Writer Kate Wills goes beyond the Great Wall for temples, tea and Tai Chi
Itâ€™s the worldâ€™s oldest continuous civilisation and also one of fastest growing economies on the planet – if China isnâ€™t on your bucket list yet, it soon will be. For a first-time visitor, the country can be challenging – itâ€™s off-the-scale massive, 1.4billion people make things pretty busy and English isnâ€™t widely spoken. But if you plan your trip wisely or go as part of a guided tour, youâ€™re rewarded with what feels like hundreds of holidays in one.
Day 1: Capital gains
Itâ€™s easy to feel intimidated by Beijingâ€™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 Maoâ€™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 â€œseeing it from spaceâ€ 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 itâ€™s time bunk up on the sleeper train (12 hours, Â£53) to Xiâ€™an.
Day 3: Potty pottery
At the station I jump in a taxi (30 minutes, Â£20) to see the Terracotta Warriors – an â€˜armyâ€™ 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 Xiâ€™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 itâ€™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 â€œtaking the tiger to the mountainâ€, 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). Thereâ€™s just time to sip a cocktail at the Waldorf Astoria, once the worldâ€™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.