TRAVEL CHINA: 20 THINGS TO SEE AND DO
An enormity of total foreignness. For us, China claimed the title of most alien to our own culture and, we surmised, totally proud of it. We spent a month in China and barely scratched the surface of this 4,000 year old civilisation, spread across a continent. The landscapes are iconic, cities sprawling, people friendly but unfamiliar, and sheer size of everything dwarfs even most the most expansive of minds.
To travel China is to be spoilt by choice across vast geography. To help narrow down the options, here are our top 20 not-to-miss highlights:
1. Hike the great wall of China
Leave Beijing behind and head out to hike the Great Wild Wall at Gubeikou. Getting away from the crowded party of the Great Wall close to the city means full days of hiking the ancient wall in spectacular scenery rarely crossing paths with anyone else. We did a three day hike that you can read about here.
We stayed in this very cool guesthouse called Great Wall Box House and planned the rest of the trip from there.
Hiking the Great wall was one of our top highlights, it is absolutely worth taking your time to fit this into your trip. A day trip from Beijing really doesn’t do it justice.
2. Proper Beijing sightseeing
We’re not often ones for classic sightseeing, but brave the crowds of Beijing and you’ll be able to explore the palaces and temples of the ancient Chinese, giving you a fascinating insight into the history of the city and the country. Beijing is vast but if you have the temperament then aim to spend two days visiting the Forbidden Palace, and Temple of Heaven, the Confucius and Lama Temples, speed out to the Summer Palace and get to Tiananmen square at Sunset for the flag lowering ceremony.
3. Explore the Hutongs of Beijing
The true Beijing lies in the Hutongs, where cramped narrow roads lined with traditional houses and shops are packed together in a rabbit’s warren. This is Beijing’s alternative past. Amongst the newer cafes and shops remains the traditional buildings dating back 500 years, a window into the common man’s life. There are Hutong areas all over the city, but they are gradually being demolished; try to see them before they are all gone.
We stayed in Leo hostel in the Dashilar Hutongs in the centre of the city just south of Tiananmen square. It’s sparse but convenient and often busy.
4. Take a highspeed train
China takes highspeed trains seriously and have been busy connecting the country over the last 20 years with trains capable of going up to 300kmph. Journeys that used to take days now take hours and are cheap! Go for second class and you’ll enjoy being welcomed into the carriage by the curious locals.
Beware… Chinese train stations are like airport, they are enormous with all the rigmarole of X-rays and security. Plan to get there 45mins early.
If you don’t fancy the trains, the domestic flights are also convenient. We always use Skyscanner to get the best deals across a whole month block.
5. Tour the Terracotta army
Second in fame only to the Great Wall, the Terracotta warriors are one of China’s classic attractions, which brings the hordes as well.
A few miles outside of the city of Xi’an, the 8,000 life-size warriors have waited patiently for 2200 years for you to marvel at their spectacle. There are three pits, but make sure to visit No.3 first, then No. 2 and finish with No. 1 to save the best for last. If you want to buy a souvenir, wait until you’ve left the compound to get the better deals.
6. Cycle the city walls of Xi’an and wander the Muslim food market
While in Xi’an to see the Terracotta warriors make sure you take the time to hire some bikes (or even a tandem) and cycle the ancient city walls. A surprisingly fun activity (after Steph had been convinced to tandem with me) this was an unplanned highlight.
Afterwards head into the centre of the town and wander the Muslim street food quarter (tip: try the dumplings, the roujiamo; marinated beef in a bun, and the lamb-soaked pita).
Check out the availability of Xi'an Firefly Hotel, which has some cool self-contained apartments in a good location.
7. VISIT the Panda Breeding Research centre
Pandas; possibly the only animal cuter in real life then in pictures. These animals are ridiculously fun, adorable, and a Chinese mascot (so yes that means this is another attraction that draws the crowds). Make sure you get there early, it’s impossible to avoid the crowds but this is when the pandas are most active at breakfast time. The breeding centre is outside Chengdu.
We stayed in Lazybones Hostel Boutique Poshpacker which had nice rooms, calligraphy classes and a hot-pot night where we bought our own ingredients at the market and cooked up a dish with the other guests.
8. leshan’s Giant Buddha
1200 years old and 71 meters tall, the giant Buddha in Leshan is the biggest carved stone Buddha in the world. A short journey south of Chengdu, this is a fun day trip and allows you to get right up close with the giant statue’s eyes and ears! Climb the stairs but avoid taking the rather dull river cruise.
9. Wander Lijiang Oldtown
China has plenty of “Old Towns” (some are being constructed as we speak)… but Lijiang’s is a real-deal 800 year old authentic one. It’s a well-preserved city of the Naxi ethnic minority who populate the Yunnan province, and whilst it’s a popular tourist attraction (ie crowded), off the busy streets you’ll find artfully built timber and tile structures, and every house decorated with animals, flower and trees. The proud Naxi are also matriarchal which we found quite refreshing.
There is a huge amount of accommodation to pick from, but a real gem is Xilu Xiaoxie Inn where our host went out of her way to help us get around.
10. Hike Tiger Leaping Gorge
China’s top multi-day hike, the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge provides unmissable scenic views of one of the deepest gorges on earth (vastly deeper than the grand canyon). Stay in small local guesthouses and take the time to do this hike in three days so you can take it slow and enjoy it. This was another of our favourite activities.
We’ve written a full guide on how to plan your trip here.
11. Relax at Lake Erhai and Dali
In the south-west corner of China, south of Lijiang, you’ll find Lake Erhai, China’s largest highland body of water. On a sunny day, the shining crystal blue waters of the lake reflect the deep blue of the cloudless sky. Together with the snow peaked Cangshan mountain in the background this is one of China’s most beautiful settings. Along the west bank of the lake lies the vibrant town of Dali which is very popular with the young affluent Chinese.
12. Hike Longji rice terraces
Delivering some outstanding views, the bizarre reflective mirrors of the Longji rice terraces are some of the most beautifully maintained terraces in the world. Up to 3,000 terraces climb the hills on the steep valleys that have been cultivated for over 800 years. The Longji area is north of Guilin, visit either of the two villages of Dazhai and Ping’an, or better yet hike the trail between the two and wave to the local farmers.
It’s a hike up the hill but Wanjinglou Guest House was worth it; great views, good food and friendly hosts.
13. Cruise the Li river to Xingping
See the epic karst mountain landscape of south China by hiring a small 4-seater bamboo (/now plastic) craft to take you down river from Yangdi to Xingping, both south of Guilin. The iconic landscape is so revered by China as one of their best that they’ve put it onto the twenty yuan note.
14. Climb the karst mountains in Yangshuo
There’s no better way to explore the striking karst landscapes of Yangshuo than by exploring them up close and personal. It’s simple to find the mountains from the centre of town, it’s another matter to reach the tops, but well worth it, and most of the trailheads are easy to find. Moon Hill and Green Lotus peak in Yangshuo, and Mt. Laozai in Xingping provide stunning views, especially at sunset.
*We’ve written a full guide to the points 12, 13 and 14, have a look here: The perfect itinerary for Guilin and Yangshuo)
15. Visit Avatar Mountains
In the heart of China lies the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, aka ‘The Avatar mountains’ the unusual park containing more than 3,000 vertical stone pillars covered in greenery. As the inspiration for some of the locations for the Avatar movie, China’s oldest national park has since become a huge attraction for domestic and foreign tourists. Most visitors take the cable-car, but if you’re up for the challenge take the walking route up; you’ll escape the crowds and enjoy the natural beauty in isolation.
16. Shanghai skyline
China is modernising at an impressive (and somewhat) terrifying rate.
Shanghai is the spearhead.
The spectacular skyline is on par with the best of world; Singapore, New York, Sydney. Stroll the bund and take in the glamour and elegance of the “Paris of the East”. The city’s pride, the Oriental Pearl Tower, has 11 spheres and a revolving restaurant. The Skyline was built in only 20 years, many residents still recall when they were surrounded by farmlands.
In the bigger cities we prefer to stay in AirBnBs; it provides a very different experience as you can try and find a quieter suburb and commute into the busier areas. Use this discount code to sign up for AirBNB.
17. Drink Beer in Qingdao
Home of Tsingtao, the world’s second best selling beer, Qingdao is a living icon of China’s colonial past. The brewery was opened in 1903 to provide pilsner for the homesick German colonists and has since become the staple beer for all of China. The city is also famous for its sailing (hosting the regatta for the 2008 Olympics), German architecture, the beer festival and the excellent hiking in Laoshan national park.
18. Eat Local
A country of such size, history and ethnic diversity has resulted in some extremely tasty traditional dishes that will add a memorable flavour to your trip. Here’s a few of our suggestions, but every region will have a traditional dish to seek out and sample.
· Beijing: Peking Duck
· Chengdu: Sichuan Hot Pot
· Xi’an: Biang Biang Mian
· Shanghai: Red Braised Pork Belly
· National dishes: Dumplings, Spring Rolls, Chow Mein, Kung Pao chicken, Sweet and sour pork, Ma Po Tofu, Wontons
19. Explore Hong Kong
It’s China, but not as you know it. Seeing themselves as totally different to the mainlanders, the Hongkongers exist in a limbo between China and the western world. The former British colony has a very different energy than the rest of the country and has a great collection of attractions; from towering skyscrapers, Michelin-starred restaurants and bars to the easily accessible hiking, and beaches.
20. Ride the Trans-Mongolian Train through Inner-Mongolia
Travel through Inner-Mongolia in style on the Trans-Mongolian railway, that goes from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The comfortable carriages deliver views of the striking landscapes of north China as they blend gradually into Mongolia’s vast green steppe. The trans-Mongolian is a bucket-list item that delivers a great experience.
If you’re considering visiting Mongolia, have a look at some of our articles to prepare yourself:
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