Seeing China in four weeks, that is almost a mission impossible. Four weeks is not nearly enough. If you really want to get to know the country, you should at least go there for two of three months. Four weeks is just enough to get an grasp of the versatility of the country. Rice terraces, metropolis, karst mountains, desserts, temples: this country has so much to offer! Without a doubt I will go back soon. I loved every bit of my time in China. In this article we will look back on my first trip in China, complete with travel route and practical tips.
Day 1 – 5: Shanghai & Suzhou
We started our journey in Shanghai. From Pudong airport we got on the Maglev train (300 kilometers, a single ticket is 50 Yuan) to the city centre on our way to our little apartment at Jiangsu Road. Our host had sent us a handy route description. Sadly, we already 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 come pick us up and guide us to the apartment. We filled our days in Shanghai with a bike tour, checking off the tourist spots, street art in M50 and a daytrip to Suzhou. It was insanely crowded those days in Shanghai, because the Chinese celebrated Victory Day where they commerorate the victory on Japan in the Second World War. A lot of the Shanghai people spent their free day in the city and that’s why it was really crowded.
Day 6 – 9: Beijing & Huanghuacheng
With the high-speed train we traveled in 5 hours from metropolis to metropolis: from Shanghai to Beijing. I immediately noticed that Beijing was a different type of city. Shanghai is obviously a business city, Beijing has character and history. You see a lot more tourists here, local people on the streets and the air is far more dusty here. In Beijing we joined a walking tour in the hutongs, took a bike tour around the city and climbed the Wall. We chose a less touristy part of Huanghuacheng (the only part of the Wall with a lake) and that was worth all the sweat and tears. I also failed in finding street art in district 789. While finding street art in Shanghai was a piece of cake, in Beijing it didn’t work out. Oh well, I have something left to see next time.
Day 10 – 12: Xi’an
Again we boarded a train to our next stop: the night train to Xi’an. Maybe the name doesn’t ring any bells, but it should when I say Terracotta army. My visit to the historical underground paradise coincided with my birthday, so it was twice the fun. Though I loved seeing the Terracotta army, it didn’t blew me away. I was more excited to go for a bike ride on the city walls of Xi’an. Also the vibrant Muslim Quarter was a big surprise for me. This is a leftover from the ancient Silk Road when Xi’an was the east end of this trade route. The Muslim quarter is a great stop for a late afternoon to fill up your tummy with street food.
Day 13 – 15: Xiahe
Sounds the same, but 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 liked 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 biggest Tibetan monastery outside Tibet, we walked with the locals on the traditional kora and drove from temple to temple through the hilly grasslands.
Day 16 – 18: Chengdu
We returned to the civilized world and visited the city 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. The plane 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 to do as day trips. We visited the research base for giant panda breeding and the big Leshan Buddha. Both I can highly recommend!
Day 19 – 20: Yangshuo
Change of scenery: we headed into the mountains. Around Yangshuo you have those 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. 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
50 kilometers from Yangshuo there is a second highlight 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 start 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 like 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 could understand it. We spend our days in Hong Kong with visiting the highlights. We took the red cable tram up to Viktoriya 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! I could not have imagined any better ending of this trip through China.
- Booking train tickets: one of the best ways to discover China is by train. I recommend buying your train tickets two to three months before. We ordered our train tickets through a Dutch website treinkaartjeschina.nl, but there are several other options available. You let them know when you want to travel and which trains you want to catch and they order the tickets as soon as they are on sale. Then you get an e-tickets which you turn in at the train station and you receive the actual paper ticket. Worked every time!
- Avoid traveling during the Golden Week (or during any other holiday): the first week of October is the Golden Week in China in which the Chinese celebrate the foundation of the Republic of China. All of China is off work and start to travel around the country. Result: it is super crowded everywhere and a lot of trains are 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: don’t expect finding any quiet idyllic romantic spots in China. Almost everything has been discovered by tourists and heavily visited by the Chinese tourists. 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 the heads, umbrellas and selfie sticks are everywhere! Make it easy for yourself and try to get used to it.
- 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 employee that we really 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.
- You are extremely fascinating: we felt like superstars in China. With our blond or brown hair and light skin we attract attention in China and are 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 waiting for a photo to be taken by a friend. 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.
Which places do you want to visit in China?