3 ways to travel China on “easy-mode”

I travelled around China for four months, crossing from east to west, south to north, through 13 different provinces. We’re talking mountains, deserts, cities and more regional dialects than Europe has languages. It can be a difficult place to travel around, even getting a visa, but I learned how to do it the hard way, so now I can make it easy for you.


Relaxing after a long day climbing Huang Shan: The Yellow Mountains

Here’s a list of the most important hacks I found during my adventures:

1. Visa

It can be difficult to get a visa to freely travel around China and they place a lot of restrictions on you, I even failed my application twice before I got through, just a day before I was travelling! On the application they ask for:

  1. Your return flight tickets
  2. Proof of funding for the trip (bank statements)
  3. Proof of booking and the full address of where you’re staying for the entire trip! Yes, every day!

So how are you going to do this if you’re planning on traversing the country, or planning it day by day? There are two ways to get around this.

  1. Book a bunch of rooms on Booking.com, or Hostelworld that are “Pay on arrival”, “No deposit required” enough to cover every day. Then simply print these out and submit them with your application. You don’t have to show up at any of them, since

  2. If you know anyone who is a Chinese national you can get them to write you a signed letter with a copy of their Chinese ID card. The letter needs to state that they have known you for 3 or more years and that you will be staying with them for the duration of your trip. This has to be a Chinese National, not someone just living there under a visa.

After failing at the first method, I chose the second, as I had a friend who had moved over here from China. Just ask really nice and bring them back some Chinese sweets.

Here’s a link to the Chinese Visa Application service, which is appointment only! Everything you need is there. Make sure to read the guide. If you’re successful you’ll receive a 2 year visa, maximum stay 90 days at a time. Just do a border run every 90 days.

2. Language


A mistranslated sign in a toilet in An Hui province

If you’re going to be a noob and only visit Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an then don’t bother, but if you’re going anywhere else it is essential to learn the basics. 90% of the time I was in places where no one spoke a word of English and nothing is written in English either, it’s like being on another planet. 90% of all my problems could have been solved by speaking more Chinese.


Some basic tips:

  1. Buy a phrase book and learn it! Don’t worry about pleasantries, learn: numbers, directions, time, food, and most importantly how to buy things.

  2. Download Pleco. Google translate just doesn’t get Chinese grammar. Nothing will make sense when you try and read it off. Pleco is a fantastic app that explains all the variations of a word and how to use it in different contexts. You can also sketch out a symbol using your finger and it will translate it for you. Magic.

  3. Write it down. Pronunciation is incredibly difficult in Chinese. If you’re travelling somewhere write the Chinese character down with a sharpie on your arm. Use a guidebook and plan in advance.

  4. Use WeChat. Everyone in China has WeChat. It’s like Whatsapp but better and it has an auto-translate function, just hold down on the text and an option pops up. Everyone you meet will ask you to add them on WeChat and as long as you have internet, or if they share their wireless hotspot with you, you can simply type and auto-translate both ways.

  5. Learn to read. It may look impossible at a glance, but if you ever want to know what you’re ordering off a menu and how to avoid getting a plate full of intestines, it’s worth learning some symbols like “rice” “noodles” “soup” “meat.” The same goes for places.

3. Trains

China has the greatest and best railway network in the world…if you know how to use it. Trains are always on time, they go everywhere, the timetables don’t change on weekends and there is no difference in price, no matter when you buy the ticket.

Who dafuq

Why is there is a road sign in the desert?

There are three ways to buy a train ticket:

  1. Go to the train station and queue up
  2. Go to a ticket kiosk somewhere else in town and buy a ticket
  3. Book it online, then go to the train station and collect it

#1 is only advisable if you know the station is not busy, and that the tickets for your journey won’t sell out. Queuing for an hour at the station is commonplace and sometimes popular journeys will sell out for days. If you’re only travelling short distance between small stations, use method number one, just make sure to write your destination down in Chinese and take your passport to the station, as this is required to buy tickets.

#2 is great if you can find a kiosk. Some guidebooks will have them on the map of the town, or just ask a local where one is, but make sure it’s the right company. There is usually a small surcharge for this as it is a convenience option.

#3 is highly advisable if you’re taking a sleeper or long popular journey, as you can book in advance. There are a couple of different services for this, but the best one I found is Travel China Guide. This service is great. in fact, Travel China Guide is the best resource for travelling china, period. Their charges are quite high ($5 per ticket) but you can reserve ahead of time and then just pick up your ticket from the station before you go. They have a booking service online so you can plan connections, check availability and prices, and reserve seats. The first time you book with them you need to email them a picture of your passport, but then each other time you only need to reply to their email to confirm you want to purchase. Using this service usually takes about 2 days, so plan accordingly.

Yu Long rice man

A lone farmer emerges from a paddy field in Guilin

Hopefully you’ll be able to avoid some of the traps I fell into during my adventures in China. It’s a beautiful country and well worth travelling independently as Chinese tour groups are insufferable. If you want to learn more about travelling around China subscribe to my blog bellow and check out the other posts.