Short answer: Yes! I’ve recently been travelling around China by myself and I noticed my friends and even locals’ reactions were: “Wow, you are brave!” But as a female solo traveller in China, I can say there is no need for bravery, it is safe.
I don’t speak the language
Language is one of the few challenges when travelling independently in China. English is not widely spoken. I would assume there are more English speakers in big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, but in places like Lijiang, where I’ve been to, there is hardly any speaker.
It’s not as bad as it sounds after you get used to it. There are also apps for real-time translation and they work pretty good – Youdao Translate and Sogou Translate. You speak to your phone in English and the app transcribes it then translates it into Chinese and the other way around. It’s so impressing what technology can do. In this case, it breaks down the language barrier.
If you are not very techy, then you can just use your hands a lot. People will speak to you in Chinese but use their hands to explain. And you should too, it’s kind of fun. And another tip I received from my friends (but didn’t do it in the end) is to print out useful words in Chinese. At some point, I couldn’t find a toilet and I wanted to ask about it but didn’t know how to express it. That’s when I thought those prints would have been handy.
In the beginning, I thought I need locals to guide me everywhere. I was relying on their advice and I was not confident to do it by myself. Maybe because during my first week there, I had a great host. He spoke some English and would recommend me what to do, how to get there and wrote for me notes to give to the bus drivers.
But during my second week, I wasn’t that lucky. My host didn’t speak any English and he was really struggling to give me some advice. My impression was that I knew more than him about the place I was planning to visit. “So you know what? I can do it by myself.”
I intuitively used Baidu Maps app (it’s the same as Google Maps, but in Chinese). Baidu Maps app has all buses and trains schedules, you get the timing, the price. The only Chinese characters you need to learn are the names of your destinations. I was in Changde. Next morning, I woke up, took my backpack and went to the train station. I said “Zhang-Jia-Jie” (name of a city) in a broken accent, and showed my index finger as a number. The lady understood me. I knew I had to give her my passport, as you need to present an ID before buying tickets. She turned her screen to show me the train times and I pointed out to the first one. I paid and got my ticket. It was that easy! It took about 5 minutes.
I used my phone’s GPS to track where I am and where to get off the train. It went all good and after this experience, I didn’t feel the need to ask for directions too often.
Public transportation in China is amazing. You can’t really imagine how huge China is until you start planning a trip there. Everything is hundreds of km apart. But everywhere you have good roads, some incredible. You have airports, a choice of different speeds trains and many buses. In terms of public transportation network, China is by far the best country I’ve been to. Make sure to travel during daytime.
What about night time?
I haven’t been out partying, but the few times I’ve been out at night, walking alone, I felt all safe. It’s just during the daytime, if you need help, there are more people who can help you. Feel confident to ask police officers or other security you see. I had a few occasions where I went to a small police kiosk to ask for directions and they were very helpful and patient, giving me maps, directions or even finding me a good taxi.
In the small cities and villages, even if they are touristy, the buses/trains usually stop around 6ish pm. I took a public bus from Zhangjiajie National Forest Park back to the city around 6 pm and arriving at 7 pm. I think it was one of the last ones. Although the sun was up, the city’s main bus station was completely deserted, even the main doors were closed. For this kind of situations, or when in doubt, just follow the locals.
I also went on a day trip from Lijiang to Dali and the last bus going back was at 5:30 pm. I missed it and it was very challenging to find a way back. That is why I highly recommend, if you plan a day trip somewhere, start very early as you will probably need to return early as well.
As a female solo traveller in China, I felt very safe. And not only about me, but it generally felt safe. I haven’t seen any people fighting on the streets or even yelling at each other. I haven’t seen women being mistreated or harassed in public (as I sometimes see in my home country). Catcalling is out of discussion. Nobody came to talk to me out of the blue (except when trying to sell something, which is understandable).
Sometimes I was realizing people were looking at me, but probably because I was the only foreigner. If I was looking back, they would look away. I perceived it as simple curiosity. I also think sometimes people went out of their ways to help me because I was alone and a foreigner, and I could tell they were worried about me. It’s the best kind of kindness and I felt very lucky.
My general feeling was that Chinese people are distant in public. They avoid contact with strangers. But if you ask for help, they are very friendly and they enjoy being helpful.
It’s hard to generalize when it comes to China because it’s just too big and diverse. This is based on my experience, after travelling to around ten different cities/villages in two regions. It also has to do with travelling style and precautions one takes.
However, I think the two most important aspects when travelling to China independently are: planning and being open-minded. Good planning will save you from most of the headaches and possibly unsafe situations. I mean, you can still do it even without a plan, but there will be lots of frustrations and you will hit the language barrier the hard way. You and your wallet.
Being open-minded is essential. It’s not hard to find out that Chinese people do things their own ways. Experiencing it is a different matter though. There is no point in expecting things to be like “in the West”, because, of course, you are “in the East”. It’s just a different kind of logic. And if you look into making sense of what you see rather than comparing, it becomes easier.
For example, one of the things I love about China is that many places take good care of public needs. The public transportation network is one. In each crowded or touristy place I’ve been to, there is street food, and at least one food court. Public toilets everywhere. Lots of benches on the streets, not only in parks. It makes it comfortable and kind of invites you to spend more time in the public areas. And if you do so, take lots of pictures. Pose with anything you like. That’s totally acceptable.