For Australians, the Chinese Visa is AU$98.50pp, if you take them to the Chinese Embassy and lodge/collect them yourself. This saves courier costs.
The Visa Application form for China can be found here:
When you apply for a visa independently, (i.e. not via a travel agent, and not taking a tour) you must supply every detail of your stay, including entry and exit dates dates, receipts of travel, location on each day, which hostel/hotel you are staying at, and paid receipts for each place you intend on staying; if you do not, you visa will not be granted.
We found this problematic, as it destroys the option of having a flexible trip.
TRUTHFUL TIP: Book all of your accommodation via a website that does not charge a cancellation fee. This way, you can show paid deposit receipts to the Chinese embassy, receive your visa, then cancel the accommodation to regain your flexibility. You may lose your deposit, but there are no extra charges. http://www.booking.com do not charge cancellation fees, as well as selected deals on Expedia (don’t forget to read the fine print!).
Also try to book flexible flights, which can be changed or cancelled to suit your travel itinerary needs at no extra cost.
If you’re like us, and are travelling overland, you can book your train/bus within china at a date you choose. If you book the train from home it is a) more expensive, b) a set date and c) non-refundable.