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It’s almost impossible to run out of things to do in China.
Whatever your notions are of China, whatever images you’ve built in your head through films and stories, leave them behind. This is a county the size of a continent, with a population of 1.4 billion people, and both the landscape and the cultures are every bit as diverse, mystifying and thrilling as you’d expect.
The landscapes range from tropical jungle to snowy mountain range, and its citizens encompass Muslim Uighurs in the western deserts, Tibeto-Burman Buddhists in the Himalayas, and Mongolian nomads in the northern steppes. Over millennia of rich history, the nation has produced wonders as diverse as the Great Wall of China and Sichuan cuisine, and its culture and philosophy have shaped much of the Eastern world. For the first-time visitor, it’s a bewildering prospect. Where do you begin?!
Don’t worry. When it comes to things to do in China, we’ve got all the knowledge you need and more…
Soak up some history on the Great Wall
Is there any structure more iconic in the whole of Asia? Lists of things to do in China may vary, but no trip is complete until you’ve walked the Great Wall. This may come as a surprise, but the wall isn’t actually one gigantic barrier between north and south. In reality it’s many different walls, some rolling on for hundreds of miles, others for far shorter stretches, all erected over a period of roughly 1700 years.
The 5,500 kilometres of wall that remain from the original 13,000 mean your options are super varied. You can hike across remote, crumbling sections that have been partially reclaimed by nature over the centuries (Jinshanling, Gubeikou), or you can head out on a day trip to the beautifully maintained ramparts close to Beijing (Juyongguan, Mutianyu). However you do it, the Great Wall lives up to its billing as one of the wonders of the world.
When to visit?
Winter is beautiful but freezing (as cold as -20C), while summer is boiling and pricey. Spring and autumn work best – lower prices, fewer tourists, and reasonable temperatures. Definitely avoid China’s ‘Golden Week’, from late September to early October. The entire population has this week off work and goes on holiday – and many will visit the Great Wall.
Sample the street food in Chengdu
Tongue-tingling Sichuan pepper, barbecued Chuanchuan skewers and bubbling cauldrons of hotpot: whether you’re a committed foodie or ‘quick slice of toast on the fly’ sort, Chengdu’s street food scene will have you salivating. Named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2010, Chengu is the place to experience world-famous Sichuan cuisine, arguably the most-loved of China’s eight regional cuisines. Watch out though – it’s the spiciest food you’ll eat in the country.
Almost every street in Chengdu is packed with stalls selling fresh food, and excellent restaurants abound. Check out Kuan and Zhai alley on an evening for a culinary blitz; the whole street resembles on large, open restaurant and yet (somehow) the atmosphere remains relaxed. Wenshuyuan Street may be the best spot in the city for quintessential Chengdu tastes, however. You can barely take a step without being distracted by the aroma of sizzling treats in spicy Sichuan sauce.
Mix Terracotta warriors with rural crafts in Xi’an
Once the capital of the Western Han dynasty and the starting point of the legendary Silk Road, Xi’an (pronounced ‘Shee-ahn’) is an ancient city in central China in which the 2000-year-old Terracotta Army resides. One of China’s most popular destinations, the uncanny sight of endless ranks of clay warriors standing guard over the emperor in the afterlife for all eternity is definitely reason enough to visit. However, for those seeking something a little off the beaten track, we’ve got a couple of tricks up our sleeves.
Discover a different side to China’s oldest capital on a jeep tour of the blacksmiths’ forges, art districts and paper-making workshops of Xi’an and the countryside beyond. By taking a craft tour of the city and its surrounds, you can meet with traditional craftsmen and local artists, drive through old villages in the Shaanxi province, learning about the area’s thriving artistic community on every corner. Trips such as this are a fantastic way to become immersed in a China that few tourists are lucky enough to discover.
Marvel at the landscape in Guizhou
Guizhou province is one of the most colourful places in China. Lonely Planet describes journeying through the area as ‘an anthropological dream sequence’, due to the rich cultural differences that emerge with each passing village. There are more ethnic minorities here than anywhere else in China. Travellers seeking to leave the tourist trail and view a little-known side of China will be besotted.
Roving between rice terraces, you’ll see picture-perfect Maio villages perched atop green hilltops, and the adorable clustered homes of farming communities nestled cosily between enormous forested mounds rising from the earth. It’s the sort of landscape that, were you to paint it, would come across twee and overly romantic. In Guizhou, however, it’s real. The crowning jewel is Mount Fanjing, which you may not have heard of but will likely recognise. It’s two temples, joined by a stone bridge, sitting atop a gargantuan pillar of rock above the clouds. There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
Watch acrobatics in Shanghai
Feeling sleepy? Fancy a spike in your adrenaline levels? Head to Shanghai Circus World to have some vitality zapped back into you. The ‘ERA Intersection of Time’ is a stunning acrobatic show combining Chinese history and martial arts. Expect barnstorming special effects with lashings of heart-stopping stunts. What’s not to love?
The show tells the story of China’s evolution into the giant it is today. Beginning with the ancient Han Dynasty, it runs straight through to modern achievements, then looks to the future. Everything is touched on, from the role of porcelain jars in daily life down the centuries, to China’s first manned space mission – and all presented with plenty of zesty acrobatics. It’s hard not to be stirred by the dazzling light show, outlandish costumes and rousing live music of the show: perfect family entertainment.
Hike the Yellow Mountains
Huangshan, meaning ‘Yellow Mountain’, is a dramatic mountain range in eastern China. Regarded by locals as ‘the loveliest mountain in China’, the range has been featured in art and literature for millennia. In fact, there are few prints that haven’t taken inspiration from the peaks and valleys of the Yellow Mountains. Today, poets, painters and photographers still journey thousands of miles to see the remarkable site, renowned for its countless granite peaks, shooting up like spears from an ocean of clouds.
Follow in the footsteps of dreamers and philosophers, and take a hike among the hot springs, waterfalls, caves and temples of China’s most celebrated mountain range. There’s a host of options available, from day trips to hiking routes that involve staying on the mountain itself. Even a photograph of the UNESCO Yellow Mountains can take one’s breathe away; imagine what they’ll look like in as you’re stood on their peaks looking down. Some views are almost too beautiful to comprehend.