Beyond Europe and Southeast Asia – 6 Reasons China is Well Worth Backpacking

19 Jun

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I’ve been traveling around China for the past 6 weeks, and it has been a delightful experience. China is my favorite country I have visited so far.

It is hard to overstate the scale of China’s size and history, as the Chinese civilization is the oldest society on earth that exists as a nation today. It has been through countless golden ages, dynasties, internal divisions, and wars throughout its thousands of years of existence. In regards to food, traditions, dialects, architecture, and landscapes, each region almost feels like a different country. A foreigner could spend five years traveling in China and still only scratch the surface of this complex and rapidly changing society. Basically, based on the desires of most backpackers, China is worth visiting.

But compared to Europe and Southeast Asia, China isn’t nearly as heavily backpacked, at least, by westerners. There are several reasons why this may be, from the language barrier, to the intimidating size, to the portrayal of China in western media as being an urban, dystopian, polluted wasteland. But language barriers can be overcome more easily than some expect, and outside of a few urban areas, this media narrative is misleading and false. China is well-worth backpacking, and here are six reasons why:

The country is massive and diverse, with large differences between the provinces

China is more than just a big country. It is a complex civilization with a level of regional variation like that of Western Civilization. While 93% of the population is Han Chinese, this statistic is misleading, becuase there are huge variations in Han Chinese culture between the different regions. Going from Henan to Hunan, or from Sichuan to Yunnan is to cross into what feels like a whole different version of China, like crossing from France to Germany within Western Europe. The differences are not just in a few things like local food specialties or obscure slang – there are different cuisines, traditional festivals, major dialects, architecture styles, and levels of economic development in each region.

Outside the coastal cities, it is affordable to visit

The coastal cities of China, like Hong Kong (its own autonomous zone) and Shanghai can be as expensive as world-class cities anywhere. But if you maximize your time inland and spend less time in these major cities, a trip to China can be very affordable. In Yunnan, it is more than possible to get by on around $45 a day, but you may struggle to get by on twice that in Shanghai.

The historic sites are massive and distinctive

When you sightsee in Beijing or Xi’an, you’ll realize that this isn’t a country where you can meander through alleyways that have loads of smaller landmarks or museums. In comparison to Europe, think fewer but better sights. Chinese cities typically have a few really, really big tourist sites and maybe one or two smaller museums. While there isn’t history at every turn, the individual sights in each region are large and take time to see. The Great Wall near Beijing, and the Terracotta Warriors near Xi’an are two famous examples, but what about the Mu Family Mansion in Lijiang, or the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall in Guangzhou?

The countryside is very scenic and dramatic in certain regions

The countryside of China is dramatic if you go to the right places. Head Southwest to see the Karst peaks of Guangxi, the Miao villages in the hills of Guizhou, or the dramatic mountain ranges of Western Sichuan. Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan is rightfully considered to be one of Asia’s greatest treks. Also, the mountains and deserts in the Northwest are their own type of beautiful environment.

The food is excellent wherever you go

I have had one or two bad meals in China. As long as you don’t eat unsafe buffet food or street food, you’re good. The specialties in each region are very distinct, but within big cities, food from most regions is represented. Trying famous regional specialties in their regions for the first time, like Peking Duck, Xiaolongbao, or Crossing-the-Bridge Noodles is an experience you’ll always remember fondly.

The public transportation is increasingly extensive and easy to use

While New York City can’t stop delaying the date of opening for its Second Avenue Subway Line, China has already built the world’s largest network of high speed trains in the years since 2007. But High Speed Trains arent the only vehicles that make Chinese transportation great. There are sleeper trains, new metro systems in cities, buses, sleeper buses, and a variety of airline options that all make getting around China a breeze. Just make sure that for longer routes, you buy your train tickets in advance. Also, it helps to know when your stop is on the train timetables for your route, since english announcements are not common on the trains that aren’t bullet trains. Check out rail.assistanceinchina.com for route schedules and maps. chinahighlights.com is a great place to buy tickets.

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