The ultimate 8 week itinerary for China

I’ve just concluded an 8 week journey around China. It’s a massive country worthy of a longer trip, or even multiple trips if you’re up for it. Me, this was enough time to see most of what I wanted to see, especially given my limited Chinese Tourist visa of 60 days in total. How did I spend 8 weeks here? Here’s my itinerary.

Day 1 – 5

Beijing: An excellent entry point to the country if you chose to arrive by either train as it’s the terminus for the Trans Mongolian Railway, or my plane. Beijing is also the best way to immerse yourself into the crazy that is China immediately. Don’t prolong the inevitable – just jump in there and start getting used to the insane crowds, the heat and the noise!

Beijing, in my opinion, is the cultural capital of China: it is home to some seriously impressive UNESCO world heritage sites like the Forbidden Kingdom and also the main access point to the Great Wall.

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The Great Wall of China. I chose to do a sunset hike between Jinshanling and Simatai West and as you can see, virtually had the wall to myself.

For my detailed account of Beijing, click here.

  • Suggested time here: 5 days
  • Suggested hostel: Leo Hostel
  • Suggested budget: $50 a day

Day 6 – 8

Xian: I caught an overnight train from Beijing to Xian and spent 2 nights there. In retrospect, I should have spent another night, making it 3. Xian is the gateway to the Terracotta Warriors which really are a must-see. It’s one of those places that gives you an insight into the ancient Chinese world, the excesses and belief system, not to mention the craftsmanship and attention to detail!

The Muslim Quarter is not to be missed at night. I reckon some of the best food I’ve had during my 8 weeks here has been in the Muslim Quarter!

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The Muslim Quarter in Xian at night. I had some of the best food in China on this street!

Something also really popular in the Shaanxi Province (the capital of which is Xian) is Mount Huashan, where you can walk along the plank bridge that is literally is stuck on the side of the rockface! Not for the faint of heart!

For my detailed account of Xian and the Shaanxi Province, click here.

  • Suggested time here: 3 days
  • Suggested hostel: Han Tang House
  • Suggested budget: $45 (entrance to the Terracotta Warriors is steep)

Day 9 – 11

Chengdu: Another overnight train from Xian – the train network is mostly good here and it saves a night of accommodation.

Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan Province, is best known for the Giant Panda Research Base. If catching a site of these animals does it for you, this is the place to be. The city is also the gateway transit hub to get out to Le Shan, an hour away, to see the Grand Buddha – the largest Buddha on earth. Be prepared for immense crowds. Getting there early is virtually impossible unless you spend the night in Le Shan, but I suspect you won’t be the only one doing this!

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The Grand Buddha in Le Shan. There were epic crowds here. The queue would have been at least 2.5 hours long to get to the base of the Buddha – too long for me.

The Sichuan Province is known for its food. Its very spicy food. The one thing you can’t miss is the Hot Pot. Get a group of people together and make a night of it. As a mate of mine, Shaun says – put a roll of toilet paper in the fridge the night before though!

For my photoblog of the Sichuan Province, click here.

  • Suggested time here: 3 days
  • Suggested hostel: Mine was not so cool, so no recommendation here!
  • Suggest budget: $45

Day 12 – 14

Jiuzhaigou: Jiuzhaigou is home to the world famous Jiuzhai Valley National Park. This park is something special as it has some of the most fascinating lakes and pools, not to mention mountainous scenery out there. The color of the water leaves you wondering just how on earth such a thing is even possible.

The first day is spent getting here. This entails an eleven hour bus ride from Chengdu through some mountainous terrain. Get ready for some windy roads! I chose to stay in Pengfeng Village, about 40kms outside Jiuzhaigou town as it’s where the entrance to the park is. If your hostel offers you the ability to purchase your park entry ticket the day before, seize the opportunity! This park is notoriously popular  and the last thing you want to do is spend your first hour in a ticket queue and the next hour in an entry queue!

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One of the many beautiful lakes in Jiuzhai Valley National Park.

I’d really recommend that you also see the Jiuzhaigou National Forest Park. The area is beautiful and I’d encourage you to spend some time here. The beauty of this park is that, although really beautiful, it isn’t as popular as its neighbor, thus doesn’t pull the ridiculous crowds – making it a great place to relax and spend a few hours.

For the photo blog, click here.

  • Suggested time: 4 days (you’ll spend the better part of 2 days just getting and leaving here)
  • Suggested hostel: Angelie Hotel
  • Suggested budget: $40

Day 15 – 17

Kunming: the capital of the Yunnan Province. It’s another big city, but I sense the cities are starting to get smaller and less economically active. That, or Kunming is a little behind the curve. You’ll still find a million skyscrapers being constructed and a road being built every 5 minutes though, so don’t think you’re escaping that!

Kunming is a handy entry point to see the Stone Forest in Shilin. If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll see I’m not a big fan of the Stone Forest – I felt it didn’t meet all the hype. But don’t let me discourage you!

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The Stone Forest in Shilin, outside Kunming.

Other interesting things to see in the city are the Flowers and Birds Market, along with the occasional Buddhist temples. The Bamboo Temple is along crowd puller but I never got out there so won’t be able to provide any insight there.

The Yunnan Province is where things start getting adventurous and Kunming is a really convenient transit hub.

  • Suggested time: 2 days
  • Suggested hostel: Kunming Cloudland Hostel
  • Suggested budget: $40 (unless you go to the Stone Forest – it’s extortionately expensive)

Day 18 – 20

Dali: Make sure to stay in Dali Ancient City and not the city itself! Dali is a super place to take it easy for a few days and spend some time going on a hike or exploring the great outdoors.

Things not to miss here include Erhai Lake (a great way to spend a day either cycling or walking around the little villages surrounding the lake) and the Canshan Mountains. There’s a cable car up the mountain but I chose to do the 1 hour hike up, it’s not too challenging and it gives you an opportunity to enjoy a moment of rare peace and quiet! There is an 11 km path on top (literally a paved path) which makes for a good walk in the forest.

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Erhai Lake.

There is a neighboring village called Xizhou – back in the day I can imagine it being really quaint and cool to explore. Nowadays, it is completely overrun with tourists and only exists for tourism. I felt it had almost no authenticity about it sadly.

  • Suggested time: 2 days
  • Suggested hostel: Sleepyfish
  • Suggested budget: $35

Day 21 – 24

Lijiang: A short train trip from Dali will take you to Lijiang, another city but you’ll battle to find a building taller than 10 stories. Lijiang itself is home to the Lijiang Ancient Town but the city is trying to capitalize off this tourist attraction by charging an entrance fee to enter to city. A total rip off in my opinion and something the local people aren’t happy about at all a it’s killing tourism there. That said, the town is free after 7pm but that means EVERYONE goes there at night and makes it rather unpleasant.

Other sites around the city include the Black Dragon Pool – a cool place to see.

Lijiang is the gateway for doing the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. This is an amazing day and a half trek through the Jade Snow Mountains and it gets 2 thumbs up from me. Although its popular, I didn’t find the circuit to be crowded at all. In fact, I hardly saw anyone else apart from the people that started the trek with me from my hostel!

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The Tiger Leaping Gorge trek.

Don’t worry about booking accommodation for the one night you’ll spend on the mountain, there are many guesthouses along the way. I stayed in one called Halfway House and I recommend it fully. It has an incredible deck overlooking the mountain – great way to end a day! You can also buy your return bus ticket to Lijiang from the hostel.

For my photo blog on the Yunnan Province, click here.

  • Suggested time: 4 days
  • Suggested hostel: Lijiang: October Inn. Trek: Halfway House
  • Suggested Budget: $40

Day 25 – 30

Hong Kong: I made my way back to Kunming from Lijiang for the purposes of accessing the airport to get to Hong Kong. I’ve written a piece on this incredible city already and needless to say, I recommend it wholeheartedly. You can read it here.

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The Hong Kong skyline at night, from Victoria Harbour.

  • Suggested time: 6 days
  • Suggested Hostel: Urban Pack
  • Suggested budget: $70 (yes, it’s a pricey place)

Day 31 – 33

Guilin: I reentered mainland China through Guilin in the Guanxi Province. It’s your typical Chinese town that the guidebooks will hype up about being an amazing tourist hotspot. For me, I don’t agree. Guilin’s significance is that it is a gateway for 2 remarkable sights. The first of these is the Longji rice terraces – a collection of some incredible terraces about 2 hours from the city. The second is the Li River, best seen from a boat or raft. The karst rock formations surrounding the river are quite something. They almost look out of this world – it’s a great attraction! I spent the night in Yangshuo – the terminus for the Li River cruise and would encourage you to do the same. It’s a tourist town but it has a cool vibe and is full of great restaurants!

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The karst peaks along the Li River.

You can read about my time in Yangshuo here.

  • Suggested time 3 days (a 4th day in Yangshuo is a good idea)
  • Suggested hostel: Guilin – Ming Palace. Yanghuo – Sudder Street (albeit a little outside the town)
  • Suggested budget: Depends on whether you chose tours or not. $40

Day 34 – 36

Guangzhou: 3 days here was too much. 2 days would have been fine. It’s a big modern city with the occasional bit of history but nothing like its peers. If you love fancy architecture, as I do, you’ll be interested in the buildings for sure!

My Guangzhou photo blog can be found here.

  • Suggested time here: 2 days
  • Suggested hostel: I can’t recommend mine
  • Suggested budget: $45 (much more if you want to see the observation decks of the towers)

Day 37 – 39

Zhangjiajie: The primary reason for visiting Guangzhou is that it’s a great transit hub to get to Zhangjiajie. I loved this place – it’s home to the Wulingyaun National scenic area and I can safely say that the stone pillars in the park were some of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen! If you’re wondering whether or not it’s worth the effort, the answer is 100 times yes!

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One of the numerous rock formations you’ll see in the park.

My photo blog from Zhangjiajie can be found here.

  • Suggested time: 3 days
  • Suggested hostel: I can’t recommend mine
  • Suggested budget: $45 (entrance to the park is steep, but the ticket is good for 4 days)

Day 40 – 42

Shanghai: One of the largest cities in China, coming in with 25 million people! I think Shanghai isn’t really China, just like Sandton isn’t really South Africa. It is one seriously modern, efficient, cool city and probably my favourite modern city on the mainland. It’s worth of a couple days.

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  • Suggested time: 3- 4 days
  • Suggested hostel: Phoenix Hostel
  • Suggested budget: Aim for $45 a day

Day 43 – 52

Tibet: If you’ve been following the blog, you can tell I loved Tibet. I spent 6 days there (and another 4 getting there and away). It’s not an easy place to visit as foreigners (i.e. anyone not Chinese) will need to join a tour group. Sadly, there is no way around this requirement as the agency needs to apply to the government to issue permits on your behalf, which are checked a couple times a day. Secondly, you can only stay in government-approved hotels which the tour agencies organise. This drives the price up to ridiculous levels.

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A Tibetan man spinning prayer wheels at the Drepung Monastery just outside Lhasa.

You can read about my Tibetan experiences here:

  1. Tibet – soul food
  2. Tibet – a photojournal
  • Suggested time: At least 6 days (or as long as your budget allows).
  • Suggested hostel/hotel: Largely out of your control as this is organised by the tour.
  • Suggested budget: It’s going to hurt. Train tickets from Shanghai to Lhasa (return) set me back $480 and the tour I joined set me back another $930. Was it worth it, absolutely.

It goes without saying that this itinerary doesn’t account for transit time between the different cities and towns. China is vast and it takes serious time to commute between the different places. I mostly used trains, which I’d recommend – brace yourself for the train stations, you can read my account of them here). I did fly to Hong Kong as it was the most convenient and time-friendly route of getting there.

Depending on your nationality, you may need to fight a bit to get a Chinese tourist visa valid for long than 30 days and more than a single entry, so be prepared to cross that bridge if need be. Don’t forget that going to Hong Kong and then re-entering mainland China counts as an entry and exit!

I hope this helps a little if you’re planning a trip here. For me, China confuses me. There are times I love it, and then there are times I hate it. Fortunately, the love is outweighing the hate but it does take time to get used to. My biggest piece of advice would be to give the place a chance. I was ready to alter my plans and head to Japan 2 weeks in but I’m really glad I didn’t.

6 thoughts on “The ultimate 8 week itinerary for China

  1. Thanks for sharing your itinerary! Did you use it to get your visa? I’m wanting to get a 60 day visa but hear it’s much harder to get than a 30 day one..

  2. The 60 day one is harder to get. I was effectively given two 30 day visas, so had to exit to Hong Kong and re-enter. The embassy did want an itinerary for the longer visa but it doesn’t have to be detailed. Depends on your nationality too.

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