Some tips for first-time China travelers Pt. 1

I have talked to a few people lately who told me they are planning a first trip to China.  Although I have written about first trips to China before these posts are more focused on first-time vendor visits and I have really not written a post about first-time China travel for the general traveler.  Accordingly, over the next two posts I will talk about travelling to China.

Best time to travel to China

I have always enjoyed travelling to China in the Spring and Summer. There are a lot of tourists at this time but generally that means that the service industry is in high gear and you will encounter fewer problems.  There are also no major holidays in China during the summer. The time to avoid China travel is during major holidays because transportation hubs are crowded beyond belief.  Major holidays that come to mind are Spring Festival ( Jan Feb), National Day ( Oct) and May Day ( May).  Don’t make the mistake of looking at the Calendar and thinking these holidays last for a day or two e.g. May Day. In fact, holidays in China can impact local transportation for a week or two, and even longer.  So a good rule might be this:  Don’t plan travel in China that a month before or after a major holiday. Check this list carefully and avoid travel in China around these times. China Holidays

Booking  your flight

The flight to China from overseas is lengthy and can be exhausting. For example, it takes 12-13 hrs from San Francisco to Shanghai and 15-16 hrs from NY to Shanghai.  So do yourself a favor and try to book a non-stop flight.  If you stopover in Tokyo, for example, you will have to get off the plane, go through transit security and then get back on the plane. This is not something you look forward to after having been on a plane for ten hours.  The best carriers are Cathay Pacific, China Eastern, China Airlines.  In fact, you may get better service flying the Chinese airlines than the other major carriers. A case in point: once  I was on a Japan Airlines flight that was forced to wait on the tarmac at the airport in Guangzhou for four hours during a thunderstorm. The pilot complained that some of the Chinese airlines had been allowed to take off but the Japanese carrier was made to wait. After that experience, when travelling to China from Japan I always made sure to book China Eastern.   

Selecting a hotel

Hotels in China age fast. Travelling to Guangzhou for the Canton Fair, I used to stay at the Ramada Plaza.  Unlike the Ramada chain in the US which is tacky, if nothing else, the Ramada hotels in China are first class, five star hotels.  And the Ramada Guangzhou was no exception.  It was a beautiful hotel, first class all the way when it opened in 2007 and I looked forward to staying there over the subsequent 3-4 years whenever I traveled to Guangzhou.  However, after a few years I started to notice that the hotel was beginning to look run down; tiles were coming off the floor, the gym which used to be open 24 hrs a day was now open just a few hrs a day,  chain smoking locals seemed to outnumber sophisticated international buyers in the lobby etc etc.  The transformation was noticeable.   So see how old the hotel is. If it is more than 10 years old there are likely issues..  The newer the better.  Opt for a Western Chain, Sheraton, Hyatt, Holiday Inn, These hotels are much nicer than their American equivalents. They are all western managed and the services tend to be extraordinary. You will also profit from the use of an airport shuttle. Arriving in China for the first time after a long flight can be overwhelming and you will appreciate the airport shuttle. Don’t overlook this.  Regarding Chinese hotels you will not get nearly as nice service in a Chinese managed hotel, the exception being the historical Chinese hotels  e.g. Peace Hotel in Shanghai,  Peking Hotel in Beijing. 

Finally, one more tip is to choose a hotel that is within walking distance to a metro or bus. In this way, you will not have to rely on taxis to get around.  The metros in China’s big cities are very user-friendly and have announcements in English. .

Applying for your visa

Once you have your itinerary planned and tickets and hotel booked you need to go to the Chinese Consulate or Embassy in your area and apply for a visa.  There are many categories of Visa so you have to make sure you apply for the appropriate category.  Citizens from certain countries are exempt from visa requirements so be sure to check all this carefully.  Visas are valid only for a limited time so make sure you have looked at your schedule carefully.  A visa approval generally takes no more than a week and there is an expedited service. You should also run your itinerary by a local travel agent.

Here is the link to the visa page of the China Consulate in San Francisco. All visa categories are listed here.  China Visa types

Learning some Chinese 

Don’t make the mistake of going to China not being able to speak some Chinese.  If you are planning this trip well in advance, as you should, your preparations should include a course in Chinese, whether that is online or at your local adult school. Your trip will be so much more enjoyable if you are able to communicate, even at a very rudimentary level, with your Chinese hosts.  And you will probably enjoy better service all around if you attempt to speak some Chinese.    At the very least learn how to say thank you and perhaps some weather terms. And if you really want to impress your hosts learn how to write a few characters.








How to survive a Chinese banquet

What people are saying about Mulberry Fields
What you say is absolutely true about what you need to do to succeed in China.” – a company in Italy

Just some more today on my client in Toronto who will be making his first trip to China at the end of this month. He tells me that he is allergic to crab and was thinking about getting some cards made up with the message – in Chinese – that he cannot eat crab. I told him I thought this was being overly careful – not to mention that it would just accentuate his inability to speak Chinese earning him little respect from his hosts. It would after all be better to simply learn how to say “I don’t eat crab” in Mandarin than to hand someone a card on which this statement was printed. I told him he just needs to inform his hosts that he cannot eat crab and that should be enough to get him through the meal without breaking out in hives.

In fact if you travel to China and have any dietary restrictions you will have no problem as long as you tell your hosts beforehand and are somewhat vigilant during the meal. You need to be vigilant because just because you don’t eat fish does not mean it won’t be ordered. So it is always good to confirm with your hosts what you are eating all the more so because there will quite a few dishes on the table at a normal sized dinner or banquet. But relax because the Chinese are the consummate hosts and usually there is someone at the table who is watching out for you. You can think of this person as your “monitor.”

However, being allergic to something and not wishing to eat something because it does not sound or look palatable are two entirely different things. You should never decline any food that is served to you in China even if that includes some of the more unappetizing things that show up regularly at a Chinese banquet e.g. tongue, snake, chicken feet, mule, etc.etc I think this is sheer courtesy no matter where you are. Yet it is uncanny how many times I have been to China with foreign guests who shamelessly winced as they were offered something and then deferred much to the embarrassment of their Chinese hosts. Imagine if someone came to your house for dinner and you prepared an extravagant meal for them only to see them turn up their nose in disgust at one of your dishes. So the best advice is to stomach what you can’t eat ( no pun intended). At the very least it will make for a great story when you get home.

Drinking is another thing you cannot avoid unless you simply do not or can not drink. If you explain this to your hosts they will respect this. But be warned that there is no such thing as drinking in moderation at a Chinese banquet, especially for males. In other words you cannot tell yourself or your hosts that you will have just one beer and quit at that. If you don’t drink with them they will interpret that to mean you do not enjoy their company. In Chinese there is an expression for this. 一醉方休 不醉不归 ‘ yi zui fang xiu bu zui bu gui ‘ which simply means you don’t go home until you are drunk.

The expression is the rule.

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Travelling to Shanghai ? Consider the Astor House Hotel

What people are saying about Mulberry Fields
Your blog posts are excellent..” – a company in California with a presence in China

I am advising my Toronto client on a trip to China at the end of the month. He will be arriving and departing from Shanghai and so he was asking me where he should stay while in Shanghai as this is his first visit there. He said a friend told him he should stay on the Bund, a piece of advice I have no problem with since the Bund offers a very interesting architectural panorama of old Shanghai, once known as the “Paris of the East.” I suggested he consider the Peace Hotel, the most famous hotel on the Bund but he said that was a little beyond his budget for this trip. I then suggested what I described for him as the “budget Peace Hotel,” the Astor House Hotel, or as it has been known since 1959, the Pujiang Fandian.

The Astor House Hotel was at one time the most famous hotel in Asia, state of the art in its time. In 1882 a light bulb went on in China for the first time – outside the Astor House. In 1913 sound film made its debut in China, at the Astor House. Charlie Chaplin stayed at the Astor House as did Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and Ulysses Grant to name a few people of note. Zhou En Lai was in hiding at the hotel when he was fleeing the Nationalists in the 1930s. Only in 1929 when the Peace Hotel opened did the Astor House Hotel cease to be a rendezvous for the rich and fashionable.

I stayed at the Astor House once for a few days and enjoyed it. Absent is the din and perpetual front lobby commotion that you find at the more popular Peace Hotel around the corner. The halls of Astor House are ghostly quite and the slight mildewy odor reinforces the sense that you are in something very old. As you descend the creaking mahogany staircase in the back of the hotel, it is very easy to engage your imagination and think that long ago Christy Mathewson (another guest of the hotel) descended the same staircase. Granted the bar, the business center and food leave much to be desired, the rooms are Spartan and the staff cannot speak English without a dictionary in hand, but for a couple of nights the inconvenience is well worth the experience. On the other hand, if you are not a history buff, you would probably do a lot better staying at the Ramada Plaza or one of the other antiseptic international hotel chains of which in Shanghai these days there are plenty.

But for me if I am travelling to Shanghai and want to stay near the Bund there are only two hotels: the Peace Hotel or The Astor House Hotel.