Wondering where to go in China beyond Beijing and Shanghai? What to do other than the Great Wall? If you need some help crafting your China bucket list, you have come to the right article! The Red Dragon is a big country that is incredibly diverse. Even for someone like me who was born and raised there, I have yet to explore China in depth
A bit background about me:
I had a happy childhood growing up Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province. Although my family immigrated to Canada when I was 10, I always go back to visit. I have been to many wonderful places in China over the years, but I still feel like there are a million more to be discovered! Learn more about me here.
A return trip to the motherland is in the works this year and my goal is to do some hard core exploring this time. To help me (and you) gather some ideas, I asked my blogger friends about their most memorable experiences in China! They surely did not let me down as I got so many fun, unique and quirky suggestions. Some of them I never even heard of until now. Read on to see which of these activities you’d want to try!
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Attend the Biggest Ice Festival in Harbin
“Harbin Ice Festival in China is something you can’t miss at any cost! It will blow your mind with its awesome creativity and stupendous imagination. Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture International Festival is the world’s largest winter festival (600,000 square meters) held every year from the end of December to the end of February. It is a must see for everyone visiting China during this period! It attracts 10-15 million visitors every year with its tallest ice edifices reaching a height of 46 meters! 10,000 workers cut and haul the blocks of ice to make amazing sculptures which make this festival an important tourist attraction year after year. What sets the Harbin festival apart is the scale and size of the sculptures and the beautiful lighting. It is bigger than the ones in Sapporo, Norway, and Quebec. Harbin can be easily reached from Beijing via flights and trains. It is advisable to cover oneself up properly for the chilly weather in Harbin. There are various winter wonderland tours for visitors organized ranging from 2-6 days. You can find the details here. ”
Become a Panda Keeper in Chengdu
“One of the most unique experiences that you can’t miss in China is the opportunity to volunteer as a panda keeper for a day and get close to giant pandas. The panda volunteer program is available at a panda research and breeding center near Chengdu, China. Although it is called volunteering, you do have to pay a fee for the privilege. As a volunteer, you get a behind the scenes look at the panda base and perform some of the duties of the panda keepers. After a briefing about the pandas and the type of food they enjoy, we were then given the opportunity to feed the pandas ourselves. We also got to make panda cakes and even clean their cages and remove bamboo and panda poop – not as bad as it sounds because panda poop does not smell. Overall, it was a fun and educational experience and a way to learn more and interact with the adorable pandas.”
Tour Leshan Buddha and Emei Shan in Sichuan
“The highlight of my four week trip to China was my tour of Leshan for the Grand Buddha and Emei Shan, one of four sacred mountains in China. On the way to Emei Shan from Chengdu, we stopped off at Leshan. Carved into the rock was the largest Buddha I had ever seen! His toe was bigger than me! At Emei Shan, there are over 30 sacred Taoist and Buddhist temples. You can also arrange to stay overnight at the monastery. There is a lot of walking involved, with many steps up to the monastery which can be time consuming. However, there is an alternative way to get to the top by cable car. Surrounding the temples is the Mt. Emei natural ecology monkey reserve. The big guys are very forthcoming – one was even trying to pinch my water bottle! These monkeys are used to human visitors and not scared at all – it’s an opportunity to get up close with nature.”
Eat Strange Bugs in Beijing
“The Donghuamen Night Market in Beijing may be a total tourist trap but it’s still fun to do some people watching and eat some creepy crawlies to make a fun night out in Beijing. You’ll totally have to embrace your inner fear factor self to watch as they fry up scorpions, snakes, insects, and anything gross from the sea you can imagine to eat. Wash it down with a sweet Chinese tea topped off with dry ice! The small scorpion I tried really wasn’t that bad – just crunchy and salty. But the silkworm pupae was totally disgusting – no way I’ll ever eat that again!”
Observe a Unique Way of Living in Fujian
“The Fujian roundhouses – an UNESCO world heritage site – are an awesome place to visit on your next China trip. These huge roundhouses are actually small villages, with up to 800 people living together in the various rooms and sharing a courtyard in the middle. Most roundhouses in the Fujian region are still inhabited and local life is still preserved. I even had the chance to stay one night in one of the roundhouses, which was a unique experience. In particular, I felt like the traditional community life is very strong and while some of the roundhouses are converted into museums, the area still seems to be far away from becoming a tourist hotspot. Therefore, you’ll be rewarded by a glimpse into a beautiful and yet mostly unknown part of Chinese culture.”
Experience the Animal Market in Kashgar
“The animal market in Kashgar is an assault on the senses. From the moment you enter, it’s impossible to know which way to look as there’s something interesting in every direction. As you choose a course, your feet slip through the gelatinous mud while you hurriedly pick a pathway through the people and animals. To your right, there’s a heated discussion over a sheep, and for a moment, it looks like a fight may break out. Suddenly, everyone’s smiling and shaking hands as one man grabs the lead and pulls his newly purchased animal begrudgingly away. A slightly sweet scent fills the air, cutting through the smell of animals and manure. Just up the way, a man cuts up a giant watermelon. After a much calmer exchange than that of the sheep, you walk off with your freshly cut slice. Watermelon juice drips off the tip of your elbow, and you spit the seeds down onto the road. It mixes into the mud and muck below and for a fleeting second, you feel as if you almost belong. Kashgar is one of the Westernmost cities in China, more closely related to Central Asia than to the rest of China. The animal market in Kashgar happens every Sunday on the outskirts of town, and offers an interesting glimpse into local life. Take Bus #20 from the South West corner of the Grand Bazaar.”
Hike the Plank Road on Huashan Mountain
“You’ll find the Plank Road on Huashan Mountain, close to Xian. Take the cable car up the mountain and then hike for 3 hours to the start of the Plank Road. The trails are concrete with lots of steps. The Plank Road itself is just 50 metres long. But, it’s also 2,000 metres of straight down. And it’s only 45 centimetres wide. Pay your money, strap on a safety harness and then climb down a “ladder” of iron bars and steps that are cut into to the cliff. Once you get to the bottom of the 20-metre ladder you’re on the Plank Road. It’s named for those wooden boards that are the only thing between you and the valley bottom 2 kilometres below. Scared yet? There’s just one way in and the same way out. So, yes, you have to squeeze past people coming back as you’re heading out. There’s not much exertion involved in this part of the hike, but I guarantee your heart will beat faster and the adrenalin will be pumping. It’s an amazing feeling to have stepped off the edge of a cliff and returned!”
See the Terracotta Warriors
“A trip to China is not complete without a visit to the majestic Terracotta Warriors. The museum is one of the top things to do in Xi’an, a city located in northwest China and packed with historical sites and delicious food. You will need at least 3 hours to visit the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang and walk by the huge pits filled with more than 8,000 soldiers. The Warriors are impressive, the expressions, the armor and clothes were perfectly carved in terracotta back in 221 B.C. The history of the mausoleum and why the Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the creation of the terracotta warriors are even more impressive. At the pits you will see the whole army standing still, ready for the battle along with horses and chariots, it looks like people and history were frozen in time. If you have some spare time, you can visit some of the workshops around the museum and even try to create your own miniature terracotta soldier.”
Eat All the Street Food in Guizhou
“A can’t-miss experience anywhere in China is trying the local street food. Whether you use your eyes as a guide or – better yet – your nose, you will not be disappointed. Walking the streets of your destination, you can find food for any mood: sweet, sour, savory, refreshing, filling, or all of the above! Not only that, but my partner and I are vegetarians and had next to zero problems finding delicious meat-free or tofu-filled options on our two week trip to Guizhou province. For first-time samplers like ourselves, I would recommend starting with something simple and quick that includes only a handful of mostly-familiar ingredients. From there, you could work your way up to all sorts of new foods with new flavors unlike anything you have ever tried. By the time you go home, you will be lamenting the distance between yourself and all of the new foods you’ve come to know and love in China.”
Take a Hike in Hong Kong
“Hong Kong is one of the most famous cities in China well known for its British colonial past and condensed metropolis status. However, it isn’t all concrete jungle in this city of eight million people. Interestingly, one of the most unmissable experiences in Hong Kong is hiking. There are over 70% green area and mountainous region here, and with the urban build up, some hikes offer a spectacular view. While most tourists flock up the peak, for those who are adventurous and looking for a challenge, you must not miss the Kowloon Peak hike. Also nicknamed Suicide Cliff hike, which refers to a rock platform with a steep drop, the view you get of the entire Kowloon Peninsular and northern coast of Hong Kong island is unrivaled. If you stay until the sun goes down, you can watch the city light up with activities under the occasional smog, giving it a futuristic glow.”
Admire Portuguese Architecture in Macau
“Macau is only an hour away from Hong Kong by ferry and is well-known as the Las Vegas of Asia. But did you know that it’s a Portuguese colony? While it has since returned to China, Portuguese influences, especially architecture, can still be found everywhere. It is more authentic and fun to visit these historic gems than to gamble in casinos. The most famous landmark in Macau is the southern facade of the 17th century Church of St Paul, the rest of which was burned down during a thunderstorm and the nearby Senado Square. But even just walking around the historic center was like being transported to Portugal, with churches and houses in pastel shades and cobblestone streets. Fun fact: Macau was ‘sold’ to the Portuguese indefinitely by a corrupted local official in the Qing Dynasty and eventually returned to China when the times of colonies were over. You can still find Portuguese translation on all street signs, bus lines, and official documents!”
Drink Beer in Qingdao
“If you’re a beer lover then Qingdao should head up your unmissable experiences in China list. Qingdao is the city home to the eponymous (but differently spelt) Tsingtao beer. To pronounce both the beer and city name correctly say it like “ching-dow”. In Qingdao you will find the original 1903 Tsingtao brewery, still in operation as well as open for tours. We’ve done both the Heineken experience in Amsterdam and the Guinness Storehouse in Ireland but agree that the Tsingtao Beer Museum is the best! Maybe it’s because the Tsingtao experience doesn’t end with the museum itself. In fact, the museum is located on a street colloquially known as “beer street Qingdao” lined with alfresco terrace restaurants selling fresh seafood and fresh from the brewery Tsingtao beer! You can also buy takeaway beers poured directly from the keg into plastic bags with a straw from smaller street stalls. Qingdao is a seaside town so your daily schedule should be beach by day and beer street by night!!”
Hang Prayer flags over Yamdrok Tso in Tibet
“As my van wound its way through the Tibetan mountains, I noticed stand on strand of colorful prayer flags lining the rocky cliffs. Our guide, a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, explained that if you write a person’s name on a set of prayer flags, it acts as a prayer for the health and well-being of that person. When I finally reached the stunning turquoise lake, Yamdrok Tso, I knew it would be the perfect place to leave my own prayer. My friends and I hiked out to a far peak that was covered in prayer flags. The hike was a bit dangerous. One misstep and I could easily fall to my death (which I almost did at one point… whoops). When we finally made it to the rock, we each used a sharpie to write our chosen names and hung our flags to overlook the incredible scenery. If you ever plan an adventure to Tibet, be sure to get your own set of prayer flags to leave for your loved ones. It’s truly an incredible experience!”
Best Advice on Tackling Your China Bucket List
Now you got your China bucket list, it’s a bit intimidating isn’t it! China is a huge country with so much going on. Before you go, here are 5 quick tips you should know.
Take advantage of the train system
China has one of the most extensive train networks in the world! The high speed G-Trains connect many big cities and they are crazy fast, not to mention comfortable and clean. New HSR connections are constantly being built. So convenient!
Use local sites for booking flights
If you are flying within China, compare the rates on Chinese booking sites such as C-Trip with your usual western booking sites. The local sites sometimes offer cheaper pricing!
Buy a local SIM card
You can buy a SIM card in most convenient shops on the street or at the airport. They are not too expensive. However, the cards are usually for the province they are sold in. So beware of roaming charges if you go beyond the province.
Did you know that you won’t be able to access all your favourite online social places in China? No Facebook. No Twitter. No Youtube. NO INSTAGRAM! Yes in order to climb over this great firewall, you’ll need to get VPN.
Learn some Chinese
Although it’s getting better and better, there are still many places in China where you will be stuck because you can’t get any help in English (or other languages). Especially if you are planning to visit the smaller cities or remote regions, learning some Chinese or having a phrase book would be a good idea.
What are some of your China bucket list suggestions? Let us know in the comments below!
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