1-2 months The Long March
This is the big one right through the heart and soul of the Middle Kingdom. You will encounter everything – plain and simple. Temples? Yes. Thriving megalopolises? Of course. Untouched forests and mountains? You bet. Off-the-beaten-track destinations? What do you think? UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Absolutely! The first leg of the trip should take about a month, beginning in Beijing and ending in Hong Kong. If you have time to complete the second leg of the Long March, get another month-long tourist visa or renew the one you already have in Hong Kong, and then travel back up north through the hinterlands and return to Beijing. As you might have already noticed, this trip was made for the rough and rugged backpacker with a thirst for adventure and time on their hands.
The Long March is perfect for anyone trying to scratch the surface of China and experience a diverse set of attractions. This itinerary has everything, from the religious to the communist to the ancient and the modern. As a warning, this extreme trip is a biggie and very time-consuming, and it involves a lot of overnight travel; take this into consideration before departing. If none of these are factors, then gear up like it’s 1934, and brace yourself for the Long March.
The First Leg
Beijing (4 days):Start in the mother of all Chinese cities and knock off some of the country’s best. The Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace are essential, but also be sure to spend some time wandering through the hutongs for hip bars and cafes. Also check out the altars scattered around town, the Houhai Lake area, and the city’s pulsating nightlife.
Pingyao, Shanxi (2 days):After the Big Cabbage, hop on the overnighter to another famous UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pingyao was once considered the Wall Street of China, and was the birthplace of Chinese banking. If you’re bearish, don’t worry, Pingyao is still one of the country’s most pleasant walled cities, with stunning Qing and Ming architecture. From Pingyao, take the overnight sleeper to Xi’an.
Xi’an, Shaanxi (3 days):
It’s a must to visit the UNESCO-awarded Terracotta Warriors and take a trip to the Tomb of the First Qin Emperor. For dinner, stroll the Muslim Quarter and gorge on some of China’s most delicious food from the nation’s Muslims minorities, then pass a day at the magnificent holy Taoist mountain of Mt Huashan close by. Once it’s all said and done, take the overnight train to the heart of Sichuan.
Chengdu, Sichuan (3-4 days): Spend one day at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base and pass another in the Tibetan Quarter. Also make sure to enjoy a drink by the lovely Jin River at Jiuyan Qiao Bar Street. Good side trips are to Leshan for the Big Buddha or a hike up Mt Emei Shan; both are just a few hours south of Chengdu.
Chongqing (1-2 days): From Chengdu, take the two-hour bullet train to the megacity of Chongqing. In Chongqing, rest and enjoy eating the province’s famed spicy snacks while navigating your way through the colossal maze of monstrous buildings and squeaky cable cars. Chongqing is also home to hot pot, so make sure to spend a night feasting, and you may want to consider a day trip to the countryside for a peek at rustic Chongqing life. Afterwards, stick to the plan and continue south on another overnighter to Guiyang.
Guiyang & Kaili, Guizhou (4-5 days): Get off the beaten track here at one of China’s lesser-known provincial capitals – Guiyang. Don’t spend too much time in the capital, however. Instead, go to the town of Kaili and use it as a springboard to bounce around the ethnic enclave of minority villages outside. Give yourself a few days to village-hop by bus or bike and experience an array of various ethnic cultures. Once you finish up in Kaili, head on to Guilin where you can easily connect to nearby Yangshuo.
Yangshuo, Guangxi (4 days): One of China’s premier tourist destinations, situated in the backdrop of lush lowlands, the Li River gushes between fairytale karsts while farmers drift in bamboo rafts in and around Yangshuo. There are numerous kayaking, hiking, biking and boating opportunities, along with tours to other fascinating places of interest.
Guangzhou, Guangdong (2 days): It’s time to reintegrate yourself back into the fast-paced big city after your time out in the countryside. Take the overnight train to old Canton from Guilin and savor Guangdong’s southern culture with a dim sum brunch. Stick around another day or so for more eating and shopping, relax in a traditional Cantonese-style park, or check out Shamian Island on the outskirts for a charming day trip.
Macau (3 days): Head to the ferry terminal in Guangzhou and take the fast boat to the Vegas of Asia and try your luck gambling at some of the big name casinos like the Wynn or the Venetian. For non-gamblers, this former Portuguese colony has some outstanding European architecture in the old town and wonderful dining options with Macau’s unique blend of Chinese and Portuguese influences. To continue on with the second leg, take the ferry to Hong Kong.
The Second Leg
Hong Kong (4 days): If you’re game for the second leg, spend a few days in Hong Kong whilst enjoying the city’s international vibe. Not only will you find traditional Hong Kong flavor, but also influences from just about every other country in the world. Apart from being a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has world class shopping and plenty of small, non touristy islands for eccentric exploration. For culture, try the open air Man Mo Temple and the Big Buddha, do some nature hiking or biking in one of the city’s numerous nature trails or let loose at Disneyland. Oh yeah, there’s also world-class nightlife in this thriving metropolis. Next, cross the border and re-enter the Mainland (make sure your visa is up to date) via Shenzhen.
Shenzhen, Guangdong (1-2 days): This is where China’s economic boom all started three decades ago. This swampy land was transformed in the blink of an eye with the government’s then-new open door economic policy in the late 70s, earning Shenzhen the title of the Overnight City as skyscrapers seemingly shot up overnight. Catch a glimpse of New China’s rat-race, but don’t stay long because one night in the Overnight City is enough. There’s not much to see, but it’s worth throwing on the docket for a transit stop and to get the feel of this vibrant city.
Changsha, Hunan (2-3 days): Take the night train from Shenzhen to Hunan’s capital and sample some of their traditional fiery Xiang cuisine. Make a day trip to Shaoshan: Mao Zedong’s birthplace and proverbial Mecca of the CCP. Next, hop on the overnight express train to Wuhan, but if you’re tired of the noisy bunks, try the bullet train which will zip you here in several hours.
Wuhan, Hubei (3-5 days): Enjoy the mammoth Yangtze port city by taking a walk along the river’s beach, and then swing by the former European concessions for Western architecture. You can also take a long day trip to the temple town of Jingzhou or visit the Three Gorges Damn on a speed boat. All the foodies out there may also want to spend a day at the city’s phenomenal open-air night markets for some unique and delicious snacks. Catch the fast train or overnight train to Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, but head to the bus station right across the street from the station and take the two-hour bus to Dengfeng to see the world famous, UNESCO-worthy Shaolin Temple.
Shaolin Temple, Henan (2-3 days): Spend a day or two touring the temple and the outstanding surrounding sites, and use another day to take a martial arts class with a real Shaolin monk. Also, hike up the gorgeous and holy Mt Songshan if you’re not too sore from the kung fu class. After your spiritual retreat, return to Zhengzhou to catch the overnight train to Qufu.
Qufu, Shandong (2 days): This is the birthplace of Confucius. There are plenty of temples and monuments dedicated to him, and you’ll learn plenty about one of the most influential individuals in history. It’s worth mentioning that this town, along with the famed Confucian Temple, is another one of China’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Mt Taishan, Shandong (2-3 days): Time for a workout! Burn off some calories with a climb to the top of one of the country’s holiest and most beautiful mountains, then give yourself a day’s rest to recuperate. You can take a bus or quick train to Shijiazhuang since it’s fairly close.
Shijiazhuang, Hebei (2-3 days): Give a few days to stomp around the much-celebrated temples of Zhengding and the superb medieval stone village in Yujiacun. Various trains and buses connect to your next destination: Tianjin.
Tianjin (2 days): Enjoy your last stop of the Long March in style in the glitzy metropolitan port city of Tianjin. Flashy skyscrapers tower over haughty 19th century European villas in the Port Treaty Area, and the Ancient Culture Street, with its aged drum tower, adds a nice touch. Once it’s all said and done, take the short train or bus ride back to Beijing to end the Long March.
Since the Long March covers such an extensive area, it can easily be combined with all of our other itineraries, so feel free to mix and match. From Beijing take the Nomad Lands. In Chengdu, follow the Tibetan Kora or hop on the Ethnic Expedition. Chongqing crisscrosses Riding the Yangtze, Xi’an intersects the Silk Road Excursion, Zhengzhou is at the heart of the Imperial Tour, and the Southeasterner is easily reached once in Wuhan. You can also do the Long March in different directions; try starting in Hong Kong and traveling clockwise if you fancy.