As the headline suggests, this article is meant for people looking to see China and are not interested in using a travel agency to book a group tour. You may decide after reading this that you are looking for a tour group and not the ‘solo’ trip. That’s okay! Regardless of your actual travel plans, I hope you find this helpful in preparing for your trip to China.

Getting to China, even the idea of going to China, can be a very daunting task. From obtaining visas to researching destinations, there’s a lot to be done. I won’t spend any time on going through the process because that is all available on consulate websites. I will spend my time discussing a couple of oversights people make before traveling to China. And probably the biggest mistake a person makes in this situation is not diligence in planning the trip but in preparing for the trip. What’s the difference?

Planning deals with strategy and, when complete, provides a road-map with an itinerary for executing on the vacation. This process creates a very rigid structure in my opinion but necessary to some degree as well. More important than planning is preparation, encompassing the very ‘to-do’ items from planning. From my observation, preparing for the expereience is much more important than planning the experience. The experience is going to happen regardless of how much planning is done but the experience itself is very dependent on how you, psychologically, prepared for it.

In preparing for an adventure in China, it’s really important to learn a little Chinese, unless your goal is to be completely stranded. In the cities, there are enough trained English speakers that you won’t starve and you’ll be able to get around. You might get frustrated but things will work out in the end. This is not the case in the provincial areas of China. To see the fantastic landscape scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you have to be outside the cities, and this requires getting nitty-gritty with the Chinese. It’s worth it, too.

About 90% of my readers just stopped reading thinking, “Chinese is too hard” or “I’m going on vacation, I don’t want to study.” Good, go take a tour; it will be fantastic and you won’t have to worry about a thing. For those not dissuaded, please take to heart that Chinese is not a difficult language. All languages simply require an attentive listener and a conscious thinker. The words will come out if you master the basics of language acquisition: listen and think. The great thing is I’m telling you what to learn and it’s not a huge vocabulary or great syntax. Just learn how to pronounce the stuff! And then spend a little time on how to understand (responses to simple questions) through listening. You don’t need to master a huge vocabulary or memorize syntax rules-that’s for people who want to get into translating. If you’re looking to enjoy the culture, work on paying attention to little things first. Very basic listening and speaking skills will go a long way toward enhancing your experience, both in terms of practicality as well as enjoyment.*

Assuming you don’t live in a very, very small town, finding a Chinese speaker is as simple as one, two, three in America. Make friends with that person and mention your interest in going to China and learning a little of the language. Most people will feel flattered and welcome your suggestion with open arms. If they don’t feel like they can help, they will probably know someone who can. This is an excellent way of obtaining ‘guanxi’ with a support network in China. It may mean free lodging, travel tips, native travel companions, who knows?

Getting the most out of China requires preparation, not planning.

The next major factor to keep in mind is the quality of water in China is like that of Mexico; you simply do not drink from the faucets. You can get dysentery or experience other similarly difficult and embarrassing side effects. One main reason for avoiding getting sick is finding reliable health care. I would advise educating yourself on emergency medical facilities in whatever region you plan on traveling to. Plus, if you get sick from the water, you may be forced to use a nasty public restroom. Some public facilities are okay but the vast majority is a far cry from the minimum of standards in the US. You do not want to get diarrhea and have to squat over a hole in the ground that is covered in other people’s refuse.

To avoid this, keep the bowels happy at all times. This means acting very conservatively for the first few days, if not the entire trip. I definitely recommend eating dog, insects, or whatever else you can find “on a stick” because it’s great! Just be wary of what might cause you to get sick; it’s okay to give your body a chance to adjust. One way to get the best of both worlds is to drink things that have been bottled or prepared, including hot tea, beer, wine, sodas, and name-brand water. I am not a big drinker nor a soda drinker at all. While in China, I drank soda two or three times a day and drank beer and wine from time to time. Because of travel companions’ experiences, I am confident that I avoided a lot of trouble by drinking mostly soda, tea and beer. The reason I say drink name-brand water only is that it is not uncommon for people to bottle water in their homes and then sell it on the street.

Along the lines of happy bowels, I also recommend scouting out western style toilets whenever possible. Finding a decent restroom can be a major challenge and knowing right where one is can be immensely helpful. Prepare for the restroom-experience by imagining the worst so that you can be prepared for the best.

On a lighter note, my final suggestion is to plan on spending three to five days in any one region or city. You want to really give yourself a chance to see everything China has to offer. But, because of its size, you must establish realistic goals before leaving. This will alleviate you of the stress of artificial deadlines. Remember, you go on vacation to escape your schedule and daily pressures; don’t create more with grandiose plans and rigid schedules. Preparing yourself for China means planning on days being ’empty’ for anything that spontaneously looks interesting to you or for a day of rest or taking a train to an interesting locale.

So, being prepared for China doesn’t mean focusing on the plan. It means taking into consideration the reality of what’s to come and keeping that end in mind. Have fun and be prepared!