China – A Difficult Place to Travel?

Becki Enright October 25, 2012 15

Before heading to China, I wrestled with the idea of solo travel vs. group tours. I’d heard from many people that it was a very difficult place to travel, especially with the language barrier while trying to traverse a huge country. Some had simply given up after a few weeks due to limited patience levels and an inability to cope with the extreme differences in culture; others stuck to the main cities of Beijing, Xian, Chengdu and Shanghai; and the vast majority of others chose tours in order to bypass the difficulty.

In the end, I did a mixture of both. With around 10 weeks to spend in China, I wanted to see and experience as much as possible. Solo travel allowed me to face some of the toughest travel challenges that have ever been thrown at me, where I overcame the biggest of frustrations such as getting lost (many times), being misinformed (the Chinese nature to be very helpful and save face isn’t always beneficial), and learning how to be the best mime artist that ever lived (alongside the limited vocab you swiftly learn this is your only form of communication). I became a more confident traveller; I got to know places that I didn’t just want to pass through quickly; I experienced all forms of local transportation (I love metros, trains and buses); and I revelled in the chaos of being thrown into the deep end without guidance, time scales and restriction.

Dali South, China,

Yet, group travel allowed me to see places that would have been extremely difficult to get to solo, or which were not offered as day trips or short excursions from my hostel. Sure, there would have been a way, but not without losing a few days of travel time (and sanity) in the process, as well as not being in the vicinity of other travellers to hang out with. China is also not a huge solo traveller destination like its South East Asia neighbours, with singletons like me being a rarity amongst couples, friendship groups, foreign students and English teachers – most of who are not doing a similar route or going in the same direction.

We are all different, and whether you want to face China and its limitations head on or take the hassle-free route, it doesn’t matter. A land of frustration and fascination, China has a lot to offer whether you love big cities or tucked away villages, mountain hikes or temple hopping, history or modernisation. Combining both forms of travel allowed me to mix and match the scenery and the types of activities available, rather than do a straight big city hop.

I never tired of Beijing, spending 12 days there continuously exploring, and loved the bustling city vibe combined with the pockets of history and local life. I continued on a route solo through to Nanjing, whose well-known Massacre museum ensures the city’s devastating history is never forgotten. From there it’s a three hour train ride to Shanghai, where you can seek some comfort from the modernity and westernised way of life, taking in the magnificent skyline of Pudong, shopping centres on every street corner and the busy bars and nightlife. Shanghai is also a fantastic base in order to visit the traditional towns of Suzhou and Hangzhou, which are only a few hours away by train.

The Great Wall, China

The Great Wall, China

Shanghai connects you to many places including Xian, Chengdu and Huangshan but I chose to train back to Beijing in order to begin an overland tour route that would take me through well-established and off the beaten track destinations in Central, West and South of China. While Datong and the out of town Buddhist caves, the ancient walled city of Pingyao, the Terracotta Warrior famed Xian and the panda residence of Chengdu are well trodden and easy to get to, my overland tour allowed me not only to see more of local life as we passed through it, but meant I got to see places that were difficult to get to or which were not on my original radar – such as the beautiful mountain and UNESCO temple complex town of Wutai Shan, the cave dwelling village of Lijiashan, and Yan’an, which became the center of the Communist Revolution from 1936 to 1948.

The Yangtze River Cruise is a great way to travel on Asia’s largest river and between the two travel hubs of Chongqing and Yichang, or vice versa. Ending in Chongqing meant that I was in closer proximity to travel to the giant Buddha in Leshan, the spectacular Emei Shan mountain and its spectacular trek and down to the beautiful Yunnan province, where Tiger Leaping Gorge awaits you outside of the beautiful narrow streets and cobbled stoned alleyways of Lijiang. Lijiang, Dali and Kunming form the golden triangle of Yunnan, but sadly I ran out of visa time after Kunming.

China is so large that’s it’s impossible to see it all in one trip. Like me, you may love it as much as you hate it… but love it just that little bit more. Everyday something new surprised me and everyday something else drove me crazy. 10 weeks allowed me time to acclimatise to the way of life, spend significant time in my favourite places (I’m a huge fan of Beijing) and give me ample time to try and understand the Chinese way of life. But it was also time to leave – I needed to move on from China in order to appreciate it and recharge my batteries since travelling between places is long and the frustration, while you get used to it, certainly takes its toll.

I’ll be back, mainly to concentrate on the Southern regions, where glorious sunshine beats down on paddy fields and picturesque villages set within a wall of magnificent mountain ranges and where traditional towns suck you in to their winding streets and everyday burst of activity. I’m also dreaming of the Silk Road route in the far West and Tibet when it re-opens to tourists. I guess I will never tire of China, but at the rate its changing and being modernised I best get back here soon.


  1. Pete October 26, 2012 at 2:05 am - Reply

    I’ve recently visited Beijing. A very city to be in. For some it might be a cultural shock but since i’m from Thailand, the culture isn’t so different imo.

    Anyway, some other tips I would provide:

    1. If you want to contact your friends on Facebook/Twitter, prepare your VPN before you go to China, not once you there. I’ve learned this the hard way.

    2. Bring offline map. Don’t rely on online map or even a taxi driver to know where your destination is. It’s a big city.

    I’ve written my experience here if you wanna take a look:

  2. Susanne November 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm - Reply

    I have been on a trip through China recently. Especially if it’s the first trip to Asia as it was for me I would recommend a guided tour. For me it was also kind of cultural shock and I got to know problems like Pete mentioned (taxi drivers often don’t really know where they need to go). The guide from gadventures was really good and could help us with problems like getting to the airport in Shanghai at 4 am. It’s not always easy to find a relyable taxi at that time. :-)

  3. Camping Equipment & Accessories April 29, 2013 at 8:14 am - Reply

    Shanghai is best city and awesome place for tourist. China is famous for The Great Wall of China. For buying camping products like tents, carpets, footprints etc.

  4. China Traveler May 23, 2013 at 3:58 am - Reply

    Your writing is great. You have made me want to travel to china again :) I travel often, and I’m always happy to hear about other people’s adventures.

  5. SilkRoader July 28, 2013 at 11:59 am - Reply

    I really enjoy your writing and I look forward to reading about your trip along the Silk Road. I just returned from a tour of the Silk Road. Travelling by train, starting in Xian and ending up in Urumqi with the various Silk Road posts in between. Although, it is not a trip for the faint of heart, I would recommend it for the more adventurous traveller.

    It gets you away from the modernity of the major cities and you get to see the various minorities in NW China like the Uyghurs, Hui and other Moslem and Buddhist minorities. It is also a trip back in history, to the sights of the original Silk Road.

  6. Voyages Tibet sur mesure August 3, 2013 at 12:50 am - Reply

    very interessting text, which helped me a lot to plan my trip to China.

  7. Forrest walker September 2, 2013 at 10:25 am - Reply

    Very well written. I feel I need to see China, but everything I read about from bloggers makes me think it just would not be worth it. Maybe with a group like G, certainly never alone.

  8. Alex September 14, 2013 at 2:40 am - Reply

    What a trip! I’ve just started travelling through China, in Yangshuo in Guangxi province now but am not sure where to go next and worried about the difficulty of getting places. Haven’t had much trouble yet but your blog has given me some good ideas!

  9. Travel Origins October 9, 2013 at 6:40 am - Reply

    Sounds amazing. Thank you for sharing this post!

  10. Jeremy October 26, 2013 at 7:11 am - Reply

    I just finished 10 months in China and it is, indeed, a difficult place to be and travel. But it’s such a bizarre and fascinating place to be. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  11. Sara November 19, 2013 at 11:39 pm - Reply

    China is just so huge and diverse, there is so much to see and it’s impossible to see “everything” on one trip.

    When I first came to China in 2010 I was traveling alone for 5 weeks, but I did day trips that were arranged by the hostel I was staying in each city.

    Now that I’ve been living in Guangzhou for almost 4 years I don’t want to go to tourist group travels anymore. I can speak the language and getting lost sometimes is just part of the adventure.

    Thank you for sharing your experience! I realized this is an old post, but wanted to comment anyway.

  12. HELENA AND JEFF November 23, 2013 at 11:02 am - Reply


  13. Dave Bruels May 2, 2014 at 12:35 am - Reply

    After 25 years of travel throughout China during 55 trips I can really say it is the most interesting country I have ever visited. Even today I prefer to travel with a guide rather than solo. I am a tour operator however guides can take you to interesting places that most people wouldn’t find. Most people only go for 2 to 3 weeks and you really need to either be extremely well organized on your own or have a private custom tour put together to your interests. Your time is valuable so you might as well see what you are interested in rather than hit and miss on your own.

  14. Sally Davis June 16, 2014 at 11:45 am - Reply

    Thank you for all the lovely tips and hints!

  15. Weronika Anna January 12, 2015 at 5:45 am - Reply

    Thanks for your tips! I visited few places in Southern China last year and I am planning to visit again and I agree that it is a difficult place to travel and that is why planning is very important.

Leave A Response »