China, also officially called the People’s Republic of China, is located in eastern Asia on the western shore of the Pacific Ocean. One of the world's four great ancient civilizations, China is a huge country that borders fourteen nations and is the most populated country in the world.
Beijing is its capital and cultural center, and the city is a great place to visit.
The ideal time to visit China is from March to May during spring, and during autumn from September to November.
You can find budget and backpackers hostels in China in cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Yangshuo, and Xi’an. Meet other tourists at such China hostels and share rides with them.
Some hostels in China also organize tours, rent bikes, and arrange for your transportation tickets. Since hostels in China are still not very common, call and book your stay in advance.
It also may be difficult to find English-speaking staff at hostels in China, so it is best to have a local or a Chinese-speaking person to help with your reservations.
1. Main Cities in China worth a Visit
1.1 Beijing (Capital City)
Beijing is one of China's six ancient cities and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. You can experience the society, history, and charm of China on a visit here.
The Great Wall of China is one of its major attractions. Badaling is a famous section of the Great Wall with magnificent sights and military facilities. During peak season, this spot is quite crowded, although equally popular sections such as Mutianyu, Juyongguan, and Shuiguan are less crowded and you can enjoy exploring ancient towers, temples, and scenic spots.
The Forbidden City, now called the Palace Museum, is the best preserved and largest architectural relic in the world. Get here early and get your tickets as soon as possible during holiday seasons so that you get a chance to get in.
If you're traveling with children or if you are a child at heart who loves animals, stop off at the Beijing Zoo for a glimpse of some rare animals such as giant pandas, golden monkeys, Northeast tigers, and milu deer.
Find all Beijing hostels here.
Another must-see city in China is the famous Shanghai, located on the estuary of Yangtze River.
This city is home to many tourist attractions that include Nanjing Road, Yuyuan Garden, The Bund, World Financial Center, and Zhujiajiao Water Town.
Pay a visit to the Jade Buddha Temple and explore the Shanghai Museum for some of China's forgotten yet memorable past.
Discover Shanghai hostels here.
Xian, which is located in central northwest China, is one of the birthplaces of Chinese civilization. Be sure to visit the world-famous Terracotta Warriors on your visit here.
Make a trip to the Huashan Mountain with its many Taoist temples. This region is widely known for its five famous peaks that have their own charm.
Skip to Xi'an hostels here.
1.4 Hong Kong
On the southeast coast of China lies Hong Kong - a Special Administrative Region of China with its own set of laws. A city made up of four parts, Hong Kong has numerous tourist destinations and is the center for entertainment and shopping.
The ideal places to enjoy the perfect holiday are at The New Territories and Outlying Islands in Hong Kong. Victoria Harbor, Ocean Park, Causeway Bay, and Wong Tai Sin Temple are popular tourist spots.
Have a look at all Hong Kong hostels.
Backpacking China? If time permits, we also think it's worth checking out other major destinations with a superb collection of hostels, such as:
1. Chengdu (home of the Giant Panda)
2. Public Holidays in China
China has three main public holidays:
1. Chinese New Year during late January or early February
2. May Holiday during the first week of May
3. National Day during the first week of October
All major tourist places and attractions will be crowded during this time and it is hard to find accommodation unless you book your hostels in China well in advance.
3. Insider Knowledge and Tips
China is a country that may challenge you as a traveler more than you would expect but if you give it time and learn a few tricks you will no doubt discover little corners you fall in love with or somehow begin to flow along easily in the chaos of a big city.
After spending six weeks navigating the massive streets and small towns of China solo, I picked up a few tips and tricks to help make your time more enjoyable.
3.1 Do not expect anyone to know English
With such a high demand for English teachers in China, I expected English speakers, both Chinese and Western, to be fairly easy to find when needed.
Much to my surprise they were almost impossible to find.
Not the bus drivers, not the train ticket salesman, not the boy on the bus when you are lost or the lady serving food at the restaurant. Not even the simplest words. Of course this is even more true in rural towns but even in the big cities either due to shyness or a lack of knowledge, English speakers are difficult to find.
However, if you know this ahead of time you can not only prepare yourself for the shock but know how to cope with it as well.
3.2 People will most likely not understand what you think you are saying in Mandarin
Like many other countries, you may try to prepare yourself for travel by learning a few key phrases and words out of politeness and a desire to communicate. While it is a great idea to familiarize yourself with words and sounds, communicating in China will obviously challenge you beyond memorization.
With a wide range of dialects and accents, Mandarin’s tonal quality makes it extremely difficult to reproduce if you don’t know exactly how to say it. Not that you really have to worry about calling someone’s mother a cow but it is easy to become frustrated when you try to say a word you know but you still get a blank confused look or are quite possibly ignored all together.
The good news is that the more you listen the more you will be able to pick out words and tones and repeat them. Eventually you will be able to ask for rice or water or soy sauce and not only get what you want but have the satisfaction of breaking through a language barrier. So keep speaking.
Another aspect of this is that most people will not understand what you write in Mandarin either. Many people only know how to read characters and not pinyin so even if you write down the word you are trying to say they most likely will not know what you are talking about.
This can be crucial when trying to get help by showing someone a map so make sure you have one with characters as well as pinyin.
3.3 Ask Hostel Staff to write down Phrases & Words
When I travel - especially if I’m alone - I often choose to spend my first few nights in a highly rated and possibly slightly more expensive hostel just to get comfortable and make sure I have all the help I need to start my journey. I definitely recommend this for China since you want to stay somewhere first that has an English speaking staff.
Start thinking about common phrases you use when traveling and find a hostel staff member to help you write some phrases down in both pinyin and characters so that you can save these and pull them out when needed. I carried around a little note everyday that said “I don’t eat meat” (very tricky as there is no direct translation for this) and although sometimes I got confused looks, it definitely helped when ordering food.
I also had hostel staff write down specific directions for taxi drivers to get to the airport or shuttle bus stop and other travel related phrases. This is much better than using a phrase book since you will have specific instructions as well as phrases written in the particular dialect.
3.4 Grab Hostel Flyers and Business Cards
A great way to help yourself out is to look for hostel flyers for cities where you plan to go or think you might visit. That way you not only have the phone number for the hostel in case you need to book a room or contact them, but most flyers have directions to the hostel in characters and pinyin so you can show them to a taxi driver or person on the street. This is extremely helpful!
An added bonus is that most flyers have a map of at least part of the city which can help you figure out where you are even if you aren’t staying at that particular hostel. Sometimes it is a good idea to pick up a few flyers for one city just for the sake of having a map.
3.5 Book Hostels ahead of Time
In a short time you will most likely discover that China is a little harder to get around than many other countries; it is definitely nothing like Southeast Asia where you can show up at the bus station, take a shuttle into the city and somehow end up within walking distance of a ton of different hostels where you can take your pick.
Chinese cities are huge and spread out and the streets are confusing, sometimes unmarked or with names that change halfway down.
To reduce a lot of stress, it is a good idea to book your next hostel before departing for your destination. That way you can get directions before you arrive as well as make sure your hostel is not full.
It is not really a problem in smaller rural towns but it doesn’t hurt to look at your choices ahead of time and get a general idea where they are and how to get to them or at least find a phone number. That way, you can avoid being stuck on a street corner trying to figure out what bus to take or where to even find a bus let alone where to get off the bus.
3.6 Ask Younger People for Help
This is a given in any foreign country and if you have traveled at all before you know this piece of advice. It is definitely true in China, if you have any hope of finding someone who can speak or is willing to speak English to you it will most likely be someone in their twenties or younger.
In general, Chinese people seem very shy to speak English even if they know it or can read and write it perfectly; this is a fact that many Chinese people will confirm. However if you try enough people you may eventually find someone who is willing to help you, especially giggling teenagers who keep glancing in your direction. Who knows, you may even end up with a new friend.
Another great help is looking for Chinese speaking guests at your hostel. Some hostels don’t allow Chinese travelers to stay but those that do provide a great way for you to meet young Chinese people. Although they are usually traveling themselves and not local to the region, it is always interesting to talk to people from the country you are visiting.
3.7 Know a few Key Words (+ pronunciation)
Although as you know and as stated previously, Mandarin is a very difficult language and even if you study months in advance you will most likely struggle to communicate effectively.
A good idea is to focus on a few key words that you know you can pronounce at least in a manner where people can get an idea of what you are saying.
- Basic items: soy sauce, rice, water, bus, hostel.
- City Names: practice saying the name of the town where you will be going next and use it out loud to the hostel staff where you are currently staying so they can correct you if needed. That way you can listen for the name when you are on a bus or train as well as use the name to ask if you are in the right place. This will also help give you an idea of how to pronounce similar sounding yet unrelated words.
- Numbers: in China people use hand signals that are different from just holding up fingers. If you can learn these number signals it will make it much easier to find out prices and bus numbers and many other things. If you know how to pronounce the numbers this is also very helpful to go along with the hand signals.
3.8 Don't expect a Please and Thank You
All of us have been taught as children to say please and thank you and this is often the first thing travelers learn to say in a foreign country. However, in China you will quickly notice that this is not a typical exchange even between people who speak the language.
Chinese people are very matter or fact, they take your money they give you your change and they may not even acknowledge you let alone say you're welcome or goodbye.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t still say please and thank you but don’t be disappointed or hurt when they are not returned.
In fact, Chinese people consider the phrase to be insincere especially when used for small things like opening a door or selling you an item; they definitely do not use the phrases among friends since this would indicate they are not very close.
It may take awhile to adjust to simply paying for something at the store and walking away without a glance or thank you but just be assured that this is part of the culture, you are not being rude and they do not hate you.
3.9 Say Goodbye to Personal Space
You will get shoved, you will get crushed, you will get cut in line at the ticket counter and no one will care. Good or bad, China is an individualistic country where every man is out for himself.
While it may go against our Western ideas, if you choose to go to China and take part in their culture then this is something that you have to accept. Just hold your ground, be assertive and stand up for yourself.
You may also want to avoid wearing flip flops while trying to get on the metro in Beijing during rush hour because you may end up bare foot from being stepped on and pushed from all directions. Have fun!
3.10 Booking Transportation is Frustrating
If you are used to traveling in Southeast Asia or Europe or any other somewhat westernized country, you will expect to be able to show up in a town or at a hostel and make plans from there. This is unfortunately much more difficult in China.
Trains book out sometimes as soon as the tickets are available (two weeks in advance) and you often have to be in the city where the train will depart to book the ticket. In smaller towns ticket information will be in Mandarin only so make sure you have someone write down the characters for the place and time of the tickets you are trying to book.
Buses are a little easier but again you may have to be in the city where you will be leaving from to book the ticket, they do not fill up as quickly as trains however.
Even booking a flight can sometimes be challenging so just be prepared.
My story: I decided to do things the “easy” way and book a flight instead of a bus or train and spent an entire day trying to work out the details. I booked the flight from a budget website and thought I was all set. Thankfully I checked my email because I discovered that I had to scan a copy of my credit card as well as my passport within a short amount of time or my flight would be canceled. Unfortunately, I was in a very small rainy town and spent the afternoon searching for a scanner and fax machine before my bus out of town left. In the end it worked out but just be aware that flying may not be as easy as you expected, either.
3.11 Take your time, China is HUGE!
You will quickly realize how large China actually is and how much time is takes not only to book transportation but to travel between destinations as well. It is best to focus on a particular area of the country and go with the flow, otherwise you will most likely be forced to book flights and spend more money than you want.
On the other hand, you could end up spending all your time on trains and busses and not actually enjoying the country you are trying to explore. With that said, the buses are not so bad and the trains are excellent, especially if you can get a sleeper. Even third class seats are comfortable enough for a twelve-hour ride but may be a little less desirable for even longer journeys.
The best surprise will be how safe you feel on the trains and buses. While you should still keep an eye on your belongings, you will most likely not feel threatened in any way.
The best tactic is to spend as little time in transit as possible since it is a pretty amazing country and it will take time for you to fully realize this.
Look realistically at travel times between cities and map out how long it will take you to get where you want to go. In China it seems that often the smaller cities are the ones worth lingering in while the larger ones can be seen in a matter of hours or days. Take into account your travel style and overestimate travel time and you will have an enjoyable trip.
3.12 Pick a Friendly Hostel, Stay Longer
Make friends with the hostel workers as they are your best resource and teachers.
Once you venture outside the larger cities where tourists are cycled in and out, you will often discover a more receptive and personal atmosphere. There are many opportunities to volunteer at hostels in exchange for accommodation if you have the time, which is a great opportunity to learn the language while helping teach English to locals or just cleaning in exchange for a place to live.
Even if you don’t have time for an extended stay, make an effort to connect with hostel workers especially if they are locals. This is often the very best way to find out information beyond the tourist trail, to go on a hidden hike, attend a locals only festival or eat at a packed back alley restaurant.
If nothing else you will have a new local friend and may learn a little more about the history of the place or people.
Expectation and preparation are the keys in China. If you know what you are getting yourself into and keep an open mind you will have a much easier time transitioning and accepting the complications while appreciating the culture.
So go to China and explore, take your time, learn some words, meet new people, take pictures (even though the ten year old Chinese tourist will have a much better camera than you), and keep smiling because eventually someone will smile back.
Handwritten by local expert for China hostels Joy Barboza