I had been to China several times before. I had seen the lights of Shanghai, the pandas in Chengdu and the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an, and I had visited the Great Wall three times. Other than a night spent in a rural fishing village, I had never been far from the standard tourist trek. Even in Lhasa, Tibet there were buses of western tourists arriving at the Potala Palace when I did. I wanted to see more of China. And I wanted to get away from westerners.
Every year I meet up with my French cousin somewhere in the world to photograph. When he sent me information for a Nomad Photo Expeditions trip to southern China, it was finally my chance to see a different China, and to check off our annual photo trip as well.
The journey started and ended in Beijing. I love Beijing and it’s an easy transportation hub, so that was fine with me. Other than two days in the city at the beginning of the trip and a day and a half at the end, though, the expedition was in the southern provinces of Guizhou and Guangxi.
Did we get away from tourists? Yes and no. We definitely succeeded in escaping western tourists. For a full six days we didn’t see any others. We saw a lot of Chinese tourists but that only added to the experience. We got a lot of double-takes as people passed us, especially in Guizhou, with people snapping quick photos as they walked past, or pretending to take selfies when they were actually photographing us. Touché.
These are my favorite ten places. I highly recommend heading over and seeing them. But only a few of you! Part of the challenge in travel writing is in bringing attention to undiscovered places without making destinations more popular and therefore lessening the impact of being one of the few visitors. But wherever you choose to go, definitely get off the standard tourist trek. Lesser-traveled China is incredible!
Beijing has some amazing places to see: the Summer Palace; the Forbidden City; and the Temple of Heaven to name three. And I love the street food. But go for the Great Wall. It’s one of the new seven wonders of the world and is incredible to see in person, surrounded by nature and stretching as far as you can see.
There are three main sections accessible from Beijing. Badaling is closest, reconstructed and by far the most touristed. Mutianyu is slightly farther away and is also reconstructed. Simatai is farther still and is more authentic. I still haven’t gotten to Simatai but want to on my next visit. Whichever section you choose, pick a time to go that you’ll have the wall to yourself. I’ve been successful at this four times now – twice by going on cold winter days (the climbing warms you up fast!) and twice in the springtime on weekday afternoons. My photos below aren’t fake or PhotoShopped – there was virtually no one else there.
Several places in the world I’ve visited villages where everyone comes out to greet you and perform. The Maasai villages of Tanzania and Kenya are just one example. It gives you the chance to see how the people live, but it’s also touristy, with cash expected up front and a hard sell to purchase souvenirs. Jidao wasn’t like that, as they see only a handful of visitors a year. When the Miao turned out in full dress to greet us, give us a rice wine welcoming ceremony (so much rice wine!) and sing and dance, it felt authentic. I loved seeing the dress and customs. Too many villagers are being lured to the big cities. Farming will slowly die out and, with it, customs that go back thousands of years. It’s worth seeing now. The world is far more interesting with minority cultures.
Xijiang is the largest Miao village – actually a government-constructed settlement – located at the base of the Leigong Mountains. It’s a touristy city, but it’s also authentic in that it keeps the customs and architecture of the Miao alive, even as they’re encouraging Chinese tourists to dress in Miao outfits for photos. I loved spending a couple of hours in this gorgeous location and watching the Chinese pose for silly selfies.
The Miao in Basha are the only group in all of China that’s allowed to have firearms. We spent a day photographing the village chief and villagers. Then we spent the night at a perfect little guest house overlooking the rice terraces of the valley. It’s one of my favorite views ever. The morning included a touristy dance performance – nice to keep the customs alive, but the real fun was in watching the Chinese tourists eat it all up. It’s fun to be places like that as an outsider!
Basha and Zhaoxing were my two favorite destinations. Zhaoxing is a perfect town – even if it’s been constructed to be a perfect town. This is the largest Dong village in all of China and has five large drum towers. The town is walkable and charming, and the afternoon light was perfect. Sunrise overlooking the village and rice fields was ethereal. An added highlight: one of the villagers bought a new car the day we were there. The entire town was celebrating, lighting firecrackers well into the night.
Sanjiang is known for its 100-year-old Wind and Rain Bridge. It’s yet another beautiful mountain location, with rice and tea growing along the river as it curves around the town. I woke up very early to climb a nearby mountain to watch the sun rise over the village. Two hours later I was still waiting – low clouds foiled my plans! But it was still a fun hike, and as with other villages, it was nice not to see westerners.
Longji (PingAn), Guangxi
We saw a few western tourists in Zhaoxing, ending our streak at six days, but if we hadn’t then the run would have ended in Longji – a sign that we were slowly getting back on the map. There’s a reason that Longji is on the map, though. Its rice terraces, dating back thousands of years, are amazing. This involves some significant climbs, both from the bus to the town/lodges and also up to the overlooks, but it’s well worth it.
This is a backpackers’ hub and is the most popular place in the province – for a good reason. The scenery is amazing. It starts well outside of town with limestone mountain after limestone mountain surrounding you and there are parks and paths around the town. Gorgeous. Yangshuo itself is fun for the pedestrian shopping street that caters to the Chinese tourists. It reminded me of Playa del Carmen and other Mexican cruise ports – mainly souvenir stores, restaurants and street food – but very Chinese and very loud. Go for the nature but enjoy the craziness of the city at night as well.
Xingping is an hour from Yangshuo and is even more stunning. We photographed the old cormorant fishermen at sunset and sunrise and visited two in their houses for several hours. The overall experience was amazing, especially diving deeper into the lives of the fishermen and hearing their stories.
Xiang Gong, Guangxi
This is a hill outside of Yangshuo that has a perfect view of a bend in the Li River. We arrived at 5am, hiked up 500 steps in the dark and got to the top just as day was starting to break. It was only us with…30 or so Chinese photographers who had arrived even earlier. An absolutely beautiful place to watch the sunrise!
There was a lot that we did that didn’t make my top ten. Other highlights included visiting the Reed Flute Cave in Guilin with all of its crazy colors, watching the people of Guiyang go about their morning routine along the river (dancing, tai chi, cupping, badminton, dentistry, you name it), witnessing village life for the Miao and Dong in Qingman and Yintan respectively, and visiting several markets, the best of which was in Wangshui.
My Favorite Places We Stayed
We moved around a lot, staying in 10 different hotels over 15 days. Some were modern, some were rustic, some had plywood beds, some had no hot water, and one inexplicably had no cold water. My favorite three:
I loved Raffles Beijing. The building has over 100 years of history and the best location, and my room and bathroom were amazing. A similar five-star hotel in New York would be $800/night, but in Beijing the Raffles was under $200/night. A highlight was a hotel tour from John Spooner, the Raffles Ambassador. He walked me to the connected building to show me the room where the Chinese Communist Party was formed in 1949, showed me where Mao used to have afternoon tea (right where I ate lunch in the Writer’s Bar), and entertained me with tales of famous guests. I slept better than anywhere else in China, and it’s only minutes from the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and Wangfujing Street. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist anymore! It’s now the Beijing Hotel NUO.
Gufengzhai Guest House, Basha
Per my above recap on Basha, the view here is one of my best ever. It’s perfectly-located in the middle of the small town, the staff was great and there aren’t even locks on the doors. The beds are hard and the bathrooms are small, but no worries – I loved my stay.
Yangshou Mountain Retreat
Another perfect location and amazing view. I loved walking from the hotel along the river and watching the day end from the balcony, with the surrounding mountains slowly fading into darkness as the fireflies lit up the gardens. The staff spoke better English than anywhere else we stayed, and the food was excellent. Website: www.yangshuomountainretreat.com
I also really liked the Indigo Lodge in Zhaoxing and the Star Wish Ping’An in Longji.
Is China Child-Friendly?
Photo expeditions aren’t kid-friendly. There are too many early morning departures and long days, and there’s too much moving around. Ten hotels in 15 days is a lot! I wouldn’t hesitate to return to this part of China with my kids though. The sites are extremely interesting, the natural beauty is incredible, the people are welcoming, the hotels are comfortable and the food is excellent. I felt very safe everywhere. I wish that more Chinese hotels had rooms that slept 3-4 people, since it’s not family-friendly to only offer doubles, but other than that I can’t see any issues with traveling around China with kids.
- Nomad Photo Expeditions – A great organization with trips to a lot of interesting destinations. I’d travel with them again.
- Yunnan Viajes – Edith and Dylan were flawless leading us through Guizhou. Note: The link to their site is broken as of early 2020.
- Guilin Photography Tour – Mia was amazing for getting us to the best photo spots in Guangxi.
- The Great Wall at Jinshanling – I’ve always heard of Simatai as the best alternative to Badaling and Mutianyu, but this post makes Jinshanling look very good and very uncrowded. And it connects to Simatai if you want to hike further.
How about you? What places have you discovered in China that others haven’t yet? Where should I go next time?