If you are planning your own trip to China, you should read these travel tips. They are all based on my own personal experiences traveling through China for three months in summer 2003. Thus the advice given here should be accurate and up-to-date.
Before going to China myself I read large amounts of travel advice from various sources, but when I actually got to China and set out on my own I soon discovered that much of that advice was poor or just plain wrong. Things are changing rapidly in China, which means any travel advice for China, including mine, is likely to become outdated soon. However, I plan to keep on traveling in China, so I should be able to keep this page fairly up-to-date and keep adding to it. If you have any questions about travel in China that isn't answered on this page, please send me an email.
Transportation in China
Lodging in China
Packing for China Travel
Eating in China
Traveling on foot is one of the best ways to see China. When you're walking you can have interesting interactions with the people you meet along the way, assuming your Chinese is good enough or if you have an English-speaking Chinese friend traveling with you. Since China is so highly populated your chance of running into other people is good. However, there are also plenty of unpopulated areas in China, so be sure to come prepared when backpacking.
City buses tend to be very convenient and inexpensive in China. In Beijing there are buses everywhere and you'll usually only spend 1 to 3 RMB (12 to 36 cents US) per trip. The bus stops are clearly marked and every bus stop lists all of the stops served by each bus number as well as the time of day of the first and last bus. Typical first and last bus times might be 5:30 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.—Chinese people seem to like to go to bed and wake up early. Buses on most routes in Beijing come every few minutes; there is rarely a need to wait very long for a bus. However, buses are frequently very packed. You will have to get used to squeezing your way on and off.
Unlike most cities in the US you don't pay your fare when you board a bus in Beijing. Instead you pay during the trip, sometime before you get off. Besides having a driver, each bus has a person selling tickets. The price of a ticket varies depending on how many stops you are riding for, so you should tell the person selling the tickets your destination. If you don't know how to pronounce the name of your destination, I suggest copying down the characters from the route sign at the bus stop before you board. Then you can simply show the ticket seller the piece of paper with your destination written on it. You should probably also ask the ticket seller to alert you when the bus comes to your stop in case you can't hear or don't understand the announcement. Some of the newer buses have lighted displays indicating the next stop, which is very convenient.
You can purchase a map of Beijing showing all the bus routes for 5 RMB (60 cents US). Such a map can be very convenient to have when planning your trips. Similar maps can also be found on billboards at many bus stops.
One confusing aspect of riding the bus in Beijing is that bus stops with the same names are not necessarily in exactly the same places for different routes. Thus you might plan a trip that requires switching buses at a particular stop, but find when you get to the stop that you can't find the other bus route. Usually the other bus stop will be close by, probably within a block or two. The solution is to ask someone where to find the stop for that route, or just spend a few minutes looking around until you find it.
If you have a GPS unit you might want to mark your starting point as well as key bus stops along the way as waypoints when traveling around an unfamiliar city. When you're ready to return to your starting point you can watch your GPS as you ride the bus and know when you're getting close and should get off. You'll find that your GPS will usually work on board a bus if you hold it up to the window. Sometimes you'll have trouble getting good signals when you're near tall buildings, but be patient and the signals will usually come back.
If you're exploring the Chinese countryside a lot, there may come a time when you finally get so exhausted that you don't feel like walking anymore. In that case, find the nearest road; there's a good chance that it will have bus route. Even small dirt roads out in the middle of nowhere will often have one or two buses a day on them. Usually such bus routes won't be marked, but you can ask people who live near the road if there is a bus and when it usually comes. Then simply wait by the road at the right time and flag the bus down when it comes. This is one of my favorite things about traveling in China on foot; when your feet get tired, it's usually not very hard to find a ride. If you are backpacking in China, I find it helps to wake up early in the morning. Many country buses have runs early in the morning but not in the late afternoon or evening.
It is usually very easy and inexpensive to travel between cities by bus in China. However, if you have a choice I suggest you take a train instead. Long distance buses tend to be cramped, hot, and choked with cigarette smoke. They also tend to be slow. Traffic jams are commonplace on Chinese highways and a 12-hour bus ride can easily turn into a 24-hour nightmare—or worse if you get stuck in a serious traffic jam that takes days to clear. Most buses in China don't have toilets, so you'll need to wait for the bus to stop if you have to go. Furthermore, many long-distance buses are sleepers, which means you'll have to lie down in a cramped bunk for long periods of time, which can make your spine sore. You may be able to sit up in your bunk if you're not especially tall, but then you risk hitting your head on the ceiling or the bunk above you when the bus goes over potholes, which can hurt a lot.
Trains are generally convenient in China. However, if you're traveling from a large city you may have trouble buying tickets. Thus you should purchase your tickets two or three days ahead of time. If you are traveling from a smaller city or town you will often not be assigned a seat. If all the seats on the train are already full you'll have to stand or sit on the floor, which can be inconvenient if you're in the aisle because you will need to move out of the way frequently to let people and food carts gets by. In this case I find it is usually better to sit at the end of the train car. Sit on your luggage if it's big enough, or use a Therm-a-Rest pad.
Chinese trains have three classes of seating. The lowest class is known as yingzuo, “hard seat”. Most seats available on a train are of this type. Despite the name the seats aren't hard or especially uncomfortable. The seatbacks don't recline though, which usually makes it hard to sleep unless you have a window seat and a pillow. If I can't get to sleep I will often leave my seat and roll out my Therm-a-rest mattress on the floor to sleep on.
Many people will tell you not to ride yingzuo because it is too uncomfortable. However, I recommend you don't ride anything but yingzuo. If you get a sleeper bed you will not only pay much more, you will also be lying down in a cramped space most of the trip, which can get very uncomfortable if the trip is long. Furthermore, the number of sleeper seats available is much more limited, so you may end up not being able to buy sleeper seats. Finally, common Chinese people nearly always ride yingzuo, and if they can handle it, so can you. If you want to interact with real Chinese people instead of other foreigners, than you should definitely ride yingzuo—and if you do want to interact with foreigners instead of Chinese, then why are you even traveling in China in the first place? Don't bother wasting your time and money riding in a sleeper car, ride yingzuo.
Smoking is a big annoyance on trains in China. Technically people are supposed to go to the rear of the car to smoke, where there is a vent in the ceiling to let the smoke out; there are normally signs in the seating area that say no smoking. However, Chinese smokers must not be able to read, because almost no one actually follows this rule. Fortunately I've found that if you ask people politely not to smoke they will stop or go to the rear of the car. You may have to keep asking again and again though; smokers seem to be pretty stupid and if you ask one to stop the others won't necessarily get the hint and stop as well. Furthermore smokers have short memories, so if you ask them to stop smoking they might start up again an hour later and you'll have to ask again. Sometimes I've found that the best way to avoid smoke is to stand in the smoking area at the end of the car; few people actually smoke there.
I've never ridden on a freight train in China, but I've seen many people doing it, probably peasants who couldn't afford a train ticket. Usually they will sit on a flatcar next to a China Rail freight container, often with a pile of straw to sit on. I've always thought that would be a great adventure, riding on a train out in the wind with an unobstructed, panoramic view of the passing scenery. If there's anyone out there who's actually ridden on a freight train in China I'd love to hear from them!
If you're backpacking in China it's often no problem to find a place where you can set up a tent and camp for the night. Simply look for a place that's fairly hidden and doesn't have people around. You'll probably want to set up camp after sunset and leave before sunrise so you won't attract attention.
If you are traveling in the summer you may not even need a tent; just a lightweight sleeping bag will probably do fine. However, you might want to have a bivy sack in case you encounter rain or mosquitoes. I usually use a bivy sack when backpacking instead of carrying a heavy tent, even when backpacking in winter. A tent is a pain to set up and take down and weighs several times as much as a bivy sack. Tents are perhaps more comfortable though, especially if your goal is to hide away from a rainstorm but not to sleep, since in a tent you can sit up and read or otherwise occupy yourself.
When you are traveling through the countryside in China you will often happen upon small towns with inexpensive guesthouses. In villages that get a lot of tourists it is common for almost every restaurant to also provide beds for travelers. Usually you can save money by sharing a room with other travelers. Prices for such accommodation usually range from 10 to 40 RMB ($1.20 to $4.80 US).
Hotel rooms in Chinese cities can be very expensive, often just as expensive as those in the US. I recommend you avoid those. Usually you can find cheaper hotel rooms if you know where to look. You might need to have your Chinese friends help you find them. Oftentimes the quality of such hotels will be poor compared to hotels in the US. I suggest you bring a mosquito net with you, as hotel rooms in China are often full of mosquitoes.
I've found it easy to find families to stay with for free in China in exchange for helping them practice English an hour or two a day. I have had good success finding friends to stay with by chatting online with ICQ or other instant messaging programs that support Chinese characters. Chinese families that have Internet access tend to be educated and relatively rich; thus they are likely to have comfortable homes. Staying with a Chinese family is a great way to get used to the Chinese lifestyle, eat lots of good Chinese food, and improve your Chinese ability.
If you do choose this option be aware that you may loose a lot of your freedom. If you live with Chinese people they will most likely incorporate you into the family and expect you to act like a family member. They will expect you to be home at certain times for meals, and will probably want to join you whenever you go out; if you leave the house by yourself they might get worried about you and send someone out to search for you. Keep in mind that Chinese people will have a hard time believing that your Chinese ability is good enough to get around by yourself, even if you've studied Chinese for a long time. Also keep in mind that Chinese parents treat their sons and daughters like children all the way up until they are married, and if you're a young unmarried man or women they will probably treat you much like a child too.
Do not bring a suitcase if you're planning on traveling in China. Such clunky luggage tends to get tiring to carry around very quickly. Don't bother with luggage on wheels either. Even in big Chinese cities you will often be walking on surfaces that aren't flat and won't be suitable for wheels. Chinese cities are not built like airports! For example, construction in Beijing is absolutely everywhere, and you will need to walk over piles of dirt, hop over trenches, and navigate around equipment, building materials, trash, and other obstacles. Another reason that suitcases are a bad idea in China is the crowded buses; it's tough to squeeze your way into a jammed-packed bus while dragging a bulky suitcase.
Instead of taking a suitcase, you should carry a large internal-frame backpack, preferably one designed for backpacking. For my China adventures I carried a Lowe Alpine Contour pack with a total volume of 90 liters (5500 cubic inches). Lowe Alpine packs are of excellent quality, very comfortable and durable. I purchased mine at REI for $230. Depending on your trip plans you may not need a backpack as large as the one I carried, but a little extra room doesn't hurt.
Try to pack light. There's nothing that will ruin a trip like bringing too much stuff and having it weigh you down. Try to cut out every bit of weight you can. You can often think of clever ways to save weight by bringing multi-purpose items. For example, instead of bringing bath soap, shampoo, laundry detergent, and shaving cream, just bring a small bar of everyday bath soap; it will work just fine for all four purposes. Instead of bringing pants and shorts, bring pants that convert into shorts by zipping off the legs. Instead of bringing a warm jacket, a windbreaker, a raincoat, and a coat, just bring a warm jacket and waterproof shell to go over it when it gets windy or rainy. Don't bring many pairs of shoes; a good rugged pair of waterproof hiking boots and a light pair of TEVA sandals is all you really need. I do suggest that you carry a pair of gaiters to keep water from seeping into your hiking boots and to protect your pant-legs from getting wet and muddy.
Although I love reading, I recommend not bringing books; they tend to be heavy. If you bring heavy items that you don't absolutely need you will regret it when you're hiking up that fourteen-thousand-foot mountain in Yunnan or Tibet and are feeling every bit of weight. Consider the fact that carrying a one-pound book up a 4000-foot mountain requires the same amount of energy as lifting a 4000-pound car up one foot, and you might think twice about bringing that one-pound book with you.
Anytime you're traveling you'll want to bring clothing that is light, strong, durable, easy to wash, and performs well in any weather. Cotton is none of these things, so avoid cotton fabrics like the plague. Most of your outer clothing should be 100% Nylon. Nylon is very light and strong, and when hung it dries in an hour or two—which is very important in a country like China where people generally don't have washing and drying machines. For inner, insulating clothing like underwear, thermal underwear, T-shirts, and socks, you'll probably want polyester or polypropylene fabrics. Such fabrics are light, and will wick the moisture away from your skin, keeping you dry. Unlike cotton they still maintain a good deal of their insulating value when wet. Like Nylon, they dry fast after washing.
Be careful not to pack too much clothing! Like everything else, just pack the minimum amount you'll need to be prepared for any situation you'll be likely to encounter. I recommend two pairs of Nylon pants, two Nylon long-sleeved shirts, two polyester T-shirts, two pairs of polyester underwear, polypro thermal underwear tops and bottoms, a warm polyester jacket, a warm hat, and a waterproof but breathable shell, both top and bottoms. Carrying two changes of clothing is plenty—you can wash your clothes every night before bed, and hang them to dry while you sleep.
People normally wash their clothes by hand in China. This is not as hard as it sounds, especially if you're packing clothes made of fabrics that are easy to wash and dry quickly, such as Nylon and polyester. Most inns in China will provide basins for washing clothes. After washing and rinsing your clothes in the basin you can usually put them in a small centrifuge that will spin them at high speed for five minutes, saving you the job of wringing the water out, and getting them much drier than you could get them by hand wringing. Such centrifuges are provided at almost all inns and hotels in China; even small guesthouses in tiny villages have them.
You will probably want to bring a length of thin nylon cord to use as a clothesline. Don't bring a cotton clothesline, as cotton is much heavier and takes up more volume for the same strength, and will take a long time to dry.
One of the nicest things about traveling in China is the abundant array of delicious and inexpensive food. Even in small towns and villages it's usually easy to find places to eat with great food. Actually smaller places like these will often have better food than in big cities. Furthermore, the least expensive places often have the tastiest, most authentic food. A lot of expensive restaurants serve crappy Western food imitations that you should stay away from. Crappy Western fast food joints like McDonald's and KFC are common in big cities and should be avoided—they are expensive and you won't find traditional Chinese food there!
There are several differences in custom that you should be aware of when eating in a Chinese restaurant. First of all, there are no taxes or tipping. You need only pay the stated price of the meal and no more. Secondly people don't normally order dishes individually in China. If you're eating with a friend or a group you will decide on what dishes you want together. All the dishes are placed in the middle of the table, sometimes on a rotating platform, and each person takes food from the dishes using their chopsticks or spoon and places it in their individual bowl to eat. Thirdly, when Chinese people eat out their is no splitting the bill. Instead one person will usually volunteer to pay for the entire meal. If you do try to pay for your own portion of the meal instead of letting one person pay the whole thing, your Chinese friends might be very offended.
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