Six Things You Need for Your Trip to China


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.

P.S. Handrails aren’t a given

3. Practice using chopsticks. Don’t worry about tidiness. Bring that noodle bowl up to your face and slurp those babies up.

Chopsticks before lunch, Beijing
Chopsticks after lunch

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.)

Many signs are in English or use English letters

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.

Swimming pool, Opposite House Hotel, Beijing

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.

Our friend Myra hamming it up at a Hong Kong street cafe we never would have attempted on our own.

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.

Full moon over Shanghai


  • How exciting that you were able to visit the country. So many stories you must have! And I am very familiar with the Turkish toilets. Had one years ago when I was an Au Pair girl in France. 🙂


  • You must have amazing stories! Mine are of the garden tourist variety. So tell me, are we missing out on healthy legs or something since none of us westerners can squat?


  • China is on my list of places to visit – for now, not enough time or money… sounds like a great trip! Ran across a couple of those toilets in Paris years ago… wasn’t sure what to do…


  • Is that what they’re called – I’ve called them something else! Enjoyed reading your post and found it very informative. What a great adventure. I will be going to Japan this year and having a GPS and app for translating. It would make life easier. Will check out Trip Advisor. Although Japan is very clean, I always carry toilettes with me. What time of year did you go? Will look for future posts. By the way, nice photos.


    • We went in late April. Ended up inadvertently visiting Red Square on May Day. That was a mistake.

      We both had a translating app, but didn’t use it much. Cards with our hotel names written out were very helpful though. You are smart to carry toilettes with you. I learned the hard way. You probably already have, but if not, download a VPN app, too. It will get you on the NSA’s watch list, but will otherwise protect your searches. Happy travels! When do you go?


  • “Get your thighs ready.” Truly Julia, for the life of me, I really did try to keep it clean when I first read this announcement on Facebook. But it was hard to do. Now I know what you were talking about. You crack me up girlfriend! Ah yes, the old peeing in a hole in the ground. Did that one back in the day in a restroom at the rail station in Florence, Italy. THAT was an experience. Works well in a dress, but in pants, not so much. Made me appreciate toilets, if ya know what I mean. We’ve come a long way baby! I see that you’ve been getting around lately Julia. Good for you! Traveling is awesome. I love meeting new people and learning about other cultures. I’m so glad you had an amazing trip. 🙂


    • Thanks Karen! I agree about the pants vs. dresses. So much easier to be modest in a dress, too. There was this one emergency stop at a public facility – no handrails, no stalls, just me and two other gray-hairs line up like ducks on a nest. Yeah toilets!


  • Glad you had a friend living there to show you around while in China! Makes a lot of difference. (But I haven’t been to China yet.)

    Methinks the squatting toilet would get tiring to cope with.

    Loved that chopstick ceramic rest that you featured in your photo!


    • It wasn’t the squatting so much as the lack of privacy. We’re spoiled.

      Do you think you’ll make it to China?

      Sent from my iPhone



      • I seriously wonder when I would ever be going to China. My travel dollars are spent on air flights to spend time with family in British Columbia and Ontario.

        If Canada wasn’t such a friggin’ large country for travel…


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