Another ChinaTravelFilter: Help this backpacking newbie becomes a pro.
June 27, 2010 8:17 AM   Subscribe

Another ChinaTravelFilter: Help this backpacking newbie becomes a pro.

I will be in China July doing the history tour.

I will arrive in Beijing

Then by train head to

then fly out or take train to

Emei Shan

then fly out to Shanghai

Sadly, I don't think have enough time so I have to skip Huashan and Wutaishan.

I could speak Mandarin but it's not that good. I could read Chinese but I can't write it.

So far I am overwhelmed by the choice of hostels available. How do you book them anyway? Just call them ahead before showing up? Is there an easy way to book them online? Do you have any recommendation for any of the cities I will be visiting?

Same thing with train tickets, can you book them online? Or should I wait until I'm in China to book?

What do I need to bring with me to China? What should I wear?
I found a packlist online. But do I need to bring any of them?
posted by Carius to Travel & Transportation around China (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In regard to hostels, the ones I've been looking at allow you to reserve a bed via email ahead of time. I booked for a hostel in Beijing about a month ahead of time but my requested accommodations weren't available, so if my story is anything to go by you may want to reserve early. The hostels I've looked at also have indicated on their website that they can help with purchasing train/air tickets. I'm not sure if this is the best route to take, but that is certainly an option. That's about all I can help with--I'm sure others who are far more knowledgeable than I will be chiming in soon.

Have fun on your trip!
posted by lucy.jakobs at 8:49 AM on June 27, 2010

As mentioned above, if you reserve hostels ahead of time via email you'll often be able to take advantage of free train station pickup. Since you don't have any Mandarin, it may be best for you to reserve ahead of time, rather than relying on the "good will" of hotel touts at the train station.
You can also read the various traveller reviews of the places. I have been able to find great hostels in China doing that.

You're going to sweat your (rear-end) off in China in July. Take light-weight clothes that are good for hot weather. Also, pack a hat and sunscreen. The hostels may or may not have shower slippers, but you can buy a pair in China, just as you can buy the towel you'll need. Also, ALWAYS BE SURE TO HAVE PACKETS OF TISSUE WITH YOU. 99% of toilets do not have toilet paper and you do not want to be caught short.

If you've got an iPod touch/iPhone, download a Chinese dictionary. It is a great help to be able to show people the hanzi for whatever it is you're looking for.

A silk "sleep sack" would probably be a good thing to have. In my travels in China I have rarely stayed at a hostel where the duvet was freshly laundered.

Pingyao is excellent, by the way, but I'd say that you can see it all in 36 hours. I arrived on the 0600 train from Beijing and could have left the next day on the 2030 train feeling I'd "done" the old city. Three days there is overkill unless you're going to go to some of the outlying areas.
I hired a guide for the day (0800-1500 hrs) for ¥80. Probably could have haggled her down, but just couldn't be bothered.
posted by lhp81 at 9:34 AM on June 27, 2010

Seconding having your own toilet tissue.
I would also bring a towel.

And I have traveled with a plastic jar of peanut butter several times.
Peanut butter sandwiches make a quick, easy, cheap meal.

I traveled China a few years ago. I went to a set program in Beijing for a month, then travelled the country for a month. A few of the others in the Beijing program, they arrived with nearly no clothing at all. The first day there, they went to the pearl market, and bought an entire ward-robe. So many designer name products are assembled in China, you can get stuff for really cheap at the pearl market. There are no price tags on anything - start your negotiations at about 20% of whatever price they initially quote. If you pay 50% of the initially price, they are beating you. (And even at 50%, new designer clothes at the pearl market at dirt cheap - I got a great north face jacket for $15)
posted by Flood at 10:41 AM on June 27, 2010

When I was last in China (~ 4 years ago) you could not buy train tickets online. You had to go stand in line somewhere, and the transaction happened in Mandarin. I speak decent Mandarin and it was still difficult outside of Beijing (the system can be confusing). Most hostels will be able to help you get tickets - you might spend more, but you won't have to deal with the hassle and you'll spend more time enjoying your trip. Generally, using an intermediary for getting your tickets improves your chances of actually getting tickets. I've been able to get train tickets through intermediaries when the official vendors didn't have anything for me.

I don't know if you know anything about China's train system, but there are four classes of accommodation, in descending order of luxury - soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, hard seat. Hard sleeper is your best bang for your buck. Hard seat is dirt cheap. Any traveler should experience hard seat overnight travel once but not more than once if you can avoid it.

I strongly disagree with the suggestion about carrying your own food, because it hardly costs anything to eat in China, food is available everywhere, and you'll be missing out on about 3/4ths of the adventure.

Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces are probably the best noodle country in the world, so enjoy the hell out of that.
posted by zjacreman at 10:49 AM on June 27, 2010

I went to china last year around october so i can't help you with the weather (then, it was lovely edging on cold), but for hostels I used the websites and and a few others which are very easy to book with. The good thing with these is the reviews are by other travellers so you'll get a fair idea of what to expect from whichever hostel you choose to stay at, and alot of the places will also pick you up from the train station if you've booked with them and let them know when you're coming.

The fact that your already able to speak and read some mandarin puts you worlds above where I was, but even i found it easy enough to get around and eat street food, sure I was probably paying more than I should of been, i'd haggle a little but it still was cheap in my opinion so i didnt mind what the final price was.

nthing the tissues, I wish i'd known that, there were a few 24hr + train rides where it could've come in very handy but luckily at all the station shops there are little shops selling noodles and tissues and stuff. I always went hard sleeper which sleeps 6 in 2 triple bunks and found it more than comfortable enough for me (but it would've been good to be able to speak some mandarin to chat with the other guests in my compartment) whereas soft sleepers have only 4 per compartment. All the trains have boiling water dispensers so if you like tea or noodles make sure you have a tea bottle and get some supplies before you go, as you will pay a premium at the stations.

Enjoy your trip
posted by parryb at 12:46 PM on June 27, 2010

Definitely take a lightweight towel (one that dries quickly, you can find them at camping/travel stores), and, in China, make sure to pick up (and keep replenishing!) a roll or two of toilet paper. There's really no need to take food with you, you can find little stores all over that sell snack food in a pinch, instant noodles, cookies, whatever. Before going on a train trip, it would be a good idea to find a supermarket and get some fixings for sandwiches or instant noodles. On most trains, the only decent food is in the restaurant car for the soft sleeper ticket holders, and those tickets are roughly equivalent to a plane ticket.

When you travel by train, if you're taking a long trip, get the hard sleeper ticket as mentioned above. The hard sleeper is broken up into compartments of six berths, bottom, middle, and upper. Get the middle. The upper berth is too close to the ceiling to sit up during the day, so the people up there tend to sit on the bottom berth, usually without asking the person who has that berth. The middle berth has enough space to sit up, and usually provides you with a bit of privacy/space. The hard seat, honestly, is pretty awful, and if you have personal space issues, well, you'll need to get over them. If travelling alone, you're probably going to need to stay in your seat the whole time to keep someone from taking it. On popular routes, more tickets are sold than seats available, and some people are forced to stand the whole time. If a seat opens up, they'll take it.

Avoid, if you can, sleeper buses. My students laughed at me when I told them I'd taken one. They are not clean, and the berths are built to be shared. If travelling alone, well, you won't be alone very long.

Definitely bring the lightest clothing you've got, both for weight issues, and for heat. It's going to be hot. Drink a lot of (bottled) water, as the tap water isn't drinkable.

The best travel I had in China was the travel that I didn't fully plan. I arrived solo in a town, headed to a hostel I had reserved, then met people there who were traveling as well. We ended up traveling together, and I managed to see things I hadn't actually thought of seeing. Keep an open mind regarding your schedule, and be open and friendly to other backpackers. You might find a pretty decent travel companion.

Last thing, make sure to either get a business card, or write down the name of any place you're staying. You might need to get a taxi back to your hostel, and being able to just show the card to the driver will be a lot easier than trying to expalin it.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:19 PM on June 27, 2010

It's been two years, but I stayed at Sitting on the City Walls hostel in Beijing and really enjoyed it. Helpful staff (they'd write down directions to aid you in getting to certain destinations - and were just generally quite friendly), clean rooms, warm showers, good and cheap food, nice location etc. They'll arrange tours (summer palace, great wall, etc.) for you as well.

I think you can book rooms through Hostel World, but I imagine e-mailing works for a lot of places too. I just showed up at my destination, found a hostel (often researched online in advance) and asked for a room. Never ran into vacancy issues, thankfully.

Trains - you tend to be stuck in long lines, and Mandarin seems to be a requirement. I lucked out and met a nice Russian woman who did all the talking for me, but you might be able to find a local with enough English to help you out. Otherwise ask at the hostel to see if they can book things for you.
posted by backwards guitar at 2:29 PM on June 27, 2010

I can second the Sitting on the City Walls recommendation. It's a really nice place.

My girlfriend travelled all around China several years ago, and back then it was generally impossible to buy a train ticket from X to Y unless you were actually at X. I think it was because the different provinces all had their own rail administrations and they all refused to cooperate. These days it's much easier in big cities, where there are little ticket shops that will actually sell tickets between other places, but if you're out in the middle of nowhere you might find that the old rules still apply.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:34 AM on June 28, 2010

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