Charlie Yarwood, London
Independent travel in China sounds more intimidating than in, say, Southeast Asia or India, but don’t be put off.
It’s a fabulous country for backpacking — safe, friendly, sometimes mind-boggling, and enormous fun. It’s vast, of course, but efficient and reasonably priced train travel helps with covering the distances, and the language barrier is not insurmountable, as passers-by are usually keen to assist if they can speak English. Recently, there has been a real boom in backpacker-friendly places to stay: Shanghai has more than a dozen hostels, and there are thriving backpacker scenes in Yangzhou and Lijiang, for example.
Easier than ever before to travel independently, then, but if you like the idea of an organised journey that still has the backpacker style, The Dragon Trip (020 3286 8582, thedragontrip.com) fits the bill. It runs 25-day tours around the country, visiting well-known places such as Xi’an (for the terracotta warriors), Beijing (for the Forbidden City), the Shaolin temple and Shanghai, as well as less famous spots. You’ll camp on a deserted section of the Great Wall and spend time with the Hakka minority people in southern Fujian — famous for their tulou roundhouses, each one accommodating up to 80 families.
The 25-day circuit costs £898pp, starting in Hong Kong, Beijing or Shanghai. Shorter trips are on offer, too, including a 15-day journey from Hong Kong to Beijing for £658pp. Prices include hostel accommodation, overnight train travel where possible, sightseeing and a guide. For other tours, try STA Travel (0871 230 0040, statravel.co.uk) or Imaginative Traveller (0845 287 2989, imaginative-traveller.co.uk).
Kayak.co.uk and fly.com are good places to search for flights, which start at about £450 return from London to Hong Kong or Beijing. Lonely Planet publishes a comprehensive guide to China (£20), as does Rough Guides (£19). Both hostelworld.com and hostelbookers.com can book hostels across the country; dorm beds start at £5 a night.