Exploring China: A First-Timer’s Short Guide to 10 Unmissable Experiences

Laugh at the absurdities of navigating China as a foreigner. Mistakes, mix-ups, and unexpected challenges are everywhere, and that's when the hilarity ensues. Improvise and embrace the chaos – it's the best way to experience the unpredictable joy and constant surprises of this incredible country.

Exploring China: A First-Timer's Short Guide to 10 Unmissable Experiences
Exploring China: A First-Timer's Short Guide to 10 Unmissable Experiences

Have you ever tried to describe a flavor to someone over the phone? That’s what it’s like trying to explain China in a nutshell – nearly impossible!

Oh stop it, you great wall!
Oh, stop it, you great wall!

Visiting China isn’t just a trip; it’s like hopping onto a roller coaster without knowing when it’ll end! Buckle up and say goodbye to everything you know because this adventure will feel like you’ve entered an alternate reality. It may sound over-the-top, but trust me, China is like a whole new world.

Now, I’ve cooked up a list of things you should absolutely do in China – just a little sampler platter for you. China is massive, so I tried to keep it general. There’s only one specific place mentioned; the rest is up to you to explore.

So here they are – drumroll, please – my Top 10 Must-Dos in China!

1. Visiting the Great Wall

Visiting the Great Wall
Visiting the Great Wall

Okay, the Great Wall might be a bit of a cliché, but there’s a reason why it’s on every traveler’s China bucket list. Walking along this ancient structure is an experience you can’t get anywhere else in the world.

Remember when I said there was only one must-see in China? Sure you remember! It was just two paragraphs ago! Trust me, you do not want to be the person who goes home and has to lie about visiting the Great Wall.

Don’t fall for the myth that you can see it from space – you’ll have to get a little closer. But once you’re there, you’ll understand why it’s one of the Seven Wonders. Just don’t expect to have the place to yourself.

The Great Wall is popular for a reason, after all. You’ll be sharing the experience with tourists from around the world, all of you marveling at this incredible feat of human engineering. Embrace the crowds, take a selfie or two, and soak in the history. It’s worth it.

2. Going Up a Skyscraper

Going Up a Skyscraper - Top 10 things to do in China
Going Up a Skyscraper – Top 10 things to do in China

Any will do… China is skyscraper-obsessed. With over a thousand highrises dotting the country’s skyline and more being added every year, you’ll have no shortage of options to choose from.

Feeling futuristic? Head to Shenzhen and climb one of its spaceship-like towers. Or, if sleek and modern is more your vibe, Shanghai‘s skyscrapers offer breathtaking views of the city’s iconic skyline.

Visiting a skyscraper is a must-do for any visitor. You’ll feel like a superhero as you ascend into the clouds, with the bustling city slowly transforming into a tiny playset below you. Plus, the bragging rights are totally worth the trip!

3. Seeing Pandas

Everybody loves pandas
Everybody loves pandas

Let’s be honest: Pandas are the reason you’re going to China in the first place. Sure, there’s the Great Wall and the food, culture, temples, and landscapes… but you’re really here for the fluffy black-and-white bears.

And who can blame you? Pandas are the best! Watching them munch on bamboo or roll around in the grass is pure joy. Plus, China is the home of pandas, and there’s something incredibly satisfying about experiencing these amazing animals in an “authentic” setting, even if it is within the confines of a zoo. It’s kind of like how moo shu pork tastes better in China, somehow.

Visiting a panda zoo or sanctuary in China is a must-do for any visitor. You’ll fall in love with these utterly adorable creatures up close. And let’s not forget about the red pandas – those cute little fox-bear things that will give you an extra +1000 points with your friends!

4. Eating a Bug at a Night Market

Tasty critters at a Chinese market
Tasty critters at a Chinese market

While COVID-19 may have given wet markets a bad reputation, there’s one thing those pesky viruses can’t ruin – the thrill of trying exotic foods at China’s vibrant night markets! And let’s be honest; nothing beats the thrill of popping a crispy cricket into your mouth and saying, “Yum!”.

Me eating bugs in a Market in China - I practice what I teach. Am I what I eat?
Me eating bugs in a Market in China – I practice what I teach. Am I what I eat?

Now, I’m not here to lie and tell you that eating bugs is common in China. Most Chinese people have never even tried crickets or silkworms, let alone developed a taste for them. But that’s part of the fun! Visiting a night market is like stepping into a new world of flavors and textures; who knows, you might just discover a new favorite snack.

So, if you’re feeling adventurous and ready to embrace Chinese cuisine’s weird and wonderful side, head to a night market and join in on the fun. Who needs tuna when you can have silkie chicken? The world is your oyster cricket.

5. It’s Important to Improve at Improvising

Improvising in China is like playing jazz with a new set of rules. When you enter the stage or encounter an unexpected conversation, you realize that the game has changed. There’s a whole new rhythm in China, a different kind of freedom.

But let’s be real – as a foreigner, you’re probably not going to understand a lot of what’s happening. Dialogue might be flying at you so fast you can’t even tell what language it is, and cultural references will be like trying to decipher ancient symbols. Still, that doesn’t make the experience any less exhilarating. There’s a thrill in the unknown, a rush from the chaos, and if you’re willing to embrace it, you might just find yourself creating some truly unforgettable moments.

6. Getting Lost at Least Once

Getting lost in China's cities is a must
Getting lost in China’s cities is a must

Let’s be real: Getting lost is practically a rite of passage for any traveler in China. With its mind-boggling labyrinth of streets, alleys, and subways, China is the kind of place where you can easily find yourself wandering aimlessly for hours and not caring about it!

Now, here’s the thing: China is a non-English-speaking country. That means if you don’t speak Chinese (or read it, for that matter), you’re in for a bit of an adventure. Ask any Chinese person for directions, and you’ll likely get a response that’s a mix of Mandarin, hand gestures, and a hopeful smile. It’s like playing charades but with a higher risk of ending up in a sketchy part of town.

So, if you’re ready to embrace the unexpected and have an adventure that’s truly off the charts, pack your sense of humor and a good map and get ready to get lost in China! You might just find yourself having the time of your life. And if all else fails, just ask a friendly local for directions – most Chinese people are incredibly helpful and will go out of their way to make sure you find your way.

7. Haggling

Haggling in China is a skill refined over centuries and taken to an art form. Whether buying souvenirs at a tourist market or negotiating the price of a taxi ride, haggling is an essential part of the Chinese experience. And let’s be honest, there’s something deeply satisfying about walking away with a bargain.

Now, I’m not saying haggling is easy. Expect to feel awkward initially, especially if you’re new to the scene. But don’t worry, the Chinese are used to foreigners still learning the ropes.

So, if you’re ready to embrace the inner haggler within and have an authentic Chinese shopping experience, here are a few tips: start with a price that’s a bit lower than what you’re willing to pay, be patient and calm, and don’t be afraid to walk away if the price doesn’t meet your expectations. Haggling is all about confidence and a good sense of humor.

Pro Tip: Sellers know that if you’re interested in buying something, you’ll be willing to offer at least half of whatever price they tell you. Surprise them by offering a quarter and starting to go up from there. You’ll be amazed at how many times this approach works.

If haggling isn’t your thing, that’s fine! Plenty of fixed-price stores and tourism-friendly businesses allow you to shop without negotiating.

8. Watching TV

Watch TV in China
Watch TV in China

As someone with raging ADHD, I was powerless to resist the hypnotic allure of Chinese TV. Flip through the channels, and you’ll find me completely entranced by the vintage cartoons or laughing uncontrollably at the bizarre talent shows. And let’s not even talk about the news broadcasts – delivered with such intensity that they border on performance art.

Now, I won’t lie and say I understood a word of what was being said. The dialogues might as well have been spoken in unicorn for all I could make out. But that didn’t make it any less mesmerizing. There’s something about the Chinese program’s visuals and rhythm; It makes you feel like you are part of some bizarre fever dream.

9. Having Your Picture Taken with the Locals

Feeling like a star in Pingyao
Feeling like a star in Pingyao

Having your picture taken with locals in China is a time-honored tradition that’s sure to create some hilariously memorable moments. Whether you’re striking a pose with street performers in a bustling city or making a silly face with friendly villagers in a rural area, getting photos with the friendly faces of China is a great way to capture your travels. And who knows, you might even make new friends in the process!

During my time in China, I was given a baby to hold and have my picture taken with. I felt like the Pope. It was a moment I never could have planned, but one that made my trip unforgettable.

10. Being Jealous of and/or Confused with the Train System

China's railway system is both impressive and a little chaotic - Top 10 experiences in China
China’s railway system is both impressive and a little chaotic – Top 10 experiences in China

With its high-speed bullet trains that zip across the country at breakneck speeds, China’s rail network would make most other countries green with envy. Luckily, I live in Spain.

However impressive, China’s train system can also be a source of confusion. Those massive train stations, with their endless platforms and crowds that seem neverending, can be overwhelming. Figuring out which ticket window to use, how to decipher the cryptic departure boards, and where exactly your train is supposed to arrive… well, it’s enough to make even the most seasoned traveler sweat.

So, if you find yourself in China, ready to embrace the unexpected, remember – the trains are fast, the TV is wildly entertaining, and improvising is all about having a great time. Sure, you might get lost in translation or laugh at a soap opera you don’t understand a word of. But that’s the beauty of it – China isn’t just a place, it’s an experience