China’s Top 10 Weekend Getaways

Writer Pete Wong | Published July 23, 2013

There is more to China than the Great Wall and the Xi’an terracotta warriors. Depending on the time of year and which part of China you are in, there is always something unique to experience – from ancient cities, scenic rice terraces and verdant grasslands to snow-capped mountains, magical lakes and time-forgotten ethnic minorities. Our seasoned China traveller, Pete Wong, points the way to some of the best weekend getaways in China to escape from the daily grind of city life.


    Busloads of tourists breeze through Fenghuang (named after the mythical phoenix) daily on a brief stopover en route to the more famous Zhangjiajie national park, which is great, because you have the whole town to yourself at the end of the day when all the tourists have gone. Easily one of the most enchanting among China’s ancient towns, Fenghuang is situated alongside a river – with waters so clear you can see the weeds beneath the surface – and flanked by mountains in the background. At dawn, you wake up to crisp mountain air and by dusk, the old town lights up with local restaurants serving fiery Hunan dishes and bars with live music that open late. You will also get to see many Miao ethnic minorities selling silver trinkets and colourful embroideries.   Getting there: The nearest airport is at Tongren in the neighbouring province of Guizhou. From there, it’s less than an hour to Fenghuang by taxi. Alternatively, you can fly to Huaihua and travel by bus to Fenghuang in less than three hours.


    Most travellers land in Guilin and wonder what the excitement is all about. The real deal is Yangshuo, about 80 km downriver. You can take the bus, of course, but you will miss the scenic karst mountain scenery along the river. On the way, you might want to stop over at Xingping, not just to veer off the tourist trail but also to see the famous landscape depicted on the Chinese 20 yuan note. While Yangshuo is like an ancient town gone commercial, with Western cafes and restaurants at every corner, you would like it if you are an active outdoors person. Around Yangshuo you can go cycling, hiking, rock climbing, river rafting, caving or canoeing. ‘Impression of Liu Sanjie’ is an evening entertainment you would not want to miss. Performed on the river with locals dressed in traditional costumes and using the karst mountains as a backdrop, the colourful multimedia show re-enacts a local folklore.   Getting there: Fly to Guilin and take the bus to Yangdi. From there, hop onto a boat to Xingping and onwards to Yangshuo. The most beautiful scenery along the Li River is between Yangdi and Xingping.


    If you are in search of verdant grasslands, clear blue skies with fluffy clouds and horses grazing on the plains while nomadic herdsmen keep watch, head to Hulunbuir, considered the most beautiful among China’s grasslands. It’s best to hire a car and stop wherever you want as the grassland stretches 200 km between the towns of Manzhouli and Hailar. Manzhouli lies on the border between China and Russia and feels more like a Russian town. Hailar is less exciting but just outside the city is Jin Zhang Han, a scenic spot with pseudo Mongolian yurts. It feels like a tourist trap with rude service staff but to be fair, it is a convenient stopover to experience the Mongolian lifestyle – from roaming the vast grassland on foot and having a barbeque dinner with local girls dressed in Mongolian costumes to watching the sunset and riding a horse while pretending to be a Mongol. The best time to visit is during summer around late July to early August when the grass is at its greenest.


    Getting there: Fly to Manzhouli, take the road trip to Hailar and fly out from there. If you have more time, visit Shiwei village about seven hours (300 km) north of Hailar. Shiwei is a rustic Russian village, which lies on the border between China and Russia.


    If you have not experienced the romantic culture of the Miao ethnic minority, head to Kaili in Guizhou where you can find the greatest concentration of Miao villages at one location. Kaili is a typical small town with little to uncover but it serves as a useful base to explore the surrounding villages like Langde, Zhouxi and Xijiang. If you have time, you can head further south to the Dong ethnic minority villages like Basha, Zhaoxing and Liping. But don’t expect the ethnic minorities dressed in their finest to pop out everywhere. To get in on the action, time your visit to coincide with one of the many local festivals, mainly around June to July and September to November. The Sister’s Festival, which falls on March 15 (lunar calendar), is a major event where local girls are out in full force to sing and dance.


    Getting there: Fly to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou and head east 200 km by bus or train to Kaili. In Kaili, take the local buses to the Miao villages or better still, hire a car.


    Jiuzhai Valley National Park (Jiuzhaigou in Chinese) is the most mesmerising among China’s national parks. The main area stretches over 80 km in the form of the letter ‘Y’ comprising three valleys with stunning views of lakes, waterfalls and mountains. To see most of the famous sites, you would have to visit the park over two days – or three days if you prefer a leisurely pace. Everyday, except during winter, hordes of tourists swarm the park, but you can avoid the crowd by turning up at the ticketing booth by 7am (or 8am during winter) while the tour groups are still having their breakfasts. While most tourists start their journey from the entrance, you could start from the furthest end of the park and make your way back to avoid the human crush. There are shuttle buses inside the park ferrying visitors up and down the route. In the evening, be sure to catch the spellbinding Zang Mi (Tibetan Mystery) performance, which shows off Tibetan costumes and dances in all its glory.


    Getting there: Fly to Jiuzhaigou Huanglong Airport (Jiu Huang in short) where you can take a taxi or a 90-minute bus ride to Jiuzhaigou. There are several hotels within walking distance from the park entrance, the nearest being the Sheraton Jiuzhaigou Resort.


    Dreaming of a winter wonderland during summer? In China, anything is possible. The remote town of Mohe, located on the northernmost tip of China, is possibly the coldest place in the country with the average annual temperature being minus four degrees Celsius and between minus 30 and 40 degrees Celsius during winter. Approximately two hours outside Mohe is a small settlement straddling the Russian border called Beiji village (Beijicun in Chinese) where you can live in log cabins or home-stays run by locals and experience the tranquil arctic scene, which includes fresh air and long polar days – nights are only about one to two hours in duration.


    Getting there: From Beijing, it’s a five- hour flight to Mohe’s Gulian Airport with a brief stopover in Harbin, Heilongjiang’s capital. There are regular buses from Mohe town to Beiji village.


    The Hani and Yi ethnic minorities came to this mountainous region in southern Yunnan thousands of years ago and created the breathtaking rice terraces that we see today. Visitors cannot help but feel at peace and relaxed in this beautiful landscape, where the air is fresh and life is simple. The best time to visit is between November and April when the rice terraces are filled with water, reflecting the colours of the sky. There are several scenic spots to see the rice terraces. If you can get up early to catch the sunrise, head to Duoyishu. For sunsets, go to Laohuzui or Bada.


    Getting there: There are no airports around Yuangyang, so you have to fly to Kunming, Sichuan’s capital, and take the bus to the town of Xinjie (eight hours), the nearest town to the rice terraces. From there you can take the local buses (or hire a car). If you have time, pay a visit to the Hani village of Jingkou to experience ethnic folk dancing and cultural shows.


    Throughout Chinese history, Huangshan (or Yellow Mountain), has been the inspiration for poets and painters. Scholars believe that one must pay homage to the mountain at least once in his lifetime. Dating back millions of years, Huangshan, with its unique pine trees, cloud-shrouded peaks and stunning sunrises, is picture-perfect from any angle. If you are lucky, you may even catch ‘Buddha’s Light’ (foguang in Chinese), an occasional treat during sunrises. Today, 15 million tourists visit the mountain annually and you can even take the cable car to some of the peaks. The temperature during summer is a pleasant 15 to 18 degrees Celsius and during winter it can drop to minus two degrees Celsius, while the highest rainfall is during the months of June to August. Spring (April) is probably the best time to visit when the flowers start to bloom.


    Getting there: Fly to Huangshan Airport, located five km outside Tunxi town. From the airport, you can take a taxi directly to Huangshan. Alternatively, you can go downtown and catch the bus to Tangkou, which is near the entrance to the mountain.


    China has its equivalent of Venice in Xitang, an ancient town criss-crossed by nine rivers. The tranquil and scenic water town with old-style boats and ancient buildings is a great place to unwind and relax. With a history dating back more than a thousand years, you will always stumble upon something interesting while exploring the old lanes or crossing the intricately-carved stone bridges.


    Getting there: Xitang is located just outside the town of Jiaxing, almost mid-way between Hangzhou and Shanghai. From Shanghai, it is about an hour’s drive.



    The Dongchuan Red Land is an open secret among photographers looking for unusual landscapes. The region is covered in a kaleidoscope of red, green and yellow due to the humid climate and iron-rich soil. When the yellow buckwheat and white wildflower blossoms, the scene is even more surreal during sunrise and sunset. The best time to visit is during early summer (May and June) or autumn (September and October).

    Getting there: From Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, take the bus to Dongchuan (200 km or four hours). From Dongchuan, rent a car to take you to Huagou (one-and-a-half hours), the town at the centre of the redlands.