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My first time to China and Hong Kong!

Hello travelers!

I am going to China and Hong Kong (and also Asia) for the first time this Summer for a 12 day trip. I am going with a tour group that has an itinerary including all of the main stops such as Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, Yaungshao, and Hong Kong. I am extremely excited to see these main attractions however I also want to get off of the beaten path and really get to know the country. Although I have traveled extensively through Europe and New Zealand on my own and being a woman in my mid-twenties I had a few general questions:

  • Would you suggest booking extra days to travel by myself in China, Hong Kong or even Macau before or after my tour?
  • Is it easy to access money from an ATM?
  • Are credit cards accepted in larger enterprises?
  • What books or movies would you suggest reading/watching to brush up on the culture, history, and people?
  • What items should I bring that cannot commonly be found in a store in China?

I am really looking forward to my first trip to China and Hong Kong and to experience the vibrant and eclectic vibe so often associated with Asia!

Thank you for all of your advice :)

Posted by
1362 posts

We did a 22 day tour of China in 2012 so hopefully I can answer some questions.

  1. Yes, extra days in Hong Kong would be great. Its a jaw dropping city, and so easy to do independently. No tour required. We followed some self guided walking tours from Frommers and went places our Chinese guide had never heard of.
  2. We had no problems withdrawing cash at ATMs, mind you being Canadian we have long had chip and pin so can't say for sure how it would work if you do not. The ABC (Agricultural Bank of China) was particularly reliable.
  3. Credit cards were widely accepted for bigger purchases.

As far as getting off the beaten track, it was impossible with our particular itinerary and you may not have time to get very far from your group either. What was great though is how interested the Chinese are in Westerners. It started on day one with them sidling up to surreptitiously snap a photo of their baby near you. They adored the big white women on our tour, and the older the better. They waved at us in our bus and openly stared. Have fun with them. Ironically it was easier to engage with them as locals than it has beenin Europe with Europeans. Of course in Europe we tourists are a dime a dozen but in China we are still exotic (well not in Hong Kong).

Posted by
12970 posts


On the credit card issue: if you have a Discover Card, that's accepted in Beijing, unlike in Europe. I would suggest reading Rough Guide and Let's Go as preparation for China. The book on Shanghai looked pretty informative.

Posted by
5789 posts

Extra days pre and/or post trip are good if you have the time and money. You've already paid the trancon air and jet lag price.

Money exchange is not a problem in the major cities. ATMs are not as prevalent as North America and Western Europe. Major tourist hotels exchange currency. Bring clean undamaged $100 bills. Major credit cards Visa/Master Card not a problem for large purchases in tourist areas. Cash prices can be negotiated. Everything can be negotiated.

Hotels catering to westerners can arrange guide and driver services for custom tours. Hotels will write out a card with your destination to help with taxis. Lonely Planet covers the major tourist destinations.

Background reading. I enjoyed the Peter Hessler books for somewhat contemporary views of the country. Wikipedia on Hessler:

Notable works: River Town, Oracle Bones, Country Driving. Peter the author of three acclaimed books about China and has
contributed numerous articles to The New Yorker and National
Geographic, among other publications. In 2011, Hessler received a
MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in recognition and encouragement
of his "keenly observed accounts of ordinary people responding to the
complexities of life in such rapidly changing societies as Reform Era

Posted by
15037 posts

I was in Beijing on a short stay in 2009. I had no trouble getting yuan from ATM's. Shanghai is more international, so I imagine it will be easy there too. I don't know that having cash dollars will be any advantage, especially large bills. I paid cash for everything (including private guide) except for my hotel bill and one purchase at an upscale shop in the Pearl Market (they had photos of the Clintons buying pearls there).

Loved, loved Hong Kong. I took a day trip to Macau and wish I'd had time to spend a couple of nights there. There are many ATMs to get HK$ and Macau $. I think I used HK$ in Macau and got change in Macau $.

In Beijing, no one spoke any English except my guide and my hotel staff. In Hong Kong, seemed like everyone speaks English.

Posted by
184 posts

I traveled around China for 3 weeks last month with my brother and his wife. We did not go with a tour group and had an amazing time. If you have the opportunity to spend sometime at the end of your trip without the tour group I would definitely say go for it.
I never had any trouble getting money from an ATM, just make sure you use one at a major bank. One thing to mention though, is that Chase is my main bank and they would not activate my debit card for use in China because of the risk of fraud. I had to go last minute to Bank of America and open a new checking account to have access to my money. So make sure you check with your bank ahead of time. I used a credit card a couple of times at larger restaurants or touristy places, but for the most part I would recommend using cash.
In addition to the places you are going we went to Chengdu, Leshan, and Guilin. I wasn't super impressed with Chengdu but that is where the Panda breeding center is and that was a great experience. Guilin is stunningly beautiful so I would definitely consider that if you are looking for somewhere else to go. We found it very cheap and easy to fly within the country so distance isn't a huge deal.
Some things I would recommend having are hand sanitizer, your own roll of toilet paper, and tampons (if you'll need them). It is difficult to find sanitizer and tampons and many public restrooms did not have toilet paper available. I hope this information is helpful for you!

Posted by
12970 posts

I know Americans who have been to Guilin and their comments are exactly like yours...stunning.

Posted by
3 posts

I am working & living in Chengdu for almost 6 years. The air is serious polluted, I couldn't see the sun. The food is oily and spicy. I have visited some other cities in China and for me, Beijing is a good destination to visit. Of course, ATM system here is well developed.

Posted by
5262 posts

ATM access wasn't a problem for us in places like Beijing, Shanghai, Chonqing. Of course we let our bank know our plans. This was in 2007 and Chase wasn't as fussy as they are now. Your major credit card should work for big buys in big places.

A good novel is To Live by Yu Hua. Read it before you go, it's banned in China. About a man who grew up in prewar China, started a family, and lived through the Cultural Revolution. Also a movie based on it, quite good. Another good movie, covering much the same period, is "The Last Emperor," about the young heir to the throne who never ruled but lived through most of the 20th century. An authoritative but accessible history is The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence.

We were on a guided tour the whole time but got off on our own a little, enjoying it very much. People were very friendly and curious, with great senses of humor. Perhaps not as much warmth today as 8 years ago, as Chinese nationalism has become stronger. They're very sensitive about religious proselytizing, discussions about Tibet, and Falun Gong (maybe not such a negative obsession as back then).

Posted by
3336 posts

I would echo much of what has been said above and will add a few things that I think have not been mentioned.
Don't hesitate to spend time there outside of your tour.
Know that you will need to rely on public transportation and hired drivers. Foreigners are not allowed to drive so a rental car is not an option. Private drivers are easily arranged and not expensive, even for trips that are full-day excursions and very out-of-the-way. Trains are as good as, if not better, than many I have been on in Europe. The stations are modern and the trains are punctual! Don't hesitate to take flights within China...the distances can be huge so it saves a lot of time.
When I was there I was surprised at how many people still are surprised to see westerners in some woman came up to me in a train station in Shenyang crying, because she had never seen a westerner before. She took tons of pictures with me, touched my hair...I had a Chinese friend with me who translated and we had a wonderful interaction. Things like this happened on numerous occasions.
If you want to get off the beaten path a bit I have a's a unique place that has a good tourist infrastructure but has plenty of places where you can get completely away from from the tourist area and see the real China. It's in Taiyuan province and the city is called Pingyao. The town was not destroyed during the cultural revolution and is a very well-preserved example of architecture from the Qing Dynasty and used the be the center of banking in China. It's really quite stunning. The two major streets running through town in a + pattern are quite touristy but once you get off those two streets it's like being in another world. I have amazing photos from that trip. There are courtyard houses that have been turned into very authentic hotels, temples on the back streets, and the whole town is surrounded by a fortified wall. It's only 450 miles from easy flight to Taiyuan airport and then about an hour drive from there. Well worth the trip! There are cliff temples not far from town but that I have not been able to get out to yet..they are on my list though!
Last thing...I always take dried fruit, prunes, nuts, etc., with me to China because the food is quite oily and you really do need something to keep things normal, if you know what I mean! Oh...and the Chinese word for beer is "pijo"...pronounced

Posted by
12970 posts

About Shenyang: That incident about the woman not having seen westerners before is unique. Shenyang is the capital of Manchuria, its former name was Mukden, plenty of history involving Mukden and westerners. Even as late as 1960 the city still had 50,000 Russians living there, not Soviet technicans, etc but also lots of Russian refugees. A good friend of mine was looking/hoping to get a teaching job there in the old Mukden since they had openings a couple of years ago..

Posted by
3336 posts

She was not from Shenyang....since it was in a train station she was passing through. She had come from somewhere in Mongolia that my friend had never heard of. Probably quite remote I would imagine.

Posted by
5789 posts

Don't hesitate to take flights within China...

We were told that checked baggage must be locked for internal China flights. Chinese internal security x-ray's the bag when you check the bag and before your boarding pass is issued. If they want to inspect the checked bag, you will be asked to unlock the bag while present when security inspects the bag.

Posted by
12970 posts

Thanks for the clarification. That also explains why. But your friend used Mandarin to talk with this girl, didn't she?

Posted by
3 posts

I will answer your question one by one:
- 12 days is awfully short for the five cities you mentioned (counting it six if I include Macau), China is an interesting country, Beijing, shanghai and Xian need at least three - four days each, and HK and Macau about 5 days. Extra days will be great, in my honest opinion, if you can afford it.
-These are big cities, should be no problem with ATMs especially Shanghai and Hong Kong.
- Credit cards are most welcome especially if they are under Union Pay (China's AMEX / Mastercard / Visa). Bring cash in HK, theft is not a thing here, but in China, it will be a different case.
- As to the books, just don't read Lonely Planet, not that I am against it, but I am pretty sure with its popularity, everyone knows a country from its perspective, its not fresh anymore.
- If you are into western snacks, bring them. You'll be surprised in how many 'different' looking things you'll find in Chinese stores.

Pro tip: Food is China is oily and spicy, it's not the best place for gastronomy, but Hong Kong is! While in China, stick with rather safe places to eat food.

Posted by
607 posts

You should definitely book (many) extra days before or after your guided tour if you want the opportunity to really experience anything off the beaten track. Your guided tour covers a lot of distance involving a lot of travel and your scheduled activities and meals will probably occupy most of your time based upon my past experience. You may have an hour or two after dinner depending upon how much rest or sleep you want to sacrifice. Money should not be a problem and you can buy anything in China (most of stuff these days are made there, lol). You should have an amazing time assuming that the tour will be hitting the typical sites. Have fun.