Traveling overland through mainland China offers a great combination of comfort and value for money. Our two greatest challenges were choosing where to go and how to communicate with people. First we’ll talk about some of the hurdles to traveling in China and then try to help you out a bit on destination planning.
VISA: We were told we could only get this in our home country but once on the road we learned it was also possible to receive the visa from a handful of Chinese embassies and consulates within Asia. It is an expensive visa but there are several options available for tourist visas and finding a suitable one shouldn’t be too difficult. Rush processing was available in DC, but the visa is apparently difficult to get in Kazakhstan.
TRANSPORTATION: Other than actually buying the ticket, this was usually quite simple and comfortable. Internal flights for trans-continental routes are usually quite reasonable and we recommend the website travelchinaguide.com for English train schedules and travel planning. Take the train overnight is quite comfortable so long as you are in a sleeper compartment. We usually went hard sleeper (cheaper) for our overnight trips but would have preferred a soft sleeper for any trip where we were spending significant waking hours aboard the train.
INTERNET: This is slow and unreliable outside of major cities, but there is widespread access. It has been estimated that as much as 10% of the Internet is blocked from within China including the most popular website in the world, Facebook. If you want to use the Internet freely while in China try to sign up with a VPN service, such as Witopia, Astrill or Hotspot Shield BEFORE traveling. Internet clubs and access is quite common but don’t plan to upload any photos while there. Speeds vary greatly. In some areas (like Xinjiang) foreigners aren’t allowed to use Internet cafes, but if you have your own computer you’ll have no problem getting online in your hotel.
COMMUNICATION: Surprisingly difficult almost everywhere outside of the major cities. We created a guide to communication which you should probably read over before traveling in China. Many hotels we walked into didn’t have a single employee who could speak English. Obviously, this is less of a problem in larger cities but you should be prepared for communication challenges.
FOOD: If eating meat and you’re weary of trying strange things then you might want to consider switching to vegetarianism…otherwise just try everything. Szechuan cooking is what you’re likely most familiar with from home but the rest of the Chinese cuisine is far more varied. When visiting city markets you should be prepared to see snakes, frogs, turtles, insects, organs and plenty of other animals you would not normally think to eat.
HEALTH: Public toilets are readily available in China, but outside of the main tourist attractions in major cities they are “squatters” and there is never toilet paper or soap. Smog is a major health concern, try to vary your itinerary between cities and countryside, your lungs with thank you. Pharmacies abound, but always be vigilant and inspect the product before you purchase it- there are a lot of counterfeit pharmaceuticals and toiletries in Asia.
HOLIDAYS: We were traveling in China during the National Holiday which begins at the start of October. We would strongly advise against EVER going to China at this time or over any other holiday as these are the periods when domestic tourism completely takes over. We found it extremely difficult to find transportation and lodging at times and many sites we wanted to visit were so over crowded that it just wasn’t worth paying admission.
MONEY: We had few problems using ATM’s in China, but some require a 6 digit pin. Bank of China and ICBC always allowed us to access our accounts. There are ATMS in all major cities, but it’s a good idea to keep cash on hand for rural areas.
BEIJING: Within Beijing, taking the brand new subway system is cheap and efficient so long as you avoid riding at peak times. The system will take you to almost any site you might like to visit with the exception of the Great Wall and for that local tours abound for selection in the Hutong just south of Tienanmen square. When entering or leaving the city be sure to triple check the train station you’re using as there are several. It is also advised never to enter or leave Beijing by bus as traffic can be horrendous.
BEIJING TO XI’AN: This can be done as an easy overnight train or with several interim stops enroute. There are a variety of sites accessible in the region from the ancient town of Pingyao and the caves of Grottoes Datong, both easy targets from Beijing or Xi’an. There are several other sites to the east of Xi’an that might be of interest to those interested in the Silk Road.
XI’AN: No need for a tour. You can take the city bus from in front of the train station right to the Terracotta Army without much trouble. There are some other sites in the area but are of much lesser significance and excitement in comparison and can also be more difficult to reach. If you want to ‘see it all’ there are plenty of day trips that most hotels in town can book for you. Also be sure take a walk on the city’s wall and take in the sights of the park on the outer side of the wall. If you’re not going any further west Xi’an’s market is a great place to pick up Silk Road paraphernalia and try some Central Asian foods like shashlik or plov.
SZECHUAN: From Chengdu itself you can visit with Pandas, watch Opera, see the world’s tallest Buddha, and pick tea. This is a great region to travel in if you want to try an experience different ‘types’ of China without covering too much distance. The array of options is plentiful and Chengdu itself offers up a large amount of culture on its own. Most independent travelers focus on this region and those to the south, which we do recommend, but on account of National Holiday we were unable to travel south, from Sichuan to Yunnan, as planned.
TIBET: If you want to go to Tibet you will need to obtain permission when booking your trip once inside China, and this can be denied. The situation is always changing, seemingly day to day. You will need to travel with a licensed guide and unless flying to Lhasa, the train ride from Lanzhou is usually two nights. The whole trip can be quite difficult and expensive. Instead, we traveled overland via bus from Lanzhou, Gansu to Chengdu, Sichuan through some of the Tibetan borderlands, focusing on our visit to Xiahe. If you do want to see Tibetan culture it might be easiest and most rewarding to focus on these borderland regions, from Lanzhou south, across Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, as this can be done with far less hassle.
WESTERN CHINA: We entered China from Kazakhstan and traveled overland from Urumqi to Lanzhou without much of a headache. On this route we saw the beginning of the Great Wall and accompanying fortresses as well as the Magao Grottoes at Dunhuang. Although we enjoyed all of this immensely, I’m not sure I would recommend that everyone head out this far west when the rest of the country has so much to offer.