China is an enormous country. The world’s most populous nation is a case study in contradiction. Gleaming skyscrapers dot the Shanghai skyline while the garrison at Jiayuguan has guarded the country’s western approaches since the Ming Dynasty. Time seems frozen in Shangri-La, deep in remote Yunnan Province. Beijing’s modern architecture rises above centuries old, densely-packed hutongs. Everywhere you go you find a country constantly moving towards the future yet never managing to escape its past. In this short guide, we provide our recommendations to those places that captured our imagination. Places that stuck in our heart and minds long after we left. This is our insider’s travel guide to contemporary China.
- Guilin and Yangshuo
- Xiahe County
There’s an old saying that though Beijing may be China’s capital, Shanghai thinks it is. Shanghai’s hyper-confident attitude is unmistakable. It runs from the modern financial center in Lujiazui, along the waterfront at the historic Bund, and through the elegant neighborhoods in the Former French Concession. Make sure you spend a bit of time in all these locations. Walk along stately Wukang Avenue and pop in for a coffee or maybe croissant at one of the cafes in Ferguson Lane. See the art district along Moganshan Road and visit the Natural History Museum. There’s great shopping in Jing’an and springtime flowers in Century Park. Give yourself 3-4 days and really get to know this dynamic metropolis.
Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall. These unmistakable landmarks make Beijing a must-visit destination for any first-time visitor to China. Nowhere else will you get a better sense for the pulse of China than in Beijing. Whether it’s wandering the enormous National Museum of China or hobnobbing in the diplomatic quarter, you’ll quickly discover why countless young people seek their fortune in the capital. Allot yourself a day for the Forbidden City and a day for the trip out to the Great Wall. You’ll want another day for the major museums and the 798 Art District. Don’t forget the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace. You can easily spend the better part of a week here and still find yourself scrambling to take it all in.
Xi’an in central Shaanxi Province is famous for the fabled Terracotta Warriors, arguably China’s second most important historical attraction after the Forbidden City. The Terracotta Army is part of the massive Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. Give yourself a day to explore here. In downtown Xi’an, walk along the famous old city walls and visit Daming Palace National Heritage Park. In the evening stroll the city’s historic Muslim Quarter, home to many from China’s minority Hui ethnic group. Enjoy the fabulous noodles, breads, and soups on offer before wandering past the icon Drum and Bell Towers, which are simply spectacular at night. A fair recommendation is to allow yourself three days in Xi’an. Bonus: take a daytrip to nearby Mount Hua, one of China’s so-called “Five Great Mountains.”
Guilin and Yangshuo
China is full of amazing natural wonders. Few places evince this more than Guilin and Yangshuo, whose landscapes are dominated by incredible karst formations. Allow yourself a day to explore Guilin city where you can wander the impressive Guilin Two Rivers & Four Lakes Scenic Area and see the lovely Sun and Moon Pagodas. Explore Reed Flute Cave and learn about the region’s geology. Take a day to book a trip down the Li River to Yangshuo so you can see the true majesty on offer. Take pictures with your fellow Chinese travelers when they point out the exact location featured on the country’s 20 RMB banknote. Bonus: travel to nearby Fenghuang Ancient Town (aka Pheonix Old Town) and see the preserved Qing Dynasty-era city with its classic architecture.
If natural landscapes are your thing, Zhangjiajie makes a strong case as one of China’s best destinations. Tucked into northwest Hunan Province, the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park served as inspiration for the fictional Hallelujah Mountains in the 2009 blockbuster film Avatar. Allot yourself at least one day for the Forest Park, a massive area set within the larger Wulingyuan Scenic Area, a UNSESCO World Heritage Site. Explore the valley and ride the world’s tallest outdoor elevator up for a view on the canyon rim. Spend a second day exploring the famed Tianmen Mountain with its long ascending staircase and natural stone arch. Zhangjiajie has a developed tourist infrastructure with plenty of accommodation. You can easily visit the parks and return to town for dining and activities.
Dunhuang, in far Western Gansu Province, is a strategic town located along the ancient Silk Road trading routes to Central Asia. Perched on the edge of the Gobi desert, it’s a world away from the lush green lands found in China’s coastal provinces. Today, Dunhuang attracts visitors to the famous Mogao Caves, a vast complex cut into the soft rock hills that contains some of the finest Buddhist art produced during the first millennium CE. Give yourself a day here. Tickets are required and only a small portion of the caves is open any particular day. Give yourself another day to visit the Singing Sand Dunes and Crescent Lake, a beautiful expanse where you can hike the massive sand dunes and take a camel ride. It’s as if the ancient Silk Road was still there.
Tucked deep in the foothills leading to the Tibetan Plateau, Xiahe is home to Labrang Monastery, a revered site of spiritual learning for Tibetan Buddhism. Historically this area was part of Tibet and Tibetan people living here maintain a deep connection with their culture. As far as tourist sites go, this is far less frequented by Western visitors than other places we’ve profiled. It’s just the sort of destination for someone looking to have an adventure a bit off the beaten path. Walk the pilgrim trail circumnavigating the monastery. Several spots along the way offer a beautiful overlook across the narrow quarters where monks can be seen chanting on balconies. Give yourself at least a day here to really take it all in and enjoy the slower pace of life.
Long synonymous with paradise, Shangri-La first entered Western imagination in 1933 when Frank Hilton penned Lost Horizon. Hilton’s vivid description of a fictional land inspired generations of travelers, particular after the 1937 screen adaptation from legendary director Frank Capra. The real Shangri-La City is found in remote Yunnan Province near the border with Myanmar. It’s every bit as spectacular as you might imagine. Lush grasslands stretch clear to the horizon and fill with wildflowers in the spring and summer. Fresh water streams run down from the Himalayas. The magnificent parallel gorges created by the Hengduan Mountains contain entire ecosystems of diverse flora and fauna. If there were a Garden of Eden, one would not be surprised if it looked like Shangri-La.
One of the westernmost cities in all China, Kashgar is a world away from Beijing both geographically and culturally. The Uyghur people who predominate the region are ethnolinguistically Turkish and closer in relation to Central Asians than Han Chinese. This has led to sporadic ethic-based conflict since the Qing Dynasty incorporated Xinjiang into its territory. Today, Kashgar is a bustling city with some of the best preserved displays of Uyghur culture. The Id Kah Mosque is the largest Islamic house of worship in China. The maze of alleyways in Kashgar Old City fill with the smells of baking bread and stewed lamb. If you want a special adventure, take the Karakorum Highway up to the border with Pakistan and back. It’s a real travel adventure!
Tibet’s capital and largest city is not the easiest place to reach. Travel restrictions make it difficult for Western tourists to move around. The entire province can suddenly close without warning during sensitive events or periods of tension. That said, the Chinese government has expended considerable resources on improving air and rail connections to Lhasa. It is now possible to take a train from Shanghai to Lhasa (though we don’t recommend doing this in one go). Westerners traveling to Lhasa need to book an organized group tour with a state-approved travel agency. Once there, you won’t be able to travel outside the urban areas. This allows you to see the spectacular Potala Palace and the famous Barkhor neighborhood, however. As the spiritual home of Tibetan Buddhism, Lhasa remains a stunningly beautiful destination.
China’s transformation within the span of a generation is nothing short of miraculous. Saying the pace of change is rapid drastically understates the reality on the ground in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Through it all, however, the country has maintained an intimate connection with its history and culture, be it the spectacular Buddhist cave art in Dunhuang or natural majesty in Guilin. The places we’ve profiled here are sure to delight any traveler, even seasoned Sinophiles. We know you are going to enjoy this insider’s travel guide to great destinations in China.