Backpacking around this vast country can certainly be life-changing, but there are certain tips to keep in mind to maximize your experience. After living in China for many years and traveling through 25 provinces, I’ve picked up a few backpacking tips that will help make your journey much more comfortable.
I recall a time that I was in a hostel in Kashgar, Xinjiang. After sampling goat-head stew, strolling the ancient alleyways in Old Town and awing at the devoted worship in the gorgeous Id Kah Mosque, I returned for some much needed sleep. Unfortunately for me, the guy directly below me snored like a fog horn. It was so loud it made the bed frame rumble! I eventually couldn’t take it any more and decided it’d be better to sleep outside away from the snores in the 5 degree (Celsius) temperature. If only I had earplugs…
China is noisy, no doubt about it – perhaps the byproduct of a 1.3 billion population. Whether you’re on a train or in a crowded 12-person hostel dorm room, earplugs protect against snoring roommates, 6am construction jackhammers, cellphone-shouters and much more.
In Changsha, I ended up at a hostel at around 11:00 pm, completely exhausted from 15 hours of travel. I was elated to get the entire dorm to myself, thinking I would sleep like a baby. As luck would have it, a group of four Chinese college students rolled in at around 1:00 am, flipping on the lights and shouting loudly. I popped my head up and told them in Mandarin to keep it down, and they did indeed lower their voices, but that didn’t keep them from turning off the lights. With all due respect, they did have to unpack, and it was four against one, so I couldn’t be too demanding by telling them to do everything in the dark. To solve the problem, I pulled out my blinders, and drifted back to sleep with no problem.
Light-blocking blinders is a one-two combo with earplugs; they go hand and hand. When late arrivers enter your hostel room and need to unpack with the lights on, or during the times you have absolutely no control over the centrally controlled light switches in trains, blinders will most definitely (and literally) help you get some much needed shut eye.
No matter how proficient your Mandarin is, I’d recommend carrying a dictionary (electronic ones are more efficient). China has thousands of dialects that you may not be familiar with, and your accent may not always be understood by locals (and vice versa). Furthermore, for places like Xinjiang, Yunnan, Tibet and others, some of the ethnicities residing in these areas don’t always speak Mandarin and/or don’t even use Chinese characters! When traveling to these spots, a local dictionary can be a lifesaver.
I speak fluent Mandarin and never have any problems navigating the big cities of Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou. However, there have been numerous times when I visited remote villages where foreigners never step foot. Most of the time, the local farmers cannot understand my foreign accented/city slicker Mandarin, and I for sure cannot understand their local dialect. Showing them words in the dictionary breaks the language barrier and, as you can imagine, makes for a much more enjoyable ride.
4) Stomach medicine
I’ll never forget my time in Chongqing on Chinese New Year’s Eve in 2009. My friends and I checked into a hotel, ate in the lobby downstairs, and returned to the room to get ready for a night out under the exploding fireworks and rocketing fire crackers. An hour later, one of the worst episodes of food poisoning struck my friend and I (the others were spared!), and I spent the entire evening bowing to the porcelain gods instead of welcoming in the year of the Ox. Since then I never travel without stomach medicine.
No matter how long you’ve lived here and are accustomed to local food, you never know when the Yellow Emperor’s revenge will strike. And when it does, you know as well as I do that it can ruin a dream trip. Solve a problem before it happens.
5) A good attitude
It’s incredible how many backpackers out there are A) arrogant and ethnocentric B) pissed off and disgruntled and/or C) negative. You’re in China, and you’re traveling here to experience something different from your home country. Have an open mind and accept the culture(s) here for what they’re worth and roll with the punches. Yes, you will probably get ripped off once or twice, and yes, things most certainly will not go according to plan, but that’s part of the experience!
In hostels from Beijing to Yunnan, there’s always “that guy” who can’t stop talking about how miserable and horrible their trip is. They only focus on the bad and completely overlook all the good. This is not only a shame for the traveler, but also everyone else around him or her. I try to stay clear of these people, as they will only try to bring you down. Don’t be that guy, nobody likes that guy.
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