After living in Beijing for a month, I knew our adventure in China would be no easy deal. We had two weeks to explore the country, and we wanted to see as much as possible in just 14 days. And China is huge, provinces differ from each other so much so we knew it will be a nice intro tour to China rather than exploring deeply. We had no time to lose and having noticed how long it took to just arrange train tickets from Beijing to Shanghai, we decided to ask some tour agencies in China for private tours around the country. Below follow some advice on how to plan a trip to China and our 2-week China itinerary.
Planning a trip to China
Basically, having made the decision to use a travel agency to arrange our trip to China, all we had to do was agree on an itinerary and pay the money. Our itinerary took two weeks and was very active – we never stopped for more than 2 nights in a place, use flights to move faster between provinces, used a night train, and a bus/taxi transportation for some “shorter” distances (300 kilоmeters is considered a tiny short distance in China).
We applied for visas beforehand, and the process is quite different depending on your nationality and purpose of visit. You can use this website to check what you need to get a visa to China.
We did health insurance back home in Bulgaria, and we actually had some hospital experience but we didn’t have to resort to the insurance for reimbursement. Read further to see how public healthcare in China worked for Nace. As for connectivity – get a VPN app if you want to use your regular websites and social media in China – otherwise get used to the Chinese alternatives. Our favorite is the WeChat messaging app.
We found the company Efind Travel on this website. After some huge communication, we finally agreed on the itinerary and the price (don’t forget to bargain). We can’t complain about our private tour in China, it went great and as explained and agreed in our itinerary. We were welcomed by a different guide in every new place we visited and spent just the right amount of time on our own (which we appreciate – when you travel, you need you-time to recap and reflect on your experiences).
One of our favorite apps in China were WeChat, Ctrip, apps for air quality status, etc. There is an extensive list of the best travel apps for China and how to be able to use them over there.
Our two-week itinerary in China
Days 1-2 Beijing and The Great Wall of China
We reunited with Nace and Marti at a subway station somewhere in Beijing and started our China tour with two days in Beijing. I was feeling like a local so I wanted to show them around the best places. Our experiences in the bustling capital included the classics like visiting the Forbidden City, almost getting cheated by cab drivers, drinking not enough baijiu shots, and navigating through the air quality index. We completed our visit to the area with a day along The Great Wall of China. You can read more about what to do in Beijing here.
Days 3-4 Shanghai
We hopped on the high-speed train and we reached Shanghai. Shanghai can be interpreted in many ways. It could be that old-fashioned city from all those action movies, in which killer ladies fling themselves about in front of humble pagodas; or it could be a bundle of skyscrapers, cutting into the sunset. Which is less pretentious – the fashion capital of Asia or just the largest city in China?
We spent a total of fifty hours over two visits in Shanghai and we see it differently now. Here, everyone can find what they’re looking for, even if they only have a day or two. We began with the Old town and Yu Garden. The old part of the city is entirely chaotic – it looks quite a bit like the backdrop to a fight scene in olden China. There are merchants and shouting everywhere, and everyone is on their own mission. The lunacy dissipates a bit on the undulating bridge to the Yu Garden, which, by the way, might be the only really silent and calm place in the entire city of twenty million.
Many regions in the center are called concessions. The explosive economic development coaxed foreigners in and Shanghai thrived on a steady international cultural and demographic flux ever since. In the French Concession, for example, you can walk on the small streets of Tianzifang, where laundry hangs overhead and merchants sell small souvenirs made of cans and silk.
The modern central part of the city could be seen as a charming spot, a sort of transition to commercialization and modernity. Here (the name of the place has been forgotten) you can get together for a bit with friends and try out different types of food. Truly a blessing for the foreigner after a few weeks in China. Malls, malls, expensive hotels and cars, and then malls again. If you haven’t been to East Nanjing Road, you haven’t really experienced Shanghai. You could at least go to the underpass of the metro station Shanghai Railway Station, where you can buy about a hundred pairs of silicon socks or a power bank for 8 euros.
The real treat in Shanghai, however, is The Bund at the Huangpu River and the glorious urban landscape of skyscrapers and lights. Interestingly enough, the views are quite different on the two sides of the river; thankfully, even if the weather isn’t cooperating, the lights will generally pierce the fog and you can see The Bund in all its magnificence, the pearly TV tower, the pedestrian roundabout and enjoy the light breeze and food to fit any taste.
After visiting Beijing and Shanghai, many people head to Xian to explore the terracotta warriors. We decided we would skip it this time, but we’re definitely going back to visit Xian and to climb Mount Hua which is not so far. You can also reach Huangshan – the Yellow Mountain from Shanghai.
Days 5-6 Kunming and Stone Forest
It was time to leave the huge cities and go to the countryside. We fled to Kunming city in the Yunnan province and started our journey there by eating pomelos at the airport (our flight was delayed so we missed lunch). It was time for the “Spring City”, for the Sleeping Beauty Hills, for some hikes in the mountains, for views over Dianchi Lake. We were eager to pass the Dragon’s Gate and find out what lies ahead of us. You can read more about why we loved Kunming so much.
The next morning we drove to Stone Forest. Stone Forest in Yunnan province of China is one of the architectural miracles of nature. Whether you go to admire their shapes or to learn a new legend of luck and prosperity, the Stone Forest won’t disappoint you! They say the lake and all the stone formations are natural with no human touch which is fascinating as people actually live inside the Stone Forest. We put on Sani traditional costumes to feel like the Sani people that once lived and still live in the area. After a decent walk between stone waterfalls, stone elephants and rivers, stones you might get stuck in between, falling stones, and all those stone-ish landscapes with an occasional pagoda, we were ready to go.
Day 7 Dali
The night before we left Kunming on an overnight train to Dali. Overnight trains in China are something to be experienced but not something for the light-hearted. Dali welcomed us with sunny weather and its bustling markets. You could get literally anything on the market, most of the stuff still moving. Dali has its own people – the Bai people, with their own customs and traditions, and also has some great architecture from old times. We enjoyed the day on the streets of Dali and boating on the Erhai Lake, where we met some well-trained cormorants. And the most popular attraction – the Temple with The Three Pagodas. Read our favorite things to do in Dali here.
Day 8 Lijiang
Time to move to Lijiang. Lijiang is one of the few authentic Chinese villages that formed a whole new modern town around themselves. This is the place where 300 Naxi families and their picturesque houses blossom together in a city of 1 million population. The town lies in the tourist industry and more specifically relies on 99% local Chinese tourists and 1% international tourists. That statistic shows how uneasy it is to hear about the little jewel of Baisha Old Town and therefore it remains well-preserved and protects the 400 years of history of the Naxi people.
Lijiang gave us some hope that there might be well-preserved authentic villages in China. A large water mill, narrow canals overlooked by weeping willows and small enough not to fit a boat, wooden buildings with red lanterns, curvy streets leading to amazing views, and colorful scripts. All of those confirmed the charm of China we knew from the exotic photos and tourist books.
We thought we’ll never leave the Old Town because of the limited time we had and because everything was so charming and interesting. Anyway, the new part of the town attracted our attention because of the Public Hospital there. Unfortunately, we had to try its services and contemporary Chinese medicine. The public hospital services are free of charge and of high quality. It took 30 minutes to see the doctor, conduct some tests, receive a diagnosis, and buy medicines. Chinese people complain about the speed of medical treatment! The demand for healthcare must have helped to reach this perfection in medical and hospital services. There is no other way to treat 100 people per hour unless you are fast and effective. Has it ever happened to you that you get the blood test results before you fix your sleeve from blood sampling?
To finish with a happy ending we visited a musical concert with authentic instruments from the golden times of the Naxi culture. All the musicians were very professional and mature and turned out to be very popular in different parts of the world. Folklore music is an interesting highlight that needs bigger audiences locally. Imagine those fairy sounds and voices!
Day 9 Jade Dragon Mountain and Tiger Leaping Gorge
Jade Dragon Mountain and Tiger Leaping Gorge are not just the boisterous names of natural landmarks tucked away somewhere deep in Yunnan territory. These are places to which you must be taken because you just won’t find them on your own. Hopefully, more people can come to know the masterpieces Mother Nature has created in China through these photos. We completed our stay in Lijiang with a visit to Jade Dragon Mountain and an encounter with one of the very few writers that can write in the Naxi language.
We didn’t change our vehicle or our driver, but at some point, the day changed, along the way we picked up a new guide, and somehow we ended up in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the Yangtze River itself flowed right through. So how did the Gorge receive its name? One theory is that it has to with a legend about two tigers – male and female – who had been separated by the Yangtze River and had to cross it or otherwise only ever look upon each other. Thankfully, they found a large rock they could use as a platform, and two five-meter jumps had the male on the other side, with his beloved.
On the way to Shangri-La, we experienced a tiny bit of misrule in these forgotten regions. An old man tried to jump under our van and was then joined by a monk and a company of villagers armed with cleavers. They promptly started negotiating the price our driver would have to pay for this entire deal. Have you ever experienced anything like this? We watched the entire ordeal from the back of the bus and wondered if the police had ever heard of this place and how we’d fare in any such negotiations, had we ourselves been driving the van… Our guide and driver dismissed this mishap as a mere and ordinary annoyance, so we kept on, 1000 yuans poorer and with yet another interesting story to share. The Tibetan culture is slowly enriching the landscape with its colorfulness.
Day 10 Shangri-La
Shangri-La. This isn’t the Chinese version of the Tibetan sacred place, this is the Chinese equivalent of that particular strain of Buddhism, nature, and temperament of the people that live only a 24-hour drive with a 4×4 vehicle away from the autonomous region of Tibet. Geographically speaking, this is still the same region, only on the side of Mainland China. Culture and nature pay no mind to political borders, so thankfully we can experience Tibet without having to leave Mother China.
The name of the town we stayed in is actually Zhongdian but everyone calls it Shangri-La. The town is nestled in between majestic mountains and it carries the chilly mountain atmosphere where you would hike your day out and then get a cup of tea by the fireplaces. We also visited the Songzanlin Monastery (which they say resembles the Tibetan Lhasa Potala Palace). We closed the day with the Xiagei Tibetan Village and the Bita and Shudu Lakes in the Pudacuo Scenic Area. Here is our article about the magical places of Shangri-La.
Days 11-13 Guilin
We flew to Guilin, a city in the province of Guangxi, with a climate of 25 degrees and high humidity. This helped our pains, especially compared to the cold in Shangri-La. It was, in fact, so humid that the Karst growths seemed veiled in mist. The warm weather came with different people in better moods – most had darker skin and smiled more often. Tens of little motorcycles lined up at every streetlight and the flip-flops on the sidewalk reminded one of Southeast Asia.
Our first night there was marked by a long walkway by the river canal, twinkling little houses on islands and boats, pagodas on the water, warmth, and romance, and in the end, we found lodging in a hostel, where we ate Western pizza and watched Western movies. On our second night, the rain came down upon the city. We were hungry from our full-day excursion to the Longji Terrace Fields, so, after having found out that we couldn’t order food from the hostel, we engaged in a search for the famed pedestrian street of shops and restaurants. We couldn’t find it, slow as we were since we wore flip-flops so as not to wet our shoes. Those flip-flops slipped everywhere, and as we the pale-faced squelched about like penguins on the wet sidewalk, everyone else slapped carelessly away in their rubber sandals. For the third time, we found shelter in Pizza Hut. This time we had to wait 50 minutes before we could grab the cutlery and remember what “European food” tastes like. Finally, we took our chances with the taxis in Guilin. It turned out to be a much more agreeable experience than the one we had in Beijing.
If you want to visit the famous Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie Park that inspired the Avatar movie, you can actually get there from Guilin and Yangshuo. Here’s a comprehensive guide to Tianmen Mountain.
Fate was with us on the third night. After failing many times to enter the main shopping street, we met a student who took us to the right entrance. It turned out the liveliest part was right under our noses. We had a Western dinner and engaged in people-watching from a corner cafe. After a quick chronological survey of the dinners, we spent about a day and a half visiting the more prominent landmarks – Elephant Trunk Hill (a symbol of Guilin), Fubo Hill, and Reed Flute Cave. Last but definitely not least – we’ve spotted so many people practicing tai chi (or taiji) in the many parks and green areas of Guilin. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…
With a modest population of six million; nature thrives within the city; the locals seem content and healthy – what more can anyone living in China ask for? If you’ve already made up your mind, then check this article with things to do in Guilin so you can plan your trip to this pearl of Southern China!
Day 12 Li River cruise, Longji Terraced Fields, and Yao village
Here we are in the area of karst topography. The province is Guangxi, we start from the city of Guilin and we were taken by bus to Zhujiang Wharf. This port was our starting point for the Lijiang river cruise to Yangshuo. Then we sailed away to a new utopian world… The weather was against us so it started drizzling and then pouring while will were sailing the Li river. We reached the port of Yangshuo soaked but very mesmerized by the picturesque views. No wonder they used the view from the Li river for the 20 Yuan banknote.
The terrace fields called Longsheng Rice Terraces are at a two-hour picturesque drive through the mountains from Guilin. They cover an area of about 66 square kilometers, so, unfortunately, we cannot really say which terraces we visited. Still, despite the disagreeable weather, the place was incredible. Perhaps the prayers of the long-haired women from the Yao ethnic minority in the special village of Huangluo were heard and rain fell to water the crops.
We were mesmerized by the warm welcome the ladies gave us. They run the whole village, having organized a couple of souvenirs stalls, and a big performance hall where they entertain visitors. We watched a show full of dance, singing, and demonstration of different skills they have – e.g. rowing, knitting, and carrying heavy loads. They even allow some guys to “marry” them – just for the fun and to show everyone their wedding rituals.
It’s still a mystery how their hairs grow so long and shiny. Is it something they eat or drink, or is it their lifestyle as a whole? Yao women’s hair is an essential part of the show – they brush it, comb it, style it – it’s a fine art to put 2 meters of hair in order. Depending on their marital status, Yao women also wear their hair in a different style – with a single/double bun on top of the head, with/without a cloth covering the whole hair. At the end of the show, we joined the Yao ladies for a traditional dance that is danced hand to hand in a circle. It was the final celebration of being in the Kingdom of the Long Hairs in China.
China – the country you’ll need a lifetime to explore
It is true China is so vast and full of different places, people, and experience that you’ll need much more than half a month to explore it. We offered you our suggestions on how to plan a trip to P.R.C. and our two-week China tour itinerary. We hope you enjoyed it and got inspired to visit that unbelievable and huge chunk of the planet!
Do let us know your suggestions on other experiences and things to do in China. We will put them on our itinerary for our next visit! Xièxiè! 謝謝
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