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Entry and customs: Passport and visa required. You will be required to make out a "baggage declaration" which includes all the money you are bringing into the country. Keep this form. It will be collected upon departure.
Currency: The yuan... 100 fen to the yuan. Chinese money is called renminbi. All currency has western numerals. Regular yuan is "supposed" to be used in local shops.
Language: Mandarin Chinese in the north and Cantonese in the South.
Temperature: Spring and Autumn are best times to visit. September is peak season.
Shopping hours: Generally 9-6:30PM
Bank hours: 9:30-12, 2PM-5PM... 24 hrs. in hotels.
Things to buy: Baskets, pottery, arts and crafts, jade, scrolls, porcelains, silk items, cloisonne. Most purchases used to be made with FEC, often in the official "Friendship Stores" at fixed prices. When shopping at small stores or with street vendors, you must bargain... settling on 1/2 the asking price. If in doubt, try to bargain. Prices will be very cheap.
Food: Mandarin in the north and Cantonese in the south. Mandarin will not be as good but there will always be one or two dishes you'll like. Serving consists of placing many dishes on a lazy susan in the center of your table. You serve yourself from these dishes. Try to prevent your tablemates from going into the dishes with their chopsticks. This spreads a cold around a tour group within days. Ask for serving spoons. All tours will include some Western-style dinners, and all breakfasts will be Western-style buffet.
Drink: Tea, local beer (good, but mild), and a poor orange drink. Tourists learn to drink the beer with lunch and dinner. Coffee is served at breakfast. "Dynasty" wine is nice and is a recommended as is "Great Wall". Other Chinese wines are terrible. Tap water is not safe! Drink only the boiled water from the carafe in your hotel room. In major hotels, ice is made from boiled water and may be requested from housekeeping or from room service. Bottled water is available. Drink bottled water during the day.
Tipping: Tipping was not practiced openly until recently. Now it is accepted and expected, but in much smaller amounts than in the rest of the world. Check for current standards.
Taxis: Arrange for taxis at your hotel. They will write in Chinese, your destination and whether the taxi is to wait for you, which is not expensive. Taxis may have no meters but drivers are generally honest. Carry small notes because the driver will "not have change". Tip him!
China Air (CAAC): All air travel between cities will be on this airline. They do not have enough aircraft and are too proud to admit it. The planes may be vintage Russian propjets with round windows or modern American-built. You must accept in advance that there may be delays at the airport. Smile and make the best of it.
Trains: Some of your travels may be by train. Trains are vintage models with lace curtains on the windows and lace dollies on the seats. During the journey, attendants will serve you tea at no charge or sell beer and soft drinks. They will also come through the cars selling Chinese silk scarves, etc. at very good prices. Some trains will be comfortable and some will not... but all of them will have "soft bottoms" as opposed to wooden seats.
China International Service (CITS): All arrangements within China are handled by CITS whether in a group or individual travel. This organization is basically inflexible. If they schedule your group for something, that's it. They do not listen and continue to do it their way. Make the best of it and don't upset yourself by resisting.
Hotels: Construction continues on new hotels in all tourist cities. These hotels range from very good to truly outstanding.
The people are China! They alone, are worth your visit, and are among the most friendly of any country in the world. They sincerely like Americans. If they stare at you, simply nod, smile and say "hello" and you'll get a smile in return. Many are learning English and like nothing better than a chance to practice on you.
Bicycles: Motorized traffic may not be too heavy in some Chinese cities but the bicycles make up for it. You'll be amazed at the number of bicycles, and the ringing bells.
Tour guides: If you're on a tour, at your first city in China, you'll pick up a National Tour Director who will stay with you during your entire visit in China. In each city, you'll also pick up a local Tour Guide and a local Bus Driver. With the exception of the driver, their command of English, including slang, will be very good.
Your health: Many tourists visiting China do get sick. The most common illness is the "China Cough" which is an upper respiratory infection caused by the air pollution, especially in Beijing. With this cough, you may not feel bad or then, again, you may feel terrible. It lingers after you return home. Check with your doctor for his recommendations prior to your visit.
Miscellaneous: Public toilets may be shocking... consisting of a hole in the floor, surrounded by a raised porcelain ring with two foot rests on the side. These toilets are often filthy and the smell will reach you before you locate the "happy room" as the Chinese call it. Tourists learn to cope with them or to wait.