When my ex-husband’s girlfriend invited me to join her on a trip to China to celebrate her 50th birthday, of course I said yes! Who better to travel with? I knew very little about the country and I had lots of questions to ask but I knew we would have a brilliant time. Here are the top 18 things I learned from my first China Vacation

Negotiate the Chinese Yuan exchange rate at UK airports

I ordered my travel currency online a week before travel, but Mo used an airport travel bureau to get hers. The exchange rate they gave her was shocking, until I showed them the rate I had received elsewhere. 2 minutes later, Mo was offered  a much improved rate. Very glad we haggled!

Gatwick airport - off for China Vacation
Celebrating just having saved enough to buy our duty frees by negotiating a better exchange rate on our Chinese Yuan

Chinese people think nothing of crawling over you to get to the loo on the plane

We flew with Cathay Pacific, upgrading to Premium Economy for extra leg room, wider seats and more comfort. The outbound flight was fabulous – everything we’d hoped for. The flight home however was nightmarish, with a procession of Chinese people clambering over us all night to get to the loo!

China is super clean

Everywhere we visited was immaculately clean, with a small army of municipal workers toiling to pick up any sign of rubbish. Even the back streets of Beijing and Shanghai and the street markets we visited were litter free.

Rainy day on the Bund, Shanghai, China. Sparkles and Fizz | Travel & Over 50s Lifestyle Blog
It was a very rainy day on the Bund in Shanghai, but the streets were as immaculate and tidy as everywhere else we visited in China.

Champagne brunch at the Four Seasons in Beijing is a fabulous treat

You’ll get celebrity treatment and world-class service at the Four Seasons. It was simply the best way to celebrate Mo’s 50th birthday in style. If you want a little pampering, I highly recommend it as the place to go on your China vacation!

That seafood at the Four Seasons in Beijing! Sparkles and Fizz | Travel & Over 50s Lifestyle Blog
The seafood at the Four Seasons champagne brunch in Beijing was awesome!

Tipping in China is not universally expected, but it’s much appreciated

Our tour guide told us that tipping in China is usual for guides/private drivers but that it’s really not expected in hotels/restaurants/taxis etc.

Our fab guide china tour private guide Jasmine and private driver Charlie
Our fab guide china tour private guide Jasmine and private driver Charlie!

We had such outstanding service everywhere we went, we were happy to tip 20% or more on occasions and we were rewarded with such warm smiley faces!

Noodles handmade to order in the Muslim market, Xi'an, China
We had noodles made to order at the sweetest little cafe in the Muslim market in Xi’an. Tipping this guy brought out that adorable smile again.

Thousands of websites and mobile apps are blocked in China

Blocked sites include Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and some news sites too. It’s a bit of a pain, but not a disaster.  I quite enjoyed being on a digital detox! Use this handy little website to check if a website is blocked in China, before you head off on your trip.

A Translator App is super helpful!

Waygo is a visual translator than scans Chinese text and automatically translates it into English. You don’t even need an internet connection. It’s best suited to translating restaurant menus and signage. No substitute for god old Google translate, but it does the job.

Toilets are a bit different!

If you want a Western style loo, look out for signs for a ‘potty toilet’ or you’ll end up with a squat one. Most of the ones we found were very clean, just be sure to carry toilet paper/a pack of wipes with you, as this is often absent!

Oh, and you have to put all toilet paper in the basket or you’ll block the loo (even in the poshest of hotels). We know – we had the embarrassment of calling housekeeping to get the loo unblocked.

Toilet instructions - China style
You have been warned

Some sites only have the squat toilets, but we did find ‘proper’ loos in all the malls we visited and on the bullet train (thank goodness).  Of course, the Four Seasons has the best facilities of all.

Super posh loos at the Four Seasons in Beijing!
Super posh loos at the Four Seasons in Beijing!

Chinese tourists love to take selfies with Westerners

On our first day, we were bombarded with Chinese tourists visiting Beijing from more rural locations desperate to take selfies with us. It happened everywhere we went. Was it Mo’s pink hair, we asked our guide. No she said – they are fascinated by your big noses!

We took it all in good humour, agreeing to all their requests. We got quite good at spotting people who had sidled up to us for a sneaky selfie and always made a point of asking if they would like more pictures. They always did!

Selfie time with random man. Xi'an Wall, China
One of the many local people who asked for a selfie with us in Xi’an. He was so happy we said yes.

Chinese street food is cheap and fabulous

Getting out of your hotel and finding local places to eat is one of the best experiences of a China vacation. You’ll save a packet, have awesome food and feel like you’ve been to the ‘real’ China. We loved the food everywhere we went, but have to highly recommend the Muslim market in Xi’an.

Street market food, Xi'an, China
Simply delicious street food (even if I do look a little worried). The skewered octopus dusted in chilli oil was unbelievably good.

Chinese hot-pot might just blow your head off

If you like (love) chilli, this might be right up your street, but it was a huge and hilarious mistake for us. Unwittingly we wandered into a hot-pot restaurant and ordered the fiery chilli one. It nearly blew our heads off but it was a very funny evening.

Chinese hot pot - How can a dish that looks so pretty taste so bad?
How can a dish that looks so pretty taste so bad? The dish on the right was basically chilli soup and the one on the left – magic mushrooms?

Hiring a private tour guide was worth every penny

We thought it was best to learn more about China with private guides and we wanted the freedom to manage our own agenda. We booked our trip and our guides through fabulous team at Travel Local. They arranged everything perfectly. Find out why we think a private guide is essential.

Staying in boutique hotels was a great experience

We loved the stunning, quirky hotels the Travel Local team found for us. It’s definitely worth working with a travel company who have years of local expertise and a team ‘on the ground’ in China to recommend little gems like the hotels we stayed in.

Guilin, China. Moondance Hotel
The beautiful view from the breakfast room in our Guilin hotel

You need bug spray for the bullet train

The bullet train was fabulous with large comfortable seats (we upgraded to 1st class). It’s quite incredible to whistle along at 300 kph in a train that barely feels like it’s moving. What we hadn’t planned for was the bugs and beasties that obviously thought we were lunch. We got badly bitten, so make sure to pack some bug repellant, whatever time of year you take your China vacation.

Chinese beds are like concrete

If you have a back problem, or simply prefer a softer bed, most hotels use a mattress topper. Or do what we did and ask for extra duvets to sleep on. Everywhere we asked, the housekeeping team were more than happy to help.

Everyone was so friendly and went out of their way to help

We fell in love with China during our vacation. While the sites we visited were simply awesome, it was the completely charming Chinese people we met who made the trip for us.

Some subjects are still taboo

When you’re having fun on holds, it’s easy to forget that China is still a controlling communist state. The one time this was very apparent was when we visited Tiananmen Square and asked our guide about the 1989 student protests. She completely blanked us. It was clear that this was something she was neither allowed to talk about nor to have an opinion on.

Toboggan is the best way to descend the Great Wall

If it’s good enough for the fabulous Michelle Obama, it was good enough for us. The section of the Great Wall at Mutianyu allegedly has the longest toboggan run in the world as one of the options for descending from the wall. Obviously this was a chance we weren’t going to pass up. Our guide thought we were mad…

It was so much fun to take the 20 minute toboggan run down from the Great Wall of China
It was so much fun to take the 20 minute toboggan run down from the Great Wall of China

Hope our learnings help you on your first China vacation!

Stay tuned for more China posts and if you have any questions please comment below.



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Coralie is the Sparkles at Sparkles and Fizz. A 50-something mum and blogger, a wee bit obsessed with sparkly things and fizz. Coralie writes about her real-life and travel adventures. She's not averse to gin and she lives life to the max.

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