May 24, 2024

The ultimate guide to backpacking China

Is there anywhere on earth that evokes as much wonder, intrigue and fascination as China? Whether it’s marvelling at the magnificent Great Wall, basking in glorious rural landscapes or attempting to navigate the largest cities on earth, a trip to China offers rewards like no other. Every corner is uniquely alluring, continually drawing in backpackers who want to learn more about this enigmatic country.

No matter if you’re spending weeks, months or even years in China, it’s straight up impossible to explore it all. But follow this backpacking China guide to discover which side you’ll fall in love with, and what not to miss in this one of a kind destination.

Jump straight to:

    1. China climate
    2. Visa for China
    3. China transportation
    4. Hostels in China
    5. Chinese currency
    6. Costs of backpacking China
    7. Best places to visit in China
    8. Backpacking China itineraries
    9. Chinese culture
    10. Chinese language

backpacking China - steps and moutains

? @zukiniz

China climate

China is so vast that it’s impossible to speak of a general climate. Spanning over 3,000 miles, China encompasses tundra deserts, semi-tropical jungles, snowy alpine forests and over 9,000 miles of coastline, so the best time to visit will really depend on where you plan to go.

In general, China’s rainy season runs from May – September.


The Northern border alongside Mongolia can be incredibly cold and covered with plenty of snow in winter and spring. As far south as Beijing and sometimes even Shanghai, temperatures regularly reach below zero. That said, even in the north it can get incredibly warm and muggy in the summer months.

Hong Kong and the South

Hong Kong and most of Southern China has a sub-tropical climate – winters are mild and summers are hot, humid and wet. The Southeast can also see typhoons from July – September. The temperature is pleasant in spring – it can get very foggy but personally I love the mist. October – December is a good time to visit as the weather is cooler.

The Southwest (including Zhongdian, Kunming, Dali and Lijiang) is mountainous and is characterised by cool, dry winters with mild days and cold nights. Summers can be warm and muggy but are still much cooler than the lowlands. While Zhongdian and Lijiang can be cold in the winter, Kunming are Dali are mild all year round.

Central China

Central China (for example Xi’an, Shanghai, Chengdu) has the most temperate weather, but the humidity can make the summers feel hotter and the winters cooler than they are. Aim to visit during spring and autumn when temperatures, humidity and crowds are moderate.

backpacking China - blossoms tree


Tibet and the west

With dramatic mountain landscapes and incredibly high altitudes, westernmost China and Tibet see severe winters with lots of snow and regular frosts, though the weather varies from region to region. The snowfall generally sticks to the peaks, but the strong winds accentuate the fierce wind chill. If you can brave the cold, it’s a good time to visit Lhasa for cheap accommodation and smaller crowds. Outside of the main centres though, many roads will be blocked due to snow.

Generally, summer is the best time to visit as the temperatures start to rise. Though this is rainy season for most of China, Tibet generally remains dry. Autumn can also be a good time to visit – though bear in mind that even when it’s sunny and warm in the day, temperatures can still plummet at night.

Whichever season you choose to visit, avoid public holidays if you’re not crazy about crowds. Also keep in mind that shops in many areas may close around the Chinese New Year (mid-January to mid-February).

Beijing climate

Beijing has a humid continental climate, which means it experiences four distinct seasons. While it’s obviously a matter of personal choice, spring and autumn are considered the best seasons to visit with cooler temperatures and less tourists.

Winds from Siberia mean that Beijing winters get bitterly cold – but the upside is fewer crowds and the chance to see the city and the Great Wall covered in thick, white snow.

Summer is popular with tourists but is hot and humid. Monsoon winds from the southeast also bring a higher chance of rain.

Springtime sees blossoms in bloom but can bring dust from the Gobi desert. Autumn boasts blue skies and trees covered in vibrant red and bright orange foliage, which looks particularly spectacular at the Great Wall. Though autumn is generally regarded as the best time visit, bear in mind that September sees the most expensive hotel prices.

backpacking china - tibet mountains


Visa for China

China does not provide visas on arrival, so you’ll have to apply for one at the Chinese embassy (or visa application service centre) of whatever country you’re in. If you’re just flying in and out of a city, Beijing or Shanghai for example, getting a tourist visa for China is a piece of cake, but if you’re backpacking and moving around a lot it can be a bit of a headache. For any tourist visa, you’ll usually have to provide proof of entrance and exit flights, but backpackers that are planning on moving about are technically supposed to provide an itemised itinerary of every place they plan to stay and proof that they’ve booked when they apply! For most, the idea of booking expensive flights and multiple hostels before they’re even sure their visa will be approved is not exactly delightful, but hold up, there’s no need to panic yet!

Most people will be applying for the L tourist visa. The primary requirements for this are:

  • A passport: The consulate will need the original passport and will retain it while the visa is being processed. The passport must be valid for at least six months. You must also have at least 2 blank pages. The process will normally take about 1-2 weeks and you might be asked to provide additional information if they’re not satisfied with what you’ve given. The main thing to remember is to have patience – Chinese bureaucracy is notoriously slow but it usually all works out in the end!
  • A copy of your passport
  • 2 passport photos: This must be recent and measure 2 x 2 inches.
  • An application form: This can be found on the website of your local Chinese embassy.
  • Entrance and exit flights and travel itinerary OR an invitation letter: If you can provide a letter instead of proof of reservations, make sure that the letter provides your full name, date of birth, gender, dates of arrival/departure, address and contact. The letter must be from Chinese tour agency, a company, or any Chinese citizen or foreign citizen with permanent residence in China. The inviter must include their name, address and contact.

If you need anything other than a tourist visa, visit your local Chinese embassy’s site to find out about the necessary documents or use an authorised visa agency.


China Visa Tips for backpackers:

Book refundable flights and hotels:

So, what if you can’t provide an invitation letter but don’t want to book flights and hotels before you’re sure your visa’s been approved in time, or at all? One way to get around this is to plan an entirely refundable itinerary. Refundable flights are not cheap, but if you book through a reputable airline you should have no problem getting your money back. It’s worth remembering that if you’re flying from the US and back, all airlines have a 24-hour guaranteed cancellation period. Refundable flights are also a good idea for backpackers travelling through Southeast Asia who want to enter China by land. Simply book flights to fulfil your visa requirements, then cancel them and book whatever form of transport you want into China. My boyfriend and I actually ended up entering by foot from Northern Vietnam!

While many consulates are content to see just the first hostel booking in a travel itinerary, some require that you provide proof of each booking along the way. This is where Hostelworld’s ‘free cancellation’ option comes in handy. Look out for this when booking and your deposit will be refunded back to your payment card, provided you cancel within the stated timeframe. Check out Hostelworld’s cancellation info and policy.

backpacking china - hostelworld free cancellation

Use a travel agency:

Rather than booking a ticket directly from the airline, some travel agencies such as will provide you with a proposed itinerary which counts as confirmed bookings, each with a unique reservation number. This means you don’t have to pay for the tickets upfront and removes the risk of buying tickets before you know whether your visa is accepted. Once your visa is approved, you can go ahead and pay for the tickets.

Use an authorised visa agency

Visa agencies like Visarite will help you navigate through the murky waters of trying to figure out exactly what papers your local Chinese consulate needs you to provide. In some cities you must hand over all accommodation bookings for your trip, while in others it’s not necessary. Also, depending on where you live it might not be feasible to travel to your nearest Chinese consulate, which you must do in person. Authorised visa agencies can manage your application on your behalf.

How much does a China visa cost?

There are three classes of Chinese tourist visa, and the cost varies depending on where you’re from.

Standard Visa

–   85 GBP for UK citizens

–   140 USD for US citizens

–   40 USD for citizens of other nations.

Double-entry visas:

–   85 GBP for UK citizens

–   140 USD for US citizens

–   60 USD for all other nationals

Six-month multiple-entry visas:

–   85 GBP for UK citizens

–   140 USD for US citizens

–   80 USD for all other nationals.

Bear in mind that in many countries it is now compulsory for visa applications to be made through a Chinese Visa Application Service Centre, which charges a hefty admin fee. In the UK for example, a single-entry visa will set you back £85, but the fee charged by the service centre is an additional £68.

Do I need a visa for Hong Kong?

Nationals from most countries can visit Hong Kong for up to 90 days without a visa. UK citizens can remain for 180. If you’re not sure whether your country is on the visa-free list, make sure you check before booking any travel.


China transportation

How much does transportation in China cost?

The following is a rough guide to the costs you can expect for various types of transportation around China. Keep in mind that ticket prices vary greatly depending on time of year, availability, ticket class and route.


Buses are generally the cheapest way to get around in China, with local routes costing a very reasonable average of 1-2 CNY ($0.15 – $0.30). In large cities the routes are numerous and the system works well, but the main problem you’ll encounter is that everything is in Chinese. Either visit a local travel or tourism agency to ask for directions and routes or, if you can manage to do that online, write down or take a picture of the name of your destination in Chinese characters and ask your driver/fellow passengers for help.

Long-distance buses tend to be cheaper than trains. For example, a bus trip from Shanghai to Hanghzou (2.5 hours) will cost 75 CNY ($11), while the train costs 95 CNY ($14) and has a similar travel time.


Large cities will usually have a subway system and rides normally cost under 6 CNY (< $1). Due to traffic this can often be the fastest way to travel around cities. Taking the subway can also be simpler than taking a bus, as you’ll sometimes encounter English signs and English-speaking staff.

backpacking china - tube guide

? @zukiniz


The cost of trains in China entirely depends on how far you’re willing to stretch your budget and the level of comfort you’re after.

A rough guide of the prices for the fastest bullet train (G) on the most popular route (Beijing-Shanghai) is as follows:

  • Business class seat: 1,750 CNY (252 USD)
  • 1st class seat: 934 CNY (134 USD)
  • 2nd class seat: 554 CNY (80 USD)

On the slightly slower D train, sleepers cost:

  • New soft sleeper: 740 CNY (106 USD)
  • Hard sleeper: 690 CNY (99 USD)
  • 2nd class seat: 388 CNY (57 USD).

For comparison, a regular passenger train on the same route recently cost:

  • Soft sleeper: 456 CNY (66 USD)
  • Hard sleeper: 284 CNY (41 USD)
  • Hard seat: 157 CNY (23 USD)


Taxis are a convenient and surprisingly inexpensive way to get around in China. Fares will depend on where in China you are (they’ll be more expensive in Beijing than a small, rural town). A taxi from Beijing airport to the city centre (about a 40 minute drive) should cost around 120 CNY ($17). Local taxi fares start at about 6 CNY (< $1). Remember that few taxi drivers will speak English so have your destination written down. Some hostels will provide you with a designated ‘taxi card’. There is no need to tip.

Domestic flights

Almost every city in China has its own airport and there are plenty of regional carriers to choose from, including Spring Airlines, Air China, China Eastern, Southern, and Southwest Airlines. While for long journeys flights can ultimately get you around faster than overnight trains, keep in mind that domestic flights in China rarely leave on time, so be mindful of your connections when you book!

China train travel

When I backpacked through China, I didn’t get a single internal flight but took the train to each destination instead. Chinese trains are comfortable, punctual, relatively cheap, and a great way to see the scenery and meet the locals.

China high speed rail

The bullet (high-speed) train system in China is especially impressive. Travelling at a top speed of 350 km/h (that’s 200 km/h faster than the fastest train in the US), they can get you from Beijing to Shanghai in 4.5 hours. When you include airport transportation and security lines, that works out faster than flying. China’s is not just the fastest, but the most extensive and quickly growing high-speed railway network in the world, with 15,500 miles of track covering most of the major cities in the country. This means you can travel pretty much everywhere in China via high-speed rail.

Categories of bullet train

There are three categories of high-speed train in China: G, D and C, in order of speed.

  • G Trains:The fastest and the most state-of-the-art, with top speeds of 350km/h.
  • D Trains:These are the second-fastest trains with speeds up to 250 km/h, used for some long-distance and overnight routes.
  • C Trains:High-speed trains with speeds up to 120 km/h running short distances between neighbouring cities.

Seat classes on bullet trains

High-speed trains have four seat classes: second, first, superior, and business class.

Second class is obviously the cheapest way to get yourself from A to B and the seats are perfectly comfortable. First class seats are slightly wider and business class seats are fully reclinable.


China train travel tips

Whether you’re travelling on a regular carriage or a shiny new bullet train, there are a few things that you should keep in mind.

  1. Book with an agency/download Trip app

The official China railway website is only in Chinese but there are a few agencies (for example Travel China Guide or Trip) that you can use to book your tickets instead. Alternatively, you can download the Trip (formerly Ctrip) app which is very user-friendly and is a life-saver when it comes to booking transport in China. As a foreigner you’ll need your passport to make your booking and again at the station to retrieve your tickets. You’ll also need your confirmed ticket number. There are usually English speaking booths at the stations. On the Trip website and app you can have the tickets delivered to your hostel for a small fee (about $6).

  1. Book in advance

Trains are such a popular form of transportation in China that they book up early, especially around public holidays and on high-speed trains. I didn’t know this when we took our first train journey, so we ended up with standing tickets for a 12-hour trip. Luckily Chinese people are incredibly friendly and everybody scooched up to let us sit next to them!

  1. Make sure all your personal info is correct

We had a nightmare experience when trying to travel from Chengdu to Zhangjiajie. Having booked well in advance, we turned up to the station to hand over our passports and pick up our tickets. After some hushed whispering and suspicious stares from the attendants at the ticket booth, we were told we couldn’t retrieve our tickets because my boyfriend’s birth date on the booking didn’t match the one on the passport. We tried to explain that clearly this was a typo and obviously the person on the passport was the one standing right there in front of them, but to no avail. We missed our train which didn’t leave again for another two days and lost all our money. So, triple-check all your bookings before confirming! On this note…

  1. Don’t lose your cool and be prepared for long lines

The level of bureaucracy in China can be frustrating but getting flustered will get you nowhere – trust me! Even when you’ve pre-booked tickets online you’ll have to queue to pick them up and often the lines are long. Go to the station at least an hour in advance and be prepared to wait. The security lines can be long too so be sure to make your way to your gate early – trains in China board about an hour before departure. The signs won’t be in English but the characters and number of your gate should match up to the ones on your ticket. Use this tactic to figure out when you’ve arrived at your destination or come prepared with a note to ask the conductor or fellow passengers to help you out.

  1. Buy your food at the station

Every carriage has a hot water dispenser – Chinese people drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of instant noodles (though they tend to be a lot better than the instant noodles a lot of us are familiar with). Surprisingly a lot of the high-speed trains don’t have a dining car but just an attendant that comes by with drinks, snacks and instant noodles. Fortunately the stations usually have plenty of food options so my advice is to stock up before the journey.

And to answer the question everyone’s dying to ask – the toilets on high-speed trains are clean. This wasn’t the case on the regular-speed trains so if you’re travelling on these bring toilet paper, hand sanitizer and practice your squats!

  1. Bring your own entertainment

The scenery along the high-speed tracks is not generally spectacular (especially when the pollution is bad), though it is cool to see how fast everything whizzes by. The seats normally come fitted with power sockets, so you’ll be able to keep yourself entertained in true millennial fashion.


Hostels in China

Hostels in China are great, especially in backpacker hubs like Xi’an or Yangshuo. They’re fun, clean, comfortable and of course cheap. But apart from providing inexpensive accommodation, they tend to be located in convenient, central areas of towns and cities, often close to train or subway stations. Hostels are the place to collect tips from fellow travellers who’ll be more than happy to share their backpacking stories. China is massive, so if you’re unsure of what to include in your itinerary, talking to people in hostels can provide a treasure trove of information regarding destinations, modes of travel and anything else you might be curious about.

Perhaps the most convenient aspect of staying in a hostel in China is the staff, who are likely to speak English and be able to help you with local tips and expertise. Hostels are used to dealing with international backpackers and can be very helpful in organising activities or making travel plans.

When it comes to facilities, hostels in China differ widely in what they provide. While some will include towels, Wi-Fi and breakfast in the price, in others you’re expected to pay separately. It’s always a good idea to travel with a light-weight micro-fibre towel, especially when backpacking. Make sure you know what’s included when you make the booking.

Hostels in China are popular with domestic and foreign tourists, so they tend to fill up quickly. Backpackers are great at sniffing out the good ones and due to the nature of the visa application system popular hostels tend to book out in advance – the sooner you make your reservations the better!

China is generally very safe, but as anywhere it’s recommended to use the safety box provided by most hostels to store any valuables when you go out.

Beijing Hostels

Beijing hostels are some of the most expensive in China, but they’re still relatively cheap. Hostels are a popular form of accommodation in Beijing and there are hundreds all over the city. You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to deciding where to stay.

So how do you narrow it down? This all depends on your priorities, but generally the most popular and atmospheric hostels tend to be in the hutongs – ancient residential areas made up of narrow alleyways and traditional courtyard houses. Hutongs in Beijing have defied the lightning-fast growth seen in the rest of the country, offering a nostalgic window into old China. Bikes and rickshaws weave through the crowds and shopkeepers peddle their wares while the smell of street-cooking saturates the air. Once you cross the alleyway and enter the courtyards of the traditional slate-grey houses, the relentless bicycle bells disappear and a heavy silence reigns. A welcome respite from the chaos of Beijing’s heavily trafficked streets.

backpacking china - bejing

? @zukiniz

One popular hutong hostel is the Happy Dragon Saga Hostel. It has a beer garden that overlooks the traditional courtyards and Shijia Hutong where you can enjoy your free welcome beer. It’s also in a convenient location within walking distance of the Forbidden City and main train station. The budget tours they offer are cheap, fun and a great way to explore Beijing. On-site amenities include laundry services, luggage storage, free Wi-Fi and mixed as well as private dorms. They also have a café/bar serving Chinese and Western dishes. Red Lantern House and Kelly’s Courtyard are two other highly recommended hutong hostels.

A steadfast backpacker favourite, Leo hostel is not in a hutong but still boasts a beautiful courtyard location. It’s possibly Beijing’s most popular ‘party’ hostel due to its reasonable prices and particularly its location, which is right in the historic centre just south of Tiananmen square. It also has a huge range of onsite entertainment, with a pool table, dartboard and an extensive book and movie collection. On-site amenities include free WiFi, airport shuttles and a cafe/bar. Another Beijing hostel with a great location is 365 Inn – just a stone’s throw from Mao’s mausoleum and Tiananmen square.

To find out more about incredible hostels, check out our list of the 25 best hostels in China!


Chinese currency

China’s national currency is a little confusing. Officially, it’s called the Remnimbi (¥), but is also referred to as the Yuan (CNY). Then there’s the CNH, but as a tourist in China you won’t have to worry about that. Hong Kong has the Hong Kong dollar (HKD).

  • 1 CNY converts to about $0.14 USD. Inversely, $1USD converts to 6.2 CNY.
  • 1 HKD converts to about $0.13 USD.

There are a few large supermarkets and stores that will accept Chinese currency in Hong Kong but the exchange rate is bad – you are much better off transferring your CNY into HKD. Most businesses in Hong Kong won’t accept Chinese currency.


Cost of backpacking China

As you may have heard, China’s economy has been doing pretty well. This means that you won’t find prices as low as in Southeast Asia, especially not in the main cities. That said, it’s still very cheap when compared to Europe or the US, particularly if you keep some clever budget-saving tips in mind:


Usually coming in at under 30 CNY ($5), a bed in a hostel dorm is the way to go on a shoestring budget. Bear in mind that this will be closer to 50 CNY ($7) in Beijing and 90 CNY ($13) in Hong Kong. A rough amount to budget is 30 CNY ($5) per night in the countryside, up to around 174 CNY ($25 USD) per night in the cities.

For a private room, prices begin at around 130 CNY ($19 USD), though be prepared to pay almost double that in the larger cities. If you’re travelling as a couple, always check the prices for a private room, as it can sometimes be cheaper than buying two separate beds!

Make the most of the special nights that many hostels put on, such as dumpling making, BBQ’s and calligraphy classes. They’re fun and very cheap – if not free!

Beware that prices skyrocket around the New Year as well as the national holiday in autumn.

Average daily accommodation spend: 42 CNY (7 USD)


Food in China is very cheap. If you really wanted to eat on a shoe-string budget, you could stick to the (surprisingly good) instant noodles and spend about 5 CNY per meal, but where would be the fun in that? Amazing food can be had from street vendors for under a dollar – for this you might get noodles, soup, steamed buns or dumplings. A full meal in a sit-down restaurant will cost between 18-50 CNY ($3-7) per person.

backpacking china - food

If you’re on a budget the best advice (as always) is to stick to local cuisine. It’s not difficult to spend less than 60 CNY ($9) on an entire day’s worth of food. If you’re outside of the main tourist hubs, you can halve that figure. If you simply must have Western food, prepare to spend way more money and be sorely disappointed. While a Chinese breakfast will cost you about 10 CNY ($1.50), a Western-style breakfast is likely to set you back about 40 CNY ($6) and be nowhere near as tasty.

In China, it’s fun to eat in a group where you can order a selection of dishes and try each one. Since the portions are big, it often works out cheaper this way. If you’re not in a group and don’t feel like a huge meal, find a restaurant with the characters ?? (Xiao Chi). Although this technically translates to ‘snacks’, it’s really a restaurant that serves single meals rather than the typical family style dining. Tips in restaurants are not expected.

Average daily food spend: 50 CNY (7 USD)


Beer in China is delicious as well as ridiculously cheap, even more so than in many Southeast Asian countries. Local brands cost about $0.30 a bottle at the store. Western beers like Budweiser are about three times as much. Wine and cocktails are comparable to Western prices, as is coffee.

Local liquor like Baijiu (a strong, clear spirit) varies widely in price and quality. The cheapest type of Baijiu comes in small bottles and can cost as little as 2-5 CNY ($0.30-0.70). If you’re tempted, don’t be – it tastes like paint-stripper and can potentially be bad for you. On the other hand, more expensive, high-quality brands can go for over 1,000 CNY ($144) per bottle.

If you’re on a budget, stick to beer and the delicious jasmine tea often served for free in restaurants.

Average daily drinks spend: 20 CNY (3 USD)


Visiting sights and landmarks is affordable in China. The most recent prices for popular attractions are as follows:

  • Great Wall of China: The priciest section to enter is Jinshanling, at 65 CNY ($9) in the high season and 55 CNY ($8) in the low season.
  • The Forbidden City: 40 CNY ($6) in the low season and 60 CNY ($9) in the high season.
  • Terracotta Warriors: The most expensive at 120 CNY ($17) in the low season and 150 CNY ($22) in the high season.

Using a student card will usually get you 50% off all entrance fees!

A tour to the Great Wall can be arranged from most hostels in Beijing, and will range from around 200 CNY ($29) and up depending on what’s included. You’re better off getting a slightly more expensive one with pick up/drop off and lunch as this will work out cheaper than getting them separately.

backpacking china - great wall

? @zukiniz

Prices for hikes and outdoor activities in National Parks and Forests tend to be more expensive in China. Recent admission prices for the following parks were:

  • Jiuzhaigou National Park: 80 CNY ($12) in low season and 220 CNY ($32) in high season. It’s then an additional 90 CNY ($13) for the bus that gets you around.
  • Wuyi Mountains in Fujian province: 190 CNY ($27) in low season to 210 CNY ($30) in high season with entrance and bus.
  • Huangshan in Anhui province: 150 CNY ($24) in low season and 240 CNY ($30) in high season.
  • Jade Dragon Snow Mountain: 170 CNY ($24)
  • Zhangjiajie National Park in Hunan province 248 CNY ($36) in high season and 140 CNY ($20) in low season.

Average daily spend (spread out to include a couple of national parks per week): 60 CNY (9 USD)


Transport will probably be your biggest expense. Even though individually the forms of transport in China are pretty cheap, it’s a massive country, so if you want to make the most of it you’ll have to be prepared to roll out some Remnimbi.

Average daily spend: varies – transport costs are explained in more detail above.

Excluding the cost of transport, you can manage on a shoestring budget of $30 USD a day. For a more comfortable backpacking experience, budget for about $50. Allow for a bit more if spending a lot of time in bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai and a sizeably bigger budget for Hong Kong.


Best places to visit in China

Forbidden City

Built in the 1400’s during the Ming Dynasty, Beijing’s Forbidden City was the exclusive home of emperors and their families and staff for over 500 years. The Imperial Palace boasts a mind-blowing 980 buildings with almost 9,000 rooms. Fires and looting mean that much of the original opulence of the interior is no more, but the sheer scale of the palace exterior with its golden roofs and blazing red and yellow design is impressive.

The Forbidden City got its name because entering the palace without invitation was exactly that, and the penalty paid was severe. Likewise, any of the Forbidden City’s inhabitants were not allowed to leave. Ironically, it’s now of the most-visited places on earth since it opened its doors to the public in 1925, welcoming up to 140,000 visitors a day.

backpacking china - forbidden city

? @zukiniz

Tips and Info:

  • Price: 200 – 400 CNY ($29 – 58) for tour guides. Audio guides cost 40 CNY ($6). Unless you’re a real history buff I’d recommend the audio guides as you can go at your own pace and they are sometimes more reliable.
  • Allow the better part of a day to explore the site – it’s an entire city after all. Restaurants and ATM’s can be found within the grounds. Consider staying until closing time to enjoy the site as the crowds clear out.
  • Make sure you check out the birds-eye view of the Imperial Palace from Jinshang Park.

Xi’an and the Terracotta Army

Discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well, the Terracotta Army is made up of thousands of life-sized soldiers, officers, horses and chariots, each representing the armies of Qin She Huang, the first emperor of China. Each soldier has its own distinctive facial features, uniform and weapons, and is believed to have been made to protect the emperor in the after-life. After laying underground for over 2,000 years, this archaeological discovery was the most sensational of the 20th century and is now a UNESCO heritage site.

Your launchpad for visiting the army is likely to be neighbouring Xi’an, the easternmost stop on the semi-mythical silk road, where merchant caravans transported silk and other goods into the Middle East. Trade of goods also resulted in a trade of religious and philosophical ideas, which you can learn about in one of China’s largest history museums, the Shaanxi history museum, as well as at the 8th Century Great Mosque in the bustling Muslim quarter.

Great Wall of China

One of the new Seven Wonders of the World, The Great Wall is without doubt China’s most iconic monument and an awe-inspiring feat of ancient defensive engineering. Starting in Liaonang province, the wall hugs the peaks and troughs of the mountains, winding through Beijing and across 13,000 miles of Chinese countryside before reaching the unforgiving Gobi Desert, where only its crumbling, wind-blasted ruins remain.

Contrary to what most people think, the wall is not a continuous entity. Built originally to protect against invading tribes from the North, vast sections of it are formed of natural barriers like rivers or precipitous mountains that didn’t need further defence. Construction occurred haphazardly over 2,000 years and the best preserved sections – built during the Ming dynasty – are easily accessible from central Beijing.

backpacking china - great wall people

? @zukiniz

Tips and info:

Most travellers and tour guides opt for the most accessible and best-preserved part of the wall nearest Beijing, but this is by far the most crowded section. With the exception of Jiankou, the further the sections are from Beijing, the less crowded they tend to be. Here’s a short breakdown of the sections:

  • Badaling: 1.5-hour drive from Beijing. Well-preserved, easy to climb, has a cable car and is very crowded.
  • Mutianyu: 2-hour drive from Beijing. Slightly less tame than Badaling but well-preserved and very slightly steeper. It has a cable car and a toboggan. It’s less crowded than Badaling but more crowded than the other sections
  • Jiankou: 2-hour drive from Beijing. Totally unrestored and retains its original appearance, meaning it’s the most strenuous section and professional hiking gear is a must. It has no amenities and very few tourists.
  • Simatai: 2.5-hour drive from Beijing. Less restored yet well preserved with one intact section and a wilder location with soaring hawks and pine trees. Prepare for some steep, challenging climbs. It has a chair lift and toboggan. You’ll encounter a few tourists
  • Jinshanling: 2 hours from Beijing. Well-preserved and has the most dense gathering of watch towers. It’s not especially challenging but you may have to make the odd climb. It has a cable car and you may encounter a few tourists.

Chengdu Panda Bear Research Centre

Chengdu – the capital of China’s Sichuan region – is considered the ‘hometown’ of the endangered Giant Panda bear. There are a few places you can see these wildly cute animals, but the not-for-profit Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is the most popular. The base is 96% green, open-air space which imitates the panda’s natural habitat and provides space for them to roam around. The base also has a research building, veterinarian, museum and activity fields and houses other rare animals such as the equally cute red panda and the black and white-necked cranes.

Signs around the site point out the names and individual characteristics of each panda, as well as explaining a bit about their precarious situation. One major reason for panda endangerment is that pandas are very fussy eaters that refuse to eat anything other than bamboo, so they often don’t get enough energy from their food. This explains why they eat lying down and quite literally roll themselves from place to place. They also have very high standards – not only does it have to be a specific type of bamboo, it must also be super fresh. They’ll turn their noses up at wilted leaves or stalks that are the wrong kind of green.

backpacking china - panda


Tips and info:

  • Price: 58 CNY ($8)
  • If you want to see the pandas when they’re not just rolling from one snoozing spot to another, it’s a good idea to go in the morning when the handlers bring out the first meal of the day. You’ll see them happily munching their breakfast, playfully wrestling, climbing trees and falling off them. You’ll also have a head-start over the crowds.

Yangshuo & Guilin

Once a peaceful, rural town just outside the city of Guilin, Yangshuo is now a hub for backpackers who come to enjoy the other-worldly scenery and karst mountains of the surrounding countryside. For centuries the Li River has inspired scroll-painters and poets who have tried to capture the views of the misty green valleys, bamboo groves and forest-covered karsts.

backpacking china - Yangshuo & Guilin


Tips and info:

  • Take a bamboo raft down the Li river (avoid the crowded tour boats) and float past the breathtaking scenery and picturesque villages. Rent a bike and ride back through the peaceful plains and farming villages.
  • Price: Prices for a hotel transfer from Guilin to Yangshuo and a bamboo ride range from 50 – 200 CNY ($7-29).
  • Guilin and Yangshuo becoming popular with backpackers means that many locals speak English and there are plenty of cheap accommodation options.


Lhasa – which in Tibetan means ‘place of the gods’ – is one of the most spiritually and politically important cities in Tibet, as well as being one of the highest elevated in the world at 3,500 meters (11,500 feet). Despite the Chinese presence, Lhasa has managed to retain much of its unique culture. It is home to the Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama and houses a beautiful display of traditional Tibetan architecture. Built more than 360 years ago, the palace’s red and white walls and golden roof rise majestically from the Red Hill on which it stands. It is made up of two parts: The White Palace, the Dalai Lama’s residence and the Red Palace, where religious study and ritual took place. The interior is a treasure trove of historical, religious and cultural Tibetan artefacts, including Buddhist statues, antiques, sculptures, murals and religious jewellery.

Tips and Info:

  • Always check most recent regulations when travelling to Tibet.
  • Beware that Tibet is closed to foreign travellers for 5-6 weeks between February and March for the Tibetan New Year.
  • The Potala Palace only admits a limited number of visitors a day, so arrange to arrive at the ticket counter early or reserve a trip with a local tour or agency.

Huangshan/Yellow Mountains

Scroll painters have spent centuries trying to capture the ethereal beauty of the Huangshan ‘yellow’ mountains, with their surreal, beautiful granite peaks and twisted pine trees silhouetted against the mist. Myth has it that China’s supernatural ancestor, the Yellow Emperor, resides within the mountains

backpacking china - Huangshan/Yellow Mountains

? @zukiniz

Equally as impressive is the human ingenuity behind the dizzying staircases and pathways that have been built directly into the mountains. You can either take a cable car to the top or hike the steps, with the options of a shorter 3-4 hour eastern route or a 4-5 hour western route. While technically it’s possible to hike back down the same day, staying the night means the chance to see the sunrise over the misty early-morning fog.

Tips and info:

  • Easy access from Shanghai means that can Huangshan can get crowded on weekends and public holidays. Avoid these times if possible.


In the 13th century, Marco Polo declared Hangzhou as “the most beautiful and elegant city in the world”. Despite the legions of tourists that visit Hangzhou due to its legendary status in China and its proximity to Shanghai, it still offers glimpses of the old China. Peaceful lake panoramas dotted with pagodas, landscaped gardens, arched bridges and teahouses have earned Hangzhou the title of China’s “paradise on earth”. Each season brings with it a different natural spectacle – plum trees in winter, peach blossoms in the spring and orange-scented acacia in the autumn. Its willow-lined banks create the perfect vignette for a Chinese watercolour painting.

backpacking china - Hangzhou

? @zukiniz

Tips and info

  • Easy access from Shanghai means that can Hangzhou can get crowded on weekends and public holidays. Avoid these times if possible.

Jiuzhagou National Park

Nestled in the snow-capped Min mountains of China’s Sichuan province, Jiuzhagou National Park looks like something out of a fairytale. Lush green forests, rushing waterfalls with countless tiers and piercingly turquoise lakes with water so clear that you can see every leaf at the bottom. The high calcium carbonate content of these glacial waters makes them some of the brightest and clearest in the world.

Tips and info:

  • At the time of writing, Jiuzhagou is currently closed due to flooding and infrastructure damage and the re-opening time is as yet unclear.
  • While off-the-trail hiking and exploring is permitted to a point, it’s much more convenient to take the park’s hop-on hop-off bus which stops in the main scenic areas and lets you choose the sections to explore on foot.

Zhangjiajie National Park

Picture thousands of towering sandstone karsts jutting precipitously towards the sky, where the evergreen forests merge ethereally with the cloud. The karsts are so tall (the tallest, Jinbiab rock, is 380m) that often only the tips are visible through the mist, which explains why many people think Zhangjiajie is the inspiration behind the movie Avatars floating mountains.

Zhangjiajie national park isn’t just towering rock formations – expect lush, verdant forest, winding staircases built into the mountains, caves, natural bridges, plunging ravines, crystal-clear streams and tumbling waterfalls.

backpacking china - Zhangjiajie National Park

? @zukiniz

Tips and info:

  • Be sure to visit the Huangshizai scenic area (you can also get a cable car). While it looks relatively underwhelming from the map, the views are incredible. An easy walking route once at the top, the walkway leads you past various different lookouts, each one more spectacular than the last.

Hong Kong

Located off China’s southeastern coast, Hong Kong is a glittering and fast-paced commercial powerhouse. It’s where east meets west; where ancient Chinese traditions, British colonial influences and ultra-modern technology blend together to form something truly unique. Flashing skyscrapers tower above immutable colonial buildings like the Old Supreme Court and the ancient-looking boats that timelessly cruise Victoria Harbour. The fusion of cultures can be seen in the architecture, lifestyle and perhaps most clearly in the food. While western commercial dining options abound, you can also wander through chaotic market stalls past spiky, strange-looking fruit, desiccated fish products and dark coloured eggs that look like they’re boiling in tar.

backpacking china - hong kong


Hong Kong particularly comes alive at night, when walking around the city feels like being in a sci-fi movie or videogame. Some areas – the functionally named Central and Mid-Levels – connect vertically rather than horizontally, reached by a network of interconnecting outdoor escalators, with drop offs on the way to access tiny noodle or dim sum stalls with flickering neon signs.

Tips and info:

  • The view from Victoria Peak at night, Hong Kong’s highest point, is awe-inspiring, with the fluorescent lights of the sprawling city piercing hazily through the inky fog.
  • While Hong Kong contains the world’s highest concentration of skyscrapers and one of the highest population densities, country parks account for 40% of its total area. You can enjoy mountain hikes, green parks and even tropical beaches, so pack accordingly!


The largest city and financial capital of China, Shanghai is not to be missed. The city’s most recognisable image is the Bund, a waterfront boulevard along the Huangpu river that offers the perfect glimpse of old China juxtaposed against the new. Colonial buildings from the 1920s and 30s grace the west bank while the futuristic skyscrapers of Pudong tower over the other. The view is particularly awe-inspiring at night when both sides are lit up, illuminating and accentuating the architectural contrast.

backpacking china -Shanghai

? @hopewarrenx

Tips and Info:

  • Visit the enormous Shanghai Museum, which features 5,000 years’ worth of precious Chinese art and antiquities. It’s also in the shape of an ancient Chinese cooking pot!

Lijiang, Dali & Tiger-Leaping Gorge


In the shadow of the Cangshan mountain and on the shores of the Erhai Lake, Dali is a popular destination for Chinese city-dwellers desperate for some blue skies and fresh air. Even though it can get crowded, being at the very border of mainland China and the furthest extremities of the Himalayas makes Dali feel mysteriously remote, like a pit stop en route to the mythical Shangri La.

Its houses are beautifully uniform; characteristic white buildings with slate grey rooftops that stretch for miles. Dali is also amazingly well-preserved, with a typical water-stream that tumbles peacefully down the treelined streets leading into the old town, where the buildings are framed by the surrounding mountain range.


2,000-year-old Lijiang was once the end of Tibet’s trading route between China and India and is still the cultural home of the ancient Naxi people, a matriarchal society where the women go to work at the market stalls and inherit property while the men stay home to look after the children. With its 12th century Cobblestone streets, canals, alleyways, and old Naxi houses, Lijiang is undoubtedly beautiful, but this also means that it’s incredibly crowded.

The most popular walking route in Old Lijiang leads to the Black Dragon Pond Park, with its spectacular view of the region’s highest mountain, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The backdrop of the mountain against the white marble bridge and Moon-Embracing pavilion is particularly stunning.

Lijiang is the perfect gateway to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is a 3-day hike (22 km) from Qiaotao usually ending at Tina’s guesthouse in Shangri-La. Carved out by the raging rapids of the Jinsha river, the Tiger Leaping gorge massifs peak at almost 4,000m above water level, making it one of the steepest and most spectacular canyons in the world.

Tips and Info:

  • The official entrance to Jade Dragon Snow mountain is 130 CNY ($17), but then it’s an additional 180 CNY ($23) to get the cable car to the Glacier Park at the very top. There are two other cheaper cable car routes if you’re not fussed about going all the way to the top. Some people making their way to the top will suffer from altitude sickness, so it’s recommended to purchase an oxygen canister before boarding the cable car as the ones sold on the mountain cost five times as much.
  • Admission fee to Tiger Leaping Gorge: 65 CNY ($9).
  • Be sure to visit the Upper Gorge. It’s a little further up from the start of the trek but is worth the extra walk for the spectacular views. Once you’re back on the trail, take the upper trail path – the lower trail follows the river and is pleasant but not as impressive. You will find plenty of guesthouses along the way.


Backpacking China itineraries

Backpacking China 2 week itinerary

Days 1-4: Beijing

Days 5-6: Xian

Days 7-8: Guilin and Yangshuo

Days 9-11: Hong Kong

Days 11-13: Shanghai

backpacking china - itineraries

Kowloon, Hong Kong ? @hopewarrenx


Backpacking China 3 week itinerary

Days 1-4 Beijing

Days 4-6 Xian

Days 7-9 Shanghai

Days 9-12 Yangshuo & Guilin

Days 13 – 14 Kunming (take the 20-minute train to the Stone Forest)

Days 15-17 Dali OR Skip Dali and spend an extra day in Lijiang to visit Jade Dragon Snow mountain

Day 17-19 Lijiang

Day 19-21 Hong Kong

If you’re keen on cities: The same itinerary with one week in Hangzhou and Huangshan after Shanghai.


Backpacking China 3 week nature lover’s itinerary

If you’re keen on nature and don’t mind skipping one of the cities

Days 1-3 Hong Kong

Days 3-6 Yangshuo and Guilin

Days 6-8 Kunming (take the 20-minute train to the Stone Forest)

Days 8-12 Dali and Lijiang OR skip Dali and visit the Jade Dragon mountain and Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Days 12-14 Chengdu

Days 14-18 Zhangjiajie National Park

Days 18-21 Beijing OR Shanghai

backpacking china - monkey

? @zukiniz

Chinese culture

Chinese food

You can forget pu pu platters and fortune cookies, because apart from what you might find in the Canton region (around Hong Kong), the food in China will be nothing like what you’re used to having back home. The reason Cantonese cuisine feels more familiar is due to the high number of people that emigrated from the region to countries outside of China, spreading their traditions as they went.

Food varies widely from region to region, with only one culinary certainty to unite all Chinese people – their unwavering love of food.

While there are countless regional and sub-regional variations, it can generally be said that there are four main Chinese cuisines: Shandong (North), Jiansu (East), Guangdong/Cantonese (South), and Sichuan (West).

Shandong cuisine: Rather than rice, food from Shandong largely features dishes made with wheat flour, like noodles, dumplings, or thin pancakes.

Signature dish: Peking duck. This Beijing favourite is made up of roasted duck and strips of crispy duck skin wrapped in thin pancakes, usually served with sliced cucumber, spring onions and hoisin soup. (Peking was the name of Beijing until after the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, and the dish is still known in much of the west by this name).

backpacking china - Chinese food

? @zukiniz

Try it at: Many Beijing restaurants will claim to have the best peking duck. Try it at Jingzun Peking Duck Restaurant.

Jiansu cuisine: Emphasis on seafood and strong-flavored sauces. While the sauces may be strong, fish and meat are seasoned sparingly, so as not to overwhelm the natural flavours. This means that its signature dishes are aromatic, slightly salty and moderately sweet.

Signature dish: Sweet and sour deep-fried Mandarin Fish, also known as Mandarin squirrel-shaped fish. The dish is arranged so that the fried fish meat looks like spiky scales. It’s covered in a bright orange sauce made up of vinegar and ketchup.

Try it at: Shunfeng Gangwan in Shanghai.

Guangdong cuisine: Famous for its steamed dishes, soups, barbecue, fried rice and lightly-seasoned stir-fry dishes. It’s widely regarded as being the most intricate of the Chinese cuisines.

Signature dish: Egg roll.

Try it at: Duck Shing Ho in Hong Kong.

backpacking china - Guangdong cuisine

? @hopewarrenx

Sichuan cuisine: Known for its oily and often very spicy dishes made with (lots of) hot peppers, garlic, onions and leeks. The spiciness comes from the use of the huajiao or numbing pepper, which causes a numbing rather than a burning sensation.

Typical dish: A popular dish even outside of China, Kung Pao chicken is made with chicken, peanuts, vegetables and chili peppers.

Try it at: Chen Mapo Tofu in Chengdu.


Chinese food culture

  • Chinese dining etiquette is in some ways the opposite to that in the west. Slurping and general boisterousness when eating demonstrates an appreciation of the food, and finishing a meal is traditionally considered rude as it suggests a lack of generosity on the host’s part. Unnecessary politeness can be dispensed with and it’s not unusual to hear shouts for ‘waiter, bring me water’ (?????????- fú wù yuán! lái y? b?i shu?!) without all the additional pleases and thank you.
  • Eating out in China is a very social affair, so much so that it can sometimes be hard to find a small-sized table for two people. Either at home or in a restaurant, a dish is never served to just one person. Each person has his or her own plate, but everyone at the table shares.In many restaurants the dishes are placed on a Lazy Susan and spun around the table. The courses are many and usually start with a selection of cold dishes, followed by main dishes, staples, soup and finally dessert. Big groups mean that meals can also involve a lot of drinking – both of beer and strong spirits (baijiu).
  • Chinese people love meat and there’s hardly any animal or part of any animal that they won’t eat. Historically it was believed that eating animal organs would benefit a person’s corresponding organs – eating brain would make you intelligent, eating heart would contribute to a healthy heart and eating animal penis would…you get the gist. There’s even a restaurant in Beijing dedicated entirely to serving animal penis and it’s incrediblypopular and pricey!
  • Tea, which is offered free at most restaurants, is China’s national beverage. The most popular types — black, green, and oolong—are usually drunk plain without milk or sugar.
  • Be prepared for some hilarious mistranslations on your (usually enormous) menu – my favourites were ‘acid meat beans respiratory droplets’ and ‘Jane’s Face’.


China religion

As a communist country China has no official religion and a 2015 poll reported that 90% of Chinese citizens would classify themselves as non-religious. The Chinese Constitution states that people are allowed to practice any religion they want – although the only legally recognised religions are Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism.

Religious sentiment is difficult to measure since religion and philosophy are often closely intertwined in China, particularly when it comes to Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Folk religion, which many Chinese people adhere to, is also characterised by broad beliefs in salvation, veneration of ancestors and the natural world that aren’t necessarily associated with classical religion.


The major religion in China is Taoism, an ancient philosophical religion founded by Lan Tu sometime in the 3rd or 4th century BCE. Taoism focuses on the need to live in harmony with the ‘Tao’, which is the source and substance of all existence. Taoism is difficult to describe since its very ‘goal’ is to not focus on achieving goals but to ‘flow’ with life and discover and embrace one’s true self. Taoism focuses on the ’three treasures’: humility, compassion and frugality. Unlike Confucianism, it does not focus on social order or ritualistic norms.


Buddhism was first brought over to China by Indian monks almost 2,000 years ago where it merged with native Taoism and folk religion. It has the widest influence of any religion in China. Ancient Buddhism was taught by Buddha and involved reaching Enlightenment through meditation, a notion which has countless different interpretations according to each different sect. In the cultural revolution of the 1960s many temples were destroyed in an attempt to eradicate all religion, but Buddhism in China is growing once more in popularity. The majority of Buddhists in China are Han Chinese, though Tibetans also make up a large number.


Although not strictly a religion, Confucianism is widely followed in China. It is based on the ethical and philosophical teachings of Confucius, who lived more than 2,500 years ago.

The main principle of Confucianism is ‘ren’ (“humaneness” or “benevolence”), which is equivalent to the concepts of love, mercy, wisdom, trustworthiness and humanity. Confucianism is essentially about a person’s relationship with society, where the family is situated at the very centre, before one’s self. The way to achieve this way of life is through ‘Li’, a set of ritual norms and rules for interaction with others. Control of emotions, good manners, obedience to authority and maintaining “face” are highly valued and important. Confucianism has had a huge impact on Chinese civilisation and the wider history of human thought.

backpacking china - tree and sky

? @zukiniz

Secular celebrations and Festivals

Festivals are rich and colourful. The most important of these is the Spring Festival – AKA Chinese New Year, which you’ll be familiar with for the custom of naming each year after an animal. It is celebrated by over a fifth of the world’s population and usually features spectacular fireworks and colourful dragon parades.

  • 1st January – New Year’s Day
  • January 28th – Chinese New Year (dates can vary – takes place in 12th lunar month of the Chinese calendar)
  • January 29th – Spring festival golden week holiday
  • April 5th (or 15th day of the spring equinox) – Qing Ming Jie holiday
  • May 1st – Labour Day
  • May 28th – Dragon boat festival
  • October 1st – National Golden Week holiday
  • October 4th – Mid-Autumn festival



China language

The common language of China is Mandarin. Spoken by more than 800 million people, it’s by far the most widely spoken language on Earth. Cantonese is also spoken by about 60 million people in Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau. In addition to these, China has an incredible 56 recognized ethnic groups, each with their own dialects, which are for the most part not mutually understandable.

For many of us who use the Latin alphabet, Chinese feels like an intimidatingly difficult language to get our heads around. Unlike the Latin alphabet, individual Chinese characters represent not only sounds but specific meanings. Even when words are broken down phonetically into Pinyin using Latin characters, they are subject to tones (represented by the symbols à, ?, ?, and á) which must be pronounced correctly. Take this phrase for example:

M?m? qí m?. M? màn, m?m? mà m?.

This translates to ‘Mother is riding a horse. The horse is slow, mother scolds the horse.’

I first realised the importance of tones when I asked for soup (T?ng) at a restaurant and was presented with a bowl of sugar (Táng).

While learning Chinese characters undoubtedly involves a long, difficult process of memorisation, learning to speak Chinese (once you’ve mastered tones) is in some ways easier than learning to speak Roman languages. Chinese can be fascinatingly logical in it’s structure.

For example, Chinese words are often built up out of other, simpler words, like constructing a sentence out of Lego.

owl = cat head eagle ???

panda = bear cat ??

chameleon = color change dragon ???

expensive = sky price ??

volcano = fire mountain ??

potato = soil bean ??

radio = receive sound machine ???

university = big learning ??

phone = electric speech ??

computer = electric brain ??

Also, whereas most languages have a past and future tense, in Chinese there are no verb tenses or prepositions, meaning that once you’ve mastered the vocabulary you can pretty much go straight ahead and start putting sentences together. Remember how annoying it was to memorise all the verb endings for past and future tenses in French and Spanish lessons? Well, with Chinese you don’t have to do any of that!

Unlike English, the form of a Chinese verb never changes, regardless of whether it’s past future or present tense. In English the verb ‘drink’ will become ‘drank’ for past tense, but the Chinese verb (? h?) remains the same.

So how does the person you’re speaking to know you’re talking about something that occurred in the past, or is yet to occur?

Much of the Chinese language is to do with context, so using the word ‘yesterday’ already implies that something happened in the past. To communicate that you did something yesterday (rather than saying you wish you had for example) you add the word (participle) le ?after the verb, to show that you completed that thing.

The phrase would be: Yesterday I eat in the canteen (le?)!


backpacking china - bike


So how do I get by without knowing Chinese in China?

Okay, so that’s all well and good but you don’t speak fluent Chinese yet – so how will you get by in China? Apart from knowing some key phrases (below), translation apps will be your best friend and provide assurance that you’re not eating pickled duck intestine for every meal (that may or may not be a good thing).

Google Translate

Google Translate is probably the best all-rounder when it comes to travel apps. Accurate and comprehensive, it offers text and voice translations and works offline. The latest version also has an OCR (optical character recognition) function where you can translate text by just pointing your screen to it, though you have to be online to use this feature. Google Translate does not require a VPN to work in China.

Price: Google translate is totally free.


One of the most popular and accurate two-way translation apps available. The most basic version is essentially a dictionary. It offers a reliable translator of English words and phrases that is very accurate and also works with pinyin. Pleco also offers several paid add-ons, including an OCR add-on that translates text via your smartphone camera on the spot and a hand-writing add-on that will recognise characters you draw by hand on your phone screen (both English and Chinese).

The best part is that Pleco is a dictionary database, so you don’t need the internet to access it.

Price: The basic dictionary function is free. The OCR add-on costs $14.99 and the handwriting add-on costs $9.99.


Waygo can translate Chinese menus and signs into English and it’s super-easy to use – just hover over the characters with your screen and translate! Waygo’s best feature is that its character recognition feature doesn’t require you to be online – so the next time you find yourself ordering at a restaurant with no WiFi you don’t just have to close your eyes, point, and hope for the best anymore! If you’re on a budget and travelling without data roaming then Waygo is a handy app to have.

Cost: You can get 10 free translations a day. In-app purchases are available at additional cost.


This handy little app might not guarantee that you’ll be fluent by the end of your trip, but it will have you knowing the basics in no time. It’s also fun, engaging and strangely addictive – a great way to wile away the hours on those long train journeys.


Getting online

SIM cards are easily purchasable in China, and while you won’t be able to get a Chinese phone number, there are some very cheap 4G data roaming packages available for foreigners. Make sure your phone is unlocked and simply buy a SIM when you get to China – you’ll find them at the airport, metro stations, hostels and convenience stores. Make sure you have your passport with you.

A SIM card in China will cost you between 100 – 200 CNY and you will likely spend less on a Chinese data roaming package than an International one.


Essential phrases:

Helllo – Ni Hao – pronounced ‘knee how’

Thank You – Xie Xie – pronounced ‘shie’r shie’r’ (sort of)

How are you? –  N? h?o ma – pronounced ‘knee how ma’

Good/OK – H?o – pronounced ‘how’

Not good/OK – Bù h?o – pronounced ‘boo how’

How Much? Duoshau qian – pronounced ‘duoshau keeyarn’

Bill – Maidan – pronounced ‘my dan’

backpacking china - baskets

? @zukiniz

China vaccines

China does not require any particular vaccines unless you are arriving from a country that has a high risk of yellow fever, from which you’ll need proof of immunisation. The CDC and WHO recommend the following vaccines for China: typhoid, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, polio and influenza, particularly if travelling to rural areas of China for extended periods of time.

China time zone

There is only one time zone in China – the Standard China Time (GMT + 8)

Keep reading ?? 

⭐ 15 places to visit in China that aren’t Bejiing

⭐ Best hostels in China

⭐ Things to do in Bejiing

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