The best travel ideas around China

See the best of China with our guide to 12 months of domestic travel
The best travel ideas around ChinaYangshuo
First published on 9 May 2012. Updated on 11 Dec 2014.

Enjoy the best the country has to offer while avoiding the tourist hordes with Time Out’s guide to 12 months of domestic travel.


See wild elephants in Sanchahe

When to go: January

While they’re not our favourite months in Shanghai, January and February are among the best times to visit Xishuangbanna. This region, in a southern pocket of Yunnan province, is normally hot and humid but turns more temperate at this time of year.

Bordering Laos and Myanmar, Xishuangbanna is home to streets lined with palm trees, Dai temples and a cultural melting pot that has seen it tagged ‘China’s mini-Thailand’. As a result, recent years have seen Jinghong, Xishuangbanna’s once-quiet capital, become increasingly touristic, but the change has also spawned improved accommodation options and facilities in town, which makes it a convenient base from which to explore the surrounding countryside. Until recently, it was also possible to catch a ferry to the real Thailand from Jinghong on the Lancang River (as the Mekong is known here), however passenger services have been suspended since October due to security concerns, and it’s currently unclear when they will resume.

No matter - there’s plenty to see without crossing the border. The Sanchahe Wildlife Park, located in a swathe of rainforest about a 90 minute drive north from Jinghong, is home to a population of around 20 elephants and provides the only opportunity in Xishuangbanna to see the creatures in the wild. As with most animal attractions in this country, there are some offensive ‘displays’ involving captive elephants performing tricks and playing football that ought to be avoided. However, early morning visits to a collection of riverside huts within the park enable you to see the elephants in the wild, a much more gratifying experience. While the elephants are the undoubted highlight, the trails that head into the surrounding rainforest also reveal a startling array of wildlife, from brightly coloured snakes to rare butterflies and raucous birds.

Getting there
Return flights to Xishuangbanna (as Jinghong is known for the purposes of air travel) start from 2,500RMB with Shanghai Airlines (www.shanghai-air.com). Rooms in the Swiss-managed Dai-style Yourantai Hotel (www.yourantai.com) in Jinghong start from 850RMB/night during off-peak season.

Celebrate Tibetan New Year in Lhasa

When to go: February

Lhasa these days isn’t exactly off the beaten track, but few tourists brave the Tibetan capital during the winter due to concerns about the weather. Temperatures can dip at night, but warnings about inhospitable conditions are largely irrelevant to Lhasa itself (though snowfall may interrupt side trips into the surrounding mountains). February can therefore be an ideal time to visit, especially as this year Tibetan New Year, or Losar, falls on February 22.

During Losar the city is flooded with people, but rather than matching baseball cap-wearing, megaphone-wielding tour groups, the streets will be overrun with pilgrims dressed in brightly coloured traditional costumes. Worshippers rotate clockwise around holy sites such as the Potala Palace and the Jokhang in the centre of the city, mimicking the motion of the spinning prayer wheels they carry, and repeatedly prostrate themselves on the ground. The numerous temples that dot the city and the surrounding area are specially spruced up during the period too, while small fires are lit in the streets and fireworks are set off throughout the night for Losar.

Although regular flights are available between Shanghai and Lhasa (see below), the 48-hour train journey between the two cities is one of the best travelling experiences in China. Traversing almost the entire length of the country, the 4,370km journey heads north to Xian and Lanzhou before crossing the permafrost of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau (at a peak of 5,072 metres above sea level, the highest railway in the world). Arriving in Lhasa this way also means a more gradual acclimatisation, though for those who still find it difficult, oxygen masks are fitted in the carriages.

Getting there
Return flights to Lhasa start from 3,000RMB with China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com). The daily train to Lhasa leaves Shanghai Station at 7.28pm, takes around 48 hours and starts from 797RMB for a hard sleeper bed. Foreign nationals will need a permit to enter Tibet, available through most travel agents around China. Prices vary depending on how you get there but expect to pay around 700 RMB.

Escape the crowds in Yangshuo

When to go: March

Yangshuo (main picture) is swamped with tourists during its peak months (April-May and September-October), when visitors flock to the area to witness the stunning rural landscape. In the off-peak season, though, you can take advantage of near-empty cycle trails and reduced prices. The weather is admittedly less predictable at this time, but lingering mists caused by the rain showers in March can make the jagged peaks cut through with picturesque rivers even more dramatic.

Yangshuo sits on the Li River, downstream from the region’s main transport hub, Guilin, and most visitors arrive in the small town by boat. Guilin is full of vendors selling tickets for the 80km-long cruise and you can expect to pay around 400RMB/person for a private cruise or around 100RMB/person if you join a tour group. Most hotels and hostels organise trips, as does the central tour operator, China International Travel Service (www.guilincits.com). Both private and tour group vessels wind their way slowly along the Li River, passing local fishermen, small villages and incredible views, including the scene depicted on the 20RMB note.

Once in Yangshuo, catch Zhang Yimou’s outdoor extravaganza Impression: Liu Sanjie (from 198RMB/person). The show has a cast of hundreds and takes place on the river before a backdrop that includes entire karst hills lit up in the distance.

Thereafter, skip the bustle of the small back streets and head out of town to the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat. Situated on the bank of the river, this peaceful eco hotel was founded by American Chris Barclay in 2000 and is staffed entirely by local villagers. In addition to organising tours, rock climbing and cookery classes, the hotel rents bicycles so you can head out on the surrounding area’s many trails, taking in the karst formations, villages and farmers along the way. And If the weather turns nasty, you can always unwind in front of the open log fire in their main communal lounge.

Getting there
Return flights from Shanghai to Guilin start from 750RMB with Spring Airlines (www.china-sss.com). Yangshuo Mountain Retreat’s March room rates start from around 250RMB/night, see
www.yangshuomountainretreat.com for more details.

Get wet in Zunyi




When to go:
April

Zunyi is renowned for its waterfalls – the neighbouring Guizhou countryside is dotted with scenic falls, including China’s largest, the 74 metre-high, 81 metre-wide Huangguoshu. But in mid-April, the small city gets even wetter with the Dai minority’s annual Water Splashing Festival.

Three days of festivities feature dragon boat races and the ritual washing of the Buddha at temples around the city before people take to the streets for a giant water fight. Kitted out in their best and brightest clothes, Zunyi’s residents douse each other in any way they can, flinging bottles and bowls of water over everyone and everything within range. Marking the start of the Dai New Year, the water free-for-all is one of the most unique minority festivals in the country and although tourists are increasingly drawn to the spectacle, numbers are still significantly lower than peak visiting periods in the summer months.

The lack of crowds also makes April a good time of year to visit Zunyi’s surrounding attractions, such as the aforementioned falls at Huangguoshu, the Loushanguan battlefield (the site of a significant Communist victory over the Kuomintang) and the beautiful ruins of Hailongtun, a mountaintop castle that dates back to 1257. Water isn’t the only liquid flying around these parts either – the town of Maotai, home of the famous baijiu, is also nearby, featuring the National Liquor Culture City, which charts the history of the drink, and offers plenty of opportunities to ganbei.

Getting there
Return flights to Chongqing start from 1,100RMB with Ctrip (www.english.ctrip.com). Regular express buses from Chongqing long distance bus station to Zunyi take around three and a half hours and start from 120RMB. Rooms at the centrally located, revolutionary kitsch-fitted Jincheng Hotel (www.jinchenghotel.com.cn) start from 259RMB/night.

Fight the Nationalists in Yanan

When to go: May



While nearby waterfalls on the Yellow River provide for some spectacular scenery, Yanan’s proximity to the Long March’s final destination have placed this otherwise unremarkable city at the centre of the country’s red revival tourism phenomenon. And few attractions can compete with The Defense of Yanan (entry 150RMB), a battle reenactment park on the outskirts where, for a few extra kuai, visitors can take the fight to the Kuomintang (KMT) themselves.

Opened in 2006 as the country’s first ‘red tourism park’, explosions and Communist fervour abound as hundreds of actors recreate a key battle from March 1947 when the Kuomintang attempted to overrun Mao’s Zaoyuan base (actually located a few kilometres from the park). The Nationalists are of course painted as cartoon baddies and paraded in front of the crowd to a chorus of boos and hisses, but the real attraction at The Defense of Yanan is the ability to take part in the battle yourself. For an extra 10RMB, you can get kitted out in the blue uniform of a Communist soldier and sent into battle against the KMT. However, there is only one battle a day (at 11am) and they only take on 30 recruits, so get there early.

Getting there
Return flights to Yanan start from 1,600RMB with China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com). Alternatively, return flights to Xian, also with China Eastern, start from 690RMB. Regular trains travel from Xian to Yanan, taking around three and a half hours and starting from 51RMB for a hard seat. Rooms at the Yanan Hotel (091 1288 6688) start from 380RMB/night.

Battle vertigo in Zhangjiajie


When to go: June
The country’s first national forest park, Zhangjiajie’s 4,810 hectares, over 97 per cent of which are forested, were officially recognised as a protected area in 1982 and form part of the larger Wulingyuan Scenic Area, itself a Unesco World Heritage site. The incredible quartz and sandstone pillar-like rock formations that cover the park are a magnet for tourists at peak times – especially the 1km-high Sky Cross Column, which last year was renamed the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain after James Cameron’s 3D film – but few elect to actually climb the surrounding mountain trails.

While buses and cable cars ferry tour groups to the top, for those who want to walk, largely deserted paths wind their way up through dense vegetation and someof the freshest air in China – during the summer months, the park releases an average of 8,660 cubic metres of oxygen every day. At the main gate to Zhangjiajie, board one of the tourist buses, but ask the driver to drop you at the bottom of a mountain path. Though you’ll meet the tourists again at the top, the breathtaking views make them easy to ignore.

There are opportunities throughout Wulingyuan to avoid tourist groups, but one place where it’s arguably worth braving the more beaten path is Tianmen Shan. Here, a 60 metre-long glass walkway edges its way around the rockface 1,430 metres above sea level, leaving few visitors able to look down.

Getting there

Trains from Shanghai to Zhangjiajie take just over 20 hours and start from 324RMB for a hard sleeper. Return flights start from around 1,300RMB with Shanghai Airlines (www.shanghai-air.com). Zhangjiajie town is a grubby little settlement, but provides a good base. Here, Zhangjiajie Zhongtian Youth Hostel (www.zjjzhostel.com) offers reasonable rooms from 30RMB/person. Rooms at the plusher Pullman Zhangjiajie (www.pullmanhotels.com) start from 600RMB/night. Tickets for Wulingyuan Scenic Area are 248RMB/two days.

Stay with a Tibetan family in Jiuzhaigou

When to go: July
Touted as one of the most beautiful places in China, Jiuzhaigou, set on the edge of the Tibetan plateau in northern Sichuan province, is also one of the most touristy spots in the country. Avoiding the swarms of tourists in the region is possible however by staying overnight with a Tibetan family.Zhuo Ma, an English-speaking Tibetan who lives in the scenic area, opened his home to travelers a few years ago and, together with his mother and brother, provides bedrooms and home-cooked Tibetan meals to visitors. The facilities are basic, but the family’s hospitality makes up for the limited amenities and though 200RMB/person is more expensive than the youth hostels in nearby Jiuzhaigou town, the homestay is a more unique way to experience the scenic area. It’s also cheaper than the park’s five star Sheraton resort (www.starwoodhotels.com) where rooms start from 565RMB/night.

To further avoid other visitors, hike the Zharu Valley. The area is protected and the daily number of hikers restricted. Contact ecotourism@jiuzhai.com for more details.

Getting there
Return flights to Chengdu start from 1,200RMB with China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com). Regularhour-long flights from Chengdu to Jiuzhai Huanglong airport with Air China (www.airchina.com.cn) start from 1,400RMB. Zhuo Ma operates an airport pick-up service. To book the homestay and for more details, call him on 135 6878 3012 or email jiuzhaicooking@gmail.com.

Go camping in the Gobi desert

When to go: August
Though an incredible sight, the Unesco-protected Mogao caves – a sprawling collection of grottoes housing delicate Buddhist carvings and murals with a history dating back to 366AD – have made Gansu province’s Dunhuang a tourist trap. However, an increasing number of cafés and hostels in the town offer camping trips out into the desert from 250RMB/person.

Heading out into the middle of the desert might not seem like an ideal break, but August temperatures in the Gobi are surprisingly bearable. Tours can be tailored to individual requests, but most involve a camel ride out toward the Singing Sand Dunes, so-called because of the sound caused by winds whipping over the tops of the dunes, and camping for the night nearby.

Getting there
Return flights to Lanzhou start from 1,000RMB with Shanghai Airlines (www.shanghai-air.com). From Lanzhou, it’s a 13-hour train ride to Dunhuang, costing from 246RMB for a hard sleeper. Rooms at Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse (1389 3763 029), located on the outskirts of the city, start from 30RMB/night for a dorm bed. Their sister establishment, Charley Johng’s Café on Mingshan Lu is also one of the better places to organise tours.

Witness Pingyao’s photography exhibition

When to go: September
Famed for its Unesco-protected old town, Pingyao, located in central Shanxi province, is recognised as one of the best-preserved examples of an ancient Han Chinese walled city in the country. Filled with cobbled streets lined with buildings that date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, the old town is an undeniably photogenic place in itself, but every September it’s also home to a sprawling, anarchic photography exhibition that attracts thousands of entries.

The annual Pingyao International Photography Festival sees professional and amateur photographers from China and beyond exhibit their work on all sorts of surfaces across the city – in ancient temples, converted factories and warehouses and on bridges and walls. The city isn’t particularly selective about the works it displays (though of course, unharmonious photos are removed) and the quality of the shots varies. The festival’s reputation has grown steadily since it was founded in 2001, however, and there’s always some stunning work, often thoughtfully curated, to be found.

Once you’ve gorged on photos, you can experience a feast of a different kind with culinary tour operator Hias Gourmet (www.hiasgourmet.com) who will not only take you around Pingyao’s back streets and hidden alleys, but also lead you through the city’s numerous foodie offerings. These include streetside snacks, Grace Vineyard-paired dinners at boutique hotel Jing’s Residence, and a tour of a local vinegar factory.

Getting there
Return flights to Taiyuan start from 660RMB with China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com). Regular trains from Taiyuan to Pingyao take around 90 minutes and start from 8RMB for a hard seat. Yamen Hostel (www.yamenhostel.com) offers mixed dorm beds from 20RMB/night, while a night in the stunning Qing dynasty Jing’s Residence (www.jingsresidence.com) will set you back upwards of 1,110RMB/night.

Ride along the Karakoram highway

When to go: October
Few people brave the Karakoram Highway even during China’s peak tourist season. The highway, which is the highest paved international road in the world, cuts through incredible scenery to link China with Pakistan. Surrounded by mountains and glaciers, the road is easily accessible from Kashgar and numerous companies now organise tours and trips to the area. Increasing numbers of visitors attempt to do it themselves too, hiring or buying motorbikes in Kashgar and heading out on the road. Whether with or without a guide, you should be prepared for regular and very thorough border checks along the route, with the confiscation of camera memory cards a regular complaint (the area is also a sensitive military zone).

If you are able to smuggle your memory card through however, the scenery is some of the most photogenic in the country, and – the road aside – the region is still largely untouched by manmade structures. The few signs of civilisation you do pass are small Tajik villages or collections of yurts. Despite the desolate nature of the landscape, many of the occupants are willing to give travelers a hot meal and space on the floor for a night, for a small fee. For more official accommodation, Tashkurgan, the last town on the road before the Pakistan border and home to the ruins of a 14th century stone fort, also hosts the comfortable Crown Inn with rooms from 450RMB/night.

Getting there
Return flights to Kashgar start from 5,000RMB with China Eastern. Alternatively, return flights to Urumqi start from 2,000RMB with Spring Airlines. The 25 hour-long train from Kashgar to Urumqi costs from 185RMB for a hard sleeper. Daily buses run from Kashgar to Tashkurgan, contact Kashgar CITS for details on 0889 298 3156. For tours to Karakol Lake and Tashkurgan with an English-speaking guide, contact Waheed Tours (waheedtour@gmail.com).

Scale the heights of Xiling XueShan


When to go: November
A three-hour drive from the buzzing Sichuan city of Chengdu is Huashuiwan, an oddly endearing mock Alpine village, complete with Shetland ponies and fake wooden churches. Although it’s increasingly busy at weekends, an off-peak visit can give you near-exclusive access to the string of picturesque hot spring resorts here. It’s also 40 minutes from Xiling Xueshan, famed as one of China’s best ski resorts.Xiling itself covers an area of 482.8 sqkm. Its peak, Daxuetang, is 5,364 metres above sea level and perennially capped with snow. It was also home to Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, who famously lived in seclusion on its slopes in a thatched house.

Echoes of Narnia are everywhere, with prehistoric forests, sheer precipices and, in the foothills, rare birds and other animals. Visibility on the peaks can be an issue – from the disembarkation point of the first cable car you wade through an ever shifting sea of cloud – but the range of sports make it worth waiting for a clear day; snowboarding, skiing, motor skiing, hot air ballooning, and gliding are all available here.

To trek the mountain only (no skiing), there’s a mind-boggling array of pricing plans depending on how much you want to walk. For a pedestrian car to the highest point and back, expect to pay an expensive 230RMB but the views justify the steep price. In November it’s also worth getting up early to catch the sunrise.

Getting there
Return flights to Chengdu start from around 1,000RMB with CTrip (www.english.ctrip.com). Buses direct to Xiling leave Chengdu’s Jinsha bus station at 8am and 3pm daily for around 30RMB. Buses leave the city’s North and East bus stations also run to Dayi for around 30RMB. From here, local buses or motorbike taxis are available to the hot spring area of Huashuiwan. If using Huashuiwan as your base, be wary of the rip-off upmarket spas.These are located by the entrance and charge upwards of 900RMB/room – often excluding access to the spas themselves if you read the small print. More basic but better value, are the smaller hotels located further into the site; you can haggle these down to as low as 100RMB/ensuite double. Just be sure to avoid going on a weekend and be warned: there are few foreigners, no Western food and few picture menus.

Experience winter Naadam in Hulunbuir


When to go: December
One of the largest and best-preserved grasslands in China, Hulunbuir in Inner Mongolia makes for a less-tourist-infested alternative to the region’s capital Hohhot. In the summer months, you can stay in yurts on the pristine green plateau and admire the sight of herdsmen at work in a landscape that’s almost empty apart from the osbos – shamanistic shrines where locals leave daily offerings including sheep skulls and tinned food. For exploring this remote part of China, try one of the tours from the China Culture Center (www.chinaculturecenter.org), who also take you to a ‘Russian’ village on the border. All of which is great in the spring or autumn, but why visit Hulunbuir during December, when temperatures are regularly 15-20 degrees below freezing?

This is when Hulunbuir hosts a winter Naadam festival, with camel races, sledding and archery taking place in thick snow. Many of the festivities mirror those that take place during the better-known summer Naadam, but against a dramatic backdrop of snow-covered plains. The winter activities are being pushed by a local government keen on upping tourist numbers during the region’s notoriously inhospitable winter months and thus feel somewhat manufactured. But if you can brave the cold, there can be few more unique sights in China than seeing camels tearing across the snow.

Getting there
Given Hulunbuir’s remoteness, getting there from Shanghai is tricky. With no airport of its own, the best way to get to Hulunbuir is to fly to nearby Hailar. Direct flights between Shanghai and Hailar are only available during the summer, but there are regular connections from Beijing year-round. Return flights from Beijing to Hailar with United Airlines (www.united.com) start from 1,000RMB.


Please note All prices and details are correct as of January 2012 but we recommend double checking with travel agents and hotels mentioned before setting off.


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