Highlights of China: History, Culture & Food from City to Countryside
Experience the absolute highlights of China on this 15-day trip taking in Beijing, the ancient capital Xi'an, rural Yangshuo, pandas near Chengdu and buzzing Shanghai. It's the perfect blend of cities and countryside and offers the chance to really understand what makes this fascinating country tick.
Itinerary at a Glance:
- Explore Beijing and a less visited section of the Great Wall of China
- See up close the staggeringly intricate soldiers of the Terracotta Army near Xi'an
- Visit an admirable panda sanctuary near Chengdu and help out the keepers
- Explore the beautiful karst limestone pinnacle landscape around Yangshuo by boat and bike
- Spend a couple of days enjoying the buzz in energetic Shanghai
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When To Travel
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Day 1: Overnight Flight to China
Your Highlights of China tour begins with a direct flight from the UK to Beijing which takes ten hours. You'll be flying overnight but pack a Mandarin phrase book to help you learn a few key phrases if you have trouble sleeping.
Day 2: Begin in Beijing
On arrival in the Chinese capital this morning your driver will meet you in the arrivals' hall for a private transfer to your city centre hotel.
After lunch, you have the afternoon to get your bearings and go for a wander around the neighborhood surrounding your hotel. We will recommend several restaurants for a first supper in China and some guidance for what to order to help you navigate the menu.
Day 3: The Best of Beijing
Today is dedicated to exploring the historic Chinese capital, taking in some of the best bits. Your guide will meet you at your hotel after breakfast, and the first stop is the iconic Tiananmen Square, the heart of the city and the country known as the Middle Kingdom.
Wander through the square to the entrance to the Forbidden City, the imperial palace for generations (some 500 years) of Chinese emperors from the Ming to the Qing dynasties, passing by kite-flyers and hawkers and stopping at Chairman Mao's mausoleum en route.
Your guide will be able to bring this extraordinary place even more to life, especially as we will have arranged access to the Shufang Zhai, an intricately decorated dining hall that's not part of the normal tour. Complete the visit with a walk up Jingshan Park for superb panoramic views over the city and back over the Forbidden City itself.
The final stop of the day is to explore the hutongs, the original single-storey neighbourhoods that once stretched in every direction from the Forbidden City. Sadly, many hutongs were levelled before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but those that do remain provide a fascinating window on what Beijing once looked like. Wander the alleyways and courtyards with your guide and you'll see old men playing mahjong and street vendors peddling delicious bao (fluffy steamed buns) filled with various meats and vegetables, the most traditional being a scrumptious and slightly sweet pulled pork.
This evening you can enjoy a well-earned dinner before an early night; tomorrow you're going to see another of the highlights of China - the Great Wall.
Day 4: The Great Wall of China
After breakfast your guide will meet you for the three-hour transfer to Jinshanling, one of the finest sections of the Great Wall of China in proximity to Beijing, and far less crowded than those closer to the capital.
Take a gondola up into the hills before enjoying a three-hour hike along the wall, imagining as you go what life was like for soldiers manning the defenses against the threat of marauding Mongols.
Return to your hotel, and we can recommend several of the finest restaurants in Beijing and make reservations.
Day 5: The Summer Palace in Beijing
Emperors have enjoyed the beautiful surroundings of the Summer Palace for centuries, but the current layout of lakes, islands and buildings - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - owes its creation to the formidable Dowager Empress Cixi, who put some 10,000 labourers to work digging the centrepiece Kunming Lake in the late 19th century.
This morning your guide will show you around the beautifully
landscaped gardens and temples, and you can then enjoy a boat ride
across Kunming Lake and past the elegant marble boat 'moored' up
You have this afternoon free to explore more of the city or simply relax at the hotel before one last dinner in Beijing.
Day 6: The Temple of Heaven
This morning is a chance to experience one of the great pleasures of a trip to China, visiting a park. Wander through the grounds surrounding the Temple of Heaven to see elderly Beijing residents performing tai chi, practicing sword fighting or artfully flinging frisbees in morning rituals carried out in 'People's Parks' across the country. Your guide can introduce you to the basic principles of tai chi if interested.
Then visit the centrepiece to all this - the Temple of Heaven itself. Designed as a holy place where emperors could come to pray for good harvests (which in turn usually ensured civil harmony), your guide will explain the meaning of the many motifs on the temple's walls.
From there, head to the train station for the four-and-a-half-hour journey to the former capital, Xi'an, where you will be met and transferred to your hotel for the night.
Day 7: Xi’an and the Terracotta Army
This morning you will visit one of the absolute highlights of China, the Terracotta Army. Built to protect the first emperor on his journey into the afterlife, the army of 8,000 soldiers all have individual faces and most are in remarkable condition given they are 2,200 years old.
The detail on some of the best-preserved warriors is incredible
and has to be seen in the flesh to be believed. It's also amazing
to look closely and see some areas where the original paintwork has
still retained some of its colour, or to go into the attached
exhibition where you can see some of the smaller pieces that have
been excavated and restored to their original glory.
After a couple of hours spent admiring the army, you will return to the city centre to explore Xi'an's Great Mosque and Muslim Quarter. Islam migrated along the Silk Road to Xi'an over one thousand years ago, and the bustling streets retain the essential energy of a trading hub; while is this corner of the city you simply must pick up a few persimmon cakes which are deliciously indulgent, sweet and tart. Your guide will show you around, and make a recommendation for the best place to try the local dumplings in a city that claims to have invented this most Chinese of dishes.
Day 8: Xi’an by Bike and on to Chengdu
Work off any dumpling overload this morning on a bicycle tour around the perfectly intact city walls that encircle Xi'an.
The nine-mile round trip takes around an hour and offers great
views down into the city below, including its towering pagodas
which create such striking silhouettes in the skyline.
You will then be transferred to the station for another form of slow travel - the four-hour train journey to another highlight of China - the Sichuan capital of Chengdu.
Day 9: Chengdu and Dujiangyan Panda Base
It's a relatively early start this morning for the hour-and-a-half transfer to Dujiangyan Panda Base, one of the best places in China to see this lovable-but-endangered species. The base consists of bamboo grove-covered hillsides where the pandas can roam relatively free.
Keep an eye out for the keepers, who sometimes dress up in panda costumes to get close to China's national animals. Part of the fun of the day is shadowing the keepers (except the panda costume bit), and you will help clean out the pandas' cages and feed these adorable bears.
After lunch, head to nearby Qingcheng Mountain where you can take a gondola ride up into the foothills before walking lush trails, visiting temples along the way with your guide.
Return to Chengdu for one last night in this, the capital of Sichuan Province, and we can recommend the best restaurants in which to sample this region's famously fiery cuisine.
Day 10: To Yangshuo
Leave Sichuan behind this morning as you are transferred to Chengdu Airport for a two-hour flight to the city of Guilin in Guangxi. From here it's a two-hour drive to yet another of the highlights of a trip to China - the town of Yangshuo on the River Li, surrounded by stunning karst limestone pinnacles.
At dusk this evening, head down to the river with your guide and witness one of the most remarkable of all partnerships between man and animal. You and your guide will embark on a traditional fishing boat and watch as the fisherman and his 'pet' cormorant go to work.
The cormorant dives into the river to catch a fish, but because of a metal ring around its neck it cannot swallow the fish whole. When the bird resurfaces, the fisherman grabs the fish from the bird's mouth before chopping a smaller piece off, which he then feeds to the cormorant. It's a very special thing to witness, and this evening if you order the fish, think how it might have been caught!
Day 11: Full Day Yangshuo Tour
After yesterday's cormorant fishing trip you will take to the river again this morning aboard a bamboo raft to drift along the river taking in one of the most iconic landscapes in all China, passing fishing boats and water buffalo pulling ploughs through fields.
Then disembark and choose whether to explore further on foot or by bicycle. The countryside is an extraordinary combination of completely flat floodplains and towering vertical-sided pinnacles, the most famous of which is Moon Hill, a huge archway that you can climb for yet more amazing views.
Then visit the pretty village of Fuli, famous as a centre for the art of paper fan-making. Learn how they are made and pick up an example or two as the perfect lightweight souvenir to take home.
Day 12: Day at Leisure in Yangshuo
Today is the ideal moment to take some time out and relax these beautiful surroundings.
You can hike or bike, or just lounge about in town drinking tea and playing mahjong.
This evening we can recommend another restaurant for you to try as you enjoy one last night in Yangshuo.
Day 13: Daxu and on to Shanghai
This morning you will be transferred an hour back towards Guilin and to the charming town of Daxu, once a thriving port on the Li River which is still home to narrow alleyways and markets.
Your guide will then introduce you to an expert who will show you the ancient technique of making soymilk, using a stone and your bare hands. Sample the fruits of your labours before a short transfer back to Guilin Airport and a two-hour flight to Shanghai.
The contrast between the bucolic backwaters of Guangxi and the buzz of the big city might take a while to digest, but Shanghai's energy is infectious, and our Concierge can recommend the best places to enjoy the nightlife this evening.
Day 14: Shanghai
This morning your guide will meet you at your hotel for a tour of this exciting city, starting on the Bund, the historical district where foreign concessions were built up in the 19th century. The area has earned the nickname the 'Museum of International Architecture' due to its contrasting styles. Looking across the river adds another layer of contrast as you see the shiny skyscrapers of the new China.
Stroll around the elegant tree-lined boulevards of the French
Concession, taking in the faded grandeur of old mansions before
visiting the narrow alleyways of the Tianzifang district, a fun
bohemian district full of galleries and boutiques. Then switch from
low-rise to high-rise as you cross the river and take the world's
second fastest elevator up to the 128th floor of the Shanghai Tower
for extraordinary views of the city.
When you're back on terra firma (having dropped at 68ft per second) it's time to head back to your hotel. Freshen up and don your gladrags for an evening in a rooftop or high-rise bar with incredible city views for your last night out to toast a memorable trip to see the highlights of China.
Day 15: Fly Home
This morning your guide will meet you at your hotel for the private transfer to Shanghai Airport and a late morning flight. The flight time back to London is 13 hours, and you will arrive back in mid-afternoon.
Holly and Frances are our experts for this itinerary and as seasoned travellers they have the inside track on the most memorable adventures.