How to Spend 8 Days in China

I got the opportunity to teach for a summer in China through an organization that offered to pay for my flight and apartment while I was there. It was an amazing opportunity that I had to take. I arrived 8 days early, and here is what I did!

The teaching program offered to let me choose the dates for my trip, and without knowing who I would join me or what I would do if I ended up solo, I got my ticket for eight days before the position was to start. When I told them I wanted to come early, I wasn’t sure any of my friends would end up coming with me, but I knew that a free flight to China was something I couldn’t waste! I was tired of maybes, ifs, whens, and afters. I just had faith someone would be as adventurous as me and choose to come along.

My gut was right, I reached out to friends, and two—TWO of my friends ended up wanting to come. I was not alone in my sense of adventure and excitement about China! They both booked their flights and asked, “What’s next?”

So, I started researching. There are so many things I wish I had known about traveling in China when I started planning. Researching travel for China is tough. It is ever-changing and evolving, and it’s hard to know what to expect. You’ll fall in love with China’s megacities while there – trust me! I didn’t book a tour through a company for the eight-day trip and opted to save money and book things on my own.

NOTE: I owe a HUGE thank you to the people who made this trip possible: to TIS for hiring me and being flexible, to my school for giving me a few days off, to Megan and Matt for letting me stay at their place when my lease ended, and to Nancy who watched my adorable cat for a whole month! And finally, thank you to Elizabeth and Adam who put up with my worries about planning this trip and being understanding when things went wrong. There are a lot of amazing people out there who supported my dream and made it happen.

This is the first trip internationally (besides a cruise) that I planned myself, and it was very overwhelming at first. I remember calling my mom, who was going to China on a tour just a month before I was going, and saying I didn’t know where to start. She assured me that if I planned ahead and used my skills (I love planning) that I would be fine. I took a deep breath and jumped in.

When I started to write this post, I planned on writing about each place in the post like I did for Peru, but the post was getting extremely long. With all the landmarks in China and interesting things to do, there were so many things I wanted to include that I was looking at an insanely long post that would probably take forever to load for you. So instead, I am doing different posts for each city we visited. This post contains an overview of my travels in China.



7 nights

3 cities

Total cost (remember, I had no international flight): $702

Average food cost per day: $15


Day 1: Arrive

Day 2: Beijing

Tiananmen Square tour

Forbidden City

Temple of Heaven


Day 3: Beijing

Summer Palace

Olympic Village

Night market

Day 4: Shanghai (flight from Beijing)


Big bus tour

Jin Mao Tower observation deck


Day 5: Hangzhou (ended up going to Suzhou, by train)

One hour train ride from Shanghai

Day 6: Beijing (by train)

Day 7:  Xi’an (by overnight train)


Terracotta Warriors

City Wall bike ride

Muslim Quarter tour

Day 8: Beijing (by overnight train)



Why this order and going back to Beijing? Well, for one, Elizabeth came in on day three, so we had to make sure she saw the Great Wall. Second, getting from Shanghai to Xi’an was much more expensive—like $150 more for the flight. So… to save money we came back to Beijing, oddly enough, and did the Great Wall in between. If you have the option, don’t do it this way! It made for a lot of travel days, and we were tired.

Here are some things I wish I had known when planning my trip…

It’s Affordable compared to many other destinations.


China is very affordable once you are there. I’ve seen that a lot of flights are even cheaper, too. We paid $70 a night for our hotel and took private tours the whole time. The average cost per day was less than $100, once it’s all laid out. You can get pretty nice accommodations for fairly cheap. Train rides are also less than $100, and domestic flights were less than $100. I was impressed with how we were able to stay and do so many things for so cheap. The food is also really cheap, and you can eat a lot there without spending much. The most expensive thing was water bottles, which you have to buy because the water is not even safe for the locals to drink.

Because it is cheap, it is also easy to overpay. Check and see what you can do in each place and how much it costs with other companies. I have seen guided tours with flights included for less than $1000 lately, which is amazing! Even if it is not the best tour, if they can get you there for cheap and you can plan your own things for cheap, then I would do it.




We took an overnight train to and from Xi’an. This was an experience in and of itself. The bathrooms were terrible, the beds were hard, and we shared space with three other people. However, the people were friendly, since we were in it together, and we learned a lot about being a millennial in China. We also tried many delicious snacks.

We ended up not showering for three days which was not the best either, but honestly, who really cares?! The train saved us money and makes for a great story. I do recommend taking an overnight train, but know what you are getting into! Look carefully at the ticket you are purchasing. The trains will be full, and I mean full. We chose second-class tickets and were sent to a section that was three bunks high and shared with three strangers. It was fine, but we just didn’t know what it would be like.

Also, they sell five classes of tickets. Third, fourth, and fifth-class is very packed and all in the same car. We took a third-class train once, and we were with the fourth and fifth-class passengers as well. Third-class has reserved seats, fourth-class seats allow you to sit in an open spot, and fifth-class is standing room only. This makes it extremely crowded—people even bring their own stools to sit in the isles.

Public transit within the major cities (like Shanghai, Tianjin, and Beijing) had signs in English, but outside public transit, we did not see very much English.  They also use a color system to tell you where a train is headed. Be careful. We found the lights were not as reliable and went the wrong way a few times.



English in China

There will not be very much English in China, and you will find that the English menus and signs will often not make sense or just be a popular American phrase used for the sake of trendiness (we do this in the US too, although not as much).

If someone speaks English, they will usually walk right up to you and start speaking it. People will also say hello to you a lot, but then not know much English beyond that. People in China are very friendly and like to interact with foreigners but are often not able to speak English conversationally.

Look for English speaker lines when buying train tickets or tickets into major attractions. Some places have different lines with an English-speaking attendant. We found this in Shanghai and Beijing. It was very helpful!

I found these phrases to be the most helpful:

Money in China

Be careful of the size of your bills. We were given ¥100 bills when we exchanged our money. This is a large bill (even though it’s really about $10 in American currency). Many places did not have change, and we ran into problems trying to pay for things. If you can, get smaller bills or use your large bills each chance you can until you have smaller bills.

Many places will not take credit/bank cards. Choose an ATM wisely when you take out money. Any ATM with Union Pay is usually considered safe choices.

Once, we bought something in a small shop and received counterfeit money as change. We have no idea where the money came from, but it was not Chinese. Here is a list of Chinese bills. If someone hands you a bill you don’t recognize, hand it back and make sure they give you the right one.


Get a VPN and a phone with data

If you know Chinese, this isn’t as important, but I cannot stress this enough. It saved us so many times. Google or social media sites that we are so used to in the West are all blocked in China. This includes Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, too. We got lost, needed translations, wanted an Uber (not blocked in China), to call tour guides, and just general help knowing what to do next. Without my phone working and a VPN, we would have been lost so many times.

A VPN allows you to access blocked sites in China by making your IP address show up outside the country. I chose to use ExpressVPN which allowed me to choose where my IP address would come from. I found California worked the best. If one location didn’t work, I could click in a different one and could always find a different location that worked.

T-Mobile includes service to over 150 countries. I am always able to use my phone at no extra charge in other countries. If you travel a lot, I recommend T-Mobile. Although, if you want strong service in small towns throughout the US, it is not the best.



Security is Serious

We had to send a copy of our passport for everything we purchased. Each time we entered a tourist attraction, they scanned our passport. There are cameras everywhere. You cannot go into sites with bags and have to lock them up away at major attractions. You must carry your passport on you at all times. On other trips, I have left my passport in my bag at the hotel and carried a copy. You cannot do this in China! Carry it with you at all times—expect them to scan it everywhere you go and before you can buy a ticket into any tourist attractions.

China was an amazingly difficult first trip to plan. Most people go with a tour group to China. Traveling and planning by yourself is possible!


Things that helped make my trip to China possible:

  • Flexible friends to travel with.
  • A phone with a VPN (I used Express VPN)—it never stopped working and was very good the whole time I was there.
  • Advice from family and friends who had already planned a trip.
  • The glorious internet.
Embark on an incredible 8-day journey through China. Follow my adventures and discover the hidden gems I uncovered during my early arrival.
Embark on an incredible 8-day journey through China. Follow my adventures and discover the hidden gems I uncovered during my early arrival.

Have you been to China? Have more questions? Feel free to comment below!


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