This is especially for those of you visiting China from the UK that don’t live in or near London, Edinburgh or Manchester! You can fill in a form online here. The initial online form takes time and needs to be done carefully - some parts can be confusing, but try not to overthink it, and use their help section. After filling in and printing the online form, you must book a visit to one of their embassies. This may mean additional travel and costs if you don’t live in the vicinity of one. There were people we met during our visit that had travelled all the way from Jersey just to get their visa! Turn it into a nice weekend getaway!
I visited the London Visa Centre. Arrive early and by early I mean before it even opens. The queues add up quickly. We spent about 2 hours in there throughout the whole process. They requested items that they hadn’t asked for prior to arriving in London! Make sure that you print out the following: printed application form, all flight details, all accommodation bookings, any supporting documents (e.g. an invitation letter if you get one). You can print these off at Centre for a very small price via email, but remember - queues and small change! If you want your visa to be posted to your home address, you must get a prepaid stamp and envelope! (They don’t tell you that either…. but there is a post office a few minutes walk away!)
Make sure you budget for the visa - they are not cheap. You will pay for this at your last point during the Centre application process. UK price currently stands at £151 and US price currently at $140.
Chinese culture is very different from western culture in so many ways. The first thing I noticed very quickly was the spitting. Something that westerners would find disgusting when out in public, is a social norm in China. This does not mean that China is a dirty place, in fact, most places I visited were very clean. Personally, I couldn't stand it, but it is simply something you have to put up with and blank out - you cannot make faces and comments to those doing it, when it is completely normal to them.
Secondly, the sheer amount of people and their culture leads to a lack of personal space. Get used to it. They push, queues don't seem to exist and you will be knocked aside occasionally. Please do not be offended, this is not rude at all on their behalf. We actually found that accepting this behaviour and taking on this behaviour worked way better for us! They will not stand aside for you if you are hovering waiting to be served, nor will they be offended if you go to be served when they are doing the same. There were many times where people actually made gestures to help us push ahead!
Finally, in relation to the amount of people - it is noisy! What struck me most though, was that so many people appear to be shouting at one another. We walked past so many people that seemed to be having a full blown argument in the middle of the street! Actually, they aren't... this is just the way they speak to each other and after a while, you kind of stop noticing.
If you’re anything like me, social media is a huge part of life. The thing is, it is well known that China censor pretty much everything, and that includes the likes of Instagram and Facebook. Before you leave, get yourself a Virtual Private Network (VPN). It totally depends on how long you’re going for as to what you pay for. My best experience was with ExpressVPN - I had no issues with their service and the price was great too. In addition to this, get yourself a local SIM before you leave. You can get those when you arrive, but it is so much easier to set it all up just before you land in China, with your VPN already set up. My choice was a data only SIM which I purchased through Amazon and it comes with several different card sizes. Perfect for catching and uploading those 'gram moments.
I'm not sure what it is that makes us assume that many of the places we visit speak English. Why should they? We don't speak theirs most of the time! However, as English is taught in schools in China, I did, shamefully, go with this expectation. I found very quickly that they have no idea what you are saying most of the time, and will also continue to talk to you in Mandarin regardless of your clear lack of understanding! The only place I have found so far with people speaking good English is Yangshou, the stunning mountain region below.
However, there are ways around this. Obviously, you could learn some basic Mandarin, but failing that (it is a difficult language) you could download translator apps, many of which work without internet connection. It is common for most people in China to be on their phones, and they did take kindly to communicating via translation apps! Or... if you're like me, you could just go with a sign language type form of communication which may are may not, depending on who you are, be quite embarrassing! (I demonstrated " where's the toilet" by shrugging, pointing down below and squatting, in my hotel lobby.... but hey, it worked!)
Toilets are just another world in China! Having said that, these are actually fairly common in many parts of the world, especially Asia. The first thing to note is that a lot of their toilets are squat toilets. Stand over a hole, squat, and rinse... Which brings me onto point number 2, that there is rarely any toilet paper! They have water guns to wash after their visit to the toilet, so don't require toilet roll. I strongly suggest carrying a roll everywhere with you! In addition to this, note that there is often a lack of soap to wash your hands - often this was just the result of how busy places were and that they simply were not replacing it. However, other places clearly just did not place any soap in their bathrooms. Take hand sanitiser everywhere! Final point on toilets... in some places, there were no doors. Take for example, a local Hutong we visited - squat toilets with no internal or external door onto the street! Stick to visiting toilets inside restaurants and shopping malls if you want a bit of a privacy!
Don't get me wrong, there are western toilets around! You just have to find them, which is not always possible. You may just have to go with it and squat...and to be quiet honest, you may need one when trying out the local delicacies of the food markets and restaurants!
Save hours researching attractions and navigating public transport by having a driver to take you to Shanghai's best sites. Highlights include The Yuyuan Garden, taking part in a tea ceremony, a dim sum lunch, visiting the French Concession, and The Bund.
Shop till you drop in Shanghai local market. Get unforgettable shopping experience in most popular local markets: Fabric market, Tea market, off brand market, antique market, etc. Taste 3 different kind of tea and recognize what it is. Seek out a bargain or pick up some unique souvenirs in off brand, antique market.