1. Visa. If you live in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Chicago or Washington, D.C., not a problem. Go to the Chinese Embassy and get one. If you don’t, here’s the deal: the rules require someone to physically walk into a Chinese embassy. It doesn’t have to be you. We used a travel agent, but many Americans use an agency like My China Visa. Allow three weeks, start to finish. Yes, it is nerve-wracking to send your passport and hard earned cash off to an agency that might or might not be reputable. Check out agency reviews and comparison shop first! As of this writing, the cost was about $225 for agent fees, shipping and consular fees. Expedited applications cost extra. For specifics see the Chinese Embassy website. Note: proofread your application carefully, and fill EVERYTHING in, including hotel reservations, with confirmations from the hotels.
2. Practice squatting.
3. Practice using chopsticks. Don’t worry about tidiness. Bring that noodle bowl up to your face and slurp those babies up.
4. A guide – human or electronic. Few people on the street speak English, and Chinese cities are not great places to wander around in, hoping for a find. There are finds every 10 feet, but you’ll miss them without help. Five years ago, you probably needed a human guide, period, and if you are traveling outside the major cities, you still need one. China is westernizing rapidly, however. Many street signs in the large cities have English letters as well as Chinese characters, and if you have an iPhone, and an international data plan, you can get around nicely on your own. In nine days, we used about $30 of data and GPS’d our way around Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. Trip Advisor has a free app with downloadable maps of all three cities, and walking routes that are frequently updated by users. Warning: this works best with two of you, one to navigate using the phone, and one to watch where you’re going. (Coming soon: a future post on safely using personal electronics when visiting China.)
5. If you can, spring for a comfortable hotel. After a day wandering the streets, which can be crowded and dusty, it’s really, really nice to have a retreat, and China offers some spectacular options.
6. Friends. Nothing beats help from an insider. Look up old acquaintances or friends of friends and offer to take them out for a meal or tea in exchange for tips on using public transit, getting to a uncrowded spot on the Great Wall, a back street tour or restaurant that you’d otherwise miss.
I arrived in China ready for deprivation and difficulties, but instead, had one wondrous adventure after another. This is a country on the move, full of ambition, change and contagious energy. Prepare well, ahead of time, and then be ready to let go and have fun.