Writer Kate Wills goes beyond the Great Wall for temples, tea and Tai Chi
It’s the world’s oldest continuous civilisation and also one of fastest growing economies on the planet – if China isn’t on your bucket list yet, it soon will be. For a first-time visitor, the country can be challenging – it’s off-the-scale massive, 1.4billion people make things pretty busy and English isn’t widely spoken. But if you plan your trip wisely or go as part of a guided tour, you’re rewarded with what feels like hundreds of holidays in one.
Day 1: Capital gains
It’s easy to feel intimidated by Beijing’s smoggy concrete sprawl, so I dive straight into the historic quarter where the 15th-century buildings can be explored on foot. I watch locals outside the Temple of Heaven playing cards and practicing calligraphy, then gawp at the queues to see Mao’s tomb in Tiananmen Square. After getting lost looking around the palaces of The Forbidden City (Â£8 entry), I make it to the Clock Exhibition Hall for 2pm as hundreds of timepieces strike at once. Then I hit up Donghuamen Night Market (4-10pm) for a Peking duck dinner (Â£2), with a side of scorpions on a stick. Verdict: crunchy.
Day 2: Along the watchtowers
The whole “seeing it from space” thing might be a myth, but the crazy-long, zig-zagging Great Wall of China is still an unmissable spot for a selfie. I get up early to swerve the crowds and make the 1.5hour journey by bus to Mutianyu (Â£2 each way) – one of the best-preserved sections of wall. I skip the cable car to hike through the lush green hills up to the watchtowers, and then reward myself with a ridiculously fun toboggan ride down. Back in Beijing, I duck into the narrow <hutongs> (the old neighbourhood) and stop at a street stall for a tasty <jian bing> (50p) – a bit like a crepe. Then it’s time bunk up on the sleeper train (12 hours, Â£53) to Xi’an.
Day 3: Potty pottery
At the station I jump in a taxi (30 minutes, Â£20) to see the Terracotta Warriors – an ‘army’ of 8,000 ceramic soldiers built by Emperor Qin in 210BC to guard him in the afterlife (Â£18, entry). The statues are so lifelike they even have fingernails. For lunch I stop at one of the many local farmhouses which have turned into family-run restaurants. I spend the afternoon in Xi’an, wandering around the buzzy market of the Muslim Quarter, renting a bike and cycling around the old city walls, before having dinner at Tang Dynasty – a 12-course dumpling banquet of steaming parcels of deliciousness (Â£10, xiantangdynasty.com).
Day 4: Wok star
A 2-hour (Â£60) flight away is Guilin, the jumping off point for the pointy mountains and winding rivers of rural Yungshuo. I cruise down the Yulong River on a bamboo raft, spotting bathing water buffalo and local farmers in pointy hats tending to rice paddies on the banks. Then it’s time to wok out with a cookery lesson at Yangshuo Cookery School, where I learn how to make the local speciality – beer-fried fish (Â£20 pp for four hour class). I spend the night at The Outside Inn (Â£22 per night, www.yangshuo-outside.com) – traditional mudbrick buildings converted into a peaceful boutique hotel, complete with resident oh-so-cute Labradoodle.
Day 5: The Hai Life
I wake up early and join locals for a Tai Chi lesson by the hotel (free). After “taking the tiger to the mountain”, I jump on a 2-hour flight (Â£48) to Shanghai. With its Art Deco architecture, sparkling neon skyscrapers and ancient teahouses this mishmash city has so many stories. I jump on a motorbike sidecar tour (shanghaiinsiders.com, from Â£95 for 2ppl), as an expert local guide whizzes me around the secret corners of the tree-lined French Quarter. Over lunch I spot koi carp in the Yuyuan Gardens (Â£5 entry) and then join the queue at Nan Xiang for the best pork bao in town (from Â£2, nanxiang.com). At dusk I take a walking tour of The Bund (the riverbank) where the dreamy Art Deco hotels are like a time capsule to the swinging 30s (newmantours.com, Â£22pp). There’s just time to sip a cocktail at the Waldorf Astoria, once the world’s longest bar, before catching the Shanghai Acrobats (Â£18, erashanghai.com). Their plate-spinning and hoop-jumping is as tricky as it is impressive. Just like China.
Temp: Beijing:12 C
Shanghai: 22 C
Currency: Yuan (RMB)
Info: A 12-day National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures Best of China trip is priced from Â£1,699pp (including some meals, accommodation, all transport but not flights). Call 0344 272 2040 or visit www.gadventures.co.uk.