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  • Writer's pictureWanderlust Mike

Exploring China: Top Destinations You Can't Miss

From day one, China exceeded our expectations. The country, with it's ancient architecture and magnificent vistas, was breathtaking. But it was the the people that truly won our hearts.

map of china
Our route through China

This was our first trip to Asia, and I wanted to explore it's birthplace - China. We lodged in Beijing, Chengdu, Emeishan, Guilin, Yangshuo, and Hong Kong. From day one, China exceeded our expectations. The country, with it's ancient architecture and magnificent vistas, was breathtaking. But it was the the people that truly won our hearts. So friendly, and happy to see a foreigner enjoying their country.

“Yangshuo was our favorite city, surrounded by majestic karst mountains. Incredible landscapes in every direction!”

Our first stop was Beijing, with lodging at Beijing Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel in a traditional hutong district. Our favorite places there included the exquisite Buddhist Lama Temple where we witnessed the mesmerizing sounds of monks chanting in the morning, Temple of Heaven, the beautiful Summer Palace and grounds, the Great Wall at Mutianyu, and wonderful Beihai Park adorned in lotus blossoms and willow trees.

We entered the Forbidden City (known as the Palace Museum) as well. After its completion in 1420, the Forbidden City was home to 24 emperors during the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. The last emperor of imperial China, Puyi (1906–67), was expelled from it in 1925. We needed our passports to enter, so just be aware that you must carry them with you on the day you plan to visit. We recommend you stray left or right from the main path to visit some of the smaller, more intimate gardens. They have indoor museum exhibits as well.

We also attended a classic Peking opera at the Liyuan Theatre. The costumes were beautiful and intricate! The singing? Well, a little shrill to our ears. lol

temple beijing china

peking opera costume

We utilized the public transit system to get around Beijing and it was no problem at all. The subway system and buses were very clean and extremely safe. And we called upon China Highlights, a private tour company, to get us to and from the Great Wall. The Great Wall is a series of fortifications that were built across the historical northern borders of ancient China, spanning over 20,000 km (12,000 mi) in total. Several of the fortifications were built from as early as the 7th century BC, with the most well-known sections being built by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

great wall of china

Next was Chengdu and Emeishan. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Pandas was gorgeous! We arrived first thing in the morning, with the weather nice and cool, almost no crowds, and the pandas were awake and feeding! We also enjoyed the wide and narrow alley pedestrian mall where we sampled dragons beard candy, the Wenshu Monastery (all of the Buddhist monasteries in China are superb), Old Chengdu, the serene and picturesque Du Fu Thatched Cottage, Qingyang Palace, and the Leshan Giant Buddha, a 233 ft (71m) tall red sandstone statue, built between 713 and 803 and resting on the edge of the Min and Dadu rivers. We also enjoyed Emei Mountain with it's multitude of monasteries, temples, and even short-tailed macaque monkeys.

giant panda bear

Leshan Giant Buddha

chengdu china

Our friends in Chengdu introduced us to the Sichuan hot pot, which was absolutely delicious! Just be careful not to let your food sit in the hot Sichuan chili pepper oil for too long. Yep, HOT! And Wangjiang Pavilion Park was full of a variety of beautiful and unique bamboo species. We also attended a traditional Sichuan opera and changing faces show at Jinjiang Theater. It was like a variety show, and the costumes were magnificent!

Sichuan opera face changing

sichuan opera costume

Guilin and Yangshou were next. From Guilin, we visited the breathtaking landscape of the Longji Rice Terraces and had lunch in the ethnic village up above. Try the open fire-roasted bamboo rice. It's rice, mixed with corn, served in a roasted bamboo husk. In September the rice was about ready to harvest, so the fields were full of color. The next day we went on a spectacular cruise down the Li River. Wow, those stunning gumdrop-shaped karst mountains! Our lodging was our favorite of the entire trip at Gui Lin Yi Royal Palace in the heart of Guilin Park.

Longji Rice Terraces

li river cruise china

Yangshuo was our favorite city, surrounded by majestic karst mountains. We watched the huge outdoor spectacle of the Impression of Sanjie Liu show at night, went bamboo rafting down the scenic Yulong River, rode bikes through the countryside where we witnessed fields of wildflowers and visited a home that had been standing for centuries, and explored the Seven Star Tea Plantation as well. Incredible landscapes in every direction!

yulong river bamboo raft

yangshuo at night

yulong river valley wildflowers

old chinese woman home

We arrived in Hong Kong just in time for the Mid-Autumn, or Moon, Festival. Once again we utilized the public transit system, which was safe, clean, and fast. We sailed on a traditional Chinese junk around the harbor and were able to witness the Light Show at night. We also enjoyed the massive Tian Tan Buddha statue and stunning gilded neighboring Po Lin Monastery, Nan Lian Garden, and witnessed the Tai Hang Fire Dragon dance as well. Originating in 1880, a village elder dreamt Buddha told him to perform an incense-burning fire dragon dance in order to defeat a plague. It worked, and they've been performing the dance ever since!

po lin monastery

Nan Lian Garden

Tai Hang Fire Dragon dance

One could visit China for the history alone. But the incredible gardens, architecture, and landscapes cannot be missed. China's greatest asset, however, is it's people. We found a new love and respect for the Chinese. Such a great country. Such a great people. You must go see for yourself.

Helpful tips:

Electrical outlets

Everywhere we stayed in mainland China had sockets which accommodated American, European, and British plugs. Hong Kong only accommodated British.

Food and drink

China is far from a developing country. The food at the local markets is perfectly safe. We only drank bottled water, but had no issues with hot tea or hot water (which they serve everywhere instead of cold water). There is lots of great food, and our favorites were noodles, eggplant, bok choy, hot pots and dumplings. Be adventurous! Just be sure to order rice with your meal, as an excess of sesame oil can wreak havoc on Western stomachs.

chinese food and drink


I learned a few phrases on YouTube, and the ones I used the most were ni hao (hi), xie xie (thanks), mi fan (rice please), bu yao (don't want), ting bu dong (can't understand), bu ke qi (you are welcome), ni shuo ying yu ma (do you speak English), ce suo zai na li (where is the toilet), and zao shang hao (good morning).

Internet access

I used ExpressVPN on my phone and laptop, and was able to connect to Google, Google maps, gmail, Facebook, Instagram, and Yelp. Without a VPN, you can't connect to any of those thanks to the Chinese firewall. And I installed WeChat to connect with the locals.


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