline Chinese translation, along with Pleco dictionary app. If you have Android phones, you can also download Fooview, a float-viewer which can easily copy anything on your screen, so you can easily paste it into your translation app. That reminds me, input Chinese (pinyin) and Chinese (strokes) to your keyboard.
If you are not already using Wechat, for the sake of your survival in China, please download it. This app has successfully become the main method of communication for the 802 million Chinese mobile internet users (57.7% of the population) and permeates every aspect of Chinese people’s lives to the point that they now exchange Wechat contact instead of business cards. Heck, in all of my first classes in China, every lecturer would attach a QR code on their PPTs, so we can all scan it to enter the class’ Wechat group.
Good news for you: Since 2019, foreign tourists can start using Chinese mobile payment apps without a Chinese bank account. Here are guides by The Travel Brief to set up your Wechatpay and Alipay accounts — recommended to do before you arrive in China. From hereon, you can start using both apps to pay for food (built-in split bill feature in Wechat), order Didi and taxis, tap on public transport, book train and flight tickets, unlock shared bikes (which is a lifesaver in a city not made for pedestrians like Beijing). The world will literally be a couple of taps away.
If you are a registered resident, you can download a mini-program of each city’s public transport. Xi An train station, for example, provides a QR code that will lead you to Wechat or Alipay mini-programs. Register on the spot and you can commute by scanning your QR code assigned to your ID, there is no need to purchase a transport card. This applies to registered international passport holders (student or working in China) but not visiting citizens of Taiwan, HK or Macao + international tourists.
Download Metroman and the necessary city subway map to plan your subway journey. This app works for multiple cities in and outside of China.
Use Fei Zhu 肥猪, Ctrip or Qunar to book your ticket and accommodation. Fei Zhu is a company of Taobao (the mega e-commerce firm that pioneered Singles Day — world’s biggest online shopping event in history, bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined). Given that you have not collected the physical tickets, you can cancel the train tickets with little to minimum (5%) penalty within the app — the refund happens almost immediately. The app is however only available in Chinese.
Ctrip and Qunar are available in English and accept international credit card. You can also use Wechat to purchase your train or flight tickets. Didn’t I tell you it was a super-app?
You can very easily book train tickets online with passport, given that you have Wechatpay or Alipay account set up. However, foreigners are still unable to book long-distance bus tickets (which you have to purchase at the bus station 汽车站 qi che zhan) and ferries online, because they require the Chinese ID card 身份证 shen fen zheng.
You can collect all your booked train tickets in one go, so if you were doing Beijing — Shanghai — Nanjing — Beijing, given that you had booked all tickets before your Beijing departure, you could collect all of them at the same time. However, if you have collected your tickets and decide to change/cancel them afterwards, you have to visit the ticket counter at the station.
PS: Ignore the automatic ticket machine, they are only for Chinese citizens as they only identify the Chinese ID cards.
Riding the overnight train makes an amazing Chinese experience. The beds come in a hard bed or soft bed. I’ve only experienced the hard bed where each cove is shared between 6 people (3 bunk bed on two sides) and no door. Aim for the bottom bed, as the middle and top beds have about 40cm vertical space so you can’t really sit up. On the other hand, the soft bed has a closed compartment shared between 4 people (2 bunk bed on two sides). Most high-speed trains gao tie 高铁 (code G,D,C) do not run overnight. More info on Chinese train travel here.
Da zhong dian ping 大众点评 is Chinese-only app which works like Yelp but transcends beyond food and drinks. It shows the most popular dishes in each establishment AND includes listings of entertainment, KTV, health and fitness, hotel, hospital, parking, car maintenance, tutoring, etc. Check each vendor’s listing to see their special offer. Note: Some Chinese reading skills are required to navigate within the app.
Vanessa is an Indonesian Australian who gets mistaken as a Southern Chinese/Guangdong-er all the time. When she's not wandering around China or riding her bike around Beijing, she spends her time writing the ultimate China's travel guide on Medium.