For some travellers, China evokes images of crowded tourist sites, congested traffic, polluted air, and local charm lost to infrastructure. Research carefully, however, and you’ll discover that much of China moves with a different rhythm, maintaining a traditional way of life. Rice is planted by hand and tilled by plough, ethnic minorities dress in traditional costumes, and ancient houses remain hidden in quiet valleys. And with Hong Kong as a base, exploring this vast country with 5,000 years of history and civilisation has never been easier. Here, local travel experts Country Holidays provide pointers on exploring China’s hidden gems.
The capital of China for the past 600 years, Beijing is the perfect place to jog through the country’s modern history and culture, from the renowned Forbidden City to the lovely Summer Palace, and – a short drive from the centre – the greatest man-made structure in the world, the Great Wall. Listen to tales of old Beijing on a rickshaw ride through the traditional hutong alleyways, and take your little ones to experience the favourite childhood pastimes of cricket fighting, kite flying and Chinese paper-cutting. Enjoy a picnic hike to an unrestored section of the Great Wall, away from crowds, or stay in a nearby village house to experience authentic village life.
A two-hour flight from Beijing, Xi’an is the oldest of the four great ancient capitals of China, the starting point of the Silk Road and home to the Terracotta Warriors – thousands of life-sized soldiers each with different facial expressions, all companions for the burial of the first emperor of China. Visit Hanyang Tomb, the joint tomb of the fourth emperor of the Western Han Dynasty and his Empress, and go behind the scenes of the restoration work with the experts. Kids can learn about its history by getting a hands-on experience of a real excavation of historical ruins in a simulated project.
Yunnan is home to some of China’s most spectacular mountain scenery and three of Asia’s mightiest rivers, resulting in the formation of breathtaking gorges and lush river valleys. It’s also the most ethnically diverse area in the country – home to 25 of China’s 56 ethnic groups, from the Mosuo, Dai and Naxi to the Tibetans in ShangriLa. Highlights include exploring the ancient town of Lijiang, tracing the ancient Tea Horse Road with the snow-capped Jade Dragon Mountain in constant sight, enjoying a “tea spa” experience in the Jingmai Mountains, and retreating to a quiet farm village in Ringha for the ultimate glamping experience.
Guilin & Yangshuo
For centuries, Guilin has inspired works of art and literature with its awe-inspiring scenery and the unsurpassed beauty of the Li River. For an unconventionally intimate way of cruising down the river, take a private bamboo raft to quieter sections of the waterway, close to local life, gliding past limestone peaks, green paddies and villages. Trek the Long Sheng Rice Terraces and through ethnic minority villages. Time your visit during the harvest season from September to November for golden views of the paddy fields.
Explore a lesser-known section of this ancient trade route in Gansu Province, and evoke exotic images of long caravans stretching across vast dunes and dusty travellers relaxing in the shade of a desert oasis. Gansu is also home to the very western end of the Great Wall. Luxuriate in wilderness tents and cabins in the monastic town of Labrang, enjoy hikes, horse treks and camel rides, visit restricted-access grottoes in the Mogao Caves, fly over the vibrant colours of Rainbow Mountain and sip on sundowners in the dunes of the Gobi Desert.
Hidden behind the mighty Himalayas, Tibet is one of the most captivating places on earth. Starting from the fascinating holy capital of Lhasa, journey through a superlative landscape crossing 5,000m passes and endless barren plateaus to experience the smaller Tibetan townships. Our tip: travel in winter to avoid the crowds (especially at Potala Palace) and instead enjoy blue skies and snow-capped mountain views, along with the colourful dress of mountain nomads who gather in Lhasa at this time. Sichuan The heartland of inland China, this southwestern province is home to the national treasure, the giant panda, the unique and disappearing performing art of Bian Lian (“face changing”), intensely spicy cuisine, cliffs of carved Buddhas, sacred Mount Emei and the natural wonders of the Jiuzhai Valley. It also contains a stretch of the Yangzi River, allowing you to cruise through the Three Gorges and explore the history and local life by the river.
Country Holidays offers bespoke holidays to China and beyond, with English-speaking guides, private vehicles and flexibility to suit families or couples. Their travel specialists, who personally visit the locations, can be contacted at 2525 9199 or firstname.lastname@example.org | countryholidays.com.hk
This article first appeared in the 2016/17 edition of Expat Living‘s City Guide. Subscribe now so you don’t miss an issue!
Want more ideas for travel in Asia?