A backpacker’s guide to China

Shanghai, photo by Hario Seto Supranggono

China is home to about 20% of the world’s population, and it is the third largest country in the world, so any backpacker with itchy feet will have their work cut out for them if they are planning on exploring this surprising country. China fits perfectly the tired travel cliche of ‘country of contrasts’, because it’s so diverse and varied that you feel like visiting not one country but many at the same time. Exploring China as an independent traveler can become overwhelming, unlike when you book a tour package, because the sheer vastness of it is not easy to navigate. But as a backpacker in China you will be able to see sides of its life and culture that you might miss otherwise, and on an even more positive note, it is also quite affordable to travel this way. So if you’re planning on visiting this amazing country on a shoestring, here’s a backpacker’s guide to China.


Beijing train station, photo by knittymarie on Flickr

Public transport in China is cheap and reasonably fast, and you can’t really avoid using it even if you want to explore parts of the country on foot. City buses are inexpensive, and in large cities like Beijing they are a very convenient way to navigate the maze. Buses are also common in the countryside, and even if you find yourself on a dirt road, chances are that there is at least one bus going that way. When traveling from one city to another, you can take a long distance bus, but trains are usually a better option and not much more expensive. There are several classes of tickets on Chinese trains, the cheapest of which is the yingzuo (hard seat), which is not as uncomfortable as it sounds. Sleeper cars are also available, but more often than not, they are uncomfortable enough to make yingzuo a more reasonable choice in terms of price.


Large cities like Beijing and Shanghai have more than enough hostels to choose from, but it’s a good idea to book ahead of time because these are the cities with the most influx of travelers too. Smaller towns will usually have guesthouses and inns where you can stay in single or shared rooms. Hotels tend to be on the expensive side, and the ones that are more affordable are often not better in any way that hostels, in terms of living conditions and amenities. If you have a working knowledge of Chinese, you might even be able to negotiate the price (but keep in mind that this doesn’t work everywhere) if you ask for the cheapest room.


photo by avlxyz

One of the best things about traveling in China is that you can enjoy the delicious local cuisine without spending a fortune on it. Smaller restaurants are actually a better choice than the fancy ones if you are planning on a culinary tour of the country. Although there are several western fast-food chains in major Chinese cities, there are much better places to eat for cheap. One problem for the hungry traveler might be the fact that in most restaurants you can only find menus written in Chinese, so it might be a good idea to memorize the Chinese characters for some of the more widespread dishes.

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