China is one of my all time favourite places – I’ve now returned four times! Although I’ve travelled through China before, I’ve never done it independently. I’ve listed some travel advice and information below which I have discovered as I plan my next trip – hopefully it will be useful for anyone else planning an epic independent China adventure!
I first travelled to China when I was 18, as part of a G Adventures tour. I knew I wanted to visit China but didn’t really know where to start. I knew I wanted to see my friends who run a guesthouse in Dali (Yunnan Province), but that was just one place and if I was going to go, I wanted to see as much as possible! My travel agent explained that China was extremely difficult to travel, ‘especially as a young solo female’ and suggested an organised tour. We started looking through the brochures to see which covered the most ground and I chose the Wild China tour, with an extra 2 weeks at the end with my friends. During the trip, it soon became apparent why my agent had recommended a tour (aside from the commission!) – English was barely spoken throughout the places we visited and everything was written in Mandarin, so it was really hard to recognise essential basic words, e.g. ‘bathrooms’. We were all very grateful to have a local Chinese speaking guide to help order our food or buy our train tickets!
”It’s impossible to travel China independently”
I have read a few articles now about how difficult it is to travel China and many places will recommend a tour, especially travel agents. At the time, doing a tour was definitely the right decision for me; I had never travelled before and was diving straight in at the deep end! It allowed me to experience travelling in a relaxed way due to not having to worry about organising myself and there was always someone there if I needed anything. Six years on and I have done many more trips, all independently, and have learnt much more about travelling thanks to my experiences. Now, I prefer to tackle a country independently, with the freedom to choose where and when I go somewhere.
Whilst working at STA, I was convinced that there was no way anyone could travel China independently (unless they spoke Mandarin or stayed with a Chinese friend…or were just plain crazy!). STA offers lots of China tours and they were always my go-to plan when anyone declared an interest in the country. However, since starting to plan my own trip and looking in to budgets (can we really afford a tour..?) I have realised that, although hard, travelling China independently is definitely doable! I’ll share some of the hints, tips and links below as I start to plan our four week trip to China 🙂
Where to begin?
The first thing I did when trying to work out the best way to see the country in four weeks, was decide where we were going to be beforehand. We hope to start our trip in Mongolia before heading down to China on the way to South East Asia and New Zealand. Therefore it makes sense for us to start in Beijing (up North and close to the Mongolian border) before working our way down in a zig-zag and ending in Hong Kong. We plan to cover Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Leshan, Emeishan, Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. (EDIT: We’ve since added Luoyang, Guiyang, Anshun, Zhangjiaje, Guilin, Nanning and Shenzhen!) I’ve covered most of these places already but China is one of my favourite places and I’m more than happy to see everywhere again. Plus, Gary has never been and I can’t wait to show him around! You can see our general routing on the map below:
Getting from A to B
To get around China, you have a couple of options depending on your budget. You can fly in and out of many of the larger cities – but of course, this is going to be a pricier option. Once in a country, you can hire a personal driver pretty cheaply but it’s unlikely they are going to want to drive you from one end of the country to the other! Long distance buses are a budget-friendly option and in Beijing, there are 19 long distance bus stations, operating thousands of buses everyday. The roads in China can be variable however and with trains being very reasonable in price, buses tend to take a back seat (excuse the pun..). Getting buses within a city can be a bit hectic and in the less developed areas, you’ll often find yourself amongst hoards of people as well as chickens, large piles of vegetables and anything else that needs transporting! The buses I used between Dali old town and Dali new town had a slot at the front of the bus near the driver and you popped a couple of coins in the box when getting on. Luckily, our friends told us how much to pay; we would have had no clue what to do otherwise!
We will be travelling by train during our four weeks as there is a strong rail network throughout China and sleeper trains mean that you can actually lay down and attempt to get a good night’s sleep. China has one of the biggest and busiest train networks in the world, with trains anywhere from a couple of hours to 20+ depending on where you are travelling to and from. I have worked out that each of our journeys will take between 3-12 hours. With trains, seats are released 60 days before the departure date and sell out quickly. Therefore, it’s best to book well ahead – ideally when the tickets are just released. This is obviously not that easy to do when you may only plan to be in the country for a couple of weeks. Therefore, multiple online agencies like China Highlights offer their services for a small fee. They will take note of your reservation (which can be made up to 8 months ahead) and as soon as the tickets are released, they will nab you the ones you need. After purchasing, you just need to collect the tickets from any station ticket office in China!
Seat 61 is an excellent website that has loads of information about train travel anywhere in the world. Their section on China contains lots more useful information, including links to download timetables in English. There is also a very helpful page which shows you how to read a train ticket as they are all printed in Mandarin. Another part shows you how to read the display boards in the station – it’s really not as hard as I first thought!
As you can see, there are different seats and sleepers within the train. We will be opting for the hard (6 beds per carriage) or soft sleepers (4 beds per carriage) – Lots more info can be found on Seat 61!
Where to go?
China is a big place, and there is a lot to see! The links below may help narrow down your options:
- China’s Top 10 Attractions
- China’s 10 Best Cities
- Highlights of China
- 40 Beautiful Places in China
- Rough Guide to China
- Lonely Planet
- 10 Best Places in China
As well as being harder to travel than many other countries, the visa requirements can be equally as challenging! Firstly, although many countries have the option to purchase a visa at the airport, for China you must obtain the visa before you arrive. You will be turned away at the airport (before leaving!) if you don’t have the relevant documents. There are more than 15 types of Chinese visa, and from looking at The Chinese Embassy’s website I think I will need an ‘L Visa’ which is the tourist visa. For the L Visa, the following information is required:
- At least 6 months validity on your passport and at least 3 blank pages.
- A completed Visa Application Form which can be found here. If a question doesn’t apply to you, write N/A or None in the box. If there are blank sections in the form, you will most likely just get it returned for completion and you can even just be denied the visa. Either way, it delays the process!
- A recent passport photo.
- Proof of what you plan to do whilst in China. This means an itinerary that shows a ticket in and out of the country (so you can’t get the visa until you have the flights) and proof of any hotel reservations etc. If you are staying with a friend, as an alternative option, you can provide the Embassy with a letter of invitation from your friend. They will need full info on you and your friend and will still need to know what you plan to get up to – where you plan to visit etc.
Once you have compiled the relevant information, you will need to book an appointment with the Visa Application Centre. They will check all your documents and after processing, your passport and visa will be ready for collection 4 days later (with the standard service). You can opt to pay more for a slightly quicker service of 3 days but the ‘express’ service isn’t available to all nationalities.
In terms of costing, I will be getting a single entry visa but there are options for multiple entry visas too. You have to pay a visa fee (which for me is £30) and a fee to the Visa Application Centre – £36 for the standard service. So total cost will be £66 but I will also have to get to my nearest centre which is London, so that will be roughly another £30. Luckily I have friends I can stay with, so won’t need to pay for accommodation! If you scroll down to the bottom of this page you will be able to see the full pricing breakdown for the different visa options.