As a first time backpacker I found it hard to find much useful information online
Hostels can vary between £3 and £8 a night depending on where you are and how touristy the area is. The most expensive place for me was Wuhan as there wasn’t much anticipation for non-Chinese tourist and what was on Hostelworld was very limited. Booking in advance wasn’t particularly necessary however I find it easier to know where I’m heading from the train station. Places such as Fenghuang were heavily geared towards tourism and the local rooms to pay for were a far better deal than the hostel so sometimes it’s worth only booking the hostel for one night then finding something local. I personally get quite moody when I’m carrying my backpack in the heat and so wouldn’t want to deal with looking around whilst carrying it.
Depending on where and what you eat your budget can vary massively. I generally ate street food and from what I called ‘red café’s’ (small canteen style café’s with a big red menu board outside). Eating from these places you only need to budget about £1 per meal. A pot of dumplings will often be 50p. Good noodle soups can often be found for 50p and are fairly easy to order as they will have everything out on the side to point to. The street barbeque’s will cost you up to £4 each depending on what skewers you choose, but these are very satisfying and should be safe to eat as everything is cooked there and then. Lots of restaurants have picture menus which makes ordering quite easy and you should expect to pay up to £4/6 each in a mid/high end place. If you manage to find a hot pot restaurant with either an English menu or English speaking staff definitely take the opportunity as it’s a good fun experience, this will cost about £8 each. In Beijing I got a good quality Peking duck for two people for £8. I’ve found that in China I haven’t actually had that much rice but this is mainly due to it being much easier to order noodles when you can’t speak or read Chinese.
If you start you travels in Beijing and go to the street food market there be careful about how much money you’re giving them as they can try to make up ridiculously high prices, this also happens in small roadside places so here is what things should cost; bottle of coke 3RMB (30p) bottle of water 2RMB large water 3/4RMB banana 1RMB (in some places this is two for 1RMB) local beer 600ml bottle 5RMB. The cheapest place for everything is of course the supermarket so if there’s one near by (often Wal-Mart or Carrefour) it’s worth getting a 4l water (7RMB) and decanting it from your hostel room into a small bottle.
Tourist attractions can be very expensive in China, around 150RMB (£15) for the big ones. Tours from hostels are often very expensive, especially when some things ae only a 2RMB bus ride away.
a realistic average daily budget is £15-£20, train fares push this up a lot as they are between £10 and £30 so it’s good to take your time instead of darting between places.
Food and Drink
First things first; your stomach will suffer. You will be eating so many ingredients you aren’t used to, barely having any fibre and eating things of a very different hygiene standard to that which you’re used to. There’s no point avoiding street food as it is no worse than restaurants where all kinds of things can be living. I think street food is one of the safest bets as the food is prepared in front of you so must be fresh. It is hard to judge where is best to go but the general rule of thumb is to go wherever is busy as its obviously good and has a high turnover of food so things aren’t just sat around.
I got very tired of Chinese food but I’m on a tight budget so noodles are almost a daily occurrence. I craved western food but it’s really not very available other than McDonalds and KFC. Wal-Mart has some cakes and sliced pizza. One of the ‘joys’ of Chinese food is that you very often have no idea what you’re getting, or even whether it will be sweet or savoury. Often things that look like biscuits or donuts are weird salty awful things and nearly all the bread tastes sweet and synthetic. Yesterday I got two slices of the Wal-Mart pizza, one was normal and the other, though looking the same, was a cake pizza which was really sweet and had weird fruit on it. Who knew? I couldn’t even tell if it was sweet cheese or custard, it was a very confusing experience.
You will also find yourself missing dairy but just let it go, the dairy in Asia is of a very low standard, mainly because of the hot climate I think but the dairy tastes bad and just isn’t trustworthy. I once opted for a milkshake and I think it was soy milk, either way it tasted awful. Some things you just have to postpone until you’re back in the west. Hangovers also seem far worse here, it may be because of the heat and dehydration but I’ve also been lead to believe they have some bad chemicals in the beer, like formaldehyde, who knows? When buying bottles of drink, especially water it is good to stick to the main brands as there have been numerous scandals throughout the years with unsafe levels of this or that. ‘Nongfu Spring’ has been around for about 15 years and is available throughout the country so it’s a pretty safe bet. There is also a blue bottle which has people shapes engraved in it which is very popular. And there are sometimes Coca Cola or Nestle water, it’s always good to go with names you know. In the soft drinks I definitely recommend trying the ‘Master Kong’ juices which are mainly chilled tea’s but as someone who doesn’t like tea the Wild Jujube juice is really tasty.
Trains and Transport
Nearly everyone I’ve met who’s backpacking has had to do their first train journey on a hard seat. This is awful but it’s an experience you won’t forget, of course none of those people, including myself did it by choice. Buying train tickets is a nightmare along popular routes. You need to book about 8 days in advance between Beijing , Xi’an, Shanghai and Shenzhen (and maybe some others too). I’ve not opted for a bus but it is probably a better option than hard seat even if it’s a long journey. If you are buying from a station half way along the route you wish to go on you can only book seats until about 4 days before when they release sleepers, sometimes the sleepers are then all gone. It can be tough. Many hostels offer ticket booking for about 20RMB per ticket. If money is no object it’s worth taking this option but we had no trouble communicating what we wanted either at the train station or a ticket agent. The best method for this I found was using http://www.chinatravelguide.com/ctgwiki/Special:CNTrainSearch and writing down the necessary details in a note book; i.e date, train number, destination(including Chinese symbol), sleeper/seat type(in Chinese character).
I didn’t get ripped off by any taxi drivers but just make sure they put the meter on. When arriving at a train station ignore the taxi touts and walk through to the official taxi rank, it will be much cheaper. Also try and give them correct change as the drivers often give themselves a few RMB tip.
Crossing the roads is similar to the rest of SE Asia in that there are bikes everywhere. The best thing to do is just walk straight ahead at a slow and steady pace, everything will go around you or stop, except busses.
China has something to offer every traveller from big cities to mountains, hyper modern to traditional village. If you read my other posts you will be able to tell what I thought about different places. From a tourism point of view I much preferred my travels between Hong Kong, Guilin area and Fenghuang to the multitude of cities that came between Beijing and Hong Kong. I think I would like to see more of Beijing as it had a unique vibe but I could like to live in Xi’an or Suzhou.
Although on the whole China is safer than most places there is still an element of petty crime and theft. My friend had his money stolen and someone attempted to pickpocket me. Be careful with your belongings and definitely lock your bags whenever you’re on sleeper trains, even just for the sake of peace of mind.
I found that by knowing hello, goodbye, thank you, how much?, no, noodles and excuse me I managed to get by. It’s a REALLY hard language to pick up.
All in all ‘Chinatravelguide.com’ and wikitravel were my best sources of information, also ‘maninseat61’.