Complete guide to travelling and backpacking in China. Everything from visas, transportation, accommodation, safety, and sample itineraries.

So, you’re planning on backpacking around China? Get ready for an incredible time. In total, I’ve spent over three months backpacking all over China – from the large cities of the East all the way to the remote Tibetan plateau.

Keep in mind that China is one of the most naturally and culturally diverse countries on Earth, so it’s impossible to see it all on your first trip. After three months there, I’ve still barely scratched the surface and I can’t wait to get back and see more.

Dazhai Village near Guilin, China
Dazhai Village near Guilin, China

Before you visit China

Here are a couple of things that you might be wondering, as well as some things you should do before travelling to China.

Why visit China?

I mean, why not visit China? If you took every person on Earth, 1 in 5 would live in China. It’s an incredibly massive country by both population and land area. It’d be a shame to skip over it while travelling around the world.

Other than the Han majority, China is home to a ton of different ethnic groups such as Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongols, Kazakhs, and Koreans. When visiting areas where these ethnic groups are a majority, you’ll basically feel like you’re travelling in a different country.

And China ain’t only all big cities as some people believe. It’s home to the world’s tallest mountain (well, half of it) and the Gobi Desert, as well as incredible rivers, lakes, and forests.  In fact, if you only visited the cities of China, you’d be missing out on so much that the country has to offer.

Believe it or not, this is a landscape that can be found in China
Believe it or not, this is a landscape that can be found in China

Oh yes – food. China has amazing food. Every time I leave China, the first thing I miss is the food. Different parts of the country have very different cuisines, ranging from super spicy food in Sichuan, dim sum in Guangdong, and flavourful meat-heavy dishes in Xinjiang.

Anyways. I hope that was a decent explanation as to why you should visit China. If you’re still not convinced, keep reading through this post and hopefully, I can change your mind 🙂

Hiking on the Great Wall of China
Hiking on the Great Wall of China

Is China safe for travel?

Yes, I’d say China is safe. In all of my time travelling around China, I’ve never been shown anything but friendliness and curiosity by locals.

Of course, the same rules as normal still apply here. Don’t get too drunk, avoid talking about politics, and just be respectful to people.

November 2019 Update: There has been an increasing amount of violence in Hong Kong due to the current protests. According to my local friends, it’s still safe to visit the city, but you should avoid going anywhere near active protests.

Travel Insurance for China

No matter where you go, you should always have travel insurance – China is no exception. Even though China is safe, accidents can still happen.

I personally use and recommend World Nomads. It’s designed for adventurous travellers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities (important if you plan on doing any hiking while in China!).

GET YOUR FREE QUOTE FROM WORLD NOMADS HERE

Monks in Shigatse, Tibet
Monks in Shigatse, Tibet

Best VPN for China

China’s internet is behind something known as the “Great Firewall”. The Great Firewall blocks most websites that westerners would want to use while travelling in China. A few examples of things that are blocked include Google, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Reddit, and Twitter.

So, if you want to have any contact with the outside internet while travelling in China, you’re gonna need a VPN. A VPN allows you to access the internet as if you’re from a country that doesn’t block certain websites.

The best VPN for travelling in China right now is NordVPN.

I’ve used a bunch of different VPNs while travelling in China and had by far the best experience with NordVPN. They offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, 24/7 customer support, and high-speed servers that are reliable and consistent.

NordVPN

Communication in China

Mandarin is by far the most prominent language in China. Even in regions that haven’t historically spoken Mandarin, it’s slowly taking over.

In Hong Kong and parts of Guangdong, Cantonese is the most popular language, although Mandarin is also understood by many people who live here.

Tibetan can still found in parts of the Tibetan Autonomous Region and it’s bordering provinces. In Xinjiang, many Uyghurs still speak Uyghur, a language that comes from the Turkic language family. In the Inner Mongolia province, you’ll still be able to find some people who speak Mongolian and can read the traditional Mongolian script.

There are dozens of other languages spoken in China, far too many to list here. Head on over to the Languages of China page on Wikipedia for all the details.

Do you need to know Chinese to visit China?

No, you don’t need to know Chinese to travel in China. While knowing the local language of a country can provide much deeper experiences, it’s never 100% necessary.

You should try to learn the basics, though. Purchase a Chinese phrasebook and you’ll be set. Google Translate is another lifesaver, especially with its offline option (remember, Google is blocked in China).

Many young university students have a basic level of English, look for them if you need some help.

When all else fails, awkward hand gestures are usually able to save the day.

Hiking in the Longji Rice Terraces
Hiking in the Longji Rice Terraces on a rainy day

Money in China

China’s official currency is the Renminbi or RMB, denoted using ¥.

Most Chinese people refer to prices using the words ‘yuan’ (like dollars) or ‘kuai’ (like bucks), however.

As a tourist, you’ll typically be using cash unless paying for something at a high-end place that may accept foreign credit cards.

Banks and ATM machines are very common in China, and the ATMs from most large banks accept foreign cards, so you can simply withdraw cash after you’ve arrived in China.

You’ll notice locals pay for everything using WeChat Pay, but at the moment this isn’t usable without a Chinese bank account.

The current exchange rate is $1 = ¥7.00 as of November 2019. Check XE.com for the latest rates.

Getting to China

Visa Requirements for China

Oh, the dreaded Chinese visa. Getting a visa is the first step to visiting China. I personally found the application process to be relatively straightforward – you just need to follow the requirements and everything should be okay.

I’m Canadian, so I was able to get a 10-year multi-entry tourist visa which is fantastic. I can hop in and out of China as much as I’d like.

For more info on applying for a Chinese visa, check out this guide.

The Chinese tourist visa can be a bit of a pain to get, so why not have the folks over at iVisa handle it? They make the application process much smoother than going directly through the embassy, and can even get a 10-year tourist visa for certain nationalities.

GET YOUR CHINA VISA HERE

Monastery hidden in the trees at the Yading Nature Reserve
Monastery hidden in the trees at the Yading Nature Reserve

Flying into China

Practically every large international airport is going to have flights to China. Most tourists will typically fly into Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou.

Overland into China

China shares international borders with 14 different countries, as well as 2 borders with the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

I’m working on a separate post to cover all of the border crossings with China, as it’s a bit too much to go over here.

Pakistan China Border Crossing
Overlandin’ into China from Pakistan

Where to visit in China

Backpacking Beijing

Beijing is a city full of interesting history and delicious food. In Beijing, you should check out the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, and take a day trip to the Great Wall of China. If you really want to be adventurous, you can even try camping on the great wall.

Also, be sure to try out some Peking duck and spend some time exploring the city’s hutongs.

The Mutianyu Great Wall near Beijing
The Mutianyu Great Wall near Beijing
Where to stay in Beijing

There are countless hostels and hotels in Beijing. I stayed at the Leo Hostel and highly recommend it. It’s in a great location and has a nice common area to meet other travellers.

Getting around Beijing

Beijing has an extensive metro system, and I used it to get everywhere. Many of the main tourist sites are located within walking distance of Tiananmen Square.

Backpacking Shanghai

Shanghai has an endless amount of things to do, foods to eat, and people to meet. Not including Hong Kong, Shanghai is by far the most westernized Chinese city, and people living in Shanghai are open-minded. When in Shanghai, spend some time checking out its cool art scene, nightlife, and parks. Take a trip to the top of the Shanghai Tower (world’s second tallest building) for some insane views of the city.

Also consider a day trip to one of Hangzhou, Suzhou, or even Nanjing. They’re all incredible cities and are very accessible from Shanghai via high-speed rail.

Where to stay in Shanghai

I stayed at the Blue Mountain International Youth Hostel for its location. East Nanjing Road and the Bund are the most popular tourist areas in Shanghai, and the hostel is less than a ten-minute walk from both.

The Bund, Shanghai
The Bund, Shanghai
Getting around Shanghai

Shanghai is home to a massive metro system that will take you anywhere you need to go inside of the city.

It is quite easy to use – signage in English is available. Just be aware that at rush hour things can get pretty crowded.

Sunset over Pudong, Shanghai
Sunset over Pudong, Shanghai

Backpacking Xi’an

The Eastern end of the Silk Road and home of the Terracotta Warriors. Xi’an has a large Muslim Quarter with delicious street food that you need to try. Xi’an has a 13.7-kilometre city wall surrounding the city center, and biking around it was a definitely a highlight of my time there.

View from Xi'an city wall while backpacking in China

Where to stay in Xi’an

Most of the main sites (other than the terracotta warriors) are inside the city walls, so choose a place to stay located inside the walls. I stayed at the Hantang Inn and loved it. There’s a delicious and cheap BBQ restaurant right across the street that I ate at a few too many times 🙂

Getting around Xi’an

Most attractions are located inside the city walls, so walking is the best way to get around. To visit the terracotta warriors, you’ll need to take a one hour ride on tourist bus line 5 from the east square of the Xi’an Railway Station.

Terracotta Army in Xi'an, China
The Terracotta Army in Xi’an

Backpacking Hong Kong

Hong Kong needs no introduction – it’s a massive, globalized city that one could spend a lifetime in and not finish exploring it. Hong Kong feels very different from the rest of China due to its history. Clerks in 7/11 speak English, and everything costs a whole lot more. Hong Kong is definitely worth visiting if you haven’t been before, but if you have, consider checking out the nearby Chinese megacities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Visa note: To enter Hong Kong, you have to “leave” China (on your passport). This means that if you have a single-entry Chinese visa, you won’t be able to enter again without getting a new one. If you still want to spend more time in China, consider skipping Hong Kong and visiting Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

If you want to include Hong Kong on your China travel itinerary, you should visit it at the beginning or end of your trip. This way, you only need a single-entry visa for mainland China.

Hong Kong skyline from Victoria Peak
Hong Kong skyline from Victoria Peak
Where to stay in Hong Kong

I stayed at the Causeway Bay Yesinn hostel, it’s a nice hostel located right downtown. It’s like two minutes from a metro station, and there are so many restaurants and shops around.

Backpacking Sichuan

Chengdu

Chengdu is my favourite Chinese city. It has a relaxing atmosphere along with really cool arts and cafe scenes, making it a very pleasant city to hang out in. Throughout my different trips to China, I’ve spent a couple of weeks there in total.

Chengdu is mainly known for two things – pandas and spicy food. The Panda Research Base is accessible by a short metro and bus ride. Try to visit early in the morning, as that is when the pandas are most active. Another good day trip is the Leshan Buddha, which is only 1 hour away by high-speed rail. Make sure to try hot pot while you are in Chengdu.

"Delicious

Where to stay in Chengdu

I recommend the Flipflop Hostel – it has a great downtown location and friendly staff.

"Panda

Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong

Jiuzhaigou is an incredibly beautiful national park in Northern Sichuan that is a must-visit if you’ve got the time.

Huanglong is another national park located nearby, and I’d recommend checking it out if you’re in the Jiuzhaigou area.

For more info, check out my Jiuzhaigou travel guide (coming soon).

Stunning water colours in Huanglong, Sichuan
Stunning water colours in Huanglong, Sichuan

Western Sichuan

If you want to get off the beaten path in China, there’s no better way to do that than a visit to Western Sichuan.

Western Sichuan is home to the edge of the Tibetan Plateau – most people living here are Tibetans and their culture is vastly different from anything that you’ll have seen so far.

In my opinion, the best way to visit Western Sichuan is by taking the overland route between Chengdu and Shangri-La (in Yunnan Province). The overland route takes you over beautiful mountain passes, to gorgeous Tibetan monasteries, and to the Yading Nature Reserve – one of China’s most beautiful national parks.

Chengdu to Shangri-La Overland Route

The Chengdu to Shangri-La overland can by simplified as Chengdu-Kangding-Litang-Daocheng-Yading-Shangri-La. It’s doable in about 8 days, and if you’ve got the time I highly recommend it.

For more info, check out my detailed guide to the Chengdu to Shangri-La overland route.

On the road near Shangri-La, Yunnan
Stunning landscapes in Western Sichuan
Yading Nature Reserve

Yading is one of China’s most amazing national parks. It’s typically visited as a stop while travelling from Chengdu to Shangri-La, but it can also be visited independently with the opening of a new airport nearby at Daocheng.

It’s a perfect place for hiking, with the most common hike being the one-day journey around Mt. Chenrezig.

For more info, check out my guide to travel and trekking in the Yading Nature Reserve.

Incredible view of the Yading Nature Reserve
This is why you need to visit the Yading Nature Reserve

Backpacking Yunnan

Yunnan is a backpacker’s paradise. Tall mountains, rice terraces, chilled-out towns, and great coffee are a few of the reasons you should add Yunnan to your China travel itinerary.

Kunming

Kunming is Yunnan’s capital and is normally just a transit point for most people. It’s a nice city though, and I would recommend a couple of nights there if you’ve got spare time.

Where to stay in Kunming

I stayed at and enjoyed the Kunming Cloudland International Youth Hostel.

Things to do in Kunming

The most popular day trip from Kunming is a visit to the nearby Stone Forest. It’s about 90 kilometres outside of the city – there’s a regular bus departing from the Kunming East Coach Station that costs ¥34. The park has an entrance fee of ¥130.

Getting around Kunming

Kunming has a large and rapidly growing metro system. I found it was able to take me to most places that I needed to go within the city.

The Kunming Stone Forest, a great day trip from the city
The Kunming Stone Forest, a great day trip from the city

Dali

There are very few places in China that have a real South East Asia ‘backpacker vibe’, and Dali is one of them. It’s home to an impressive old town, countless cafes and bars, and beautiful natural surroundings.

Where to stay in Dali

The Jade Emu is an awesome place to stay. They have a great common area with a pool table, ping pong, foosball, and darts. There’s even a bookshop next door that sells books in English!

Three Pagodas in Dali, Yunnan
Three Pagodas in Dali, Yunnan
Things to do in Dali

In Dali, I recommend visiting the Three Pagodas and renting an electric scooter to ride the road along Erhai Lake (but please wear a helmet).

Lijiang

Lijiang is one most visited tourist destinations, mainly by domestic tourists. I wasn’t a huge fan of the town, but you’ll have to pass through here no matter what if you’re travelling around Yunnan.

Where to stay in Lijiang

Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse is the best hostel to stay at in Lijiang.

Things to do in Lijiang

Lijiang has an “old town”, but the area feels more like a theme park than an old town. The tiny alleyways are packed with touristy shops and restaurants, and at night there are Chinese-style bars and clubs blaring music onto the streets.

But Lijiang has some wonderful surroundings. Tiger Leaping Gorge is the most stunning, so if you’ve made it out to Lijiang you need to spend a couple of days hiking through the gorge.

There’s also Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Lugu Lake nearby – I haven’t visited but I know they’re also quite popular destinations.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the most insane landscapes in China. There’s a trail running along the northern side of the gorge that typically takes two days to complete.  I’ll have a complete guide to hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge published shortly; subscribe to my blog to be notified of when I share it!

Backpacking Tiger Leaping Gorge in China
Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan

Shangri-La

Shangri-La is a historically Tibetan town located in northwestern Yunnan. The town has an incredible monastery and an old town that’s been mostly rebuilt after a devastating fire in 2014. At a little over 3000 meters in altitude, you’ll definitely feel a bit short of breath walking around town.

Check out my post on travelling in the Tibetan parts of China without a tour for some more info.

Where to stay in Shangri-La

Tavern 47 is a nice hostel, I’d recommend staying there. They have cool Tibetan-style decor and great breakfasts.

On the road near Shangri-La
On the road near Shangri-La

Backpacking Guangxi

Guilin

Guilin is mainly a transit hub for people visiting Guangxi, but it’s also an alright place to spend a night or two if you’re interested.

Where to stay in Guilin

I recommend staying at the Guilin Central Wada Hostel if you find yourself in Guilin for the night.

How to get from Guilin to Yangshuo

There are frequent buses from the Guilin Airport, South Bus Station, and Railway Stations to Yangshuo. The drive should take about 90 minutes and cost anywhere from ¥25 to ¥50 depending on where you leave from.

Yangshuo also has a high-speed rail station now, with trains from Guilin taking only 24 minutes. The station is located 33 kilometres from the center of Yangshuo, so you’ll need to take another bus from the Yangshuo station to the city center (¥20).

The Longji Rice Terraces near Guilin, China
The Longji Rice Terraces near Guilin

Yangshuo

Yangshuo is a stunning destination and a must-have on any China backpacking itinerary. It’s a very popular destination for both domestic and foreign travellers, so there’s a ton of tourist infrastructure that makes visiting easy. Yangshuo itself is a pretty big and busy town now, so if you’re looking for a more relaxing time, check out the nearby Xingping village.

Where to stay in Yangshuo

I stayed at the Wada Hostel and enjoyed its very central location. Consider also checking out the rooftop bar at Monkey Jane’s hostel while you’re in Yangshuo.

The image on the ¥20 bill is from Yangshuo
The image on the ¥20 bill is from Yangshuo
Things to do in Yangshuo

In Yangshuo, rent a bicycle or electric scooter and do some riding around the beautiful countryside, take a boat ride on the incredible Li River, and climb one of the karst pillars for incredible views of the area.

Li River near Xingping Village, China
Li River near Xingping Village

Longji Rice Terraces

The Longji Rice Terraces are another excellent place to visit in Guangxi.

They’re only a two-hour drive north of Guilin, and a great place to spend a couple of days hiking around.

I’ve written a guide to visiting the Longji Rice Terraces, so check it out for more info.

Longji Rice Terraces in Guangxi, China
Longji Rice Terraces

Backpacking Hunan

One of China’s central provinces, Hunan is where Mao Zedong was born and is home to some insane mountains in the Zhangjiajie National Park. Its capital city is Changsha, although you likely won’t need to stop here.

Zhangjiajie

Zhangjiajie is where Avatar got its inspiration from. It’s absolutely amazing, and I loved my time there.

It can get a bit busy during peak season, but there are a number of side trails in the national park that you can take to get away from the crowds.

I’m still working on my guide to visiting Zhangjiajie, so for now, check out this guide if you’re planning a visit.

Unreal views in Zhangjiajie, China
Unreal views in Zhangjiajie
Where to stay in Zhangjiajie

If you’re planning on visiting the scenic area, you should stay near its entrance. In this case, I recommend staying at the Zhangjiajie Peakcap Hostel.

If you need to stay in the actual city of Zhangjiajie (possibly to catch an early morning flight or train), I recommend staying at the Geographer Hostel.

View of Zhangjiajie while backpacking in China
Typical views in Zhangjiajie

Backpacking Tibet

Also known as the “roof of the world” or the “land of snows”, Tibet is home to some of the most stunning landscapes on the planet and an incredibly unique culture. Tibet feels like an entirely different world.

Unfortunately for us backpackers, Tibet is a pretty difficult place to visit. Foreigners are required to join a guided tour if they wish to visit Tibet, and this will typically run you at least $80 per day.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet
The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet

If you don’t mind the price and are okay with having limited freedom during your visit to Tibet, then go ahead and visit! I took a 9-day tour from Lhasa to the Tibetan Everest Base Camp and loved it – the landscapes are gorgeous and the monasteries are unlike any I’ve visited in other places.

It is still possible to visit parts of “greater Tibet” without a tour. Check out my post to visiting Tibet without a tour for more information.

Houses in Lhasa, Tibet
The Forbidden City

Backpacking Xinjiang

Xinjiang is a tough place to travel around. I visited Tashkurgan and Kashgar in 2019 and didn’t have the best time. Police checks are everywhere (you need to have your backpack x-rayed just to cross the street), most hostels and hotels won’t accept foreigners, and locals are (understandably) afraid of talking with foreigners.

If you’re interested in visiting a modern-day police state, then Xinjiang is for you!

Josh over at FarWestChina has a great site on visiting Xinjiang, so check it out if you’re planning a trip.

Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang
The Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang

Urumqi

Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang and the most relaxed place regarding police presence. In Urumqi, the majority of the population is Han Chinese. Because of this, the government isn’t as concerned about it as some of the more heavily Uyghur populated parts of Xinjiang. There’s not really much to do in Urumqi, but it’s the best place to base your Xinjiang travels out of.

Where to stay in Urumqi

The hostels/hotels that accept foreigners are constantly changing in Urumqi. I suggest making a booking using Trip.com – if the place cancels on you for being a  foreigner, Trip.com will cover the price difference of a place that will accommodate you.

Kashgar

Once an important city on the Silk Road, modern-day Kashgar is a shadow of its former self.

The old town was destroyed by the government and rebuilt with wide streets, police stations, and security cameras everywhere. It’s kinda like Disneyland, but with more police.

Another one of Kashgar’s famous sights is the Id Kah Mosque. Its paint is falling off, but at least there’s a nice Chinese flag flying above it.

A market in Kashgar, Xinjiang
A market in Kashgar, Xinjiang
Where to stay in Kashgar

If you find yourself in Kashgar, one of the few places that you can stay at is the Old Town Youth Hostel. It’s a decent place, and you’ll likely meet the few other foreigner backpackers who are in the city at the time.

Tashkurgan

Tashkurgan is located on the Karakorum Highway – south of Kashgar near the China-Pakistan border.

It’s an interesting place, but I’m not sure if I’d recommend venturing here unless you’re going to or coming from Pakistan.

 Where to stay in Tashkurgan

Basically all foreigners passing through Tashkurgan stay at the K2 Youth Hostel. It’s a surprisingly large hostel, and the owner loves to drink local Xinjiang beer with his guests.

Streets of Tashkurgan, Xinjiang
Dystopian streets of Tashkurgan, Xinjiang

Getting Around China

China is a massive country, so figuring out how you’re gonna get around is imp

Domestic Flights in China

Flying within China is a good way to get around, especially over long distances or if you’re short on time. Domestic flights are quite cheap, even cheaper than taking the train in some cases.

One thing to note – flights in China are often randomly delayed. The Chinese military controls the countries airspace, and they sometimes close certain flight paths for their own use. Depending on the route, it may be faster to take the train.

For example, Beijing to Shanghai is only 4.5 hours by high-speed train and costs $80. Flying between the two cities takes 2 hours, but you also need to add time for airport security as well as getting to/from the airport. In this case, the train makes more sense.

However, if you need to cover a large distance (let’s say Kunming to Beijing), then flight is a better option. A 3.5 hour flight for $85 makes a lot more sense than an 11 hour high-speed train ride for $165 (or 46 hour slow sleeper train ride…).

For the best deals on domestic flights in China, use Trip.com.

Flying somewhere above Beijing
Flying somewhere above Beijing

Trains in China

Outside of the most mountainous places in the country, China is extremely well connected by train. It’s got the largest high-speed rail network in the world, and trains are typically very punctual.

Trains are a comfortable and easy way to get around while backpacking China.

High-speed Trains

The best way to travel quickly between a number of larger Chinese cities – high-speed train numbers begin with a ‘G’ prefix and typically only offer seating (they run during the daytime, so this isn’t a problem). 2nd class is the cheapest option, but is still quite comfortable enough.

Here are some useful high-speed rail routes:

  • Beijing – Shanghai – 4.5 hours, $80 for 2nd class
  • Beijing – Xi’an – 4.5 hours, $74 for 2nd class
  • Xi’an – Chengdu – 3 hours, $38 for 2nd class
  • Hong Kong – Shanghai – 8.5 hours, $144 for 2nd class
  • Hong Kong – Guangzhou – 1 hour, $31 for 2nd class
  • Guangzhou – Yangshuo – 2.5 hours, $20 for 2nd class
  • Shanghai – Hangzhou – 1 hour, $10 for 2nd class

For booking trains in China and viewing all available options, visit Trip.com.

Catching a sleeper train to Kashgar in Chengdu
Catching a sleeper train to Kashgar in Chengdu

Slow Trains

I love slow sleeper trains. There’s something very relaxing about rolling through the countryside with a book and some tasty ramen.

You can get almost anywhere in China by slow train. Like the high-speed trains, they’re also very punctual.

Slow trains typically have three different classes – hard seathard sleeper, and soft sleeper.

If you’re taking a short ride in the day time, go for hard seat. It’s not actually hard, and experiencing a hard seat carriage on a Chinese train is an experience in itself.

Hard sleeper is the most common option for long overnight journeys. Like hard seat, hard sleeper isn’t actually hard. It’s a decently comfortable bunk and I’ve never had problems getting a full night of rest. There are six beds per section.

Soft sleeper is the most comfortable, but also the most expensive option. There are four beds per section, and it has a door that can be closed to keep out any noise from the hallway.

For booking trains in China and viewing all available options, visit Trip.com.

Buses in China

If there’s anywhere that trains don’t go to in China, then buses will. The main downside to bus travel is that journey times can depend greatly on traffic conditions.

Buses also need to stop at road checkpoints in certain provinces, whereas trains obviously don’t.

Most large cities have a number of bus stations, so double check that you’re going to the right one if you plan on taking buses in China.

The best site I’ve found for figuring out bus routes and schedules in China is China Bus Guide.

Toilet break during a bus ride through Western Sichuan
Toilet break during a bus ride through Western Sichuan

China Backpacking Itineraries

China is a giant country, and it’s impossible to see it all. Here are some sample itineraries I’ve put together that include the best parts, based on my experience travelling around China for over 3 months.

2-Week China Backpacking Itinerary

Two weeks isn’t very much time for China, but is enough time for a first look that will make you want to come back again. This itinerary gives you a glimpse at both China’s cities and nature.

I’d recommend starting in Beijing and ending in Hong Kong.

  • Days 1 to 4: Beijing (and Great Wall of China)
  • Days 5 and 6: Xi’an
  • Days 6 to 9: Yangshuo (and Longji Rice Terraces)
  • Days 10 to 14: Hong Kong

With that itinerary, you’ll get to see China’s historic capital and the Great Wall, the terracotta warriors in Xi’an, the gorgeous karst landscapes of Yangshuo, the incredible Longji Rice Terraces, and the bustling metropolis that is Hong Kong.

All of those cities are easy to get between by train, except for the leg from Xi’an to Yangshuo (Guilin). It’s a long 10 hour high-speed train ride, so I’d suggest flying.

Streets of Lhasa, Tibet
The bustling streets of Lhasa

3-Week China Backpacking Itinerary

With three weeks in China, I’d take the above two-week itinerary and add on Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou.

Spend three days visiting Chengdu, tasting delicious Sichuan cuisine and visiting the Chengdu Panada Base. After that, hop on a bus (or flight, if it’s within your budget) to visit the Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong national parks.

You’ll need to return to Chengdu after Jiuzhaigou, and then you can continue to Yangshou.

1-Month China Backpacking Itinerary

With a month in China, the sky is the limit! If you’re planning on spending this much time here, you probably already have some sort of idea regarding what you want to see.

If you ask me, I’d take the above itinerary and add on a week in Yunnan. It’s a very unique province and a great way to see a slightly different side of China. Go hiking at Tiger Leaping Gorge, and spend a couple of days chilling in Dali.

Yamdrok Lake, Tibet
Yamdrok Lake in Tibet

Accommodation in China

China has accommodation available for any sort of budget. Let’s go over the most popular forms of accommodation in China.

Hostels in China

China has a great network of backpacker style hostels. They’re typically clean, have friendly staff, and wonderful atmospheres.

I’ve stayed at a ton of hostels all around China and always end up meeting great people and having a good time.

Airbnb in China

Airbnb is a great option for travelling in China if you’d like to have your own apartment to cook, wash clothes, or just have a break from hostels.

I’ve found AirBnbs in large Chinese cities to be very reasonably priced – in a few cases I’ve managed to pay only $10 for an amazing apartment.

GET $65 CAD OFF YOUR FIRST AIRBNB BOOKING

The unrestored Great Wall of China
An unrestored section of the Great Wall

Hotels in China

If you get really off the beaten path in China, hotels can sometimes be the only option available.

I’ve found that the best site to book hotels in China is Trip.com (as you can see, they’re kinda the go-to site for booking travel-related things in China).

I haven’t stayed in many hotels in China, but there’s a ton of them. In big cities, you’ll even find many luxury western hotels that typically cater to business travellers.

Best Time to Visit China

China is a big country, and some areas are better visited at certain times of the year. For example, Tibet and Western Sichuan have comfortable temperatures in the summertime, but most coastal will be scorching at that time of year.

Backpacking China in Summer

When I backpacked around China for the first time, it was in June and July. Mountainous regions were perfect at this time of year, but most of Eastern China was extremely hot and humid with afternoon thunderstorms.

If backpacking China in the summertime, pack light clothes that dry fast. Stay hydrated because you’ll be sweating a lot if you’re spending time outdoors.

Backpacking China in Spring and Autumn

Spring and autumn are the ideal times to travel around China. Cities will be at comfortable temperatures, and mountainous regions will be slightly chilly but not too cold. In autumn, certain parts of the country will look gorgeous as the leaves change colour.

If you’re able to, you should visit China in spring or autumn.

Trees in the Yading Nature Reserve
In fall, these trees in the Yading Nature Reserve will be gorgeous

Backpacking China in Winter

Winter in China varies vastly in the northern and southern parts of the country. Hong Kong and other southern cities will be quite comfortable, but Beijing sees sub-zero temperatures and the occasional snowfall.  Mountainous regions will be snow-covered which may make travel difficult.

Whether you should visit China in winter mainly depends on where you plan to go.

Another thing to note – air pollution is at it’s worst in the wintertime, so if you have sensitive lungs consider avoiding China at this time of year.

Internet & SIM Cards in China

I’ve already mentioned that internet access in China is restricted – many sites are completely blocked unless you have a VPN.

But what about internet access? Is it easy to stay connected while in China? I’m happy to say that it is easy to stay connected while in China. If you pick up a local SIM card, you’ll have signal basically everywhere you go.

I recommend purchasing a China Unicom SIM card as the other telecoms in China often don’t work with foreign phones.

Head to a China Unicom shop with your passport and pick a plan. Costs are fairly reasonable – on my last visit, I paid ¥100 for 40GB of data. The staff can usually speak a bit of English.

WiFi is often pretty slow in China and usually requires a Chinese phone number to connect to it. I’d recommend getting a decent data plan and using that instead.

Monk on a cellphone in Tibet
Even monks manage to stay connected in China

Solo Travel in China

China is a wonderful destination for solo travel. I’ve solo travelled on all of my trips to China, and always end up having an amazing time.

If you stay in hostels, it’s very easy to make new friends in China. Hostels typically have a mix of domestic and foreign backpackers – all who are eager to socialize and visit sights.

The only downside that I can think of is that many restaurants and dishes in China cater to groups. This isn’t really a problem, but if you go to a restaurant with a group you’ll be able to try multiple different dishes rather than a single one if you’re by yourself.

View from Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie
The view from Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie

Budget for Backpacking China

Travel costs in China are pretty mid-range. It’s cheaper than Japan or South Korea, but definitely more expensive than Thailand or Vietnam.

Accommodation and food are both fairly cheap, but transportation and entrance fees will increase daily costs quite quickly. Big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing are more expensive than small towns in Yunnan. Hong Kong is on another level – it’s got prices comparable to some places in Europe.

Depending on how much you’re moving around and how many national parks you visit, I’d budget anywhere from $30-50 a day (or ¥200 to 350) for backpacking in China. This means staying at hostels, taking public transit, and eating mainly at budget restaurants.

Camping on the Great Wall of China
Not a bad place to spend the night, eh? Accommodation cost – $0

Sample China Travel Costs

Here are some typical prices in China to help plan your budget:

  • Accommodation – You can find hostels for anywhere from ¥50 to 100 per night in most places. Hong Kong can easily be double this, however.
  • Food – It’s easy to spend a lot of cash on food in China if you visit nicer restaurants or opt for western-style foods. It’s also super easy to eat on a budget. A typical noodle dish costs about ¥15 to 20, but dishes like gong bao ji ding with more meat can be around ¥40 to 50.
  • Alcohol – If you want to drink on a budget, do it in restaurants or buy from a convenience store and drink on the street (this is legal in China). A local beer will usually only cost ¥4 to 8 from a convenience store. The same beer could be anywhere from ¥40 to 80 in a Chinese-style bar. It’s crazy expensive to get drinks when out at a bar.
  • Trains – Can be pricey, especially if you’re taking them a lot. From Shanghai to Beijing on a sleeper train, it will cost you about ¥320. If you want to take a high-speed between those two cities, it will cost ¥560. Check out Trip.com for prices on any train journey in China.
  • Entrance Tickets – This is where China can start to get pricey. For example, a ticket to visit the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an is ¥150. To visit Jiuzhaigou, a one-day ticket during high season is ¥310 – crazy! If you have a student card, you might be able to save 50% on certain entrance tickets. Don’t forget to bring it!
A monastery in Tibet
A monastery in Tibet

China Backpacking Guide Wrap-up

I hope this guide has helped you better plan your China backpacking adventure. I’m sure that you’ll have an amazing time backpacking around China – it’s an incredible country and I love returning to it.

Feel free to contact me with any other questions and I’ll get back to you. If you liked this post, consider sharing it!

Subscribe to my mailing list to be notified of my future posts!

Yay transparency! There are affiliate links in this guide. If you book or buy something using my links, I’ll make a bit of money at no extra cost to you.