I’ve been to China four times now, and I get asked a lot why do you keep going back?
Truth be told, I don’t think I’d ever tire of the country. It’s a completely unique place, that revels in its own culture and has so much to offer tourists.
It’s the most populated and one of the largest countries in the world, and its been at the forefront of so many crucial parts of history.
Yet, it remains rather unvisited. Why is this?
The visa process can be a bit of a pain – I’ll give you that. But it is getting easier and easier, and nowadays tourists can get a 2 year multiple entry visa.
Other reasons why people don’t visit China are because of the language barrier, the culture shock, or misconceptions that they have about the country.
I’m not going to lie, travelling in China does have its difficulties. I’ll go into some at the bottom of this post. But when it comes to the debate of whether China is worth visiting, I strongly vote in its favour. China should be somewhere you go in 2020.
Why? Well, let’s just name a few reasons…
Reasons to visit China
There’s nowhere in this world quite like it
Every country is unique and special, I know. But China is so unlike anywhere else on this planet in every possible way. It has its own food, distinct language and script, cultures, and a fascinating history.
It has branches of its own religion, it has cities that you couldn’t imagine in any other corner of the world and unique flora and fauna.
Nobody can deny that the Chinese culture is unique. There’s no place like China.
The food is incredible (and nothing like what you’ll have at home)
Chinese food in the UK is, to put it politely, disgusting. Balls of processed chicken covered in batter are not Chinese, they’re a warped type of chicken nugget. Sweet and sour is acceptable as a dish on its own, in my opinion, but it has no place in a Chinese kitchen.
Real Chinese food is dumplings, noodle soups, hotpots, fried vegetables and tofu and of course bountiful rice.
A lot of people consider travelling China as a vegetarian or vegan to be a challenge, but it really isn’t that bad – I’ve always been at least vegetarian when I’ve been in China, and while there have been instances where maybe some meat stock might have found its way into my dinner, or a couple of times I have had to scrape some meat off of my dish, 95% of the time I’ve been able to find fried veggies, tofu and rice no problem. They do eat a lot of meat in China, but they also eat a lot of vegetables.
If you want to go to China but are worried about the food, know that it is varied, with different cuisines from each province. There are also vegetarian restaurants in every big city, and if you’re really stuck, Western restaurants as well. Out in the provinces, you’ll struggle to find Western food, but there’s always fried veg or meat and rice.
The People are Wonderful
Chinese people, like Chinese culture, get a bit of unfair judgment. The culture is very, very different to that of the UK, so people do act differently.
A lot of the time, Chinese people don’t speak English, so if we try to talk to them in English they will look at us weirdly. If you’ve ever experienced someone speaking rapid Chinese to you and you don’t speak the language, you’ll probably react the same.
Also, Chinese is naturally a more heated language, with conversations sometimes seeming angry, when actually they are the opposite. My stepmother is Chinese and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard her talking to her family on the phone, thinking they’re having a blazing row, when really they’re talking about the weather. Sometimes this style of speaking can be translated into English, especially if the person hasn’t had much practice with speaking English.
All these differences aside, Chinese people who can speak English are absolutely incredible. Because China doesn’t see all that many tourists, especially considering the size of the country, English-speaking Chinese are always so keen to help travellers out, and genuinely want to make friends with people exploring their country. I’ve had a lot of help and guidance from Chinese people I’ve met in China, many who have gone out of their way just to help me out.
Sure, a lot of Chinese people might stare and request a lot of photos, but it’s nearly always due to curiosity – the country saw no tourists for a long time, and spots of China still see very few. I guarantee they will be wishing that you had a common language so they can communicate with you, and the ones that do have a common language will be happy to discuss all of this with you!
There’s plenty of nature
A lot of people seem to avoid China because they think it’s one giant city. This couldn’t be further from the truth – China has some of the most spectacular nature I’ve seen anywhere in the world. From the non-touristy parts of the Great Wall that nature has reclaimed (I went camping on it!), to the strikingly blue waterfalls of Jiuzhaigou, to the Avatar national park of Zhangjiajie, to the holy mountain Huashan… I could go on.
Near most cities, there’s a day trip or multi-day trip in surrounding nature. China’s a huge country, and while yes, there are lots of megacities, there’s just as many national parks and beautiful natural attractions just waiting to be explored.
The cities are futuristic and fascinating
That being said, if you are a city slicker, you’ll be spoilt in China. The most famous are Beijing and Shanghai, two starkly contrasting cities, both important to visit to get a slice of modern-day China.
You can enjoy temples and palaces in Beijing, as well as traditional shows like the Beijing opera, and much more (check out my Beijing itinerary for more information!) and then hop onto a bullet train or overnight train to Shanghai and see its glittering skyline, many city parks and fascinating museums (Shanghai itinerary coming soon!).
Then there are numerous other cities worth visiting. Xi’an has the Terracotta Warriors and the Muslim Quarter, which nods to its geographical position as a Western Chinese city at the end of the Silk Road.
Chengdu is famous for pandas (read a little about my thoughts on the Chengdu Panda Base here) and really spicy food.
Hangzhou has a beautiful lake, Harbin has an ice festival, Nanjing has some very heartbreaking WW2 history, and Guilin has a distinct South East Asian influence.
Read my 20 best places to visit in China article for more.
Train travel is an adventure
Train travel in China is worth experiencing. If you’ve taken sleeper trains around the world (you can read about my adventures in Thailand, Turkey, Mongolia, Russia and Central Asia!) you’ll notice some similarities, but there are also plenty of unique things about train travel in China.
Trains ply the entire country, some routes taking 2-3 days, with stops at many stations in between. You can get out and sample local delicacies straight from the train platform (just make sure that you get back on the train in time!), or just watch the world go by. You can choose from first-class ‘soft’ sleepers, with 4-berth cabins, and second class cabins, with triple bunk beds in a wagon.
Or, try the Chinese bullet trains for a really unique adventure – these trains travel at speeds of up to 300 kmph or sometimes more, and are flashy, modern and comfortable. You can travel from north to south in these trains in less than 12 hours.
Definitely take some time to experience Chinese train travel and explore the country as the locals do – it’s much more fun than flying from A to B, I promise!
There’s more culture and history than you could ever explore in your lifetime
I’ve mentioned China’s distinct culture already, but there’s really so much to explore. Arts, religion, and music are all completely unique here, and there are plenty of things to do to absorb them.
Chinese history also makes for some fascinating tourism. The nation was extremely developed in ancient times – much more than any Western countries – but went through more turbulent times in modern history.
There’s so much ancient history just waiting to be tapped into in China, as well as some more modern stories.
It’ll take you much more than one trip to understand China – I’m on my fourth and I don’t think I ever will – but visiting for the first time is definitely a start!
There’s so much diversity
You might not think it, but there’s an amazing amount of diversity within China. Different cultures seep in from each of its international borders, people speak in different dialects (although nearly all of China speaks Mandarin) and regional differences are actually very stark, once you’re looking for them.
There’s geographical diversity too; the South is tropical yet mountainous, with some of the most epic scenery you’ll see in Asia, and the north is more barren as it gives way to the Gobi and Mongolian steppe.
You’ll find most types of sceneries in China, and you’ll find a range of different cultures as well.
It’s very safe
China is foreign and at times overwhelming, yes, but it’s very very safe. Watch out for pickpockets in big cities – like you should anywhere – and be mindful of scams, but the incidence of violent crime, kidnapping etc. is virtually none.
I’ve always said, when travelling in China “I might end up in the wrong place at 3am because I have no idea what’s going on and am hopelessly lost, but I know that I won’t be in any danger”.
Partially because of culture and partially due to strict repercussions for criminals, China has some of the lowest levels of violent crime in the world, making it safe for travellers. You can read a bit more about this in my solo travel in China guide.
Things to bear in mind before visiting China
I’m not going to say that China is a paradise where everything always goes smoothly and I’ve loved every second of my travels there.
There have been times where I’ve felt isolated, there have been times where I’ve been so frustrated I’ve felt like pulling my hair out and there was one incident where I broke down in tears in the middle of Shanghai station because the ticket vendor wouldn’t change my ticket, despite me having a changeable ticket and clear instructions in Chinese about what I wanted.
(I will mention that this is one of the times that a local went out of their way to help me – a woman who could speak fluent English asked me if I needed help, and then queued up with me for half an hour so she could translate and get my ticket exchanged!).
There are some things to consider before visiting China – some difficulties that you might face while in the country. Some people might consider these as reasons to not visit China, but I think the reasons to visit China outweigh these! However, do bear in mind the following…
China can be very overwhelming
China is different to the Western world – and while this is great in many ways, it does take some getting used to.
People do spit in the streets, there can be a lot of smog, and although I’ve explained earlier why this happens, sometimes people can be dismissive when you ask them for help – often because they can’t speak English.
There’s always a way around things, but it can be overwhelming. Do make sure you’re aware of this and ready for a culture shock before visiting China.
It is good for travelling solo – but you’ve got to be in the right frame of mind
Solo travel in China is fun, you’ll be around like-minded travellers in hostels and as mentioned, there are opportunities to meet local people as well. However, if you venture out of the big cities, you may well find yourself spending a lot of time alone.
Which is fun if you like spending time alone, but if you don’t you might find yourself quite isolated. Be aware of this when planning your China itinerary – if your aim is to meet other travellers, it’s probably best to stick to Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Chengdu – and maybe visit places with people you meet there.
You could also look at doing a group tour of China, like this one with GAdventures.
There are some restrictions
China is known as a restrictive place, and while it’s not that bad, there are some things that you’ll notice as a traveller. First is the Great Firewall of China, which blocks various websites including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube and Google.
There is also sometimes restriction of movement – it’s difficult to travel to Xinjiang, for example, and sometimes cities can be blocked off to foreigners (I was not allowed to visit Hangzhou in 2016 due to the G20 summit there).
It’s good to know about these, but they likely won’t have a huge impact on your time in China.
So is China worth visiting?
I think China is definitely worth visiting. It’s a place like no other, with so many things to do and places to see, as well as plenty of hidden spots that haven’t yet been plastered all over Instagram.
If you’re on the fence about visiting China, check out the rest of my China posts for more inspiration about visiting this country.
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