Dufu's Thatched Cottage
Dufu's Thatched Cottage

Travel to China

How should you prepare for travel to China? Check out my thread on obtaining a China Visa for your passport at – How to Apply for a Chinese Visa!

It goes over all the details on the visa forms and how to fill them out correctly. Your answers may be different than mine, but the most important details are filling out the forms in all CAPS and putting N/A or None in the blanks which do not apply to you. Make sure you have a detailed itinerary and if you are staying with someone in China they will need to write you an invitee letter. You’ll need copies of your local Driver’s ID along with their ID as well and the exact address at which you’ll be staying in China. This is just a brief overview of the visa process. Check out the thread above for more detailed instructions.

Great news, the Chinese Embassy approved your visa. It’s official you’re traveling to China any day now, but what do you bring on your journey? Whether backpacking through China, or staying in one place for a while to soak in the culture it’s important to travel lightly. It makes it easier to move around, less stressful on your back, and most of all, you want to look like a traveler and not a tourist. Tourists go on vacation for a few weeks and visit all the super-populated attractions, snapping pictures of people’s faces, chins, arms, legs, chests, when the real picture is that tiny monastery in the background.

I’m being facetious, well, maybe just a little. Not to get into fashion, but if people know you are traveling through China or any country for that matter, they are more willing to help you out in exchange for hearing your stories or helping them with English. Maybe they offer a couch to sleep on, a warm shower, a comfy bed or some food, anything helps on a tight budget. All of this can help you extend your stay in China or the surrounding countries of South East Asia. If you travel with a load of luggage, and items you don’t need, you can guarantee you’ll be spending most of your money on your hotel, and expensive foods. You won’t experience the culture of China. Sipping on tea, getting pummeled in Ma Jang or Dou Dizhu by Chinese men three times my age happened from building friendships through my travels. The people I met gave me a piece of Chinese culture. A piece that I can take with me back to America. A piece that made me happy to be a wanderer and experience such a different society from the one I adapted to in the states.

So what do you pack now? If your intention is backpacking or just roaming around to different cities inside China then look at my list below. If backpacking through China is not for you and you want to be more of a tourist then that is fine too. Still check out the items below as some of them might come in handy on your travels.

35 Liter GoLite JAM Backpack (I now recommend anything from the Army Navy Surplus store/ I.E. a 5.11 Tactical Pack)
-Clothing: (2) Underwear, (3) Pairs of Smart Wool Socks, (1) Waterproof Ski Pants, (1) Tight Thermals, (1) Base Layer, (2) T-Shirts and (1) Long Sleeve Under Armour Layer, (1) Waterproof Gloves, (1) Carhart Jacket, (1) Columbia Goretex Jacket (1) Waterproof Boots (1) Gold Bond
-GoPro Hero 3 or 4 (Edit cool video clips of your travels and post them to your YouTube channel
Mini Laptop: Lenovo Thinkpad X2011
-Mini Pot
Flint and Steel -lighter
-50′ – 100′ Paracord (Can be used for shoelaces, belts, hanging laundry to dry, makeshift backpacks)
Dry Bag (protect your electronics, make sure your laptop fits in here too to avoid buying an unnecessary case)-Trashbag
Water Cover for 35 Liter Backpack
-Tarp
-Bivy Sack (Get a waterproof one, NOT WATER RESISTANT, USMC BIVY)
Synthetic Lightweight 35 Degree Sleeping Bag (Go with a 0 Degree or 10 Degree)
-2 Liter Water Jug or just carry a 1 liter water bottle and strap another to your pack…
-Plastic Fork/Spoon/Knife
-Jungle Hammock

This video tutorial goes over more detail on what to bring on your trip and how to pack it effectively. You want quick and easy access to water, food, and the items you use to make shelter. Everything else is secondary and can go towards the bottom of your backpack.

Your passport, visa, and bags packed, are you ready! Not quite yet, load your smartphone with some applications to make life easier and set a budget. If you saved up a few grand that’s great, but you want it to last as long as possible, right? Well, I know I do so here are some tips I learned along the way.

Travel Applications for Android

  • Grab Mint for android or any other budgeting software. It organizes your expenses into different subcategories and you can set budgets for transportation, food, alcohol, and other expenses. There is an issue though. Being overseas means using “cash” as much as possible. So add the expenses manually or grab the program “ColorNote” and record them manually on a sticky note and add a widget to your phone dashboard.
  • Why keep a budget? Well, it’s very simple. Maintaining a budget allows you to extend your travel time in whatever country you travel through. I did not keep a budget the first month I stayed in China and spent a ton of money on food that I did not need to spend. The second month I became more frivolous with my expenditures and cut my budget down to about 50 Kwai per day for my travel expenses, which is still high, but better than 100+ per day.
  • Other great applications for traveling in China include Strava, which I use daily to find my way back to wherever I am staying. Strava allowed me to go on my 15 mile walks and make it back to my couch or bed while mapping a GPS route of my location so I could venture back there at a later date.
  • Next, grab XE Currency this is not only great for travel in China, but any country for that matter. It updates the currency conversion rates to USD. Hit your local free WiFi hotspot and see the rate changes. Most of the time it doesn’t change much, however, I use this more for comparing prices of products to USD so I know if it is a cheap deal or not.
  • Pleco – Great for learning basic Chinese. If hitch hiking you can write simple phrases like “north” or “south” etc. I used this to learn some basic Chinese to buy “beef noodle” and other cheap, filling, dishes while I stayed in ChengDu, Xindu and Kunming.
  • Talkatone – You may have international service on your cell phone provider. I know I turned off my phone when I went abroad to China and paid the $12.00 a month to keep my phone number. Talkatone came in handy on multiple occasions. I used it to talk to my parents and close friends over WiFi. It’s great if your service is off and you want to keep in touch with friends and family back in the states.
  • City Maps 2Go – I used this briefly for the cities in which I spent most of my time. They don’t have every city, but they provide many cities in many countries. I liked this app for the English and Chinese translation of places. I was able to show the taxi driver’s the Chinese to get to places that were too far to walk.
  • Map of China – This is by far the most helpful app for China. Even without service I could download the maps for offline use and use my phone’s GPS to figure out where I was to get back to my camping site.
  • Money for Travel

Many people ask what to do for their money situation when going abroad. The best advice my foreign friend gave me when coming over from the USA involved contacting my bank and credit card company prior to departure and notifying them of my travel destinations. I notified Wells Fargo and my Visa credit card (backup card just in case). As soon as I landed in China I went straight to a Chinese ATM and found the rates were far better in China than at the airport in the USA. I avoided traveler’s checks because

  • They require going to the bank, which takes time locating a bank, finding someone who speaks English and waiting in line
  • Do you really want to walk around with hundreds of dollars in your pocket? I’d rather hit an ATM and take out 500 or 1000 Kwai (RMB) at a time and make it last than cash a $500 USD traveler check and walk around with that much cash in my wallet. You’re just asking to get mugged.
  • As for banks, try to get an account with Charles Schwab and avoid paying ATM fees anywhere in the world. It makes a huge difference. I have Wells Fargo and get charged $5.00 every time I take money out of an ATM overseas. It adds up and I’ve spent over $100 dollars on ATM fees, which is about a half month to a month of travel money in Malaysia.

Where to Sleep

This all depends on luxury and comfort level. For me I can sleep under a bridge, on rooftops, dumpsters, etc. It doesn’t matter as long as I am out of the cold and wet weather and no one is around to bother me, hurt me or steal my gear. I did much wild camping in the USA and because it’s so spread out there are a ton of spots to set up camp in the woods or off the highway without being bothered. China, well it’s a different story here. It’s very densely populated, which is why they don’t have parking lots and why they build “up” utilizing skyscrapers. With that being said I’ll go over some of the best places I found to sleep while on the road in China. Note: proceed with caution…I do not know the laws for sleeping outside or “being homeless” as per our society’s terminology.

I do know all the buildings that are fully constructed have CCTV installed, this means, the elevators and hallways have security cameras that can see who goes in and out of the building. That is “ALL” it means though. Depending on the building and security there you may go unnoticed. My advice is the following: go into an open apartment complex before midnight. Walk in there around 6 or 6 PM before it gets really dark out. Pick a random apartment and take the elevator up to the roof. If you’re up there during daylight and you just happen to stay out there on the rooftop I doubt security will come up and bother you. Find a nice spot to sleep 30 stories above the city. A lot of skyscrapers have a maintenance shaft in the center of the skyscraper where you can climb a ladder and gain access to a separate tiny roof that is about 10’x10′. You won’t look suspicious to anyone on the roof because most people won’t go up there. I’ll post a picture so you see what I mean. So there are rooftops as an option.

Xindu Urbex
I feel on top of the world!

Other options include going to very dark corners of apartment complexes where there aren’t infrared cameras installed and sleeping off to the side on the ground. Security normally does not check these paths as they man the gates. As long as you are in most complexes before midnight you don’t have to sign in and they are terrified of confronting you because most of them do not speak English. So you can hide in the shadows and sleep right on the grass, under bushes, etc. Be creative, not every complex is designed the same, but you made it this far, and if you want to save money and live on the cheap, this is one way to do it.

Another option, which is far more illegal than the last two would be sleeping inside a construction site. Why would you ever do this? Well, for one, you don’t have to worry about being spotted by police, or innocent bystanders, etc. Once you’re in the site and on a random story of a skyscraper you have a roof over your head, and your own personal guard at the front gate making sure no one gets in or out. You could stumble upon the occasional urban explorer, but chances are, even if you do they won’t bother you. They’re just there for the view and the rush.

When I traveled to Kunming I spent much of my time traveling through the city, but always found spots to camp on the outskirts of town in the mountains. You can set up camp deep in the mountains and build a fire without any problems. It’s very safe, quiet and perfect for stealth camping on a low budget.

How to Travel in China!
Camping in the mountains in Kunming!

Other less illegal options of sleeping include CouchSurfing, which despite being very clickish, has worked out for me before in the past. Not in the USA so much, but I’ve had several CS requests in Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia when I go abroad to SEA in a week. Normally people provide you with a place to stay and a night’s worth of food and even show you around town if you’re lucky.

Hostels are the last option I might resort to using and hotels are out of the question. Hostels are cheap, but normally you share rooms with other travelers and tourists, which means your belongings are at risk for getting stolen. I’m not saying travelers are thieves, but when you live out of a backpack and you spend a lot of time traveling the world, like myself, getting it stolen would be a huge burden. So just be weary of that little tidbit. They are cheap and a great way to meet interesting people. As for hotels, avoid them at all costs. Unless you are on vacation for a week or two and enjoy living very comfortably they cost too much money and put a huge dent in your travel budget.

Getting Around…

You can try hitchhiking. It didn’t work too well for me in cities and even on the outskirts of town it was rather hard for rides. The thumb doesn’t work. I never tried any signs, but I know in Kunming people kept trying to make me pay them for rides despite me expressing “no money” gestures.

The train is probably one of the cheaper ways to see China. You can buy a cheap sleeper on the train for around 500 RMB and go from Beijing to Chengdu over a 30+ hour train ride. The scenery is beautiful, but many people cough and sneeze so your chances of getting sick increase after being cooped up in there for a few days.

Taxis are cheap if you split the bill between a few ppl. It’s like 8 RMB no matter where you go + a minimal amount added per kilometer traveled. I think we took a 30-minute ride to the Global Center for about 24 RMB.

The metro is cheap too. The stations are listed in English below the Chinese so it’s really easy to get around. Most destinations are between 2 – 15 RMB depending on how far you are traveling.

Travel to China
Loitering in the metro station charging my electronics in Kunming, China!

Travel by plane becomes expensive and AirAsia only does flights into or out of China so you have to use another service.

With all of that said, if you can find someone to write you a note in Chinese explaining you are hitch hiking because you are traveling on little money then I am sure flying a sign in Chinese by on-ramps or near highways will get you around from city to city. I have heard of people successfully doing this in the past I just have yet to try it as China was the first country I visited and I did not get into hitch hiking until Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand (the latter portion of my trip in Southeast Asia). Train, taxi, metro and plane all add up and really put a hindrance on your budget. So if you can, try to hitch as much as possible, the Chinese are nice, the language barrier is just the issue.

What to Eat?

Eat as much food as you can, but I’d do the following:

  • Stick to street vendors, they are by far the cheapest out of any other place to eat food.
  • I recommend trying hot pot at least once on your trip to China. It’s spicy, especially in Sichuan Province, but worth a try!
Travel to China
Eating a hot pot dish with Sara and Christoph Beck in Chengdu, China!
  • I mainly stick to beef noodle soup, or any of the noodle soups, which cost between 6 – 10 RMB depending on the part of China you are traveling through. The center of the city will always be more expensive than the outskirts of town.
  • Avoid 711’s and any fast food restaurants, you’re just spending more money for food of less quality and quantity, when you can easily find a food vendor with better food and a cheaper price.
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Brian Cray is not a cyclist. He’s not a hitchhiker. He’s not a train hopper or an adrenaline junkie. He’s just an ordinary man with gypsy blood in his veins, who can’t seem to settle down. Nothing defines him. He goes wherever this world takes him on this journey we call life, roaming the world, at will, by any means. He aspires for a life of indefinite travel, a tiny home in the woods for him and his wife, and any work that keeps him wanderin’. Brian Cray is a travel writer at heart, sharing his stories with the world one keystroke at a time.

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