Despite being the third largest country in the world, we’ve always seen China as something of an enigmatic kingdom. From the seemingly infinite 4,000-mile-long Great Wall which features on bucket lists worldwide, to the rice terraces in Longsheng and Chengdu’s charming pandas, there is simply so much to explore. We recently sent our Asia specialist Pete out to experience it in all its glory.
Having spent a lot of time travelling around all parts of Asia in recent years, China was one of the few remaining places for me to visit. When the opportunity came up to delve beneath the surface of this enormous and fascinating destination, I jumped at the chance. It’s fair to say I didn’t know quite what to expect when arriving into China, and unlike other countries I have been to there was some nervous trepidation before I got there. Fears over the language barrier and communicating with the locals quickly disappeared when I was met by my guide Jack at Beijing Airport. From the first day to the last, all of the guides were exceptional and did a fantastic job of teaching me about this mesmerising country.
My journey followed a route starting in Beijing and finishing up in Shanghai, with stops along the way in Xian, Chengdu, Yangshuo and Longsheng. I got an incredible insight into the rich ancient history of China, as well as seeing how parts of the country are developing into modern metropolises like Shanghai. As it’s the third largest country in the world, on any trip to China you have to be prepared to cover large distances. For the most part, you will move around by internal flights, but there is an ever improving network of high-speed trains too, which operate at speeds equal to the famous bullet trains in Japan, and offer a great alternative to flying.
No visit to China is complete without exploring Beijing, and the highlight for me, like most people, was the trip out to the Great Wall. Badaling, Mutianyu and Jinshanling are the three main sites from which to explore the wall, and the size of the crowd diminishes as you move further away from the city centre. I travelled to the Mutianyu section, which is around one and a half hours’ drive out. Here you will find long stretches of the wall that have been restored, allowing you to spend time trekking along the wall and admiring the stunning landscape around you.
After a few nights in Beijing I jumped on a high-speed train to Xi’An, where I was able to visit the site of the Terracotta Army – something I’d long wished to do. The army, which is a collection of almost 9,000 sculptures that depict the first Emperor of China’s army, was buried with the Emperor in order to protect him during the afterlife. The scale of the site was much larger then I had expected and it really didn’t disappoint. What I didn’t know before my visit was that each of the warriors is completely unique; the attention to detail on each statue is mind-blowing. The warriors themselves are actually only a fraction of what is a huge site and an ongoing project that will take many more years of excavation.
My first internal flight brought me to Chengdu. Unlike Beijing and Xi’an, there is comparatively less English spoken in Chengdu, but being with an excellent guide this wasn’t an issue. My time in Chengdu was focussed on seeing the pandas – there are various panda research centres dotted around the outskirts of Chengdu. If you are limited on time, then the Panda Breeding Centre located just 15km from the centre of Chengdu is the best option. As you might expect, the centre is incredibly popular and does get very busy as the day goes on, so it is best to plan to be here early in the morning.
From here, a short flight brought me to Guilin; after exploring a few cities back to back, it was great to get out into the countryside. After a stop at the Reed Flute Cave, we arrived into Yangshuo and were greeted by scenery unlike anything I’ve seen before. Having previously visited Halong Bay in Vietnam, I had a vision of something similar, but in Yangshuo everything is on a much larger scale. The limestone karst scenery seems to go on forever and ever. Sitting on my balcony overlooking the Yulong River and being surrounded by this incredible scenery was a truly memorable experience. While in Yangshuo you can take the relaxed approach and enjoy a tranquil bamboo rafting experience along the Yulong River, or for the more adventure-minded, you can head off on long mountain bike rides or go out rock climbing.
Next up we made the journey to the rice terraces in Longsheng, which takes a few hours but is well worth the effort. We drove to a small village called Hangyuo, where we stopped to have a wander around the village and meet the local hill tribes. The last leg of the journey from Hangyuo into the rice terraces is a scenic 30-minute walk, so we left our main luggage stored safely in the village and took with us only what we needed for the night in Longsheng. Overlooking the rice terraces themselves is a tiny village called Ping’An, which is home to some small lodge-style properties – Li An Lodge is our favourite. While staying in Longsheng we headed out to hike the Dragon’s Backbone, which is a famous walk around the terraces taking in various viewpoints along the way.
My adventure around China finished in Shanghai. I am a big fan of Asian cities, and was excited to see what this modern mega-city would be like. Although Beijing is the capital, it feels light years behind Shanghai in terms of its development. There is plenty of western influence in Beijing, but not on the scale of Shanghai. While there, I headed out on a cycling trip around the backstreets of the city, which really lets you scratch beneath the surface. We made stops at small eateries that are popular with construction workers (a huge industry in a city that is constantly growing upwards and outwards) as well as being taken into local homes. Visiting Shanghai now lets you experience a real mix of old and new, but as the city continues to modernise I do wonder if it will lose a bit of its identity.
My trip around China gave me an excellent first taste of this huge and diverse country. It was the perfect mix: old and new, urban and rural, culture and scenery. There is still so much of the country I have to explore, but that is the beauty of this enigmatic kingdom.