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Discover your China

Oliver's China travel guide

Hello there! It's Oliver here.

In my China travel guide: I'll help you travel China like a local. I'll take you through alternative routes, unknown by most tourists.

If you're like me, you're seeking a truly authentic travel experience. You're in the right place - I'll help you to fully submerge yourself into Chinese culture.

I lived in China for 4 years, alongside the locals in Zhengzhou, Henan province. It became my second home. During this time, I travelled through 19 of the 23 provinces, discovering many hidden gems that the country has to offer. When it comes to China, if you want insider travel knowledge- I'm your guy!

Check out my guide to learn how to travel like a local.

This guide includes:
  • An incredible alternative way to see the Great Wall of China.
  • Everything you need to know about visiting the Sichuan province.
  • Insider knowledge on the most unique Chinese province, Yunnan.

How to see the Great Wall like a local

"The best part about The Great Wall: there are so many different ways to explore it"

Why to see it:

The Great Wall is China's most famous attraction, and for good reason. It's one of the new 7 Wonders of the World. Don't worry, I'm still uncovering the less well-known parts of China. However, there are ways to see The Great Wall of China, in your own unique way.

Where to see it:

The first question that needs to be answered is "which part of the wall do you want to go to?"

Badaling- The most popular route for Chinese tours. If you're looking to do things differently, this probably isn't for you as you'll definitely encounter large crowds. Check out Roisin's travel guide for more information on this part of the wall.

Mutianyu- Popular with international tourists, this part of the wall is authentically restored steep but does not require advanced levels of hiking.

Jinshanling- Half restored, half wild, this is arguably the most beautiful part of the wall.

Simatai- Simatai is the only part of the wall with night access. So if you're a night owl, this could be your perfect way to see this wonder of the world.

How to get there:

My biggest advice would be to wait until you get to Beijing and use the hostels to book a trip to the Great Wall. Here are the 3 questions you should ask when booking your tour:

  1. "What part of the wall does this tour take me to?" Make sure you're being dropped off at the spot that works best for you.

  2. "How long do I get at the wall?" There's nothing worse than booking a trip and finding out that you have hours of bus journey time and only an hour at the wall.

  3. "Are there shopping stops included?" A lot of Chinese tours include stops where you'll be expected to get out, spend money and shop. So if you want to spend the most amount of time possible at the wall, opt for a tour without shopping stops.

Once you arrive at the wall, the tour guide will drop you off at a stop, leave you for a set amount of time, and arrange to pick you up at the next point. This gives you freedom to walk across a section of the wall at your own pace.

How to see it:

I won't lie, the Great Wall is definitely instagram-worthy. The problem is, it attracts huge crowds. I've given you my favourite 3 ways to overcome this - if you dare to be different. I'll show you how to see the Wall from less well-travelled paths. Don't worry, you'll have plenty of chances for photos.

Option 1: Take a cable car.

The Wall disappears in to the sea on the east coast in Shanhaiguan, goes through the mountains north of Beijing, stretches out all the way to the desert and finishes at Jiayuguan in the West. You can hike or take a cable car ride and be exposed to unbelievable views. Seeing the wall from unique angles is something I love to do and, for me, it definitely beats standing shoulder to shoulder with a stranger in the tourist hot-spots!

Option 2: Toboggan down.

If you're looking to do something different, check out tobogganing down from the Mutianyu section of the wall. Not many people can say they went on a toboggan chute when exploring The Great Wall of China, so why not make it your thing? The twists and turns make it a spectacular, unique ride (and can be a nice break from hiking too).

Option 3: Marathon? It's on.

For those who love to run, The Great Wall Marathon could be perfect for you. Marathon AND The Great Wall of China? You could check off off two life-goals at the same time.

When to see it:

By discovering the Wall in your own unique way, it won't matter what time of day you see it. As you'll be heading to a less-well known part, mass amounts of tourists shouldn't be an issue. I enjoy visiting the wall during May and June, as the weather is usually dry, sunny and not too hot - ideal for hiking and exploring. Visiting in the winter is also picturesque when the wall is covered in snow.

Top tip:

Take water with you! As you venture the less travelled areas of the wall, there will be less stalls/shops, so make sure that you're well stocked up for the day (particularly if you're hiking in the mid-day heat).

Why to see it:

Two words: giant pandas. Chengdu is renowned for being home to the giant pandas- and they do not disappoint. They look like clumsy humans in suits. Trust me, it's worth it.

Where to see it:

The Panda Breeding Centre in Chengdu is the perfect place to sit and watch giant pandas for hours on end. You'll never get tired of watching them fall over each other, climb up the trees and get stuck hanging upside down. The centre also cares for other rare animals, and serves as an incredible restorative facility that gives you the opportunity to see endangered species.

How to get there:

1. Metro/Bus

Make your way to Panda Avenue metro station (line 3) and take Exit B. The Hi Panda Shuttle Bus (成都景区直通车) will take you directly to the Panda Research Base. You can buy a return shuttle bus and entrance tickets for (roughly ¥54). The first shuttle is at 7:50am, so get there early to make the most of your day.

2. Taxi

Potentially a more expensive option but it is one of the fastest ways to get to the panda breeding centre. You can pay your entrance fee at the ticket booth (around ¥55).

How to see it:

The Pandas are at the back of the park, so starting at the back and working your way to the entrance is a great way to beat the crowds. By doing things backwards, you'll be moving in opposition to the tour groups and are more likely to get a peaceful moment with the animals.

When to see it:

I live by the phrase "the early bird catches the worm." I'd say that 8am is the perfect time to visit the Panda Breeding Centre. There are less crowds at this time, and the pandas tend to be more active than in the heat of the day. Once you're there, you can take your time, and spend as long as you like wandering around the centre.

If you're wondering what time of year is best to visit the pandas, the great news is that Giant pandas don't hibernate! So you can see them all year round.

Top tip:

If seeing baby pandas is on your bucket list (which it should be), head to the breeding centre towards the end of summer, after finishing camp. It's the perfect time, as most giant pandas are born in August.

"I've never met anyone who doesn't like pandas."

Why to see it:

If you love being in nature as much as I do, Jiuzhaigou National Park is an absolute must-see. You'll see impressive waterfalls, clear blue lakes, and mountains in the distance. Enjoy a day strolling around the valleys, fully emerge yourself in the tranquility of the park, and embrace the peacefulness of being one of the few non-native speakers.

How to get there:

1. Bus

09:00 from Chendgu. The drive is beautiful but can take around 9 hours each way. This is the cheapest option and takes you directly to the park, but be sure to take plenty of food with you!

2. Fly

The quickest way to get to the Jiuzhaigou National Park is to fly. There are numerous direct flights each day between Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou Huanglong airport, so check online to find the best option. From there you can take the airport shuttle bus (roughly ¥50) to the park. It only takes an hour and a half but does require a minimum of 10 passengers. Alternatively, you could jump in a taxi for a fixed rate ¥260.

Once you arrive you can purchase an entrance ticket:

Peak season (¥220)- The whole park should be open but it is more expensive and busy.

Off peak (¥80)- Cheaper entrance fee and you have the option to buy a 2 day ticket for an extra ¥20 (make sure you get your picture printed onto your ticket so that you can re-enter the next day). However, many trails and roads may be closed.

How to see it:

There are no personal transport options once you are inside the park so there are two modes of transport you can choose from.

1. Bus

You can purchase a one day bus ticket (around ¥90) when you buy your entrance fee. This is ideal if you want to see the upper parts of the park. The buses work as a hop-on, hop-off service which is ideal if you want to see as much of the park as possible. They are very frequent and an effective way to get around.

2. Walk

Walking from the park entrance to the stunning Nurilong waterfalls takes around 3 hours and is completely doable. Walking does limit how much of the park you'll be able to see, but you are still able to take in the incredible scenery if opting for this more cost-effective option.

When to see it:

The scenery at Jiuzhaigou is stunning throughout the year. I personally love to visit around the end of September as the temperature is just right- sunny with a nice breeze. If you love autumnal colours, the trees at the park are unbelievable from mid-October to early November, but be prepared for more crowds.

Top tip:

Check Chinese national holidays before you plan your trip, as Jiuzhaigou National Park can be really crowded on public holidays.

The natural scenery in Jiuzhai Valley is almost guaranteed to be your next favourite spot.

"Do go chasing waterfalls."
"The big question is: Can you handle the spice?"
Why to taste it:

So this section is for my fellow foodies. As you may know, the Sichuan province is renowned for it's legendary food (if that's not reason enough to visit, I don't know what is). There are Sichuan restaurants all over China but nothing beasts the authenticity of trying it in Sichuan itself. So be prepared to take your taste buds on an authentic Chinese journey like no other.

How to taste it:

So how do you go about trying Sichuan food? Sichuan is my favourite Chinese cuisine but remember that it is very spicy. I tend to opt for dishes with Sichuan peppercorns in. This type of peppercorn makes your lips and tongue tingle and feel numb, which definitely helps with the spice.

When to taste it:

You can find street vendors and restaurants with this cuisine at all times throughout the day. I'd personally opt for a delicious Sichuan dish in the evening for dinner as the flavours are so bold and tasty.

Where to taste it:

There are hundreds of tasty places to try this cuisine in Sichuan, so walk into a place and give it a go. Here are 2 hidden gems that you will find in Chengdu, Sichuan:

Yan Taipo Guokui- If you want the best stuffed guokui in Chengdu then this is the place. You'll see it from a mile off as the line is always so long... but it is definitiely worth it!

Bashu Dazhaimen Hot Pot- If it's hot pot you're after then you have to head to one of these restaurants. With locations across Chengdu, the food and Sichuanese atmosphere are unbeatable. You're sure to get that mouth numbing sensation from the amount of Sichuan peppercorns they use in the hot pot oil!

Go to dishes:
  • Kung Pao Chicken (宫保鸡丁 / gōngbǎo jīdīng)
  • Twice Cooked Pork (回锅肉 / huíguōròu)
  • Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐)- Great for vegetarians but double check as this dish is often mixed with minced beef or pork.
Top tip:

A Chinese phrase that may come in handy is 不辣 (bu la) which means 'not spicy'!

Why to see it:

There's nowhere else like it. In Yunnan, you'll find diverse scenery, unique cuisine, and a rich traditional culture that cannot be found anywhere else in China. With different food, small villages and an array of rice terraces, this part of China almost gives off a South East Asia feel.

How to see it:

Yunnan is renowned for being different. Populated by various, diverse cultures, a lot of people in Yunnan embrace a traditional, basic lifestyle. You'll find that locals live and work in communities where they tend to the land, shop at the markets and work together to uphold the community. Wandering from town to town is definitely the way to get the true essence of Yunnan. As the locals wear their traditional dress, you’ll start to notice the different communities by their different coloured dress.

Though it may sound cliche, the locals are the friendliest people in the world, so definitely attempt to chat to them whenever you can (or give them a wave back)!

When to see it:

The beauty of Yunnan is that it is a well-kept secret. So you'll get a similar experience no matter what time of year you visit.

Top tip:

Though Yunnan is a big province, it doesn’t have the same rail links as the rest of China. If you’re heading south of Dali/Lijiang/Kunming, then be prepared for long coach or bus journeys between towns. They can take up to 20 hours with just a few stops and food breaks can be few and far between. Stock up on enough food to last you the whole trip!

"If you want to discover a province that is like no other, Yunnan is the place for you."
Why to see it:

You'll find rice fields across the whole of Yunnan, but my favourite are the Yuanyang rice terraces. The incredible colours, friendly locals, and vast mass of the place make it unforgettable. If you want to embark on a unique adventure during your time in China, these terraces cannot be missed.

How to get there:

1. Bus

There are 3 buses every day from Kunming South bus station (roughly ¥150) which take around 7 hours.

How to see it:

The bus ride up to the Yuanyang town is unbelievable, as you wind up and down the mountains and through the valleys. If the fields aren't flooded, I recommend wandering through the villages and fields and taking in the impressive scenery.

As you're hiking across the rice terraces, you'll be impressed by how skilled the locals are at maneuvering through the fields.

I can vividly remember tiptoeing around, being extremely careful, when a 90-year old lady came bounding past me. She climbed up the terraces at rapid speed, all the while laughing at how slow I was being. You're almost guaranteed to get this kind of genuine cultural experience when visiting the Yuanyang rice terraces.

When to see it:

Visiting throughout the summer is incredible. The fields flood completely, and when the sun sets, you get to see the incredible reflections. Even throughout the spring and autumn months, the rice fields are impressive, and the weather is relatively warm.

Top tip:

Watch your step! The rice terraces can be quite deep and there’s not much space to walk along, so take care as you're walking through the fields.

Why to see it:

If you're searching for a mysterious Chinese cultural experience, Lugu Lake is the one for you. Inhabiting the island villages on the lake are the Mosuo people. They are quite unique, as they live in a matriarchal society where the women hold the main positions in society. The females are responsible for operating production, bringing up the children and, interestingly, families are traced through the female line. As well as the cultural element, the natural beauty of Lugu Lake remains unspoiled. As it is still an unknown to many tourists, you'll discover that it's one of China's best kept secrets.

How to get there:

1. Mini bus

Available from Lijiang, Yunnan or Xichang.

On arrival it costs ¥100 to enter the lake area.

How to see it:

I went to a couple of places around the coast of the lake which were incredible. You'll find tonnes of restaurants that do barbeque-style food. The whole table is one big BBQ grill, and you order things to cook on there. This type of eating creates a family-like atmosphere, so it is easy to see how it can become a really special and significant moment while you are travelling in China.

There are also 5 islands on Lugu Lake that you can reach by boat. You can go to these islands to visit Mosuo families and take part in bonfires. If you're taking a few days to explore the lake, this is be a unique endeavor that cannot be replicated elsewhere in China.

When to see it:

Spending a full day at the Luga Lake is idyllic, as the colour of the water itself changes throughout the day. Get there early to see the morning mist that covers the water, and keep watching throughout the day as the lake turns a darker green colour as the hills cast shadows on the lake.

Lugu Lake is a great spot to visit at any point throughout the year, as the water is picturesque and remains still in every season. My favourite time to visit is during the spring, when birds are chirping and the grass is extra green on the hills. Heading out to Lugu Lake and exploring Yunnan before going to camp is an awesome way to expose you to unique Chinese culture before settling in at camp.

Top tip:

A lot of the local communities now depend on tourism, so spending your money locally by buying hand made crafts/gifts is a good way to support them. Make sure you bring cash as there are limited ATM sources.

Oliver - Global Programs Advisor & Adventure China Travel Guide Expert

Having spent 4 years living in China, Oliver is just the guy you'll want to get in touch with. He now uses his expertise to help explorers discover the wonders of China. His China travel guide is full of insights and alternative ways to see the Orient.