Congratulations on making the intrepid decision to travel solo through China! The Middle Kingdom has endless style and stories to offer those who enter its borders, especially those who choose to go it alone. But because China is a big place for a lone person to be, there are a few things you should know before making the trip.
Though petty crimes prevail in tourist hotspots, China is overall a very safe country for travelers. You should still take the same precautions you would when traveling anywhere solo; however, there is no need to worry about your basic welfare. Being a foreigner also provides you a certain safety net, as few criminals are willing to risk the harsher sentences they would likely receive for hurting China’s international image.
Learning a few basic words from a guidebook certainly can’t hurt, but many people in the big cities—especially those directly involved with the tourism industry—speak at least a little English. Trying to communicate in Chinese can show respect for the local language and culture, but if you’re unsure of your pronunciation, speaking broken Chinese will create more frustration than anything else.
China is a huge, diverse country full of everything from grasslands to skyscrapers. Luckily, most of it is easily traversed with any combination of train, plane, bus, boat, and car. As tempting as it is to hop on a bus to nowhere, it’s not recommended for solo travelers, especially those who are experiencing China for the first time. There remain some dangerous pockets of the country, particularly in the border regions, and other pockets that are so remote, you will be hard-pressed to get out. Plus, when the beaten path is so beautiful, there’s no reason to stray from it.
Most of your favorite apps will work in China, especially if you have a VPN, but consider the Chinese alternatives, which typically run faster and smoother. Didi Chuxing, for example, is China’s Uber. The company even took over Uber’s China market a few years ago. So, your Uber app will work just fine, but you will really be hitching a ride with a Didi driver, many of whom prefer Didi customers over Uber ones.
There are a lot of things that can go wrong in China, from the hotel you booked not being built yet (it can happen) to your smartphone being stolen. That’s why you must plan everything in advance but leave enough breathing room in the plan that if something does go wrong, you’re not SOL. Buy as many tickets—plane, train, entrance, and otherwise—online as you can, and always bring proof of purchase. Book hotels and hostels in advance, and triple check the reviews, paying particular attention to the locations, which, of course, you should print out in Chinese characters for every foreigner-deaf taxi driver.
Not only is the train the best way to see the countryside, it is also the best combination of cheap, timely, and comfortable. To book a ticket, use Chinese travel site Ctrip. Educate yourself on the different classes of tickets as well. There are hard seats, soft seats, and sleeper seats; first class, second class, and third class cabins; and slow trains, fast trains, and bullet trains. Though the options may seem overwhelming, there aren’t really any wrong choices to be made as long as you get safely from point A to point B.
Though much of China is in the first world, the bathrooms are stuck in the third. Outside of hotels, and sometimes even in them, you won’t get much better than squatty potties with no toilet paper or soap. Sometimes you’ll get lucky, especially in places like Shanghai, but it only takes one mad dash to the bathroom after too much Chongqing hotpot to make you wish you had followed this advice. Oh, and hand sanitizer is never a bad idea either.
As per item number one on this list, China is a safe country. That being said, there’s little that local scammers like more than lost puppy-dog tourists. Perhaps the most popular tourist-oriented scam is the “tea house.” The tea house is performed by an approachable-looking young person who will invite you for a traditional tea ceremony after making pleasant small talk with you on the street. After the ceremony, your “host” will disappear, saddling you with a suspiciously high bill, usually around RMB1000 ($156). This scam can be easily avoided by politely refusing any such offers from strangers.
Strangers are bad when it comes to judiciously avoiding scams, but strangers are essential when it comes to getting around and making the most of your solo adventures. Most strangers are extremely helpful, and if you walk around in a constant state of confusion, chances are someone will offer to guide you. Some people are just happy to have someone to practice English with. Others are only taking pity on you. But whatever the case may be, don’t be afraid to ask locals for help, and don’t feel nervous about inviting them for a lunch afterwards as a way to say thank you.