When planning your trip

  • Be aware that Google Maps doesn’t even contain most information about China. For example:
    • Chengdu currently has four subway lines in operation with a further twelve lines planned, but Google Maps is only aware of the existence of two subway lines.
    • Google Maps cannot give you any directions that include the (extensive) public bus systems.
    • Leshan looks like a tiny provincial town based on the number of buildings that exist on Google Maps, but it’s actually a city about the size / population of Chicago.
  • Try not to store your itineraries / confirmations on Google services because they are blocked in China. Use Microsoft services instead. You can use VPN to get around the blocks (as long as you are not using wifi) but it’s an annoying process, more on this below.
  • If you can read Chinese, use Baidu Maps, Dianping (mobile app works much better than desktop). If you can’t read Chinese, get Pleco on your phone.
  • CTrip.com has very competitive prices on flights and hotels, consider using them instead of non-Chinese OTAs. It was even trivial for me to get flight reservations refunded.

Tips on arranging airfare / trains

  • If you book train tickets as a foreigner, you must pick up the train tickets at ANY train station, doesn’t have to be the one that you depart from. You need your passport, but you cannot use the automated kiosks, only staffed ticket windows.
    • If you pick up the tickets from the same station you depart from, there is no fee. From any other station, there is a 5 yuan fee. 
    • Highly recommend picking up train tickets in advance, preferably at provincial, non-busy train stations. For instance, if you go from Chengdu-Emei, and you have several other train trips planned, you can pick up all of your subsequent train tickets at the Emei station. This way you will avoid the stupendous lines at the big city stations.
    • If you miss a train, don’t stress out, it’s no big deal to change to a subsequent train by approaching any staffed ticket window. Trains are very frequent in China, you will probably only be delayed by an hour or so. There won’t be any change fees.
      • Even if a subsequent train is sold out, you can get a standing ticket if you’re willing to tough it out.
    • If you want to leave early and you know there exists an earlier train to your destination, it’s no big deal to change your ticket. There won’t be any change fees.
  • Try to resist the urge to book airfare too far ahead of time. The logic that booking earlier is better is completely reversed in China. If you book more than 60 days out you will probably get a terrible price. There generally seems to be too much supply in most markets, even in peak season. Try booking one month or two weeks out.
  • Security checks at airports and train stations is intense, and they do not care if you are about to miss your train or flight.
    • If taking a train at a big city station, it could take you up to 15 minutes to find a staffed ticket window since you cannot use the ubiquitous automatic kiosks, and another 15 minutes of waiting in line to pick up your ticket, then another 15 minutes to pass through security checks. Trains board from about 15 minutes ahead of departure up to 5 minutes before departure, after that boarding window is over, there is no amount of money or charm that will get you on that train.
    • Taking a train at a small station that only serves a few routes is super relaxed by comparison.

Objects you might want

  • A pollution mask. I ended up buying a Cambridge brand mask (https://cambridgemask.com/) because they look nice, even though I don’t approve of the fact that the mask itself is the filter, and there is no way to thoroughly wash it. This means that even though the lifespan of the mask is quite long, you will always be breathing through all the stuff that has been accumulated in the mask to date.
  • A plug adapter. The cost of these things can range from 15 yuan at a local supermarket, to 45 usd in an airport. They are not widely stocked.

Virtual / electronic things you might want

  • A no-withdrawal fee checking account. As sad as it is to be forced to conduct business in cash, foreigners will generally not be able to set up mobile payment options because both Alipay and WeChat Wallet require Chinese bank cards. Furthermore, foreign credit card acceptance (Visa, Mastercard, Discover) is also extremely limited; most merchants only support UnionPay. Even if Visa is technically accepted, if your credit card is from the USA then it probably won’t work due to chip-sig-ness vs chip-pin-ness.
    • This especially sucks because practically everything in China from hotels to random street vendors are migrating to mobile payments. In some instances, it is downright difficult to find a way to pay with cash, for example:
      • A busy guokui vendor was juggling making food, packaging the food, and taking orders .The customers making mobile payments just flashed their payment confirmation. When I had to pay with cash, they couldn’t even be bothered to count it, just had me throw my bills into a bucket.
      • I had to visit 3 subway stations in Shanghai before I found one that would sell me a metro pass with cash. The other stations could only take mobile payments or Chinese bank cards.
  • A sim card. Even if your American wireless company supports roaming, or says that they provide free roaming in China, you will probably be frustrated by the slow speeds. If you’re confident that you will not need 4g or 3g speeds while traveling then you can try to rely on the slower speeds, but the only way to get high speed service is by buying a sim card.
    • Make sure the bands supported by the Chinese network provider (such as China Mobile or China Unicom) match the bands supported by your cell phone model.
    • The cost is about $15 for 1 GB of 4G data, can be topped up by visiting one of the ubiquitous mobile phone shops, and is good for multiple months.
    • I think it was a good investment because there was literally nowhere out of range of 4G data. I got coverage on mountaintops and in remote Tibetan valleys.
      • Many wifi networks require you to authenticate with a text message, and they can only handle sending the text message to a Chinese phone number, so you need a sim card to get a Chinese number. 
      • Even though they kind of screwed me when coverage cut off for no reason on the 12th day of service, and nobody in the entire phone company had sufficient access / knowledge to figure it out.
        • I called the customer service hotline and received an automated message telling me to “Please call the customer service hotline.”
    • Wifi is ubiquitous, I used less than 500 MB of data over 2 weeks.
  • VPN. Note that VPN won’t work at all if you are connected to a wifi network, but you can still use it when you are not on wifi. Every time you connect to wifi your VPN will disconnect.
    • To avoid the need for a VPN, just don’t use the blocked services. Easier said than done I know, but here are some suggestions:
      • Everything to do with Google is blocked, but Microsoft  services (Outlook, OneDrive, Bing) are not.
      • If your OTA (like Orbitz) uses facebook to log in, that will be blocked so be careful.
    • If you insist on using Google and other blocked services, then consider buying a sim card with more data allowance, and never use wifi.