This budget guide to backpacking China will tell you everything you need to know about travelling China. From the cost of accommodation to cuisine and culture, we’ll cover it all right here! We backpacked around China for a month and lived there for 13 months, so we consider ourselves experts on this amazing country.
When backpacking China, you can expect world-class hostels, unbeatable history, second to none sights and extremely hospitable people. China is one of the most underrated travelling destinations in the world!
How Much Will Backpacking China Cost?
$75 / day for two people.
This is a very comfortable budget allowing for lots of delicious food, plenty of beer, entrance to sites and nice budget-level, private hostel room accommodation. Backpacking China is very affordable, although costs of trains and sites can add up quickly. Not only is travelling China very cheap, but so is the cost of living in China.
Budget Accommodation: ($10-$30/night)
You may be surprised at how good the hostels are in China! The staff are extremely helpful and speak great English, be sure to take advantage of this when you’re going to your next destination.
Ask the staff to write down some directions in Mandarin for you to show taxi/bus drivers to ease your travel days. The hostel rooms are always clean and comfortable, typically there are special nights (dumpling making, BBQ’s, etc.) and the hostels always have a great vibe. When backpacking China, you won’t be disappointed by the hostels!
**GOAT NOTE: Yangshuo Culture House is one of the best guest houses we’ve ever stayed at. The owner, Wei will feed you 3 delicious meals a day and treat you like family all for around $15/day/person (or less). Click here to check out the latest rates.
Eating: ($0.50 – $5 / meal)
Chinese food is best enjoyed in large groups, so if you’re backpacking China with other people, definitely go to the restaurant together, order a bunch of dishes and share them around the table.
Great dumplings, steamed buns, cold/hot noodles and soup dishes can be ordered on the street for pennies, while amazing meals in restaurants can be had for under $3. Chinese food is some of the best in the world and it’s way better in China! (Go figure)
*Note: while Westerners may find some of the food to be seriously strange, there are MANY “normal” dishes in China for you to enjoy.
Entrance Fees: (Average $15/person)
Most sites will cost around $10 – $25. The Great Wall Of China costs 45 Yuan ($7.50), The Forbidden City is 80 Yuan ($13.50), and 150 Yuan ($25) for the Terracotta Warriors. Use a student card and you can get 50% off all entrance fees.
A good tour to the Great Wall from Beijing can be arranged from most hostels in Beijing, for around 280 Yuan ($48) including pickup and drop off at the Great Wall, as well as a delicious lunch. This “tour” isn’t tacky or touristy as there is no tour guide and you are free to walk around and explore the Wall independently for 3 hours.
Alcohol: ($0.30 Big Beer, $3 Cocktails)
Beer is tasty and cheap in China. In fact, it’s the cheapest beer we’ve ever come across during our travels. The most popular brew is Tsingtao, but other beers are much cheaper.
You can get a case of 12 big bottles (650 mL) for under $5! A big beer at a restaurant is almost always under a dollar. One thing is for sure when travelling China, you’ll always be able to afford a beer at the end of the day!
DON’T TIP! There is absolutely no tipping in China. If you try to leave your change or give extra money to your taxi driver, he’ll probably just look at you in confusion. Chinese people don’t tip for ANYTHING in China so just take your change for everything you buy. They won’t understand that you’re trying to give them gratuity, they’ll just tell you to take your money.
Must-See Places When Travelling China
China is jam-packed full of amazing sights and incredible history. You could go backpacking in China for a lifetime and not see it all. But, here is a list of our favorite places (from south – north) that you should definitely try to visit while travelling China.
Hong Kong (香港) :
Hong Kong is expensive, but it’s a buzzing city with a modern vibe. There are great restaurants and bars here and the city is completely alive at night. Make sure to check out some of the ancient architecture, old towns and outlying islands as well. Hong Kong isn’t all about the nightlife!
A stunning range of rice paddies, farmland and picturesque rivers all divided by massive limestone karsts that erupt from the ground like giant fingers. Rent a bicycle and peddle around the amazing countryside, go for hikes, take a boat ride down the Yangtze river and mingle with the friendly locals. This is one of the most beautiful places to see when travelling China.
Guilin & The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces (龙胜梯田):
Another scenic Chinese city to visit when backpacking China! The main draw here is a trip out to the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces. An awe-inspiring panoramic view of shimmering rice paddies etched out of the mountainside over 500 years ago. (Tour from Guilin is 130 yuan/person for transport, check with your hostel.)
This beautiful old town in An Hui province is well worth the trip. Old architecture, narrow alleys, friendly people and great hostels make this an excellent town to visit. If you are near Shanghai and you want to see an old Chinese town, which isn’t often frequented by tourists, Túnxī is a great choice. *Note: Túnxī is the central district of Huangshan City.
This city is a sprawling metropolis of nearly 15,000,000 people. Chengdu itself has a couple of nice gardens and a beautiful (if over-restored) old town. The main draw here is a trip to Giant Panda Breeding Research Base where you can see these amazing creatures sleep, eat, sit in trees and live out their panda lives. The enclosures here are large and the pandas are well taken care of.
This non-profit research and breeding facility is one of the top centers for pandas in the world, but there is a zoo-ish feel to the complex. When backpacking China, it’s important to be aware of the mistreatment of animals at some of their “attractions”. Always do your research and decide where you want to spend your tourism dollars.
The city’s infamous skyline, old architecture and funky walking street are definitely worth a visit. Although it can often be quite polluted, Shanghai is probably the coolest big city in China. There is a lot to do here and there are some excellent restaurants. We definitely recommend a stop in the city while you’re travelling China.
Xi’an & The Terracotta Warriors (西安):
Xi’an is a very nice city with an interesting Muslim district that is well worth a visit on its own, but most people are here to see the Terracotta army.
You’ll probably hear mixed reviews on this place while backpacking China and we have no idea why! The army was created by (and buried with) the fist Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, in the year 210 B.C.
It’s an absolutely breathtaking site and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Terracotta Warriors. The intricately carved army of over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses is enormous and unbelievable to see.
Although this city can often be choked to death with horrible pollution, everyone who comes to China should definitely visit Beijing. Check out the Forbidden City, the walking streets, the National Stadium and of course, The Great Wall of China, which is a Wonder Of The World and rightly so.
8,850 km (5,500 mi) of decrepid brick structure stretches over mountains and hills from Shanhaiguan in the east, to Lop Lake in the west. A “tour” to the Great Wall from Beijing including lunch will cost you $48.
There are many different areas of the wall to visit and we recommend Mutianyu because it is less crowded and easy to find your way away from everyone. There’s much more to see in the city of Beijing itself – don’t miss it when travelling China!
Tiger Leaping Gorge (outside of Lijiang City):
The Tiger Leaping Gorge is a definite must see when backpacking China. Vertical cliffs rise dramatically from the turquoise waters to the glaciated peak of Snow Dragon Snow Mountain. The Jinsha River meanders its way through terraced farmlands and imposing limestone ridges, creating one of the most stunning backdrops to be found anywhere in China.
Must-have Experiences When Travelling China
Order Chinese Food With Chinese People:
Chinese food is absolutely delicious, but many of the best menus are in Chinese or in poorly translated English (Chinglish). When travelling China, try to meet a local family to take you out and order up some dishes. The cuisine here comes in an astonishing variety of flavours, colors and body parts. You may be like us and realize that you really enjoy duck’s blood and ox tongue!
Chinese Hot Pot:
Okay so 2 of these highlights already include food, but it’s a huge part of the culture here and hot-pot is the best way to experience Chinese food. Dip your thinly sliced meats, skewers and vegetables into a bubbling broth of herbs and spices. The best hot pots can be found in Sichuan province.
Try To Speak Mandarin:
This is an incredibly difficult language to learn! Try to learn a few phrases and surprise shop owners and taxi drivers. They’ll often get a kick out of your attempts and will love you for trying to speak their language.
Wander Around An Old Town:
Even in China’s most modern cities, you’ll find an old town. It’s amazing to see pockets of the olden day culture, trapped inside a sea of metropolitan modernity. Walk through the narrow alleys and meet friendly local people washing clothes in the canals or cooking outside. The old towns of China are a definite highlight of travelling China!
Go To KTV:
KTV is the Chinese version of karaoke and it’s a huge part of the culture here. For Chinese people, a night out will almost always end at a KTV, where they rent a room with booze and sing their hearts away to a cheesy random music video displayed on screen. Going to KTV is a great way to meet Chinese people and to have a crazy night out.
Eat Something Weird:
There are loads of crazy things on the menus here, but they almost always taste good! Try something weird and you’ll probably like it.
Go To A Garden:
Almost all of China’s cities and towns have some beautiful gardens you can stroll through. They’re a great way to get away from the city noise and polution, and enjoy some peace and quiet while surrounded by ancient architecture.
Go To A Tea House:
There are plenty of old style tea houses throughout China where you can mingle with old men and watch life go by. These tea houses also have a plethora of delicious herb drinks on the menu and often offer other strange services like ear cleaning and shoe shining.
You’ll see this game played everywhere when backpacking China. Commonly refered to as Chinese rummy, the bet at these small round tables are placed to the clatter of tiny porcelain tiles. If you can learn it, you’ll probably love it.
This toxic petroleum flavoured liquor is the shot of choice for Chinese men. The only reason I’m adding this putrid fuel to this list is because it’s a great (and often the only) way to bond with Chinese men over dinner. Gan bei! (Cheers)
Off The Beaten Path In China
China is huge!
There are over 1.3 billion Chinese people here, so the few foreign people who inhabit this country barely make a chip in the population.
You’ll see plenty of foreign faces around major tourist sites and cities but for the most part, you’ll only bump into other travellers at your hostel. In general, the western part of China is less touristy, as is the north. Plus, it’s easy to get away from the crowds in the main cities when you’re travelling China, if you just sidestep a few streets back from the popular spots.
There are hardly any westerners here and the ones who are here, live here. Yangzhou is a lovely town (we’re bias because we lived here) and it’s worth a visit for the old town, beautiful Slender West Lake Park and the friendly, inquisitive locals.
The Great Wall:
There are areas of the wall that are completely crowded and pointless to see. We met plenty of people who hiked great distances along the wall and camped along the way. Even in our short visit to Mutianyu we were able to walk far away from people and find a part of the wall to ourselves – with no one around!. If you want an off the beaten path adventure, we’d recommend hiking from Badaling to Mutianyu and spending a night on the wall in a tent or under one of the outpost huts.
Considered the “Venice Of The East“, Suzhou is a beautiful canal town with a great old district. Nowadays the boats usually patrol the waters looking to pick up Chinese tourists, but there are hardly any foreigners here and the place as a great ancient vibe.
Located just 30 minutes south of Dali, you’ll find the Muslim villages of the Dacangzhen Valley. This area is home to Yunnan’s oldest Muslim communities. This is a wonderfully offtrack place to visit, with welcoming locals. Click here to read more about getting to the Dacangzhen Valley.
Almost everywhere you go backpacking in China, you’ll have great opportunities to get off the beaten path. Get lost in old towns or ride your bike out to surrounding villages and you’ll definitely find some authentic Chinese culture. It’s a very easy place to get away from crowds, despite its immense population.
Pros Of Backpacking China
China is a great place to travel and there are plenty of reasons to come here. Many people travel here on a tour, but other than that, travelling China doesn’t really come to mind for many people.
But, it’s slowly starting to appear on the backpacker’s itinerary, and for good reason!
There’s so much to see and do in China, here are just some of the reasons why we love backpacking China!
Chinese people are full of smiles and are extremely honest. It’s one of the few places you’ll visit in the east, where you can actually trust your taxi driver to use the meter. People at markets and hotels are never out to rip you off and all those stares you get are from sheer curiosity and amazement. In our experience, the people in China are very friendly.
Chinese hostels are incredibly cool, convenient and efficient. You’ll be treated by some of the most informative staff you’ll find in any hospitality business anywhere in the world! The hostels in China are some of our favourite for sure.
It’s hard to beat China for sheer diversity and flavor of cuisine. Probably rivalled only by Indian cuisine, Chinese food is delicious and memorable. You may be surprised at how different it is from Chinese food you’ve had at home, but it’s better in every way… especially the amazing street food!
Cons Of Backpacking China
China is a great place to travel, but like everywhere, there are some cons to travelling China.
You’ll hear people raving about China both positively and negatively, but the greatness of the destination far outweighs any bad experiences you may have here.
There are just a few cons that stand out for us.
Chinese cities are surprisingly clean. The government spends a lot of time and money on landscaping and garbage control. But there are some habits that the Chinese people maintain, that make for questionable sanitation standards. You’ll often see children with holes cut out of their pants and this is not so they can use the bathrooms easier.
Chinese children are frequently encouraged to use the public world as their toilet. From super markets to restaurants, train platforms to sidewalks, you’ll see plenty of number 1’s and 2’s being left in public places. A little hard to get used to, but hey, it’s a different country…
This is an increasingly unhealthy issue for living and travelling in China. Levels of air pollution have reached record levels in recent years with air particles considered extremely hazardous to human health floating around the eastern half of the country. Check out the true Air Quality Index Here and wear a mask when it looks smoggy outside.
The Language Barrier:
For a fast-developing nation, China has a surprisingly low-level of spoken English. Aside from hostels, hotels and some restaurants, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who can speak English.
The best way to get past this is to use the staff at your hostel and have them write out directions and simple phrases for your travel days. Also, having a tranlation app on your phone will definitely come in handy when backpacking China.
Keep in mind that this language barrier is part of what makes China so delightfully foreign.
(NOTE: Want to teach English in China like we did?! Click here to see how easy it can be to get a job in China, and earn money for travel)
Limited & Censored Internet:
This can be a bit of a hassle for those of us who use Facebook, Twitter and certain blog websites to keep our families and friends updated on our travels. The Chinese government continually cracks down on these types of sites and it’s a good idea to download FreeGate or purchase a VPN before coming here. For a full list of blocked websites in China, Click Here.
Whether you’re a smoker or not, it may be hard to get used to the amount of tobacco often floating in the air. Men here smoke before, during and after just about everything they do, both inside and out. If you don’t like it… too bad!
The People In China
The people you encounter while backpacking through a country can have a profound impact on the way you view a destination. Not only the local people, but the types of other travellers as well.
Types Of Other Travellers:
As China slowly starts to appear on the backpacker radar, there is an increasing number of visitors to the country. There are generally 3 types of foreigners here: Expats who work and live in China, tour groups who visit sites and cities on a bus trip, or independent travellers like us.
The latter are a great group of intrepid souls who will make great company at a hostel dinner table. Expats are great to meet up with as they know a lot about the country that you would never learn from just travelling China.
As we stated above, Chinese people are incredibly friendly and hospitable.
The best thing about them is their honesty. They always giving you genuine smiles and will tell you the actual prices of items. It’s endearing to see how excited they get when they see you and yell “waiguoren!” (foreigner) to alert their friends and family.
Unless you’re at a very touristy site, you can expect that everyone that approaches you really does just want to talk.
Communication In China
This can be one of the hardest parts of travelling China. Mandarin is by far the most widely spoken language and very few people can speak English. Each region has a different dialect that can be so distinct, that even Chinese people can have a hard time understanding each other. Try to learn a few key phrases and work on pronouncing the tones! (it’s very hard)
Getting Around In China
China has an excellent network of trains, buses and hired taxis. Many of the trains are extremely modern and can reach speeds of nearly 400km/hour! Travelling China is comfortable and affordable, given the great distances involved.
Remember to have your hostel write down instructions so that you can just hand it to the Chinese ticket sales assistant instead of trying to pronounce the city names yourself. (you’ll probably end up in the wrong place if you do!). Or, make sure you have the correct destination plugged into your Google Maps app.
Taxi drivers are honest and will always use the meter.
Visa Regulations For China
Most travellers will need a visa to visit mainland China. In most cases, this should be obtained from a Chinese embassy or consulate before departure (No Visas On Arrival). However, citizens from most Western countries do not need visas to visit Hong Kong and Macau.
Getting a tourist visa (L-Visa) is fairly easy for most passports as you don’t need an invitation, which is required for business or working visas. The usual tourist single-entry visa is valid for a visit of 30 days and must be used within three months of the date of issue. A double-entry tourist visa must be used within six months of the date of issue. It is possible to secure a tourist visa for up to 90 days for citizens of some countries. Canadians pay around $100, while Americans pay around $140.
If you have the option, it’s best to land in Hong Kong, where you don’t need a visa, and apply for the Chinese Visa there. Hostels, hotels and guesthouses can also arrange to get you your visa for a fee. You’ll need 2 photos, a photocopy of your passport and the filled out application forms.
Always check with the Chinese embassy before your trip, as visa situations (and prices) are constantly changing. According to Wikipedia, the following countries are eligible for a visa on arrival in China:
If you prefer to get help applying for a China visa, there are companies like TravelVisaPro.com that can help. You can check out their website, or you can head into one of their 9 locations in the United States.
Entry Requirements To China
You will need to have at least one blank page in your passport which must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry.
China is a very easy place to visit and there aren’t too many regulations to follow before arrival. The visa situation is always changing so check the current regulations here.
There are no required vaccinations, no invitation letters and no hassles entering the borders by land or by air.
Health When Backpacking China
The biggest health risk when travelling China is probably food poisoning and traveller’s diarrhea, although sanitation standards in restaurants are relatively high so this shouldn’t be a huge issue.
We would suggest packing a medical kit that includes some antibiotics for traveller’s diarrhea, Peptol Bismol for upset stomachs and Tylenol for hangover headaches (Baijieu hangovers are painful). Be sure that all medications are in their original marked containers to avoid problems with immigration officials.
Phone & Internet In China
Most hostels, hotels and tourist restaurants will have wi-fi, but as stated above, the internet is censored and limited in China.
You’ll definitely want to get a SIM card and data for travelling China. There are 3 main providers: China Mobile, China Unicom
It’s a good idea to have a mobile phone so that you can call a hostel or bilingual friend to get you out of a communication jam.
When Is The Best Time To Visit China?
China stretches across a vast territory that includes some climactic extremes. From the bitter cold of the far northern border near Mongolia, to the sub-tropical climate in the south, China has a varied weather system. The best time to visit China is generally either spring (March to May) or autumn (September to early November).
Beijing can be bitterly cold in the winter and even Shanghai reaches temperatures below freezing. Hong Kong is considerably warmer but can be drenched in the rainy season, with typhoons liable to hit the southeast coast between July and September.
China is a perfect place to don a backpack and explore. The people are friendly, the food is incredible and the sights are fantastic! The language barrier, sanitation and smoking may cost it a couple of stars, but it’s still one of the most underrated places to travel!
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