Budgeting a Western China Adventure

by Jessica Marsden on October 8, 2009

This is the fourth post of a weeklong series recapping my August trip to the western Chinese provinces of Gansu and Qinghai. See the first, second and third posts in the series.

Maybe all these posts about western China have got you thinking about a trip to the region. But how much will it cost?

Yes, it's an expensive ticket. But you can't go to Dunhuang and not see the caves!

Yes, it's an expensive ticket. But you can't go to Dunhuang and not see the caves!

Well, the simple answer is: less than just about anywhere else in China. From accommodations to food to taxis, costs in Qinghai and Gansu are lower than most places in eastern China, and significantly cheaper than in Beijing or Shanghai. However, the tourist infrastructure is not as well developed, which adds in some unexpected costs. Even some major sites (the Great Wall at Jiayuguan, Youning Si) are not serviced by public transportation. Taking taxis too and fro adds up quickly, especially if you are not in a big group.

Big-ticket Items

Some of the biggest attractions on this itinerary have significant entrance fees that need to be budgeted for in advance:

  • Bingling Si: A daytrip to Bingling Si from Lanzhou, including all transportation and entrance to the caves, costs 200 RMB.
  • Jiayuguan Sites: Jiayuguan is the biggest culprit for inadequate public transportation. We spent a total of 110 RMB on taxis to get from the fort to the Great Wall, back to town and out-and-back to the Wei Tombs.
  • Mogao Caves, Dunhuang: The ticket costs 160 RMB + 20 RMB for an English guide (80 RMB only if you have a Chinese student ID).
  • Mingsha Sand Dunes: We were too cheap to pay the 120 RMB entrance to the sand dunes in Dunhuang.
  • Trekking in Langmusi: A two-day trek cost 320 RMB per person, inclusive of a guide, equipment, meals and accommodation. Renting a horse cost an extra 50 RMB per day.
  • Ganjia Grasslands Day Trip: Renting a car for an afternoon tour of the Ganjia Grasslands outside Xiahe cost 180 RMB.
  • Buying a thangka in Tongren: If you want to buy a thangka, plan ahead. Not only will you need room in the budget, but you’ll need to have the money in cash. The smallest thangkas (~printer paper-sized) cost 300 RMB; poster-sized paintings cost into the thousands.
  • Youning Si Day Trip: The ride from Ping’an to the Dalai Lama’s birthplace and Youning Si and then back to Ping’an cost 150 RMB for more than 5 hours of driving time.


The inter-city buses cost between 25 and 50 RMB each. In total, we spent close to 300 RMB on inter-city bus travel. The train rides from Lanzhou to Jiayuguan, Jiayuguan to Dunhuang and Dunhuang back to Lanzhou added approximately another 600 RMB. (We were traveling hard-sleeper for all of the night trains, and hard-seat for the day train to Jiayuguan.)

You’ll also need to factor in the cost of getting to and from Lanzhou, Xining or another transit point. Both Lanzhou and Xining are serviced by China’s excellent rail system, which is probably the most cost-effective way to begin your journey.

Basic costs

Accommodation: We paid an average of around 30 RMB per night over the duration of our trip. If you are traveling with at least one other person, an average budget of 40 RMB should be plenty to keep you in beds for two weeks. They may not be that comfortable: At that price point, we spent a few nights in less-than-ideal hotels. In Langmusi, Xiahe and Tongren, however, more money would not have necessarily bought us more comfort.

Food and Incidentals: 80 RMB per day will cover food, local transportation and the small admission fees not listed above. I don’t believe in skimping on visiting sites, so if you’re willing to give up seeing everything, you will be able to get by for less.

Check back every day this week for more tales from the trip. If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my RSS feed for more tips and stories about traveling in China.

Related posts:

  1. Mountains and Monasteries: 2 Weeks in W. China
  2. Slideshow: Faces of Western China
  3. Top 5 Foods of Western China
  4. The Mogao Caves at Dunhuang
  5. Q&A: A Month in China

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