Traveling to China can feel like you’re traveling to another planet. Getting used to crowds of people, a new language and writing system, and the chaos that is China can be overwhelming for the newbie traveler. When I was 15 years old I traveled to China as an exchange student and got my first taste of culture shock. Fast forward nearly 15 years later and I returned to China, this time to live there for a year. While China wasn’t as shocking to me the second time around, mostly because I was living in the super-modern city of Shanghai, there are still some things I wish I would have known about before I went to Shanghai. Here are five things you should know before going to Shanghai.
Download a VPN
China is renowned for its censorship of the internet and for its “Great Firewall of China” which bans access to social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Google. If you want to access Facebook and bypass China’s censored internet you will have to download a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN tricks the system by using internet servers from other countries, which will allow you to bypass the Great Firewall of China. If you plan on visiting China, download a VPN beforehand on your phone or laptop (another thing you should know: China’s internet speeds are ridiculously slow). While VPN’s all have their issues with being slow and unreliable at times, I found Express VPN was the most reliable.
Don’t expect bargains on clothes or electronics
When I first arrived in China, I overheard a woman from Mexico telling another ex-pat that she didn’t pack a lot of clothes because she thought she could just buy a bunch of cheap clothes in Shanghai. However, much to her surprise, clothes were surprisingly expensive so she lamented about making due with the minimal clothes she packed. So if you’re looking for bargains don’t come to Shanghai. Shanghai can be expensive, especially when it comes to clothes and electronics. There are a few places in town where you can bargain and make a deal but most Shanghainese prefer to shop at giant supermalls with western brands. Even the counterfeit markets are on the expensive side.
Getting around Shanghai can be time consuming
The good news about Shanghai is that it’s fairly easy to get around. However, it’s also time-consuming as Shanghai is a huge city. It can take quite a bit of time to get from point A to point B so keep that in mind if you’re venturing out. On the positive side, Shanghai’s metro system is one of the best I have used and the metro signs are clearly marked in English. However, many of Shanghai’s metro stations are like labyrinth tunnels, it can take a fair amount of time to walk from one end of the station to the next. Avoid the metro during rush hour (700AM-900AM and 500PM-700PM) unless you like being crushed by a human mob. One of the downsides of the metro is that it shuts down pretty early, with most lines shutting down between 1030PM-1100PM. Taxis are another good option and are cheap and plentiful. Just be sure to download a taxi card app before you go to show drivers where you want to go. Buses are the cheapest option, but unless you have a Chinese friend who is able to help you decipher the routes it’s more confusing than it’s worth unless you like surprises and don’t care where you end up.
Pollution is real
One of the most familiar images of China is the dystopic image of people wearing face masks walking through a thick haze of pollution. While I thought this was more of a problem in Beijing, I was in for a surprise when I got to Shanghai. I arrived in Shanghai in winter which is a time when pollution seems to hang over the city like a dark cloud. After a month in Shanghai, I ended up with bronchitis from my exposure to pollution. After that incident, I ended up buying one of those “face masks” and donned it whenever I went outside. If you want to know the API (air pollution index) download an app before you head to Shanghai so you know when you need to stay indoors.
Ladies, plan your cosmetics and toiletries accordingly
Ladies, if you are planning an extended stay here in Shanghai, plan your cosmetics and toiletries accordingly. Even if you are only visiting for a couple of days, there are some things you should know when it comes to your cosmetic/toiletry needs. Firstly, tampons are not widely available and are very expensive when they are. If you need contact lens solution you will have to actually go to an eyeglass store, as you will not be able to find it in any drugstore. Cosmetics are also expensive and mostly tailored to light complexions. Self-tanner is also nearly impossible to find. Hair dyes are also limited to darker colors, with blonde hair dye being an absolute rarity. Quality hair products are also difficult to find, so bring your own. If you’re absolutely desperate for quality hair products, there is a “Hairdresser Street” on GuangDong Road (east of Xizang Road), where you can find salon products like Wella, L’oreal, and hair bleach, but also be wary of its quality as a lot of it is counterfeit.