Taking care of yourself during your trip is not especially difficult, but there are some things you should know about in order to maximize your enjoyment while you're in China.
Check with the US State Department at the following location for any specific warnings about China before you leave: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1089.html.
The Chinese are used to operating on a cash basis. Credit cards and checks are rarely, if ever, used. You will need to exchange some money at the airport when you arrive in China. Since the largest note in China is 100 yuan, you will find that your stack of money has grown tremendously. If you prefer, you can exchange a moderate amount of money at the airport and keep the rest in your home currency or traveler's checks. You will get a better exchange rate at a larger bank, where they will also accept your traveler's checks.
ATMs are available in cities in China. You may have to wait in line to use one. Not all of them work with foreign bank cards, but many do. They are available in English and the transaction fees are reasonable.
Tipping is not expected in China, whether for taxis, waiters, personal services, or hotel staff.
Try to keep smaller notes with you at all times. One popular scam is for vendors such as restaurants to claim that they don't have change for your large bills, so if you don't have smaller change, you will end up having to overpay them. You can also confirm whether or not change is available beforehand.
By far the biggest threat to your personal safety is traffic accidents. Driving in China is truly hazardous. Take every step that you can take to protect yourself. Travel by train instead of bus when possible. Wear seat belts when available (which is not usually the case). Try to select experienced and relaxed drivers and larger vehicles. Tell your driver to drive more slowly. Don't drive or ride in cars at night. Do not ride in any vehicle in which you believe the driver may be intoxicated.
If you're walking or riding a bicycle, do not expect cars to stop for you, even in a crosswalk in an intersection where the traffic light is in your favor. Cars expect you to stay out of their way, and if you don't do so, you will face the consequences. Cyclists also expect pedestrians to stay out of their way and will not usually stop for you.
Other personal safety issues are discussed in the health and wellness topic below.
Crime exists in every country in the world, and China is no exception. Most people feel safe in China compared to their home countries and to other countries to which they have traveled. However, minor crimes do happen. And they generally happen to people who don't take reasonable steps to protect themselves.
Penalties for crimes against foreigners are more severe than penalties for crimes against Chinese, but crimes against foreigners do still happen, since foreigners are expected to carry a lot of money and valuables.
One crime to be aware of is pickpocketing. Be careful where you keep your money. Use a money belt under your clothes for your main valuables such as money and passport. Keep your money in different places in case some of it does get stolen. Remain aware of your immediate surroundings, especially in crowded situations like subways and train stations. If someone seems unnecessarily close to you, protect yourself by moving away, turning around, looking at them, and otherwise acting to change the relationship between them and you. If in doubt, yell at them loudly so as to attract the attention of others.
More serious crimes like robberies and assaults happen too. The best protection for the average person is to avoid situations where you may be vulnerable to these crimes. Try not to go into remote places alone. Learn how to protect yourself. Guns are illegal in China. Carrying a weapon such as a knife is not necessarily a good idea because it can be used against you, both physically and legally. But your trekking poles can come in handy in this situation. Self-defense training will give you confidence as well as the ability to disable an attacker.
Common sense is your best defense against crimes. Most people act responsibly and never have any problem with crime in China. The bottom line is to take normal precautions. There are no completely safe countries in the world, but there are plenty of dangerous ones, and China is not one of them.
If you use some reasonable precautions, you are very likely to remain healthy during your trip to China. On the other hand, if you're careless, you will probably get sick. Your body is not accustomed to many of the infectious agents in China and therefore you don't have an accumulated resistance, so you need to protect yourself more than you do at home. Plus, getting sick during your trip would be more inconvenient and, due to lost vacation time, a greater loss than getting sick at home.
Protect yourself from other people and their contagious illnesses by keeping your hands clean, and keeping them away from your face. Wash your hands often. Be aware of touching surfaces that are frequently touched, such as door handles, elevator buttons, and the like. Carry a small bottle of instant hand sanitizer and use it often, especially after touching a suspect surface, before eating, and after using the restroom. It's hard to avoid crowds in China, but do so when possible.
Don't drink tap water in China, or use it to wash your food or brush your teeth. If washing your face, don't get water in your eyes. If you have cuts, scrapes, or burns, or other injuries on your skin, protect them from tap water. Tap water safety is an important rule which your habitual actions can easily cause you to forget, so be careful. Water should be boiled or treated before it's safe for consumption or internal contact. In spite of this conventional wisdom, however, many visitors report using tap water to brush their teeth without problems, so use your own judgment.
Air pollution is another hazard in China, and it can be difficult to avoid. But it's good to be aware that pollution, especially in large cities like Shanghai and Beijing, can be much worse than you're used to. If you have a sensitive respiratory system or you are worried about air quality, bring an appropriate mask and use it, at least during times and places of high air pollution levels.
Food can be another source of illness. Try to only patronize clean restaurants. When you aren't sure, remember that the restaurants or food vendors that are the most popular are the most likely to be safe.
When eating cooked food, make sure that it's fresh and that it's cooked thoroughly. Be careful with uncooked foods, such as salads and fruits, as they are often washed in tap water or contaminated with pesticides. If you buy fruit, peel it before eating, or at least clean it with your hand cleaner. Carry and use your own chopsticks. Non-porous chopsticks such as plastic are better than porous ones such as wood. You can clean them with your hand cleaner after each use and carry them in a plastic bag with a zipper.
Especially because you probably won't be able to follow your regular diet, take a daily multi-vitamin to keep your immune system in top working order. You should also get plenty of sleep, even if jet lag keeps you up at night and you must sleep during the day.
If, despite your best efforts, you do get sick while you're in China, don't panic. For minor illnesses, you may want to visit a local pharmacy. Unlike pharmacies in other countries, pharmacies in China can offer you specific recommendations. You can choose between traditional Chinese remedies and modern western medicines. You may also consider visiting a doctor in a hospital. In case of serious illness or injuries, you must go to the hospital. The best hospitals are located in major cities like Beijing, but you may have to find the nearest hospital in case of an emergency. You should also contact your country's embassy in case of a serious illness or injury; they can provide assistance.
It wasn't until my fifth trip to China that I ever got sick. I was with a friend from Germany and we went to Shanhaiguan to meet a friend from Denmark for a week or two of hiking on the Great Wall in Liaoning and Hebei. We traveled there from Beijing on the Chinese National Day holiday, and the train was unbelievably crowded. I guess that's when I got a contagious illness because two days later I was quite ill with what felt like the flu. Fortunately, my friend from Germany was kind enough to go to the pharmacy and get some medicines for me, for I could barely get out of bed. The next day, I returned to a nice hotel in downtown Beijing to recuperate and to be close to a good hospital in case I needed one, which fortunately I did not. I was weak for several days before I began to get better enough to return to the Great Wall.
If you're interested to go to China by yourself, you don't want to pay the price of a professional tour guide, and you don't speak much Chinese, you may be interested in hiring an amateur travel guide. Many of these people are students. They are generally looking to make a little bit of extra money. Most of them are sincere in their desire to help you and to have a mutually beneficial arrangement. Many of them are English language students and will be very happy at the prospect of spending some time with a native English speaker. Their prices are negotiable and very reasonable. You can search for what you're seeking (e.g someone from Beijing) and contact a few of them and communicate with them via e-mail and telephone to select a travel guide. They can meet you at the airport and accompany you to wherever you want to go, handling communications and negotiations with taxi drivers, hotel staff, and so forth.