The land of ancient dynasties, kung fu, pandas, noodles and about 1.3 billion people, China makes an imposing travel destination. But those with the endurance to tackle The Middle Kingdom will be well rewarded.
China is HUGE (the third largest country in the world), so when trip planning it's important to focus on a certain region. The obvious place to start is the capital city Beijing, where you can get a crash course in Chinese history from past to present by visiting Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the 2008 Olympic Stadium and daytripping to the Ming Tombs and Great Wall of China. If you have more than five days, take a side-trip to the ancient capital Xi'an to see the Terracotta Army.
To experience the China of the future, visit one of the uber-modern mega cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou to shop and dine with millions of people amid a maze of skyscrapers.
In spite of China's rapid development, much of its natural beauty remains. Head to provinces like Hubei for cruising along the Yangtze River, Yunnan for trekking among tea plantations and Sichuan to visit a giant panda reserve. Tourism to Tibet, in the far west, is strictly controlled by the Chinese government and it is very difficult for Western travellers to obtain the necessary permits without joining an organised tour.
Though rewarding, travel in China is not without its challenges. The language barrier can be overwhelming and you cannot even rely on taxi drivers knowing words like "airport". A Mandarin phrasebook or language app is a must-have for independent travellers. Public toilets, where they exist, are filthy and stalls may lack doors. Crowding can make travelling by public transit uncomfortable and never travel during the Chinese New Year period, when you'd be lucky to get a standing-room ticket for a long-distance train ride.
For now, it remains possible to travel in China on a backpacker budget. In most regions you can get by on CNY120-200 (US$20-30) per day staying in hostels and taking public transit, but costs are higher in cities like Shanghai.
Food is as delicious as it is inexpensive with noodles, dumplings and skewers of mystery meat being sold on every corner for a few yuan.
Well put - I'd add just a little something if I may:
Shanghai: A visit to this area can be augmented with an overnight trip to Hangzhou for an afternoon biking through tea fields on the edge of the city and evening/morning strolls around the famous West Lake (try to avoid weekends or holidays). As well, it is a simple day-trip to see the UNESCO WH sites of Suzhou gardens, well worth an early morning train ride of only 20 minutes on the speedy G-type line, and usually less crowded than the area of Yuyuan garden in Shanghai. Finally, if you are willing to go a little farther afield, 1 1/2 hours on the G-train can get you to historical Nanjing where the Ming City wall abuts a pretty lake and you can visit the national founder Sun Yat-Sen's tomb on the pretty Purple Mountain (hill) along with a great view of the city from Jiming Temple's pagoda - and for those truly interested in exploring the darker parts of history the Nanjing Massacre Museum has a quiet and reverent beauty, not for the sensitive as it includes an exposed mass grave.
As well, a favorite among back/flashpackers and those planning to ply the route between Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong - a flight to Guilin, Guangxi Province offers enchanting karst formations in the very center of the city, and a river cruise (seasonal for the full trip) down the Li River brings you through amazing karst geography to Yangshuo, a backpacker haven where you can rent bikes and explore the surrounding country-side. Not far afield are also the Dragon Backbone rice terraces for those hoping to catch a view of these iconic Chinese landscapes.
Also - for Yunnan/Tibet. Perhaps one of the most enjoyed trails in China is the link from a flight to Kunming, capital of Yunnan, and a trip up to Tiger Leaping Gorge that goes through Dali and Lijiang, old towns that while getting very touristy still retain their charm - especially in the early morning hours.
However, you can take a few hour bus ride northwest of Lijiang to Shangri-la (XiÄnggÃ©lÇlÄ, formerly Zhongdian) to experience some Tibetan style hospitality. The area has always been a lot less repressive than Qinghai and Western Sichuan and I found the Tibetans there very open to conversation. Also, it is home to some of the most sacred monasteries outside of the autonomous region.
May I also add that the old postal villages near Wuyuan in Jiangxi province (7-8 hours south of Shanghai by bus) are very beautiful. There are many 4-5 hours walks between the villages through rice fields, mountains and lakes which were the highlight of my trip to China. The villages themselves are also lovely, with a close up look at rural life possible. Homestays in each of the villages are easily arranged. Little Likeng is the principal village in the area, which is also very nice and has some (very basic) hotel options.
#4 chinarocks has been a member since 17/6/2011. Posts: 740
May I add that Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, mostly skipped by foreign travelers are two of the most beautiful I've seen in China, with many trekking options, amazing nature reserves, ancient villages and great cities. It's ideal for those who want to combine an urban/culinary holiday in Shanghai with some nature and ancient villages without going all the way to the western provinces.
#5 beibaozu has been a member since 26/2/2013. Posts: 4
Ah yes, the hakka round houses of Fujian province. Well worth a trip, if a little difficult to get to. A good stop (along with the Wuyuan postal villages) en route from Shanghai to HK.
#6 chinarocks has been a member since 17/6/2011. Posts: 740
Also - if you fly into Xiamen in order to check out Gulangyu Island then you can visit some tulou a few hours bus ride from time.
On a side note - I noticed Wuyuan isn't far from Huangshan, a very nice mountain (with stairs!) and the area is home to Hongcun and Xidi which are World Heritage villages . . . probably a lot more touristy than the area around Wuyuan, but maybe a little easier to get around.
Since Wuyuan was recommended by the Lonely Planet, they first mentioned it a few years ago I think, it became a "backpacker destination". Wuyuan is really worth it - I agree - and villages are especially beautiful during the spring, but there are many other places in Jiangxi Province worth going. Giving just two examples - Sanqing Mountain (south of Wuyuan, on the border with Zhejiang Province) is as beautiful as Huangshan. And if you want to try a unique and amazingly impressive ancient village - try Liukeng in the center of the province.
Regarding Fujian, apart from Xiamen and the Hakka villages mentioned here (and really worth going if it's not a national holiday of course), try Taining region for great views and trekking or Changting area (far south-west, on the border with Jiangxi), for remote, almost untouched, ancient villages.
#8 beibaozu has been a member since 26/2/2013. Posts: 4
Yes beibaozu, you may well be right and I must confess I went to the Wuyuan area and the hakka round houses in Fujian based on Lonely Planet advice. However, when I was there (2.5 years ago) there were next to no tourists and certainly no non-Chinese ones. Perhaps this has changes in subsequent years. From what I saw there wouldn't be the infrastructure to hold many tourists as you are primarily relying on homestays in very small villages.
To be fair, and the LP does have its bashers regarding its recommendations, writing style etc, I thought it nailed China and had some great recommendations. I probably wouldn't have went to these two places nor X'ian and Chongqing were it not for its advice and these ended up being the highlights (along with Beijing obviously).
#9 chinarocks has been a member since 17/6/2011. Posts: 740
Hey guys, im wondering whats the best way to travel in China?! Iv a month to get around, im not going to be able to afford everything so its Beijing-Xian-Chongqing-Yangzte river cruise-Shanghai-Kuming-Hong Kong. Im trying to look at trains and busses, i don't really want to fly and i don't want to spend much time in the big cities (because hostels cost biiiig money in my budget), just enough to see the highlights!! Oh and advise on the river cruise would be mighty helpful too!!!
Caseyprich and Chinarocks you guys are full of knowledge, old nomads eh?!
You'll probably want to take some flights while you're traveling. You'll certainly want to fly for the Shanghai to Kunming leg of the trip, and the Kunming to Hong Kong part. Kunming is pretty far west - but if you are really looking for the sites and to get out of the big cities I'd recommend you find a flight direct to Lijiang as you're still a 9 hour train between Kunming and Lijiang. You may consider the plane for Xi'an to Chongqing as well, as it is around 12 hours and I don't think they run the high speed rails between the two - you could get a sleeper ticket though and it'll be an interesting story on a T or K class line.
I recommend you book the G trains for the majority of your trips if you want want comfort, cleanliness and speed. You can get most the information on departure times and availablity here: http://www.chinahighlights.com/china-trains/
I'm afraid I can't help with the river cruise - but you may want to book one that schedules you the whole way through from Chongqing to Shanghai, that way if the cruise ends in Yichang they'll have train transport or plane to get you the rest of the way. They don't have a G line out there yet, but I think the D line will run you to Shanghai in under 9 hours. I'd always recommend train travel over the buses.
Finally, you said you want to avoid the big cities - well the smallest city you've named is Kunming and it has an urban population of around 3 million --- so as I said, for that leg maybe jump directly to Lijiang, but otherwise most people will use Beijing and Xi'an as bases to explore the countryside of the Great Wall and the Tang/Qin Dynasty sites around Xi'an. Shanghai isn't much besides being a big city but I'd recommend a stop in Nanjing, Suzhou and/or Hangzhou if you want more history.
Ok Caseyprich, iv been busy doing my research so now the questions. Iv been comparing flights to train, train wins im afraid on my budget, now why do you say 'it'll be interesting on the T or K class' those are the tickets that are most appealing to me right now (simply because they're cheap) ?!!?
Iv gone with your advise, sod Shanghai sooooo my new route:
Yichang (cruise from here to Chongqing hopefully)
Hong Kong (fly to Ha Noi)
Short and sweet, iv time on my hands but not the cash. Iv been pricing trains for all the travel but i get stuck when i come to Chongqing to Lijiang and Lijiang to Hong Kong, flights are through the roof and there are no trains, iv been trying to look up busses but im not finding anything helpful, suggestions? Advise? Thanks for all your (and everyone whos contributed) advise, id be lost without it!!
T & K trains are for the lower-class who see what you consider cheap as very expensive, usually farmers or migrant workers. The trains are usually not as well maintained or clean. They also take a lot more time - and some lack heating/cooling systems for the cabins. Most people take them out of novelty, or for slumming it, but if you're looking for basic comfort and cleanliness you would be much better off with D & G lines.
Often, when pricing flights from Shanghai to other cities in the east - we find that the flight is nearly the same price as the train . . . and time saved on holiday makes up for any difference. It is probably different for Lijiang though - as it is not a major city. If you want to take a train from Chongqing to Lijiang you'll probably have to book first to Kunming, and then book a separate ticket to Lijiang.
For basics: http://www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/railway-map.htm
For flight tickets, have you tried looking at flights to Shenzhen or Guangzhou in order to get to Hong Kong? Very close to Hong Kong and air tickets are always much cheaper. (www.ctrip.com & www.elong.com). Otherwise, search those same cities for train arrivals from either Lijiang or Kunming.
Lived in China for 5 months last year, and T an K trains are good, but are slow. I always bought the hard sleeper which is open carriage triple bunks. If you do this try get the bottom bunk (ä¸‹ 'xia') so you can sit down on your own bed, you get the little table and you are further away from the "air-con".
Taking these trains really takes the whole day as the train stations generally take a while to get to. For example, I took a train from Beijing to Guilin for 27 hours, which turned into 31 hours from delays. Also went from Gaungzhou (near HK) to Kunming in 25 hours. So for you to get from Lijiang to HK, it would be 9 + 25 + 2-3 + waiting around for connection. You might as well consider that two days gone right there. Chongqing to Lijiang is probably not possible direct (not sure about buses, but I doubt it). Probably another 30+ hours travel.
China has a massive rail network that is cheap, which makes it seem like a good idea to travel long distances. The only reason I did these long distances were because I wanted to get from Beijing to HK (via Guilin) in time for my birthday, and then I was going to Laos so went to Kunming.
I would suggest Beijing -> Xian -> Small town between Xian and Shanghai -> Shanghai -> Can make small trips outside Shanghai -> Guilin/Yangshuo (river cruise and nice scenery) -> Hong Kong
Or something similar.
I love Shanghai, that is where I lived, and it can actually be cheaper staying in big cities because there is less of a language barrier and less "we can charge 100, even though 20 is the fair price". You should be able to get good dorms booked before arrival for a cheap price. In small un-touristed homestay type towns you don't really have a choice. I speak (average) Chinese and still found it more expensive in small villages. Shanghai is a good place for a night out, and can still be cheap, if you know where to go.
I would go to the cities, and stop in some smaller places that are on the way from place to place. Cuts the travel time way down, it's cheaper and easier. Those train tickets add up.
#14 stefanw has been a member since 10/12/2010. Posts: 50
27 hours, which turned into 31 hours from delays . . . sounds great.
I also have a difference of opinion about taking the bottom bunk - people will expect to share that seat with you. If you want to have some time to yourself and also avoid sunflower seeds on your pillow I think it is better to take an upper bunk.
Ha ha ha ha those damn sunflower seed casings, im used to top bunks, i prefer them to the bottom, i think they're more private, but totally agree with those train tickets adding up rather quickly!!! But as iv said i have time, its the cash i dont have, so time traveling is ok with me, i see some of the country side, i don't want to hit Vietnam till October, the weather will be better then!!
Caseyprich i looked on ctrip for flights from Kunming to Hong Kong eh over 1400 Yuan not a figure i like!!! But i shall keep looking and price around, back to the drawing table........................
Look for flights Kunming to Shenzhen, then take the metro system into Hongkong. Could be cheaper. Or even Kunming to Guangzhou.
#17 stefanw has been a member since 10/12/2010. Posts: 50