Wednesday, August 7, 2013

China Travel Tips & Packing List

This post is for future travelers to China for adoption. I wanted to write this all down while they are fresh in my memory.

Some of these tips may not apply to you if you're traveling in a different season. We were there for the second half of July 2013, when it was very hot and humid.

Background of our traveling party: Dad, Mom, two bio-daughters (ages 5 and 3 - yes, we are crazy like that), and we adopted our 2-yr-old daughter.

Our travel itinerary: We flew into Beijing and stayed there for a few days for sightseeing. We then flew to Hohhot, Inner Mongolia (our daughter's province) for a week. We flew to Guangzhou for the following week. We took a private van from Guangzhou to Hong Kong and flew out of HK the next day.

Money Exchange
If you know the timeframe of when you may be traveling, I would ask your bank if they can exchange dollars to RMB for you (they probably need a few weeks notice). If the exchange fee is anything less than 3%, you're saving money. We regret not doing this before we left.
Whatever you do, DO NOT, I mean DO NOT exchange money at one of the U.S. airports. We did this at Atlanta airport (fortunately only part of our cash), and later discovered there was a 12%+ exchange fee!
We exchanged some at the Beijing airport. The fee was MUCH better (3.8%). Our agency told us that China will only accept clean, unfolded dollar bills, but at the Beijing airport it seemed that they'll take older bills too (they run them all through a machine).
The above two exchanges lasted us until our final few days in Guangzhou. We exchanged at the Garden Hotel front desk and their fee was the best (3%). Other families said there's a max of $300 that you can exchange (per day, per room). When I asked about this to the staff there, she told me that the max was $500 and that if we wanted to exchange more we just have to submit our passports. Not sure which story is the truth (I only had to exchange $300)...so just be prepared that you may be able to exchange only $300/day. There is also a bank attached to the Garden Hotel. I heard it has the best rate, but there's usually a long wait (maybe an hour).

Beijing
For those visiting Beijing, this is the biggest tip I have to share!
We saved at least $600 (probably more) by not going through a travel agency to book our rides/tours in Beijing. I checked with a couple of travel agencies (one in U.S. and one in China) and they gave me about the same quote (their package included ride from/to the airport, Great Wall, Hutong tour, Summer Palace, acrobat show, rides to/from each place, and a guide for each place). Normally the package would include the hotel as well, but we already had our own arrangements for hotel in Beijing. So here's what we did instead.
Hotel - we had a friend who works for Marriott who arranged our stay. But even if you don't have such connection, you can easily book the hotel yourself. Marriott has a few different hotels in Beijing, and they often have cheaper rates if you prepay your stay in advance.
Rides from/to airport - take a cab! It's about $20 each way. We landed in Beijing, and after going through customs we were immediately bombarded with "drivers" offering their service. Ignore them. Do not take their offer (they often try to cheat you and may not even have a valid license). We then found someone at the travel counter (at the airport) who quoted a fee of 350 RMB (around $57) to our hotel. We took that offer, since we were not sure how easy/safe it would be for us to get a cab. In hindsight, we should have just taken a cab (we took a cab a few times after that, including from the hotel to the airport, and it was perfectly safe). Right when you walk out the door of the airport, there are cabs lined up everywhere. It's approximately $20 to take a cab from the airport to the hotel (I guess it depends on where your hotel is...ours was near the Forbidden City). At any rate, I would suggest the cab, it's easy and cheap. If you get shocked at how crazy the cab ride is, don't fret, you'll soon realize that's how EVERYONE drives in China.
On our first full day in Beijing, we had a one-day tour arranged by our hotel (I'm sure most hotels offer this type of service; or you can probably  contact the guide we used directly, I will include his info).  It was 2500 RMB (around $408) for 2 adults, 2 children. It included the ride, the guide (a PHENOMENAL one), lunch for all of us (a delicious, plentiful meal), Great Wall Mutianyu, Hutong tour, Cloisonné shop/factory tour, and a tea ceremony at the Bell Tower. It was WELL worth the money. We couldn't believe how much we were able to do in one day (it was from 9am to around 4pm). You can read about our day here. Again, we can't recommend our guide enough. He was so nice, spoke great English, and took such good care of us. Here is his contact info: David (davidbjchina@yahoo.com). For the places we visited on this day, I do recommend having a driver/guide. They were not places we could have easily gone on our own...and we appreciated the history and background information David shared with us.
Also, for Great Wall, it's recommended by many that you choose the Mutianyu section. It's farther away, but it's less crowded. Chinese natives swear that it's the "best" section to see the Great Wall.

On our second day, we were on our own. We took the subway to the Summer Palace. The metro system in Beijing is very easy to figure out. When you do it once, you'll feel comfortable with it immediately. It's just 2 RMB per person (no matter how many times you transfer; you then pay 2 RMB  again on your return trip). Children are free (up to a certain height - our 5 year old was still free). Entrance at the Summer Palace was very cheap too...but if you are traveling over the summer, I would NOT recommend it. It was so hot and crowded. Sure, it's a pretty place...but it was more like a zoo when we went there. I hear very different stories from families who traveled during other seasons. If you do go, take the subway. Get off at Beigongmen and walk to the north gate (3 minutes). It seemed like the back entrance, but that's the closest one to a subway station.  In hindsight, we may have taken the subway/cab to the Bird's Nest or some other attraction instead of the Summer Palace. I heard from other families that the Forbidden City could have been easily skipped, so we didn't go, but we walked over from our hotel to the entrance area and I know that there's a subway station right by the entrance. So that's an option too. 
Lastly we went to an acrobat show. We took a cab to the theatre and took the subway back. This is the one we went to (recommended by a friend). Beijing Chaoyang Theater Acrobatics World. www.bjcyjc.com (click "English"). You can buy tickets at the door. It was around $137 for 4 tickets, but we were right at the front section. I'm sure they have cheaper tickets too. The show was simply amazing. Well worth the money.
The following day we took a cab to the airport. 
For meals, we found many western-friendly restaurants/fast foods very close to our hotel (there was a mall near our hotel, which had a food court). 
We had a great time in Beijing! The air quality is bad, but (sadly) you kind of get used to it. 
At hotel pools everyone MUST wear a swim cap (children too). They sell them at various markets and department stores. It's much more expensive to buy them at the hotel. 

Power adapters/converters
We had bought international adapter plug set (something like this) at a hardware shop before we left. We heard that converters are not needed (most laptops/i-devices already come with a converter), unless you're using something like a hair dryer (but most hotels provide a hair dryer in the room). So we didn't bring converters and were fine. 
My laptop chord has a 3-prong plug, so I also bought a 3-prong to 2-prong adapter. Most of the 2-prong plug should work fine in China, except if one of the prongs is wider than the other. In such case, you will need to use the international adapter plug (plug your 2-prong to the China adapter which has 2-prongs that are the same width), if that makes sense. I hope I'm not being too confusing! 
We also needed the international adapter plug when we got to our hotel room in Hong Kong. All that to say, $7 we spent on the international adapter plug set was well worth the money! It came with like 5 pieces (on each piece it's labeled which countries it's used for). 

VPN and Computer Security
For VPN (to get onto certain websites blocked by China), Panda Pow worked great. We just paid for one month subscription.
Also in China there is a danger of your computer being hacked. Our techie friend told us that the safest device we can bring/use in China is an iPad. Under General Setting turn the passcode lock "on" and turn the simple passcode "off." Choose a long, non-simple passcode.
I also used a different email account (not the one that has all my contact info), and I had my emails forwarded from my normal account. This was another advice by our techie friend.
For hardcore bloggers (like me), I would recommend these two accessories for the iPad (click on the item name and it will take you to the site that sells it): Keyboard for iPad (so you can type faster) and Camera Connection Kit (transfer photos from your camera to the iPad). 
I also bought this app ($2.99) Photogene to edit and resize pictures (since my photos were such large files). 

Children's DVD players
If you are bringing small children, small DVD player will become so valuable to you. We used my laptop as a DVD player many times. Our hotel in Beijing had a DVD player, but it didn't work with American DVDs. For international flights, they have screens in front of each seat (with lots of choices for kids), but  in-country flights do not. You won't always have reliable WiFi connection in hotel rooms, so I would highly recommend bringing DVDs and some kind of device that will play the DVDs. They show English movies on TV but not many kids' shows.

Laundry
We did A LOT of laundry during travel. So we only packed about a week worth of clothes for each family member. In Beijing, we were fortunate enough to have washer/dryer in our room (we stayed at Marriott Executive Apartments). In our daughter's province, there was a laundry shop within walking distance of the hotel (which was cheaper than using the hotel). In Guangzhou, our guide Miko knew of a laundry guy, and he came to pick up and drop off our laundry to our room (so convenient!). Both in her province and Guangzhou, it was about $25 per load.

Packing List
I based my packing list off of this blog post: http://www.babeofmyheart.com/china-adoption-pack-list/
I tweaked the list for my family, and this was what I came up with (my changes are in blue).

Toilettries:
Q-tips (travel pack)
Wet Ones & Disinfectant Wipes (2 travel packs each)
Travel Conditioner (All the hotels have shampoo; I found conditioners in all hotels too)
Face Wash Cleansing Pads (so you don’t have to worry about any spills; I didn't bring this)
Lotion (I brought baby lotion; used hotel lotion for adults)
Travel Disinfectants (the more the better if you ask me!)
Floss
Travel Tissue packs (2 or 3 packs – just for the squatty potties you encounter; most bathrooms have western style toilets too, but many do not provide toilet paper)
Hankies/small towels (since most of the bathrooms do not provide paper towels)
Travel size toothpaste (2)
Feminine products (The stores there do NOT sell the same kind of things we use:)
Little Toothbrush for new one
Fluoride-free Toothpaste (assume this is a new thing and they are going to swallow it:)
Travel size toothbrushes for all travelers
Razors/shaving cream
Sunscreen—Maybe (We packed sunscreen but the smog is so bad there that you really don’t see the sun. We never used it! We packed a travel size and never used it...it's hot and humid but the sun is never too strong).
Loofahs for children (glad we brought these!)
Kids comb/brush, hair accessories
Mom brush, hair accessories  
Deodorant
Make-up
Contact solution
Extra contact lenses
Glasses  

Medication: (I only brought some things from her list - I listed them below. I found them to be more than enough. Thankfully none of us got severely ill.)
Benadryl
Advil
7-hr Slumber (melatonin; you can buy it HERE)
Children's Tylenol
Butt paste
Children's vitamins; adults vitamins
Pepto Bismol Chewable Tablets
Travel Pro (We used it for both adults and children. Keeps you healthy naturally. You can find it HERE.)
Bio-Lax Herbal Laxative (sorry for TMI, glad we brought these; you can buy it HERE)
Zyrtec (for my allergy symptoms) 
Lice kit (another list suggested this; thankfully, we never had to use it).
First aid kit

Household:
Travel size laundry liquid detergent (4) – I was SO glad we did this!!! I’ll spare you the details–but there were several occasions I had to wash clothes in the hotel tub and it really couldn’t wait until the morning! We used them at our Marriott apartment too.
Small Scissors – strange I packed these. BUT I used them SEVERAL TIMES! Glad I had them! Same here.
Plastic Bags: Plastic Grocery bags, Tall Kitchen bags, Snack size Ziploc, Small size Ziploc I didn't bring tall kitchen bags, but a couple of them would have been helpful (for trash); I also brought a few reusable grocery bags. In China they charge you at grocery stores if you don't bring your own bags.
Clothes pins (These are great if you are in a situation where you have to wash clothes in the tub and hang them to dry! Most showers there have a pull string for hanging wet clothes to dry. IF NOT–you can use the clothes pins to hang drying children clothing from curtains and such! Very helpful to dry swimsuits!)
Snack containers (We brought them but never used them)
Water Purifier – This is GREAT to have and worth the investment as your husband can take this camping later:). You can fill up water from the sink and purify it. This is probably safer and more reliable than even water bottles. When you get to a hotel late at night and there’s no time to go buy water bottles–at least you have this! You can buy one HERE. Per her advice, we took this bottle. However, we used it very little. It takes too long to fill up the cup. Most hotels will give you extra water bottles for free. In GZ we bought a gallon-size water at the grocery store.
Small Flashlight – Our power went out for an entire day:) This is great to have at night when you need to find something and not wake everyone else too:) We brought this but never used it.
3 Thermos bottles (one for each child)
3 small reusable plastic bowls (we used this a lot when we ate lunch inside our hotel room)
Reusable plastics cups and utensils (again, glad we brought these!)

Clothes/Shoes: 
We brought one week worth of clothes, underwear, and socks for each member of the family.
2 sets of pajamas for each.
1 swimsuit for each (coverup for mom).
A light sweater/jacket for each.
One pair of flip-flops for each; wore a pair of sneakers on our travel day.
 
Toddler/Child/New One Clothes and items:
2 sets of pajamas
1 week worth of outfits

Baby shampoo
Loofah 
Swimsuit (We used this a LOT at the Guangzhou hotel!
 We used this twice for our child)
Baby Carrier – Even though our little one was 2 years old–we still used this a lot and were glad we had it! Ours was 2 years old also, and I kind of regret not bringing it. We bought a stroller in China instead. She was heavier than I thought, so I think the carrier would have hurt my back. 

Speaking of strollers, I would recommend bringing an umbrella stroller from the U.S. The hotel at her province was not near Carrefour (which is like a Target/Walmart). We bought it at a swap meet type of department store. It was more expensive than U.S. and didn't steer very well. 
Blanket
Some say to bring a stuffed animal too, but our child didn't like it. She didn't care for the blanket either.
Crib Sheet Saver – We were thankful we brought an ultimate crib sheet to put in the pack and play the hotel provided. They had sheets–but with stains on them–this just was nice to have. We brought a pack and play pad cover, but we never used it. Both hotels provided nice cribs with clean sheets.
Diapers – We were told you can just buy them there. AND YOU CAN. BUT–they were very expensive. I just wished we had packed all we would need the entire time. I spent too much time figuring out how to get to a store that sells them in Guangzhou and was shocked at the cost once we got there. Pack these if you will need them! I had a different experience. We brought one pack. We bought another pack (Pampers) at her province and another pack at Guangzhou (supermarket is close and diapers were easy to find). They may have been more expensive - it's been so long for us, I couldn't tell.
Swim Diapers – Many of the hotels have pools. I didn’t have these but wish I had packed them! We took him swimming in a regular diaper and it got really heavy and not fun to clean up later! We brought them. We only took our new child to the pool twice (Allan took the older girls more during our new child's nap time).
Wipes (2 refill packs) I took one and ended up buying one more at the supermarket in Guangzhou.
2 Bottles – We did not pack these and had to go buy them! Wish we’d packed them! I thought a 2 year old wouldn’t be on a bottle–but momma was wrong. This is great for bonding too–so just be safe and pack them if you have a little 3 or under. We brought them, but ours ended up refusing a bottle. She instead drank warm milk at night from a sippy cup.

2 reusable plastic sippy cups
Bottle Brush
Disposable gloves (Just bring them. Assume your little has picked up parasites. You’ll know within a few diaper changes if you’ll need them. But PACK THEM! You’ll thank me later.) We brought them and never used them.
Travel formula cup if your little one is still on formula (our 2 year old was!) You can buy formula THERE! We brought them and found out our child drinks warm milk (instead of formula) at night.
Bibs made of silicone for easy cleaning.
Small toys – We were so thankful to have a few small things to play with at the Civil Affairs and Consulate appointments. Think lots of waiting with a little one–and what would entertain them. We mainly used toys in the hotel rooms. We brought her Minnie Mouse toy phone and stacking cups. She loved them both. We also didn't encounter much wait time, except at airports. 
Diaper Bag 


Miscellaneous: (again, I only brought some of the things from her list)
PASSPORTS WITH VISAS 
PAPERWORK + MONEY Our agency had all the paperwork we need neatly organized in two envelopes for us. 
Pens
Gum/Mints/Candies for kids (for take-off and landing)
Ipad/Books/Coloring, stickers, and activity books for kids
Compact Bible

Folding Umbrella - I actually bought one and didn't know it was so small. It was very rainy in Guangzhou (in July). The hotel has one you can use (it's not a folding one), but depending on the # of your party, you'll definitely need more.
Bubble wrap to wrap breakables if needed for trip home Very helpful!

I would add, bring TAPE (I didn't have tape after I wrapped the breakables in bubble wrap)
Toddler backpack  I brought small backpacks for the girls to carry on our outings (we put their Thermos bottles in the backpack, along with a small towel and some snacks)
Headphones (BEST PURCHASE EVER! We bought noise cancellation ones for me and Rich, nice ones for the kids and even a pair for our new one. SO thankful we had these for the long flights!) I agree these are a must. We only bought them for the children; I now wish we bought them for us too. The airplane earphones are free but not very good. Our girls loved them. Our new child is not into shows so she hardly used them. 

1 Travel Neck Pillow (I got the inflatable kind but it wasn't comfy. I should have bought the soft, squishy kind. Allan wasn't interested, but buy 2 if both parents want to use them). 
Video Camera, Digital Camera, Battery Chargers, extra memory cards

Food:
Y’all–there is pretty good food in China–so you don’t really need to pack much. We are pretty healthy, organic eaters-BUT we did eat McDonald’s in Beijing and Guangzhou–and it was some good stuff:) You can buy peanut butter, jelly, bread and all kinds of stuff that would weigh too much to pack in Carrefour (like Walmart or Target)–they are in just about every city! Just ask your hotel concierge where Carrefour is and you’ll be SET! I found this to not be true in our child's province. It was hard to find familiar foods at the local grocery store in her province. I'm glad we had brought snacks with us. In Guangzhou, the supermarket has everything (lots of familiar snacks too). That's where we finally were able to buy stuff for PB&J.
Granola bars

Instant oatmeals
Prunes (because we daily give our girls dried prunes; we ran out and the ones we bought in China were too sour/salty..they didn't like it). 
Raisins
Instant coffee (Chinese coffee is a bit different; we had bought instant coffee in Japan and drank those a lot).

Gifts: We wanted to take things for the orphanage caregivers, Civil Affairs and Guides–something that wasn’t made in China:) 
Our agency gave us a list of how many gifts we need to purchase, along with some ideas. 
We brought gift bags and tissue papers to pack the gifts in.

Guangzhou
AEON supermarket is great - pretty much has everything you need.
I found pastries in Guangzhou to be delicious! There's a cafe/bakery across the street from the Garden (I can't remember the name but has the word "surprise" in it). Delicious!

McDonald's at Guangzhou tasted so good...not sure why. The sandwiches tasted way better than in the U.S.

Pizza Hut in China is like a sit-down restaurant, and the foods are made to order. The pizza was really good!

Tekila Mexican Restaurant (all of these are on the same street, across from the Garden Hotel) was very good as well. I ordered the California-style Burrito - yummy!!

KFC sandwiches in Guangzhou are very spicy.

We didn't try out the subway in Guangzhou but heard from others that it's very easy to navigate as well. The subway station is right next to the Garden Hotel.

What we normally did in GZ was have a big breakfast around 9 or 9:30 (at the hotel buffet), have a light lunch in our hotel room (from what we bought at the grocery store), and have a take out or sit-down dinner somewhere.

Traveling to Hong Kong: We took a private van instead of the train. We were told that with three small children, this was the way to go. We just have to sit in the car through customs. For the train, you have to carry your luggages around...then figure out a ride from the train station to the hotel. We were glad we did the van (it was very new and clean). We just had no idea it would take so long. They told us 3 hrs...but with traffic (in the rain), and LONG wait at customs, it ended up being closer to 4 hours. Just be prepared for a long ride!

Whew. I think I've written it all down.

It really is a trip of a lifetime. There are challenges, for sure, but I cherish every bit of the memory we made there.

Have a GREAT time.

God is Gracious,
Maria

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