Mood: It's Hot
If you are planning to come to China soon for whatever reason and you have never been before there are some important things to know. Here are a few small comments, observations and facts for you to make your trip here a little more easy.
Note: Most of what is said here is for mainland China. Hong Kong and Macao is quite another mater.
Power plugs and voltage:
Keep in mind that China uses 220 power not 110 like in the states. Though most electronic things these days have built in converters so you can use them everywhere, some things like hair dryers do not. Check your power plug and it will most times have a blurb about the kind of power it takes and so on. Usually it will say something like INPUT 100v-240v, you are safe if it has both those numbers. As for plugs, most of China uses a clever hybrid plug style that can plus in Euro/American/Asian plugs. Also most extension boxes you get here have this hybrid plug in it too, so for the most part you will not have to worry, what you should be careful of though is sometimes its easy for the connection to be loose with these plugs, just be careful when plugging in the first time to make sure there is a connection or you may find your device without power later.
I dont care what anyone says to you about anything. DO NOT EVER EVER EVER DRINK THE WATER. Dysentery is not a fun thing to have. Bottled water for the most part is ok, but be very sure you are buying a new bottle of water, check the cap seal to make sure it is ok before walking off with it. If you leave and notice the cap is bad, toss it, no one will refund it, they will just say you opened it and you will want to crack some heads. Also if you are in a hotel that has a water cooler thing in the room make sure you ask if it is filtered water not tap water, more times then not it is tap water that the Chinese boil before drinking. If you are in a restaurant or the sort, tea will be ok as they have to boil water to make it.
This is very important. If you are traveling by plane or long distance bus or train, take extra care when buying things around the area. My advice is to never buy anything around one of those areas. Inside airports is fine, but outside no. Train stations and bus stations are the gathering points of the most undesirable elements of Chinese society. Once my girl friend and I were at the Chengdu train station and there were 6-7 men in underwear next to the ticket lines shooting heroin in plain site. The police will not do anything about these people because of the horrible risk they are, sort of a catch 22. If you see something like this just get away from it and don't try and snap pictures or anything, the reaction will not be good and the situation will only get worse for everyone.
Also at these transportation hubs, just about anything you buy will be fake. If you want a souvenir like an obviously fake bottle of Pepsi then fine, go for it, but give exact change, sometimes they will argue with you that you gave them exact change when you have not. Like I said, these places are full of undesirable people, also make sure you have your eyes on your things at all times.
China is hot right now, its a mere 37 degrees Celsius outside now but further in the summer the temperature will peak around 43-45 C in this area. Dress accordingly and be careful of walking in and out of highly air conditioned buildings, its easy to catch a cold from the shock to your system.
Chinese food is very diverse, enjoy the differences. Dont expect that you will find any "Chinese" food they have in the states or the sort. For instance "Chao Mian" or fried noodles, is a very broad term here, it could have anything in it prepared according to where you are in the country. You will not see fortune cookies here unless someplace is patronizing its customers. For the most part Chinese people eat the same thing others do, they just make it different, try to keep an open mind. In the cities expect to see lots of pork. Also keep a eye out for MSG, they use it here like mad, its horrible really, ask for "bu yao wei jing" (no MSG) when you order things. Your food may taste a little flat but they do say MSG and Alzheimer is connected, not to mention it usually leaves a bad taste in your mouth later.
By the way, in many areas your average Chinese person would not eat a cat or dog or anything like that either, its just urban legend that everyone here eats it like Americans eat beef, dont worry about it.
Best not to mention it. Dont talk about things like Tibet or other sensitive issues. I dont say this to say its good to succumb to censorship or anything like that, but because you have to realize that the west and the east have two very different views of each other. Force fed propaganda from pro and con elements for years, you are not going to change a persons mind here by spouting western opinions about Chinese issues. Many people here are very proud and believe in the way China is advancing towards a better future despite what you hear on the news which for the most part only focuses on the negative aspects. Maybe you have a good friend here or something, then maybe its safe to talk about a few of the ideas that the west has towards the east but expect to get the "hah, why the hell would you think that?" response. Just remember its two very different worlds, not everything is done the same.
Your average 500ML bottle of soda will be 3 yuan here. In special places expect to pay more, but dont get soaked. Bottled water is usually 1-1.5 yuan. 2 yuan is a joke to pay for water, dont do it. Food is for the most part what the menu says its priced at but things to look out for, some places have bowls and plates and utensils wrapped in plastic, this costs extra. They may be cleaner, maybe not, but you can use them or ask for normal stuff, up to you. Also in some restaurants who are full of themselves they will charge you for things like napkins. Bowls of rice usually have a cost too, 1 yuan or so in a typical outside place.
Staying in places is hard to say, with the Olympics here the people have gone insane with jacking up prices. If you are in the major cities, expect to pay 30-50 dollars a person for a dumpy room. It doesn't mater where you stay, the standard here is lower then it is in the western countries. A 3 star hotel here would probably not even qualify for 2 in the states. Most of the times they just stick fake stars on their hotel ads so always ask to see the room before you stay in a place, especially if the person at the booking station seems apathetic in any way.
The Chinese have had a closed culture for a very long time, expect that if you are white or black or just not Asian looking that people will stare at you. You may hear people walking past you saying "lao wai" which means foreigner, especially if you are outside of Beijing/Shanghai/Hong Kong and those kinds of areas where there are many foreigners. Sad to say, many Chinese are indeed racist and dont really know it. Its not a hot topic here so no one pays attention to remedying the problem. If you are black, sorry to say, you will get a lot more stares and bad looks then white people. There are some unfortunate sayings in Chinese which refers to black as a very bad thing, and many of the sayings have not changed. Many things in Chinese language is antiquated, for instance a street is still called a "horse road". You may find that people will cower away from you or grumble things about you under their breath. What you do about it is up to you but I have learned the best way is to leave it alone. When people mumble "lao wai" to me I just say "zhong quo ren" back at them. Not many people get it.
And while on the topic of race, if they see you are a foreigner, they will charge you more in places like street side stands and little shops. Its a pity but when I go out I try to keep to the larger stores to buy things where the price is already displayed. For water and stuff though I know the prices and so its harder to get me there. If you are at an antiques market or street market selling random stuff, expect the price to be way more then the average Chinese would pay. While the difference might only be a dollar or two, sometimes they will completely try to rip you off. Once we were at a tourist location and got a stone figurine. The person said 1500 yuan right off the bat, we got it for 60 and probably still payed too much for it. Just keep in mind the exchange rates when buying things and think of how much it is in your native money, then make your choice.
If you want to take pictures or something or someone the best way to do it here is shoot first and ask questions later. For the most part Chinese people don't mind you taking their picture, except some locals of Yunnan and other minorities. Some of them highly object to people taking their pictures, sometimes not for the reasons you might think though. People take pictures of people here and what they are doing sometimes not just for a picture but to steal an idea or something from them.
Always keep your passport on you when you walk out the door, you never know when a soldier or police officer will ask you for it. These days with heightened security and awareness random checks are becoming more and more common. Today I had to use my ID to take money out of the bank. Just make sure you keep it safe, pickpockets are everywhere.
There is a saying here, "fake fakes". So many things here are copied and faked, of course without the consent of the originals. Expect to see fake soda, technology, money, cars, just about everything here that has a real has 10 times as many fakes. Oh and yes, I said fake cars. You might see fake Volkswagen Jetta's named Red Flag and Chevy Sparks named Chery QQ. Just watch it when buying things.
Just about any Bank of China will have an ATM where you can take money out of your foreign bank account if you have a card with a Visa logo on it. The charges have never been a problem, in fact I have a hard time noticing if there even was a charge, so basically its nothing.
Money here is pretty straight forward. There are 100 yuan, 50, 20, 10, 5 and 1 yuan bills. Also 1 yuan coins. The smaller denomination, called Jiao, is like cents in America. so 5.5 would refer to 5 yuan and 5 jiao, like $5.50 in the states. On the rare occasion you see a third denomination, Fen, for the most part no one bothers with this anymore, its an antiquated counter and is usually just rounded away.
One thing you will notice is Mao's face is on almost all the money. By rubbing his shirt's right collar you will feel a texture there, also holding up the bill to the light to see a secondary picture on the left side of the bill, the secondary picture is not the same on all the bills, I think on the 20 its a flower...also there is a small reflective hologram in the bottom left of the Mao side where the denomination amount is written and finally with a UV light you can see a special water mark saying how much the money is worth.
China is full of fake money, check EVERYTHING you get from 1-100 yuan. Because you are a foreigner, they will try to unload fake money on you because you dont know any better, always check your money before you leave the counter, finding out later and returning will not get you anything.
I only spent a week in Hong Kong, and did not make it to Macao so I will only have limited things to say. The money in Hong Kong is not the same as the mainland. There are larger bill denominations and everything there is significantly more expensive then the mainland. Expect prices to be more in line with Euro/American prices. When I went there I stayed at a hostel in Causeway Bay, a small room with a bed for two and a personal bathroom, 300 HKD. I highly recommend staying in that area. The surrounding area is great. Hong Kong is shopping paradise for girls and boys.
When you go there one of the first things you need to do is get a OCTOPUS CARD at any MTR subway station. You need to upfront put like 100 HKD into the card and if you are going to be there for a week and going to a lot of places I would stick more in. This card is great, you can use it on the subway, in 7-11 stores, on the bus, and thousands of shops in Hong Kong.
The MTR is the most amazing public transportation system, the subway goes almost everywhere and is fast and frequent. Getting around with the MTR is very easy, even my girlfriend could do it and she has no sense of direction.
When you are there food is no problem, there are all sorts of good stuff there. We found the cheapest place to get lunch was actually Ikea, hot dogs and stuff, but thats not the reason you go to HK is it. Highly recommended is Beef Brisket noodles. Also you can get this with the shrimp dumplings added in, and that is a great combination of good stuff. There are also shops with duck and pork hanging in the window, they ususaly have a rice plate type thing that costs around 25 HKD where you get BBQ pork, Roast Pork (the best) BBQ Duck or Goose, rice, and some vegetables or soup. Painless and simple food you wont have to worry about figuring out. Dim Sum is also interesting but I was distressed to find when I went there that they no longer pushed the cart around and showed you what kind of food there was which meant we were sort of stuck trying to figure out from a menu what was what, instead we sort of went from table to table asking what this and that was and then marking it down. Stores have a lot of things you will find familiar so you wont go hungry here.
Dont be afraid to ask someone for directions, you will find people are usually willing to help no problem, and most HK people (especially the 20 some year old students) speak enough english for you to understand.
By the way, if you area a guy who is going there with a girlfriend or wife who really does not like you to look at other women, I suggest you leave your eyes at home. Luckily my girlfriend likes to watch with me, we sat at a place next to a busy street corner eating dinner watching the passing crowds in a shopping area. Amazing.
I suggest taking the Star Ferry around at least once, also to take an umbrella, it rained a lot while we were there.
Well thats a few of the most obvious things to look for when you are here. Im sure there are many more points to touch on, if you have something you would like to add go ahead.