This account is from someone who has NEVER backpacked or travelled anywhere on there own before and has just left school. If you are older or a more experienced traveller then your experience may be totally different.
I have been asked this question so many times since I’ve been in China. The average age of a backpacker here is around 25+ and most are travelling in groups, so when I tell them I’m here on my own they just can’t believe it. Looking back at it now I must admit that I can’t believe I did it either.
To understand my answer you must understand the variables that are at play. It is never just one thing that causes some anguish, it’s numerous small things put together which sometimes make it hard.
My answer is fairly simple though, it is extremely hard at times and it is extremely enjoyable at times. Would I do it again? 100 times yes over.
Anyone who is interested in coming to China to solo travel with little or no experience in travel needs the think very hard before making the decision. If you’ve been to a country in a large groups or with someone forget your experience since it will be completely different. I’m not talking about taking a 5 day trip to Beijing. I’m talking about travelling around the country. The best way I can put it is like this; you need to be the right kind of person. You need to have the right attitude and inner strength. At times it can get very hard and at times it can be relaxed. Some people may think I’m making it sound a lot harder than it is, however, for someone who has never travelled it is a challenge and unless you have been here you can’t judge. When you haven’t solo travelled before in your life and you have just finished school it can be difficult.
There were a couple of things I was really worried about before I did them and with the answers below it would have put my mind at ease and I would have been able to sleep so much better some days.
It really depends on where you are and how lucky you are; for example in Shanghai it can either be very easy or very hard since lots of people who are working there are permanent hostel residents since renting a flat there would be more expensive. So if your unlucky can get some dorm residents then it might be hard as these type of people have no interest in going out and making friends. If thats the case have a look in the common room and ask people if there up for going out for dinner or out to a bar. Being 19 makes an obvious age difference as a lot of people here were a fair bit older but as long as you act relatively mature and can listen, you should have no problems making new friends. If you have solo travelled before, meeting people in hostels here is harder than in most places as here people are mainly in groups and are older. The type of people that are here are extremely diverse and you meet people from all different backgrounds. China is only now slowly becoming a backpacker place. Don’t expect to make friends straight away and expect to be on your own for some periods of time.
Having to take the train in China was probably my biggest worry and in the end it was stressful but enjoyable. Depending on where you want to go and when will depend how far in advance you can book your tickets. For example booking a Bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai can sometimes even be booked out on the day. However, when I wanted to book a train from Guilin to Shenzhen there were no hard sleepers for the next week! Getting to the station and finding the right platform is probably the most challenging part. The only thing you have to go by is the train number and sometimes the departure time. Just check the boards and you should find it. Parts of the train ticket are in Chinese, for example if you are top, middle or bottom, and so its best to ask the hostel before you leave which one you are. The 2 numbers on the right hand side correspond to the carriage and bed compartment. Taking the hard sleeper train was really good fun and I suggest everyone to try it. They turn the train lights of at 10pm allowing you to get some sleep.
A lot less people speak English than you may think . I suggest you learn some basic Mandarin before you go, especially, if you decide to wander outside of Beijing and Shanghai.
ALWAYS have enough money for a day’s worth of eating and sleeping. I have a separate compartment in my wallet for emergency money. It can get you home and out of any situation! Have at least 2 sources of money from credit or debit cards! Have a working phone with enough credit to call any country.
Come to China with the right attitude. It is not a place where you can scream at the top of your voice and demand. It is a place where the main goal is to live and prosper, and if that means taking your 3 year old child out at 4am to ask people outside a night club for money then so be it. You will get lost, you will be emotionally and physically worn out at times, but that is all part of the adventure, and if you understand that you should have no problem. If you come with an open mind and respect the people here you will enjoy it and learn so much more than you could have ever dreamed of.
Forget what you know about this place, because its wrong. China is beautiful, profound and incomprehensible. China is China and nothing else!