China, a country with an interesting history and unique current situation. This country, which is still communist, tries to keep out western influences.
The Great Wall of China is perhaps the most famous landmark. But there is much more to see. It is not the easiest country for backpacking, because many people do not speak English. Don’t let this stop you, because there is so much beauty to see.
And before you leave, practice eating with chopsticks, because almost everywhere you get that standard with the food you order.
Before you go
Visitors to the mainland of the People’s Republic of China must obtain a visa from one of the Chinese diplomatic missions, unless they come from one of the visa exempt countries. Check which one applies to you here.
In China, you will hardly come across an ATM where you can pay with your Maestro card. Most ATMs are only suitable for UnionPay. This also applies to places where you normally want to pay with your credit card, such as a hotel. Some ATMs do work with a master card and/or visa card. You can also occasionally use these at hotels. You can also sometimes exchange Euros and Dollars for Yuans at the major banks. US dollars are most accepted for exchange.
Bank of China is one of the few banks that does accept international cards. So if you’re looking for an ATM, it’s best to try it here. Keep in mind that you can often withdraw a maximum of 2500 yuan at a time at an ATM. The largest banknote is 100 yuan, so don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself with a stack of 25 notes. There are also notes of 50, 20, 10, 5, and 1 yuan and 5 and 1 jiao. The coins contain 1 yuan, 5, and 1 jiao.
Making contact in China
Few Chinese speak English, which sometimes makes communication a bit difficult. The smaller the city, the less chance of an English word. The youth are more familiar with English, so if you want to ask something, ask the youth.
What also works well is to approach a group. If one person can’t figure it out, the rest will help. It is often clear from all the pieces.
Don’t forget to bring the name of your hostel/hotel/accommodation in Chinese. This also applies to the address details.
Don’t be surprised if you walk down the street in China and you hear someone gurgle or spit. This is really the order of the day here.
Sometimes it even happens that a store employee has a bowl in which he/she can occasionally spit. In China, they believe in the principle “Better out than in” (a la Shrek).
It is not equally bad everywhere, in Beijing, we have had little trouble with it. But be prepared, you will undoubtedly experience it.
Get a good VPN
Internet censorship still exists in China. View the list of websites that are blocked here. You can’t access your Gmail, Facebook, or Instagram without a VPN. It is especially useful if you are going to China for a longer time to install a VPN in advance. Once you are in China, it takes a lot more effort.
Note that China is trying to hold off the most used VPN applications. Before you go to China, check out which VPN application still works.
Food in China
The Chinese love hot food, be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Many breakfasts in hotels only consist of rice, noodles, dumplings, and hot soup. So don’t expect to be able to eat your cheese sandwich or cup of yogurt, this is hardly available.
In any case, you pay the top price for western dishes. And practice eating with chopsticks! Almost every restaurant only offers chopsticks. It takes some skill, but as the old saying goes, “When in China, do as the Chinese do”.
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Our route through China - 2 months
Our first stop in China is Datong, which caused a bit of culture shock for us. Nobody speaks English, we can’t get money anywhere and our hotel is really bad. There you are with your thick backpacks after two weeks of trains in a country you do not know. In Beijing, we relax a bit and take the time to explore this city. Via Pingyao, we travel to Xi’an where we sit out the Golden Week. The visit to the Terracotta army is still one of the highlights of our trip.
We travel on to Lanzhou and Zhangye, lesser-known stops in China. But the rainbow mountains are very impressive and well worth a visit. Then it is time for the pandas, the main reason why everyone travels to Chengdu. After this cuddling, it is high time for some action and so we continue to Lijiang. Not only an authentic nice town but the base for the hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge. We make a short stop in Dali and Kunming on the way to Shanghai because of cheap airline tickets.
Shanghai is our last stop in Mainland China, also known as ‘easy China’. This city has much more western influences, making it a good start to your China trip. Finally, we visit Hong Kong, which is often seen as part of China. In our experience, however, it is a completely different world and not comparable to China.
Our 3 favorites things to do
You can’t travel to China and not visit the Chinese wall. We took a tour that took us to a deserted piece of the Chinese wall. We definitely recommend doing something like this, because the parts that are easy to reach can be quite crowded. It’s magical to walk on the steps of this building that’s been there for centuries. And the view is amazing!
If you’re in Chengdu make sure to visit the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. You can’t really miss it because the whole city is covered in pandas. Over here they try to expand the panda population and you see pandas from just born to playing around like toddlers to about to be set out in the wild. Go early because pandas are most active after breakfast.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Wow, this hike kicked our buts! But the views were spectacular and worth it. We started early and during the day we met people when taking a break. Everyone walks at their own pace, it’s the only way to get through it. Most people will take two days to complete the entire hike and Teahouse is the best stop to stay overnight. Bring enough water!
Where to stay
If you travel to China you have a lot of options of where to stay. From luxury resorts to simple hotel rooms and hostels, there’s something for every budget. It all depends on where you’re going.
Some of our favorites:
Leo Hostel is located in Downtown Beijing. There are a lot of restaurants and shops to enjoy during your stay.
This hostel is right on the old street of Lijiang. You have a nice view over the street and the city. Great place to start your hike.
Great apartments that allow you a bit more space. Close to the City Center and lot’s of shops and restaurants nearby.