BEIJING, Nov 19 (Reuters) Armed with backpacks, sleeping bags, budget travel guides, and hunger for a wider world long beyond their reach, backpackers from China are likely to be heading to a youth hostel near you.
Loosened travel restrictions and a booming economy mean that growing numbers of young Chinese have visas and cash to travel abroad as never before -- and many of them are opting for the free-wheeling coming-of-age journeys of counterparts in the West.
''Travel has changed my attitude toward the world in every aspect of life and work,'' said Cao Jiyin, 24, a psychology graduate from the eastern city of Hangzhou, who last summer roamed around India.
It's a dramatic change from past decades, when Communist China was isolated from the world and travel abroad was a rare privilege available only to a politically favoured elite.
These days with more open borders and money in their pockets, most Chinese tourists opt for rigid package tours abroad.
But a growing band of young Chinese travel independently all over their own country, and now also backpack across Europe, Africa and other exotic destinations.
''Travel today has become fashionable for the young generation,'' Cai Jinghui, head of guidebook publisher Lonely Planet's Chinese-language editions, told Reuters.
''For young people, group travel is not real travel. It is a signal that you don't have the ability to explore,'' added Cai, sitting in a fashionable cafe crowded with Chinese and foreign backpackers.
HIGH DEMAND Lonely Planet, the producer of hundreds of guides to exotic spots, started publishing Chinese editions only last year. It sold out all 5,000 copies of its initial run of Chinese-language Europe guides within one month.
Its goal now is to recruit young Chinese backpackers to write guide books for Chinese travellers with special attention to their own likes-and-dislikes -- such as finding a Chinese restaurant in Rome.
''We realized that we had underestimated the market for the European guide, we did not expect such high demand,'' Cai said.
The number of overseas trips from China has soared over the past decade, with some 35 million trips in 2006, compared to just 620,000 trips in 1990, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
This surge in overseas travel has matched China's rapid economic growth, as an urban middle class enjoys the benefits of double-digit growth.
Domestic tourism is also booming. Around 150 million people took to the road, rail and air during this year's ''golden week'' Labour Day holiday in May.
Independent travel and backpacking have become so popular that for the past five years Hu Deng, a professor at China's People's University, has taught China's only ''Independent Travel'' class.
His classes are always full and up to 500 students pack the auditorium, many of them standing, eager to learn how to survive tough-looking visa officers, unfamiliar foods and faces, and jostling for a cheap bed.
''I am just a window, and through me they can find a very different world,'' explained Hu. ''I think independent travel allows us to better respect each other.'' One industry that has benefited from this surge in travel is travel outfitting stores. The Wu Dao Kou area in Beijing's university district has seen an explosion in outdoor and travel related stores.
These stores stock everything from North Face backpacks to crampons for mountain climbing -- or at least the cheap copies that China is notorious for. For some image-conscious young Chinese, having the right gear is essential.
''Some may have very advanced equipment to show off how professional they are,'' said Cai Xiaomei, a backpacker from the eastern coastal city of Xiamen.
But others are looking for the transforming experiences that come with distant places. Chen Xi, 21, from the southwestern city of Chongqing, has backpacked in Turkey, India, Pakistan and South Korea.
''It's important to spend more time in a few places rather than seeing many places in the same amount of time,'' she said.
''Many of my friends want to hear about my stories, but they don't want to go to these places themselves.'' VISA PROBLEMS But Chinese backpackers run up against bureaucratic obstacles many of their Western counterparts do not.
Few countries give visa-free entry to Chinese citizens.
Getting hold of a visa can be hard and sometimes expensive, with painfully long queues and no certainty of approval.
''Visas are the most difficult issue for us,'' said Chen.
''This past summer I was rejected for a Nigerian visa.'' When they do make it abroad, China's backpackers can then find themselves treated as awkward ambassadors for their country, peppered with questions about the Olympic Games, human rights and other contentious topics.
Not the cool experience that these young travellers yearn for.
''I am not a good arguer,'' Cai said of these encounters. ''I just told them what my opinions on these issues were, but didn't really talk about them deeply.'' Reuters SKB VP0916