Traveling to China? A few things you should know

Some of the people reading this blog are planning on coming on YOSA’s tour to China next summer, so I thought it would be helpful to have a few practical pieces of information about your trip. For the rest of you, well, it is often interesting to hear how day-to-day things work in other countries.

Money- Always an important commodity, the question is how to exchange it. My assumption was that, like in Europe, the best thing to do was to just find an ATM and draw money out of the account. But in China, a country much more tightly controlled by the government, it turns out that the cost of changing money is the same everywhere. I bought 3,000 Yuan at an exchange rate of 6.9 Yuan per US$. That’s $435. And it cost me $10.72 to do this. For most of our students traveling on this trip, this would be more than enough money — you could certainly get by on a lot less.

Food- Each morning in the hotel there is a very generous spread of buffet foods from cereal, fruit, yogurt and bread. There are a few Chinese options such as noodles and dumplings, and we have enjoyed an omelet bar and some more traditional cooked breakfast foods such as hash browns, bacon and ham.

There are now a lot of very familiar restaurant chains, particularly American chains. We have a Starbucks next to our hotel and for some reason KFC seems to be everywhere. These types of restaurants tend to find their ways to the main street type of locations so you won’t find them on every other corner.

Of course there will be plenty of traditional Chinese food on the trip. Round tables seating eight to ten people will have a lazy Susan in the middle. Waiters will bring a constant array of dishes and be forever filling your small tea cup with complimentary tea. Very often we have been offered one complimentary beverage which includes a glass of water as well as Coke and Sprite. Then you proceed to spin the lazy Susan around and pick off the food you want to eat and put it on your plate. There always seems to be plenty of options and as you only have to commit to eating what you take off the plate, there are lots of opportunities to try new foods. A lot will look very familiar from your visits to Chinese restaurants in America.

You will also see lots and lots of food vendors selling a wide variety of traditional and rather exotic foods. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable risking this food when there is such an obvious lack of hygiene. A couple of ideas look interesting to try at home such as making hard boiled eggs in tea rather than just plain water. Quite a few things are still alive while they are out on display. Ena is a vegetarian so she finds this particularly disturbing. It was certainly sad to see a tortoise sitting in bowl waiting to be cooked. Another common food in Shanghai is the hairy crab, named for the hairs on its legs. A bucket full of them still alive is also common to see.

Drink- Tap water is probably not potable. I haven’t risked it and just cleaning your teeth there is a different taste in your mouth. Bottled water in the hotel lobby costs the same price as the States, about $2 – $3. However, a quick stop in the plentiful convenience stores (think 7-11 or the type of store attached to a gas station) and you can buy water for about 25c a bottle. And this probably goes without saying, but don’t expect to find any ice for your drink anywhere!

Tea is certainly the way to go in China. We tried some chrysanthemum tea which was somewhat sweet but full of flavor and very refreshing. Green tea is the norm of course but the variety to try is quite outstanding.

Hotel- Our hotel came equipped with a bathroom kit of toothpaste and a toothbrush in addition to the usual soap, shampoo, conditioner and bath gel. Towels are also plentiful and surprisingly large. Internet access is free in our hotel which is a nice perk, although it is only through cable and not Wi-Fi. We also have a convenient safe in the room. It is just the right size to put the lap top in and to leave any extra cash I don’t want to carry around all day. All the travel books advise you to carry your passport with you when out and about. It is the only valid form of ID a tourist has on them – the U.S. driver’s license isn’t much use over here.

I bought a set of adapter plugs and haven’t had any problem charging the computer or the battery for my digital camera. There are hairdryers provided in the rooms as well as irons so unless you have any special requirements, the electric plug conversion is unproblematic.

Stores- There is so much junk knick-knack stores it is hard to know where to start to describe them. They are also full of shop merchants who know how to drive a hard bargain. A lot of places do not have prices on their goods so you have to show an interest in an item and you will be told a price. The rule of thumb is to haggle their price down to about 10% of the original asking price. This is a fun game initially but it soon becomes tiresome as you play out the game each time. For one item I resorted to simply walking away when he didn’t come down enough in price. I was chased down the street and finally offered the price I was looking for.

The Western style shops on the main shopping areas carry the same goods as you are used to seeing in America. In fact, most of what you see in American stores comes from China anyway. The prices are also very similar so don’t expect any bargains here. And they don’t haggle, that is reserved for the street vendors.

Steven Payne

Eggs Cooked in Black Tea

Eggs Cooked in Black Tea


Seafood and Vegetables

Seafood and Vegetables


Chinese Plug and Wall Socket

Chinese Plug and Wall Socket


Hotel Safe

Hotel Safe

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