Backpacking China Guide (2024) – Know Before You Go!

Author Carina Klein
Carina
· 10 min read · 0 comments

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TL;DR

We backpacked around China and loved it. Here’s our China travel guide so you can do the same.

Currently, China is granting 15 days of visa-free entry to many European countries. Of course, we jumped at this opportunity. Here’s our backpacking China guide with everything you need to know before you go:

China Travel Guide

Backpacking in China

Backpacker Vibe

Many backpackers skip China. Therefore, there’s unfortunately not a ton of backpacker vibe in most places.

Even if you meet other travellers, China is a huge country and there’s no trodden banana pancake trail that everybody travels.

Is China Hard to Travel?

In hindsight, we don’t understand why many travellers skip China. The country was surprisingly easy to travel. There is so much to do and see that we merely scratched the surface in two weeks. We absolutely loved backpacking China and would recommend everybody to go.

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Bucketlist2life: We visited China and Japan on the same trip and must say that China was in no way more complicated to travel than Japan.
Picture of The Great Wall
The Great Wall

Visiting China Visa Free

We can’t comment on how hard it is to obtain a China visa as we visited visa-free.

For us as German citizens, this was super easy. We just filled out the arrival card at immigration. A picture and fingerprints were taken – the machine even spoke German with us. The immigration officer asked us where we wanted to go in China. When we told him, he smiled, said “You want to see a lot of China”, and welcomed us into the country.

Where to Go in China?

China is a giant country with a million destinations to visit.

If you only have 2 weeks in China like us, we recommend to visit

  • Guilin
  • Xi’an
  • Beijing
  • Shanghai

How to Get Around China

China is a huge country. You can either get around by flying or long-distance trains. We only used long-distance trains.

Where to Buy Train Tickets in China

As there are only as many tickets as there are seats, train tickets can sell out in advance. You can buy tickets at the station or online. We used Trip.com which worked perfectly. Your passport details work as your ticket so there’s no need to go to the counter at the train station to get a paper ticket.

Trains in China

You still want to be at the station early because you need to go through security. Additionally, you need to “check-in” for the trains. Every platform has a boarding gate which opens around 15 before departure. Here, you scan your passport before you can enter the platform. The automated gates often don’t work with foreign passports so it’s easiest to go to the staffed gate.

The trains are super fast and convenient. Everybody has an assigned seat. The trains are always on time. You can buy food and snacks on the trains and there’s also hot water for tea or cup noodles. The bathrooms were clean enough.

Public Transport or Tours

Outside of Beijing and Shanghai, there are not a ton of tours for non-Chinese tourists. We went everywhere (except the Great Wall) with public transport and it was super easy.

Taking the Metro or Subway in China

We took the metro in Xi’An, Beijing, and Shanghai and it was super straightforward in every city. There are ticket machines in every station. You can easily change the language to English. You can pay for the tickets with Alipay, WeChat, and sometimes cash.

There are also ticket offices in many stations in case you need to speak to a person. We never had any complications communicating with the station staff.

f you’re only in town for a couple of days, it’s easiest to buy single-ride paper tickets. They were so cheap that we never bothered figuring out transportation passes and co.

Taking Buses in China

Taking the bus in China is also straightforward. The signage was in English on all buses we took and the people were super nice and helpful. When taking the bus (e.g. from Yangshou to Xingping), you can buy a ticket at the bus station or just hop on and pay with WeChat, Alipay, or cash.

Picture of Long distance train in China
Long distance train in China

Where to Book Accommodations in China

Nowadays, it’s super easy to book your accommodation online. We used Agoda and Hostelworld to book our hostels.

We liked all of the hostels we stayed in. Most of our dorms were extremely comfortable. The only downside was that there was rarely a hostel vibe.

Picture of Comfortable hostel dorm in China
Comfortable hostel dorm in China

Communicating in China

Before travelling to China, we were worried because we had read online that almost no one in China speaks English. Our experience was quite the opposite: We met a lot of people who spoke great English.

We never had any language barrier with the reception staff at our hostels. We could also easily communicate with restaurant staff a lot of the time and it was mostly easy to find restaurants with English menus. Additionally, we met a crazy amount of locals who were happy to exchange a couple of words in English with us.

Signage in public transport and at attractions was bilingual.

Even if we met a person who couldn’t speak English, we got very far with sign language. And then there’s always Google Translate. With our Airalo eSIM card, our Google Translate worked perfectly fine. Most Chinese people we met had the Chinese equivalent so communication was always surprisingly easy.

Picture of One of the few translation fails we found in China
One of the few translation fails we found in China

Google Maps does not work in China.

The main navigation app is Baidu Maps. As this app only works in Chinese, we found it a bit tedious to use.

We used Organic Maps (from the developers of maps.me which is not free to use anymore). You can download the maps. For navigation purposes, it works fine and it also mostly gives you the right route for the underground in the bigger cities.

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Bucketlist2life tip: If you have an iPhone, Apple Maps works perfectly in China.
Picture of Bilingual Beijing subway map
Bilingual Beijing subway map

China Budget

In Yangshuo, we spent as little as 20$ per person and day.

Beijing is more expensive and we spent around 40$ per person and day.

China is generally a cheap country. The majority of our budget was spent on train tickets.

Paying in China

Most people don’t use cash in China. Your foreign credit card will most likely not be accepted.

Alipay and WeChat

You 100% want to have either Alipay or WeChat – preferably both – up and running before you enter the country.

You can pay for everything – and we mean everything, even the single tangerine from the grandma on the side of the road – with Alipay and WeChat.

Alipay and WeChat are not only payment apps but also incredibly useful for other services.

You also need a WeChat or Alipay account to use the Chinese version of Uber called Didi.

Additionally, as the name suggests, WeChat is the main chat app in China and is super useful when you want to connect with locals.

ATMs in China

You will find a ton of banks and ATMs in China but the ICBC ones were the only ones that worked for us. We did not have to pay any fees.

We think it’s useful to have some cash on you in case your Alipay or WeChat glitches. We withdrew 50$ for two weeks which was surprisingly enough.

Picture of 20 RMB note
20 RMB note

Getting into Attractions in China

Entrance Tickets with WeChat

For some attractions, buying tickets on special WeChat programs is the easiest option. For example, this is the most comfortable way to buy tickets for the Forbidden City in Beijing. Unfortunately, they are 100% in Chinese.

For other attractions, you can only get access with special WeChat programs. This is the case for Tian’anmen Square for example. When we visited, there were helpers. We just handed them our phone and hoped for the best – and it worked.

Bring Your Passport

Your passport acts as the entrance ticket for every single attraction you will visit – even if you want to go on a bamboo raft in Yangshuo.

Your passport is also your train ticket. You either hand it in at the train station counter or provide the details while booking online. You will not get a paper ticket but scan your passport at the train check-in.

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Bucketlist2life tip: Bring your passport everywhere you go!
Picture of WeChat mini program
WeChat mini program

Internet in China

Mobile Data in China

We think that you 100% need mobile data in China – even if it’s only to use Alipay and or WeChat.

We used an Airalo eSIM which worked great. Because you technically use roaming data, this is also a very convenient way to bypass the Chinese firewall. We were able to use all of our apps on our phones like WhatsApp and Google Translate without a VPN.

VPNs

It is useful to use a VPN – especially if you want to connect to the WiFi. We found that a lot of sites like Google were blocked when we used the WiFi.

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Bucketlist2life tip: If you are stupid like us and travel to China with a Google Pixel you need a VPN to connect to the WiFi.

Is China Safe?

Concerning crime, China is a very safe country to travel to. We never felt unsafe even once – also not walking around at night. There’s also a lot of CCTV and police presence.

The United States Department of State still levels Mainland China as Level 3: Reconsider Travel. Why? Because of “the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans, and the risk of wrongful detentions.”

Picture of Subway in China
Subway in China

Chinese Food

We loved Chinese food. It was cheap and delicious. As we are omnivores, we never had any problem finding tasty food.

Yes, you can eat stuff like chicken feet but you can also stick to noodle soups and dumplings.

For your Western food fix, there are chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks everywhere.

Picture of Chinese street food
Chinese street food

What to Pack for China

In addition to your normal stuff, you might want to bring

Adapter

An adapter can be useful even if we found that most places in China had multi-plug sockets that we could easily use with our German plugs.

Water Bottle

If you bring a thermos, you can do it like the Chinese do. You can get hot water in many places. Just add some green tea and voila: You’ll always have delicious tea with you.

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