China is a very large country, and as you roam around it you’ll encounter different cultures, different landscapes, and different people. But in all of China’s many regions, you can travel with diabetes confidently: with preparation and a smart attitude, nothing bad will happen to you and your blood sugar in China.
In this guide to travel in China with diabetes, get useful info about food and insulin doses in China, as well as information about keeping medication safe and communicating in Chinese about diabetes and your needs, plus advice for moving around China and getting the most out of your trip while taking proper care of your diabetes.
Preparing for China with diabetes
When going to China it’s best to do a little preparation up front, before you go, to make the trip as smooth as possible. As far as diabetes goes, this means taking care of your supplies.
For a relatively short trip to China (a few weeks or less) it’s likely you can just carry everything you need with you. A good rule of thumb to follow is the “double” rule: calculate how much insulin, blood sugar testing supplies, needles, and other medical things you’ll need for the time you plan on spending in China, and then buy double that amount.
Split everything up into the bags you’re taking – if you’re traveling with a big suitcase and a smaller day pack, for example, put some of each supply in the big bag and some in your small bag. It is very unlikely that anything will happen to either bag or to your diabetes supplies, but this is a “just in case” type of preparation: you’ll always have a fallback. Even more important, perhaps, is that it gives you peace of mind.
Many diabetics are afraid of what might happen to them if they were to explore China with diabetes, and they dream up all kinds of scary scenarios. The result is that too many diabetics choose not to venture out into China, or elsewhere in the world. It’s a shame, and it’s totally avoidable. The fear is all in your head, and while splitting up your supplies into each of your bags has its practical benefits, the psychological benefit is likely the most important.
Now that you’ve got your supplies all set, you need to work on having the right general attitude. If you already have this attitude – and you must to a large degree, or you wouldn’t be considering something crazy like traipsing around China as a diabetic! – then good for you.
But if you need a little encouragement and inspiration, then internalize the great universal truth of traveling, anywhere including China, with diabetes:
Nothing bad will happen to you.
Yes, of course something bad could happen. To you, or anyone. But it won’t. Statistically, it is so unlikely that you can completely ignore it. You’ll be prepared and smart and positive, and nothing bad will happen to you.
Got it? Nothing bad will happen to you! Repeat it until it sinks in. It’s true. Your fears are just fears. Shut off that chatter and get going!
Food and insulin in China
“Chinese food” means different things in different places. In my country of America, for example, it refers to a rather narrow and heavy range of fried dishes, thick with rich sauce and super high in carbs. In my adopted home of Japan, “Chinese food” refers to several salty and spicy dishes with a little more vegetable content than that of America. And so on for other countries.
But actual food in China – a vast country, remember – takes on a character that is much more varied than many visitors are prepared for. There may be some similarities with “Chinese food” outside the country, but once inside China you’ll have to adapt to the reality of cuisine there when it comes to your diabetes.
Chinese food does often include rice and thick sauces, but it can also include noodles and, especially in western China, bread from Central Asia. Fresh, simple vegetables and meats often make up the main dish while white rice is served alongside it. You can find fried things as well, just like in other places.
As a diabetic traveler to China, you will have to learn how different foods affect your own specific diabetes. The most important rule is to check your blood sugar often – make your best guess when eating, then verify later. If anything, you may be like many travelers and have more high blood sugars than low: rice is of course thick in carbs, but noodles can be surprisingly thick too – as much as rice.
Travelers often eat at street stalls – and you are definitely encouraged to do this; Chinese street food can be amazing. Be careful with the insulin doses though; even simple things like green peppers on a stick or dumpling soup can have sweet sauces on them or dense carbs that make blood sugar high. The cheap, large Chinese beer bottles too can include lots of their own carbs. (I personally don’t like Chinese beer that much, but it’s undeniably good with street food with other diners at a sea of card tables on a cool evening.)
The bread and lamb-type dishes, more common in western Asia, can also be thick in carbs but are more like pizza dough – if you know how to dose for pizza (but who does, really? ;)) then it’s roughly the same. Make sure, whatever you’re eating, to take into account any exercise you’ve been getting, even walking around a town. The hot sun in summer can affect some diabetics’ blood sugars too; if this is you, be careful.
But whatever your approach to insulin and food in China, try to keep this in mind: eat what you want. If you have the type of approach to diabetes that lets you adjust your dose depending on what you eat, then don’t let diabetes force you to shy away from new foods. It’s your adventure, and enough insulin will kill pretty much any carb content. You must check after every meal, maybe twice, to see how you’re doing. But food is part of the fun of traveling, and diabetes can’t take that away from you.
Story – Sugar tomatoes in western China
Once in a distant town in west China called Golmud I went to one of the few shops I could find open one afternoon. It was an unlit room with a big window near the train station.
I ordered something that turned out to be sliced tomatoes sprinkled liberally with sugar crystals.
I never eat straight sugar – I don’t even keep it in my house – so I didn’t know how to dose my insulin for it. But, I figured if I wasn’t diabetic I’d be eating this same dish anyway, so diabetes would just have to accommodate it.
I got out my insulin pen and injected carefully in my stomach, right at the table, after eyeing the plate and asking my travel partner how much of it she thought she might eat. And then I tucked in.
The tomatoes were cool and smooth, and the sugar was crunchy and sweet; it was a simple dish, obviously, but quite tasty. And my blood sugar wasn’t too bad afterwards. I had merely guessed, but had luckily guessed well. (Checking soon afterwards was key.)
I had at that point been in China over two months already, and was developing a second sense about the food I was eating. Not perfect all the time, certainly, but getting better with each experience.
That’s how to get the most out of any trip anywhere as a diabetic, when it comes to eating: eat what you want, guess the insulin, verify afterwards, and learn. No regrets!
If you’re saving money, or tired of street and restaurant food, you might find yourself eating things from shops like instant noodles. Sometimes that’s all that’s available, as on some Yangtze River overnight boat tours. Small shops are frequent, and nutrition info is generally printed on the packaging and will be easy to figure out.
Low blood sugar snacks
Always carry low blood sugar snacks with you in China. You don’t have to bring a huge supply from home or anything – juice and cookies, or whatever else you like, will be available nearly everywhere.
Nearly everywhere – it is possible to get stuck in some small town, or on a bus or train or boat with no services whatsoever. So if you’re getting low on snack supplies, buy more when you can. Always try to aim to carry a little bit more than you could need.
And never leave the hotel even for a short time without it! Use a day pack and always carry some insulin, blood sugar stuff, and food in it. If you’re off hiking or something, carry a lot more.
Keeping insulin cool in the sunshine
Many parts of China can get really hot in summer. You should keep insulin cool, and the best way is with a freezer pack or a Frio bag, cool and stuck inside your day pack. Keep it out of the direct sunlight, which means sticking it down in your bag so it isn’t even sunlight-adjacent. (I always wrapped it up in a shirt or towel so it was several layers away from the sun.)
You’d be surprised how cool it can stay, even in the most glaring heat. But then again, you’d be surprised how well insulin can survive a few days in some pretty warm circumstances. Of course, if should be kept as cool as possible but it’s yet another thing that many diabetics over-worry about. In other words, prepare for it: if you’re worried, buy a cold pack. But keep in mind that I’ve spent many months at a time in some very hot places and never had any problem with insulin losing effectiveness.
Nothing bad will happen to you.
How to speak Chinese – for T1Ds
What if you have to tell a Chinese person that you’re diabetic?
First of all, this is very unlikely. Second of all, if it does become necessary, it’s not as hard as you might think to explain your situation.
Many medical professionals, which is the type of person you’d most likely be speaking to about diabetes, could understand the English word “diabetes”. If they don’t understand it when you say it, they may well understand it if you write it down.
But if all else fails, you can just use the Chinese version. You can say it, or show them a printed-out version.
- diabetes – 糖尿病 – pronounced “tong nyow bing”
Try to say the “tong” part like a question, with your voice rising in tone: “tong?” Say the “nyow” (like “yow!” with an “n” sound in front of it) and “bing” parts each with the opposite, a falling tone. Chinese pronunciation is difficult for newcomers; you can try the above but just to be sure, copy and paste the Chinese characters 糖尿病 in a document and print it out.
- Type 1 diabetes – 1型糖尿病 – pronounced “ee shing tong nyow bing”
- Type 2 diabetes – 2型糖尿病 – pronounced “arr shing tong nyow bing”
- insulin – 胰岛素 – pronounced “ee dow SOO”
Again, it’s unlikely you’ll need this – an emergency is very unlikely if you’re checking your BG often and always carry low blood sugar snacks around with you – but it’s handy to have. If all else fails, just wave around an insulin pen or something related to diabetes; medical personnel want to help and are knowledgable and can figure it out.
You should seriously consider wearing some piece of jewelry that alerts people to your condition. An English phrase like “DIABETIC” or “TYPE 1 DIABETES” should be easily understood by anyone who would be checking for it. Again, this is a practical and safe thing to do, but also allays your fears. After all, nothing bad will happen to you right?
Your trip to China
If you have visited China, whether or not you or a travel partner had diabetes, I’d like to hear about your experiences there. Where did you go and what did you eat?
If you’re thinking of heading off to China and would like to add a question or comment, please do. It’s a great place, truly a world apart from everywhere else, full of fascinating and impossibly old and creative pieces of culture in every corner. And always remember:
You can go anywhere with diabetes!
Read more about my travels in China
Come along on the adventure! Follow detailed travelogues about the wondrous sights, fascinating people, and varied diabetes experiences I encountered as a traveling T1D in China:
Day 1: The Big Grey Skies Of Xi'an, China
Day 5: The Ancient Clay Army And The Small Wild Goose
Day 7: The Amazing Food Stalls Of Kaifeng
Day 12: Saying "yes" To A Chinese Tout Was A Good Choice
Day 14: Laundry Service Plus Vomit: The Tale Of Hefei
Day 24: The Secret Misty Mountain Town Of Tangkou, China
Day 26: Struggling Up China's Sacred Huangshan Mountains
Day 31: Lose Yourself On "Old Street" In Ancient Tunxi
Day 36: Shaoxing And The Mysterious Yin-yang Of Travel
Day 46: Gulangyu, A Chinese Community Like No Other
Day 47: Fujian Tulou Houses And The Perfect Kindness Of Strangers
Day 49: Tea Leaves And Local Families In Taxiacun
Day 51: Overnight Stay In Zhuzhou, A Town I Can't Remember
Day 53: Eight Days In A Backpacker's Oasis In Wuhan, China
Day 64: Three Nights On The Smoggy, Majestic Yangtze River
Day 68: I Left My Jaw In Chongqing's Hotpot
Day 72: Xining, The High And Dry Fulcrum Of Central China
Day 74: Golmud, Dusty Crossroads On The Edge Of Nothing
Day 75: Through The Desert To Dunhuang With Special Permission
Day 79: Sand Dunes And Street Food In Distant Dunhuang
Day 87: Three Days In Beijing Without Sightseeing
Share your travel stories, give advice, or ask a question in the comments section.
Next page: Tips for traveling to Japan with diabetes
“Tips on getting the most out of a trip to Japan with diabetes. Info on food and insulin, getting and carrying supplies, and communicating in Japanese.”