Thursday, May 1, 2014

China bound - Preparation for visiting the Middle Kingdom

Okay, for those of you that don't know, our family is currently visiting China.  If you've ever wanted to go to China, here are some things that I learned in researching the subject for the past four months.

Get a Chinese Visa

As of the last 5 years, the process has become quite rigorous.  Here is a reader's digest guide to getting a visa and some of the problems that I was either warned against by travel agents, read through travel blogs or experienced personally.

1.  In a nutshell, you need to purchase your tickets before applying for the visa, have hotels booked and accounted for for every night that you will be in China per airline ticket dates IF you don't know someone in China who will vouch that you will stay on their couch for the duration of your stay.  If you know a mainlander (people who are residents of Mongolia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao don't count), that is the easiest way to visit China.

$220 is an expensive piece of paper!

Chinese visa's are pricey too for Americans.  Everywhere else in the world there is a 1 month single entry ($30), 3 month multiple entry ($60) and 1 year unlimited entry ($140) where as the US option is you pay $140 no matter what your intended stay is, so it's recommended to just do the unlimited year.  On top of that, if there isn't a Chinese consulate in your city (there are only 7 in the US) then you have to spend an extra $80 per person to take the paperwork to the consulate in person since they only accept hand delivered applications.

2.  Don't say you're going to Tibet, your visa will automatically be denied.  Tibet is just difficult because you need a permit to enter the region, and then another permit for Everest.  It seems like the easiest way to do Everest is from the Nepal side where you can book your visa while in Nepal without sending off your passport; the sketchy part about it is that China sometimes closes the border and then you're out that vacation.

3.  Make sure all of your paperwork is filled out, and then check it again...and again.  Online there were many grievances aired about getting a visa rejected.  Some of these included :

  • Not filling out the paperwork in all CAPS
  • Leaving any blanks or putting "no", "does not apply" or anything other than N/A in EVERY box that doesn't apply to you
  • Not including the province in the address (even though addresses aren't written to include the province typically)
  • Signing the application in black ink instead of blue ink
I didn't have any troubles, but it took me 2 months to compile everything.  Keep in mind that you don't want to apply for your visa too early because the visa starts from the date you get accepted (can take 4 days - 2 weeks), and not the date of your flight, but you will want to leave room if there is a mistake or if they ask you for additional information.

Do you know Chinese?  Well, learn a little.

I know this one might seem obvious, but China is more than just a place with lots of people and very old things.  It is a place grounded in thousands of years of history, whose people reflect an evolving culture with strong roots. Delving into the places where I wanted to go in China, I was overwhelmed with the sheer volume of history and the cultural effects on different regions in China.  I knew I couldn't take it in all on my own so I went online and looked up Chinese tutors in my area and found Xiao.

Xiao and Neva after our last lesson, the day before our flight to China.

I took 2 months worth of Chinese lessons from Xiao, both from a language aspect, reading pinyin and Chinese characters; as well as a cultural aspect, talking about Chinese folklore, customs, and food. Plus, we made a really good friend! Taking Neva to lessons and practicing the language daily not only made me understand the culture a little better, but it made Neva excited for going to China when she was an active participant in reciting common Chinese phrases and watching movies about the great wall or the monkey king.

We had a dinner and movie night watching this classic Chinese tale of the Monkey King.

You can only learn so much in the time period that you have, but the language really does add cultural insight and a level of independence that you don't get otherwise.  Less people speak the level of English that you may be used to. Yes, the statistics say 70% of China speaks English, but that may be a stat from how many people have taken English classes or include expats because we have not come across many people in Shanghai who speak it very well. When you can't read the characters, people warm up a little quicker when you put in some effort to know the language and culture.  It's kind of saying, "I didn't come here just to see the cool sights, I'm thoroughly interested in your culture and am willing to make the effort." 

Neva made quick friends with her extrovert personality and a "Ni hao" before we even got to Shanghai.

Keeping in Touch

For all you social media addicts out there, you may not know that the internet in China comes with restrictions, some of which include no Facebook, or access to blog sites, etc. To get around this you can route through your VPN at home, otherwise you need to figure out another good way to keep in contact with people that you know.

The request for a cell phone has begun...We just came in for a sim card, Neva.

The internet is pretty slow compared to the US, but I would still recommend getting a sim card for your phone as having the data for GPS is a huge help for navigating in China with street signs you may not be able to read.  Basically, you purchase a prepaid card for $15 with allows you 50 minutes, 200 MB of data, and text messaging.  You are given a phone number that works within all of China. This was the option that made the most sense for us, but there are other plans that can suit your needs.

Good Luck!

Jump right in and have fun! We've only been here a day so I'm definitely no expert, but with my months of preparation, I have been looking forward to sharing this completely foreign family experience with all of my readers and travellers out there.  There are A LOT of people in China, make some friends, learn some history, and eat lots of delicious food; it's worth it.

A friendly street vendor in Shanghai greeting us with a smile and the aroma of freshly made dumplings.

I'll try to blog every day while I'm here, so you can see us make our way across China.  We will visit 8 different cities in 16 days, so stay tuned!

Shanghai on the Labor Day holiday.

Here's the final thought, brought to you by Neva Jeanne, "Thank you to daddy for buying China, and I want to give him a present."


  1. Cool. I look forward to keeping up with the adventure with you guys. Not quite like being there but fun to watch. Have fun and be careful!

  2. Hey sis this is great I will keep following you guys. Have fun and be safe

  3. This is wonderful. Big hug to Xian (as in my brother, not the city you will visit ;-) ) Hope the visit continues to be so much fun.