3 Week China Itinerary – Off The Beaten Path
Backpacking in China can be as intimidating as it is rewarding. The simple act of planning your travel to China can be enough to make you pull your hair out on its own! I certainly didn’t make it easy on myself by deciding to design my own tailor-made, off the beaten path journey to some of the more rural, inland areas of the country. My 3 week China itinerary was one of the most difficult trips I’ve had to plan, and once I arrived I realized that my challenge had just begun! Whether you visit for 2 weeks or 3, and regardless of whether you backpack through the back trails or decide to live it up in China’s best accommodations, this itinerary should be helpful for anyone looking to get out into the (somewhat) less touristy areas of China.
When I visited China, I decided I wanted to see its mountains and villages. I’m not a huge city life person, so I planned my own trip from scratch that took me where I wanted to go. Planning to visit the Chinese countryside instead of big cities made putting together this trip all the more challenging. Luckily for you, I’m here to share my 3 week China itinerary for the trip I took there in 2013. My actual trip was exactly 18 days, but I thought I should make it a nice, round number for those of you planning your trips. It could also easily be tailored to a 2 week China itinerary instead. I’ll note days I’ve added in the itinerary that I didn’t actually do myself. Hopefully this will give you a solid starting point and provide some much needed guidance in a country not known for being easy to get around in.
Your 3 Week China Itinerary – Off We Go!
Your first stop in China will be Beijing, a fitting place to get acclimated to your new surroundings for the next 21 days. The first day of this itinerary is all travel, since going to China from the USA involves crossing the international date line. Don’t worry, you’ll get your day back when you head home!
Day 1: Sitting On A Plane. All Day Long.
When I traveled to Beijing, I flew from LAX through Seattle, leaving home at 8 am and arriving in Beijing at 4:55 pm the next day. It’s a lot of flying, especially if you have a seat that doesn’t recline on a sold out flight like I did (thanks, Hainan Airlines)! The flight from SEA to PEK is about 12 hours total, so be sure to bring something to keep you occupied. This flight is also a good way to get a head start on adjusting to the 9+ hour time difference, if you’re the type that can sleep on a plane.
Day 2: Arriving In Beijing
You made it! When you exit the airport, be sure to get an official taxi and NOT one of the unlicensed cabs that will inevitably be begging for your business. (If you want be really prepared, check out my post on communicating in China for more tips on how to get around). Get a ride to your hotel, check in, and explore the city! Depending on when you arrive, you may only have time for dinner before going to bed, but try and make the most of it and get yourself on Beijing time as quickly as you can.
Accommodation: Beijing Park Plaza Wangfujing
Notes: Centrally located and a nice hotel with great (but expensive!) restaurants on site. Within walking distance of Hutongs and downtown, with a Starbucks across the street for you coffee addicts. The concierge spoke great English and totally saved me when I lost my ATM card. My trip would have been ruined without them!
Day 3: Visiting The Great Wall of China (or not…)
Start off your 3 week China itinerary with a bang by seeing China’s most famous landmark on your very first day! That should help you get over your jet lag!
This is where I would love to show you the stunning pictures I took of the Great Wall, but I was too busy tracking down my lost ATM card to even make it there. Since I was constrained to the city, all I can tell you is that I was planning to visit Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. It’s known for being less crowded but still restored and a great place to get a more intimate experience. You can even hike from the Mutianyu section to undeveloped parts of the wall to see its unrestored state if you’re feeling particularly adventurous!
The drive alone to the Great Wall is about 90 minutes each way, so be sure to take that into account when planning your day. For the best experience, hire a taxi or private driver for the entire day to take you around so that you don’t have to wait for tour groups and can go at your own pace. Viator has all sorts of well-priced listings for private drivers to take a bit of the stress away from your first day in China.
Note: Obviously I didn’t visit the Great Wall due to my ATM problems, so this is one of the “additional” days that wasn’t in my original itinerary. I would have loved to do it, though, and still regret not seeing the great wall to this day!
Day 4: Experiencing The Real Beijing
Since I wasn’t able to leave Beijing, here’s what I did instead of seeing the Great Wall, and what you can do on your second day in China! I was fortunate enough to have a friend living there at the time who was able to not only translate my phone calls with the bank, but also give me a personal tour!
Getting Lost In The Hutongs
In my opinion, the best way to experience Beijing is to simply wander around the many Hutongs in the city. What are Hutongs? I’m glad you asked! Hutongs are centuries-old alley ways that are still largely preserved. They were originally formed during the Yuan Dynasty over 700 years ago and expanded in the subsequent years and Dynasties.
Hutongs are filled with local food vendors as well as clothing stores and handmade goods. They’re fantastic for grabbing a drink or some street food and people watching, and are populated by a fairly young crowd.
There are over 1,000 Hutongs in Beijing, but it’s easy to just pick one of the famous ones and start wandering from there. My good friend and local Beijing guide Gabe took me down the Mao’er Hutong, among others, during our day walking around Beijing, and it was lovely. My friend Joella of Paper Crane Stories also has a guide to her favorite Hutongs as well.
The Touristy Stuff
While you’re walking around Beijing, it wouldn’t hurt to swing by the Forbidden Palace and Tienanmen Square. Although these are both pretty standard tourist fare, it’s good to get an appreciation for the history behind them and picture the famous events that happened right where you’re standing.
Beijing is absolutely overflowing with famous sights, with the city itself hosting a whopping 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites on its own! One day in the city isn’t enough to see them all, but it goes to show you what a rich culture Beijing has to offer. Take a look at a map and see what looks like the best way for you to fill your day.
Day 5: Beijing To Xi’an
Now you didn’t put together a 3 week China itinerary just to spend it all in one city, did you? For that reason, it’s time to head out to your next destination, Xi’an – the old capital of China. It’s roughly a 2 hour direct flight from Beijing to Xi’an, so if you leave in the morning you should have plenty of time to enjoy your afternoon in this beautiful city.
After you’re checked in to your hotel, there are plenty of options to enjoy the city. My top recommendation would be to wander around the Muslim Quarter. Make sure you arrive hungry, because there are food vendors EVERYWHERE and you are going to want to try all of it! Beyond that, it’s full of shops and a great destination for people watching as well.
Accommodation: Sofitel Xi’an on Renmin Square
Notes: Nice upscale hotel with a great restaurant built in (not that you need it with the Muslim Quarter nearby). It’s centrally located with the Bell Tower and Muslim Street both within walking distance.
Bonus: Tips for Visiting Muslim Street from The Blonde Abroad
Day 6: The Historic Side Of Xi’an
Now that you’re properly settled in to your home for the next few days, it’s time to get to know this beautiful city. You’ll get a mix of history and a close-up appreciation of Xi’an with today’s activities.
The Terracotta Warriors
You knew it was coming, and it’s why most people visit Xi’an. Depending on what your priorities are, I’d say this is an optional task, but the Terracotta Army actually surprised me. I wasn’t expecting much, and I ended up being genuinely impressed by it. Both the massive amount of them in one place and the attention to detail, with each and every one different from the next, serves to inspire awe upon any visitors.
The drive to the Terracotta Army is about 45 minutes each way, so get an early start to ensure that you have some time in the afternoon for other activities.
Biking Along The Old City Walls
One of Xi’an’s most popular activities is renting a bike and riding it around the old city walls. Rental periods are 2 hours and give you plenty of time to do a full lap. Alternatively, you could skip the bike and stroll along the wall at your leisure, but for some reason there’s something special about doing it on a bicycle.
The views of the city from the top are incredible and you’ll feel like you’re transported into a movie as your ride over the enormous tunnels that span the city streets, eagerly devouring the cars and buses that drive into them.
The Bell Tower… With A Bonus
After your scenic bike ride along the city wall, head to the Bell Tower just south of the center of the city. You’ll have to pay an admission if you want to climb it, and I would argue that the view of it is better than the view from it. However, my biggest reason for coming out here is a deeply personal one…
I can feel half of you rolling your eyes from here. That’s ok, I know I can get ice cream in great abundance back home, but oh man was this a sight for sore eyes to this massive ice cream addict. The Chinese aren’t big on dairy, and when you can get it, it’s VERY expensive. Still, it was totally worth eating as much as I could to hold me over until the next ice cream shop. As a bonus, it’s got a great view of the bell tower from the inside!
Day 7: Mount HuaShan
It’s adventure time! I’ll admit, the first week of this 3 week China itinerary was somewhat standard fair, but we were just getting warmed up. Now it’s time to really live your Annual Adventure (see what I did there?) and have some proper fun. We’re off to Mount HuaShan, home of the infamous Plank Walk!
For full details of how to get there and hike, check out the post linked above. Long story short, this mountain is like a practical joke built just for hikers. Mindbogglingly steep stairs in every direction with every step forward either gaining or losing elevation. Get ready for some sore legs when you’re done!
I only spent one day on this crazy mountain, but since this is a 3 week China itinerary and not an 18 day China itinerary, I’d highly recommend spending the night on top of the mountain. There are hotels on each the peaks, none of which take any online booking. Regardless of which HuaShan hotel you stay in, be prepared for shared restrooms, no hot water, deferred maintenance, and high prices. The East Peak is a popular place to stay overnight in order to catch a scenic sunrise over the Chess Pavilion the next day. If you’re the backpacking type, you can even set up a sleeping bag and camp right on top of the mountain!
Since this mountain is quite punishing to climb as it is, if you are staying on the mountain overnight be sure to make arrangements with your hotel in Xi’an to store the belongings you don’t need for your night on the mountain. It would be torture to lug everything you’ve brought for 3 weeks up all of those steps!
Mount HuaShan is more than just nonstop insanity, even though I may lead you to believe otherwise. There are a lot of beautiful sights along the paths, like the Chess Playing Pavilion which you can hike to and actually play a game of chess inside of! The natural sheer cliffs of the mountain are stunning to behold, as well.
On my one day on the mountain, I hiked the North, East and South Peaks, including the Plank Walk. This was a fairly logical progression since they follow one another on the paths, and the South Peak is right next to the Plank Walk. Since you’re staying overnight, you can enjoy a beautiful sunset before checking in to your sleeping accommodations for the night.
Day 8: Conquering Mount HuaShan
Today it’s time to finish what you started. Rise out of bed (or sleeping bag) early and enjoy one of HuaShan’s famous sunrises over the East Peak before setting off to explore the West and Center Peaks. If you’re feeling adventurous, double down on a second round of the Plank Walk and backtrack to any spots you missed yesterday.
Be sure to save at least some of your energy, because you’ll be back on another mountain the day after tomorrow! Also keep an eye on the time to make sure you’re able to catch the last bus or train back to Xi’an, where you can reunite with the rest of your belongings and prepare for another travel day tomorrow.
How to Buy Train Tickets in China: Seat 61 has the most comprehensive guides to buying train tickets. Even if you don’t purchase your tickets in advance, this is a great way to get an idea of the scheduling and logistics.
More Resarch: Travel China Guide’s article on HuaShan includes excellent information such as how to get there and back from Xi’an.
Day 9: Travel From Xi’an To Tangkou
Today is mostly a travel day as you prepare for your next mountain adventure. My flight departed the Xi’an airport at 10 am and arrived at the Tunxi airport at noon. From there it’s a 90 minute drive (if your taxi driver avoids toll roads like mine did) to Tangkou, where you’ll be staying for the evening.
Tangkou is a small city nestled right in to the base of your next adventure, Mount HuangShan (yes, completely different from Mount HuaShan). Staying here will save you at least an hour of driving tomorrow morning, and it’s a really pleasant town as well.
If your taxi driver doesn’t know your specific hotel, just have him drop you off in the center of town. It’s a small place that’s easily walkable and if you have a picture of your hotel like I recommended in my communication guide, someone can easily point you in the right direction.
I stayed at the Ala Hotel, which is both incredibly cheap and caters to people ascending the mountain. Every night at dinner in their downstairs restaurant (which was delicious, by the way), they hold a Q&A session about the mountain and give advice to anyone planning to ascend it the next day. The rates for the hotel were so cheap that I ended up booking an extra night there just to hold my additional luggage in my room while I spent a night on top of the mountain.
Accommodation: Ala Hotel Huangshan
Notes: As mentioned above, they’re awesome and cater to those going up the mountain. The English at the front desk was pretty spotty though, and it took me a while (and help from Google Translate) to figure out how to ask for an extra night! Despite the complications, the staff was incredibly kind and helpful.
Day 10: Huangshan – The Stunning Yellow Mountain
You’ll rise early today to get on the first bus up Mount Huangshan, also known as the Yellow Mountain. It has a much friendlier personality than HuaShan, offering gentler paths (for the most part) and completely different but still absolutely stunning scenery that is often depicted in paintings.
It doesn’t take terribly long to get from the Yuping cable car station to the Huangshan Bai Yun Hotel, where I stayed for the night. Once there, you can drop off your extra belongings in your room and continue on your hike for the day. There are several different hotels on top of the mountain, and all of them are expensive and nothing too fancy. It’s still well worth it for one night, the amount of extra scenery you get to see (as well as those amazing sunsets and sunrises) is huge compared to those who go up and descend in the same day.
One great sight only about an hour away from the Bai Yun Hotel is the Fairy Walking Bridge, also known as Bridge of the Immortals. Although it looks like it could have been there since the beginning of time, it was actually built in 1987 to join 2 parts of the mountain. The views from it are amazing, but the most epic part of the bridge is the photos you’ll get of you standing on it!
When you’ve had your fill of exploring for the day, stop by Turtle Peak to enjoy the sunset. It’s just outside of the Bai Yun Hotel and won’t disappoint with breathtaking views of an absolute sea of mountains as far as the eye can see.
Accommodation: Huangshan Bai Yun Hotel
Cost: I paid $219/night for a private room! Prices seem to be lower now, at around $150-$175 for a private room, and you can save a fortune by staying in a dorm room instead for $20-$50 per night.
Notes: It’s super pricey but if you want your own room, that’s the cost. If you’re a backpacker, you can camp right on the mountain. In fact, many people were camping right in the hotel’s courtyard!
Day 11: Down The Mountain & To The River
Today we’ll be departing the mountains and heading to some completely different scenery in Guilin. It’ll be another big travel day, but you’re waking up on a mountain so how bad can it be?
Make sure to set your alarm early to enjoy another epic sunrise on Mount Huangshan and to bathe in the sounds of the birds starting their day on the mountain. I’ll never forget the chorus of melodic whistling that surrounded me in every direction as I had the paths of the mountain all to myself.
I have to warn you, getting a decent flight from Tunxi to Guilin can be challenging. Just picking a random date and looking at Kayak gave me a few decent options, but when I visited I had to settle for a flight that departed at 11 am and arrived in Guilin at 8:25 pm after a long layover. You are likely to save both time and money by traveling 3 hours away to Hangzao and flying out of the HGH airport instead.
If you do manage to get a flight that departs a bit later and doesn’t have a torturous layover, make the most of it and hike more of Huangshan. It’s a really special place that I still think about all the time.
No matter how you booked your flight, you’ll probably be arriving in Guilin fairly late. Grab your taxi, show the driver your hotel flash card and get settled in. I stayed at the Lijiang Waterfall Hotel because, come on, how could you not? The hotel turns into a waterfall every night!
After the waterfall show, tuck yourself in and sleep in the next day. Tomorrow is a little bit more relaxed and a much needed break after our crazy back to back mountains!
Accommodation: Lijiang Waterfall Hotel Guilin
Cost: $140/night when I visited, prices seem to have gone down to under $100/night since then.
Notes: It’s a waterfall! What more do you need to know? It’s also very nice on the inside and has several high quality restaurants on the premises. This hotel is excellently located across from the scenic Twin Pagodas and near plenty of parks and shopping.
Day 12: Getting To Know Guilin
It’s time for a much needed personal day. Even the toughest adventurers could use some relaxation, right? Today is a free day in Guilin to see the sights it has to offer. If you want to make it extra easy on yourself, Viator has a ton of easy to book day trips in the area.
The Sun & Moon Twin Pagodas
One of Guilin’s most iconic sights, they’re also literally across the street from the Waterfall Hotel! During the day you can see their beautiful reflections in the lake, and at night they light up for a great scene to compliment the Waterfall show!
Reed Flute Cave
Probably the most popular activity in Guilin is Reed Flute Cave, a series of caverns lit brightly by colorful lights. Although it’s a bit too “Disney” for my tastes, it’s always a hit and isn’t the #1 attraction on TripAdvisor for nothing.
Elephant Trunk Hill
Located just down the street from the Twin Pagodas, the aptly named Elephant Trunk Hill is another conveniently located and picturesque photo spot in Guilin. It’s worth swinging by for a quick shot, which I neglected to do because my legs were on fire from back to back mountains!
Day 13: Li River Cruise To Yangshuo
Today you’ll continue a relatively relaxed pace with a gorgeous river cruise. This is the best way to fully appreciate the incredible karst landscape that surrounds Guilin and Yangshuo. The views are so beautiful that the Chinese government even put them on the 20 Yuan note!
This area is also popular for filming, used in films such as the unbelievably picturesque The Painted Veil and the unbelievably terrible Star Wars Episode III. It’s no wonder it’s a popular place, and there’s nothing like sitting on the balcony of your river cruiser and watching the scenery slowly pass you by.
Some people are critical about the amount of boat traffic on the river, but to me that added to the spectacle of it all. From the large river cruisers to the tiny “bamboo” (actually PVC) rafts speckled along the river, it was a cool sight to behold as all of the vessels in front of me disappeared into the fog of my damp day on the river.
At the end of your river cruise, you’ll be deposited into Yangshuo, an famously picturesque town where you’ll be spending the next few days. If your weather is better than mine was, you can make arrangements with your hotel to pick you up after you spend some time exploring the city. For me, I was met at the dock and picked up by my hotel, the Yangshuo Tea Cozy. Since it was rainy, it made sense to be whisked away to my remote retreat and settle in.
The Yangshuo Tea Cozy
Those of you who visit this site regularly know I don’t generally review individual hotels, but I have to mention this one. The Yangshuo Tea Cozy is, without exaggeration, the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in. I don’t have any partnerships with them and I could recommend any hotel in Yangshuo through my above affiliate link, but they were so incredible I can’t resist gushing about them.
Not only is the interior decorating absolutely top notch, but every room has a balcony with views of the iconic scenery and a super cozy garden courtyard. They have a delicious on-site restaurant with mouth-watering crispy duck and, of course, a great selection of tasty teas. The hotel itself is tucked away from Yangshuo along a small river and is the perfect base camp for bike rides through the tiny villages. The customer service is also absolutely top notch and they can arrange any activity you want from the front desk.
Like I said, I’m not in the business of reviewing hotels and I have no incentive to recommend this one over any other, but I can’t help but recommend the Yangshuo Tea Cozy because they’re just that good.
Hotel: Yangshuo Tea Cozy
Cost: $95 USD/Night
Notes: As I mentioned, probably my favorite hotel in the entire world that I’ve ever stayed in. I really can’t recommend it highly enough!
If, like me, you headed straight to the Tea Cozy, you can still use the evening to explore the immediate area around you. Within walking distance of where I stayed was an adorable rafting station where you could hire a bamboo raft to take you down a small waterfall.
If they’re closed for the day (for some reason the rafters weren’t there every day) or if you’re not in the mood, a stroll along the river path is the perfect introduction to Yangshuo. As the sun begins to set, listen up for the local frogs singing you their evening song and take a moment to fully appreciate the unbelievable place you’re standing in. When you’ve had your fill, head back to the hotel, grab some dinner, and rest up for tomorrow!
Day 14: Exploring Yangshuo
It’s time for a free day to get to know Yangshuo! There are lots of options for experiencing both life in the city and the natural beauty that surrounds Yangshuo. I personally began the day by catching a ride to West Street in the city to explore what life is like there and do some people watching. In the afternoon, I rented a bike and rode through the villages east of Yangshuo, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Here are a few popular ways to spend your day.
Yangshuo City and West Street
This is the lively area of Yangshuo, although it’s also the touristy area. It’s a fantastic spot for people watching, souvenir shopping, and finding a place to grab a bite to eat. If I went back to Yangshuo, West Street wouldn’t be my top recommendation, but I do always appreciate getting somewhat of a feel for what life is like in a place I visit. I do think that you’ll get a more authentic experience in the small villages surrounding Yangshuo city, though.
Renting a Bike For a Village Bike Ride
This was one of the highlights of Yangshuo for me. I rented a bicycle through my hotel and set off along the paths/roads (yes, cars drive on these paths too) that wind their way through the many villages that lie east of Yangshuo.
Watch farmers take their cows for a walk and admire the multi-story homes without windows but oddly elaborate entry doors that sit in the middle of the countryside. For me, it was the perfect, peaceful way to spend an afternoon.
Guilin Laozhai Mountain And Yangshuo TV Tower
Located a few miles directly north of Yangshuo, Guilin Laozhai Mountain is the place to go if you want the most iconic views of Yangshuo. Watch the Lijiang river curve around nearby villages and appreciate the vastness of the landscapes here. Best part of all, it’s free!
For another fantastic free view, you can also hike to the Yangshuo TV Tower, located behind the market at Pantao Road. If you can stomach lots of stairs (and after HuaShan, I know you can!), you’ll be rewarded with more incredible (and free!) views of Yangshuo.
This is another one of Yangshuo’s most popular viewpoints. It’s a short hike to the arch itself and a significantly longer one to reach the summit, but it does have an entry fee if you want to visit it at all. If you have to pick, I’d recommend one of the above hikes over Moon Hill, although this is still on many people’s must-do lists for Yangshuo.
Yangshuo Impression Water Show
This was the activity the most people assumed I would be doing while I was in Yangshuo. It was cancelled while I was there due to rain, but almost every local I encountered asked if I was there to see the water show, so it must either be something special or a huge tourist trap! It’s an outdoor show with hundreds of artists performing on the water in the middle of Yangshuo’s amazing karsts. I don’t usually seek out shows, but I kind of wish I was able to see this one.
Day 15: Day Trip To The Dragon’s Backbone
Now that you’ve experienced Yangshuo, it’s time to branch out a bit. The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in Longsheng were one of my biggest inspirations for visiting China in the first place, so I had to book a day trip there when I was in Yangshuo. I was wowed by the pictures I had seen of flooded rice terraces reflecting the sky like mirrors growing out of the earth, and had to see it in person!
The rice terraces are roughly a 2 hour drive from Yangshuo, and after taking your time to explore them you’ll end up being gone for an entire day, so plan accordingly. I was a bit unlucky as my visit was a few weeks too early for the famous flooding that happens at the end of May and early June, but the terraces were still just as spectacular as I had imagined. They sprawl for as far as the eye can see and it is truly impressive to look out and realize that each of those terraces was painstakingly carved out by hand. The villages of Dazhai and Ping’an, which are nestled in the middle of the terraces, add to the charm of the place. For me, a trip to the Dragon’s Backbone is a must do if you’re in Yangshuo.
To get there, you can either make arrangements with your hotel for a private driver or see what Viator has to offer. I went through the Tea Cozy and my driver did a great job of not only getting me there but showing me some hidden gems around the area.
Day 16: Travel To Lijiang And Shuhe
It’s time to leave one picturesque village and head to another! Now you’ll be heading to the Yunnan Province and visiting Lijiang. I departed Guilin Airport in the morning and arrived in Lijiang at around 2:30 pm after flying through Chongqing.
Fun story, I was originally booked to fly through Kunming when I received an email the day before my departure that the flight was suddenly rescheduled for several days later. I had to book a whole new flight on the spot in a moment of panic! Thankfully, Ctrip was able to refund my original flight after a few days of emailing back and forth. Remember, when you travel to China, always expect the unexpected! In situations like this, having a good travel insurance plan can be a life saver as well. I use World Nomads when I travel and I absolutely recommend them for a trip like this.
When I arrived in Lijiang, I grabbed a taxi and headed to Shuhe Ancient Town, which was my base camp for the next few days. Shuhe Ancient town is much quieter and more charming (in my humble opinion) than Lijiang, and still very central to everything in the area.
Upon arrival in Shuhe, take some time to explore the town. It’s extremely charming on its own, with many local vendors selling their wares as well as great restaurants and beautiful scenery. If you’re feeling really motivated, you can catch a taxi to Lijiang and have dinner there, maybe stopping to take in sights like the famous Black Dragon Pool.
Accommodation: Huifeng Inn Shuhe
Other Notes: The Huifeng Inn only accepted cash when I stayed there, so be sure to either have enough to pay for your room with you or know where to find an ATM you can use! This policy may be different by now.
Day 17: Explore The Lijiang Area
Now it’s time to head out and see what this part of the country has to offer. Lijiang itself is the biggest draw for the area, although I found that there were many other things to see there that were even more interesting. For a full guide to the area, check out my post on Shuhe Ancient Town!
I began my day with a taxi ride to Lijiang, where I walked the city streets and took in the scenery. Lijiang was VERY busy and crowded when I visited, which seems like part of the experience anyhow. If you want to shop for souvenirs, this is the place to do it; it seemed like 3 out of every 4 stores was a souvenir shop!
After spending most of the day in Lijiang, I took a short walk north of the city to Black Dragon Pool, probably the most famous viewpoint in the city. When I was there, it was more like Black Dragon Dry Lake Bed, so I missed out on the reflections in the water but did get to frolic around on the dry lake bed, so I had that going for me. If you visit Black Dragon Pool now, have no fear, the water is back in the pond and you can enjoy the iconic views.
Day 18: Another Day In Lijiang
Plan A: Explore Shuhe & Other Villages
Today you have 2 options. If you haven’t gotten your fill of charming villages and the quaint surroundings of Shuhe and Lijiang, I recommend renting a bicycle and exploring the surrounding areas. I rented one and rode north to the village of Baisha, where I enjoyed local cuisine and was “healed” by the famous Dr. Ho.
In addition to the bike rental, it’s a great day to get a more intimate feel of Shuhe Ancient Town and all of the charm it has to offer. It’s not a huge town, so it’s pretty easy to cover on foot in a day and get a proper feel for what life is like there. Shuhe is a bit of a paradox to me as you can genuinely feel its old roots as you walk the city streets, but at the same time you will find very nice and modern restaurants and hotels. I hope that a it maintains the same small, ancient village feel as it inevitably continues to develop.
Plan B: Day Trip to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
If you aren’t mountained out yet, today is a great chance to head up to the largest and most beautiful mountain in the area, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. It’s an easy mountain to visit as it’s only about 30 minutes north of Shuhe and the cable car from the visitor center will take you right to the 15,000 foot summit!
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain makes up one side of the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, and it’s also the mountain that you see from Black Dragon Pond! It’s not hard to realize the significance that this mountain has to the area, and besides, you can never go wrong with a trip to the top of a mountain, just ask John Krakauer!
Days 19 & 20: A Long Shanghai Layover
It’s sadly time to start making your way to the last stop of your 3 week China itinerary, and you’ll be going out in style in the posh, metropolitan city of Shanghai. I had a loooooong travel day with several layovers, resulting in me arriving in Shanghai at midnight with a 13 hour layover in the city. Luckily for you, this is a 3 week itinerary so you’ll have a full extra day in Shanghai!
For my extended layover, I booked a cheap hotel to get a few hours of sleep and spent the morning exploring the streets of Shanghai. My time was limited, so I walked over to The Bund where I could enjoy the famous view across the Huangpu River while I sipped a coffee at one of the cafes right along the water’s edge.
It was a great way to cap off my trip to China, relaxing on the waterfront with one of China’s most famous cityscapes right in front of me. Since you’ve got a full day here, maybe this activity is best saved for tomorrow. If I had a bonus full day in Shanghai, here’s how I would have spent it.
Travel Back In Time
Being the huge city it is, Shanghai has so much history that you can see just walking through the city streets. As you can tell from the rest of this itinerary, I’m a bit of a sucker for villages, so I would have loved to see some of the historical sections of Shanghai.
One place to start is in the Old French Concession. This section of Shanghai formerly belonged to France during the height of colonialism in China, and still retains its French feel today. It’s an interesting mix of eastern and western influence all in one place.
Afterwards, take a stroll (or taxi) over to Shanghai Old Street, where you can see the stages of development in Shanghai. It may be a bit touristy, but as an American I’m a sucker for any place that you can really feel the presence of centuries of history.
Experience The New
Now that you’ve gotten a feel of the historical significance of Shanghai, it’s time to see the culmination of those centuries of history and witness China’s rapid, modern development.
Ground Zero for Shanghai’s modernization is the Shanghai World Financial Center. Not only does the building itself house many of the biggest players in the financial world, but you can also visit the top of floor for spectacular views of Shanghai’s Pudong New Area. It’s a great place to visit in the evening when the surrounding buildings are completely lit up for the world to see.
Day 21: Departing Is Such Sweet Sorrow
Well, it couldn’t last forever. It’s time to head home to wherever home may be for you. If you have the morning available, now would be a good time to enjoy a meal at one of the cafes on The Bund or explore a nook of the city that you missed yesterday. Otherwise, take in one last view of China’s most modern city and pack your bags.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this 3 week China itinerary, it served me well and I hope it inspires some of you to undertake a similar journey. Let me know if you have any suggestions, questions or comments below!