9 tips for first time backpackers in China | Expert Travel Tips
So you want to go on a backpacking adventure in China, but you’ve heard some stories that worry you a little? Many people are intimidated by China, but you don’t need to be. Here are our 8 top tips to handle some of the most common fears about travelling in China.
1) Always have your destination written down
You might think that you have your destination’s name down to a tee, but the Chinese language uses a tonal system that makes it very easy to accidentally say the wrong thing. For the occasions where your taxi driver just stares at you blankly, it’s a good idea to have a copy of the address on your phone. Many hostels can give you their business cards – complete with full address – if you ask for them at the reception.
2) Bring toilet paper or tissue with you
While we’re on the subject, you should always keep some toilet roll or a packet of tissues with you in your bag wherever you go. Even if you think you won’t need it, it’s better to be prepared. It is not uncommon for communal bathrooms in China to be without toilet roll, some don’t even bother with the dispenser.
Jing’an Temple Station, Shanghai
3) Make the most of the metros
When you find yourself in a Chinese city, the metros are the best and cheapest way to travel – costing you less than £1 for a single journey. Beijing and Shanghai have especially excellent metro networks, with dozens of lines to take you to all corners of the cities. Ticket machines have multiple language options so purchasing your tickets becomes a quick and simple task.
Stops on the maps are written in both character and pinyin form, making it easy to spot your destination. In-train announcements are always repeated in English, so you should (hopefully) never miss your stop. If you can, try to avoid the work rush hours, as they tend to make London’s look like breeze!
4) Taxis are very useful
Taxis are another great way to get around cities and are very convenient. Just walk to your nearest main road and you’ll find one within minutes. Try to hail down an official, marked taxi, as they run on meters with base rates. These vary in colour in each city, but they are generally easy to spot. Just bear in mind that rush hour traffic can get quite bad in the major cities, so if you need to get somewhere in a rush, your best bet is the metro.
Outside train stations and at many popular tourist areas, you will probably find lots of unmarked taxis. It’s generally best to avoid using these as they can be very expensive. If you are unsure whether your taxi is marked or unmarked, just look for a taxi meter and driver’s licence on the dashboard when you get in, and if you don’t see them, just find a new taxi.
If you are ever in a situation where the only option available is an unmarked taxi, always agree on a price with the driver before getting in the vehicle. It’s a bonus if you are familiar with how much the trip should cost because you can base your haggling around that price.
5) Don’t disregard the squat toilets
When you first come across them, Chinese squat toilets can seem like the craziest thing in the world. But in many parts of China, especially rural areas, regular cleaning services are not available. In most cases, squat toilets are the far more hygienic option as the only thing that touches the toilet is the soles of your shoes.
Many places, like your hostels, will have Western-style toilets and they are always kept up to a very clean and hygienic standard. Toilets in shopping centres have some of the cleanest, fanciest toilets you have ever seen!
Tap water notice
6) Don’t drink the tap water
You might be used to drinking a glass of water from the tap back home, but tap water is not filtered in China and could give you a tummy ache. Many hostels provide complimentary water from a dispenser or offer bottles for purchase at reception. If you’re out and about or at a restaurant, opt to buy a bottle – it will cost you less than 50p.
A Beijing man proudly showing off his impressive belly
7) Be ready to see some bellies
If you are backpacking in China during the summer, the weather tends to get pretty hot. A lot of Chinese men walk around with their t-shirts rolled up into make-shift crop-tops to cool down, so be prepared for that. You will start to realise that the bigger the belly, the higher the top gets rolled up!
Group picture on The Great Wall
8) Expect some staring and photo requests
Throughout your trip backpacking in China, you will definitely experience people staring at you. Try to embrace it and take it as a compliment rather than being offended, most Chinese people are genuinely curious and don’t mean to be rude. It is more common in rural areas than the cities, as they have fewer encounters with foreigners. More often than not, young children are the ones who stare the most, so it can be nice to throw a cheesy smile their way.
A lot of the time, people will come up to you and make the universal hand sign for “picture” and strike a pose with you. Make the most of it, it’s fun to feel like you’re famous for a while! If you don’t want to have your picture taken with people, it’s no big deal. Just say no and they’ll leave you alone -even if they’re a little sad about it.
9. Consider buying travel insurance
It’s always a good idea to buy travel insurance no matter where you’re going because even the best planners can never predict what’s really going to happen! Flights can be cancelled, and baggage can be lost, leaving you with a giant hole in your pocket. Most of the time, the things that go wrong when people travel are out of your hands, so take control of the one thing you can and buy travel insurance! In fact, many travel companies – including us! – require proof of purchase when using joining their tours. Don’t know where to start? We’d recommend World Nomads.
Feel inspired to go backpacking in China? Check out our Flagship China tour, 18-day Shanghai tour or 15-day Hong Kong to Beijing adventure.
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Published 10th August 2018