China is undeniably an intriguing and massive country with over 56 ethnic groups and an amazingly diverse landscape. From the mega-cities of Beijing and Shanghai in the east, along the silk-road to the ancient trading city of Kashgar in the west, the unique mountain formations in the south and the dry Gobi Desert and sand dunes in the north.
This was my second trip to China and Angie’s first. As we only had 4-weeks I put together this epic itinerary which took us across China on a very reasonable budget. We saw as much of China as possible in that time. Whilst the pace might seemed rushed to some, it was actually quite comfortable since we took overnight trains between cities allowing more time to explore during the day.
Be sure to watch a little video of our trip: Escape: Episode 2 – China (2016).
If you’re looking for diversity in your China trip, with a touch of adventure, along the roads less travelled, whilst also visiting the mega cities of Beijing and Shanghai, all on a budget, then this itinerary is a good starting place to plan your own trip.
Our itinerary was as follows:
Guilin – Yangshuo – Fenghuang – Zhangjiajie – Shanghai – (Hushan) – Xi’an – Jiayuguan – Urumqi – Turpan – Kashgar – Karakul Lake – Kashgar – Beijing
- Riding mountain bikes amongst the karst mountains in Yangshuo
- Exploring the old town of Fenghuang set along a beautiful river
- Hiking to the “Avatar” mountains in Zhangjiajie National Park
- Taking the world’s longest cable car (7.5kms) up to Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie City
- Eating till our bellies ached on a Shanghai dumpling tour
- Braving the crowds to visit the Terracotta Warriors
- Climbing the end of the Great Wall in Jiayuguan
- Hanging out in Urumqi – the most remote city (from any sea) in the world
- Watching Uighur traders buy and sell animals at the livestock bazaar in Kashgar
- Sleeping in a yurt with a Kyrgyz family next to the inspiring and remote Karakul Lake
- Indulging at the 5-star Legendale Hotel in Beijing
Below is our itinerary in detail, as well as links to the hotels/hostels we stayed at. We’ve also included ideas on other things to do in each area so you can adjust the itinerary to suit your personal taste and style.
China is a relatively cheap country and very easy to get around. We did this trip on a budget with the occasional splurge, and chose to stay in private rooms at all hostels.
All trains were booked in advance through China DIY Travel (good service, small commission). We booked all buses the day before in the city of departure for convenience and flexibility.
Days 1-4: Guilin, Yangshuo, Longji Rice Terraces
With a well-connected international airport, Guilin is a nice place start your trip in China. We flew from Sydney to Guilin (via Kuala Lumpur) on AirAsia. From Guilin it’s only 1.5 hours south by bus to the town of Yangshuo where you can hire mountain bikes and explore beautiful karst mountains and caves. It’s also great for rock climbing or a leisurely ride down the Li River on a bamboo raft. To get an idea of Yangshuo’s beauty – just look on the back of the ¥20 note.
We actually stayed in Guilin for four days and just did a day trip to Yanghsuo on the second day. We then explored more of Guilin on the third and fourth day. However it’s probably better to spend one day in Guilin, two days in Yangshuo, followed by a day trip to the Longji Rice Terraces of Longsheng.
Where we stayed: Hostel Sky Palace in Guilin – good central location, clean rooms, nice rooftop common area and tasty food.
Day 5: Fenghuang
A little off the typical tourist trail, there’s no direct train from Guilin to Fenghuang but there’s an 11am bus that leaves every day for the 4 hour journey. An afternoon/night is all you need to see Fenghuang – the old town is small but absolutely beautiful. This place was a real highlight for us and although there were a lot of Chinese tourists around we didn’t see any other foreigners. There are stepping stones which cross the river which makes for great photos – just make sure you don’t fall in as the current can be strong! Also be sure to visit the river at night when the old town lights up and comes alive.
Where we stayed: Fenghuang More Inn – we really enjoyed this place, very homely and comfortable feel, family owned, very friendly and helpful staff. The rooms were new and clean, and the location is good right in the middle of the old town (although it can be hard to find so print out directions beforehand!)
Days 6-8: Zhangjiajie City, Zhangjiajie National Park
From Fenghuang there’s a 4.5 hour bus to Zhangjiajie City which leaves around noon. When you arrive in town on the afternoon of Day 6, use your time to organise your route for the hike around the National Park the following morning on Day 7. You’ll need to leave early to beat the crowds/heat noting the entrance to the National Park is about 1 hour away from the city by bus.
There are a whole bunch of hiking routes you can take in the National Park with varying levels of difficulty. Most people will say you need two days to see the National Park – but it is possible to see most of it including the Avatar Mountains in one long day if you plan it well. The information online regarding routes is a bit hard to find and confusing, so it’s best to just speak to your hotel/hostel or other travellers once you arrive in Zhangjiajie City.
On Day 8 it’s important to wake up early and dedicate a few hours to visiting Tianmen Mountain right in the middle of Zhangjiajie City. The queues build up quick so plan to arrive just before it opens. The cable car ride up the top is the world’s longest at 7.5kms! It’s quite enjoyable and the views are awesome. At the top there’s a hiking path with some spectacular look out points. You’ll then walk down heaps of steps where you can see the famous “key hole” in the mountain.
As the entrance to the National Park and Tianmen Mountain are actually quite expensive at around A$50 per person (students cheaper), if you had to choose between just one, we would suggest Tianmen Mountain – the hike was a lot easier (all flat!) and the views just as good.
After Tianmen Mountain (it should only take a few hours), have a shower and get ready to go to Shanghai! We took train K808 which leaves Zhangjiajie City at 3:57PM and arrives in Shanghai at 12:58PM the next day. However there are some bullet trains available and of course you could fly but where’s the fun in that?
Where we stayed: Zhangjiajie Yijiaqin Hotel – very close to the train station, helpful staff who spoke good English and gave us recommendations on the National Park routes. They also gave us free transfers to/from the train station and organised discounted Tianmen Mountain tickets!
Days 9-11: Shanghai
Shanghai doesn’t really need much of an explanation. It’s a massive city worthy of at least a few days. We decided to stay near Nanjing Road – Shanghai’s famous shopping strip. It’s a pretty central location good for tourists and from there it’s only a few minutes’ walk to other key sights like The Bund and the Old City.
Shanghai is a real foodie city – make sure you book in for a dumpling tour (we recommend UnTour Shanghai) and try Shanghai’s famous xiao long bao (soup dumplings). They are our absolute favourites! As are the pan fried pork dumplings! Yum! We actually learned how to make the pan fried pork dumplings as part of the dumpling tour.
Where we stayed: Mingtown Nanjing Road Youth Hostel – good location just off Nanjing Road, it’s a decent place for those on a budget, lots of foreigners dorms and private rooms available.
Days 12-14: Xi’an, Huashan
On the night of Day 11 in Shanghai we took an overnight bullet train to Xi’an (train D306 leaves at 9:58PM and arrives early the next morning).
The main attraction in Xi’an is obviously the Terracotta Warriors. The city itself is also pretty cool as it’s an old walled city with an impressive Drum Tower and interesting Muslim Quarter. Exploring the city and visiting the Warriors can all be done on the day you arrive if you really wanted (giving you an extra day in Shanghai), or you could spread it out over Days 12 and 13.
On Day 14 it’s possible to do a day trip to Huashan for some hiking – we we’re actually over hiking by this stage so decided against it at the last minute. However the Huashan National Park is only 45 minutes from Xi’an and is home to a collection of 5 peaks. It’s also famously known as the “Most Dangerous Hiking Trail in the World”.
Where we stayed: Xian Travelling with Hostel North Branch – just outside of the city walls, the rooms are clean, well-priced, and there’s a comfortable common area.
Days 15-16: Zhangye or Jiayuguan
On the night of Day 14, catch an overnight train to Zhangye (train K169 leaves Xi’an at 10:01PM and arrives at 12:31PM the next day). Otherwise a couple more hours will take you to Jiayuguan.
Our initial plan was to go to Zhangye and the nearby Danxia National Geological Park – famous for its red rocks and rainbow ridges. However we made a last minute adjustment and ended up going to Jiayuguan instead – famous for its Fort and Overhanging Great Wall, as well as a nearby glacier! If you have the time you could go see both.
Where we stayed: GreenTree Inn (Jiayuguan) – good location in the centre near some bars, clean and comfortable rooms.
Days 17-18: Dunhuang
If you decided to go to Zhangye on Days 15-16, there’s a fast train that leaves Zhangye West at 11:06AM, arriving at Liuyuan South at 2:41PM. From there it’s a 2 hour bus ride to Dunhuang. Otherwise it’s possible to take an overnight sleeper bus from Zhangye direct to Dunhuang (although from previous experience the trains are a lot more comfortable).
Otherwise if you decided to go to Jiayuguan, there are a number of trains that go direct to Dunhuang (5 hours). That’s the main reason why we decided to go to Jiayuguan over Zhangye.
Dunhuang is famous for its Mogao Caves filled with Buddhist art and manuscripts, as well as the sand dunes and Crescent Oasis of the Gobi Desert just south of town. There are some cool activities you can do at the sand dunes including camel rides, quad biking, camping etc. Just inquire at your hotel/hostel when you arrive.
Where we stayed: Dunhuang Xinlong Hotel – a good clean hotel, located 5 minutes from the bus terminal and right next to the main shops and restaurants.
Days 19-21: Urumqi, Turpan
On the night of Day 18, we took an overnight train to Urumqi. Unfortunately all trains from Dunhuang to Urumqi depart from Liuyuan which is 2 hours away from Dunhuang by bus. Train T197 leaves from Liuyuan at 10:45PM, arriving at Urumqi South at 7:28AM.
Urumqi is a huge city, the capital of Xinjiang province with a large Uyghur population. It’s a cool place to spend a couple of days, and observe the mix of cultures. Urumqi is known as the most inland major city in the world – the farthest from any ocean.
In Urumqi you can check out the Grand Bazaar for some shopping and the busy People’s Park. It’s important to try the local cuisine – my favourite in all of China – pulled noodles (called lagman), baked mutton dumplings (called samsas) and pilau rice (called polo)!
On Day 21, pack up your stuff and head to Turpan – 1 hour away from Urumqi and the second lowest point on Earth (after the Dead Sea in Israel/Jordan) at 154m below sea level. Turpan is famous for its grapes and its Flaming Mountain (popularised in the Chinese mythological novel, Journey to the West).
After spending the day in Turpan, catch an overnight train to Kashgar (train K9787 departs Turpan at 6:53PM and arrives in Kashgar at 11:22AM).
Where we stayed: The Grand Mercure in Urumqi – the perfect place to recharge halfway through the trip, with some creature comforts and 5 star luxury at a very reasonable price (around AU$100/night!).
Days 22-25: Kashgar, Karakul Lake, Tashkurgan
Located in the extreme west of China – Kashgar is a part of China not many tourists visit. The local population is a mixture of Uyghurs, Han Chinese, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks, boasting a colourful ethnic variety. If you’ve made it this far – congratulations!
Kashgar is home to a beautiful old town, some massive bazaars (including the Sunday livestock market) and some great Uyghur cuisine. It’s easy to spend a couple of days here just wandering around and people watching in the Main Square.
No stop to Kashgar is complete without an overnight visit to Karakul Lake. In my opinion it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth and is the reason why I came back to Xinjiang after 6 years to show Angie.
Located on the famous Karakoram Highway to Pakistan, there’s a bus which leaves Kashgar to Tashkurgan every morning, which goes via Karakul Lake (5-6 hour journey). Just tell the bus driver and he’ll drop you at the Lake (near a small Kyrgyz village). When you get off the bus you’ll see some yurts – it’s possible to stay overnight here – highly recommended!
Once at the Lake, it’s possible to do a camel/motorbike/horse ride around the Lake (just ask one of the locals), or you could do some hiking around Mutgaza Ata (a massive 7500m mountain).
From Karakul Lake, if you have time, it’s possible to continue along the Karakoram Highway for a couple of hours to the Tajik town of Tashkurgan (where they filmed scenes for Kite Runner), or even further to the Khunjerab Pass (China/Pakistan border) for a photo opportunity. If you miss the bus you may have to resort to hitch hiking as there’s only one bus a day in either direction. Hitchhiking is quite common and safe on these remote roads so don’t be put off!
Otherwise if you just want to head back after Karakul Lake, you can wait for a passing bus/hitchhike back to Kashgar.
Where we stayed: Kashgar Pamir Youth Hostel – pretty basic but a nice place to meet other travellers. Good location just opposite the main square with a shaded rooftop area perfect for relaxing. Otherwise there’s always the 5 star Radisson Blu for about AU$100/night!
Days 26-30: Beijing
From Kashgar, it’s possible to fly to Urumqi then onto Beijing in one day. There are many flights between each city minimising your layover in Urumqi. Flights are also reasonably cheap if you do your research. We flew China South Airlines from Kashgar to Urumqi (10:45AM to 12:35PM for AU$121) then Urumqi to Beijing (2:45PM to 6:20PM for AU$169).
If you have followed this itinerary, by this stage you might need to pinch yourself considering two days ago you were sleeping in a yurt in the middle of nowhere and now you’re in the mega city of Beijing!
Be sure the check out the main sights – Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Wangfujing Street, the 798 Art Zone, Silk Street (fake goods market), and of course the Great Wall. Plenty to keep you occupied for a few days before you fly home.
Where we stayed: Legendale Hotel – this hotel is one of the nicest hotels we’ve ever stayed in. We decided to stay here on our last night in China as a treat and loved every minute of it. It’s a truly opulent and indulgent 5 star hotel with a classic European vibe. It’s the perfect way to end your China trip. Stay in the Suite like we did for something really special!
Otherwise if you’re on a budget, try the Beijing Sanlitun Hostel – we stayed here for a few days whilst exploring the expat district of Sanlitun. There’s a busy bar and restaurant downstairs, with pretty decent private rooms.
So there you have it! One month in China exploring top to bottom, east to west. Of course there’s so much more to China – this is just a sample. However when I was there in 2010 I spent 4 months travelling all around and these were some of my favourite places (especially in Xinjiang) which is why I just had to came back with Angie this time.
That said, there are some spectacular places in Yunnan province worthy of a trip in their own right. And of course there’s Tibet. I would say 1 month is the minimum you should dedicate to China to get a good taste of it. If you have longer – great! Otherwise, like me, you might find yourself coming back again and again!
Planning a trip to China? Let us know where you plan to go! Or if you’ve already been, tell us what your favourite places were in the comments section below!