China is an incredible country, filled to the brim with history, culture, stunning landscapes and those lovable pandas! You could spend a lifetime exploring this vast land, but our must-see list ensures you will experience some of the best highlights and breathtaking attractions in an average trip time.

The Great Wall of China

Beijing: The Crown Jewel

Though the allure of China for us was the Great Wall and pandas, we enjoyed our time in Beijing. It gave us a glimpse into the traditions of one of the oldest cities in the world. Lively and vibrant but quaint at the same time.

China has over 4000 years of recorded history

We loved the intimate Shichahai Sandalwood Boutique Hotel, a charming 17th-century mansion in the traditional style of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It’s in a hutong district with ancient alleyways, narrow streets, teahouses and walking distance to many attractions and restaurants.

Our room at the Shichahai Sandalwood

Beijing is not the vegetarian mecca of cities like Chiang Mai. Still, there are veggie-friendly options, from Buddhist pure vegetarian restaurants to Chinese and Western-style vegetarians and Indian restaurants, with plant-based dishes on their menus. We recommend visiting Mr Shi’s Dumplings, Beijing’s most famous dumpling restaurant with many vegetarian options that live up to the hype. We got addicted to the tasty, homemade dumplings that let out a burst of fragrant steam when opened, smothered with a sweet, spicy sauce served with fresh golden noodles.

We love the vegetarian dumplings

Armed with our map, we visited some of Beijing’s most political, cultural and significant sites, about a 15-minute walk from our hotel. Making our way through Tiananmen Square adjacent to the Forbidden City, locals get together, exercise, practice tai chi and fly kites. The square is one of the world’s largest squares, with a historic landmark etched into history. It’s a poignant reminder that democracy is precious and we should never take it for granted.

Forbidden City

In the late afternoon, we visit the Forbidden City, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is the heart and soul of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Imperial Palace complex, majestic halls and courtyards show the opulence of the residence of the Chinese emperor after its completion in 1420. The first things you notice about the old-world architecture are the dramatic roofs and eaves in gold and a pop of sapphire blue. Dragons and phoenix motifs adorn the city, with the dragon representing the emperor and the phoenix, the empress. The bronze statues of the lions that guard the Gate of Heavenly Purity captivate us with their majestic presence. A male lion holds a globe, a sign of imperial rule, and the female plays with a cub, promising abundant offspring for the empire. In the late afternoon, when the crowds disperse, the defending lions stand guard in the soft twilight.

The cub symbolises abundant offspring for the empire

The Lama Temple is Beijing’s largest Buddhist temple and a must-visit while in Beijing. The earthy fragrance of incense and swirls of smoke rising in the air, worshippers seeking wisdom, and chanting monks make for a serene and spiritual ambiance. Within the five main halls with lemon-yellow and gold tiled roofs that soar over each other, the same bronze lions stand guard outside the Hall of the Heavenly Kings, where Maitreya the Buddha holds sacred. The golden Buddha statue, artifacts in ornate temples richly decorated in colourful tiles, artwork and carvings of intricate dragon motifs on the ceiling make it a revered religious and cultural landmark that looks into Beijing’s spiritual side and unique insight into Chinese Buddhism and Tibetan culture.

Lama Temple

The Great Wall of China 

Wow! It was surreal to find ourselves alone at the Great Wall at dawn! The wild and rugged Jinshanling Wall and the crimson sunrise capture the imagination and are breathtakingly beautiful. From the watchtower, the stone wall bathed in warm light snakes mysteriously out of view into the hazy mountains, whispering tales from centuries ago. The wall maintains its original appearance from when the Qing Dynasty built it to ward off the Mongol insurgents. The all-encompassing scenery from the Wall’s oldest and most photogenic part is heavenly.

Jinshanling Great Wall of China at sunrise
Jinshanling Great Wall at sunrise

Though there are incredible hikes, such as the Jinshanling to Simatai one-day trek, gob-smacking scenery rewards you with a short walk up to the watchtowers. We did the Great Wall with Ricky from Great Wall Tours.  A small local adventure tour operator that prioritises responsible and sustainable travel. Ricky arranges group and private tours to all parts of the Great Wall, including a unique once-in-a-lifetime experience camping overnight on the Wall. Ricky supplies a guide or provides you with everything you need for a self-guided trip to the wall. He arranged a driver and our stay at a village under the Jinshanling Wall so we could be there for sunrise.

Heavenly views

A part of the charm and absence of crowds here means no cable cars, accommodation or restaurants and no modern facilities. Vegetarians are a challenge in some rural villages, so Ricky arranged for our driver to stop in Beijing for food to take with us. The Great Wall at sunrise is a gold star made even more magical by the solitude of having it all to ourselves in winter.

Winter solitude at the Great Wall

Datong: World Wonders of China

Visiting Datong’s heritage sites is exploring forgotten world wonders. The Yungang Grottoes, another World Heritage site, is one of the most impressive historical sites in the world. The caves from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) have Indian, Persian and the Alexandra era influences. These stunning Buddhist cave temples and sandstone-carved Buddha statues date back to the 5th century. With over 45 significant caves and 51,000 statues, the rock-cut architecture is one of China’s most important Buddhist sites. The colours are so well preserved it’s hard to believe they date back to 15,000 years ago. They are magnificent, and how they made them is mind-boggling, as well as the craftsmanship and detail required to carve such perfect treasures.

China Yungang Grottoes
Yungang Grottoes

Hanging Temple (Xuankong Temple) is located about 65 km from Datong. The 1500-year-old temple hangs precariously on a sheer cliff. If the defiance of gravity wasn’t enough, it has 40 rooms and a labyrinth of corridors and passageways to explore. The temple is the only one dedicated to three religions: Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

Datong Hanging Temple

If there’s one accommodation treat to give yourself, we recommend Yunzhong Yi Traditional Inn. This gorgeous boutique hotel oozes charm. The exquisitely decorated rooms modelled on the old-style hutong that opens onto a stone-paved courtyard, the gracious hosts and the food offer a genuine heritage experience.
Datong is an excellent stopover on a train journey between Beijing and Xian.

Xian: Delving into Historical Treasures

A historical city that served as the capital of China for many dynasties. A city wall surrounds the city and is at its full magnificence at night when the Bell and Drum Towers are lit up and enchantingly illuminated. The pride and glory are the remarkable archaeological discoveries of Terracotta Warrior and Horse sculptures. The 2000-year-old discovery portrays the armies of Qin Shu Huang, the first emperor of China.

China Terracotta Warriors
Terracotta Warriors

The warriors were constructed as an afterlife guard and the chariot driven by four horses were buried for his afterlife journeys. Pit 1 is the most impressive and has over 8000 (only 2000 are on display) life-sized soldiers and horses. Excavation and restoration are still in process at Pit 2 and 3. The army was encased in large wooden coffins for over two thousand years without corrosion and was uncovered in the 1970s.

The chariot and horses – a 2000-year-old discovery

The Muslim Quarter is lively and bustling, with narrow streets and stalls. Though there are some weird and whacky things you’d rather not see, there is a corner where you can find simple vegetarian food. Scrumptious potatoes topped with herbs, chilli and spring onions. Zesty tofu, dumplings, and handmade noodles topped with garlic, tahini, and hot-tangy sauces are yummy! Vendors sell fresh, sweet juices on all corners, like the purple-red pomegranate and sour plum. Another must-try is the piping-hot persimmon doughnuts made from mashed persimmon fruit deep-fried until they are crispy on the outside and sticky-sweet inside.

Pomegranate juice

Giant Pandas: China’s National Treasure

Chengdu is ‘Panda’s hometown’ and China’s cutest tourist attraction. Giant pandas are among the rarest wildlife on the planet and seeing them in the wild is almost impossible. There are less than 1500 in the wild, living in the rugged mountain ranges. The good news is there are several great sanctuaries where you can see them. We visited the research base in Chengdu and volunteered at Wolong.

China’s cutest attraction

Though China isn’t exactly known for its animal rights, the pandas are looked after. The sanctuary is well-run, and the enclosures are large and open, trying to imitate their natural environment. It’s hard to know which enclosure to start with as so many heart-melting choices from newborn babies, toddlers, teens to adults. No screens or glass are separating you; you can hear them crunching on their fresh, juicy bamboo.

Giant pandas at a sanctuary in Chengdu, China
Giant pandas are among the rarest wildlife on the planet

They spend nearly every waking moment munching on bamboo or have tug wars over it! Very little interest is shown in anything else apart from eating and sleeping. Known for their solitary nature, they don’t show much enthusiasm in breeding, and when they do, they only have one cub, which they often don’t know what to do with!

Like the Giant panda, the Red panda loves bamboo

Not only do you get to see the Giant pandas, but the Red pandas, too. Get ready for double the panda magic! Also endangered and under national protection, the adorable Red pandas hold their own next to their famous cousin! Even during the low season and early morning, this was the most crowded place in our China trip. It was impossible to avoid the crowds, no matter how early. The Panda Base opens at 7.30 am, so get up early and arrive at 7.00 am. After 10 am, the pandas stay in their beds and indulge in their favourite pastime: sleeping!

The Red panda is also endangered

Volunteering with Pandas

If you want an intimate and unforgettable panda experience, join a volunteer program. Whether you opt for the 1 to 3-day programs at Dujiangyan, Ya’an, or Wolong panda bases, you’re in for a memorable experience. Activities include cleaning their enclosures, preparing panda food, watching films about pandas and touring around the panda base. Activities are flexible and the program can be redesigned according to the pandas’ needs, participants’ requirements, interests and other factors.

Panda volunteering in Wolong

Not only will you get the chance to volunteer with pandas, but you will also get all the inside scoop from the keepers! It’s like getting VIP access to the cutest show in town! The volunteer programs not only raise awareness about the challenges faced by pandas but also foster a deep love and appreciation for these endearing pandas. The programs change regularly regarding the activities and hands-on time you get with the pandas, so check beforehand.

An unforgettable panda experience

The best time to visit: Anytime between September and May is a suitable time to visit. March to May is Cupid’s season, so if you visit between September and December, you may see tiny newborns and cuddly baby pandas at their playful best when they are learning to walk and climb.

Winter is a beautiful time to visit the pandas in China

However, be panda-savvy and avoid the summer months of June, July and August. Pandas don’t like hot weather. When the temperature exceeds 26C, they prefer the comfort of their air-conditioned retreat and avoid venturing outside. Winter is a lovely time to see them; there are fewer crowds, pandas are more active, and they spend more hours outside.

Chengdu waffles

Savouring the Spice

Sichuan borders Chongqing, Gansu, Guizho, Quinghai, Shaanxi, Yunnan, and Tibet, which makes it a fusion of cultural and culinary diversity. The vegetarian Dan Dan noodles, handmade spinach noodles and the world-famous hot pot are out of this world! We found a little gem, Zaozishu (Vegetarian Lifestyle) Restaurant, which had sizzling plant-based and authentic Sichuan dishes.

Vegetarian Hot Pot

The Buddha Zen Hotel is a gorgeous place to stay. It’s a wood-and-stone building beside the Buddhist monastery Wen Shu Yuan. It’s by no means luxury, but the charms of this hotel sparkle with traditional architecture and sincere staff. It’s a peaceful retreat and close to restaurants, including vegetarian ones.

Meet the Golden Snub-Nosed Monkeys

When it comes to bewitching, Golden snub-nosed monkeys are up there with the pandas! Their quirky squashed nose, ice-blue eye mask, and thick, radiant golden fur coat designed to navigate winter with flair make them one of a kind. Endemic to fragmented patches of the Tibetan Plateau in southwestern China, the endangered Golden snub-nosed monkey is one of the few primates that thrive in temperate montane forests. With snowflakes blanketing their habitat for as long as four months in the winter, they can withstand ice-cold temperatures.

2 Golden snub-nosed monkeys holding their babies. Sichuan, China
The Golden snub-nosed monkey is an Old-World monkey

The local villages in Pingwu have developed a special bond with the monkeys, and they come down the mountain regularly. The help of Jason, a local guide in Chengdu who has family connections in the village, gives you a rare opportunity to see them. Pingdu is about a 4-hour drive from Chengdu. You can stay at a local village guesthouse, which is basic but clean and has a private shower and bathroom. We brought snacks, and Jason prepared some simple but fresh vegetable stir-fries and breakfasts of instant coffee and marmalade-smeared toast.
Note: Currently, the monkeys come down the mountain daily, but since they are wild, there is no guarantee that you will see them. Jason can also help and arrange panda tours.

A rare opportunity to see them

Mystical Wonders of Tibet

Tibet is revered as the Roof of the World, with an unmatched mystique and beauty that casts a spell on all who set foot here. Though it has seen changes since China’s influence, its allure remains undiminished, making it a destination worth exploring. The blend of culture, breathtaking landscapes and spiritual richness is like no other. We travelled to Tibet overland from Nepal when it was still independent. The trip was raw and had challenges, including high altitude sickness, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Tibet holds a special place in our hearts. Despite never being the same due to China’s control over it, we recommend visiting to explore the city of Lhasa and monasteries nearby, even if it’s just a few days. The city has become more accessible, with flights and trains connecting from major cities in China.

Barkhor Street Markets

We loved walking around Barkhor Street; the energy and mysticism are contagious; you’ll be immersed in the celestial atmosphere surrounded by local markets, restaurants, pilgrims carrying little prayer wheels and chanting monks in cherry-red robes, making their way around the sacred Jokhang Temple. This classical marvel, constructed in the 7th century, proudly houses the Jowo Shakyamuni Statue, adorned with intricate details of gold, precious gems and dazzling ruby-red stones.

Jowo Shakyamuni

When you delve into the history of the Potala Palace, home to the esteemed Dalai Lama for centuries, it brings the past to life. As you wander through the palace, the glow of flickering candles will lead you to the most renowned artifacts. The scent of incense drifts through the smoky air while harmonious monks’ voices echo through ancient stone halls.

Potala Palace

Witness monk debates at the 15th-century Sera Monastery. Monks gather in the courtyard under the cool shade of the trees, all working together to refine their knowledge. It leaves you with a deep appreciation for the tradition and wisdom that thrives within those walls of long ago.

Sera Monastery

If you’re looking for an authentic Tibetan experience, you’ve got to book a room at the Songstam Chosky Linka Lhasa. Picture this: waking up in a cozy room with a balcony, where you can sip your morning tea while gazing at the Potala Palace.

Yangshuo: Stunning Scenery Meets Old Charm

Located south of Guilin, Yangshuo is a charming town renowned for its jaw-dropping landscapes. Picture-perfect limestone karst formations, serene rivers that wind through the countryside, scenes of farmers tending to their rice paddies and the gentle quacking of ducks herded through lush green paddies create postcard-worthy views. Biking through scenic routes, drifting on a bamboo raft along the tranquil river, witnessing the centuries-old practice between fishermen and cormorants, twinkling lights scattered across the water from their lamps and soaking in the beauty of sunsets work wonders for the soul.

Fishermen and Cormorants on the Li River

Exploring the streets of Yangshuo feels like stepping back in time, with their original layout beautifully preserved in the style of the old city. The famous bustling 1,400-year-old West Street is the bubbly hub, buzzing with energy from its diverse bars, shops and eateries. Whether you seek fluffy steamed buns, savoury dumplings, a sip of traditional tea, or feeling a bit more Western, fear not—they’ve got mouthwatering burgers and beer! West Street has it all!

Vegie burger and beer

The Bamboo Leaf Hotel is a boutique hotel nestled in a scenic village within walking distance of Li River and the old town centre of Yangshuo. You can soak up the ambiance from the swimming pool that overlooks the picturesque landscape and the cozy rooftop restaurant where you can enjoy delicious meals.

Golden Splendour of China’s Longji Rice Terraces

Longji Rice Terrace, a scenic region in Longsheng County, just 140 kms from Yangshuo, is known for its spectacular rice terraces on the hillsides. The combination of views of the golden rice terraces while walking along the trails and the cultural experience makes it unique. We stayed at Li’an Lodge in Ping’an Village, which is spectacular, perched on top of a mountain with endless views of rice paddies stretching as far as the eye can see. The terrace rooms have great views, but the Celadon room takes it up a notch with its spacious balcony and front-row seats, which allow for the sunrise and sunset over the rice paddies. With its lovely host, excellent food, local beer and commitment to preserving the region’s distinct charm, this hotel has a sense of warmth that is hard to find elsewhere. From here, you can also travel the 40 minutes to Dazhai Village, where you bypass an hour’s climb and take a cable car to Golden Buddha Peak for panoramic views of rice terraces that sprawl across the entire Jinkeng Scenic Area.

Longji Rice Terrace

The landscape is ever-changing: In March, a sea of yellow flowers paints the fields with vibrant hues. April through June, the rice terraces reflect silver sheen during the irrigation and transplanting of rice seedlings. July to the first half of September brings lush green vistas as the rice seedlings flourish in the terraces. The second half of September to the first half of November is a golden spectacle as the rice paddies ripen into a stunning sight. And finally, from the second half of December to the first half of February, the silver terraces resemble a blanket of snow.

Chasing Waterfalls

Detian waterfall is not just any waterfall – it stretches across two countries, China and Vietnam, ranks the fourth largest in the world, and we think it’s the most beautiful. The sight and sound of water cascading down a three-tiered cliff and feeling the cool mist on your face is hypnotic. It’s a sight to behold, especially during the rainy season and at sunset. The combination of the orange sunset’s glow against the backdrop of the silver waterfall is simply glorious. Due to its location, it’s a bit of a jaunt, around a 3-hour drive from Nanning and 8 hours from Guilin and Yangshuo, so you must be keen on exploring off-the-beaten-path places.

Detian waterfall

While it may not be ideal for a quick day trip, some accommodations in the area offer a retreat after your journey. For a front-row seat, the best views and exclusive access, treat yourself to a stay at the Lux Resort. If you plan a trip to Detian Waterfall, mark your calendar from July to October. This period boasts abundant flow and crystal-clear water.
Andy a local guide from Guilin can arrange private tours and transportation to Yangshuo, Longji rice terraces and Detian waterfall.

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