Hello! where are you going?" That simple phrase out of a first-year language primer turns every excursion you make in China into a personal encounter, because as often as not the asker is willing to go your way.

In every city I visited in China, the people who came up to me seeking conversation ended up escorting me wherever I wanted to go and insisted on paying for my bus fares and my admissions. On the path to the Ling Yin Temple outside Hangchow, I was hailed and then adopted for the day by a dozen English-language students from the local teachers' training college, out for a mountain hike. They shared with me not only their lunch but rousing choruses of "Jingle Bells" as we went dashing through the bamboo groves.

On another occasion the sharing of food was the highlight of my visit. Thanks to Mr. So, an electrician, my three days in Canton were an unending gastronomic tour. No sooner had we finished one feast and taken in a sight or two then on we went to another restaurant off the beaten group-tour track, including one specializing in snake dishes. Diners could choose their victims from tanks of live snakes next to the entrance, just as we in America might choose our lobster from the tank. But no seafood restaurant in America could match the special drink of the house in Canton: bile sacs, removed from live snakes at your table and swizzled with Maotai whiskey. A drink to improve your virility, I was told.

The most that Mr. So or Mr. Wu or any of the other friends I made in China would accept in return for all these kindnesses was a cup of tea or, better, a paperback English book.

Even without Chinese friends insisting on paying your fares and your admissions, the costs of traveling in China on your own are astoundingly low, especially when you compare them with the $100 a day or more charged by the China Travel Service. Admission to most museums, temples and gardens is just 4 U.S. Bus fares in cities average 4 to 7 .

Though public transport everywhere is crowded, buses are frequent and easy to use once you get the hang of it. When you arrive in a new city, you simply buy a map of the place from one of the enterprising capitalists hawking them outside the train station. The place names are all printed in Chinese, of course, but the bus route numbers always are indicated in Arabic numerals. All you have to do is to write in the transliterated place names from your guidebook and you're on your way.

Since fares are charged according to distance, you must either make a stab at pronouncing your destination in Chinese or else just produce your Chinese map for the conductor and point. Sometimes conductors were so startled and pleased to see a Westerner on their bus that they wouldn't charge me at all; almost always conductors or other passengers would tell me when to get off. In Peking, special excursion buses out to the Ming tombs and the Great Wall depart every morning from East Qianmen Street, opposite the China Travel Service main office, and cost $4.30 round-trip.

Train travel, too, is cheap. The China Travel Service desk in the big hotels can book tickets for you, but if you have courage and the stamina to wait in line, you can go to the train station, book the tickets yourself, and save the exorbitant surcharge that the Chinese government began to add to foreigners' train tickets a year or so ago. If you buy the ticket at the station, the epic two-days-and-one-night trip from Canton to Hangchow, for example, cost $57 in the luxury of a wood-paneled velvet-upholstered "soft" berth; if the China Travel Service books your ticket, the same berth costs $100. In a communist country like China there is, of course, no "first" or "second" class; instead, there are the wooden benches of "hard" class and the pillows and lace headrests of "soft" class.

Food from street vendors (standards of hygiene in China are quite high, especially by Asian standards) costs just pennies, and even in the best hotel dining rooms a multi-course Chinese feast costs less than $5, including beer. Even the restaurants with the fanciest group-tour dining rooms have ordinary "people's" dining rooms where, with a little self-confidence, a few characters for food memorized from guidebook, and a willingness to share a table for four with 10 other people, you can dine for just a fraction of what the tour groups are paying for the same food upstairs..

Washingtonians who paid up to $25 to see the Peking Opera at the Kennedy Center a few seasons ago will be interested to know that the best seats in Peking cost 75 cents.

Hotel rooms are the single biggest expense. When Marco Polo visited China in the 13th century he remarked that "there are many fine hotels which provide lodging for merchants coming from different parts: a particular hostel is assigned to every nation . . . one for the Lombards, another for the Germans, another for the French." The same segregation by nationality persists today. In descending order of quality and cost there are Westerners' hotels for Americans, Europeans and Japanese; "overseas Chinese" hotels for compatriots from Hong Kong and other Chinese-speaking visitors; and "Chinese" Chinese hotels for the Chinese themselves.

Pressures of several kinds -- 600 years of tradition, the likely availability of rooms when you're traveling without reservations, and the presence of an English-speaking staff and English-language menus -- push you toward staying in Westerners' hotels. Until Arthur Frommer or the Australian Union of Students writes a budget guide to China, information on even the whereabouts of "Chinese" Chinese hotels will remain unavailable to casual visitors, and only in Hangchow was I able to talk my way -- or rather pantomime my way -- past reluctant desk clerks into an "overseas Chinese" hotel.

Even so, the most I ever paid for a room was $26 a night for the top-flight Dong Fang in Canton. I could still take comfort in knowing that the same room, equipped with full private bath, air conditioning, color television, radio and a refrigerator stocked with a six-pack of Coca-Cola and giant bottles of Tsingtao Beer, would easily cost twice that much in Hong Kong. More typical was the $16 I paid to stay in the best hotels in Suchow and Nanking. Since hotel charges are figured by the room rather than by the person, and since most rooms are twin-bedded, the cost would have dropped to $8 if I had been traveling with someone else.

In every city I visited I simply took my chances without advance reservations. If the first hotel I tried was full, the desk clerk was always glad to telephone other hotels until a room had been found.

With costs like these, even for "soft"-class trains and Western-style hotels, you can travel in China quite comfortably for about $25 a day -- roughly a quarter the cost of a China Travel Service Tour and much less than the cost of roughing it in Europe these days. What's missing, of course, are the expensive services of a guide to translate for you, to order your food for you, to chauffeur you from one tourist sight to another, to decide what you will see and what you will not see. What you have instead are priceless opportunities to observe Chinese life close-up.

The result is consciousness-raising not only for you but for the Chinese people: Americans too, they discover, take buses, ride bicycles, hike mountain trails, and watch their wallets when they eat out.