China has been on our bucket list for a long time but, let’s be honest, it is such a huge country that needs proper time to visit.
That’s why until this gap year, we had never really found the perfect break to devote our yearly two weeks holiday to it.
So it’s not a surprise that, with more time for travelling, we have immediately signed up for it.
Plus, we managed to do that as part of the mythical Trans-Mongolian rail trip.
Discover how we chose our itinerary in China
China – how to choose your itinerary
Watch our Vlog on Chinese cities: Episode 4
Immediately after we started thinking about which part of China we chose to explore, it was quite clear that even with a full month we had tough decisions to make.
How to plan for such a huge country as China?
Planning a trip on your own is sometimes not an easy task and often requires a lot of reading, searching, discussing and changing your mind. And then start again.
The first step for us (or I should say for Sara…) was to tuck into a good travel guide (Lonely Planet in this case) and compiling the first list of things we would have liked to do, in a priority order. This merged then with some other travel inspirations we could find browsing online.
After this exercise, Sara had pins all over the map of China and it was quite clear that our priority list needed some serious trim down.
Once bottomed down to a more manageable number of stops, Sara started shaping a proper itinerary, checking the best travel connection options, related costs as well as weather conditions and the time of the journey.
This exercise led to a further selection, leaving us with a plan to finalise, but quite conscious of the choices we had made.
What was our final itinerary?
1. Start from North
The first stop – Beijing
The entry gate could not be anywhere but Beijing, as this represents the final stop of the Trans-Mongolian adventure.
We planned for a couple of days here, giving us the time to devote a full one to the Forbidden City.
After that, we went for the Great Wall.
We knew this would have been one of the main highlights of the trip and we did not choose a daily tour from the capital to the restored touristic section but 2 nights stay at Gubeikou.
Gubeikou is a village over 2 hours drive from Beijing and where we could explore two different stretches of the wall at our own pace and far from the crowds.
The second stop – PingYao
Pingyao is a highly recommended old traditional Chinese village easy to reach by bullet train.
We spent 1 full day here exploring the old town and enjoying the street food and then we made our way to Xi’An.
The third stop – Xi’An
Xi’an is a must for everyone interested in Chinese history, so we do suggest to schedule a couple of nights here and bearing in mind one full day will need to be devoted to the amazing Terracotta Army site.
2. Go down SouthWest
The fourth stop – Zhangjiajie
After all this city sightseeing and history, we needed some time into nature and we flew to Zhangjiajie, aka the national park that is thought to have inspired James Cameron’s floating Pandora in Avatar.
Our personal opinion is that yes, this place and its tall rock pinnacles absolutely looks like Pandora on earth and should not be missed for any reasons. But… tourism here is fierce and you’ll need to hike and sweat a bit to properly enjoy this place.
Here you can find our guide to walking the Zhangjiajie Natural park avoiding the crowds, we could not find any information in English online!
The fifth stop – Fenghuang
From Zhangjiajie we stretched by bus to Fenghuang, another unmissable old village and finally got to the Chinese region we probably liked most, the Guanxi.
The sixth stop – Guanxi
Here the main highlights are karts mountain and river landscapes that seem like a painting and the amazing Longji rice terraced fields, where you can spend two days hiking among the main two villages in the area.
3. Finish with the most Westernised Cities
The seventh stop – Shanghai and Hong Kong
After almost two weeks lost in more rural China, we then headed back to complete our trip visiting the international cities of Shanghai and, outside of any visa requirement, Hong Kong.
What we thought we would have found?
A chaotic but modern country, friendly people, a very distant culture, amazing food, history and stunning nature.
What we actually discovered?
China is probably the most chaotic country we have visited so far. The number of people is overwhelming and their cultural habits are yet very different from ours.
It can be sometimes a bit exhausting travelling through the country not knowing Chinese but it is an incredible adventure.
And people are indeed very friendly and willing to communicate and help.
But, nevertheless, China is still a world apart that has only been westernised and modernised in the surface, still holding a very strong traditional heritage you will have to understand and face.
Food is good but the overall culinary experience has been a bit underwhelming for us as we expected more variety and flavours on our way. Probably not having access to many local people made the difference in experiencing the best part of the Chinese cuisine.
Nature is indeed incredible, with some unique landscapes we have never seen anywhere else.
When to go?
Weather and temperatures are something we strongly suggest you also take into consideration.
We chose August thinking that the heat would have been no worse than some southern part of Europe… Well, I have to say we clearly underestimated the level of humidity you can experience in the Chinese summer.
So, especially for those willing to hike around, take this into consideration.
Same for the winter months: bear in mind that the North of China can become extremely cold with snow.