“You have to go to China, and you should stay at least 3 months” my friend Marcelo told me when we met in Delhi. I must confess that it was never in my plans to spend such a long time in China, a country famous for its communism, exaggeration, poverty and even violence…
But Marcelo kept going on and on about how China has really impressed him.
So I made up my mind and decided give China a proper go by applying for a 3month VISA, not an easy task I must say, but my thought process was kinda like, “well, the worst that can happen is me hating it and leaving whenever I want.” So after spending almost 3 months in the country, I can now say I wish I had stayed longer and I am seriously thinking of returning.
China completely took me by surprise and after having been on the road for 7 months now and having visited over 40 countries, I can officially say, China is one of the most beautiful and magical places I’ve ever been. It was 3 months in over 10 provinces and visiting over 30 towns/villages/cities/metropolis’. So I must say it was extremely difficult to choose my top 8 places but after a lot of thinking and wondering, here they are, my top 8 places in China.
As its hard to choose a favourite, I will write the top places by order of arrival.
Guangxi – Li River cruise
So while in Guangxi province I visited a few towns, such as Guillin; Longji (Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces) and Yangshuo.
I have to say that my first contact with China quickly impressed me but it wasn’t until I arrived to the Li River and did a couple of tours that I realised that China was maybe going to set the bar quite high for the rest of the world as Guangxi was setting the bar high for the rest of the country.
I did a tour boat from Guillin to Yangshuo by the Li River, and what I loved the most were definitely the views. The high cliffs and the green mountains covering the landscape were like something coming out of a movie. Seeing the small town life, like people passing by with buffalos or chickens running around the rice paddies are also vivid images in my mind. Definitely worth a visit and I strongly advise you to do the river tour early morning for the sunrise.
Dali was the first ancient town I have visited. And what a wonderful place.
Dali is that kind of small (big) town that makes you feel comfortable automatically. Theres a laid-back atmosphere wherever you go and the people are friendly.
Apparently, back in the day, this town was an important stopover for backpackers and used to be a hangout place, so there are still a lot of places that make any traveler feel welcome… yes, there were plenty of great hostels to choose from and plenty of places where you could eat delicious western breakfast – had musli everyday aahaha.
Dali is now a very touristic town for Chinese, so you’ll most likely see Chinese tourists everywhere, but you will still see the odd backpacker and some westerners that decided to make Dali their new home.
However, I must say that my favourite place in town is the wonderful 3 pagodas. Spent an entire day at this magical place and would return anytime.
Right, I am not gonna denny that Lijiang is in fact very touristic… and yes, you will have a lot of old ladies trying to sell you scarfs and bracelets and you will have a lot of people coming to you trying to sell you 23747 tours, and yes, there are a LOT of Chinese tourists, after all China’s domestic tourist trade is booming and Lijiang with its great weather, shopping kingdom and gorgeous streets, has become a hot spot travel destination, however it’s funny that in 5 days I only saw 3 Westerns. If you can ignore all that and appreciate everything this lively city has to offer, then you’re in for a treat.
I personally decided to stay right down in Lijiang’s Old Town, but on a back street far from the craziness and that really helped me enjoy the town a lot more.
Highlights were people watching – so many interesting people all around town, strolling by the canals – its almost like a Little Venice, going to the top of the hill “Lijiang Lion Rock” to the lookout point and seeing all the wonderful roofs and arquitecture from the top and my little adventure at the “Black Dragon Pond Park” where I basically had to break the law after walking over 1 hour to get there to realise not only did I have to pay an entrance fee (it’s just a park!) but that they were closing down and I was no longer welcome.
Well, that wouldn’t be enough to stop me so I found a little side road and eventually found a little river, that if I crossed I could be inside the park. Even though I could’ve gotten into trouble and hurt (and wet) myself, it was all worth it.
Jiuzhaigou National Park
So one of the reasons I flew over to Sichuan province was to check out the famous Jiozhaigou National Park. And oh boy, I am so glad that the -10 C temperatures didn’t stop me from going.
A friend of mine told me once, if you go to China and visit the 5 colour lagoon, I will be truly jealous. After some research I realised that he was talking about the wonderful Jiuzhaigou park, still the most magical place I’ve ever been in my life.
The park is huge and it houses many species of animals and beautiful birds. But what makes it truly spectacular are its colourful lakes with the most pristine waters, the most incredible shades of blue and green and its unique waterfalls. The fact it was cold, and I mean really cold, was quickly forgotten as I was in a awe. This might sound silly but there was a moment that I shed a tear as I couldn’t quite take how beautiful it was. Also, the fact it was cold and there was snow all around made the place even more magical, so I could forgive and forget the cold weather.
My favourite part was running away from the tour I was doing to explore the park by myself and walk instead of using the park bus, because it was when I saw the best pearls and without all the tourists…. one of the most incredible moments of my life.
Imagine a place that has been frozen in time, where the entire town has been untouched by modernisation (well, apart from wifi, and thank God for that).
That is Fenghuang, definitely my favourite Ancient Town in China.
Fenghuang is also known as Phoenix Old Town, and its incredible how the whole town has basically maintained the layout and preserved the buildings, the walls, the streets, the temples… its impressive how they are largely preserved in their original state. The whole town is so charming and so lovely that the only thing I regret was spending only 4 days there as I could totally spend much longer discovering and exploring all the little streets and strolling by the river while people watching.
My favourite is the entire environment and town feeling and how kind people seem to be. Even though it’s a famous place, I didn’t seem to find it very touristic and definitely lacking westerners. But its architecture, the old houses by the river, the fishermen, the colourful people, the amount of little coffee shops and restaurants all around town… made the town a very unique place. Also loved the fact you can just walk everywhere. Didn’t use any public transportation while there as everything is quite close by, and even if you leave the city walls, you will quickly find your way all around town. Just be prepared to not to be able to communicate in English, and also, if you are vegetarian, you might suffer and starve a little while in town.
Who hasn’t watched Avatar and fell in love with the scenery?
“Well, but Emma, it is a cartoon movie” you would say…. But now I can say: ” Well, I know exactly where the inspiration came from, and even where many of the secenes were filmed. The magic happened at Zhangjiajie.”
Zhangjiajie is a National Forest Park that was at least the partial inspiration for the geography on the planet Pandora in Avatar. Zhangjiajie’s karst peaks are unique in the world in terms of how they are clustered and the landscape is absolutely stunning. I spent 3 days inside this World Heritage site and even though it rained one of the days, was cold – like minus 0 sort of temperatures, I had to hike for roughly 8 hours a day and mountain trekking non stopping, starve without much food option, I must say it was one of the best experiences I had in my trip so far and I would go back in a heart beat.
The only sad thing was the day that rained, it was the day I saw some mist and low hanging clouds. It was not very clear so don’t have decent pictures to show how beautiful it was.
Xian is a must stop in China, and understandably one of the major attractions in the country. If housing the most famous warriors of all time wasn’t enough, Xian is a city that is more than 3,000 years old and was the capital for 13 dynasties, so you can imagine all the history and roots that this place has. Theres a saying “if you have not been to Xian, you have not been to China” and I do have to agree.
So my highlights, as you can imagine were visiting the Terracotta Army, or the Terracotta Warriors and Horses, and oh boy, it was impressive . Looking at all those soldiers (there are roughly 8,000) and horses is definitely an impressive thing especially taking into consideration they were buried with the Emperor Quin Shi Huang to protect him through death (he probably was really scared about some things he must have done to feel the need for such protection). Also, did you know they each one of the soldiers are different? I know, incredible.
Well well well, Beijing has to be in the list. Not only because its the capital of this impressive country but because it’s where you can find one of the 7 wonders of the world: The great wall of China. And wow, what can I say? How can I describe this marvel?
You know one of those moments in your life that you go “WOW”. Well, I am pretty sure this is a place you would definitely go WOW. It is so impressive and majestic that it’s quite scary taking in consideration its grandiosity. I spent a few hours on a part of the wall, and I must say it requires some fitness ahahaha its looooong and the stairs are very high but its awesome regardless because you are walking through history.
Beijing is not only the Great Wall, or the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace. I initially thought I was not going to enjoy it due to its pollution, but I had an wonderful time while in this megalopolis and one of the most populous cities in the world.