When picturing China, certain sites and attractions spring to mind – the Great Wall of China, the Terracotta Army, the energetic streets of Beijing and Shanghai, and the mellow countryside with its swirls of rice terraces.
Planning a trip to China with Audley means you can experience all of this, but with our specialists’ first-hand knowledge, we can also show you another side to this deeply traditional yet fast-changing country.
Below, some of our China specialists recommend places and activities to suit a variety of interests, whether you want to stay in a characterful property, explore the local culture or enjoy the country’s busiest attractions away from the crowds.
If you like... history by Alice
Buddha statues, Yungang Grottoes, Shanxi Province
Built during the 5th and 6th centuries, the Longmen and Yungang Grottoes house tens of thousands of intricately carved Buddha statues. Visiting with my private guide, I was able to gain far more insight into their creation than I would if visiting alone, and had the flexibility of visiting at a quieter time, when the atmosphere was at its most peaceful and contemplative.
While staying in or near Xian, you’re likely to visit the Terracotta Army. However, I’d also recommend visiting the quieter Hanyangling Tombs on the outskirts of Xian. Nicknamed the ‘Little Terracotta Warriors’, they’re smaller but as intricately carved as the Terracotta Army. The thousands of figurines are part of Emperor Jingdi’s tomb, who ruled here between 188 and 141 BC. I particularly enjoyed walking right over the exquisitely carved statuettes on glass walkways.
If you like… local arts by Alice
The Temple of Heaven, Beijing
Head to the park at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven for a taste of traditional Tai Chi. Arriving early in the morning, you can watch locals practising their moves and enjoying other activities such as badminton, dancing and fencing. I enjoyed a private Tai Chi class with Master Wu, who taught me the basics in this relaxing pastime, rewarding me at the end with a delicious mooncake (a traditional pastry filled with red bean paste).
Another local art to discover is calligraphy, which has a history in China spanning many centuries. In Xian, we can arrange for you to take part in a 30 minute class with a private teacher in the peaceful setting of the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. You’ll learn about the history of calligraphy before having a go yourself, using traditional ink and brushes on special Xuanzhi paper.
If you like... walking and trekking by Cheryl
Jinshanling section, Great Wall of China
Stretching 21,196 km (13,171 miles), the Great Wall of China features on many visitors’ wish lists. Three visitor-friendly sections are accessible from Beijing, but rather than visiting the two nearest, I recommend taking a two hour private car journey to the far quieter Jinshanling section. Much of the wall is original here, and I was able to walk along it in peace, taking photographs of the surrounding mountains without people obstructing the view.
I also recommend hiking on Yellow Mountain (Huangshan), where twirls of pine-covered granite rise high into the sky, attracting many domestic and international visitors. To escape the crowds, I trekked to the summit and stayed in a simple guesthouse. Waking early the next morning, I watched as the sun rose over the mountains and wisps of cloud below, turning the sky pink and yellow.
If you like... beautiful scenery by Cheryl
Li River, Yangshuo
When it comes to Chinese rivers, the Yangtze usually springs to mind. However, I think the lesser-known Li River offers equally impressive scenery, with limestone karsts rising from the water. To best appreciate its beautiful surroundings, take a four-to-five hour boat cruise from Guilin to the town of Yangshuo. Passing farmers tending to their rice paddies and water buffalo bathing in the river gives you a real insight into life in rural China. I recommend staying away from the crowds at Yangshuo Mountain Retreat on the outskirts of the town.
Of all of China’s national parks, I’d choose to visit Hunan province’s Zhangjiajie National Forest Park for its expanse of quartz-sandstone pillars, some standing over 1,000 m (3,281 ft) tall. Walking through these dramatic pinnacles is an incredible experience, and it’s easy to see how the landscape inspired the fictional world of Avatar. The best views are at sunrise, when the pillars appear to rise from the mist.
If you like... getting away from it all by Sophie
The Songtsam Retreat, Zhongdian
Fifteen minutes outside of Zhongdian, the Songtsam Retreat is set just behind the Tibetan Songzanlin Monastery. I found it was a very peaceful, spiritual place; far from the bustle of China’s modern cities. My room, furnished in a Tibetan style, had views out to the 17th-century monastery and the surrounding mountains. To avoid the crowds, a visit in the early morning or evening is recommended.
Another option is to head to Longji, whose ‘Dragon’s Backbone’ rice terraces are some of the best in the country, and very popular with visitors. I suggest staying overnight in Li-An Lodge, set high in the mountains overlooking the rippling terraces. The small number of rooms creates a peaceful atmosphere, matching your surroundings. Take a sunrise or sunset walk for undisturbed views of the terraces and villagers working the fields. Alternatively, we can arrange guided walks to the local villages.
If you like... characterful accommodation by Sophie
Red Wall Garden Hotel, Beijing
While it’s in the heart of Beijing, the Red Wall Garden Hotel is set in the tree-lined historic district of Shijia Hutong. Full of traditional Chinese character, I particularly liked its Courtyard Bistro Teahouse, where you can enjoy authentic tea ceremonies each day as the in-house tea master tells you about the country’s 4,000-year-old history of tea making.
Regular evening performances of folk music, shadow play and face changing operas give you an insight into Chinese culture, and the award-winning restaurant serves dishes based on popular Beijing street food.
If you like... trying traditional cuisine by Sophie
Hotpots have been cooked in China for over 1,000 years, so I definitely wanted to try one during my visit. They vary between different regions, but all share the same concept: a large pot of broth is heated in the middle of a table, and raw ingredients such as meats, mushrooms, seafood and vegetables are added until cooked. It’s a social affair, with everyone around the table digging in.
The spicy Chongqing hotpot I tried is popular throughout the Sichuan region, particularly in the capital, Chengdu, where hotpot restaurants are found on nearly every street. The quality of these can vary hugely, but your private guide can take you to the best spots. Sichuan peppers add heat to the broth, so ask for a milder version if you haven’t adapted to the local palette.
If you like... train journeys by Chris
High speed train, China
Nothing quite says ‘I’ve arrived in Shanghai’ like the 15 minute, 431 kph (268 mph) Maglev train journey from Pudong airport into the city. While it rarely reaches its maximum speed, I’m always impressed by the way this magnetic train zips you across the city and over the bumper-to-bumper traffic below. There are even electronic speed displays in each carriage to tell you how fast you’re moving.
I also recommend a journey on China’s high-speed rail (HSR) network, which has transformed the way people are able explore the country – what was once a 22 hour journey between Beijing and Shanghai now takes five and a half hours. For me, taking the train is far preferable to flying as the process is more straightforward and you’re able to glimpse local life from your seat, whether you’re watching fellow passengers playing cards or gazing at passing landscapes through your window. You can plan a train journey as part of our 'Classic China' trip idea.
If you like... modern culture by Chris
Shanghai skyline, China
Shanghai’s iconic Pudong skyline features some of the world’s tallest buildings. The newest is the Shanghai Tower – the second tallest building in the world at 632 m (2,073 ft). Riding up to its 121st-floor observation deck in the world’s fastest elevator, I was able to gaze over the city from 600 m (1,969 ft) up – an incredible sight when the sky’s clear.
Visiting the Beijing Olympic Park is another way to experience modern China. I took the metro, which is an easy and convenient way to access the unmistakeable Bird’s Nest Stadium, The Cube swimming venue and the Olympic Park Observation Tower. At 250 m (820 ft) high, the open-air observation deck has views over southern Beijing on a clear day. If it’s hazy, looking down through the partially glass floor is still a thrill.