Backpacking China: Itinerary for First Timers
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China is a pretty daunting country to travel in. Whether you’re travelling solo through China or exploring the country with a group, it’s a good idea to thoroughly research and plan your trip there. I spent seven weeks exploring the Asian country last summer, and it’s fair to say that I was a teensy bit unprepared.I landed in Beijing with no guidebook, no phrasebook and only knew how to say ‘this is my foot’, ‘you are very beautiful‘ and ‘make me a cup of tea‘ in Mandarin. These phrases are probably only useful to a flirty shoe model with a caffeine addiction, and didn’t help me at all when I was navigating the airport, buying a subway ticket and finding my way to my hostel using what may as well have been a map of the moon.
It’s difficult to navigate around China knowing such a pitiful amount of their language, and while I quite enjoyed wandering around like a blundering fool trying to make sense of the country around me (I weirdly get a great pleasure with travelling in difficult places and being in tricky situations), there were lots of times when a bit more planning would have been useful.
So, if you’re planning a first time trip to China, don’t do what I did and do plan your travels. First thing first – get your Chinese visa sorted. It’s a bit of a complicated process, but you can check out this handy guide on how to get a Chinese visa for some great pointers.
Second step is to think about the best places to visit in China and work out exactly where you want to go. Luckily for you, I’ve done all the hard work! Here’s a month’s backpacking China itinerary, including tips for travelling to each destination.
Backpacking China Essentials
You’d be daft not to visit China without a Lonely Planet guidebook and phrasebook (that was me, umm…). Other things I wouldn’t forget for China would be my water to go bottle, collapsible tupperware (perfect to store delicious leftover Chinese food in!), my kindle (there’s a lot of long bus rides), a rain mac (it can rain at any time of year!), a good first aid kit, a bumbag to keep all of my valuables in and a good smartphone to download some useful apps for China.
Backpacking China Itinerary
Note: this includes every place that I visited in the country except for Liaoyuan, a non-touristy city in China. I spent a week here visiting family. I loved visiting and would recommend that anyone add a trip to a non-touristy city to their China itinerary, but because this post discusses the highlights, I haven’t included it. But read this post to learn about why I think everyone should visit a non touristy city in China!
Day 1: Beijing
Start your China trip in its lively and chaotic capital. Beijing is perfect for China first timers because it has all the conveniences of any large city but is still bursting with culture and history. From Beijing airport, you can take a metro all the way to the city centre, where a lot of hostels and hotels are located.
Hostel recommendation – For backpackers, Leo Hostel is a perfect place to stay; it’s in a lively area, is popular with travellers from all over the world, has a fun bar and common area and friendly staff. There’s lots of restaurants around the local area too, so you will be sure to find some delicious Chinese food for dinner. Click here for rates and more details.
Today’s Best Beijing Hotel Deals
Day 2: Beijing
Spend your first full day in China visiting two of its most famous attractions: Tiannamen Square and the Forbidden City. Be amazed at the vastness of Tiannamen Square, and snap a photo of the famous gates which are looked over by a portrait of Mao Zedong. You can even visit his Mausoleum if you arrive early enough! Then walk through to the Forbidden City, an area filled with magnificent architecture and grandeur. Spend your afternoon wandering around the National Museum of China, which will definitely inspire you to learn more about this compelling country!
Day 3: Beijing
If you thought the Forbidden City was grand, the Summer Palace will blow your mind away. Wander around this royal park and be amazed at both the enchanting pagodas and the stunning gardens. After a morning here, be transported to the equally compelling Temple of Heaven, a medieval religious site used by historic emperors.
Day 4: The Great Wall of China
Visiting the Great Wall of China is a must on anyone’s Chinese wish list. But camping on the Great Wall is even more compelling, right? Take an overnight camping tour with China Hiking to Jiankou, a completely unrestored section of the Great Wall. Relish in the serenity that comes with being at such a quiet area of this wall, and enjoy the architectural marvel that so many people associate with this Asian country.
Day 5: Beijing
You will camp overnight on the Great Wall, and a transfer back to Beijing will be organized in the morning. Spend the rest of your day in Beijing exploring the gorgeous Buddhist Lama Temple.
Overnight train Beijing – Xidan
Day 6: Xi’an
Once upon a time all cities in China were walled. Xi’an is one of few cities whose walls have not been abolished, and can be explored at your own leisure. Spend the morning on top of these walls, before descending into the city’s Muslim Quarter. Here you can enjoy the delicious and cheap street food and walk around Xi’an’s Great Mosque.
Hostel recommendation – Travelling With Hostel is a great base to explore all of Xi’an’s charms. It’s a spacious place with hot showers, clean dorms (and each bed had their own light and socket, so ideal!), and a big bar and social area. Best of all, they’re one of the few hostels in China making a real effort to be more eco-friendly. They’re a 10 minute walk from Xi’an train station and a great option for China backpackers. Click here for more details and to book.
Day 7: Xi’an
Take a transfer to the Terracotta Warriors, an ancient selection of soldiers that were made with the intention to protect an emperor after his death. The ensemble of figures is an amazing feat – be sure to snap lots of pictures before leaving! Spend the afternoon wandering around the Wild Goose Pagoda, an ancient building from the Tang Dynasty.
Day 8: Huashan Mountain
Take a transfer to Huashan Mountain, a sacred Daoist mountain (and thought by some to be the most dangerous mountain in China!). The path around it can be easily navigated and it offers some spectacular views. But be sure to descend to catch the last bus back to Xi’an that night at 7pm!
Overnight train from Xi’an to Chengdu
Day 9: Chengdu
Take a bus to the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre and learn about how the national animal of China is being kept away from extinction. Even though I had some doubts about this place, I strongly believe that everyone should visit it to make their own minds up. Read about whether the Chengdu Panda Centre is ethical or not here.
I didn’t stay in a hostel in Chengdu as I was with my family; we stayed in the clean and contemporary Ibis Hotel. It’s not your typical backpacker accomodation, but rooms are actually really cheap there so I’d recommend staying if you fancy a couple of days out of hostels! Click here for more information and rates.
I wouldn’t normally recommend a hostel that I hadn’t previously stayed at, but Lazybones Hostel was recommended highly by every other traveller I met who’d been to Chengdu. It’s got tons of facilities, a great restaurant and cafe, free and strong wifi and is really social. What more could you want? Click here for more information and to book.
Day 10: Chengdu
Two hours away from Chengdu is the world’s largest Buddha at Leshan. Spend the day exploring the scenic area and the many Buddhas it contains, as well as marvelling at the Big Buddha itself.
Day 11: Bus to Jiuzhaigou
Again, I was with my family when I visited Jiuzhaigou. We stayed in the lovely Caiyun Hotel, which was luxury at an affordable price; the rooms were spacious, clean and comfy with en-suite bathrooms, and each room had its own WiFi router (!!). Obviously you’re going to want to be spending more time outside when you’re in Jiuzhaigou, but this was such a novel touch I couldn’t not mention it! Click here for more information and to book.
Day 12: Jiuzhaigou National Park
Spend the day exploring Jiuzhaigou National Park. With gorgeous waterfalls and outstandingly blue lakes, this park shows off the very best of China’s nature.
Day 13: Around Jiuzhaigou
Jiuzhaigou isn’t technically in Tibet, but it’s culturally as close as you can get without a separate visa. Spend the day exploring the surroundings of Jiuzhaigou and enjoying the sub-Himalayan culture of this area of Asia.
Day 14: Bus to Chengdu
Take the bus back from Jiuzhaigou to Chengdu. Once you’re off the bus, transfer to the train for an overnight journey from Chengdu to Shanghai.
Day 15: Shanghai
Start your time in Shanghai by enjoying the intriguing skyline of The Bund. A stark contrast to the ancient temples of Beijing, The Bund showcases the futuristic China. After taking some snaps of this modern marvel, take a walk down East Nanjing Road, the busiest road in Shanghai. And if you want some serenity after the chaos, take a stroll down to Yuyuan Garden which is a calm oasis in the middle of the mad city.
Hostel recommendation = I stayed at City Central Hostel, one of expensive Shanghai’s cheapest accomodation options. It wasn’t actually in the city centre – I needed to get a subway to get to any attractions – but apart from that, it was a great hostel, complete with a bar/ restaurant, comfy beds with their own light and power adapter, big lockers and free wifi. For rates and to book, click here.
Today’s Best Shanghai Hotel Deals
Day 16: Shanghai
In the morning, learn all about China’s modern city at the Shanghai Museum. Afterwards, take a walk around the French Concession and visit the alleyways brimming with shops and restaurants of Tian Zi Fang. If you have a bit of extra time in the day, explore one of the city’s most unusual museums – the propaganda poster museum!
Shanghai’s a really interesting city. For some more of my thoughts on eat, read about eco-travel within Shanghai.
Day 17: Zhujiajiao
Explore the water village of Zhujaijio, which is home to a network of scenic canals. A whole day can be spent wandering around the village and enjoying a bit of serenity after the madness of Shanghai!
Day 18: Nanjing
Train from Shanghai-Nanjing
Take an early morning train to Nanjing and go straight to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. This is a difficult place to visit but a very important one. Here you will learn all about one of the most gruesome genocides of the Second World War, and the story of the war in Asia.
Overnight train Nanjing – Guilin
Day 19: Guilin
Arrive in Guilin and spend the first day exploring the city. Visit the famous elephant trunk hill and walk around the varied and interesting food markets, enjoying some street food for dinner.
I stayed at Guilin Travelling With Hostel (also known as green forest hostel). This friendly space is airy and bright, with big, spacious dorms and a busy common area. There’s good wifi which stretches to the rooms and friendly staff ready to help you out with any tour queries or bus bookings – and a bed costs about $5 a night. For more information and to book, click here.
Day 20: Guilin
Get a transfer to the River Li and take a cruise around the river. Afterwards, spend some time enjoying the natural scenery around Yangshuo. Take a transfer back to Guilin for the evening.
Day 21: Longsheng
Take a bus to the Longji Rice Terraces and spend the day walking around the stunning area. Enjoy both the scenery and the rustic village atmosphere. Return to Guilin in the evening. Here’s some reasons why you should favour staying in Yangshuo and Longsheng over Guilin!
If you want to stay longer than a day, Longji International Youth Hostel is the most adorable place. It’s a rustic cabin nestled into rolling green hills and is a perfect base for exploring the rice terraces. The terraces were my favourite place in China so I’d really recommend staying longer if you can. For more information and to book, click here.
Day 22: Hong Kong
Take a train from Guilin to Shenzhen in the morning, and then cross the border into Hong Kong. Spend the first afternoon in the Kowloon area, visiting the Temple Markets as they open at night.
I stayed in Budget Hostel Hong Kong while in the city, in the notorious Chungking Mansions. Now, obviously with a name ‘Budget Hostel’ it’s not going to be the Ritz. I found the hostel fine for my needs but I appreciate that it might not be for everyone (if you like space or a bathroom door that closes, you might want to look elsewhere!). But this hostel was by far the most cost-effective choice and did the job fine for me.
If budget overrides comfort for you as well, before booking into the above hostel I’d recommend reading my blog post is Chunking Mansions safe? and making up your mind from that. If you’re up for the challenge, click here for more information and to book.
Today’s Best Hong Kong Hotel Deals
Day 23: Hong Kong
Take the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak and enjoy the impressive cityscape of Hong Kong laid out in front of you. In the afternoon, take a trip to the Hong Kong museum to learn more about the city. And be sure to catch the Symphony of Lights at 8pm.
Day 24: Hong Kong
Take the cable car up to the Hong Kong Buddha and visit the Po Lin Monastery. Spend your last afternoon in Hong Kong exploring the Tsim Sha Tsui area of the city.
If you have a bit more time in Hong Kong and the surrounding areas, check out this detailed itinerary for Hong Kong and Macau.
Day 25: End of the trip!
Your first time China trip ends today! Hong Kong has a very well connected airport that can take you to global destinations. Alternatively, cross back over into China (if you have a multiple entry visa) to explore more of the country, or have an overland adventure to South East Asia!
Still have questions? Check out my other China posts…
I hope you found this China backpacking itinerary useful. I’ve got loads of deeper resources on each destination mentioned – click on the hyperlinks for more information! And please do not hesitate to contact me, either in the comments box below or over on Facebook if you have any China related questions!
And don’t forget to take a peek at my China video, which features every destination mentioned in this first time in China itinerary!
Have you ever been to China? What were your highlights if so? If not, what is the #1 thing you want to do in the country?
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