A multitude of tour companies ferry groups of photo-snapping tourists through the top sights of China. If you are thinking of booking a tour, do your research carefully; it is essential to find one that suits you well. Beyond the obvious essentials of types of accommodation, transport, the size of the group, and the itinerary, be sure to ask about the tipping policy.
With such an extensive rail network, China has been a favorite destination of train lovers for years, particularly as it has continued to run steam locomotives well. The last line to run steam, the Jitong railway, which crosses the Jinpeng Pass in Inner Mongolia, is currently scrapping its remaining steam locomotives. However, tours to highly industrialized areas will certainly continue to run, as many private lines at mining pits still use steam.
China is a great bicycle kingdom. You will see more from a bike than a bus, and gain greater insight into the lives of the locals. A well-organized tour should provide alternative transport if you become exhausted or fall ill, and will have all the fix-it gear and able mechanics to deal with problem chains. Itineraries are set at different levels, from easy to challenging, and some companies provide bikes, while others ask that you bring your own wheels to keep costs down.
In rural areas, renting a bike for a day or two is the best way to see sights just outside of town and get a feel for countryside life. There are plenty of bike-hire shops in most places, and many hotels can also arrange bike rental. In cities remember to park in designated areas and keep to cycle lanes where possible.
China attracts thousands of martial arts enthusiasts hoping to find the roots to their practice. Many head for famous Shaolin Temple in Henan, where Bodhidarma is said to have first taught the monks exercises that developed into shaolin quan during the 6th century. The temple is surrounded by kung fu schools, which have courses that range from a week to six months or longer. The less well-known monastery on Wudang Shan in Hubei, said to be the home of tai ji quan, also has schools of martial arts.
Most forms of kung fu have become popular and effective ways to keep fit. There are plenty of sports institutes in China with classes, you may have difficulty finding an English speaking instructor. Head to one of the traveler heaven, such as Yangshuo, Dali, or Lijiang, and you are certain to find capable instruction in English. Of course, you can always try joining the leagues of kung fu practitioners at daybreak in the nation’s parks, particularly if your interest is tai ji quan.
Most of China’s sacred and scenic mountains, such as Tai Shan and Huang Shan, have steps, cable cars, and crowds all the way to the summit. Some of the mountains have less-used paths that make for pleasant hiking, but if you are a mountaineer, you will need to head to western China. The true roof of the world awaits in Tibet – topping Mount Everest will require patience and official approval, but treks to Everest base camp in the Rongbuk Valley are offered by several travel operators. Other spectacular climbs include Gongga Shan in Sichuan and also Muztaghata in Xinjiang, but, again, seek permission first.
More feasible is rock climbing at Yangshuo in Guangxi, where the limestone crags that inspired poets down the centuries now inspire climbers up the peaks. Asia’s fastest developing sport climbing area combines a wide range of climbs with beautiful views, winding rivers and great accommodations.
A few intrepid spelunkers have been exploring the extensive karst cave network of Guangxi. A small industry of caving tours has developed, although, for the most part, the itineraries are geared to the experienced spelunker.
The fascinating southwest offers some of the best trekking possibilities in the country, such as exploring the jungle of Xishuangbanna or visiting remote Tibetan monasteries. Horse riding trips are possible in the heavenly mountains of Xinjiang and the national parks of Sichuan. Check with specialist tour companies and the Northwest Yunnan Ecotourism Association. Whitewater rafting trips are popular in the southwest and in Tibet.
Wildlife & Bird Watching
Watch a panda at the Wolong Nature Reserve or in the Breeding Center, where efforts are made to conserve the threatened species. Bird-watching tours head to Qinghai province for Bird Island on Qinghai Hu, and to parks such as Zhalong National Reserve, in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, where the largest wetland ecological region in China hosts over 300 bird species.