This post contains affiliate links.
Neither China or Taiwan are backpacking destinations – and I mean this literally because instead of backpacks, nearly all travellers here use carry-on wheelies!
Nevertheless, these two east Asian countries are often skipped by travellers who prefer the sunny southeast, or who feel intimidated by countries whose language is so different from theirs. Those are fair reasons, but there are plenty more reasons to put them on your list.
I’ve been living in Shanghai, China, for the past year and a half. During that time, I’ve been able to travel around many cities in 5 provinces in China, and I was able to take a trip down south to Taiwan during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
How can I even begin to talk about a country as vast as China?
It would take ages to cover it all.
On the contrary, tiny Taiwan flies under the radar, overshadowed by its neighbour to the north. Look at a map and you’ll see that Taiwan is a little coffee bean and China is the shrub.
China can be a daunting place, while Taiwan is seldom talked about. Despite all this, Taiwan holds its own and fares pretty well against China. Let’s take a look.
Alexandra in Shanghai, China – her home as a travelling teacher for the past year and half
Tourist Attractions and Popular Spots
Because of its size, you could spend a year travelling in China and still not see it all!
There are endless destinations in here, which can make it difficult to choose where to go. If you know what kind of trip you want to take (cities, history, nature, etc), that will narrow it down.
Most people that visit China go to the top destinations. You can visit all these places in a 10-day trip, but any less would be stretching it.
- Beijing, for the history and culture
- The Great Wall, of course!
- Shanghai, for the modern city vibe
- Xi’an, for the terracotta warriors
If you have more time to spend in China, check out other note-worthy destinations:
- Chengdu, for the giant pandas!
- Shenzhen, the high-tech metropolis and the closest to Hong Kong
- Guilin, the beautiful landscape on the 20 RMB note
- Huangshan, for popular hiking
No matter where you go in China, even if it is not a tourism hotspot for foreigners, you will always see Chinese nationals travelling there. I think they travel a lot more in their own country than other citizens do in theirs!
Walking along the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu (the wall is more than 13,000 miles long, so views and experiences along it can vary wildly!)
I think two types of travellers visit Taiwan: the ones who have a long layover before going to another Asian destination, and the ones who have heard their friends raving that it is an amazing place. I hope after this, you are the latter!
Taipei (New Taipei City) is the go-to spot because it is the capital and the biggest city. It’s the home of bubble tea – there is a shop every few meters!
Taipei is vibrant and electric. I’ve heard some people call it the better version of Tokyo and Seoul, and I can believe that!
Taoyuan is an area neighbouring Taipei, for which the international airport is named. Some travellers choose to stay in this area instead of Taipei itself because of its proximity to the airport, the ease of getting into Taipei, and it still has everything you need.
If you have more time in Taiwan, these places are also worth the visit:
- Hualien, right on the east coast
- Taichung, which is good for hiking
- Kaohsiung, in the south
China vs. Taiwan Tourist Destinations winner: China. Due to the varying landscapes, there is simply more – mountains, desert, beach, you name it!
Even during the typhoon season there were beautiful, sunny skies in Taiwan
Climate and Weather
While the entire country is in the same time zone, the climate throughout China is not the same. Depending on the location, you can get all four seasons, or just two. Generally, the best time to visit China is spring or fall.
Beijing: in this area, you get all four seasons. Summer is very hot, and winter is very cold and snowy.
Shanghai: in this area, you still get all four seasons, and it rains a lot in the fall and winter. While winter doesn’t see snow, it is still quite chilly. The temperature itself doesn’t usually fall below zero degrees, but trust me when I say that the wet chill that gets in your bones is worse than a -10 C in Canada!
Shenzhen: one word – hot. Shenzhen is so far south in China that December can sometimes still be t-shirt weather. The summers are extremely hot, and people sometimes walk around with small towels or damp cloths!
China reaches up to Russia and Mongolia, meaning it is frighteningly cold in the winter up there. Inland cities like Chengdu and Wuhan are considered the ‘ovens’ of China, so temperatures are not friendly in the summer.
A note on air pollution: the more north and inland you go, the more pollution there is.
Beijing is very close to Tianjin, which is quite often very polluted. Shanghai’s proximity to the sea makes pollution less of an issue. Regardless, the pollution is at its highest in the summer, and mixed with the intense heat, it is not as enjoyable.
I use the AirVisual app to track air pollution in the different cities in China, which is one of the most important apps to download before visiting!
Taiwan is positioned to China’s south, meaning it generally has warm weather year-round. While winter months might feel colder, it is not a snowy, freezing winter that China has.
Typhoon season in Taiwan happens from around June-October, and temperatures are still very warm during that time. I visited in October, and I was met with downpours on a daily basis.
However, since I was prepared – waterproof sandals, camera protection, backpack cover, sturdy umbrella – I was still able to get out and enjoy my time despite the rain. If the typhoon gets too strong, the city will restrict busses and close businesses early.
Taiwan might also get some of the pollution blowing over from China, but overall, air quality is excellent.
China vs. Taiwan Climate and Weather Winner: Taiwan – simply because of the cleaner air!
Hiking in Huangshan, China
Nature and Hiking
When I think of China, I think of the big cities first.
In a big city like Shanghai, there are a few parks and open spaces, but otherwise, nature is lacking.
To find hikes or a place to surround yourself in nature, you need to travel about an hour on the high-speed train, to get to Hangzhou – famous for its West Lake scenic area. Huangshan is the closest hiking destination from Shanghai, which is about 2.5 hours away on a high-speed train.
If your purpose of travelling to China is solely to hike, then you will have no problem that it is far from a big city. Another famous hike is the Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is in Yunnan province in the west.
Taipei, in Taiwan, is surrounded by mountains, which makes it easy to find a weekend hike any time. Taichung City is 2 hours from Taipei, and has a plethora of hiking trails easily accessible from the city.
Taiwan has many national parks, and I would suggest spending at least 2 days visiting one of them. I visited Taroko National Park on the east coast, which was convenient to get to from Hualien. It was so beautiful to motorbike between the mountains… I wish I had more time there!
China vs. Taiwan Nature and Hiking winner: Taiwan
It was so easy to motorbike from Hualien, Taiwan to the nearby national park!
China leaves a lot of countries in the dust when it comes to development and infrastructure.
Almost every city in the country has a metro system; Beijing and Shanghai’s metro systems are incredibly extensive. All metro stations use a tap card for payment, but you are able to buy single-use tickets as well. Down on the platform, there is a barrier that prevents people from jumping onto the tracks.
China’s rail system puts others to shame – especially in North America. The high-speed rail crisscrosses the country, connecting major cities and smaller towns in between, travelling at speeds of 200 km/h minimum.
A perfect example is a trip from Beijing to Shanghai, which is a 2-hour plane ride. I chose to travel by train, and it got me there in 4.5 hours – which is the same amount of time I would have had to budget for arriving at the airport, boarding, and exiting upon arrival.
China’s cities are very developed, with restaurants, malls, and healthcare providers. Travellers who get sick can also visit foreigner hospitals in the major cities.
Taiwan is very similar to China in the way that it has a great metro system in Taipei, and high-speed rail that connects cities. The high-speed rail system is not as prominent because of the mountainous terrain in the country, but there are plenty of local trains that take a slower, scenic route.
Taipei is just like any other big city in the world: bustling with a busy downtown, financial centre, tourist hotspots, and plenty to do for locals and tourists alike.
Another unique feature is that you can pay for items at select stores by using your metro card. I think that’s a great idea for tourists who don’t want to leave cash in those cards before departure.
China vs. Taiwan Infrastructure Winner: Tie
Taipei’s city streets… can you see the marked motorbike box in the corner?
China is extraordinarily safe.
Citizens know that there are hefty repercussions on crime if they are caught.
There is very little crime towards foreigners. In fact, there is very little crime visible on the streets, aside from petty thefts that you can assume happens anywhere.
Oftentimes in very crowded places, people will put their backpacks in front of their body; feel free to do the same for piece of mind.
China has an enormous amount of security in public places. Before going into any metro station, train station, airport, or government building, you have to put your bag through the security scanner, and walk through the metal detector.
Every single time.
It gets quite repetitive, and you will see some people try to rush through without doing all that, but the guards will usually catch them and make them do it.
The worse thing is driving. I have lived in China for 1.5 years now; I drive my e-bike to school every day, and take many taxis. Some drivers are so aggressive that I wonder why I don’t see more accidents on the road.
While I drive my e-bike, I have to be so defensive that I keep one hand over the break and one finger hovering over the horn at all times.
The last thing to keep in mind is that foreigners need to show their passports for everything.
Checking into a hotel? They will photocopy your passport and register you at the police station.
Booking a train? You have to show your passport as ID, nothing else.
Going to visit the Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world? You’d better have your passport handy!
Taiwan is also an extraordinarily safe country. Take the same precautions you would at home.
Driving in Taiwan is revolutionary.
Drivers are very safe and the roads are very well maintained. There are so many motorbikes on the road that it can be overwhelming, but they’ve created a box system to help the flow of congestion.
Essentially, if motorbikes want to make a left turn at an intersection, they cannot simply turn left; they go straight into the marked box at the top right of the intersection, and that is where they turn and wait for the green light to continue.
China vs. Taiwan Safety Winner: Taiwan. I say this because the security in China is almost too much that it becomes overwhelming and, honestly, annoying.
It’s not always easy to live in small town China
Ease of tourism
If you want to book a last-minute vacation, China is not the place to go.
Almost everyone needs a visa to enter China. It is easier to list the few passport-holders that do not need a visa: Japan, Singapore, Ecuador, UAE, Qatar, San Marino, and Seychelles, to name a few.
Essentially, most Europeans and all North Americans need a visa to enter China.
It is possible to visit Shanghai or Beijing on a 24-hour or 72-hour transit, but do not rely on that for your holiday. The visa has to be obtained well in advance because it is not possible to get a visa upon arrival.
I highly suggest you download a VPN before going to China, as a way to get around the infamous censorship that blocks the internet we know and love.
With a VPN, you can still access your email, social media, and that good old free internet. If you don’t get a VPN, you can still access anything owned by Microsoft and use bing.com as a search engine (you might as well bookmark it now).
The last thing – and probably the biggest – is the language barrier.
In touristy places in Beijing and Shanghai, you will come across people who speak some English. However, do not count on it that everyone you meet can understand you, especially outside of the touristy areas.
From what I’ve seen, China has a big tourism industry, but it is aimed more towards its own people than outsiders.
What about tourism in Taiwan? Many North Americans, Europeans, Asians, and Australians can enter Taiwan visa-free, but the dates range from 15-90 days.
Taiwan doesn’t have the same censorship as in China, so visitors can act just as they would at home.
There are also a lot more people who speak English or another language in Taiwan, and you will easily see the multicultural influence of immigration and pop culture in the cities. It is very easy to join free walking tours (while it has been hard for me to find one in China), and other excursions for tourists.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay long-term and work remotely, Taiwan is the place for you.
China vs. Taiwan Ease of Tourism Winner: Taiwan
The China vs. Taiwan Travel Winner Is…
While China and Taiwan have many similarities, Taiwan pulls through as the country to visit because it is generally easier. You can book a trip to Taiwan today and travel tomorrow – but that is not the case for China.
In general, your lifestyle will be more akin to what it is at home if you visit Taiwan rather than China.
I’ve talked to many travellers in China, and it’s clear that it is not the country for everybody. You do not travel to China on a whim. It takes a lot of planning and preparation, so that your trip goes smoothly as expected.
Taiwan is the winner today, but don’t disregard China – save it for the time you are really excited and looking forward to the challenge and adventure!
Ready to go?
Explore unique stays on Airbnb – like this cozy traditional minsu home – and the top-rated hotels on Booking.com to plan your trip. (Or, book a curated multi-day Taiwan tour to finish your travel planning in one click!)
This article is part of the Southeast Asia Smackdown series. Read the rest below:
Or, explore the complete Country Comparison Series for more showdowns from around the world!
Like it? Pin it!