Practical Things in China
Supposedly, you can get a 3D/7D arrival visa nowadays IF you have a connecting flight out of China. Would love to hear from people if that works and how. Personally, I prefer dishing out the money (100) in advance and not having to second guess Chinese immigration. Also, everyone makes you show your passport and visa, not sure what happens if you travel with an on arrival one.
To get a Visa, you need your full itinerary, including fight in/out of the country and hotels. In Hamburg, they make you fill out a huge form and print out all the receipts. I am not sure if they actually read it or use it. And I am not sure if you can cancel and change your travels. But, you aren't really flexible in China anyhow.
@All: Feedback re arrival visas and changing plans would be appreciated.
In any case, you always have to carry your passport, no matter where you go!!! And no matter what you want to do (train, museum, hotel, ...).
You definitively need to get a SIM in China. It takes 30min and requires (see above) your passport. You can't rely on public wifis (the few that exist) as even those verify you via SMS.
For some stupid reason, I misread my quota re SIM and ran out of volume too early. Was terrible, so rather get too much. You definitively need internet.
Internet in China is terrible if you are not Chinese. The Chinese have set up a Chinese ecosystem which works fine. But as a Westerner being used to google, you are screwed. Several key Chinese sites do not have an English version (specifically maps). You can prepare a little by getting a VPN before. I did, but speeds were terrible.
@All: Could have been my VPN but I was under the impression that the general internect connection slowed down my vpn connection.
Chinese pay everything digitally. However, for tourists cash is king. Only international hotels will accept Western credit cards. Everyone else takes Wepay, Alipay or Unionpay, systems not readily available to a Westerner. So, if you are wondering why I lost my wallet, it was the need for constant cash that was the cause.
You can create a tour pass via the alipay app. In my case, though, it didn't really work and I used primarily cash.
You can download offline versions of google maps. Or tunnel them via VPN. However, I have had repeated instances, where google was way off. So be really careful when navigating by google maps.
Be sure to download google translate English<>Chinese. It works offline and you can point your camera at signs and get a translation. Amazing.
In Europe we say, trains outcompete planes if the trip is less than 4h. In China, I would argue you can add at least one hour to the equation.:
* Most airports are way outside nowadays and take plenty of time to get to.
* For a flight, you should be at least 2h, better 3h before departure at the airport. Reason are lengthy security checks and huge queues at checkin that I have never seen in Europe.
* The airspace is restricted so flight distances are longer. In addition, we circled Xian for 45min before being finally allowed to land.
So, you should consider if flying makes sense. In my case, (Shanghai -> Xian), it probably still did, looking at the time tables.
The first time I took a bullet train in China, I nearly missed it as I didn't understand how a Chinese railway station is built. In general, the departure section is on the top level. To get there, you have to show your ticket and pass security. If you have not done both, you are not in the departure area.
The departure area is a fairly large waiting area. You cannot descend to the tracks before boarding. Your ticket will be controlled again. Generally, it's all really efficient and safe.
You should bring some time to pass all the checks, so arrive at least 30min early. Also note, that as a foreigner you will have to show your passport on entry and boarding, so always go to the person and show your ticket and your passport
The exits are normally below the track level.
To buy a ticket, go to e.g. trip.com. I think the official reservation period starts 4w before. Trip.com will not sell you a ticket, but a potential reservation. They will then send you the reservation when they become available. For popular trips, the tickets sell out fast, so be mindful of the dates.
Generally, I would recommend to buy 1st class tickets for trips longer than 2h. The 2nd class has 5 seats in a row and it's pretty crowded (often sold out). People will get on and off the train all the time and it's not really pleasant. Also, you can't really stretch your legs. So the little extra money you spend on 1st class is well spend.
To pick up the tickets, go to a train station and queue. They normally always have one English desk. Show them the numbers and they will print the tickets for you. Bring some time as queues are long. I would recommend having all tickets printed on your first day.
I also learnt that if you lose your ticket, they can (and will) reprint it for you. You have a seat and it's tied to your passport, so no issues.
@All: I am not sure how you can change a ticket, e.g. go earlier? I also noticed that some Chinese boarded trains for which they didn't have a reservation. Not sure how that worked.
The new rail stations often carry one of these suffixes: bei, dong, nan, xi. E.g. Huangshanbei. It's a bit confusing at times. All it means it North, East, South, West. The bullet train stations were build outside of town (the direction indicates where), so the trains don't have to lose times going a detour. And Chinese don't put spaces. So Guangzhounan means Guangzhou South Railway Station. It can be a bit confusing with tickets.
In any case, always check what your station is and how long it takes to get there. Guangzhounan is 17km outside of town!