Backpacking China Travel Guide 2018

JUMP TO : China Travel Itineraries | Places to Visit | Where to Stay | Travel Tips | Cost of Travel

Backpacking China is an attack on the senses. From the unbelievable sight of the Great Wall stretching off to infinity to the mouth-numbing sensation of hot pot, to the soothing sounds of an old man playing an erhu in the park. Get ready for sensory overload on any visit to China.

China is a country of vast contrasts. It’s one of the oldest civilizations on the planet and at the same time one of the most rapidly developing countries. Here you’ll find ancient temples right down the street from megamalls and shiny skyscrapers towering above traditional courtyard homes.

Chinese Garden

A classic Chinese garden. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

While China is a fascinating country to explore, it’s definitely not the easiest place to visit. As such, successfully making it through an extended backpacking trip in China feels like a massive accomplishment. Having lived in the country and traveled extensively for six years, I’m here to help ensure you have the best trip possible in China.

 

Where to Go Backpacking in China

China is an absolutely massive country with just about every environment imaginable. The country is full of mega-cities, epic mountains, barren deserts, lush forests, and sandy beaches. When backpacking China, you’re definitely spoiled for choices.

In a country so huge, it’s best to stick to a specific region if you’re strapped for time. You could spend an entire lifetime exploring China and not see it all. Trust me – I lived there for 6 years and traveled extensively, but still only scratched the surface.

Planning a trip to China and not sure where to start? Our writer lived there for six years and put together a comprehensive China travel guide on how to get around, where to stay, the cost of travel, and so much more. Dive into all things China in this awesome guide to backpacking China!

 

Best Travel Itineraries for Backpacking China

Below I have highlighted the best travel itineraries for traveling around China. It’s no secret how massive China is, so don’t even try to see most of the country in one trip. Instead, check out my 5 itineraries below for some inspiration!

 

Backpacking China 7 Day Itinerary #1: Beijing to Chengdu

China Itinerary #1

 

7 Days: Beijing-Xi’an-Chengdu

Let’s start by acknowledging that one week in China definitely is not enough time to explore this country. That being said, you can still hit some of the highlights of the country with just seven days.

You’ll want to fly into Beijing and spend a few days taking in the famous sights such as the Great Wall and Forbidden City. Hop on an overnight train to save time and head to the historical city of Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors.

From there, make a beeline for Chengdu to visit the giant panda reserve and eat the mouth-numbingly spicy hot pot. You can catch a flight out of the country from Chengdu, most likely to Southeast Asia.

 

Backpacking China 10 Day Itinerary #2: Beijing to Huanglong

China Itinerary #2

 

10 Days: Beijing to Huanglong

With ten days, you can follow the above itinerary (Beijing, Xi’an, and Chengdu) but add a visit to some of Sichuan’s magnificent national parks. A short flight from Chengdu will get you to the dreamlike Jiuzhaigou, where you can spend a day exploring the stunning landscapes and taking in the Tibetan culture.

Pay a visit to Huanglong (Yellow Dragon) the next day to see the incredible terraces that are said to resemble a dragon coming down the mountain.

 

Backpacking China 2 Week Itinerary #3: Yunnan and Guangxi

China Itinerary #3

 

14 Days: Yunnan and Guangxi

If you have two weeks to spare in China, I highly recommend you spend a majority of your time in the southwest part of the country. Yunnan province alone offers enough to fill two weeks. Start in the provincial capital of Kunming, which is known as the Spring City for its pleasant weather.

The city is great, but you’ll want to venture out quickly to dedicate more time to places like Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-la. Spend your days cycling around massive lakes or trekking around snow-capped mountains.

Shangri-la China

Beautiful Shangri-la | Photo by Sasha Savinov

From Yunnan, you can catch a flight or overnight train to Guilin, the capital of Guangxi. A short bus ride will take you to the backpacker haven of Yanghsuo, where you can cruise on a bamboo raft down the Li River past majestic karst mountain peaks. There’s also cycling, hiking, and rock climbing on tap here, in addition to some seriously wild nightlife.

 

Backpacking China 1 Month Itinerary #4: The Full Loop

China Itinerary #4

 

1 Month: Beijing, Xi’an, Sichuan, Yunnan, Guangxi, Hong Kong

So you have a whole month in China, do you? That’s great news, as you’ll be able to cover some serious ground thanks to the country’s extensive rail network. Based on my experiences traveling all over the country, I’d combine the above-mentioned itineraries and add a bit more.

In addition to Beijing, Xi’an, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guangxi, you can tack on a trip to Hong Kong, which is technically part of China but feels worlds apart. From here, you’ve got unlimited options for onward travel.

Related: Check out our Neighborhood Guide for Where to Stay in Hong Kong and Hong Kong Backpacker Guide, chalked full of itinerary advice, tips, and costs.

 

Backpacking China 1 Month Itinerary #5: Beijing to Hong Kong

China Itinerary #4

 

1 Month: Beijing, Shandong, Shanghai, Fujian, Hong Kong

Rather than bounce around the massive country, this one-month itinerary takes you down China’s east coast from top to bottom. After Beijing, you can head to Shandong province to drink Tsingtao beer in Qingdao, climb Mt. Tai, and visit the hometown of Confucius.

From there, continue south to Shanghai. Don’t spend too much time in this mega-city, but use it as a jump-off point for trips to Hangzhou, Suzhou, and smaller water towns.

Fujian Tulou

One of many tulou villages in Fujian. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

Next up is the coastal city of Xiamen, from where you can more easily access the otherworldly tulou compounds in Fujian province. Finish off in Hong Kong, where you can catch a flight just about anywhere.

 

Places to Visit in China

Backpacking Beijing

When wondering where to stay in Beijing, there is much to consider. To say that Beijing is a mega-city is an understatement. This sprawling metropolis has a population of around 25 million and seems to go on forever. Here you’ll see the clash between ancient and modern China up close, as ancient landmarks such as the Forbidden City are contrasted with futuristic high-rises.

As with much of China, Beijing seems to have one foot firmly planted in the past and the other in the future, resulting in a bit of confusion as to what exactly the present is.

When backpacking China, you should definitely start your adventure here in the capital. Beijing offers so much that you could easily spend an entire month here and not do it all. Chances are you aren’t blessed with that much time to spend in one city, though. Never fear, as I’ve put together an epic guide on what to do with 72 hours in Beijing. This itinerary takes you to most of the major landmarks and also has some solid recommendations for dining and nightlife.

While you can fill your days in Beijing by sticking to the well-trodden tourist path, there are lots of great side adventures that you can add to make your trip a bit more interesting. Taking a bus for 1-2 hours in any direction can lead you out of the urban sprawl and to some pretty incredible places.

You can go rafting and bungee jumping out at Shidu, hike up to a serene Buddhist temple in the mountains, or hike on the wild Great Wall.

A major highlight of any visit to Beijing is indulging in the culinary and nightlife scenes. Beijingers know how to eat, and they sure know how to party. Whether you’re sampling the legendary Beijing roast duck or just eating weird shit on sticks at the Wangfujing night market, you’ll never go hungry in the ‘Jing.

If you’re looking to party, you’ve got several choices as well. With cheap drinks and good times abound in the student haunt of Wudaokou, there are more bars than you can count in the trendy Sanlitun district, or you can dance all night at the clubs around Worker’s Stadium. After a big night out, you can even hit a 24-hour dim sum restaurant to soak up some of that booze.

Check out our guide to the best hostels in Beijing.

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The Forbidden City

Gazing out at the Forbidden City. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

 

Backpacking Yunnan

The name of this province in southwest China literally translates to “South of the Clouds,” and you’ll quickly see why if you choose to visit Yunnan. Home to many stunning mountain ranges that literally touch the clouds, it’s a very appropriate name. If you’re into adventure travel, nature, and unique local culture, you’ve come to the right place.

Most trips to Yunnan will start and end in Kunming, a “small” city of 6 million. There’s enough to do here to keep you busy for a few days, such as strolling around the central Green Lake Park, hiking in the Western Hills, or visiting the quirky Bird & Flower Market.

Kunming is home to a sizeable expat population, and it’s one of your best bets if you’re thinking of sticking around a while to teach English or study Chinese.

There’s a very established backpacker route through Yunnan that goes from Kunming to Dali, Lijiang, the Tiger Leaping Gorge, and Shangri-la. This is far and away one of the most beautiful areas of China, full of towering mountains and rushing rivers.

Forget those images you may have of giant cities full of traffic and smog. This is the reason backpacking China is such an incredible experience.

While each of these towns can seem overwhelmingly crowded and touristy, rest assured that it’s never that hard to escape. Chinese tourists tend to follow a herd mentality and stick to their tour bus.

Simply jump on a bicycle and start pedaling or skip the cable car and hike up that mountain and you’ll find yourself in near solitude. Check out our comprehensive guide to backpacking Yunnan to plan an epic trip to this corner of China.

Check Kunming Hostel Prices Now

Downtown Kunming

Kunming is a great Chinese city to visit. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

 

Backpacking Sichuan

If you’ve ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant, you’ve probably had something labeled as Szechuan. That’s the old spelling of this province that’s famous worldwide for its cuisine.

The common flavor here is known as ma la in Chinese, meaning “numb and spicy.” Set your taste buds ablaze with classic Sichuanese dishes such as Kung Pao chicken, Mapo tofu, and of course, hot pot.

In the provincial capital of Chengdu, you can pay a visit to the massive giant panda base. This is far from a zoo, as it’s a fully functioning research facility and conservation center. The best time to visit is early in the morning when the cute and cuddly “bear cats” (the literal translation of their Chinese name) are munching away on bamboo.

Chengdu is one of the coolest cities in China, so you might as well stick around a few days and explore. The people here are known to be super laid-back and friendly. Head to the People’s Park to soak up the local culture, which includes lots of tea sipping and group dancing. There are plenty of great hostels and bars here, so you’ll meet lots of fellow backpackers during your stay.

Sichuan is home to some of China’s most famous national parks. Jiuzhaigou is one of most picturesque places in the country, with turquoise lakes, epic mountain peaks, and massive waterfalls. Those looking for a serious adventure here will want to sign up for an eco-tourism trek in the nearby Zharu Valley. On this 3-day trip, you’ll reach the summit of a sacred Tibetan mountain at 4,200 meters. It’s one of the most challenging and rewarding adventures I’ve ever had in China and something I’d highly recommend.

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Chengdu Giant Pandas

Visiting the giant pandas in Chengdu. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

 

Backpacking Guangxi

When it comes to backpacking China, it’s hard to beat the town of Yangshuo. Just a few decades ago, this was a sleepy rural Chinese town with little to no tourism infrastructure. When long-haired backpackers started showing up looking to scale the town’s beautiful karst mountains, a new industry was born.

Yangshuo is now one of the most popular backpacker destinations in the country, with a ton of hostels, restaurants, bars, and travel agents. It has also become a hot spot for domestic tourists, who flock here by the tour bus-load to crowd the West Street. Don’t be discouraged, though, as once again it’s very easy to escape the crowds. Just rent a bicycle or a motorbike, and you’ll find yourself out in some of the most unreal landscapes you’ve ever seen without a tour group in sight.

Another spot worth visiting is the area known as the Longji Rice Terraces. The name means “Dragon’s Backbone,” as the terraced rice paddies are said to resemble exactly that. Unfortunately, they decided to put a hideous cable car in here. Chinese tourists tend to be lazy and avoid hiking at all costs, so it’s not surprising. Despite this eyesore, it’s still a great place for a few days of casual hiking.

Check Yangshuo Hostel Prices Now

Longji Rice Terraces

Hiking in the Longji Rice Terraces. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

 

Backpacking Shaanxi

Shaanxi Province is home to one of the most famous sights in all of China – the Terracotta Warriors. As a matter of fact, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is said to be the most impressive archaeological discovery of the 20th century. This is the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China. As with many things in China, there’s a fascinating story behind it.

Qin Shi Huang survived three assassination attempts and was justifiably fearing for his life. The emperor became obsessed with finding an “elixir of life” in search of immortality. He also had a gigantic mausoleum constructed and had it surrounded by thousands of life-like statues of warriors and chariots to protect him in the afterlife. This was later discovered by workers who were digging a well in 1974, and it quickly drew international attention.

To visit the Terracotta Warriors, you’ll want to base yourself in the provincial capital of Xi’an. Set aside a day to explore the impressive site, and at least 1-2 more to see what Xi’an has to offer. Here you can rent a bicycle and ride around the entire length of the ancient City Wall.

Be sure to visit the Muslim Quarter in the evening, where you can find tons of delicious street food. Xi’an is famous for a few dishes, such as the yang rou pao mo lamb stew and rou jia mo, which are basically Chinese pulled pork sandwiches.

Backpacking China is all about adventure, and that’s precisely what you’ll find at Mt. Huashan. Proclaimed to be “the world’s most dangerous hike,” this one isn’t for the faint of heart.

Here you’ll walk along narrow pathways with precipitous drops off to the side. You’re strapped in for safety, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying. If you survive, you’ll be able to say you conquered one of the Five Great Mountains in China.

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Terracotta Warriors

The Terracotta Warriors are a major highlight. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

 

Off the Beaten Path Travel in China

Those looking to skip out on matching hat-wearing, flag-following, selfie-snapping hordes of Chinese tourists will want to head straight for northwest China. Perhaps no place in China is more off the beaten path than the autonomous region of Xinjiang.

The area is home to numerous ethnic groups, including Uygurs, Kazakhs, and Mongols. It’s been the sight of some serious unrest in recent years, meaning most tourists stay far away.

While many in China will try to convince you that Xinjiang is far too dangerous, you just need to exercise some caution and patience and you can have a perfectly fine trip here. In addition to some of the most mesmerizing landscapes in the country, Xinjiang also has some of the most delicious food in all of China. It’s pretty hard to beat some spicy grilled lamb with a nice piece of naan. Despite their bad reputation across China, the Uyghur people are known to be incredibly hospitable and welcoming to visitors (unless you’re Han Chinese, that is).

While we’re talking about lesser-visited parts of China, we can’t leave out Inner Mongolia. If you can’t make it to actual Mongolia, this is a pretty decent backup. You can still sleep in a yurt in the desert and then go horseback riding in the seemingly endless grasslands. All of this can easily be arranged from one of the hostels in the capital of Hohot.

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Inner Mongolia

Yurt life. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

Another great spot for some off the beaten path adventures is Qinghai Province. This is one of the most sparsely populated regions of China, meaning you won’t have to share the stunning landscapes with a bunch of tourists. Here you can soak up the Tibetan culture without the added hassle of traveling to Tibet. You can also visit the largest lake in all of China.

It should be noted that by just being in China, you’re already sort of off the beaten path. Sure, the country gets a whole bunch of international visitors every year, but you’re still very much a novelty here.

Even in the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai, don’t be surprised to hear people shout “Laowai! (Foreigner!)” and point at you. They might even try to take a picture with you. Such is life when you’re traveling in China. Even though the country has been open for several decades, foreigners are still surprising to most locals.

 

Backpacker Accommodation in China

You may be surprised to hear it, but China has a pretty kickass hostel scene. While it may not be as popular as places like Thailand or Indonesia, China has enough domestic backpackers to support a thriving hostel scene. Even in random cities that draw very few foreign travelers, it’s possible to find a bed in a dorm in a cool hostel.

In the bigger cities, you’ve got tons of choices for hostels. Many of them can help arrange tours and have special events such as dumpling parties or movie nights.

Prices for hostels in China vary depending on where you are. It’s possible to get a bed in a dorm for anywhere from $10-20 a night, while private rooms tend to go from $30-50.

Backpacking China Hostels

A colorful hostel in Lijiang. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

If you’re really looking to save on accommodation, Couch Surfing is also quite big in China. It’s possible to find both local and foreign hosts, especially in the big cities where you have lots of foreigners working and studying. We hosted upwards of 100 guests between our apartments in Beijing and Kunming and know of a few Chinese friends who also open their doors to Couch Surfers.

Airbnb is catching on in China as well. This is a great option if you’re looking for a bit more privacy or are considering a longer-term stay. Follow this link for $35 free credit. Hostels are great and all, but sometimes it’s nice to come home to your own space and not have to share a room with ten snoring backpackers.

Check out our hostel guides for Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong if you need more information!

 

Where to Stay in China

LocationAccommodationWhy Stay Here?!
BeijingChinese Box Courtyard HostelThey have free vegetarian dinners three times a week.
Xi'anHan Tang HouseSeveral fun and free activities are on offer.
ChengduLazy Bones PoshpackerYou can join free walking/cycling tours of the city.
KunmingCloudland HostelA great bar and chill area to meet other travelers.
DaliThe Jade EmuThey've got pool, ping pong, and foosball tables!
LijiangOctober InnThis beautiful hostel might be my favorite in 6 years of traveling in China.
YangshuoWada Hostel Yulong RiverThey have two locations here and you can use the facilities of both.
Hong KongThe MahjongStay in a "foodie paradise" neighborhood.
HohhotAnda GuesthouseTheir desert & grassland tour is excellent.
ShanghaiBlue Mountain Youth HostelGrab a drink and shoot pool on their rooftop terrace.
HangzhouHofang International Youth HostelTheir peaceful courtyard is the perfect place to relax.
QingdaoKaiyue International Youth HostelThey've got a great restaurant on site.

 

Top Things to Do in China

 

China is a country that’s so rich in experiences that it’s really tough to whittle them down to a Top 10 list. The country is full of historic sites, amazing nature, bustling cities, and some of the most delicious food in the world. I personally love Top 10 lists, though, so I’m going to do my best!

 

1. Hike on the Great Wall

Chairman Mao once said that you aren’t a real man until you climb the Great Wall. While his famous remark may need to be adjusted for the modern PC era, you get the gist.

You simply cannot go to China without hiking on the Great Wall, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. There are plenty of options for visiting the wall from Beijing, but they are definitely not all great.

Camping on the Great Wall

Morning on the Wall after a campout. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

Whatever you do, stay far, far away from the Badaling section. That is unless you want to see what a Disneyland version of the Great Wall looks like. This restored part of the wall comes complete with a cable car and a neverending stream of tourists.

You’re better off visiting more remote sections such as Jinshanling or Jiankou. Better yet, why not bring your tent and camp on the Great Wall? In my six years of living and traveling in China, nothing even comes close to that.

Perhaps it had something to do with the bag of ‘shrooms and bottle of wine we brought, but it’ll be an unforgettable experience even without psychedelics and booze.

 

2. Visit Jiuzhaigou National Park

It’s already been mentioned a few times in this guide, but that’s just how good Jiuzhaigou is. After years of living in the chaotic, polluted capital of Beijing, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I visited Jiuzhaigou. This massive national park in Sichuan is without a doubt the most beautiful place I’ve been in China.

Of course, it’s also one of the most popular. While the hordes of pushy tourists can diminish the experience a bit, all you have to do is venture off on one of the trails to escape them.

 

One of the best ways to get to grips with a new culture is through the food! Cookly partners with local cooking schools and restaurants in countries all around the world and is an awesome way to go on your very own culinary adventure. Book a Chinese cooking class here.

 

3. Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

If you’re planning on visiting China in the winter months, be sure to schedule a trip to the northeastern city of Harbin. China’s Ice City is home to the biggest ice and snow festival in the world, and it’s absolutely incredible.

Artists from all over the world flock here to craft massive sculptures out of the ice and snow. In typical Chinese fashion, the ice sculptures are packed with plenty of neon lights to make for quite the trippy experience.

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

Ice castles full of lasers in Harbin. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

 

4. Visit the Fujian Tulou

The southeastern province of Fujian is home to the amazing tulou compounds. These massive circular structures are basically an entire village. On the lower floor, you’ll find common rooms and ancestral worshipping halls, while the upper floors are full of individual residences.

During World War II, the US government mistakenly thought these traditional compounds were missile silos. Fewer and fewer people are living in them today, as the rush to modernize has led many to move into bland high-rise buildings.

There are several you can visit, though, and a few days exploring them by bicycle is an experience you won’t soon forget.

 

5. Hike Tiger Leaping Gorge

If you’re backpacking China, chances are you’ll end up hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge at some point. This legendary backpacker trail high above the Yangtze River in the mountains of Yunnan is a can’t-miss experience. The hike takes 2-3 days depending on your speed, and it passes by some of the most stunning scenery China has to offer.

There are plenty of guest houses along the way, including the aptly named Halfway House, which has what just might be the most scenic toilet you’ve ever used. You’ll just have to go there and see for yourself.

If you smell something funky along the trail, that’s not your Grateful Dead t-shirt that you forgot to wash. It’s the wild weed growing high up here in the mountains of Yunnan. If you care for a toke, you can pick up a bag from the nice grannies along the trail. They even have bananas and Snickers for when you inevitably get the munchies.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Views along the trail. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

 

6. Take a High-Speed Train

Few countries can compete with China when it comes to train travel. The country is building high-speed rail lines at a rapid pace, adding more and more connections with each passing month. Take the lightning-fast train from Beijing to Shanghai, and it’ll make the US look like a 3rd world country.

These bad boys reach speeds of up to 350 km/h and will get you from one city to the next in just 4.5 hours. If you’re backpacking China, there’s really no need to buy flights. Forget making the trek out to airports on the outskirts of the cities, and stick to the impressive rail network.

 

7. Check Out Ancient Buddhist Grottoes

China is home to three different Buddhist grottoes – Longmen, Yungang, and Mogao. Visit one of these sites to see the impressive Buddhist carvings in the caves. These are considered to be some of the finest examples of Chinese Buddhist art, and they really are an incredible sight to behold.

Longmen Grottoes

The amazing Longmen Buddhist Grottoes. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

By visiting the Yungang Grottoes in Datong, you can also check out the awe-inspiring Hanging Monastery to make for an awesome short trip. A trip to the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang is easily combined with a visit to X’ian, so you can cross two items off the list.

 

8. See the Pandas in Chengdu

The giant panda is known as China’s national treasure, and there’s no better place to get up close to these adorable bears than in Chengdu. The city is home to a massive giant panda research base, where you’ll see dozens of them snacking on bamboo and wrestling with each other. Just don’t expect any of them to start doing kung fu.

It’s super easy to arrange a tour here from your hostel and a visit only takes half a day. There’s all kinds of panda swag available in Chengdu as well if you’re looking for that perfect souvenir.

 

9. See the Terracotta Warriors

Yes, this is one of the most touristy places in China. Yes, it can kind of be a pain in the ass getting there. None of that matters. You can’t go backpacking in China and skip out on this amazing archaeological site.

Just imagine how much effort went into the construction of this massive tomb full of life-sized warriors and chariots, all of which was done to appease the first emperor of China as he neared the end of his life.

 

10. Outdoor Adventures in Yangshuo

Backpacking is all about adventure, and that’s exactly what you’ll find in this scenic town in Guangxi. Whether you’re into rock climbing, hiking, cycling, or simply jumping on a motorbike and exploring, Yangshuo has got you covered.

Yangshuo China

Get out there and explore Yangshuo. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

Sure the center of town is packed full of package tour groups, but this is still a backpacker’s paradise in China. However you spend your day, be sure to visit the legendary Monkey Jane’s at night for a rousing game of beer pong. Tell her the Grateful Gypsies sent you.

 

China Travel Tips

In this section, you’ll find some great tips for backpacking China, including the best time to travel there, some useful Chinese phrases, and a guide to Chinese cuisine.

The Best Travel Backpack?!

Pssssst! Not picked the perfect travel backpack yet? The Broke Backpacker team has tried out over thirty backpacks this year! Our favourite carry on backpack is the Nomatic Travel Backpack – Best of all, TBB readers get a massive 20% off! Just use the code: brokebackpacker20

Check out this post to read our full review!

 

Books to Read while Traveling China

The Backpacker Bible: Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building an online income.

Lonely Planet China Travel Guide: The OG of guidebooks, Lonely Planet’s China guide is packed full of useful information to get you through your trip backpacking China.

River Town: Peter Hessler’s memoir about his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Sichuan is one of the best books on China I’ve ever read. If you dig his style, he’s got a few other books set in China you can pick up as well.

Factory Girls: If you’re going to read Hessler’s books, you might as well read his wife’s as well. Leslie Chang’s story of the lives of girls toiling away in China’s boomtown factories is an eye-opening read that will make you think twice every time you see that “Made in China” tag.

Lost on Planet China: When I first moved to China in 2008, my mom bought me this book as a going away present. J. Maarten Troost’s hilarious tale of his misadventures in China perfectly sums up what it’s like traveling in this unpredictable country.

 

Chinese Travel Phrases

With its four tones and thousands upon thousands of characters, Chinese is definitely an intimidating language. You’ll definitely need a bit of the language when backpacking China though, as English is not exactly prevalent there.

Here are some useful Chinese travel phrases to get you started:

Hello = Ni hao

How are you? = Ni hao ma?

I’m fine = Wo hen hao

Please = Qing

Thank you = Xiè xiè

You’re welcome = Bù kè qì

Goodbye = Zài jiàn

I’m sorry = Duì bù qi

Where is the bathroom? = Xi shou jian zài na l??

What’s this? = Zhè shì shén me?

I want a beer = Wo yào yi ge pí jiu?

How much is it? = Duo shao qián?

If you’re interested in learning Chinese, you should follow the Chinese Language Blog. There are tons of articles on vocabulary and grammar as well as Chinese culture.

 

Staying Safe in China

Generally speaking, China is a very safe country to travel in. My wife always likes to comment to people that she felt safer stumbling down the streets of Beijing alone and drunk at 3AM than she does going downtown in my hometown of Detroit for a concert. Fair point, Rachel.

Of course, you have to exercise a bit of common sense when backpacking China just like any country.

Despite what my wife says, bad shit definitely can and will happen in the middle of the night, especially in bar districts. One of the biggest safety concerns in China is drunk locals trying to pick a fight. For some reason, Chinese men love to try and show off their drinking prowess (which they most certainly don’t have) in front of foreigners. Sadly, this sometimes leads to confrontations.

If you find yourself in such a situation, it’s best to just walk away. It’s never a one-on-one fight here, as the mob mentality always takes over. Plus, as a foreigner, you will immediately receive the blame and be the one who spends the night in a cold, miserable jail cell.

A local festival in China.

Pickpocketing is an issue in crowds like these. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

Just like many places around the world, pickpocketing is a huge concern in China. Be mindful of your things on public transportation and at crowded tourist sights. I once had a guy pick my wallet, grab the cash, and drop it on the ground in the blink of an eye when stepping off a bamboo raft in Yangshuo. These people are pros, so you have to be vigilant at all times.

For many travelers to China, the air pollution is a major concern. While you won’t have to worry about this when you’re out trekking in the mountains, it’s definitely a problem in the big cities.

It’s not a bad idea to invest in a good facemask with a filtration system if you’re going to spend a lot of time in the cities. Take it from me – I moved out of Beijing after 5 years because I couldn’t take the pollution anymore.

For more information and safety tips, check out Backpacker Safety 101 for tips and tricks to stay safe whilst backpacking China.

Pick yourself up a backpacker security belt to keep your cash safe on the road. I strongly recommend travelling with a headlamp whilst in China (or anywhere really – every backpacker should have a good headtorch!) – check out my post for a breakdown of the best value headlamps to take backpacking.

 

Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘N Roll in China

While the Chinese like their booze, they really aren’t that good at making the stuff. Chinese beer is watered down and tasteless, and most of it is only 3-4%. Their wine is absolutely atrocious, so don’t even bother with it.

When it comes to strong stuff, China is all about baijiu. This spirit that is distilled from sorghum tastes somewhat like rocket fuel, and it could probably power your car if you ran out of gas. Some dude said you have to try the stuff 300 times or so to finally acquire a taste for it. I never made it that far and I doubt you will, either.

Nightlife in China

It’s not hard to find a cool bar in Beijing. | Photo by Sasha Savinov

One thing about drinking in China is that things tend to escalate quickly (think the news team battle in Anchorman). Drinking is somewhat a competitive sport in China, as men love to go glass for glass until one of them inevitably passes out. The concept of grabbing a casual drink at the bar is pretty foreign here, so you’ll have to go to the expat haunts if that’s what you’re looking for.

Drugs in China is definitely a grey area. When we lived in China, people back home were always so surprised to hear that we still puffed tough. “Don’t they have the death penalty there!?” was a common reaction.

While drugs are most definitely illegal in China, this isn’t Indonesia. If you’re caught with a bit of weed, the worst that will probably happen is that you’ll be forced to pay a fine and get deported.

As far as getting the goods goes, it’s not that difficult in the big cities of China. You name it, they got it. I won’t go into details here (my mom might be reading!), but we had some pretty wild nights in China. From all night raves in the clubs of Beijing, to day “trips” in the mountains outside of Kunming. Our 3rd eyes were opened once or twice in China.

When walking around the alleyways of Beijing or Shanghai, you’ll most certainly notice several “hairdressers” with red lights in the window. Just like Amsterdam, you ain’t going to these places to get your hair cut. Prostitution is another grey area in China, but chances are nobody is going to bust in and arrest you if you go for a cheeky “haircut.”

 

Getting Insured

Get insurance! Even if you are only going on a short trip, you should always travel with insurance. Have fun on your China backpacking adventure but take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.

As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure! Travelling without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads.

 

Find out why I recommend World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.

 

What to Pack for China

What you pack for China really depends on where you’re going and what time of year it is. Definitely be sure to bring a good pair of hiking boots and some activewear for your adventures on the Great Wall and Tiger Leaping Gorge.

For regular sightseeing days, it’s nice to have some comfortable walking shoes and a hat/sunglasses. I also like to carry a small backpack to keep things like my water bottle, raincoat/umbrella, phone charger, and camera bag.

If you’re going to be spending time in the big cities and plan on going out, bring some decent clothes as well. Don’t worry if you forget something, as shopping for clothes is super cheap and quite fun in China.

On every adventure, there are five things I never go travelling without:

AR Security Belt

1. Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: I never hit the road without my security belt. This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off. This is hands down the best way to hide your cash.

 

2.Travel Water Bottle: Always travel with a water bottle – it’ll save you money and reduce your plastic footprint on our planet. AR bottle are tough, lightweight and maintain the temperature of your beverage – so you can enjoy a cold red bull, or a hot coffee, no matter where you are. For every AR bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an initiative to reduce plastic in our oceans!

 

AR microfibre towel

3. Microfibre TowelIt’s always worth packing a proper towel. Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if needs be.

 

Headlamp4. HeadtorchI would never travel without a headtorch. Even if you only end up using it once, a decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. Currently, I’m using the Petzl LED headlamp with red light (which insects can’t see).

 

Hammock for backpackers5. HammockTaking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks) and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colourful and tough.

 

For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.

My friend Claire also put together this great female packing list for China post, check it out.

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Best Time to Travel to China

Since China is such a massive country, the best time to visit China really depends on where you’re going. Generally speaking, the spring and autumn months are the most pleasant. In places like Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai winter can be painfully cold while summer can be hot and muggy. Weather is less of a concern in places like Kunming (it is called the Spring City after all) and Hong Kong (it’s always warm there).

As far as crowds go, they are definitely bigger in the summer months. Another thing to keep in mind is China’s holiday schedule.

Backpacking China during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) should be avoided unless you can plan things out super far in advance. Everything sells out and it’s absolute chaos as 1.7 billion people try to make it home for the country’s most important holiday. It’s based on the lunar calendar, so be sure to look it up before planning your trip.

Chinese New Year

Dragon Dances before Chinese New Year. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

Other busy holidays in China include Labor Day (May 1st) and National Day (October 1st). Labor Day isn’t so bad as far as crowds go, but it’s still a good idea to book things like train tickets well in advance. National Day is a “Golden Week” where people get a long holiday, so it’s quite crazy at that time as well.

In my humble opinion, the best time to go to China would be a few weeks before National Day or right after. The weather is pretty good across most of the country at this time, and you can just miss the crowds by going before or after the major holiday.

You could even stick around during National Day and soak up the patriotic atmosphere in Beijing. Just don’t expect to be able to get a train ticket out until after the holiday week.

 

Apps to download before travelling to China

WeChat – If you’re only going to download one app for backpacking China, this is the one. You can do just about everything on WeChat – send voice messages, find a restaurant, share photos, hail a cab, play games. The list goes on and on. Everyone is on WeChat in China, so this will be the best way to keep up with your new local friends.

DiDi – DiDi took on Uber in China and won, so this is the app you’ll want to get for hailing a cab. Just be warned that your cabbie probably won’t speak a lick of English, which brings us to the next app…

Waygo – When you can’t understand a menu or a street sign, you can use this app to instantly translate Chinese characters. This will help ensure you order Kung Pao chicken instead of chicken feet.

Maps.Me – Prone to getting lost or taking that ‘shortcut’ that adds another few hours onto a simple walk? This app is definitely for you. My favourite offline maps app, download your map, and route before you venture out to keep you on track while backpacking China.

XE Currency – This is the best app for tracking currency exchanges. It is a great help while calculating expenses.

HIDE.ME –  I always have a VPN ready to go on both my phone and laptop, I personally use Hide Me which is one of the fastest and most reliable options out there. This particular VPN allows for up to five connections which is handy for keeping all your devices connected without having to purchase multiple VPN packages.

 

China Travel Guide to Getting Around

China has tons of international airports, meaning you have plenty of choices to start your trip. Your best bets for flying into China are definitely the bigger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Shenzhen. There are direct flights from these cities to Europe, and North America.

In this section, we’ll take a look at entry requirements for China and how to travel around the country.

Shenzhen airport

China has some futuristic-looking airports. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

 

Entry Requirements for China

The visa policy of China is quite complicated. Your best bet is to study the Wikipedia page carefully to see if you need a visa and what kind you should apply for. You’ll want to arrange your visa beforehand at a Chinese consulate or embassy. Be sure to have all the necessary paperwork, as they tend to be very picky and look for any reason to send you out the door to a print or copy shop.

When applying for your Chinese visa, be sure to ask for the maximum amount of time and multiple entries. For example, Americans can now get tourist visas that are valid for ten years with multiple entries of up to 90 days each.

Even if you’ve only got a month-long trip planned, you might as well go ahead and ask for this visa. That way you won’t need to go through the painful process again!

If you’re just passing through China, the good news is that there are several cities you can now visit visa-free if just in transit. Big cities like Beijing and Shanghai now offer 144-hour visa-free visits, while several others give you 72 hours. This isn’t enough time to see much of China, but it does allow you to check out the highlights of a city before catching a connecting flight.

 

How to Travel in China

Most major cities in China have an airport and tickets aren’t too expensive if you book in advance.

A word of warning on domestic air travel – China is notorious for long and unexpected flight delays. That’s because the military controls the airspace. I once sat on a plane for 3 hours waiting to take off for no apparent reason. Thankfully, you shouldn’t have to fly much in the country.

As I’ve previously mentioned, the rail network in China is absolutely epic. There are now high-speed trains linking most of the major cities in the country. For example, taking a train from Beijing to Shanghai will take about the same amount of time as a flight (unless of course the flight is inevitably delayed) and it’s much more enjoyable. For checking train times and booking tickets, I highly recommend this website.

Chinese trains

Riding that (Chinese) train. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

When it comes to buying train tickets, you usually have several choices.

The cheapest option is a hard seat (not just a clever name – these are not at all comfortable). A step up from this is a soft seat. On longer journeys, you can also buy a sleeper ticket. Hard sleeper means six beds to a cabin, while soft sleeper means four. In my experience, hard sleeper is usually the way to go. It’s much cheaper than the soft sleepers and way better than the seats.

Of course, you can always catch a bus to get from point A to point B in China. That’s one of the things I love most about backpacking China – no matter where you’re going, you can get there cheaply via public transportation. We even managed to get to a friend’s village way out in the mountains of Yunnan by a combination of train and bus!

Rather than just rocking up at the bus stop in the hope they will have space to fit you on, you can now book tickets in advance for most of Asia using 12Go – I love 12Go and use it myself pretty often when backpacking around Asia.

Powered by 12Go Asia system

 

Hitchhiking in China

If you have patience, hitchhiking is definitely a viable option in China. That being said, you’ll definitely want to have a sign in Chinese and hopefully at least a beginner level of Chinese. Don’t expect that truck driver driving outside of Xi’an to speak any English.

Hitchhiking in China

Hitching a ride in Yunnan. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

We never tried hitchhiking in China – I’d much rather take the train to guarantee I’m getting to where I’m going on time – but some Couch Surfers who stayed with us managed to get all the way from Beijing to Xinjiang in just ten days by hitchhiking. I thought they were nuts, but they pulled it off!

For more hitchhiking tips, check out Will’s hitchhiking 101 post.

 

Onwards Travel from China

You’ve got nearly unlimited options for onwards travel from China. If travelling by air, the country’s several international airports offer connections to just about anywhere in the world. Thanks to budget airlines like AirAsia, you can even get from Beijing to the Maldives for just $150!

If you’re looking to travel by land or sea, you’ve got plenty of choices as well. Those headed to Southeast Asia can get from Yunnan or Guangxi to Vietnam by train or bus. You could also catch a 24-hour bus from Kunming all the way to Luang Prabang in Laos. As for sea crossings, you could board a ferry in Tianjin or Qingdao headed for South Korea.

One of the great train journeys in the world can bring you from Beijing all the way to Moscow. You can choose between the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian if you’d like to add a stop in Mongolia. There are tons of options for this trip, which you can plan online or with a travel agent in Beijing.

 

China Backpacking Travel Costs

Your budget for China will depend on a lot of things, namely how many places you go to and what level of comfort you need. Obviously, your budget will go up if you visit a ton of destinations and have to buy several plane and train tickets. Which type of ticket you choose will impact your budget as well, as soft sleeper train tickets are far more expensive than the dreaded hard seats.

The good news is that even in China’s big cities, it’s possible to get by on a budget of $40-50 a day. Public transport is cheap (around $0.50 to $2 for bus and subway tickets), and you can easily find a bed in a dorm for $10-15.

Chinese Street Food

Street food is delicious and cheap in China. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

If you don’t mind eating like a local, your money will go a long way in China. Street food is readily available and is both delicious and cheap.

One of my favorites is a jian bing – this Chinese crepe with egg, green onion, chili sauce and a fried wonton only costs about $0.50 and will keep you going for a few hours. You can always find a bowl of noodles, a plate of dumplings, or a common dish like eggs & tomatoes on rice for $2-3.

One of the biggest expenses on your China trip will definitely be entrance tickets. Entrance to the Forbidden City costs around $10, the Terracotta Warriors will set you back about $24, and a one-day pass to Jiuzhaigou plus the bus ticket runs almost $50. Be sure to do a bit of research into ticket prices so you can decide which places you can and can’t visit.

Thankfully, there are several free or cheap things to do in China as well. One of my favorite activities is finding a local park, such as Bei Hai in Beijing or Green Lake in Kunming. These are the best places to soak up the local culture and you can easily spend a few hours of your day without burning a hole in your wallet.

Local Bus Ride = $0.50-$1.00

Subway Ride = $0.50-$1.50

Short Cab Ride = $4-5

High-Speed Train (BJ-Shanghai): $88

Hard Sleeper Train (BJ-Xi’an): $50

Bowl of Noodles: $1-2

Kungpao Chicken with Rice: $3-4

Hot Pot Dinner for 2: $20-30

Local Beer: $0.50

Pint of Craft Beer: $6-7

Bed in a Hostel: $10-15

Private Room in a Hostel: $30-35

Forbidden City Entrance: $10

Jiuzhaigou Park Entrance: $18

Grand View Park Kunming

The scenic Grand View Park in Kunming. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

 

Money in China

China’s currency is the Renminbi (RMB). The current exchange rate is $1 = 6.3 RMB (April 2018). When talking prices with people, they’ll rarely say renminbi. The preferred terms are yuan or the slang kuai.

It’s not hard to find ATMs in China, but you may be charged a fee by both the local bank and your bank. If you’re American, you can sign up for a Charles Schwab checking account and have ATM fees reimbursed at the end of the month.

Street food in China

You’ll still need cash for street food. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

While cash was king in China for a long time, it’s all about the e-pay now. People in China prefer using WeChat to pay for just about everything these days. Sadly, you’ll need a Chinese bank account to be able to join them. Never fear, as it’s also very easy to pay with a credit card for most things in China.

GET IT HERE

You should always have some emergency cash hidden on you and I’ve written an entire post on the best places to hide your money. If you want to carry a fair bit of cash safely on your body, your best bet is to get hold of a backpacker belt with a hidden security pocket.
 

 

Top Tips for Broke Backpackers

Camp: Camping in China can be a great option in rural areas, or even on the Great Wall! Wild camping in China is definitely in a grey area. It can be legal and it can be illegal. They are purposely vague on this subject in order to give authorities the freedom to choose what to do. As long as you stay under the radar, you should be fine.

Check out this post for a breakdown of the best tents to take backpacking. Or, if you’re feeling real adventurous and want to save some cash, consider picking up a backpacking hammock.

Cook your own food: If you are on a tight budget, you can save money by cooking your own food – I recommend bringing a portable backpacking stove.

Book your transportation early: Both plane and train tickets are much cheaper if you purchase them in advance.

Couchsurf: Especially in the big cities in China, it’s not too hard to find a host whose couch you can crash on. They might be expats who are working there or locals. We hosted tons of Couch Surfers when we lived in China and always had a good time. Check out Couch Surfing to make some real friendships and see this country from the perspective of locals.

Pack a travel water bottle  and save money every day! 

To learn how to travel the world on $10 a day, check out the backpacker’s bible.

 

Volunteer in China

Long term travel is awesome. Giving back is awesome too. For backpackers looking to travel long-term on a budget in China whilst making a real impact on local communities, look no further than World Packers. World Packers is an excellent platform connecting travelers with meaningful volunteer positions throughout the world.

In exchange for a few hours of work each day, your room and board are covered.

Backpackers can spend long periods of time volunteering in an awesome place without spending any money. Meaningful life and travel experiences are rooted in stepping out of your comfort zone and into the world of a purposeful project. World Packers opens the doors for work opportunities in hostels, homestays, NGOs and eco-projects around the world. Broke Backpacker readers get a special discount of $20 – just use this discount code  BROKEBACKPACKER and membership is discounted from $49 a year to $29.

 

Travel China for Free

Are you a native English speaker looking to earn cash whilst traveling the world? Teaching English online is a great way to earn a consistent income—from anywhere in the world with a good internet connection. Depending on your qualifications (or your motivation to obtain qualifications like a TEFL certificate) you can teach English remotely from your laptop, save some cash for your next adventure, and make a positive impact on the world by improving another person’s language skills! It’s a win-win! Check out this detailed article for everything you need to know to start teaching English online.

In addition to giving you the qualifications to teach English online, TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.

Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses with MyTEFL (simply enter the code BACKPKR), to find out more, please read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.

Whether you are keen to teach English online or looking to take your teaching game a step further by finding a job teaching English in a foreign country, getting your TEFL certificate is absolutely a step in the right direction.

Teaching English in China

Me with my students in Beijing. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

 

Internet in China

The internet in China sucks, plain and simple. This isn’t because of a lack of access or speed, but because of censorship.

These are the things you won’t be able to freely access in China – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google, and yes, it’s sad but true, porn as well. If you need these things in your life, you’ll want to get a VPN before heading to China. I always used Astrill when I lived there and found it to be the most reliable.

In the past few years, many companies have brought to market a plethora of VPN products and China is for sure a big market because of the reasons stated above. Depending on your budget, you can find VPNs starting from only $3/month, many will give you a 30 day free trial and much more. To find the right one for you and your needs, check this VPN list.

When you can actually get on the websites you want to use, the internet is just fine. Chinese people are absolutely obsessed with being online (who isn’t these days?), and you can find WiFi just about everywhere. Internet bars are also huge in China, that is if you want to join chain-smoking teenagers playing RPG games.

 

Must Try Experiences in China

When it comes to must try experiences while backpacking China, nothing tops camping out on the Great Wall. This isn’t possible on every section, but there are a few where you can get away with it. I’ve camped out on both the Jinshanling and Gubeikou sections of the Wall with no issues and would highly recommend giving it a shot.

Trekking in China

At 4,200 m on the Zharu Valley trek. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

Other excellent hiking opportunities include the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan and the Zharu Valley eco-trek just outside of Jiuzhaigou National Park in Sichuan. You can do the Tiger Leaping Gorge on your own but will need to sign up for a trip with a local guide for Zharu Valley.

Yangshuo is one of the top backpacker towns in China and is full of must-try experiences. It’s also one of the only places in China where you can rent a motorbike. Get some wheels and explore the stunning countryside full of karst mountains, stopping to try some rock climbing or enjoy a bamboo rafting trip on the river.

 

Meet the People

It’s not hard to meet the locals in China. With a population of over 1.3 billion, it’s the most populous country on Earth. While everyone from China is considered Chinese, there are actually 56 different ethnic groups.

A vast majority of the people are Han (around 90%), but there are 55 other ethnic minority groups. Great places to experience ethnic minority cultures include Yunnan, Guangxi, Ningxia, Sichuan, and Xinjiang.

Chinese Parks

Hanging out in a local park. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

No matter where you are in China, the best place to meet people is in the local park. People love gathering at parks to do things like practice tai chi, dance, fly a kite, play chess, or just drink tea and chat. Sure, there will be a big language barrier if you don’t speak Chinese, but that shouldn’t stop you from interacting with locals. After all, they’ll probably stop you to take your picture anyways!

While people in China may seem a bit cold and standoffish at first, it’s usually just because they really aren’t that used to interacting with foreigners. A smile and a simple “Ni hao” really goes a long way here.

Learn a few phrases in Chinese and you’ll be making friends in no time. Don’t be surprised if people invite you to join them at a restaurant or bar and proceed to force-feed you tons of food and beer!

 

Dating in China

A common sight in the big cities of China is a local girl with a lao wai (foreigner) dude. The place is practically a gold mine for single foreign men. I once had a buddy who would wait until about 2AM and go down into the clubs in the Wudaokou area in Beijing in his pajamas to pick up girls. “Like shooting fish in a barrel,” he would say. He did pretty well, too.

My yellow fever was only temporary, so I can’t speak much on the subject. One thing I will say is that Chinese men get incredibly jealous and pissed off when they see foreign dudes picking up local girls. The ratio really sucks for them, so it’s hard enough as it is. That’s why I imported my American girl and gave up on the whole scene.

While far less common, you’ll definitely see foreign girls dating Chinese men. Cultural differences tend to get in the way, though, so many of these romances are short-term.

 

Food in China

Lanzhou Pulled Beef Noodles – As McDonald’s is to the US, Lanzhou Pulled Beef Noodles are to China. Apparently, there are over 20,000 shops selling it. It really seems like there’s one on every corner. A bowl of these delicious noodles will fill you up and only cost $1-2!

Hot Pot – This is one of the most fun dining experiences you can have. You order up a pot of spiced broth and it boils right there on your table. Then you can choose from a variety of meat, fish, and veggies to toss in the pot. Hot pot restaurants can be found all over China, but the best are in Sichuan and Chongqing.

Sichuan hot pot

A mouth-numbing hot pot. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

Dumplings – On the Chinese New Year’s Eve, families all around China make hundreds of dumplings to eat together. They’re filled with all sorts of things – pork and cabbage, eggs and leeks, lamb and carrot – the list goes on and on. A big plate of dumplings never disappoints!

Kung Pao Chicken – This is one of the only items on Western Chinese restaurants that’s actually in China. Of course, it’s way better in the country where it’s from! A plate of kung pao chicken with some rice is always a good choice for lunch.

Beijing Roast Duck – If you’re travelling in the capital, you just can’t miss out on a dinner of roast duck. The best places to eat it are Da Dong or Quan Ju De. This is a culinary experience you’ll never forget! That crispy duck will be one of the best things you eat on your trip for sure.

Beijing roast duck

Beijing roast duck is a culinary experience. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

Dim Sum – This is technically a Hong Kong dish, but then again Hong Kong is technically China. You can find dim sum restaurants in most Chinese cities, but nothing beats having it in Guangdong or Hong Kong. Come hungry so you can try everything.

Street Food – There is so much delicious street food in China. From the awesome breakfast crepes known as jian bing, to the sticks of grilled lamb called chuan, it’s not hard to eat well in the street. Pull up a plastic stool and join the locals!

Bai Jiu – If you’re in China, chances are someone will eventually offer you some bai jiu. I like to call it Chinese rocket fuel, because that’s exactly what it tastes like. This liquor distilled from sorghum is China’s favorite booze and can be found everywhere. It doesn’t taste very good, but when in Rome…

For Chinese cooking classes, check out this site for awesome deals.

 

Festivals in China

When it comes to Chinese holidays, nothing comes close to the Spring Festival. Also commonly called Chinese New Year, this festival lasts for 15 days in celebration of the Lunar New Year. It’s a fascinating and chaotic time in China, as everyone tries to get home to spend the holiday with loved ones. If your trip to China coincides with Spring Festival, be aware that transportation will be hard to come by, and that most businesses will be closed for a day or two.

China has many other traditional festivals throughout the year. One of the most interesting for visitors is the Dragon Boat Festival, which takes place sometime in June. There are several places where you can watch the amazing dragon boat races.

Dragon Boat Festival

The dragon boats are massive. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

China loves drinking beer, so it should come as no surprise that there are several beer festivals. The biggest and most famous is the Qingdao Beer Festival in August. It’s a raucous affair with tons of food, carnival rides, live music, and of course a shit ton of beer. Those more into quality over quantity can find craft beer festivals in the big cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.

Qingdao Beer Festival

Gan bei! (Cheers!) | Photo By Sasha Savinov

Music festivals are catching on in a big way in China, with more and more being added every year. There are jazz festivals, rock festivals, and even psytrance festivals such as Spirit Tribe in Yunnan. Some festivals are in a city park while others are out in the countryside and include camping. Having been to several music festivals in China, I can say that it’s usually a good time.

Spirit Tribe China

Psytrance in Yunnan. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

 

Trekking in China

I’ve already mentioned several of the best treks in China in other sections of the guide, but I’ll repeat myself in case you passed over them. Your best bets for trekking include the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, the Zharu Valley in Sichuan, and the Longji rice terraces in Guangxi.

There are several mountains you can “climb” in China as well. I put climb in quotes because the Chinese way to climb a mountain is by walking up several thousand stairs. Not quite as adventurous as actually climbing a mountain…

 

A Recent History of China

We might as well start the recent history of China lesson with the founding of the modern-day People’s Republic of China. After a long Civil War and years of Japanese occupation, the PRC was founded on October 1, 1949 by Mao Zedong. His Communist Party had won the war, and he took over as the new leader of a new China.

National Museum of China

October 1, 1949 | Photo By Sasha Savinov

Although he’s still revered in China – his face is on every bill, after all – Mao put the country through hell. His disastrous policies during the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward caused millions to starve and die, setting China back several decades. The official policy on Mao is that he was right 70% of the time, which makes you wonder who did that math.

Things started to change in China during the time of Deng Xiaoping. His Reform and Opening policy ushered in a new era for China. The Chinese economy began opening up to the outside world and private enterprises finally started to spring up.

Deng was much more of a pragmatist than Mao, as he famously said, It matters not whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” And this new Chinese economy most certainly caught some mice.

Over the next few decades, the Chinese economy boomed. The population also grew, breaking one billion by the 1982 census. Tourism finally started to open up, and foreign businesses began moving into China as well. The drab Maoist era seemed long gone as the Chinese started driving Audis, eating KFC, and dancing to jazz.

While much had improved for the people of China, many still wanted more reforms. In 1989, students protested in Tiananmen Square calling for democracy and more freedoms. Eventually, the government stepped in and declared martial law. Armed military officials and tanks were sent into the square to suppress the protests. In what came to be known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, hundreds to thousands of people were killed (there are no official figures on the death toll). A dark cloud would hang over China for years as a result.

Under president Jiang Zemin, China continued to enjoy substantial growth. While many people still wish for a change in the government, they remained quiet after witnessing what had happened in 1989. The country did experience change in the 90s, as Hong Kong and Macau were both peacefully returned to China.

Hong Kong skyline

The next president of China was Hu Jintao, who served from 2003 to 2013. During his tenure, China’s economy continued to grow rapidly, eventually surpassing Japan to become 2nd in the world. While much of the developed world struggled to recover from the global financial crisis, China made it through relatively unscathed. During this time, China also began to extend its influence around the globe.

Next in line was Xi Jinping, who remains the president of China. While his predecessors have stuck to the two 5-year term limit, Xi recently passed reforms that removed this limit. It appears as if he is setting himself up for a long run as China’s head of state.

In borrowing a popular phrase from the US, he has been focused on achieving the “Chinese Dream” for the people of China. Only time will tell how things will work out.

 

Being a Responsible Backpacker in China

At first glance, China may seem like an absolute free-for-all. People drive like maniacs. There’s litter everywhere. People spit on the sidewalk. Men binge drink and yell at their waitresses in restaurants. This may seem like an invitation for you to do the same, but you’re better than that.

As a foreigner in China, you’re representing all of us (they tend to group us all together). Perhaps by witnessing more civil behavior from tourists, these less than ideal habits in China may start to disappear.

That being said, a great thing about travelling in China is that there aren’t a ton of social norms you have to worry about. You can pretty much dress however you want, you can loudly slurp your noodles, and you can get blackout drunk at a bar and they’ll still serve you.

You can also pretty much say whatever you want since English is generally very lacking in China. However, there are a few things to consider.

When in China, you want to avoid talking about the “3 Ts” – Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan. These are very sensitive topics and can easily cause a huge argument. You may have strong feelings on Tibetan independence, but mainland China is not the place to voice those.

Also, be sure to be respectful in important historical and cultural sights. This is especially true in places like the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. You’ll see tons of armed guards there, and they’re not messing around. Don’t go in areas that are blocked off, don’t take offensive photos… you know the drill.

Reduce your plastic footprint: Perhaps the best thing you can do for our planet is to make sure you do NOT add to the plastic problem all over the world. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, the plastic ends up in landfill or in the ocean. Instead, pack a tough and cool travel water bottle. For every Active Roots water bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an awesome initiative aimed at educating people on the risk of single use plastic and helping to clean up our oceans. Help save the planet, pick up a water bottle here. 

Check out our post on how to be a responsible backpacker.

 

Final Thoughts on Backpacking China

China may not be on the top of many backpacking lists, which is understandable. The visa process can be time-consuming and expensive depending on where you’re from. It’s true that the pollution in the big cities can be pretty awful. And yes, the people in China can be a bit… shall we say, intense. However, the juice is definitely worth the squeeze if you put forth the time and effort for a massive backpacking trip.

Once you get home and reflect on all those amazing experiences – hiking on the Great Wall, eating some mouth-watering Sichuan cuisine, seeing the Terracotta Warriors, cycling amongst karst mountains – you’ll realize it was absolutely worth it. Hell, you’ll probably start scheming up a way to get back to China to do some of the things you inevitably missed on your first trip.

Getting soaked at the Water Splashing Festival. | Photo By Sasha Savinov

When I first moved to China, I thought I would stay a year and give teaching English a try. Then something happened. I fell in love with learning about other cultures and languages. I also fell in love with backpacking, which is great because those interests go hand-in-hand. For the next several years, I was fortunate enough to travel extensively around China, all the while trying the food, experiencing the holidays, and trying my best not to butcher Chinese.

Almost a decade later, and I’ve now lived in three countries and done extensive backpacking trips across South America and Southeast Asia. For me, it all started in China.

I know there are more glamorous places to visit in the region. I’m aware you can go visa-free to several others. I also know that there’s no place in the world quite like China and that you can’t really say you’ve traveled the world until you’ve visited her most populous country. So go ahead and apply for that visa, because trust me when I say it’s well worth it.

Want to learn how to travel the world on $10 a day? Check out the Broke Backpacker’s Bible…

Yay for transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a book or sort your insurance, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going.


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Planning a trip to China and not sure where to start? Our writer lived there for six years and put together a comprehensive China travel guide on how to get around, where to stay, the cost of travel, and so much more. Dive into all things China in this awesome guide to backpacking China!

1 Comment

  • Marlon says:

    Yeah, when traveling to China I would choose new VPN providers as their servers are not blocked yet there. I used Surfshark during my last trip to China. It worked alright, speed was good enough and stable. Plus, with one account I could use it for a couple of devices I could use social media channel wherever I go. If someone is interested here is the code that I used: (Surf24) it still should work I guess.

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