Tips for Backpacking China Alone [or rather, what not to do in China]
What’s a girl to do when you’re meant to be traveling to Shanghai, China with your boyfriend, but you break up two weeks before the trip?
You end up backpacking China alone, and learning a hell of a lot about solo female travel.
As per usual, I hadn’t researched Shanghai at all. Was it safe to be travelling to Shanghai alone as a woman? Did the Chinese speak English? Are the hostels of a reasonable standard?
This was my first international trip solo. Prior to that I had spent a week by myself in the Coromandel but that was my own back yard, and China was a little different. Traveling to Shanghai alone was the complete opposite of doing so in New Zealand.
Unfortunately, I learned things the hard way on my first solo international trip. But good things always come from the bad- here are my tips for backpacking China alone.
1. Always get travel insurance
It took roughly 14 hours to get to Shanghai from Christchurch, with a brief stopover in Sydney. By this time I was keen to get my luggage and put on a fresh set of clothes. I waited patiently by the carousel. I waited and watched bag after bag that wasn’t mine pass me by.
My bag didn’t show. Feeling deflated, I went to the baggage services desk. My bag was still in Sydney.
“How long until it can get here?” I asked. Luckily I had packed a few necessary items in my carry on luggage, including a change of underwear, toothbrush, deodorant and a spare shirt.
“It should be here within a week,” the very nice, English-speaking Chinese man responded.
Stupidly I had decided to wear heels on the flight over. My feet now ached, and I had that terrible long-haul traveller smell.
Moral of the story? Always get travel insurance that covers you if your bags are delayed or missing.
And wear comfortable footwear!
2. Don’t book your accommodation at the last minute
I booked my hostel the night before I flew out. I decided to stay at the Blue Mountain Youth Hostel. From the pictures on the internet, it looked clean, comfortable and social.
When I arrived I handed the taxi driver a scrap piece of paper with the hostel address scribbled on it in Chinese. I had asked the man at luggage services to translate for me after discovering the majority of people in China know very little English.
According to the internet it would take me 47 minutes via taxi to get to the hostel. Feeling skeptical due to my experiences with taxis in Bali, I followed our progress on Google Maps. My taxi driver seemed to be driving the long way around. Next thing I know we were headed west, when my hostel was north-east, according to my map.
Travelling to Shanghai alone was an unforgettable experience
I showed him my map, and we somehow managed to understand each other enough that we were now heading in the correct direction.
Was he about to take me to some black market?
I’d heard some of the taxi’s at the airport are illegal. I just hoped I wasn’t sitting in one of them.
To say I was relieved when I saw the sign that read ‘Blue Mountain Youth Hostel’ was an understatement. I paid the 180 yuan I owed the driver, too tired to feel annoyed he took me the long way around.
From the outside, I was skeptical of the hostel. The only thing that gave me any reassurance was the sign showing me I was in the right place. Once I was inside it was a lot cleaner.
“There’s no booking under your name,” the friendly receptionist with a mass of blonde curls said.
I handed her the printed reservation.
“Ohhh, okay you’re in the wrong place hun! There are three Blue Mountain hostels in Shanghai. We’re the Bund, and you’ve booked in at the Hongqiao hostel.”
Finding this somewhat humorous, I asked if I could book a room for one night so I could figure out how to get to my real hostel the following day. As luck wouldn’t have it, the hostel was fully booked. My best option was to get a taxi to the other Blue Mountain hostel.
When I got there, I waded through hundred of boxes that were dumped outside the entrance. I navigated around black plastic rubbish bags that had spilled half of their contents onto the street.
My opinion of China was this thus far: it was dirty. It was stinky. It was my introduction to China.
The view from my hostel. Fantastic, no?
I saw a cockroach scurry under one of the chairs in the living area. Oddly enough this didn’t gross me out. What did gross me out was the amount of mold that coated the walls of my room. The big, black spores covered almost two thirds of the wall my bed lay against; the room was in such bad condition that my sheets were damp to the touch. I slept with a singlet wrapped around my face that night to ward off any bugs that would later penetrate my respiratory system.
3. Everything is in Chinese
This one sounds obvious, but I honestly thought the Chinese would know at least a little English. Or that there would be translated menus. But no- if you don’t know Chinese, you’re on your own.
I managed to get by but I did have a few confusing [and worrying] experiences. Like the time I tried to book a massage. I wasn’t even sure if I was in a massage parlour to start with, and I didn’t know if they understood Google Translate well enough to know what I was asking for.
I was slightly concerned when a young man led me to a room with a massage chair.
Please don’t be a brothel.
He put my feet in hot water, placed boiling hot packs on my knees and instructed me to sit up, as he proceeded to give me the most uncomfortable massage I’ve ever experienced.
So yeah, learning a little bit of Chinese is probably a good idea!
Hopefully you’ve learned a few things about traveling to China from the above- but please don’t be put off!
I’m telling you these things so that you won’t make the same mistakes I did- because I was drastically underprepared.
I ended up having a wonderful solo adventure in China- I found a better hostel, made some friends and even managed to catch a train to Beijing!
Have you visited China? What tips do you have for visiting?