It’s fair to say we had a lot of expectations when it came to China, and yet it somehow managed to shatter every single one of them. There’s so much to say about this huge monster of a country, and yet one thing is for certain: there’s no middle ground when it comes to China. It may not be the most divisive country that travelers visit (that crown is probably still held by India, or maybe Vietnam), but China is one of those countries that people either love or hate. The only way to find out is to visit yourself and see on which side of the divide you fall.
For us, miraculously we managed to both love and hate China. There is nothing like China to slap you in the face and keep you from getting complacent, and it certainly provided the (culture) shock to the system we hadn’t really felt since leaving home; without a doubt, we were strangers in a very strange land. We had some remarkable moments while making our way through a small fraction of its landmass, witnessing some sights of unparalleled beauty and encountering some truly fascinating and extremely foreign facets of the culture. But we also experienced moments that were depressing and sometimes even downright gross, and honestly, if there was one watch-word for our time in the country, it was probably “frustration”.
For the first time on our trip, we experienced bona fide language barriers while traveling in China. English signage was generally sufficient whenever we were traveling around (with the exception of buses), but when it came to talking with the people around us, we never knew what to expect. People you expected to speak English (like tourist information booths), wouldn’t, and people you had no hope of understanding you could converse like pros. Ironically, although we had heard that train stations were notoriously bad for communication failures, we always found at least one counter with an English speaker at it, though you wouldn’t know it for all the good it did us!
Despite having learned a few basic phrases in Mandarin before departing, we only had about a 50% success rate using them, and honestly, the blank stares we received or the malicious laughter our attempts sometimes provoked were sufficiently disheartening that eventually we stopped trying. Thankfully my parents gave me a small Mandarin phrasebook that we were able to use by pointing at the Chinese characters to get our point across. This was especially useful in smaller cities when we were trying to communicate with taxi and bus drivers. This little book saved our bacon on multiple occasions and we remarked many times that we don’t know what we would have done without it! While we would never say that you should waltz into any country and expect the people there to speak English (unless that’s their national language!), this is an especially bad strategy in China.
Food & Dining
We are adventurous eaters, but China definitely put our Iron stomachs to the test! Although we rarely found ourselves in the position of having to order anything at random (most places did have English menus, or at least ones with enough pictures to get by), that didn’t necessarily mean our meal was a sure thing. Whether it was winding up with chicken cartilage, an ENTIRE chicken (beak, crown, feet and all), or navigating the freaky “treats” at Beijing’s snack street, in China, nothing should be considered off the table. If you eat meat, expect it to come with the gristle and bones and all, so consume with care!
Early on, we stuck to restaurants due to health and hygiene concerns, but quite honestly, we had as many grumbly tummies (if not more) using that tactic as when we switched to street food. Though we have heard some concerning things about mystery ingredients being included in street dishes (e.g., macerated cardboard used as filling in dumplings), we wound up feeling more confident with our street food choices as in most cases we could see it being prepared in front of us and knew what the final product would look like, that it would be fresh, and, in many cases, what was included in the dish. For those worried about dealing with illegible menus, street food is the perfect venue for the “point & grunt” approach to ordering.
Overall, however, we generally found the food in China rather disappointing. Following the gustatory ecstasies of Hong Kong, we had extremely high hopes, but found few similarities between the two cuisines. Most dishes were rather bland, and we were really surprised by how greasy and oily so much of the food was (especially the vegetable dishes!). This is not to say that there is no good food to be had in China, but on the whole, most of it was forgettable at best, and supremely regrettable at worst. It’s entirely possible that we missed the provinces known for their cuisine, so perhaps we hit the culinary equivalents of the American mid-West (i.e., some highlights but a whole lot of things that just barely resemble food).
One area where China did not disappoint was lodging! Although only certain hotels are able to accept foreign guests, the ones that were open to our business were generally very reasonably priced, and hostels even more so. Every place we stayed was comfortable, clean and convenient, and we always felt we received good value for the money we spent.
That said, because of the aforementioned language barrier, we would highly recommend staying in hostels if you are a budget or mid-range traveler. Hostels are set up to cater to independent, foreign travelers and we found that our stays in hostels were much easier on us as we faced fewer communication issues with the staff, especially when it came to getting information about the city we were in and how to get around cheaply. In the last hotel we stayed in, no one spoke English, and one night we had a staff member who relied on an online translation program to communicate, while the next day the onus was on us to use our handy phrasebook to ask questions and get information as best we could. This meant we were told that we could only take taxis around the city rather than the much cheaper buses; we doubt this is actually true, but it was clearly much simpler for the hotel to communicate this than to try to go through multiple bus routes with us. After the rigmarole we experienced in two hotels, we vowed to only stay in hostels. All the hostels we stayed at had young staff who spoke excellent English and were clearly used to helping people travel in a variety of ways. Multi-bed dorms are generally dirt-cheap in the hostels, but for couples, we found that private rooms were rarely much more.
Many travelers crow about how convenient China’s rail system is, connecting unimaginably large swaths of the country to one another. Although it’s true that theoretically you can generally catch a train to nearly any destination you can dream of (with the exception of the Western provinces, where mountainous terrain makes for far more limited train service), you will need to prepare yourself for extremely lengthy travel times—journeys upwards of 8 hours between major cities are not uncommon, and we were frequently in the position of considering 16+ hours on a train, and even 24 hours!
Most trains have four ticket types (in descending order of comfort & cost): soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, and hard seat. Many sites suggest that on journeys upwards of 4 hours, you get yourself some kind of sleeper; hard sleepers have 6 beds to cabin, whereas soft sleepers only have 4. In hard sleepers, the lowest bunk is more expensive than the top bunk, but people may use the lower bunk as a seat during the day on longer trips. For what it’s worth, after missing our train in Beijing, we had to take hard seats to reach our next destination. We survived the 8 hours in our cheap seats; they really weren’t that bad, but they were extremely cramped and I’m glad Tony & I already knew each other extremely well prior to that journey.
Of course, all of this is assuming you will even be able to get train tickets. It used to be that you only used to be able to buy train tickets from the station you were departing from (meaning that if you wanted to travel from Guilin to Kunming, you had to buy your tickets in Guilin, or maybe Kunming, but not in Pingyao). This is no longer the case! The train stations in China are now interlinked so that you can buy tickets for any journey from any station. This sounds like a good thing, but this being China, of course there are some caveats:
- Train tickets go on sale at different times in different cities. In Beijing you can buy tickets up to 7 days in advance. In Shanghai, it’s only 3 days. In Guilin, the magic number was 5. So if you’re in Shanghai wanting to buy train tickets, people in Beijing have a 4 day jump on you when it comes to buying those tickets.
- It is now possible to purchase tickets online 10 days in advance of your journey. But the only way you can buy tickets is if you can read Chinese, and more importantly, only if you have a Chinese bank account. So for most tourists, this is a no-go and not even worth knowing about. I only mention it because it means that it is possible for you to arrive at the ticket counter the first day tickets go on sale in person and find they have already sold out online. This happened to us more than once.
- It used to be that hard seats would sell out first because those were the cheap seats and thus, those were the seats the majority of Chinese travelers could afford, leaving the plush sleepers to tourists. I’m sure I read several sites assuring travelers that soft sleepers are nearly almost available to foreigners. Not so anymore! China’s economy is booming and people have a lot more money than they used to—now the sleepers are the first tickets to go, meaning you may be stuck with hard seats for that 16 hour overnight journey you had planned.
A few of the places we stayed offered to arrange train tickets for a nominal fee. If we had known how difficult it would be to arrange them ourselves, we definitely would have gone this route as the service fee was generally quite low and the headaches and heartaches it would have saved us would have been invaluable. We arrived in China without firm dates and this ended up being a real hassle for us, as we repeatedly encountered trains that were completely sold out.
If you are determined to take the train in China, we recommend checking out this site, where you can find schedules for trains around China, as well as the price of tickets. (Don’t bother trying to book your tickets through this site though as the service & delivery fees are astronomical!) For the day you wish to travel, write down the train number (we recommend having a few backup options), and bring that with you to the station. Generally speaking, we almost always wound up dealing with a ticketing agent who could speak English and could understand where we wanted to travel to, but having everything written down generally makes things easier, and if they can just input the train number, it’s easier still.
If you find, as we did, that train travel just isn’t an option, you have other choices. In many cases, you can take a bus. While this isn’t as romantic or as relaxing as train travel, the buses we took were actually quite nice with reclining seats, climate control, and even televisions on occasion. They also tend to have shorter travel times than train journeys. The downside, however, is that they also tend to be more expensive than the train. Moreover, we have read many warnings about the dangers of taking night buses in China (fatal bus crashes are unfortunately not uncommon), so we avoided these at all costs.
Another option, though the least environmentally sound one, is to fly. China is ginormous, so flying will almost always be the fastest way to get you to your destination. Though we like to reserve planes for traveling only when no other options are available to us, we were surprised to find that in the case of many long distance journeys (e.g., Guilin to Shanghai), the cost of a plane ticket was barely more than a train ticket, and could shave 20+ hours off our journey. Take into account the fact that Chinese airlines include free checked baggage (up to 10-15kg) AND we always got a meal of some kind on these flights (sometimes even two!) and traveling through China’s skies wound up not being nearly so dreadful a proposition!
If there is one upside to China’s rapid urbanization, it is that most cities you visit will have adequate if not ample public transportation options. We prefer to see a place by walking if possible, but if we need to cover large distances, then a subway or metro system is the next best thing. Riding the subway systems in Beijing is about as easy as it gets, with every trip costing a simple flat rate of 2 RMB (~$0.33USD). Shanghai was a little more complicated as fare was based on distance traveled, but if you are staying in the city for more than a day or two, it may be worth your while to pick up a transit card; as we were staying for over a week, this is what we did.
In most other cities, we were able to use buses to get around, which wasn’t as bad as I feared, but didn’t always go perfectly smoothly. Our trip to the Yunyang Grottoes in Datong was a particularly nightmarish ordeal, but that was somewhat unusual. The biggest challenge you will likely face with buses is a lack of English signage or announcements so it is best to figure out in advance exactly which bus you need to take and, if possible, get your destination written in Chinese so that you can show the driver (or your fellow passengers!). One nice thing we noticed is that Chinese buses seem to stop at every stop by default, so there is no need to worry about requesting your stop or missing it. Though a little more work than the metro, buses generally are even cheaper.
As a last resort, there are always taxis. We hate taking taxis or really any type of transportation where the price isn’t fixed from the start or can be subject to haggling. That said, we actually found that in the few instances where we had to take taxis, our drivers were very honest (to be fair, this was just in one city, and that city was not Beijing, where taxis should be avoided at all costs). It was only when we arrived late at night that we encountered resistance to using the meter, but we insisted and eventually found someone who did as we asked. If you flag down a taxi on the street rather than dealing with the guys who wait outside train and bus stations, this should not be an issue.
If you visit China with dreams of it being cheap, think again. Inflation is running rampant throughout the country, so although certain things remain quite inexpensive compared to the Western world, there are many things where prices are now comparable. We were routinely shocked by how pricey certain things were, and although prices in guidebooks are always somewhat outdated, we frequently encountered prices that had doubled or tripled in the past year or two. If you plan to actually see any of China’s attractions, you can expect to spend a fair chunk of change doing so. Transportation prices have also increased quite a bit, and unless you stick to hole-in-the-wall restaurants or street food, restaurants can also be surprisingly expensive if you are not careful. On the other hand, shopping in markets and small stores can be very economical, as is lodging.
Like everywhere else we have been in Asia thus far, cash is king in China. Nicer stores and restaurants will accept credit cards, but in most cases, you’ll be dealing with paper, not plastic. Thankfully, it’s really very easy to find ATMs that accept international cards, especially in the big cities. China is a pretty safe place and it’s not unusual for people to carry large amounts of cash, so we didn’t worry about doing the same.
We were actually in the strange position of having to convert some Chinese currency back to U.S. dollars before we left for the Philippines. It used to be that in order to do this, you needed to have the original ATM receipt with you to perform this transaction, but now so long as you are converting less than the equivalent of $500US, you should not have any problems. We certainly did not.
The rumors are true, though you won’t be able to read them within China: internet in China is horrifically firewalled, and even when you are accessing an uncensored site, speeds tend to be rather slow. Half the time we couldn’t even access Google (the only time we have willingly used Bing instead!), and of course, Twitter and Facebook are non-starters. When we did have access to Gmail, we weren’t able to use the computer-to-computer phone call or video chat functions. Worst of all, when you try to access a firewalled site, your internet connection is dropped for a good 1 to 2 minutes! If you are one of those people whose website has those annoying “Like us on Facebook!” pop-ups, a trip to China will have you rethinking that strategy as people will not be able to access your site. And any sites with “blogspot” or “wordpress” in the URL are automatically blocked as well.
The only way to effectively access the internet in China is to use a VPN, which obscures your internet surfing and reassigns you an IP that makes it look as though your computer is located outside of China. There are a variety of providers out there, but not all are created equal. We had been using Hide My Ass for a while, but could not access it successfully while in China. So, using this helpful guide on China VPNs, we switched to PandaPow, which was awesome. We connected easily, didn’t notice any lags (it was fast enough to stream video and chat), had unrestricted internet access, and felt good knowing that our internet browsing was secure and private. Try to find a service that allows a free trial period though, because word has it that the Chinese government is now finding ways to block even VPNs.
China by the Numbers
Total Number of Days Spent in China: 25
Cities Visited: Beijing, Datong, Pingyao, Xi’an, Guilin, Dazhai, Shanghai
Total Number of Cities Visited: 7
Average Daily Cost, per person: $44.15 USD
Projected Daily Budget, per person: $29.50 USD, meaning we wound up $15 USD per person over budget
Cost of train from Hong Kong to Beijing: $107.50 USD
Cost of 30-day, double entry visa: $229 USD ($120 USD for Tony, $109 USD for Steph)
Total China costs per person: $1326 USD
A Note On Daily Costs: In our daily costs, we have separated out the cost of our train into the country as well as the price for our visas. We did this because we believe that including the price of getting into or out of a country results in a figure that does not accurately reflect our actual day-to-day costs. Moreover, not everyone will choose to enter the country in the same way, from the same departure point as we did, so we include the price we paid separately for your edification. We believe our Lodging, Food, Transportation, Attractions, and Miscellaneous Shopping costs are reasonable estimates that may be informative for other likeminded travelers; however, we believe the cost of our transportation into any country is best considered a separate lump sum expenditure, and we will continue to treat it as such. Similarly, visa costs vary based on one’s country of citizenship as well as the duration and validity applied for.
(Also, the Miscellaneous Shopping category is one that many travelers fail to include, which we believe is shortsighted and misleading. Although it is true that on an extended trip you are unlikely to spend money on extravagant souvenirs, other unexpected but necessary expenses will crop up such as replacing toiletries and other daily necessities, or purchasing gear and helpful items that you may have forgotten or find you require. Although these costs are rarely extreme, (though they sometimes are!) it would be an oversight not to include them in your long-term travel budget. At some point on the road you will find yourself buying shampoo and deodorant… we hope!)
Accommodation: Although lodging was our greatest daily expenditure during our time in China, this is largely due to the fact that for our week in Shanghai, we opted to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel or hostel. That said, this decision only cost us an additional $1USD per person per day as compared to the private room we had while in Beijing.
As we mentioned earlier, we ultimately preferred the experience of staying at hostels as compared to hotels, finding it made life much easier for us. But we only stayed in dorms twice, as private rooms were generally just a few dollars more. Our cheapest dorm stay was just $6USD per person in Xi’an at a wonderful hostel, whereas our most expensive lodging was $19.50USD per person to have our own apartment in Shanghai. Unfortunately, our itinerary was so fickle that we were not able to CouchSurf. For more information on where we stayed during our time in China, check out our Lodgings page.
Food: Our food costs are probably a bit higher than expected because we spent the first half of our trip fastidiously avoiding street food, thinking we’d be safer eating at restaurants. For whatever reason, most of the restaurants we wound up at ending up being kind of pricey (probably because we gravitated towards more touristy ones in the hope of easing the communication barrier), but paying that extra money didn’t necessarily get us better meals. If you are willing to try street food and eat in restaurants that aren’t obviously aimed at tourists, you can actually eat quite cheaply in China (<$10USD per meal for two people). Note: we generally only ate 2 meals per day, sometimes with a snack thrown in.
Transportation: Another high cost, but this is because we took two internal flights while within the country, which, while not much more expensive than train tickets, were not exactly cheap either. On days when we were truly just traveling around whichever city we were in, our transportation costs were generally very low (rarely more than $4 USD total for the two of us), as we stuck to public transport options where possible.
Attractions: If you plan to see the big sights in China, prepare to pay for the privilege. Though our attraction costs may not seem that high when averaged across 25 days, several of the big ticket items were quite costly: $36US for two to visit the Great Wall and the caves in Datong (both of those include student discounts that Steph wrangled), $26US to visit the Terracotta Army in Xi’an and $40US for the cultural dinner show, $18US for a three-day pass to the Longsheng rice terraces. If we had paid for the Pingyao heritage ticket, that would have been another $36US. You can see how with prices like this, our plans of simply spending $60US per day for two people were so quickly squashed. You can certainly visit the places we did for less money, but you’ll probably miss the entire reason for the visit as a result.
This figure plots our daily spending per person during our time in China so you can get a better sense of how our daily average evolved. I know it’s basic math, but so often we encounter travelers who pick a daily budget and then refuse to spend a penny more than that, even though you will certainly have days when you are well under budget. We hope this helps illuminate our spending habits, and will serve as a reminder that you can have crazy splurge days (like the day we spent almost $175 per person!) and still do ok. Caveat: $44 USD per person per day is not the absolute cheapest you can visit China on – certainly some travelers get by on far less. But, for those travelers who want to enjoy themselves, have the occasional splurge, but still keep an eye on the purse strings, we think this is actually pretty reasonable; maybe you could shave off an extra $5-7USD per person. It is certainly easy to spend double this if you’ve got money to burn or are not as budget conscious.
Highs & Lows
Best splurge: Fancy Peking duck meal in Beijing (Tony); Toboggan ride at the Great Wall (Steph)
Worst splurge: Final meal in Shanghai as it was too rich and I felt sick afterwards… if a meal can turn me off of pork belly, it’s probably not good (Tony); probably any of the meals that we spent more than $15USD on, as most of these were unremarkable anyway (Steph)
Best surprise: Xi’an! After not enjoying the first 3 cities we had visited in China, we were ready for Xi’an to follow suit (certainly we had tons of travelers telling us we’d dislike it as well). Instead, it wound up being one of our favorite cities in China, and we regretted only having 2 days to spend there. (Steph & Tony)
Worst surprise: Pingyao—read our post if you want to relive the horror once more (Tony); The Forbidden City—it crushed any hopes I had for Beijing, and is the embodiment of China’s bad preservation efforts… again, just read our post to read about how little we like this place (Steph)
Favorite meal: Peking duck… it was expensive, but it was truly one of the most exciting meals we’ve had! (Steph & Tony) We had some of the best meals of our trip in Dazhai, but the stir-fried chicken dish we had there was not one them… I’m pretty sure it made me sick! (Tony); It’s hard to say because we had so many mediocre meals… I am half tempted to say the restaurant in the hutongs we visited in Beijing, simply because the service was so hostile even if the food was good! (Steph)
Best memories: Wandering through Temple of Heaven park, bathed in all the musical performances of the day; trying crispy Peking duck skin dipped in sugar; strutting about in wonderment up on the Great Wall & taking the bitchin’ toboggan back down; tucking into some seriously tasty street food in Xi’an; encountering so many helpful and generous people in Guilin; basking in the splendor of the Dazhai rice terraces; lazing about in our own apartment in Shanghai’s French Concession and feeling like we had a home once again
Hidden gem: The Yuanyang Grottoes in Datong are pretty spectacular and happily don’t get nearly as much traffic as they deserve. Also the Rice Terraces of Dazhai in Guangxi province were one of the most remarkable, otherworldly places we’ve had to good fortune to visit. They were the China we had seen in pictures and been dreaming about back home.
Best Lessons Learned: Ironically, the best lesson China taught us is that it is ok to leave a place that you are not enjoying and abandon plans that just aren’t working. Early on in our time there we decided to reshape our itinerary, forsaking the cities of the north for the open vistas of the south, and that was one of the best decisions we could have made. A few weeks later, we made the tough decision to scrap the rest of our plans for the country and head somewhere else, as every day was becoming a struggle and we realized we just weren’t having very much fun in the country. We don’t believe that every aspect of travel will be whimsical, nor do we think there is no value in facing hardships, but, sometimes you’ve got to acknowledge a losing proposition and concede that it’s time to try something new.
If we could do it all over again?
This is a tough one for us, because China was the first country where we truly had some serious regrets as very little about our time there went as we had planned or hoped.
Starting at the beginning, we would not have started our trip in Beijing, nor would we have spent 5 days there; we never really connected with the city and didn’t enjoy most of the sights we sought out so 5 days was far too long (though we don’t wholly regret our time there as it did allow us to visit the Great Wall). We wish we had skipped Pingyao altogether. In contrast, we only spent 2 days in Xi’an and that felt far too short, as this was the first Chinese city we truly enjoyed—we would have loved having more time to explore it.
Truth be told, our biggest regret for China is that we spent so much time in the north & eastern segments of the country: the farther south we moved, the more we tended to like what we saw, even when it came to the cities. By spending time dithering around Beijing and the northern cities, we wound up not having time to visit Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, which most travelers cites as their favorite parts of China. These parts look like they feature the scenery and cultural attractions that are more in line with the kind of China we were hoping to experience and I still lament not having been able to visit them. Despite the hardships and frustrations we experienced in China, these two provinces are sufficiently alluring that I actually do hope to return to China one day, but will limit our explorations to these regions.
Finally, although we really loved the weather we experienced visiting China in early autumn, having our trip overlap with the Golden Week holiday was a huge mistake. Next time, we would wait until the holiday had passed before venturing into China.
The Bottom Line
China is the most difficult place we have traveled to date. Nevertheless, we’d be hard pressed to completely write off the country on that basis alone, as there is no denying that for all the downs, the ups we experienced within its borders were spectacular. Experiences such as walking the Great Wall, gazing upon the Terracotta Army, or hiking in the rice terraces of the southern provinces are unparalleled and can only be experienced in China and are so sublime, they almost make the rest of the hassles worth it.
China is a country that is currently experiencing explosive growth and change, which is part of why we wanted to visit it now. We knew that the China we saw would very likely not exist in a few years, and we wanted to see it before it changed too much. However, like a teenager going through a growth spurt, not all of the change we witnessed in China was a good thing, and it certainly has some awkward patches to work through and some mistakes to (hopefully) rectify. I do hope that one day we will have the opportunity to give China a second chance, but I am quite certain that the China we will find in the future will only bear a passing resemblance to the one we observed this time around.
Perhaps if we were more seasoned travelers or had spent more time in Asia prior to tackling China our time there would have been less tumultuous, but we found it sufficiently challenging that we would recommend it only to the most intrepid and hearty newbie travelers. If you are craving culture and customs so bizarre they at times seem extraterrestrial, China may be the place for you! We have encountered several travelers since leaving China who had nothing but effusive enthusiasm for the country and were puzzled by our own experiences, so while we stand by our own impressions, we would never explicitly dissuade anyone (except maybe our parents) from visiting if they have the yearning to do so. Just be aware that whatever preconceived notions you may have of the place before visiting, you will certainly be in for plenty of surprises along the way. Whether they wind up being good or bad, well, there’s only one way to find out!
Number of Countries Visited: 3 (Japan, Hong Kong, China)
Total Number of Days on the Road: 61
Total Amount of Money Spent Since Departure: $8052 USD
Cumulative Average Daily Cost (not including transport into each country or visa fees): $125 USD (for TWO people)
Total Costs to Date: $7743 (previous legs of trip) + $2207 (money spent on ground in China) + $229 (visa fees) + $215 (train tickets from HK to Beijing) = $10395 USD (for TWO people)