This past winter break, my mother, brother and I traveled to China to visit my grandparents. The last time we made the voyage to China, I had just finished 6th grade, and the last time I visited my grandparents, I had just finished my freshman year of high school. It was a trip long overdue.
We decided to split our trip in half, spending half of it in Beijing with my grandparents, and the second half exploring new places around Xi’an, or Chang’an, the previous capital of China through the Tang Dynasty.
Before I go into detail about my trip, here is my list of advice and “need-to-know” information for anyone traveling to China:
- Get a VPN before you leave for China: China tightly regulates its Internet, and that includes Google and social media. If you want to post those “insta-worthy” pictures or simply check your gmail, you will need a VPN. I used a free VPN app on my iPhone called VPNProxyMaster, and it worked decently well. I would however be careful, as China has started to crack down heavily on VPN usage.
- China is heavily reliant on WeChat: If you want a taxi, you need a WeChat. If you want to message someone, you need a WeChat. If you even wanted to enter the Forbidden City, you have to pay with WeChat. WeChat is however restricted, and to call taxis you would need to open a Chinese bank account. I recommend talking to your hotel concierge about booking cars or creating travel arrangements. As more Westerners visit China, they must know the best way to get around, though it may not be cheap. I was however fortunate that my mom’s family friend lives in China, and she and her son were able to help us around the city. And speaking of transportation …
- Using the train and domestic flights: For international visitors using the train, which my family and I took to see the Longmen Grottoes, I highly recommend getting there very early. You must enter a separate entrance and be prepared to show your passport when you purchase your tickets. Take note of the last returning train, and plan to be back ahead of time, accounting for traffic to reach the train station. The train ride was very interesting as well. The landscapes and factories reminded me of the dystopian world of The Hunger Games – barren and full of factories, unlike anyplace I’ve seen in America (and Chinese government advertising reminds me a lot of Panem’s Capital). Additionally, we took a plane from Beijing to Xi’an. On domestic flights in China, phones must be turned off completely – there is no such thing as airplane mode so bring something else to do!
- The pollution is BAD: Get a face mask. Truthfully, you will want something, anything to be between your lungs and the smoke outside. There is no such thing as ‘fresh air’. My weather app constantly said “hazardous conditions” outside.
- Chinese etiquette is different: I would just like to warn you that street vendors know no personal space and will follow you for blocks. Be prepared for lots of spitting. Bring your own toilet paper and soap. The bathrooms are a volatile place and you will be lucky if there’s running water. Also, be prepared to squat. Additionally, the taxi drivers there are crazy. I was in a car once that would truly give the drivers in Fast and Furious a run for their money – I was sure I wasn’t getting out of that car alive.
- Summer in China is CROWDED: Visit at a less conventional time if possible. This trip, I revisited the Forbidden City, Great Wall, and the Summer Palace, and the lack of crowds made the trip much more enjoyable! I would say that the Great Wall and Summer Palace could be more beautiful in Fall or Spring with the trees changing colors or the flowers blooming, but truly having less people there can make all the difference.
Lastly, I would just say to embrace the food and embrace the history of China (but also pack some American snacks). China’s history is so incredible, and there is so much of it remaining, luckily. Visiting China is eye-opening in so many ways coming from a Western society… you’ll have to visit to truly understand.
Now, for my favorite parts of my trip:
The Forbidden City
The Summer Palace
The Great Wall of China
Pro tip: there are many sections of the Wall available to visit, but I preferred the section at Mutianyu; it is incredible family friendly, and far from Beijing, so less crowded. The views are much better. Additionally, former US presidents and first ladies have visited this section (the ski-lifts up have their names inscribed on the window).
And if you visit in winter…bring gloves.
Terra Cotta Warriors
I’ll be forever thankful for the time I got to spend with my family this winter, despite some unpleasant experiences. Definitely one for the books…