Senior Travelers in China
by Joseph Nicolai
- Mar 16, 2015
Get out there!
People 50+ are the vast majority of worldwide travelers and these numbers are increasing all the time. China may seem for some to be like a distant land reserved for the most extreme backpackers. But while there are a few rugged areas in the country far away from modern comforts, most places are well equipped for foreign tourists and suitable for all of us - including senior citizens. If you’re enjoying your golden years and are ready for the trip of a lifetime, here are some helpful tips that will make for a smooth journey. We offer suggestions on planning ahead, packing practical, and tips and trips with regards to what to do after you arrive.
Plan your trip wisely
Make sure to do your research and choose the cities, attractions and destinations that fit your own desires and physical abilities. Just about any UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with many of the developed cities on the east coast, will be more suitable for easier travel. In general, travel conditions in the west and central part of the country are rougher and less developed than the east. It might also be a good idea to plan ahead for transportation since many airlines offer discounts and priority seating for the elderly.
Planning ahead can give you the space for whims when you arrive.
Go through a travel agent & get a travel guide
If you are going solo or with a group, it’s highly recommended to book a tour that will provide transportation and arrange the nuts and bolts of traveling for you. This will give you more time to enjoy the sites without having to plan the logistics of travel everyday thus making your trip much smoother. If you have special needs or requests, it’s highly recommended to use a travel guide that you can communicate with and they will accommodate your requirements.
A travel agent can offer a lot of useful advice and can at the very least put you in contact with travel agencies in China that specialized in meeting various needs. They may help you make arrangements for wheelchairs & make sure you have all the paperwork if it is necessary. These things come in handy if you’re taking flights within China to multiple destinations. It also might be useful to talk with your travel agent and book your travel guide to meet with you a couple of days after your arrive – giving you enough time to beat out the jet leg, taste some local food and get a sense of your surroundings.
On the ground, there are travel guides out there that can make your experience as a senior in China all the better. Don’t know what we mean? For just one example among many, consider the Great Wall of China. Everyone has heard about it and knows where it is. However, far fewer know that there are many entry points to the Great Wall and that the entry at Mutianyu is not as steep and still just as beautiful. This entry point also has a cableway available that can take you to a scenic area hassle free. It’s not just that these little tricks are easier but they can help maximize your time and energy.
Think ahead for accommodation
If you are thinking of staying at hostels be sure to book ahead so you can get a private room (especially during peak season, when they sell out quickly). However it is recommended to get a hotel to have a more comfortable experience. You can find some quality hotels in China where you really get a lot of bang for your buck compared to what you would get in the West. Make sure to research your hotels beforehand to see if they meet your requirements: Western hotel chains will be sure to have food that may be more comforting to see everyday than the local grub.
Capsule rooms are gaining popularity in mainland China.
Buy travel insurance
Though it’s a good idea for anyone to purchase travel insurance it’s highly recommended for seniors. Accidents unfortunately happen to all of us so might as well come prepared. Nothing is worse than not feeling well overseas and then also having to worry about how to pay for it. For some more information on travel insurance talk with your local bank or insurer. If you already have insurance, make sure it’s applied to your trip in China (Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau & Taiwan).
If you come from Europe, Australia or New Zealand you can also check out Globelink: globelink.uk.com
If you come from the U.S. or Canada, we suggest taking a look at Insuremytrip: insuremytrip.com/myquote-6661-0-0-0.html
It’s highly recommended to visit the doctor for a checkup before making the trip to China. While there is no great time for potty talk – diarrhea can lessen the effectiveness of some medications so make sure to bring it up with the doctor so you know what to do in case of those extended trips to the loo become part of your China trip.
While you’re at it, might as well also make an appointment with your local dentist. Let the challenges be the experience of new things and new foods – not necessarily the experience of trying to eat with a painful mouth. Dental issues can really put a damper on vacations.
Upon arrival it may be difficult to explain any conditions to local doctors. Though hospitals in big cities are modern you still don’t want to have a problem that you can’t communicate thousands of kilometers away from home. In order to prevent this you can ask your doctor to give you a copy of your relevant medical conditions as well as medicine and dosage amounts, and his contact information – all of which can come in handy if the need ever rises.
Bring extra of any medication because it will be extremely difficult to find your exact prescription once here, and if you find something similar it may be from a different brand than you are familiar with. While it’s probably a given for most, be sure to take enough of your medication with you to cover at least your entire tour – and a bit extra just in case. If you are bringing a lot of medication you might need a note from your doctor – see Carry-On Bag.
Pharmacies in Mainland China will only sell medicine – nothing else.
As mentioned above, many airline companies will offer discounts and/or priority seating, but remember that other places, such as ferries, tourist attractions, and shows offer reduced prices for seniors. Make sure to check before paying any entrance fee or ticket and bring your passport for proof of age. Get the most of your age!
China is the third largest country by area in the world, and given its range in geography
its climate varies greatly from region to region, city to city, mountain to shore. Check our weather chart in the beginning of each provincial chapter to get an idea of the conditions during your travel time. If you plan to visit multiple destinations – or plan on changing altitudes – pack accordingly (sunglasses, hats, shorts, sunscreen, cream for dry skin ect…).
What is considered comfortable depends on the local weather.
Consider Bringing a Smog Mask
Depending on where you go consider purchasing a smog mask. As we already wrote on another page
, some areas in China have very little in terms of air pollution but other areas can be “foggy” everyday. Other areas may be fine one day and then horrendous the next.
Some days, you can literally “feel” the air and this has real effects on your body. If you wan't to know how the area you will be going fares in terms of pollution check out some of the useful APPs
that can make checking quite easy.
Smog can't be overlooked. For a personal example, at the University I attended in China foreigners would one after the other get the “China Cough” as it was called amongst the local University staff. One of my classmates developed a five month long cough until she finally admitted that she needed a mask – with the mask the cough never came back for the rest of her stay there.
If you don’t smoke, it’s been said that on a bad day in Beijing breathing the air is like smoking two packs a day. If you do smoke, do you really want to be inhaling an extra two packs a day - two packs that you won’t even enjoy? If you want to get a mask it’s highly recommend it you try it in your own neighborhood first before bringing it and testing it out in China. There are various models and some may be more comfortable than others depending on the shape of your face. Some can make it a bit harder to breathe if you are doing heavy walking so be sure to consult your doctor first.
Sadly that’s not fog in the background – that’s smog.
As a general rule make sure your carry-on bag has all the essentials you might need for your trip in case the rest of the luggage does not make it with you. Things like your toothbrush and enough clothes to be comfortable are key to smart carry-on packing. As already mentioned, your carry-on should include all the medicine you would need – plus any antacids and band-aids you might need – for the duration of the trip. Depending on the quantity and type of medication you might have to bring with you a doctors notice to pass through customs and security. Best talk with your travel agent to sort out any of this paperwork in advance.
With some Chinese roads being less than the flat than you may have been accustomed to luggage with sturdy wheels is a big plus.
Avoid bringing expensive (looking) Jewelry
While China is quite safe it is a developing country of stark contrasts, with the super rich living next to the super poor. To put things in perspective, the highest minimum wage in China is to be found in Guangdong province (2011) and rests at 1,320RMB per month (approx. 250$ USD). There are many earning much less than that. If you are not going with a tour guide who can help you navigate the area do think twice about wearing much more than someone’s yearly salary.
Wallet & contact information
Consider bringing two wallets: one 'dummy' wallet with petty cash & another “real” one for major purchases. The dummy wallet can be great for small purchases and daily life, while the other wallet can be useful to bring out only when making major purchases. As I mentioned earlier, it’s highly recommended to bring the contact details of your local travel agency and also your embassy, as well as any medical issues you may have. If you do end up having a problem you are not alone - do call your embassy. For a list of embassies and consulates check our page here
After Arriving: Tips & Tricks!
By and large China is a safe country but probably even more so for seniors. Chinese culture, generally, shows a high amount of respect for elders and it’s not uncommon for children to invite their parents to live with them. In fact, the Chinese government has recently implemented a law requiring children to regularly visit and respect their parents to continue this proud tradition of caring for the elderly. Don’t be surprised as well if youngsters give up their subway or bus seats for you.
The Beijing airport is big - very big.
Avoid traveling around alone too late at night
Tour guides can help you a lot in terms of safety tips with regards of where to go and where to avoid depending on where you are. The first time I went to China I stayed in a 5-star hotel in Suzhou
and I luckily followed the guide’s advice that I avoid walking too far away from the hotel. I later found out that some other tourists had been robbed in the area. That said there are many beautiful areas that are perfectly safe to stroll at night and its great to know the difference.
Crossing the street
While walking in a regular western city may not be much of a challenge for you the normative safety guidelines in a Chinese city may prove to be a bit more stressful. Some major streets will have no recognizable crosswalks but most people seem to know what they are doing and it is relatively safe if you follow their lead. Even some long term expats living in China will prefer waiting for a local to take the lead and cross the larger street with them. In the end, always use your own judgment and stay safe. Take a minute to examine the scene in front of you before jetting out.
To Go or Not To Go: Crosswalks from a different view
Before talking about eating it’s good to first mention drinking: always drink bottled water. Some parts of China can get very hot so be sure to drink as much water as you need – and its always better to drink water before you are thirsty. Heat stroke is never fun and happens to people of all ages when traveling in areas they are not familiar with yet. If you have a tour guide tell them you want to have water available and if you’re traveling on your own be sure to bring some water with you. It also might be a good practice to brush your teeth with bottled water as well.
With regards to eating, depending on where you are the Chinese diet, specifically the breakfast
, may be very different from what you may be accustomed to. Most Western hotels will have buffet breakfasts that will serve your standard western food next to a variety of local dishes. If you have a water bottle it’s also a great time to fill it with some extra coffee, tea or juice for your journey. It’s also a great time to ask the staff to write in Chinese the name of any particular Chinese dish you may like so that if you are feeling adventurous you can hit the town and order your own. Also feel free to look at our cuisine section to get an idea of what to expect depending on where you are going.
If you really want to find some food from home the good news is that there are many international chain supermarkets, even in third-tier cities, where you can probably find what you need. Wal-Mart (沃尔玛), Auchan (欧尚) and Carrefour (家乐福) will have a variety of Western imported food that you can purchase. It’s good to note that there is a high probability that locals will not understand you if you use the English pronunciation for these major chains so if you want to go there, but if you show them the Chinese characters as found here they will definitely know what you mean. McDonalds & Starbucks also abound.
The same old coffee in a truly old building.
If you are looking for specialty foods from the West – like Sicilian olives or genuine prosciutto – major cities might have what you are looking for if you know where to go. If you’re traveling to a small town however you might want to stock up on your favorite foods before heading out as they might be impossible to get.
Sanitary standards have yet to spread its reach across the country - especially when it comes to street food. In general, try to avoid street food as you are never quite sure what you might be really eating. If the street food is being offered by a business on wheels it means that they are essentially unaccountable. You might see them once on one street corner and then never again. While this is not true for all street food venders, some of which become tried and tested pillars of the local community, as a tourist you won’t know what you’re getting either way.
If sodium consumption is an issue for you talk to your tour guide and use your own judgment – some dishes here can have surprisingly large amounts. Asking them to use less can go a long way in reducing sodium intake.
Bring TP (toilet paper) & sanitizer with you at all times (!)
While TP can be found in higher-end restaurants and hotels, don’t be surprised if you don’t happen to find any anywhere else. Even some Starbucks, for example, won’t have a W.C. and will instead direct you to a public toilet.
Within mainland China public toilets are most often than not of the squat variety. They can be very busy places. As a rule, WCs at smaller local restaurants will most often be of the squat variety, while global chains will more often than not meet Western norms.
W.C's can get very slippery and squatting may be uncomfortable for some. Llocal elderly who find it uncomfortable can be seen bringing their custom chairs to the W.C.s, Because of the amount of people and the cleaning staff - which seem to be perpetually working - the floors can often be very wet and slippery . Take it slow.
It is recommended to bring toilet paper & sanitizer with you at all times or you are sure to – at least at some point on your trip - regret it. No matter what happens and how much you prepare, most will have at least one WC story of their experiences in China. For more information on China's WC's see here
Plan your escape routes.
Avoid public transportation during peak times (7–9am and 5–7pm)
Public transportation can be quite the experience. It’s not just that it tends to get very busy but that a lot of pushing and shoving occurs. It becomes part of the daily routine. During peak hours you can expect – if you can in fact get a place on the train – to be sandwiched like sardines. Such is the pressure from other passengers that often you won’t be able to move your arms as they will be lost between the bodies of others. I have yet to be hurt on the train but I sure felt the pressure of the people pushing me against a bar.
The most vivid “China peak times transportation” memory I have of this is when I saw an older man standing in front of the line, holding what must have been his very young granddaughter, get body checked by two girls behind him that wanted at all costs to grab a seat. Even though when the train had arrived it was completely empty the older gentleman was unable to grab a seat because of the massive rush behind him. While this does not happen all the time it is neither the exception to the rule. If you still want to see what it’s like you can get a peak of it just by entering the station and staying on the platform. But when you’re on holiday its best plan your vacation around getting the most out of your trip. After checking out the subway you can do something better like checking out a local park in the morning.
This view is best taken from a safe distance.
Check out a local park in the early morning
There is a vibrant public culture in China catering to people of all ages and interests. Some events however it’s really the elderly that take the center stage. Often, mature Chinese will head to public parks to do exercises every morning and some of them can be quite fun. Some will do Tai Chi, while others will bring out their instruments, and others still will go out singing and dancing.
Local residents playing a variety of games at the park.
In Chinese parks square dancing is a very common site and anyone can join – and best of all it’s free! I have joined in some of the dancing myself, and if you’re ok with getting stared at you will find locals to be quite friendly. It’s definitely worth to see and feel free to let loose.
There are a lot of activities at hand in public parks in general. While some of these various routines are seen most prominently in the morning they will often be seen well in to the night. Among the various activities, there will be chess – most often Chinese chess but sometimes Western chess – and a variety of other communal activities.
Local residents performing some square dancing.
Age is just a number, so get up and go! In truth, people over 50 make up the majority of international world travelers these days, so enjoy it and have a dream vacation in one of the world’s most fascinating countries. After your trip, do feel free to share your experiences with us.