The Wanderlust guide to the best of China

From bustling cities to rural enclaves that haven’t changed in centuries, China has something for everyone. Here’s your guide to its best bits and hidden corners

7 mins

China is big all over – 1.3 billion people, almost 10 million sq km. But don’t let its size daunt you. Rapidly-improving infrastructure has made China easier to travel now than ever before, and areas that were off-limits a few years ago are opening up to all.

In China’s eastern coastal region, thronging mega-cites such as Shanghai have hurtled head-first into the 21st century. But elsewhere you’ll still find people living traditional ways of life, as well as vast swathes of untouched landscapes.

Beautiful, diverse Yunnan is a travellers’ favourite. From its steaming jungles on the Laos border to its mountains and renowned Tiger Leaping Gorge near Tibet, this western province of China is packed with spectacular scenery.

Just north of Yunnan, Sichuan province is the place to go to see wild pandas and eat the best Chinese food. If you’d rather go tiger spotting, head to the nature reserves in the region formerly known as Manchuria, in China’s north-east.

If you’re after an epic journey, follow the old Silk Road in China’s north-west, beyond the Great Wall along the border with Mongolia. Here you’ll meet ethnic minorities – Turkic-speaking Uighurs, Hui Muslims and Mongols – and have the chance to stay in a yurt on the great steppe lands. Or follow the Yellow River to see magnificent historical buildings in China’s ancient dynastic capitals.

Shanghai (Paul Morrison) 

Looking for inspiration?

China has something for everyone, from bustling megalopolises to rural idylls and everything in-between. Paul Morrison sings the praises of Shanghai, where caged crickets chirp in the shadow of futuristic skyscrapers. Katherine Tanko reveals that it is still possible to escape the bustle and find peace amongst the rice paddies and karst rock peaks of southern China.

Dina Gardiner was so taken by the life of the nomads in remote Quinhai that she was tempted to buy a tent and join them. Amar Grover suggest seeking out one of the 80 different ethnic minorities living within China before it’s too late.

For the more active, William Gray recounts a long, slow bike ride through southern China, and Simon Lewis outlines eight different ways to hike the Great Wall for a unique take on this famous world wonder.

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Sky lights and street talk in Shanghai – Paul Morrison

Chinese whispers: rural life near Yangshou – Katherine Tanko

Nomads’ Land: Quinghai China – Dina Gardiner

Minority groups in China – Amar Grover

A slow bike through China – William Gray

8 ways to hike the Great Wall – Simon Lewis

Tribe (Jin Jian)

China’s secrets revealed

On The Go tour guide and native of Shandong, Jin Jian reckons the best way to appreciate his country is to eat, drink and sleep like a local. He tells you how.

Thomas Bird reveals the Pearl River’s Lucky Eight – the places the locals go to relax and have fun in this vastly underrated region. And the Wanderlust Team list the six things you must do next time you’re in Chengdu.

To the capital, and Clare Wilson suggests ten things to do for free in Beijing, gleaned from when she spent time there as a cash-strapped student. The flight crew from SAS, on the other hand, chose Beijing’s 5 coolest restuarants. Don’t worry, there’s one for every budget.

Finally, vegetarians will want to check out Jane Hughes’ guide to Chinese meals that are meat free. There could be anything on your plate in China. With Jane’s help you can be sure it was never wriggling.

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Jin Jian’s secret China – Jin Jian

The Pearl River Delta’s Lucky Eight ­– Thomas Bird

Top 6 things to do in Chengdu, China – Wanderlust Team

10 things to do for free in Beijing, China – Clare Wilson

5 cool Beijing restaurants – SAS Flight Crews

5 vegetarian Chinese meals – Jane Hughes

Pandas with Nigel Marvin

Everything you need to know about pandas

They’re cute. They’re cuddly. And according to Nigel Marvin, their survival should be at the top of our agenda. They’re pandas, and chances are you’ll want to see them when you visit China.

You’ve got a number of options. Paul Bloomfield recommends a panda trek in Shaanxi, the province north of Chengdu. Gabrielle Jaffe leans more towards Sichuan, not just because it's home to the panda research centre in Chengdu, but also because of the plethora of other things you can do in the province.

Whichever region you choose, Mark Carwardine says you’ll quickly become an expert on panda poo.

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The Importance of pandas – Nigel Marvin

Panda trekking in Shaanxi, China – Paul Bloomfield

Pandas and beyond in Sichuan province, China – Gabrielle Jaffe

Bamboo stalks and panda poo – Mark Carwardine

Chinese man in old hat (Shutterstock)

Chinese man in old hat from Shutterstock

Capturing it all on film

The tightly-cropped photo of an ancient, wrinkled Chinese face has become the staple of photographers visiting China, encapsulating the deep wisdom and inscrutability of this ancient land. But how do you capture such a shot without offending or insulting the locals?

The secret is taking the time to get to know your subject, says Steve Davey. Strike up a conversation. Put them at ease. He reveals the tricks and techniques you’ll need in his article, Perfect Portrait Shots.

Still looking for inspiration? Check out the amazing photos taken by our readers on their travels through China.

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Perfect portrait shots – Steve Davey

Readers’ photos taken in China

Bamboo (Wanderlust)

Everything you need to know

Ready to start planning your trip? Our China Travel Guide is the perfect place to start. Make sure you drop by our China Essential Info page too, for more everyday (but equally vital) information. China old hand, Simon Lewis also answers the most frequently asked questions about the country.

If you have a particular question about China, pop over to the myWanderlust Forum, where our knowledgeable community our ready to spring into action and share all that they know. Or check out the questions people have already asked about China. The answer to yours might already be there.

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China Travel Guide – Wanderlust Team

China Essential Info – Wanderlust Team

Travel in China: Frequently Asked Questions – Simon Lewis

China content from readers

Chengdu opera

Ready to go?

Our tour operator partners offer a spectacular range of trips to China. From Silk Road adventures and following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, to bespoke cuisine and cultural tours, there’s something to suit every taste and budget.

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Our Trip Finder can help you find adventures in China

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