Drenched in more than 5000 years of illustrious history and blessed by the spellbinding paintbrush of Mother Nature, China is one of the most surprising travel destinations you can ever hope to visit. Everything about China is authentic, unique, enticing and – perhaps more importantly – a world away from what many of us in the West have come to expect.
Whilst the major mega-cities are indeed as busy and buzzy as one would expect, they are also orderly and easy to navigate, offering a ton of immensely interesting attractions. Then there’s the side of China many foreigners have yet to discover, the off-the-beaten-path China. The China of high peaks and dramatic horizons, of astonishing natural beauty, deep seeded spirituality and tantalizing ancient traditions.
Provincial differences are quite dramatic in China and should you be lucky enough to visit a few difference provinces you’ll be astounded to discover how distinctive they all are. From landscapes to people, from delectable cuisines to architecture: China is a stunning puzzle made up of a thousand intricate and unique pieces, home to a head-spinning array of ethnic groups.
Aside from the mega-cities and expansive wilderness, man-made iconic treasures and magnificent natural ones, you’ll encounter some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet travelling. For many first-time visitors, this is one of China’s most hidden of surprises.
The best of China is a feast for every single one of your senses.
Travel to China – the how and where
Given the country’s overwhelming size and offerings, many travellers choose to concentrate on one region per trip, perhaps taking in two provinces in a week and honing in on the main highlights in each. For first-time travellers, however, the overwhelming desire to tick off big-name attractions in a sweet-and-short bundle is too strong to resist. Itineraries like our 8-day Jetset China offer a wonderful introduction to the country, and include divas like Beijing, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Terracotta Army and bustling Shanghai.
With a few more days up your sleeve (like our 13-day Highlights of China) you’ll have time to soak up some of China’s most striking natural highlights as well, perhaps including a cruise along the Yangtze River visiting the Three Gorges and the dramatic landscapes that frame them.
With even more time? Oh my….the Chinese world will be your most delectable pickled oyster!
China’s Best Highlights
Because we know you know the big-name attractions in China, we’ll reserve this guide for the lesser-known treasures; the hidden gems many discover after they’ve first satisfied their curiosity on the above-mentioned popular highlights first.
Do the same and you can finally cast off to explore the real China, the one most of the Western world doesn’t even know exists.
The mountainous landscapes and people of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau
Covering an area of 2.5 million square kilometres and boasting an eye-watering average elevation of more than 4,000m, China’s high-altitude Tibetan Plateau is dubbed the Roof of the World. The astonishing Himalayan landscape is one of the most magnificent destinations in the world, let alone China. Wide expanses of ethereal plains, framed by snow-capped peaks and dotted by some of the most picturesque, remote and enigmatic ancient villages and nomadic tribes you’ll ever see. It’s another world, out there, simultaneously lush and barren, exotic and contrasting.
Destinations within this region abound, with the plateau covering expansive chunks of the Qinghai and Gansu Provinces, as well as all of Tibet. The Chinese government is currently working out the logistics of protecting this ‘purest of lands’ by creating what will be the world’s biggest national park, effectively forfeiting rights to mining the mineral-rich mountains, in favour of protecting the pristine ecosystem and authentic cultures that still inhabit it.
The highlights of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau are far too numerous to mention them all. And no…they don’t all have to do with a gruelling ascent of mighty Mt Everest! There are literally thousands of sparkling alpine lakes that dot the plateau, combined with some of the most picturesque mountains on the planet.
In the Tibetan Plateau, you can hike to your heart’s content in breathtaking high-altitude wilderness, for years and even entire decades on end. You can ride on the highest railway in the world and pilgrimage to Mt Kailash, considered the ‘holiest’ peak in the region, a place that attracts Buddhists, Jainists and Hindus in equal measure. You can cast your eyes on the spectacular palaces that dot peaks across Tibet (like the UNESCO-listed Potala Palace) and spend hours spinning enormous prayer wheels in temples and monasteries set in truly remarkable landscapes.
Animal lovers will delight in the herds of Tibetan antelopes, musk deer, impressive yaks and adorably chubby golden marmots that litter the plateau. If you are exceptionally lucky, you may even spot the elusive and endangered snow leopard who calls the Tibetan Plateau home. You can read more about the plateau’s endemic rare wildlife species right here.
The Qinghai Tibetan Plateau is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating, endearing and unforgettable places on earth, where intense spirituality and out-of-this-world nature live in blissful symbiosis. A connection that certainly isn’t lost on the most astute of travellers.
Our Classic Tibet itinerary will give you a tantalizing taste of what you can expect to see and do in 10 days in this remote and hard-to-reach destination. If you only have time for an entrée into the region, then do check out our 4-day Simply Lhasa experience.
The traditional architecture and eclectic wilderness of the Yunnan Province
Yunnan is one of our favourite provinces of all, due to its incredible variety of landscapes and attractions. From the flanks of the Himalayas in the north to the tropical jungles of the south (on the border with Myanmar) this relatively small and compact province is an absolute gem of delights. With great tourist infrastructure, myriad of airports, abundance of highlights and fantabulous food, Yunnan is a wonderful option for those BIG on wishes but short on time, or first-time travellers looking for an add-on to a Classic China tour of the most popular sights. Yunnan is easy to reach and, unlike the Tibetan Plateau which boasts enormous distances, super convenient to explore by road.
Yunnan is home to some of the most charming ancient villages in China, with postcard-pretty hubs like Shaxi, Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-la offering wonderful glimpses of the ancient kingdoms which used to rule over these lands. The capital city, Kunming, is a real treat too (and insanely green) and definitely a place you’ll want to explore for a couple of days.
Yet the most rewarding thing to do in Yunnan is simply to drive…drive along the vertiginous mountain road that leads to the jaw-dropping Tiger Leaping Gorge, along the fertile banks of the Jinsha River, adorned with the occasional opulent monastery and temple. Road-tripping Yunnan offers the chance to soak up beauties you’d otherwise miss by flying, like the UNESCO-protected rice terraces of Yuanyang and the overwhelming number of ethnic minority villages belonging to the Bai, Naxi, Hani and Yao tribes, among many others.
You can visit Tibetan monasteries and set off on day-long hikes across gorges and verdant valleys drenched in colourful flower beds. Striking architecture, hospitable people, unique landscapes and unending spirituality: these are all things that make a Yunnan road trip a remarkable affair to remember.
Sizzling hot-pots, cuddly pandas and misty mountains – your Sichuan Province trifecta
Aside its peppery beef dishes revered the world over, Sichuan is best known for being home to the Chengdu Panda Research Centre, a hub of cuddly gorgeousness that attracts visitors from all over the world. One of the rare few places in the world where you can cuddle a panda (albeit for just a few minutes) Chengdu is a must on a visit to Sichuan, one of the most sought-after destinations in all of China.
But the Sichuan Province is a lot more than pepper and pandas, as inviting as both of those actually are. Take but a step outside of Chengdu’s bustling core and you’ll encounter endless horizon of mist-covered mountains, hills topped with gilded Buddha statues and ancient trading villages seemingly unperturbed by the passing of thousands of years.
Most travellers concentrate on the northern half of the province, honing in on the high-altitude landscapes and their fascinating cultures. The south, by contrast, is much quieter and less mountainous yet just as enticing. Traditional farming villages and spectacular national parks – like Jiuzhaigou– beckon the active traveller. Hiking and horseriding among these verdant forests are simply phenomenal, with raging glacial rivers and emerald lakes and waterfalls providing fantastical backdrops at every turn. The highest peaks here are above 6,000m and for anyone, especially Australians, the sight is flabbergasting, to say the least.
Sichuan offers some of the most coveted multi-day high-altitude hiking on the planet and if you’re in search of somewhere totally unique, to explore on foot, dare we say you just found it. When in Sichuan, don’t miss visiting Emei Sjan, one of the four holiest Buddhist mountains in the country and the birthplace of the religion in the far east.
Specialized visits to China
Specialized tours of China are incredibly popular and that’s certainly not surprising considering the array of attractions and highlights on offer all over the country. Trying to plan an ‘all-encompassing’ visit can be an overwhelming task and if you’re at a loss of a great springboard to launch your adventures, you may wish to concentrate on the one main activity, hobby or passion, which you love above all else.
So whether you’re into hiking, photography, history, culture, nature, shopping, gastronomy or archaeology, we can help you hone in on one or several destinations which best cater to your specific passion. Destinations can be spread out across multiple provinces, if you have some time, or strategically located close to one another to maximise time. And, in case you are in any doubt, do note that culinary tours are among the most popular of all.
Want to feast your way through China? Join the club!
Best Time to Visit China
- China’s sheer colossal size means that seasonal differences can be quite dramatic depending on the province you wish to visit. However, and generally speaking, Autumn (September & October) and Spring (April-June) are the ideal seasons for extensive sightseeing and overland travelling. You’ll skip the heat and crowds of summer but won’t suffer the pits of the harsh winters for which some parts of China are so renowned.
- The height of Summer is the ideal time, however, to explore the high-altitude Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, which can see absolutely freezing temps in winter.
- If there’s a single time of year where travel through China is best avoided, it would have to be their New Year (or Spring Festival). At this time (dates change yearly) you’ll find the whole country in the midst of a kind of ‘domestic migration’ that causes overcrowding of public transport, flights and hotels, and a near-complete shutdown of major tourist-oriented businesses. But don’t take this to mean that all cultural festivals in China are to be avoided! On the contrary, they can make for excellent enhancers on ANY trip. All…except for Chinese New Year, the most important and longest local holiday of all.
- All the major cities can be visited all year long. Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Xi’an are fabulous no matter the weather, especially (in winter) as you’ll likely spend much of your time indoors, visiting museums, galleries, restaurants and shopping haunts.
- If you’re particularly weary of crowds (local Chinese are avid travellers themselves) then bear the cold and do visit in winter. Not only will you be privy to fewer tourists and lower prices but you can soak up incomparable views of snow-covered gems.
Best Way to Reach China
As China grows in popularity, it is becoming increasingly easier to reach provinces directly without the need to hop along from the capital or surrounding major cities. International airports with direct and even non-stop flights abound, as do domestic transfers by high-speed rail. Getting in and moving on is exceptionally easy and inexpensive.
Brief stop-overs are very popular among foreign travellers because China offers 72 and 144-hour visa-free sojourns to some of its most popular destinations, like Beijing, Chengdu, Kunming, Xi’an and Xiamen among many others. But do note that ‘stop-overs’ are exactly as the name suggests: your original and final destination must be different. Ie. Australia – China – France is fine as opposed to Australia-China-Australia. The latter would require you get a Chinese tourist visa prior to entry.
There are various other restrictions and benefits depending on your nationality AND itinerary, so feel free to contact us for details specific to your situation.
The most popular entry points into China are:
- Hong Kong
Here at GetAboutAsia, we strive to collaborate with only the best guides in the business, and in each province. We’ll match you up with someone that will suit and understand your wishes and travel group, and aim to offer an unforgettable China experience, allowing you the unrivalled chance to soak up as much as possible of the places you go and people you meet.
Author: Laura Pattara
“After spending years taking short vacations in Asia, Laura finally managed her dream, travelling extensively through Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia on a 3-year-long overlanding adventure that she describes as “SIMPLY EPIC”. Following in the footsteps of ancient traders, Laura meandered along the famed Silk Road through the Stans, delighted her tastebuds for 8000km across China (no mean feat) visited an insane number of temples in Southeast Asia, all the while snorkelling, diving and beach-bumming along the way. Tickled pink by history and culture, Laura loves off-the-beaten-path destinations in Asia and anything that isn’t gift-wrapped for tourists”