Backpacking Tips for China

The Best Backpacking Tips for China From a Local

Before preparing the backpack for a new adventure, countless questions and doubts begin to arise in our heads… And when it comes to destinations as exotic as China, maybe even more so. So if you have a trip to the Asian giant in mind, read on because in this post we’re going to give you the best backpacking tips for china from our travels there.

Looking for other great travel destionations? Check out our other travel guides.

1. Passport and visa to travel to China

As with many other countries, travel to China requires a passport with a minimum validity of at least six months. In the case of Hong Kong, the minimum required validity is three months, but it is common for airlines not to allow passengers with passports that are not valid for more than six months to board. Don’t take any chances… six months, yes or yes!

And… what about the visa? We are sorry to say that YES, you will need to apply for a visa in advance to travel to China. You can do this at Chinese embassies and consulates, online through agencies authorized by the Chinese government, or at a CVASC (Chinese VISA Application Service Center) which is the official visa center that streamlines bureaucratic procedures.

The tourist visa is 30 days and only one entry, if you plan to stay longer, you can extend the visa once you are in China.

But there are exceptions, one of the most common ones where a visa is not required is for trips of less than 90 days to Hong Kong and Macao. Or also to make transit of maximum 144 hours in Beijing, Shanghai and the administrative provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, having the obligation to show in this case a plane ticket (with date and confirmed seat) to a third country.

However, in this case, the Foreign Minister himself recommends getting a visa if you have a long stopover and want to leave the airport. Don’t worry if you have a stopover in China on your way to another destination, as you won’t need to leave the international space of the airport.

If you want to visit Tibet know that you can only do so if you go in a group with an organized trip or hiring this trip in specialized Chinese agencies.

Another important fact is that you ALWAYS go documented, with passport and visa in order (or at least a copy). In China you don’t play with the authorities and security is sometimes a bit extreme. It is normal to be asked to identify yourself for example at bus and metro stations and at the main tourist attractions. So always keep your passport handy.

2. Best time to travel to China

If you ask yourself this question considering only the climate… the answer will depend a lot on the area of the country you want to visit. China occupies an immense territory, so weather conditions can vary greatly from one area to another during the same period of the year.

You should avoid the cold winters in the north or the monsoon season in the south of the country (May to October), as well as considering that in many places (especially in the eastern coastal areas) the humidity is very high, particularly in the warmer months of the year. However, spring and autumn can be the best times to visit almost all parts of the country.

It is recommended that you do not travel to China during public holidays, such as the Chinese New Year, the most important holiday with millions of trips throughout the country. Finding train tickets on those days is virtually impossible and flight and hotel prices skyrocket 😉 Outside the big cities most businesses are closed for at least a couple of days and sometimes up to a week. During Golden Week, which begins with the celebration of National Day (October 1), it is also better to avoid trips to China.

If you still need to travel to China during these holidays, you should book as far in advance as possible.

3. Plan

If you’re one of those who enjoy improvising when you travel and don’t like to plan or do what you’re going to do the next day, then travelling around China may be a little tricky for you. The distances in this country are enormous and the list of places to visit is endless, so if you don’t take this into account beforehand you may have to give up places you didn’t want to miss or visit very quickly. It would be advisable to also consider if you want to do some excursion or some special activity, to book in advance and avoid wasting time or not finding places once you are there.

4. Recommended travel itinerary to China

If you had 3 weeks to travel in China, this could be a base itinerary:

Arriving in Shanghai and excursion to Zhouzhuang. (3 days).
Train to Beijing and visit the Great Wall. (4 days).
Explore the medieval town of Pingyao (1-2 days).
Travel to Xi’an and visit to the Terracotta Warriors (2 days).
Train to Chengdu and visit to Leshan Buddha (2 days)
Fly to Guillin and visit to Yangshuo (4 days)
Bus to Hong Kong (3 days).

If you have more time you can spend about 5-7 days visiting the beautiful province of Yunnan, one of the areas we want to explore in a future trip to China.

5. Travelling by train in China

The Chinese love this means of transport and in fact the trains are an ideal place to observe on a small scale many aspects of how Chinese society works. It won’t take long for you to realize how everyone helps themselves and shares with strangers in space, food and conversation, as if they were lifelong friends. Your fellow travelers are sure to quickly include you in their circle, so don’t miss this fantastic opportunity to meet locals and learn some Chinese words. Don’t forget to take a look from time to time through the windows to see the spectacular scenery you’ll pass through.

It is important to know that you will not be able to buy tickets on the official railway website while outside China and that, depending on the time of year, some routes may run out quickly. One option is to book your tickets online through an accredited agency offering this service, such as China Highlights or DIY Travel.

Once in China, you will be able to book train tickets at the ticket offices of the stations “without problems”. We advise you to write in a child in Chinese the destination, time and day, because it is possible that the person who attends you does not speak or read English. Here we tell you how to travel by train through China and how to buy tickets.

If you want to avoid the long queues that form in the stations to get your tickets, you can book through local agencies or even in the accommodation themselves, paying a small commission.

As for how trains are in China, we find them very comfortable, especially night trains with bunk beds, which also allow you to save on accommodation 😉 Here is an example of how to read a Chinese train ticket:

6. Buy a SIM and connect to social networks in China

For many, a big challenge can be to stay away from social networks for a few days. The Internet is available all over the country, but as you probably know, the strict control exercised by the Chinese government over the population means that most of the most used websites and social networks in the Western world remain blocked and censored. This is the case of Google, Facebook or Instagram (among others). You will have no choice but to take your trip as an opportunity to disconnect completely…

Or if you don’t feel capable of it, you will always have the alternative of investing in a VPN (Virtual Private Network) before travelling there. What does it consist of? It is an application that forces your device to connect to the Internet through a port in the country of your choice (and thus change your IP). Okay, for example, to be able to see HBO abroad having a Spanish account, as well as protect your connection to make it more secure. We, by connecting to quite a few public networks, have Surfshark.

In order to be able to use the internet while travelling, we always recommend buying a local SIM on arrival at the airport. But in this case, if you want to kill two birds with one stone, you have the option to get a Holafly prepaid SIM card, which although more expensive than a local SIM, includes VPN. In this case we think it’s worth it. If you buy from this link you also get a 5% discount. Yeah!

7. Health is always the most important thing

Before traveling to China it is a good idea to approach an International Vaccination Center. They will inform you about the necessary and/or recommended vaccinations, as well as give you some useful tips to keep you healthy and fit during your trip. But in general, for a stay of several weeks of tourism, it is not recommended to get any vaccinations.

Other health recommendations are that you do not drink tap water, that you avoid eating raw vegetables and fruits with skin, that you stay always hydrated and use sun protection during the long days of tourism and that if you think it is convenient to use a mask to protect yourself from pollution (especially children and people with asthma or other respiratory problems).

In this website of the Ministry of Health you can generate health tips for your type of trip.

Do not forget also that before leaving home it is essential that you get a good travel insurance. Yes, I know, it’s a shame to have to compare and waste time and money on something we hope we’ll never have to use, but it’s better to prevent. Health care in China is not free and if something happens to you, the bill can be quite high. There are a good number of insurances with good coverage and very competitive prices, but as in everything, it will depend a lot on what you are looking for. Our recommendation: IATI Insurance, here you have a 5% discount.

8. How to manage money on a trip to China

The currency of China is the Yuan (CNY), in Hong Kong and Macao other currencies are used. Nowadays travelling without credit cards is unthinkable and it is never too much to carry at least two. We usually use the BNEXT card, a very convenient and recommended option for travel as it allows you to withdraw money without being charged commissions. It will always be advisable to use this type of card to change money at the exchange houses or buy yuan in your bank before leaving on your trip. Preferably it would be in this order:

Bnext card or another with advantages to withdraw money abroad and pay in non-dollar currency

Change $ in a bank/change house in the city
Change $ at the airport / withdraw money with your usual card
Buy yuan at your bank
The change now (end of 2019) is this: $1 = CNY 7.00.

9. Enjoy the delicious local food

Raise your hand who has never tasted Chinese food! But… wait… the food from the local Chinese restaurant doesn’t count, I’m sorry 😉 And the real local Chinese food is far from what you’ve tasted so far. Don’t be afraid of the unknown because Chinese gastronomy is delicious, very varied and most of the time ridiculously cheap. But beware because sometimes it can snack more than expected!

10. Language should not be an obstacle

Although more and more people speak English in large Chinese cities, in less touristy places and in rural areas, communicating in English can be quite difficult or practically impossible. Don’t despair and don’t create a barrier where there isn’t one. Patience, some gestures and above all smiles and good humor are universal and help to understand each other in almost any part of the world.

You can also use some simple tricks that will make things much easier for you. For example you can take notes in Chinese the addresses of accommodations (or take the business card of each hotel), places to visit, destination and time to make a transport reservation, etc..

Or download on your mobile useful applications such as Baidu, which not only has the traditional translator of words and phrases, but can also translate voice recordings. Or Waygo, who will become your best friend when you are starving to death and in front of you you have a menu with only Chinese characters and neither an image nor a half… take a picture and “voilà”… instant translation!

10+1. Get ready for cultural clashes, you’re in China!

Travelling without prejudice can be difficult on many occasions, but we encourage you to always try so that you can fully enjoy the wonderful experience of travelling… and even more so when it comes to a country that can be as much fun as China. But you have to be open-minded.

The strong culture shock will be a bit “traumatic” at first, but the best thing is to use a little humor and philosophy to deal, for example, with situations as common for the Chinese population (and equally uncomfortable for the Western population) as spitting, belching and farting in public.

You will also quickly notice that personal space is much smaller for the Chinese and it is very likely that sometimes you will feel a kind of “invasion” when someone looks over your shoulder at what you are reading or even what you are looking at on your mobile.

Ah!… and I almost forgot to tell you to prepare and rehearse your best posé, because in China it is very likely that you will become a “superstar” for some time and you will be the preferred target of the Chinese cameras.

More tips for traveling to China (and don’t screw it up)

– You may wonder if China is a safe country: the answer is YES. Obviously, as in every place, you have to have common sense, but generally you shouldn’t have problems on your trip. The only risk is that you become addicted to dumplings (true story).

– Wherever you go, never forget to take a roll of toilet paper with you. Getting through the Chinese toilet experience can be a big challenge and even more so when coming across the precious toilet paper is practically an impossible task. So listen to me and make things a little easier.

– As in India, in China there is no such thing as order in a queue. If you’re at the window waiting for your turn, watch out for a Chinese (or 10) to slip in front of your eyes… For them it’s the most normal thing in the world -_- the good thing is that, as soon as you make them notice it, they’ll get back behind you (of course) XD.

– Bargaining is a common practice in China. Traders tend to inflate prices (especially with tourists and for example the Beijing Silk Market) to make the most profit possible. You are going to need a lot of patience and determination to deal with them. The important thing is that you ask several and get a rough idea of the value of the product, and set a limit on how much you are willing to pay. Don’t forget to also enjoy the experience, bargaining with a Chinese can be more fun than playing marbles 😉

– Obvious advice, but better to make things clear: the distances from the country are enoooooooormes, so something indispensable before closing the itinerary is to check if the trains are direct and how long they take. Otherwise you run the risk of sitting on a train and that’s not cool! It’s better to see fewer places, but good.

– Tipping is NOT the norm, moreover, it may even be seen as an offense.

– Say no to drugs. Obviously this is applicable to any place in the world, but in a country like China where there are very harsh penalties (including the death penalty) for trafficking and consumption, it would be completely stupid to fool around with this subject. Keep an eye out for people who approach you and you don’t know anything, or even be in contact with strangers in apps like WeChat.

– There is a very popular scam that consists of one or several “students” approaching you with the excuse of practicing English and invite you to follow the night in a place they know. The place in question is usually a kind of pub/restaurant with reserved rooms, where they will directly take your order without showing you the menu. The surprise, as you can imagine, comes to the end with the bill :S

– Never put the chopsticks in a bowl of rice: for Asians in general is a sign of bad omen because that’s how they put the offerings for the dead.

– Don’t rule out doing some part by plane: often good offers are found and a flight can save a lot of time!

– What you do have to discard is renting a car: in China an international driver’s license is not valid.

– Learning Mandarin is not easy or advisable for a 3-week trip to China, but we do recommend you learn a few basic words: being able to say Ni hao (hello) or xie xie (thank you) is something the locals will appreciate.

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