3-6 weeks Nomad Lands
The wild lands of Manchuria and Mongolia have a legendary history, and today are still some of China’s wildest places. Bold travelers will find this route and its snowy peaks, volcanoes and enormous crater-lakes to be the perfect adventure. For a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, follow this path up to China’s tippy-top and catch the northern lights in North Pole village.
China’s northeast, or Dongbei as it’s called in Mandarin, encompasses the three provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang. Often called Manchuria, it has been an enigmatic pest on the shoulders of imperial China for many years. The nomadic Manchurians shared their wandering – and raiding – spirit with the Mongolians to the west, and these two fierce and itinerant tribes not only inspired the construction of the Great Wall, but later overcame the rigorous Han defenses to establish their own dynasties in China. Though Dongbei has its own booming metropolises, a great deal of Manchuria and Inner Mongolia is still rugged, harsh and uniquely beautiful. One of China’s most overlooked adventures, the Nomad Lands swap China’s trademark sights for something more offbeat and is a great path for the returning China veteran who’s already seen the obligatory imperial palaces and southern villages.
Beijing (1 day)
Start out in Beijing, but unless you have more than three weeks for this tour, don’t put too much emphasis on Beijing’s big-name attractions (one reason this itinerary is best for returnees). You’re here to catch a train up north, specifically the old fortified Ming city of Xingcheng.
Xingcheng, Liaoning (2 days)
The train ride is five to seven hours, so whether you took a night sleeper or day ride through the earthy countryside, stay one night in the cozy and tranquil little town, getting to know the Old City and the beaches before the four hour train to Shenyang.
Shenyang, Liaoning (2-3 days)
Liaoning’s capital is not the end-all-be-all of your Manchurian/Mongolian tour, but it does have an awesome Qing Dynasty Imperial Palace, built by the Manchus when they finally broke through the Great Wall and began conquering China. You can explore the grand tombs of the father-son duo that built the palace, and brush up on local history and prehistory in the city’s good museums. On the last day, get a train to Dalian (4-6 hours).
Dalian, Liaoning (2-3 days)
The mellow seaside town of Dalian is renowned for its beaches and southern coastline (which you should spend at least a day getting to know), and if you’re around in late July, a sizzling beer festival comes to town. Next you’re off on a four-hour train to Dandong to spy on Kim Jong-un.
Dandong, Liaoning (3 days)
Get your fill of the DPRK (North Korea) by savoring the food and musings of the waitresses at any of a handful of North Korean restaurants in town, as well as with a stroll along the Broken Bridge, the Tiger Mountain Great Wall, Yalujiang Park and/or the Museum to Commemorate US Aggression. Save your third day to travel up the border to Ji’an; the bus is usually around three to four hours.
Note: There is one daily bus to Ji’an. If you miss it or don’t get tickets, your other option is taking one of two daily buses to Tonghua and grabbing a two-hour coach from here to Ji’an. Get your tickets early for the daily direct bus.
Ji’an, Jilin (2-3 days)
Spend a couple days in Ji’an relaxing, enjoying excellent Korean food, mingling with the friendly ethnic Korean population and tromping around the ruins and pyramids of the ancient Koguryo Kingdom. On the last day you’ll be on a nine-hour day-train through gorgeous countryside to China’s largest nature reserve.
Changbaishan, Jilin (2 days)
You’ll be dropped off in Baihe, the closest town to the reserve, where you can find cheaper lodging than inside the reserve. The majesty of Heaven Lake, and hiking around the mountain where Kim Jong-il was supposedly born, will fill a couple days. On the second evening, board the sleeper train to Changchun.
Changchun, Jilin (1-2 days)
Arriving in the morning, you can store your bags in the train station if you just plan to spend the day here. The Imperial Palace of the Manchu State, where Puyi spent his last years, is worth a visit. Stay the night if you must, otherwise forge on to the three-hour train to Harbin.
Harbin, Heilongjiang (3-4 days)
In Harbin kick up your feet and take it easy, first by exploring Old Harbin and all of its intriguing Jewish and Russian Orthodox architecture, then by wandering the fine parks and riverfront. Scarf up some barbecue and guzzle some beer at the beer gardens if you’re around in the summer, or be illuminated by the world-class Snow and Ice Festival if you come during the winter (however, the rest of this itinerary will be much rougher in the winter months).
From Harbin you have two options. Option A is a voyage to the dormant volcanoes of Wudalianchi. Option B is a far more ambitious route: it’s a very long way up to the distant Russian border town of Mohe, where the aurora-borealis dances over a few days in late June. To get to Wudalianchi, the bus-ride from Harbin is six hours, and moving from there to the west is relatively simple. The train to Mohe is 21 hours, while a direct flight travels once per day and takes three hours.
Option A – Wudalianchi, Heilongjiang (3 days)
Play your best Dr Grant while traipsing around the volcanic wonderland of Wudalianchi. You’ll need to stay in the city nearby and organize a ride to the incredible park. On the third day, take the six-hour train-ride to the sleepy town of Qiqihar, where you will need time to transfer to your sleeper train (8 hours) to Hailar.
Option B – Mohe, Heilongjiang (2-4 days)
If you are strong-willed enough (and have the cash) to make it to Mohe, make sure you do it at the end of June, when the Festival of the Aurora Borealis is lighting up the sky. Wonder at the Russian architecture and forested boggy landscapes as you put on another layer of warm clothes and hang out with the mixed-blood Russian/Chinese ethnic population. You can also skate further north to the North Pole Village for China’s most northern house. This one is doable in two days if you fork over the cash for a two-way plane ticket. Otherwise, if you take the train more than two of the four days you’ve devoted to Mohe will be train bound. From Mohe you can either make the trek back down to Harbin or head to Qiqihar for the overnight train to Hailar (there’s no direct transport from Mohe to Hailar.)
Hailar, Inner Mongolia (3-5 days)
The long road to Hailar shows just how sparse China’s rugged northwest is. Your rewards for such a leg-busting, train-hopping excursion are the breathtaking Hulunbuir Grasslands north of the city, as well as horse-back riding, yurt stays, delicious Mongolian cuisine and a few days simply mellowing out in the whisking beauty of China’s incredible northern frontier. When the time comes, get a train or a plane back to Beijing for your return home.
The Nomad Lands tour is long and wandering, but there are several connections to other itineraries, allowing you to mix it up or move off on diversions. Beijing hooks up with the Imperial Tour, and Dalian is the start or end point for Beaches and Beer.