The China Starter Kit

This blog post was written by Project Pengyou 2016 Summer intern, So-Hyeong Lee

With a reputation as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, China has a lot to offer for a memorable trip. From spectacular scenes of the Great Wall to authentic interactions with locals, many travelers – myself included — often fall in love with the country.

However, going to China for the first time can be intimidating — to make the most of your trip, I’ve put together a China Starter Kit including the essentials as well as a few tips from my own personal experiences.


I. Get Your Visa

The first step you need to take after deciding to visit China is to apply for a visa. The easiest and most flexible option is called the L visa, otherwise known as a tourist visa. Depending on what passport you’re carrying, you’ll need to prepare the usual paperwork — a few documents, identification, passport photos, etc. Visa agencies, such as Mychinavisa and Travisa, are also available if you need assistance or need to rush the process. I recommend that you start preparing your visa application at least 2-3 weeks prior to your departure, just in case you encounter unexpected delays.


II. Technical Support

Another important action you should take is to download helpful mobile apps prior to your departure. In China, many foreign mobile apps such as Google Maps and Facebook are blocked and you will need a VPN (virtual private network) to access them. Additionally, some people experience difficulty accessing their App Store to download new applications.

But, don’t worry – there are tons of helpful apps, such as Baidu Maps and WeChat that can easily substitute some of the inaccessible ones. My personal favorite is BaiduTrans, a translation app that you can use not only for typing sentences, but while in conversation with a microphone option or through photos and highlighting the phrases in the picture you want to translate. This app was very helpful when I was faced with a menu that did not have English translations. I highly recommend downloading at least a couple of the apps on our list and familiarizing yourself to save time!

III. Packing Tips

Packing for a visit to a foreign country is usually a matter of personal preference. With China’s rapid development, it is becoming easier and easier to access many imported goods. However, there are a few things that are still a bit hard to find and will be absolutely vital to bring to set you off on the right foot for a trip to China.

**Note: First-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai will have much easier access to imported goods and conveniences.

  1. Tissues: You can buy it here, but make sure to have some on you at all times – lots of public toilets in China do not have toilet paper.
  2. Hand sanitizer: Bring enough hand sanitizer to clean your hands in between meals, for times when you don’t have access to running water.
  3. Comfortable sneakers: When traveling China, be prepared to walk long distances.
  4. Student ID card: If you are a student, don’t forget your ID. There are lots opportunities for student discounts at tourist attractions.
  5. Medicine: Although you can get medicine in China as well, bring your own for convenience.
  6. Cash: Majority of shops and restaurants commonly prefer cash to credit cards. Convert sufficient cash and make sure your card works in the ATMs in China.
  7. Toiletries and hygiene products: Things like tampons are few and far between. If you prefer a certain type of toiletry, you should bring it with you just in case. Also, note that whitening agents such as bleach are popular in facial soaps and products, so it’s a good idea to bring your own if you don’t want the added chemicals.


I. Build Cultural Knowledge Through Films and Books

Lixin Fan’s heart-wrenching documentary.

If you travel to a place you know nothing about, you’ll likely save a few pictures on your phone and forget about it when you go home. On the other hand, visiting a place where you can see the history and culture you’ve read about come alive in front of your eyes, the smallest experiences and interactions become memorable. Creating connections with China before your trip can definitely enrich your experience.

One great way that I’ve found helps build your overall knowledge about China is to watch documentaries and movies to understand culture through the lives of actual people. The film Last Train Home (2009) portrays the struggles of factory-worker families during the urban transition of the country. China from the Inside (2007) is another documentary that shows some the current challenges China faces and their implications.

*Click the links above to download the films I mentioned in preparation for your long flight!

Another favorite method of mine to build connections with China is reading books. Scottish anthropologist Andrew Lang once said “you can cover a great deal of country in books.” Books can act as a guide for your experiences abroad (check out Team Pengyou’s top 10 books on China to get started).  ChinaHighlights also has a great list of books that encompasses ancient and modern history, culture, art, landscape of China and more.

II. Destinations – Roads Less Traveled and Popular Spots

Zhejiang: Yunhe Rice Terrace
Zhejiang: Yunhe Rice Terrace

A friend I met during my visit to Beijing suggested I stop by nearby cities outside Beijing. He said “lots of people think they saw China after going to Beijing and Shanghai. But, those people are missing out on so many different aspects of this country.” From the ancient villages of Anhui to colorful water caves in Liaoning, China has many beautiful places that will make you want to get out and see the sights. My personal favorite is the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Aside from well-known tourist hot-spots like the Great Wall, China also has plenty of obscure yet stunningly beautiful places that you might want to include in your itinerary.

If you need a little guidance, former Project Pengyou intern, Hannah James, has written a reference for a nine-day backpacking tour of Southeast China. The trip, which is from from Nanjing to Guilin, hits several must-see cities with gorgeous nature that many travelers miss.

III. Survival Chinese

number chinese
hand signs for counting are also different!

Even though most of the younger generation of Chinese understand basic English, you will often find yourself in situations where communication is limited. It is extremely helpful to learn a few words of basic Mandarin. (Take a note that there are also mobile apps, such as Learn Chinese, that has basic Chinese phrases with sound recording you can use without WiFi.) Here are a few key phrases I used a lot:

  • Hello: 你好 (Ní hǎo)
  • Thank you: 谢 谢 (Xiè xiè)
  • I’m sorry/Pardon: 对不起 (Duìbùqǐ)
  • I can’t speak Chinese: 我不会说中文 (Wǒ bùhùi shuō zhōngwén)
  • I don’t understand: 我不明白 (Wǒ bù míngbái) / I understand: 我明白 (Wǒ míngbái)
  • Is this the way to ~ : 这是必经之路 ~ (Zhè shì bì jīng zhī lù ~)
  • Where is the bus station? : 哪里是公交车站?(Nǎlǐ shì gōngjiāo chē zhàn?)
  • Where is the train station? : 火车站在哪里呢?(Huǒchē zhàn zài nǎlǐ ne?)
  • What is this?: 这是什么(Zhè shì shénmè?)
  • I would like to buy ~ : 我要买 ~ (Wǒ yào mǎi)
  • This is too expensive: 太贵了(Tài guìlè)
  • How much is this?: 多少钱?(Duōshǎo qián?)
  • Can I have ~ ?: 我要~. (Wǒ yào ~)
  • I am a vegetarian: 我是一个素食者 (Wǒ shì yīgè sùshí zhě) or 我吃素 (Wǒ chī sù)
  • Can I have water?: 我可以有水? (Wǒ kěyǐ yǒu shuǐ) or 我要水 (Wǒ yào shuǐ)
  • Take out: 带走 (Dài zǒu!)
  • Numbers (see image to the right)



“When you choose to see the world as a classroom, you understand that all experiences are here to teach you something about yourself. And that your life’s journey is about becoming more of who you are. Another miracle: We all get to share in the journey.” – Oprah Winfrey

While in China, go beyond seeing the surface of the country. Try out some of the new street foods and drinks you’ve never seen before. Learn basic Chinese and start a conversation with people you meet on an over-night train. Prepare some karaoke songs to dazzle your new Chinese friends in your KTV adventures.

And remember that your trip to China doesn’t end on the day of departure. A new adventure begins when you keep your experience alive. Share your story of encountering the splendid Chinese architecture or your warm-hearted Chinese neighbors. Keep a blog to remember and continue your unique China experience, with friends and family. Make China not only yours, but pengyous’ classroom by sharing your story with others. And if you’re not a Mandarin speaker, it’s ok! Check out Fellow Pengyou David Ferguson’s post for some tips on surviving the middle kingdom with minimal language skills: Surviving China with a Semester of Chinese.

Image sources: Backpack (featured image), BaiduTransLast Train HomeZhejiangnumbers.