China has the third most UNESCO World Heritage Sites (behind France and Italy) with 43 and was the third most visited country in the world in 2011 (behind France and the US) with 57.6 million international tourist arrivals. With so much to see and do in China, it might be a bit difficult to find a travel companion who is free to join you on your adventure. Though you may be concerned about hitting the road alone, there’s really no need to worry and definitely don’t let it spoil your plans to travel. While there are a few obstacles that make traveling alone in China more challenging, if you’re well prepared you’ll quickly discover the pleasure of independent travel in one of the world’s most interesting countries.
General problems with traveling alone
There are numerous reasons people travel alone. In today’s fast-paced, work-oriented society, finding a friend who can take a lot of time off work is becoming increasingly rare. On the other hand, you may need a break from seeing the same faces every day and would prefer to meet new people from different cultures and backgrounds. Others crave the sense of adventure that’s associated with solo traveling and enjoy the independent spirit of being able to do whatever and go wherever they want to without having to worry about a travel companion. Many, myself included, travel alone for all of the reasons listed above. But no matter what your motive is, there are a few general problems solo travelers encounter in every country, and not just China.
It can be more expensive since you’ll have no one to split the cost of a hotel. If you’re on a tight budget consider camping out during the warmer months, sleeping in a hostel dormitory or check out the local Couchsurfing community. Similarly, you’ll lose strength in numbers, as generally speaking it’s safer to travel in a group. That said, being in a crowd also poses a disadvantage since it screams attention, while being alone gives you the chance to blend into your surroundings and rub shoulders with the locals. You may even get a local’s dinner invitation, which has happened to me a surprising number of times. Lastly, being unaccompanied in a foreign country can intensify feelings of isolation. While the effects of this last one certainly vary from person to person, during my own solo backpacking experiences, I’ve always tried to take a “glass half full” approach, figuring that I’m never completely alone since I’ll always meet fellow travelers and locals along the way.
What makes traveling in China so difficult?
After backpacking through 80 countries (mostly alone) I’ve noticed that there are a few facets of China that make solo traveling much more different (and at times more difficult) than any other country on the planet. For starters, the language barrier is like no other. Tones make even basic communication extremely difficult for beginners, the multitude of characters make reading signs and menus problematic, there are countless other regional dialects in use other than Mandarin, not many speak English (especially in the rural areas) and for some reason it’s oftentimes harder to communicate through body language here. During my first days in China, I learned quickly that flapping my arms while clucking doesn’t quite translate to ordering “chicken” at a restaurant, and even after studying the language for years now I still have trouble communicating with individuals who have strong regional accents.
Scams are everywhere in the world, but the con artists here seem to be on an entirely different level. The Beijing Tea Scam—where innocent looking college girls secretly in cahoots with teahouse staff ask to practice English with you over some tea—results in you the foreigner receiving an outrageously inflated bill. I actually fell victim to this swindle when I was traveling through the capital in 2008 and have since encountered similar ones like it in other cities. I also feel that getting ripped off in China is more prevalent. As a single traveler, I’ve been ripped off from Tashkent to Tegucigalpa, but I can honestly say that China is the worst when it comes to overpaying since it seems that just about everyone here is out for an extra kuai.
China can be a chaotic place—it’s crowded, loud and increasingly polluted. Countries in South Asia like India definitely compete with it in the chaos department, but there’s something about China that can be particularly exhausting, enough to drive even the most seasoned traveler a bit crazy. Massive construction projects, getting hit by scooters, horrendous traffic, questionable street foods, dense smog, stomach aches, eternal stares, loud shouting, constant spitting, screeching car horns, kids urinating on the street, stumbling into a store that just so happens to be a brothel, crowded public transportation and getting ripped off—quite frankly, these are all just parts of the Chinese travel experience, which you’ll hopefully learn to embrace/tolerate during your travels here. That being said, it’s not entirely uncommon to see fellow backpackers eventually crack from the mayhem and revert to an antisocial movie binge in their hostel rooms just for some peace and quiet.
Be prepared for traveling alone in China
To state the obvious, remember that you don’t have a friend to bail you out should problems arise, so make sure you have enough of cash on you. Before heading off, do a little research on potential expenditures and try to stick to your daily budget. Also, put some “emergency money” away in your bank account just in case the unthinkable happens, and be sure to check with your local branch to ensure you’ll be able to access the funds from outside of your city. To avoid overpaying, always ask hotel or hostel staff about the local costs of food, taxis and tourist attractions. Finally, remember to contact friends and family back home often just to let them know where you’re going and what your future travel plans are. Even though China is by and large safe for foreigners, no place is perfect and there are always a few bad apples out there. For additional tips on personal safety, click here.
I’d also personally recommend investing in a guidebook such as the Lonely Planet, Fodor’s or Rough Guides. Guidebooks provide maps, lodging/dining/transportation information, tourist sites, language translations and other vital information that can make your trip easier. In addition to eChinacities.com’s City Guide pages and Answers board, there are many other free online travel resources that are handy as well. My personal favorite is Wikitravel.org, since it provides quick and concise information, but for something more extensive you can download city guides at sites like arrivalguides.com. Likewise, most of the major guidebook companies now also have smart phone apps so you can download guidebooks electronically. Another good reference is the thorn tree travel forum on lonelyplanet.com, where travelers share up-to-date information about the ever changing rules of the travel game—it’s a particularly great tool for learning about new visa regulations and border openings.
To go or not to go?
Indeed traveling alone in any country is tough and not without its fair share of trials and tribulations, particularly in China, where traveling can be pretty nerve-wracking at times. Nonetheless, that’s all part of the solo travel experience and it shouldn’t stop you from going since you’ll quickly learn that meeting new people, exploring a new culture at your own pace and trying new things most certainly outweighs the negatives. It will not only become an eye-opening experience that enlightens your soul, but also an exhilarating and educational endeavor. If you’re still not sure, remember the words of Mark Twain, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do… Explore. Dream. Discover.” Trust me, you won’t regret it!
Note: While trying my best to provide a comprehensive look at traveling alone in China based on my personal travel experiences, I acknowledge my perspective has certain limitations, most notably in discussing the differnences between male and female solo travel here. If you’re interested in this topic, I suggest checking out this recent article on sexual harassment in China. And of course, I look forward to reading about your travel experiences in the comments section below.
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Quite a superficial article, stating things that might go wrong, without giving real advice. Before coming to live in China, I backpacked through it on six or seven trips and never really experienced any problems, although I had enough knowledge of putonghua to get by at the time. I found people more curious than out to scam you; for me the capital of scamming is Thailand, and by quite a long margin.
Sep 28, 2015 09:50 Report Abuse
I found a travel agent that will schedule foreign teachers on Chinese domestic tours. The first morning the Chinese participants were not to keen about me being on THEIR tour. By the end of the first day the attitudes changed, I was always on time to load for the next move. The others had to wait for Chinese coming back to the bus 15 to 30 minutes late. There was always someone that wanted to know about interntional trade or problems they had with shipping. I took second class sleeper cars instead of flying. I met all types of people that wanted to talk in English about different subjects. On one arranged tour the tour agent arranged for me to miss a train/bus connection and did not arrange hotels or the Three Gourges Dam trip. I was talking with a lovely female People's Army member. She left the train two or three stops before the transfer city. She talked to an older woman and the woman said she was going to ChangChing. After she left the train, I said to the women in Chinese, "I am going to ChongQing." She indicated that I should go with her. Her policeman friend took at top speed to the bus terminal accorss town. We just made the bus in time. At the travel agent's in ChangQing, I was not expected. He made arrangements and by taxi sent me to the boat. On the boat, My agent had told that every was paid for, but it was not. A tour guide called the ChongChing agent and gave me some money. The hotel in Wuhan was not paid, but I received the room for 90Rmb a night. The beef sandwich on the street in front of the library was fantastic for breakfast. The province museum was fantastic and I was helped traveling by bus many times without asking. The ride back to Nanjing by daytime sleeper bus was paid by the original agent after being prompted for 40RMB and the clerks laughed, the price was only 29Rmb. It took three trips to the original tour guide and she always not there. I talked 30 minutes with a German speaking male tour agent and he reimbursed my over payment. I took ten domestic tours and had good times. One tour the group complained about the food and signed my Chinese name, given by me by my Chinese instructor at Diablo Valley Community college. When the tour guide asked who is... Everyone laughed and said, that is Norman
Jul 11, 2013 12:46 Report Abuse
Thanks for the tips, Ive been here for a year and 2 months now, luckily so far I haven't been robbed or mugged. It does pay to have Chinese friends to travel with, since I am always with them I feel I am not capable of traveling by myself, I will try to travel alone this holiday, I heard Suzhou is a nice place. I will also look for travel links from lonely planet. Cheers!
Apr 28, 2013 10:53 Report Abuse
These are some basic tips, but they just scratch the surface. Traveling in China is easy, but without knowing any language you can spend hours or days standing in the wrong line. Having some friends who can speak the language is a big plus. Or just having someone you can call who can speak Chinese is invaluable. Getting ripped off is not that common if you're using common sense. 5 years in China traveling everywhere I haven't been robbed, mugged, lost anything or had anything stolen. The alone experience could be good, but it's always good to hook up with people here and there from time to time.
Apr 25, 2013 13:15 Report Abuse