China is a unique backpacking destination and offers an exciting culture, great scenery and a fascinating travel experience. Therefore, you should be well prepared for a backpacking China journey, because the country is not only very different from Europe, but also from the other travel destinations in Asia. I’ve traveled to China for a whole month and I’ll tell you more about the best and most important China travel tips so that you’re well prepared for your China backpacking adventure.
Do research regarding your Chinese visa
To enter China you need a visa. To apply for the visa can be a bit complicated, so you should take care of it at an early stage. The “problem” is that you have to present all information, such as hotel bookings and flight bookings, for your visa application. This unfortunately takes some of your flexibility in this case. My tip for China: Book your accommodation through a website like booking.com, where you can cancel the bookings afterwards as soon as you receive the confirmation emails which you need for the visa application.
The application process depends on your home country and your nationality. You can do it on your own (I did it), or you can use a visa agency. In the latter case, you pay a few Euros more, but you get support by experts to make sure that everything is fine with your application and that all your documents are complete. Whatever you do, just don’t wait until last minute for the application.
By the way: If you’re only transiting in China, you might not need a visa (depending on the time horizon and the airport).
Get a VPN client in advance to access the internet in China
The Internet in China is for the most part limited and blocked. Many apps and websites that you use here every day can not be easily accessed in China. These include, for example, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and even Google, Wikipedia and GoogleMaps. Generally, all the pages, networks and apps that most people use every day don’t work when backpacking China.
But don’t worry, you do not have to live without social media and Google in China. Because there is a way to overcome the censorship, allowing you to use the internet as you do at home. To access the internet freely in China, you need to pre-load and install a VPN client on your phone or computer. You can also read more in my extensive article about the internet in China.
What is a VPN and why do I need it?
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is an application that allows you to bypass this Internet blockage. Because activating the VPN on your laptop or smartphone pretends that you are in a different location (in this case in another country) and you are not affected by the censorship. For example, you can chose the US as your location and the VPN will pretend that you’re using your device in the US.
I won’t go in detail regarding the technical details (and won’t understand them either), but a VPN client is incredibly important for your China backpacking trip.
Which China VPN can you recommend?
There are many VPN providers on the market and some are even free to use. However, keep in mind that the quality of your VPN is very important. Because many free VPNs will cause you problems, often they do not working properly and are unreliable. For example, I had a lot of problems with a free VPN app in Ethiopia, since it only worked every now and then, but most of the time it didn’t.
Therefore, I advice to invest a few euros in a good VPN service. I recommend ExpressVPN – this is one of the best, most reliable and most popular VPN providers, which is also tailored specifically for China. With ExpressVPN, you also have a customer care service around the clock in case of problems, as well as a 30-day “money-back guarantee”.
Very important: Many VPNs can not be downloaded as soon as you are in China (because it’s blocked in the local internet). That’s why you should download and install a VPN service in advance!
The language barrier is huge – have a translation service ready
There were not many countries in the world where communicating with locals was as difficult as it was in China. The language barrier is huge! Therefore, it is important that you prepare in advance and have a good translator with you. If you use a VPN service (see above) you can also access Google and use Google Translate, which will be very helpful for your backpacking China trip.
Be prepared for the different climates
China is huge, diverse and characterized by very different climatic zones. Especially in winter it can be incredibly cold in the interior and in the north (also in Beijing)! Here you should not forget very warm clothes. In summer, however, it is also incredibly hot and in some parts already tropical. China is therefore characterized by a continental climate with very extreme temperatures. Depending on your itinerary and travel time, you should be well prepared for it.
The air pollution is a real issue when backpacking China
As you know, China has a huge problem with smog and pollution of the air. This is a real issue and something we are not used to from Europe luckily. Pollution varies in intensity depending on the city and period, and it is not clear in advance how extreme the problem really is. However, you should expect that the sun is often covered by deep smog in the big cities. This should of course not stop you from a trip to China! Sure, the pollution is certainly not healthy, but as a tourist you are only for a few days in each place. What may be worthwhile is the purchase of a face mask. This may look a bit strange and unfamiliar, but it is quite normal in China and you will see many locals wearing those masks on the streets. You can find a current overview of the air quality here.
Is backpacking China safe?
In general, I would say that China is safe for tourists. The state is doing its best to keep a close eye on the citizens, which is creepy – but pays off when it comes to crimes. The security measures are also very high in the country, for example you have to pass a security check in front of every train station, airport and even metro stations in the big cities. In the past, unfortunately, China also had issues with terrorist attacks and extreme groupings. However, I would not worry as a tourist.
Another important travel tip for China: Pay attention to your valuables, especially in the big cities such as Beijing, because there is a real danger of pickpockets. Especially, you should pay attention in the metro in Beijing – my friend’s belly bag got sliced in the crowded metro!
Budget for China: Is backpacking in China expensive?
Generally, China is a cheap travel destination. For just a few Euros you can eat, get basic accommodation or a taxi ride. Note, however, that it can get a bit more expensive in the big cities (especially Shanghai). For example, in Shanghai there are some upscale sky bars and clubs where prices are skyrocketing.
In general, you also pay a lot more for western items (such as western food) than for Chinese products.
Use the high-speed trains to get around the country
China is a huge travel destination and therefore it can be a bit time consuming to get from one place to another. In general, however, you have various options with which you can get through the country efficiently. In China, of course, there are countless domestic flights, which are good for longer distances. Keep in mind, however, that these flights can often be late and unreliable – some flexibility on your backpacking journey is necessary.
A very special experience in China are the train rides, especially the high-speed trains. These “Bullet Trains” sometimes have a speed of over 400 km / h! This will allow you to cover long distances in a short amount of time. Note, however, that buying tickets yourself or finding your way around the train station can be a bit tricky. A great overview of train travel in China can be found here.
Do your research regarding the local holidays (Chinese New Year!)
What you should pay attention to during your travel planning are the Chinese holidays, especially the Chinese New Year. Because at that time, the whole country is literally moving, as everyone drives home to his/her family. This not only leads to increased prices and chaos at train stations and airports, but tickets can often be sold out months in advance. Therefore, if possible, you should avoid the major holidays and vacations in China and if this is not possible, at least plan ahead.
Everyone wants to take pictures of you
If you look Western (or just non-Chinese), you will get lots of attention and everyone wants to take pictures of you! For some reason, the Chinese find it great to take photos of foreigners and put them on their social media (I was told these shots would get the most “likes” and make the person publishing them very popular…).
Especially in tourist places, where I least expect it (for example, in Beijing) I could hardly save myself from cameras. The reason? Many families from the deepest provinces will make a trip to Beijing once in their lifetime, and for them it will really be the first time to see foreigners. That’s why they are so excited! I’m already used to being photographed a lot – it was the same in India or Java, Indonesia. However, what I did not like in China was that many people just do not ask at all and directly hold a huge camera in front of your face, take the shot and walk away without saying a word. At the beginning it’s weird, but at some point it’s just annoying and rude.
And this brings us to the next travel tip…
The “western manners” don’t exist in China
There is no way to say it in a polite way – in China you will often be shocked by the locals. Because the locals burp, fart and spit as much as they can – no kidding! What is considered as manners or customs in the Western world does not exist in China. Often you will also see Chinese people simply doing their bathroom needs in public without any embarrassments.
I will never forget the moment when I walked into a public toilet and was shocked to see 10 Chinese men in their respective cabins squatting with doors wide open.
Another example? In China, there are extra trousers for children, with the back part of the pants cut out and thus open. Like this, children can conveniently go for a dump anywhere. For example, I was in show when a woman in a public train station simply held her child over the trash can, so that it could empty itself!
There is nothing in China that does not exist.
Food in China: Dishes are shared and people eat with lots of noise
In China you eat differently than in the west. Because here it is very unusual that everyone orders separate dished. Instead, different dishes (different vegetables, meat, etc.) are placed on a round plate in the middle of the table and food is shared. By the way, the tabletop can be move around so that everyone can enjoy the different delicacies. That’s why you will quickly see that you may have problems if you want to order something on your own in a restaurant. Because the dishes are just not designed to be eaten alone. For example, if you order a spinach or chicken dish, you will not be served the menus with side dishes, it will be “just” a mountain of spinach or a mountain of meat! Therefore, it is makes sense to share different dishes.
By the way: Smacking and burping is part of the meals in China as well …
Be open and adventurous when it comes to food
Be prepared for the food when backpacking China. Things that would never be processed or cooked in other countries will certainly end up on your plate in China. For example, in meat dishes you often find feet, innards or other body parts on your plate that you would probably never eat at home.
Don’t drink the tap water when backpacking China
As in most countries in Asia, tap water should never be drunk or always boiled before doing so. Otherwise you can catch stomach problems very quickly!
Don’t expect people to be polite
You’ll soon realize that much of what we describe in Europe or America as “polite” or “good manners” does not exist in China. For example, you’ll never find locals actually lining up or giving precedence to other people. Here it only helps to adapt. Anyone who is too timid or wants to be too polite will never reach their goal in China and it will be necessary for you to push at times as well – because everyone will do so!
Western breakfast is difficult to find
Croissants, cereals and honey toast for breakfast? Not in China! Because Western breakfast does not exist in China or is very hard to find. In China, for breakfast, people eat what we imagine as a Chinese lunch or dinner – soup, noodles, rice, meat, stews. It takes some time getting used to eating hot noodle soup with beef at 7 o’clock in the morning, but it’s just “typical China”. If you can not get used to it, a supermarket will probably be the best solution, since this is where you can buy bread and pastries.
Visit more than only the big cities when backpacking around China
The country has so much to offer for backpackers and visitors. That’s why I recommend you to visit not only the classic sights and big cities, such as Beijing, the Great Wall and Shanghai. Because there is so much more to see in China! Visit Xian with the famous Terracotta Warriors, go to the pandas in Chengdu and marvel at the great scenery in Yangshuo. There is so much to see and you should definitely bring plenty of time. Keep in mind, however, that it may be very difficult to travel alone to some of those off-the-path places and tourist attractions. That’s why I traveled to China as part of the Dragon Trip – see below for more information.
China is difficult for solo backpackers: Join a fun and affordable group tour
Personally, I like traveling alone and I’m really not a fan of organized group tours. Therefore, I was already alone with my backpack for example in Colombia, Africa, Mexico, Myanmar and many other places in the world. However, traveling individually in China is not so easy due to the huge language barrier and cultural differences. Nevertheless, I wanted to see more in China than just Beijing, Shanghai and the most famous sights. That’s why I decided to go on a group trip with the “Dragon Trip“. It was the perfect mix of organized tour and individual freedom with great group of young people for an affordable price. Like this, I was able to extensively explore China for four weeks and I can only recommend this tour company trip to you.
Toilets in China: Be ready to squat and bring your own toilet paper
Toilets are a special topic in China, because Western toilets as we know them are rare here. In most places you will find a dump, where you have to squat. You should definitely bring your own toilet paper, as this is often not provided.
Negotiate and bargain all prices
In China, as in many other Asian countries, such as Thailand, you have to negotiate your prices. This is especially the case for taxi drivers and in souvenir shops. For example, a vendor wanted to sell a postcard for $ 10 to me in Beijing! Bargaining may often be difficult due to the language barrier. This is where Google Translate helps (assuming you bypass the Google blockade with a VPN – see above).
Get a local sim card for mobile internet
Although there is public Wi-Fi in China, it is often slow and unstable. That’s why I recommend you get a local sim card for mobile internet in China. This will definitely help you with research and organization of your China backpacking trip! The biggest providers are China Unicom and China Telecom. Note that the Sim cards may only work regionally and make sure you ask where you can use it when planning a larger China trip. I recommend that you buy the sim card in a place where employees are most likely to speak English – for example, at the airport or in a modern shopping mall in a big city. Because the purchase of the card is not enough, an employee must also activate the card on your mobile phone and load credit or data volume on it.
IMPORTANT: Note that the Internet in China is very limited and many websites and apps such as Google, Google Maps, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram and also Google Translate in China do not work! You can bypass the Internet censorship by downloading and installing a VPN service on your smartphone and laptop in advance (see above). I recommend ExpressVPN, one of the best and most reliable providers.
You’ll get a real cultural shock
This one should be obvious already after reading my previous backpacking China travel tips. China is completely different from Europe but also from i.e. Southeast Asia. A genuine culture shock will be unavoidable in China. Be prepared for it and enjoy it – you’ll have a lot to talk about afterwards!
Be patient, open and flexible when backpacking China
Ultimately, this is probably the most important of my China travel tips for you. China will impress, shock, annoy and fascinate you. Just be open for it. It certainly will not all go smoothly and you will certainly experience a few moments where you will run out of patience. But hold on! China is certainly not a “simple” travel destination, but a very fascinating backpacking destination. It is best to plan enough time so that you can keep your travel plans flexible for any spontaneous incidents and changes.
I hope I could prepare you well for your backpacking trip to China with my travel tips! As you can see, the country is indeed very extraordinary, fascinating and exciting. You’ll have a lot of stories to tell afterwards!
Have you already visited China? How was your experience? Let me know in the comments!