There are few countries in the world with a culture as distinct as China. A country of contrasts, China offers thriving Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, but also extremely rural and underdeveloped areas in the western part of the country. This is a country stuck between the developed and developing world. Rapid change has attracted curious people from around the globe, so it’s a great time to dip your toe into this amazing culture and explore the country. Each day creates a new China. While I dislike the pollution of many of the big cities, the countryside and food are amazing. This travel guide to China can help you plan your visit!
Destination Guides for China
Accommodation – Prices start at around 40 CNY for a dorm (but can be closer to 80 CNY in Beijing) and are about 125 CNY (city dependent) for a private room with a shared bathroom, or 185 CNY for a private room with ensuite. Budget hotels begin around 135 CNY per night for basic accommodations that are basic but good value. Expect higher prices in Hong Kong, with a single room starting around 145 CNY per night.
Food – Food in China is cheap. A meal from a street vendor usually goes for around $1-2 USD. For this you might get noodles, rice, pork buns, or a soup. A full meal in a sit down restaurant will cost between $2-8 USD plus the fee for a bowl of rice and clean bowls (yes, these cost extra!), which is often around .50 cents. If you stick to the local food, you’ll find it hard to go broke. You could spend less than $10 for an entire day’s worth of food. In western China, southwestern China and the interior, food is much cheaper than in the big cities and you can eat for under $4 USD per day; about half the costs of the big cities.
For Western food, you can expect to pay much higher prices for food that will be a disappointment compared to home, if you’re outside of the more Westernized cities like Hong Kong. A western style sandwich can run about $6 USD and a cup of coffee can be similarly-priced to back home.
Since food is so cheap, there’s no need to self-cater or cook your own meals. You are better off eating the streets food and at the restaurants. Moreover, most hostels don’t have kitchen facilities for you to use even if you did go grocery shopping. Therefore, self-catering is not something I recommend.
Transportation – China may be a huge country, but it’s easy and cheap to get from one place to another. Buses are the most popular way to travel and usually cost between 1.50 – 3 CNY in a city. Major cities also have extensive underground systems that are less than 6 CNY per ride. Taxi fares start at about 6 CNY. On a high-speed train, the ticket from Beijing to Shanghai is around $81 USD for 2nd class, around $138 USD for 1st class, and around $267 USD for a VIP seat. For the longer, full day train, a 2nd class seat is around $66 USD and a 1st class seat is around $80 USD. Buses are generally cheaper than trains. For example, the 9 hour to Beijing to Anshan is $28 USD while the train is between $34 and $143 USD. The two hours bus from Beijing to Tianjin is $4-6 USD while the high speed train is around $9. The trip to Shanghai to Hanghzou is 2.5 hours by bus and $11 USD, while train is $14.
Activities – In general, sights are affordable in China – even the popular attractions such as the Great Wall or Forbidden City are under $10 USD. While the Great Wall never kept out invaders, it’s beautiful and is only $7 USD, the Forbidden City is $10 USD. Smaller temples, activities and sights are much more reasonable priced and cost around $2.
While attractions and temples are less than $10, prices for hikes and outdoor activities tend to be around $30. For example, a trip to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain costs $25.60 USD, a visit to the Jiuzhai Valley is a whopping $59 and a three day pass to the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian province is $40 USD while the Yellow Mountains in Anhui province are $37.
Money Saving Tips
China is already very cheap but doing these three things can lower your prices even more:
Use sleeper trains – Use sleeper trains, doorless compartments with bunks, to travel overnight since cities are spread apart and save on paying accommodation. Lower bunks are less expensive, so purchase a few days in advance to take advantage of these savings. Some stations have ticket offices for foreigners if you need help navigating your options.
Ask for Xiao Pan – If eating alone, ask for “xiao pan”. These are small portions and work out at 70% of the size and price of a normal dish.
Hard Seats – Travel on the “hard seats” on trains or buses. These are the cheapest and most basic seats but are not “hard” as the name would lead you to believe.
Top Things to See and Do in China
The Great Wall of China – No trip would be complete without visiting the Great Wall. There are plenty of tours to different parts of the Wall, so pick according to your budget and which part you most want to see. Some tours even offer multi-day packages that visit the whole wall.
Tian’anmen Square – You’ve no doubt seen it in films and on TV, but it is hard to get an idea of the sheer size of this square until you’re standing square in the middle of it. There’s plenty to see here including the Tiananmen Tower, the Great Hall of the People, the People’s Heroes Monument, the National Museum and Mao Zedong. You aren’t allowed to film or photograph in the square.
Beijing – This fast-moving city has a population of 22 million and counting. Aside from Tian’anmen Square, you’ll want to visit the Forbidden City, the countless shopping malls, the Temple of Heaven, and of course, the Great Wall. There’s nothing like Beijing in the world and though horribly polluted with awful air quality, it’s still a city you have to visit in order to understand modern China and its dynamism.
Hong Kong – Hong Kong effortlessly blends East and West, thanks in part to it being under British control for 99 years. This bustling metropolis combines high rise buildings with traditional street markets and religious temples. It also boasts a large expat population, good shopping, fantastic nightlife, and delicious food. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world.
Shanghai – Another one of China’s largest, busiest, and most visited cities is Shanghai. The city is like the future – fast trains, lights everywhere, organized, andcosmopolitan. I loved Shanghai. This is a bustling, high-tech city that serves as the center of modern business infrastructure. To get a sense of historical China, head to the Old City, especially YuYuan Gardens.
Xi’An – Also known as Changan, Xian is the largest city in the northwest of the country and is one of the ancient capitals of China. You won’t want to miss the Terracotta Army, the City Wall, and the amazing architecture of the Muslim quarters. Those three things are pretty much why everyone comes here!
Gorge on food – China is a food lover’s paradise. Eating here will certainly put your take-away back home into perspective. In such a huge country, it’s no surprise that different areas have different culinary delights. It’s entirely possible to enjoy the four styles of Chinese cooking (Cantonese, Beijing, Shanghai and Szechuan) while on your trip.
Cruise the Li River – For a true sense of natural beauty, head on a cruise down the Li River. This place has been listed as one of the top ten “watery wonders” by National Geographic. The river is 272 miles long and has dozens of places to explore along the way, such as Zhujiang Pier, Yangdi, and Guilin.
Admire the Imposing Terracotta Warriors – Located in Xi’An, the Terracotta Army was erected as a monument to China’s first Emperor, Qin. The life-sized stone soldiers are said to represent the army that triumphed over all others in China that played a significant role the country’s formation. The hundreds of statues are a mind-blowing sight.
Visit the Forbidden City – This famous attraction in Beijing was the imperial palace from the time of the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. Now the Palace Museum holds artifacts from both dynasties and is a great place to learn about China’s history.
Travel (part of) the Silk Road – With a history of over 2,000 years old, this is a must-see for visitors. There are many locations to check out along the road, as it originally spanned from Chang’an to Rome and Italy. Its total length was over 2400 miles, half of which was within Chinese territory.
Explore Tibet – Also known as “the Roof of the World”, this area is perfect for adventurous travelers that are looking for unique attraction. Explore the snow mountains, exotic customs, and Buddhism. Tibet has had tumultuous past, so during your visit it’s wise not to bring up the Dali Lama. You’ll need to a special permit to visit the region.
Take in the Karst mountains – Illustrated on the back of the 20 yuan banknote, these mountains are a stunning sight to see in person. They’re huge ! You can take a boat trip down the Li river, and enjoy the breathtaking views of the mountains.
The Mogao Grottos of Dunhuang – Also known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, these grottos are home to the largest, best-preserved, and richest Buddhist art in the world—the first cave was carved here in 366 AD.
Potala Palace – Now a museum, this palace in Tibet was home to the Dalai Lamas up until 1959. The many halls, temples, and courtyards have been constructed from wood and stone. It’s a interesting and historic building to see and gives you a sense of just how important the Dalai Lamas were to Tibetan culture.