Exploring the best of China in four weeks is a mission impossible. Honestly, it is not enough time. You will only scratch the surface. If you really want to get to know this country, you should at least go for two or three months. China has so much to offer as a travel destination. Rice terraces, metropolis, karst mountains, desserts, temples. This is one of the most versatile destinations in the world, without a doubt! I loved every bit of my time in China. In this blog post, we will look back on my first trip to China with a comprehensive four-week China itinerary and practical tips.
Day 1 – 5: Shanghai & Suzhou
We started our China itinerary in Shanghai. From Pudong airport, we got on the Maglev train (300 kilometers in 8 minutes, single fare is 50 CNY) to the city center. We had booked a tiny apartment at Jiangsu Road. Our host had sent us some handy directions. Sadly, we still got lost when we chose the wrong metro exit. Welcome to China where metros have exits A to N. Luckily, our host was so nice to meet us and to guide us to the apartment. We filled our days in Shanghai with a bicycle tour, checking off the tourist spots, street art in M50, and a day trip to Suzhou.
Day 6 – 9: Beijing & Huanghuacheng
With the high-speed Shanghai – Beijing train, we traveled in 5 hours from metropolis to metropolis. Beijing is a very different type of city than Shanghai. Beijing is full of history, while Shanghai is a business city. Furthermore, Beijing attracts a lot more international tourists and also the air is dustier. We spent our time in Beijing by joining a walking tour in the hutongs, taking a bicycle tour, and hiking a beautiful part of the Great Wall. We went to Huanghuacheng (the only part of the Wall with a lake) and it was worth all the sweat and tears. Sadly, I failed at my mission to visit Art District 789. While finding street art in Shanghai was a piece of cake, in Beijing, it didn’t work out.
Where to stay: Yue Xuan Courtyard Garden Hostel.
Day 10 – 12: Xi’an
After Beijing, we boarded a night train to our next stop on our China itinerary: Xi’an. Maybe the name doesn’t ring any bells, but it should when I say Terracotta Army. My visit to this historical underground paradise was on the same day as my birthday, so it was twice the fun. Though I loved seeing the Terracotta army, it didn’t blow me away. I was more excited to go on a bike ride on top of the city walls of Xi’an. Also, the vibrant Beiyuanmen Street Food Quarter was a big surprise for me. The roots of the Muslim community that lives here can be traced back to the ancient Silk Road. Back then, Xi’an was the most eastern stop of this trade route. This area is a great place for a late afternoon to fill up on street food.
Where to stay: Campanile Xi’an Bell Tower.
Day 13 – 15: Xiahe
Sounds the same as Xi’an, but it is very different: the mountain town Xiahe. A place of Tibetan and Uyghur influences. The population of this city is a mix of shepherds, monks of the Tibetan Gelukpa group, and the Hui Muslims. I really enjoyed my time in Xiahe. It was very different than any other place we have seen in China. Even the money is different and is not accepted outside this region. In Xiahe we visited the largest Tibetan monastery outside Tibet, we watched the locals on their traditional kora and drove from temple to temple through the hilly grasslands.
Where to stay: Overseas Tibetan Hotel.
Day 16 – 18: Chengdu
We returned to the civilized world and visited the city of Chengdu. This time we didn’t take the train, but instead, we got on a plane. The train ride to Chengdu would take us more than 20 hours, so that was nothing we wanted to do. Taking a short flight was our best option. We were very surprised by the greenness of Chengdu. Though the city itself doesn’t offer that much, it does offer a lot in terms of day trips. We visited the Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding and the Giant Leshan Buddha. Both I can highly recommend!
Day 19 – 20: Yangshuo
Change of scenery: we headed into the mountains. In the Yangshuo area, you can visit mythical karst mountains and these were very high on my wishlist. We explored the Li river with a raft, cycled through the rice fields, and climbed Moon Hill with a temperature of 35 degrees Celsius. The weather was extremely unpredictable. One day we were melting away in the sun, the next day it didn’t stop raining. And what do you do on a rainy day? We joined a cooking class and learned how to make beer fish and eggplant stew.
Day 21 – 23: Ping’an
Close to Yangshuo (about 50 km), there was a second nature highlight on our China itinerary that we did not want to miss: Ping’an. Home of the famous Longji rice terraces, also known as the Dragons Backbone. Our hotel was at one of the hills of the rice terraces where we woke up each morning to a gorgeous view. We made a photogenic hike through the rice fields, from the ‘Seven stars around the moon’ to the ‘Thousand layers’ terraces and the Dazhai village. Hands down, this is one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever made.
Day 23 – 26: Hong Kong
We ended our trip the same way as we started it: in a metropolis. This time it was Hong Kong. For the first time in weeks, we could talk in English again and someone would understand it. We spend our days in Hong Kong visiting the highlights. We took the red cable tram up to Victoria Peak, got on the Star Ferry to go to the other side of town, hiked over the Dragon Back, and got on the cable cart to Lantau island. Hong Kong is such an amazing city, I loved it!
Practical tips for preparing your China itinerary
Crowds & trains
- Booking train tickets: one of the best ways to discover China is by train. I recommend buying your train tickets at least one month in advance. There are several websites available to buy train tickets. I have good experience with Trip.com. Please know that when you buy train tickets online, you still need to exchange it at the train station for a paper ticket. You can show the e-ticket pickup info on your phone and bring your passport because they’ll ask for it.
- Avoid traveling during the Golden Week: the first week of October is the Golden Week in China. Chinese will celebrate the foundation of the Republic of China. All of China is off work and will travel around the country. Result: it is super crowded and many trains will be sold out. We traveled during the month September through China and we made sure we left the country before the 1st of October.
- Get used to the crowds: almost everything has been discovered by tourists and is heavily visited by the domestics tour groups. Cruising around the Li river with 15 other rafts or staring at the Leshan with 200 other people is no exception. You are never alone and the Chinese tour groups with their umbrellas, a tour guide on speaker and dozen of selfie sticks are everywhere! Try to get used to it.
No English & VPN
- Nobody speaks English: personally I don’t mind this. I like a challenge and with some effort anything is possible. But be prepared. For instance we downloaded a Google Translate App before we went to China. This way we could tell the train staff that we needed clean sheets.
- Use public transportation: Chinese cities are huge, so think twice about walking everywhere. Your feet will hurt, because you can walk forever. My advice is to take the metro to move around the city. It is cheap, easy to understand and quick.
- Download a VPN app: in China you have limited access to social media, but with a VPN app there is a way to get around it. Through this app you connect with a server in a different country and you are online! Sadly, the internet speed in China is not that good, so we still had to wait before we could upload anything.
Chinese habits & photos
- You are extremely fascinating: we felt like superstars in China. With our blond or brown hair and light skin we attracted so much attention and were often asked (or not) to take a photo. For instance people take a quick photo of you in the metro or people just stand next to you while a friend takes a photo. Just handle it with a smile and let it go.
- Handling the Chinese habits: spitting, gargling, peeing kids on the street: in the beginning it is something to get used to, but after while you get over it. At least I did. It is part of China and you can get really upset about, or you could just accept is. That is what I did.
And there you have it: a four-week China itinerary and a few practical tips. Which places do you want to visit in China?
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