Planning Your China Itinerary
So many places, so little time. If this is your first time in China, you might think about focusing on a selection of China’s best and most important sites all over the country. Or perhaps you know what kind of trip you’re looking for, but not where to go to find it. If you want to zoom in on a smaller area of China, take a look at my regional itineraries.
A First Trip to China
The “classic” itinerary for a first visit to China includes Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an. It’s hard to argue with Beijing, because who wants to come to China without seeing the Forbidden City and the Great Wall? And the Terracotta Warriors are magnificent, justifying a trip to Xi’an irrespective of the city’s many other worthwhile sites. But when it comes to Shanghai, I find very little (aside from the excellent Shanghai Museum) merits an extended visit. By all means visit, but use the city as a base to explore the surrounding region: Suzhou and Hangzhou are just a short train ride away. Anhui’s historic villages are also nearby, though they are a little too far away for a day trip.
If you have the time, I would strongly recommend adding a stop in a more rural area. A good choice for first-time visitors is Guangxi Province. Yangshuo‘s beautiful karst scenery is buttressed by well-developed, English-speaking tourist industry, but it is still possible to find yourself alone on a country road in the surrounding area. If you’re a little more adventurous, a hike through the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces takes you through three small rice farming villages.
And if you have even longer, check out this one-month China itinerary that I wrote about on my blog.
What kind of trip are you looking for?
|Historical Sites||Beijing, Xi’an, Anhui’s Historic Villages, Suzhou, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang|
|Hiking and Trekking||Wenhai, Langmusi, Lushan, Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces, Zhangjiajie National Park|
|Arts and Culture||Shanghai, Dunhuang|
|Village Life||Dehang, Anhui’s Historic Villages, Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge area|
|Delicious Eats||Changsha’s Spicy Xiangcai, Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter, Lanzhou’s Night Market, Beijing’s Restaurants|
China: The One-Month Itinerary
So you want to see all of China, and you only have a month? I’ll be honest — there’s no way to see everything. But if you plan carefully, you can taste the range of experiences the country has to offer. For my recommended itinerary, check out this blog post that I wrote in response to a Twittered question in February 2010.
Western China: Gansu and Qinghai
If you only look at American newspapers, it would be easy to imagine that “Western China” consists only of the politically-tense provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang. But that view overlooks the vast western provinces of Gansu and Qinghai, which are also home to many members of China’s ethnic minorities — including a sizeable number of Tibetans. Because there is less political tension in this part of the country, it is much easier for foreign tourists to travel freely there. (Though you are still discouraged from getting too close to the Dalai Lama’s birthplace.) Gansu is also home to some of the most important Silk Road sites, most importantly the magnificent, well-preserved Mogao Caves.
A full exploration of Gansu, plus a dip into eastern Qinghai, takes about two weeks. Many of the sites are connected only by bus, so be prepared for some rough journeys, and allow plenty of time to get from place to place.
From Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, traveling west will take you along the Silk Road, with stops at Jiayuguan Fort and the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang. Backtrack to Lanzhou to begin your exploration of the Tibetan areas in southwest Gansu. Langmusi has good options for trekking in the surrounding grasslands, while the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe is one of the most important in Tibetan Buddhism. From Xiahe, cross over into Qinghai Province to see the artist-monks of Tongren (Rebkong). Qinghai’s capital, Xining, is a good place to end your journey (there are flights from here to all of China’s major hubs). If you want to continue on to Tibet, travel agencies in Xining can help arrange your Tibet Travel Permit.
- Detailed 16-day itinerary
- Budget for 16 days in Gansu and Qinghai
- Blog posts from my August ’09 trip