The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China

Backpacking China: Top experiences


  1. Exploring the Forbidden City
  2. Riding the elevator to the top of one of the world’s tallest buildings in Shanghai
  3. Going underground to see the Terracotta Soldiers in Xi’An
  4. Climbing Tai Mountain — a Buddhist holy site — for sunrise
  5. Visiting a traditional tea house in Beijing’s hutongs


My Trip


I lived in China for a semester during university. Beijing was my home base, but I took trips to Shanghai, Xi’An, and Tai An.


After my study abroad, my family visited. We stayed in Beijing the whole time, but I got a sense of what backpacking China would be like.


Know before you go




Backpacking China does not have to be expensive. It can be difficult to find good deals — the government wants to encourage luxury travel, so it makes it difficult for independent travelers to make arrangements. But it’s possible to stick to an under-$20 a day budget.




There are plenty of hostels in major cities in China. In Beijing, Shanghai, and other mega-cities, expect to pay $10-$15 for a dorm, and more than $30 for a private room. Rural areas are cheaper.


Shanghai is doable on a backpacker budget
Shanghai is doable on a backpacker budget




When you’re backpacking China, you’ll quickly discover that real Chinese food is nothing like what you find at take-out Chinese places in the U.S. and Europe.


Most Chinese restaurants specialize in one type of food, or the food of a specific region. Sichuan food is spicy, but not as much as Hunanese. Uighur food is more like what you’d find in Central Asia. Dai food emphasizes sour flavors. Southern Chinese food tends to be oilier and less spicy. Noodles are more common in the north, while southerners prefer rice.


At local restaurants, expect to pay $2 for a meal with rice. If you have a group of people, order one dish per person, but eat family-style. A bowl of noodles for one person costs about $1.


Street food is also readily available. This varies from region to region. Dumpling stands are everywhere — you’ll be able to identify them by the bamboo steamers stacked up outside. It’s about $0.75 for a steamer full of dumplings. In Beijing, other street favorites are grilled meats, soy eggs, and jianbing — a savory pancake. All these options cost under $1.




You have many options for activities when backpacking China — the question is how hard you want to work for them. Tours are the easiest way to get around the country. If you’re determined to go it alone outside the cities, you’ll need patience.


China’s imperial treasures are centered in Beijing. The Forbidden City and Summer Palace are must-see, and both cost around $5 to enter. The city also has historic hutongs — alleyways lined with shops and restaurants — that add to its old-world feel. It’s also easy to visit the Great Wall as a day trip from Beijing (or overnight for more remote sections).


Shanghai is more of a modern metropolis, but it’s actually a pretty boring city. There are some street markets and lots of 21st-century architecture, but you don’t need more than two days here on a trip backpacking China.


Shanghai may be busy, but it's pretty boring
Shanghai may be busy, but it’s pretty boring


Xi’an is home to the Terracotta Soldiers and a large Buddhist pagoda. It’s also an easy trip from Beijing, with hassle-free train tickets, so it’s popular with travelers.


There are many opportunities to get outdoors when backpacking China. These range from climbing religiously-significant mountains to trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Transport to and from trailheads can be difficult to arrange.


Hikers reach the Second Gate to Heaven on Tai Mountain




Once you have your tickets, getting around China is easy. The problems mostly come when you go to buy your tickets.


Trains are the quickest way to get from point A to point B, and they serve all the major cities. They range from slow to “bullet,” with corresponding price differences. If you can afford the commission, it’s worth it to pay a travel agency or hotel to arrange tickets for you — buying them yourself requires some knowledge of Chinese.


If trains won’t get you where you want to go, you may be able to take a bus. These can be pretty straightforward, or they can be super-frustrating — a lot of it depends on how touristy your destination is. Busing from Beijing to the Great Wall involves figuring out which of the many buses parked in the same place is the real one that charges $1.50, versus the copycat ones that charge much more and abandon you in the middle of nowhere.




Backpacking China is very safe. Violent crime is low. Even pickpocketing is rare — just beware of crowded subway cars and markets in Beijing and Shanghai.


Bus travel can be a bit harrowing — drivers are reckless. Take trains when you can, and avoid minibuses at all costs.


Chinese people have plenty of clever ways of convincing you to part with your money. Always find out the local price for things in advance, and don’t pay more. Bargain aggressively. Verify information from people you meet on the street — “the museum is closed” is probably just code for “I want you to come shopping with me instead of going to the museum.”


There are plenty of touts working the hutongs of Beijing
There are plenty of touts working the hutongs of Beijing


For women alone


Backpacking China presents no special issues for women alone. I had absolutely no trouble living there or traveling around — not a single occurrence of street harassment or an overly flirtatious man.


Lots of people will want to take their photos with you — this is completely normal, and not a sleazy-man thing. They’re just excited to meet tourists who have come to their country.


Ready to get started?


Check out the posts from China.