I have visited China twice on stopovers, the first time to Beijing in 2016 and the second; Shanghai in 2018.
I won’t be going back.
The best advice I can leave you is to avoid China. Perhaps there are nice spots to visit outside of the cities and maybe there are some beautiful parts to the culture but this was not my experience. Also, do you really want to use your tourism dollars to support a country with a dog meat trade? I have never been particularly interested in China but always like to use stopovers as an excuse to visit new spots (The Art of the Stopover) and thought I’d give this country a try… twice.
My first stopover in Beijing was mostly spent getting pushed around a freezing cold city (it was January) in search of vegetarian friendly food or fresh food to eat (I found none) while observing some pretty buildings with heavy police presence on the streets. I rode the metro from the airport with ease to get around, however struggled to find things as I wasn’t aware that google maps wouldn’t work and despite finding free wifi in many places, and was unable to google anything. I ended up leaving China hungry, passing on the grilled cockroaches on the street and American fast food chains, disgusted at the polluted grey sky and the way the men spit everywhere on the street, and slightly traumatized by being pushed everywhere and the heavy police presence and random metal detectors on the street.
The second time I went to China I had talked myself into looking forward to my stopover there. I had googled a few cool things to do including riding the Maglev train (fastest land train in the world), visiting Disneyland Shanghai for a few hours and then going for a drink at the top of the Hyatt downtown to observe the view and then walking around People’s Square.
None of this happened.
My friends and I positioned ourselves well to make the most of our stopover. We had researched directions to all the spots we wanted to go, ensured our bags were checked through to our final destination in the Philippines, and sat at the front of the plane to avoid long lines for the tourist visa. As we departed the plane, we were greeted with almost no wait at the 24 hour tourist visa line at customs.
And we were turned away.
No explanation given. We were told we would have to stay in the airport for the entire duration of our 8 hour stopover. We went to the international transfer gate and inquired and were told by an airline staff that we should try the 24 hour visa line again. We attempted the regular foreigners visa line and were again told no. When we asked why, an angry Chinese police man yelled “no why” and pointed us back to the international transfer line.
Instead we tried the 24 hour temporary visa line again. This time we tucked our boarding passes for our next flight away, completed the blue temporary visa form with the date for the following day departure (the truth, we were leaving after midnight that night) and tried again. No dice. Again, no explanation.
After over an hour of trying to gain entry to Shanghai, we gave up. We went to the international transfer terminal to wait for our flight several hours later. The magic of Disneyland Shanghai and the excitement of riding the train destroyed. The most frustrating part besides not being allowed outdoors after a 12.5 hour flight from Canada was not being provided with an explanation as to why, as I previously had no problem acquiring a temporary visitor visa on a stopover. As we laid around the airport attempting to nap, we used the free wifi to discover this had been happening to several others recently without explanation. If anyone has info as to why people have been recently turned away, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tips for China:
– As I mentioned earlier, don’t go.
– But if you do go, you will see information that you are eligible for a free transit visa if you’re stopping in on your way en route to somewhere else. Be prepared that you may be turned away somewhere else and don’t rely on this stopover as part of your travel itinerary.
– Pack warm clothes and blankets if stranded in the Shanghai airport. I live in Canada and don’t think I’ve ever been so cold!
– Forget using social media or any google based apps. On my first trip, whatsapp was allowed, but has since been banned leaving iMessage as my only communication option online. What I didn’t know my first trip, was that I could have used another search engine (Yahoo) to find a vegetarian friendly place to eat. Once I discovered that Google is banned in China and could search with Yahoo, using the internet became easier. If you’re super concerned about getting online, consider using a VPN app to use Google and your social media apps.
– The maps app on iPhones works for getting around
– Be careful what you pack in your carry on. A friend had her battery pack taken away because it didn’t have any factory writing on it. They are quite thorough at security and confiscate many items.
Shanghai airport tips:
– the airport is probably beautiful on a nice sunny day (does that happen in Shanghai?) with huge floor to ceiling windows but for us, it just meant the terminal never really warmed up and we were absolutely freezing.
– There are plenty of little shops and cafes however food and drinks are rather expensive. North American style, vegetarian friendly, and fresh dishes are extremely limited. Shop around. A bottle of water ranged in price from $1 to $7 depending on the store.
– There is free drinking water available at many stations throughout the terminal. Reduce plastic and bring your own reusable water bottle.
– Wifi is free and easy to access.
– The airport was not crowded on a Tuesday afternoon/evening when we went and has many long benches to stretch out on and sleep.
China Eastern airline review.
– I had hoped to book my Philippines trip on star alliance partner couldn’t pass up the opportunity for the cheap deal to Cebu, Philippines offered by China Eastern with a long stopover in Shanghai (I’ll always choose a long stopover over 3-6 hours as I like the chance to explore new cities and stretch my legs and mind on a long stopover rather than staying in the airport)
I was pleasantly surprised with:
– Leg room
– Seat back entertainment from Canada to Shanghai with so many movies, shows and games to keep us entertained.
– Food quality was surprisingly good. Better than most airlines.
– Free wifi. You have to register in advance for a code and the signal wasn’t particularly strong, and the wifi had all the same Chinese restrictions as mainland China but this was a nice perk. (Add link to register online here)
– strict flight attendants not allowing us to move to sit closer to our friends because the seats were “priority seats”
– Lack of alcohol on board. Even when requested, and not even for sale. No dice. Apparently there was one offering of wine on the 12 hour flight I missed while I was sleeping and was not able to access when I asked.
– Passengers with no shame. Whether it was the woman changing a diaper in the middle row (there are change tables in the washroom on board) of her screaming child (who screamed for the better part of 12 hours) or the passenger climbing and standing on the seats, or those who ran and pushed to be first on the plane (yes, they literally ran!) these passengers had no shame. This seemed consistent with my experience in other crowded places in China.
Our flight from China to the Philippines was quite different. No seat back entertainment, no wifi, terrible food, but did offer free wine and more considerate passengers.
If China Eastern didn’t require a stopover in China (they are a Chinese airline after all) I’d likely fly with them again as overall it was a positive experience. But I think I’ll stick to other Star Alliance airline partners through other countries for future travel to Asia.