After I graduated from university and taught English in Hong Kong for a year, I backpacked around Western China, and boy, did I learn some hard truths. These truths were recently reinforced by another three-week trip around the region and I am here to share my hard-won gems of knowledge. I came, I saw, I survived, and with my help you will too. This is a remarkably beautiful area with plenty of tasty food to nom (including true Sichuan peppercorn), fresh(er) air to breathe, and non-Disneyfied sights to photograph. So don’t hesitate to book that ticket, just strap in, read on, and be prepared for backpacking around Western China.
1. If you value your life, you will always have cash on you.
Seriously. I cannot stress this enough. Many establishments, including hotels, do not take credit cards or only Chinese credit cards. This also goes for travel agencies, so you will want to either have cash prepared ahead of time or you will need to lift your daily withdrawal limit for a short window. You never know when you might be stranded in a small town with one (barely) working ATM that might or might not take your debit card.
2. Cup of noodles and instant water heaters are precious.
Before you scoff at instant noodles, let me tell you, the Chinese versions are impressive. The sheer variety, types of meat-in-bag, and condiments make these bowls the food of the gods. Plus, if you are in a bad way with your stomach, these are a safe food and most hotel rooms come with handy water boilers.
3. Follow the crowds for food.
To avoid stomach issues, choose restaurants that are filled with local patrons. Not only will you probably get some delicious dishes, you may also avoid some disastrous trips to the bathroom. I would also recommend avoiding seafood, because, well, where’s the nearest sea? Stick to common food items or dishes that the area is known for.
4. Be prepared for some of the most disturbing squat toilets of your life.
You think you have seen a bad squat toilet? You don’t even know. These will have you hoping that each splatter puddle is just the splash from a tremendous flush. You just have to grit your teeth, carry your own toilet paper, and try very hard not to touch anything.
5. What is this thing called a line?
To be fair, there has been a marked improvement from 2011 to now, but lines are still more of a battle that you will lose unless you get fierce. This is the time for elbows, shoulders, and even luggage.
6. You are a novelty, deal with it.
It is time for you to be on display constantly and the stares are just something you will need to deal with. Foreigners are not often seen around these areas and so every different face is exciting. Before you get too annoyed, just take a deep breath and roll with it. Toss out a smile, maybe give a stare back, and if a kid yells, “HELLO” right into your ear, just toss back a “Ni hao!” They don’t really mean any harm, plus aren’t you the one with a camera pointed at everyone anyway?
7. If you hear, “Just look, no need buy”, run far away.
The street market vendors are master hagglers. If you show the slightest interest in anything, then you will be roped into a haggle war. This is a no-prisoners type of deal, so be as ruthless as etiquette will allow. You might even draw a crowd of good-natured voyeurs who will participate in the escalating battle for a good price. The minute you ask, “How much?” the game is on, and you will either leave with a trinket that you were only meh about to begin with or you will physically have to tear yourself away from a sea of frustrated vendors.
8. Always have bottles of water on you.
You never know when you will need some water to hydrate yourself or swallow that antibiotic pill.
9. Always have disposable tissues or napkins on you.
You never know when you will need to wipe your mouth during a meal or other body parts during other activities. You might even want to carry around an entire roll of toilet paper.
10. Be prepared for uncertainty.
Delays, cancelations, schedule changes, and unknown trip lengths await you during your travels in Western China. Add to all that chaos a lack of English language ability and you have the recipe for an extremely stressful trip. If you don’t speak the language, find someone who can translate for you. You might also want to have a translator app on your smartphone. Have your itinerary written out in Chinese so that you can point to a place or a time. Finally, bring a few books along because you might have some long waits.
11. Maybe invest in a face mask.
The whole covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing is not something that is done here, so to avoid illness, you might want to have a face mask on hand.
12. Always carry a jacket.
Temperature fluctuations, especially around the Tibetan Plateau, can be quite extreme, so you should always have a light rain jacket with you. If you travel around this area in the winter, then carry the warmest jacket you can find. This is especially the case in the northwestern provinces. It is freezing.
13. Learn some phrases in the local language.
While there are more and more people who speak English around this area, they are still few and far between. Learn a few phrases to get by and it will really ease your trip.
14. Ask permission before photos.
While you should really be doing this no matter where you are or who you are photographing, it is important and respectful to ask in this region. Some people are quite nervous about photographs for a variety of reasons and they are adamant about the no photo rule. Be respectful, understanding, and ask for consent.
15. Be loose with hygiene.
Hot water is not a guarantee, so unless you are good with lukewarm or cold showers, then you might not want to bathe so often. Fellows, start nurturing that beard since shaving could be a hassle. Ladies, you might also want to prepare for some growth since it can be a frustrating process to shave. Also, while I do not use bottled water to brush my teeth (tap all the way), you should be careful if you use my method because you could get sick.