China isn’t just about the magnificent cities of the central and northern plains or the spectacular countryside scenery of the south we all hear about. There’s a whole variety of activities in between for those who want to get out and explore further; for the trekkers who want to climb to great heights and find ancient treasures; for the wanderers who enjoy meandering aimlessly for hours in the search of a pocket of local life you won’t find written in a guide book; or for the spontaneous who embrace the unexpected and revel in being lost in a world so completely different to their own.
After 10 weeks in China, I learnt to open my eyes to a whole new culture, where I discovered more to the country outside of the standard city hopping route. It’s a huge landscape where you can be as slow moving or active as you choose; where you can immerse yourself in the craziness of modern-day life, soak up the complex history, or seek out ancient tradition. The choice is yours, but for the more venturesome among you, here’s my top five pick of fun and adventurous things to do in China:
Cruise Along the World’s Third Largest River
If you want to say you’ve travelled on Asia’s largest river, or the world’s third largest, this is your opportunity. Leisurely drifting along the Yangtze River for three days and two nights is a must if you enjoy slow travel and taking the scenic route. This is not a cruise in the luxury sense (unless you want to pay double for the privilege) but you will get to see one of China’s key highlights like a local, with basic cabins and a standard of cleanliness reserved only for those who don’t mind ‘roughing it’.
Winding past steep cliff faces, through stunning gorges and passing by picturesque hilltop villages, it’s a juxtaposition of sorts but an alternative mini adventure to overland travel as you make various stops to tucked away small towns and hard to reach temples along the way.
The Yangtze is a key focus of China’s heritage and growing economy and, despite having to squint through the smog, it’s worth making the trip to get you from Chongqing to Yichang or vice-versa. You will find yourself standing out on deck transfixed at the never-ending landscape or enjoying the peace and quiet of your cabin – a much needed rest bite from the fast-paced life of China’s streets. At the Yichang end you also get to tick off another of China’s famous sights – the enormous Three Gorges Dam – one of the largest hydro-electric power stations in the world.
Walking, Hiking and Trekking mountains Ranges
You might not immediately think it, but China boasts a host of peaceful mountain ranges (Shan), many of which are classed as sacred and which house some the country’s oldest and most treasured temples.
In Asia, when temples and other monuments are built in high places it means only one thing – a climb to reach it. Whether you like to hike, trek or walk, there’s something for all levels including scenic areas that you can reach by bus or cable car. However, a strenuous clamber to the top affords you some pretty spectacular views and interaction with the local people along the way. Here’s my top three picks, although I have yet to discover Yellow Mountain!
Emei Shan & Wutai Shan
UNESCO World Heritage sites and two of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, both are home to a multitude of sacred monasteries – 76 and 53 to be precise – built on various levels, with most near to the (you guessed it) top. Emei Shan is also said to be the location of the first Buddhist temple built in China.
Emei Shan is a compact area but a tough two hour step climb before you arrive at the incredible gold statue of Samantabhadra at the summit, where you can stand on the temple’s highest viewing platform and stand amongst the clouds. Wutai Shan is more of a town complex, spread over a stunning landscape encased by five peaks, where you will need two days at least for full exploration. Spend the morning climbing to an altitude of 1,000m to reach one of the main temples – a one-two hour climb (a cable car is also available) – and the afternoon exploring the temples scattered sporadically in the area, some of which are a challenge to find.
Mount Mian, which is in close proximity to Beijing, Xian, Datong and Pingyao (the closest) is now a privately owned complex of temples built into the high cliff faces and their jagged edges, with incredible views across the valley, as well as in caves and underground.
Dating back from over 2,500 years this enormous cultural space includes waterfalls and stunning natural scenery, temples and cultural relics (including the largest Taoist temple in China) alongside a dangerous wooden bridge climb to get to high-set temples. I didn’t dare attempt that.
Walk or Bike Along China’s Old City Walls
It’s rare that elements of the beautiful, ancient China still exist, but in Xian and Pingyao the city walls are a preservation of the country dynastic history and a wonderful way to explore the past.
Xian’s is the only wall in China that is said to be fully intact. Over 13 kilometres in length, this was a huge military defensive system – so large it will take you up to 90 minutes to bike around. This is how long you have when you rent a bicycle and you will certainly need that time to cover all four cobbled paths of this architectural feat. Be sure to stop off at various points along the way to get a magnificent view of the city that surrounds you.
Pingyao’s wall may be partially re-built but it’s a well preserved relic of imperialist China and dominates the beautiful city enclosed within, as well as providing an ideal window to look out on neighbourhoods that surround it. Smaller than Xian’s it measures around 6 kilometres in length and is perfect for a long walk around, with many stairwells leading down to the town should you need a rest and an opportunity to explore a new are of the city.
Seek Out Ancient China Before It’s Destroyed – Without a Map
China’s old streets and famous hutongs still exist; you just have to seek them out. This requires a love of walking and the patience of a true explorer.
Stumbling across the narrow alleyways of hutongs, local villages and the quiet backstreets of local life was one of my most favourite things to do in China. My favourite places for this were Beijing (hutongs), Dali (for some of the most serene countryside I have ever had the pleasure of passing through) and Xian (where I found a buzzing community just on the outskirts of the Muslim Quarter). An aimless wander without a map can bring you into contact with some of the last remnants of ancient China, and traditions that have been passed down through generations. Do it while you still can before it’s destroyed.
Eat delicious food (when you might not know what it is)
Ordering your food in China mostly requires you to look at a variety of images, point to a few things and hope for the best. But the fun part is not knowing, and getting to try all manner of local dishes. Travelling in China will quickly and force you to try new things, and find a whole new level of delicious – afterall, when you don’t exactly know what is in a dish, you are less inclined to dismiss it. I’m not going to tell you what to order since the fun is in trying to work out what the picture represents and deciphering the amusing names and descriptions that sometimes come with it!
China can be a tiring landscape to traverse, but all the more worthwhile when you stumble upon its natural beauty, scenic heritage and its ancient traditions that are still very much alive to this day. And which such a huge space to explore, you never know what you might find.