As my year of adventures has already taken me to quite a few countries in Asia, I always get asked which is my favourite country so far. And the answer is always the same: solo backpacking in China is awesome!
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I don’t like to compare countries because every place has a different charm, whether because of their natural beauty, food, culture, people or a combination of all of them.
However, I single out China on this recurrent question simply because its nature is out of this world. The culture/society is also very different to the western way of seeing life and whilst there’s a massive language barrier, I met really friendly people everywhere I went.
The food is also very different to what we know in the West as “Chinese food”. It’s even more delicious in China!
All in all, China is possibly the biggest hidden gem for the western backpacker and you should put it at the top of your bucket list as one of the best places to go backpacking in the world!
I don’t really know why no more solo backpackers or western tourists are visiting this huge country, and most of the people that I’ve met that have travelled in China limited their visit to the “famous” cities of Beijing, Shanghai or Xi’an.
What made me love my time in China so much is because in almost 2 months that I spent backpacking in China I avoided spending many days on these cities and instead focused on wonderful natural environments.
These destinations are also a lot cheaper than the big cities for accommodation and food!
What do you need to travel to China?
Not much! don’t worry about the language, if you know a couple of words it always helps of course. But the same language barrier can be found in pretty much every other Asian country.
What you most certainly will need is a visa. Although certain countries are exempt, make sure to check your country’s foreign office website to see if you’re a lucky one as the lists out there keep changing all the time.
If you need to apply to a visa and by any chance plan to travel first to Vietnam make sure to check my post about getting a Chinese Tourist Visa in Hanoi as you will save hundreds of Dollars/Euros/Pounds! compared to what you’d pay in your country of origin.
Once in China you can also extend your visa for an extra 30 days if you find yourself looking to extend your backpacking adventures. Feel free to reach out if you want more info on this!
Another important thing before travelling to China is to sort out a VPN (that actually works in China!). If you don’t do this, the internet as you know it will disappear as in China you don’t have access to Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others!
NOTE: if you’re planning to go to China you need a VPN to keep using the internet as you know it (with Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, etc). There are lots of VPN providers out there. Some of them free. I got mine with Surfshark after doing some research and it worked really well for me and it was pretty cheap. Feel free to contact me if you have further questions on this 🙂
Where to go solo backpacking in China?
So many places! After two months of solo travel in China there’s so much of this huge country that I couldn’t visit!
There’s no need to fear the distances as the entire country is well linked by rail and air. Also buses of course, but the trains are more convenient and cost pretty much the same.
The following are my favourite places to go backpacking in China
I entered to China by land from Vietnam and after a short stop at the city of Kunming I headed towards Dali, Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shangri La.
Dali and Lijiang are really beautiful and are very famous destinations for the Chinese tourists themselves, I highly recommend visiting these two places.
Shangri La can be skipped as this is a “fake town”. The Chinese goverment just rebranded an existing Tibetan town with the name of the fictional place depicted in the novel Lost Horizon written in 1933.
Additionally, the existing Shangri La burnt in 2014 and has been rebuilt with modern techniques, so you can forget about exploring ancient architecture.
MY HIKING ESSENTIALS
Tiger Leaping Gorge is now one of my favourite places in the world to go hiking! the big mountains (+5500m) are not exploited at all by the masses.
I spent almost a week hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge and had the mountains pretty much for myself. You can do short hikes and multi-day hikes.
I wrote more in detail about it on my post Hiking around Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Having an interest in Chinese culture, I found a workaway in the city of Yangshuo that also allowed me to study some more Mandarin. Little did I know that there were so many things to do in Yangshuo!
As soon as I got to this town in Guanxi province I couldn’t believe how beautiful this was! the landscape is like Halong Bay or Ninh Binh in Vietnam, and while these destinations are incredibly tourist, Yangshuo is still undiscovered for the western backpacker.
The entire region is surrounded by beautiful karst mountains, many of which you can climb.
If you’re interested in staying there for a while, send an email to Omeida Language School and ask for their volunteering positions, for just 1 hour of work you can get free accommodation!
Check out my post about Things to do in Yangshuo for you to get a quick idea on the many options to spend a few days backpacking over there.
From Yangshuo you can also visit the nearby town of Guilin which also has beautiful nature, including caves and more karst mountains. You can reach it by bus or boat from Yangshuo!
Zhangjiajie National Park
4 weeks after I learnt a lot more about Chinese language and culture in Yangshuo, I headed with some friends towards a place that has been on my bucket list for many years!
Zhangjiajie is one of those magical places that are hard to believe they’re real.
To think of all the million of years required to sculpt these mountains is another reason to respect a lot more our planet.
The national park of Zhangjiajie became even more famous after being a source of inspiration for the mountains of Pandora in the movie Avatar.
This is a massive national park and you need a few days to visit it. In fact, you cannot just buy a ticket for one day as the only option is to buy a 4-day ticket.
We ended up hiking around Zhangjiajie for 3 days and we avoided all the masses. This is an incredibly popular spot but you can still have many areas for yourself.
Check out my post about Hiking in Zhangjiajie without the crowds for some tips!
In the city of Zhangjiajie (half an hour from the national park) you can also visit Tianmen Mountain which is another surreal arch carved by nature.
This is a really busy place, so if you’re short on time is better to spend more time at Zhangjiajie than at the crowded Tianmen Mountain.
If you’re looking for more out-of-this-world natural landscapes you have to go to Gansu province.
Up north, almost arriving to Mongolia, this part of China is not widely visited, even by the Chinese people.
However, it’s home of some incredible places such as the Colourful Mountains of Zhangye and the Pingshanhu Grand Canyon!
I really loved these two places which are also the result of millions of years of natural changes.
They’re close geographically but so different to each other!
When you see photos of the Colourful Mountains of Zhangye you think they’re just overly photoshopped. Not the case! the place is even better in real life!
The Zhangye National Geopark is quite large, sadly you cannot go hiking around but instead have to take internal shuttle buses that take you all over the place. It’s still an incredible sight and you should not miss it!
I took a 31-hour train ride just to go there…and leave on the following day! totally worth it!
The Pingshanhu Grand Canyon is also an impressive piece of art in nature’s canvas. There you can do some short hikes but overall is also quite civilised and prepared for the tourists, which is fair enough as if you have a country with over 1.3 Billion people you have to put measures in place for the natural wonders not to be destroyed by irresponsible tourists.
As my visa was running out I could only stay in Gansu for 2 nights, but I managed to do both sites in one day.
Check out my post about Backpacking in the Colourful Mountains of Zhangye and Pinshanhu Grand Canyon for more details!
There are also a couple more places that look impressive in Gansu but I didn’t have time to visit them. You should definitely check out this part of the country on your backpacking trip to China!
Camping on the Great Wall of China with no guide
Ever since I discovered a few years ago via other blogs that you could camp on the Great Wall, I knew that I had to do it!
Camping on the Great Wall is a bit of a grey area. In some areas is explicitly forbidden to camp while in other sections that are not so touristy is a bit of a hit and miss.
Nowadays there are several agencies organising camping tours, but you can certainly camp on your own with no guides.
To have the Great Wall of China for yourself makes the adventure even more special. To stay camping in such a global landmark was a dream come true.
On my post about Camping solo on the Great Wall of China I wrote all the details you need to know.
If you dream of camping solo on the Great Wall, I encourage you to go sooner rather than later as more areas of the wall are being restored and more signs forbidding to camp may be coming up.
MY CAMPING ESSENTIALS
Have you sorted out your travel insurance?
I’m not a huge fan of travel insurance, but being in such a different environment, where the medicines have different names and it’s not easy to find our regular over-the-counter painkillers, it’s a good idea to have some backup.
I sorted my backpacker insurance with TrueTraveller after doing quite a bit of homework reading many policies.
I like TrueTraveller because it covers many activities, including extreme sports and it also came as one of the cheapest policies I found out there!
You can read a bit more of my thoughts on my post about travel insurance for backpacking the world.
Will you enjoy China?
For me, the most important thing about backpacking in China is that you must go really open minded.
Chinese traditions, culture and day-to-day behaviour is very different to what we know in the west.
That doesn’t mean one is better or worse than the other. Simply different.
When in China, be prepared for the constant background “music” of people spitting everywhere (even inside trains). Also forget about having a quiet dinner at a local restaurant as the tone of voice is more like shouting for us.
Forget about finding your western craving fixers based of cheese and chocolate as those are incredibly hard to find in certain areas. Even coffee!
China is a tea country and out of the big cities can be really hard to find a place selling coffee, and if they do, it may be pretty expensive and not the best quality. So, change your drinking habits for great tea instead!
There may be more things to be aware of that perhaps I don’t notice anymore after many months in Asia. But again, I’m not complaining about it but just reinforcing the idea that these things are normal and you have to get used to.
I ended up loving my time backpacking in China and will surely go back one day to explore even more.
If you’re looking to go on some solo backpacking adventures feel free to reach out with any questions or comments!
Check out all the posts from my solo backpacking adventures in China for more inspiration on your next backpacking adventure! 🙂