A sweeping look at China’s most interesting tourist destinations, as chosen by Planet Asia.
China’s geographical diversity is stunning: bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Mongolia, and North Korea, the country offers a huge selection of worthwhile travel destinations.
These include Himalayan mountains, lush tropical forests, ancient ruins, space-age mega-cities with all the trimmings, chilled out stoner zones and world-class trekking routes.
The key to enjoyable travel in China is to do it in the pleasant spring or autumn weather, scheduled around major Chinese holidays, when every tourist site in the country gets unbelievably packed.
- Labor Day: first week of May
- National Day: first week of October
- Summer: June-Sept. Brutally hot, humid and smoggy.
- University holidays: June-Sept. and Jan-Feb.
- Chinese New Year: late Jan. or early Feb.
Where to stay
In the mega-cities, choosing a central location gives you in easy access to transit routes, shopping hubs and tourist sites. Splurge for a 5-star hotel or go with a cheap standard from the Super 8 Motel chain.
Hostels: in China hostels make sense for all ages of foreign tourists. In most tourist areas, street life is crowded, noisy and (outside of parks) not conducive to just hanging out. So if you stay in a hotel, you are basically confined to your room, a tourist site or a dining spot.
In hostels, there are communal spaces (many nestled in delightful hidden courtyards) that are great for meeting other travelers, organizing tours and swapping stories. Take advantage of the savings (prices between USD $6-15 nightly) and add a great social dimension to your experience.
The objectives are the same in all Chinese tourist areas: take in the sights, discover restaurants, find the best nightlife spots and stroll through local markets.
All the popular tourist spots are thick with con artists. Prepare to deal with shady taxi drivers, pimps, restaurants that drastically overcharge newbies and hordes of sweet lasses offering friendship.
Beijing is one of those rare cities that offers pretty much everything a traveler might hope to gain out of an Asian adventure: majestic sights, fantastic shopping, countryside forays to the Great Wall and a dynamic nightlife scene.
There are many sites of interest to explore in the city. Grab and English map (10RMB, sold all over town) and explore.
Talk smack with locals in the labyrinthine hutongs; sample amazing local fare in neighborhood eateries; chill in one of the city’s myriad parks, where old men smoking pipes fuss over birds in bamboo cages as amateur opera singers belt out arias amid fleets of old ladies performing tai chi.
When the sun sets, hit up Sanlitun (expat central), Houhai Lake (chillout) or Wudaokou (artsy student area) where you can sate all of your vices.
Rivaling New York and Paris in vibrance and modernity, Shanghai is one of the world’s leading business cities and has the most expats in China.
Unlike Beijing, Shanghai lacks impressive tourist attractions – the pleasures here are in the luxury malls, gourmet restaurants and amazing nightlife scene.
An easy day-trip from Shanghai, hundreds of thousands of tourists flock here every year to enjoy classical Chinese gardens, lavish temples and traditional lakeside teahouses.
When tired of sightseeing, the downtown core offers decent shopping options, a host of international restaurants and a decent nightlife scene, including a few expat bars.
In sum it’s a pleasant town with a fair level of stimulation and cultural authenticity.
Xi’an is the second most famous of China’s ancient national capitals after Beijing. It is a major tourist town that is packed with relics and historical sites, the highlights being the Terracotta Army, a few pagodas and a city wall.
The crown jewel of the Xi’an experience is the Museum of Terracotta Warriors, a UNESCO world cultural heritage site has three vaults covering 20,000 square meters which holds 8,000 terracotta warriors, 100 chariots, and 30,000 weapons.
If you don’t wish to book a tour to the museum through your hotel, catch bus 306 from the Xi’an bus station (opposite the train station, inside the city wall). The trip takes 40 minutes and costs 7 RMB.
Gulin and Yangshuo
The Guilin/ Yangshuo experience involves karst mountains, rock climbing, marijuana, seedy brothels, transparent scams, and a general sense that backpackers — and their hedonistic impulses — are very welcome. This is probably what Thailand was like 20 years ago.
The area around Guilin was formed about 200 million years ago, when two crustal movements thrust limestone sediments out of the sea which formed a large expanse of land. These karst formations eroded into 1500-meter tall (on average) formations that run alongside the Li River.
Most tourists come here to take in the scenery and explore the city for a few days before taking a boat (recommended) or bus down 65 km down river to Yangshuo, where the landscape is more accessible and the vibe more relaxed.
This small town of 150,000 people is surrounded by more than 70,000 karst peaks, making it one of Asia’s premier sport-climbing areas. It is also a full-blown backpacker’s eden.
The main drag along West Street is packed with western-friendly restaurants, cafes, hostels, and shops. Many locals speak English, and the entire town is geared towards making you stay — and thus spend — as long as possible.
Most travelers come here to chill out and smoke weed, or else head out into the countryside to explore the scenery or climb rocks.
Yunnan is what Thailand was 20 years ago: a chilled out place with awesome natural beauty, tourist-friendly locals, abundant cheap weed and lots of lazy day afternoon diversions for slackers.
The capital city Kunming (6 million people) serves as a relaxed launching point for four interesting trips:
Kunming to Dali
There are 7 flights daily that take 45 minutes to Dali for around xxx. Luxury express buses depart from Kunming West bus station, take around 5 hours and costs 180 RMB (USD $29). There are also night trains (145 RMB) that take around 8 hours.
400 km west of Kunming, Dali is the capital city of the prefecture of the same name. Located near the Himalayan foothills, it is predominantly inhabited by the Bai people, who fled south from Kublai Khan’s armies in 1253 and founded Thailand.
Dali is big Chinese tourist town that is also a popular chill spot for international visitors. Along “Foreigner Street” are tons of places serving backpacker fare and several “coffee shops” of the type one might expect in Amsterdam.
A stay of around 3 days should suffice, with at least one spent hiking in the gorgeous surrounding area recommended.
Dali to Lijiang
A 4-hour drive, Lijiang is the only Chinese city listed on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list. It has a rich 1,300-year history, intriguing architecture (blending styles from several different cultures) and spectacular scenery.
The tourist experience in both of these places involves booking a room with a view, and then spending a few days mingling with locals while tripping out on the nature.
Lijiang to Shangri-La
A 4-hour drive north takes you to the Himalayas.
Zhongdian County is so gorgeous (snow-capped mountains, green lakes, tons of flowers, and friendly Tibetan folk) that the Chinese government changed its name to Shangri La in 2002.
Shangri-La is a typical tourist town (much less crowded than Lijiang) with a mix of Han and Tibetan residents. It provides a great base to experience Tibetan culture.
The surrounding countryside is almost purely Tibetan. Planet Asia suggests 3 full days for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding in the hills, then flying back to Kunming.
If you happen to be traveling during China in winter, this frigid city in the deep north has a Russian flavor and some decent sights, but the main reason to come here is for the Harbin International Snow and Ice Festival. Beginning every year in early January, it attracts tens of thousands of visitors to marvel at amazing ice sculptures scattered throughout the city’s parks.
If you happen out this way, it’s certainly worth a few days to check out sculptures, explore the city and sample hearty Russian comfort foods.
Largely because of the language and culture barrier, the China travel experience can be extremely challenging. You will get lost often, be given wrong directions frequently (Chinese prefer to save face than admit ignorance) and become a master at mime.
By muscling through the meat grinder, expect to gain confidence until you start to get into the flow.
Then you can start to revel in the chaos and let it ride without restrictions until your travel time is up.
- Introduction to China: a broad overview to get your head around the basics
- Positive life-altering benefits enjoyed by expats in Asia: glean big-picture Asia appreciation as you travel