Backpacking in China is a hugely rewarding experience. This vast country is home to ancient cities, temples, and some of the most stunning landscapes on earth. China is a great destination for backpackers as travel is relatively cheap compared to the west and food and accommodation are very reasonable.
In this guide we will discover all there is to know about backpacking in the Middle Kingdom. From visas and money to transport, customs and more.
Backpacking in China – Before You Go
Almost everyone will need to obtain a tourist (L) visa before coming to China. You will need to apply at your nearest Chinese embassy. The forms can be printed online, but you will need to apply in person so that your biometric data can be taken (fingerprints).
The cost of a visa is currently 151 for UK citizens, $140 for US passport holders and $142 for Canadians and $109.50 for Australians. For a full list see the official website.
Planning a Route
China is a large country and there is a lot to see. Internal flights are cheap and there is an excellent rail network of both fast (bullet) trains and slower overnight trains. Decide on what you want to see and then work a route around this.
Some of the top sites include:
- The Forbidden Palace
- The Great Wall of China
- Longmen Grottoes
- Terracotta Warriors
- The Shaolin Temple
- Harbin Snow and Ice Festival
- Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
- West Lake
- Longjing Tea Plantation
- Yunnan Rice Terraces
Safety in China
Backpacking in China is incredibly safe by world standards. Crime towards tourists is rare but take the usual precautions when in crowded places, such as using a money belt.
China is safe for solo and female travellers. Walking around late at night, although not advisable in surroundings you are not familiar with, is usually fine in China compared to many places in the west.
Laws in China
Tourists must be registered with the local police upon arrival in China. If you are staying at a hotel this will be done automatically. If you are couchsurfing or using Airbnb then you will need to register yourself at each new destination in China. Ask your hosts to help with this.
All foreigners must carry their passport with them at all times, though in theory many people leave their passport locked in a hotel safe and carry copies.
Don’t bring in reading material about subjects that might be controversial in China (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet etc). Guidebooks on these places are fine. As with the books, avoid conversations with locals about controversial topics.
If you enter China overland through Xinjiang Province prepare for additional questioning and the authorities will want to go through your phone. There are reports of travellers having spyware installed. This will not be the case if you fly into Beijing or other major cities in the rest of China.
Ensure you have adequate travel insurance cover for China as a trip to hospital can be costly. You can get a quote through our partners at World Nomads.
A good guidebook is useful for backpacking in China and will help to find good restaurants, hotels and sites. Lonely Planet and Bradt offer excellent guides.
Getting to China
Most people fly in to one of the major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu or Xian. Check Trip.com for the best deals on flights to China.
If you are flying into Beijing Capital Airport there is an airport express service which links to the Beijing metro.
It is possible to enter China overland by bus or train. Popular routes include from Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan and Pakistan.
Useful Apps for Backpacking China
Below are some apps that will aid your backpacking trip in China.
A great offline map that uses GPS so no internet connection is required.
Many popular websites are banned in China and are inaccessible through the “Great Firewall”. Downloading a VPN means you can get around this and stay connected to your social media. Be sure to download and install the app before you go as it is more difficult to do in China. One of the best VPN’s is Astrill.
You can read more in the article, best VPNs for China!
WeChat is a messaging app used by almost everyone in China. It is a handy way to pay for goods and services and can be linked to your bank account to save using cash.
Alipay is another popular payment App.
Backpacking in China – What to Expect
Costs for Backpacking China
China is a cheap destination for backpacking with dorm beds in hostels costing around $10. You can eat well for under $5 in local restaurants and transportation is cheap.
Larger cities are more expensive with places like Shanghai and Hong Kong on par with other world cities. The farther off the beaten track you go, the cheaper it will become.
Museums can be costly with entry fees of around ¥100 for places like the Forbidden City, Shaolin Temple, Terracotta Warriors etc. Fees are not always high, and the Great Wall costs around ¥60and Chengdu Panda Base a mere ¥6!
A daily budget of around $50 is reasonable for staying in hostels and eating at cheap establishments. If you forego expensive museums it can be even cheaper.
Food (local restaurants and street food) ¥100
Entry Fees ¥100
Total ¥300 ($45)
Transportation should be extra (within cities buses are very cheap) but if you are travelling from city to city you will need to factor this in. Below are some sample costs of flights and rail fares.
Backpacking in China – Getting Around China
It’s very easy for backpackers to get around China. Internal flights, there is an excellent rail network and also some have a sleeper bus service (for example if travelling between China and Mongolia or Kazakhstan).
Taxis are inexpensive by western standards and you can expect to pay around $5 for a 10km journey. Always take official taxis (there are ranks at airports and stations) and ensure they use the metre.
Beijing to Xian
Beijing to Chengdu
Beijing to Kunming
A great way to save money is to take the overnight trains and save on a night’s accommodation.
Most people in China speak Mandarin Chinese which is the official language. In and around Guangzhou and Hong Kong many people also speak Cantonese. China also has many ethnic minorities who have their own languages.
English is not widely spoken, especially outside of the larger cities. Train stations tend to have signs in both Mandarin and English which makes things easier when travelling.
Internet and phones in China
China has rolled out the 5G network across the country. You will find that outside of hostels it’s not easy to connect to Chinese wifi as a Chinese telephone number is required.
It would be beneficial to get a Chinese sim card for your visit (China Telecom is one of the biggest providers), however it’s unlikely that people in the phone shops will speak English. It may be better to ensure you have a good data plan before you set off for China.
Top Chinese Destinations for Backpackers
Backpacking in Beijing
Beijing is one of the most popular places for backpackers in China. This historic city includes some world-class tourist sites such as the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Lama Temple and much, much more.
Beijing is also a great base for exploring the nearby Great Wall of China!
Top Beijing Attractions
Where to stay?
Backpacking in Harbin
Harbin is an excellent destination for those backpacking in China over the winter months. The city is home to the world-famous Ice and Snow Festival where famous buildings are recreated entirely out of ice.
Harbin is a unique city in that it has a distinctly Russian feel to it, including the orthodox St Sophia Cathedral complete with towering onion domes!
Where to stay?
Top Harbin Attractions
Backpacking in Xian
Xian is a must see city if you are backpacking China. Famed for the Terracotta Warriors unearthed here in the 1970’s, there is plenty to see and do in this ancient Silk Road city.
Where to stay?
Top Xian Attractions
Backpacking in Chengdu
No trip to China is complete with a visit to the pandas at the Chengdu Panda Research Base. Although I would emphatically urge people not to visit zoos in China, the panda research base does great work and takes good care of the resident pandas.
Chengdu is also famous for its Sichuan cooking, typified by lots of chillies. Be sure to try the hot pot!
Chengdu also makes a great base for exploring the Tibetan autonomous regions of Sichuan. This is the only way to see real Tibetan culture and stunning scenery without an expensive tour to Tibet proper.
Where to stay
Top Chengdu Attractions
Panda Research Base
Backpacking in Zhangjiajie
Want to escape the busy cities and experience some of China’s natural wonders? Head to Zhangjiajie which was inspiration for the landscapes in the film Avatar. This large national park of forest and carst mountains has to be seen to be believed!
How long to explore? 2 to 3 days.
Where to stay
Top Zhangjiajie Attractions
Highest Elevator in the World
Backpacking in Yunnan
Yunnan is the Shangri La (literally) of China and an “Instagrammers” dream. Rice terraces, misty mountains, ethnic villages; Yunnan has so much to offer the intrepid backpacker.
How long to explore: At least three days
Where to Stay
Top Yunnan Attractions
Lijiang Old Town
Backpacking in Hong Kong
Hong Kong isn’t the ideal destination for backpackers as it is not considered a budget destination. There is also the issue of needing a double-entry visa as if you do not have this, you will not be able to return to mainland China.
That being said, Hong Kong is a wonderful city with hundreds of beautiful islands. If you are careful it can be done on a budget (stay at the seedy Chunking Mansions and eat street food).
Backpacking in Tibet
As with Hong Kong, Tibet is not a budget destination, however it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Foreigners are not allowed to visit outside of an arranged tour.
About the author
Steve Rohan has lived in China for six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, ancient capital of Luoyang and tropical paradise that is Sanya.