Can China really be a destination for the winter holiday? After all, most guidebooks and myself included recommend spring and fall as the best times for visit. Then the weather is at its best, and when you travel around China you do spend a lot of time outdoors. Still, the winter season has plenty to offer and I know you’ll get some great experiences you can only get if you travel during the winter months.
So what should you do and where should you go?
To help me answer these questions I teamed up with Helen Wang, a Travel Sales Manager at Chengdu based WindhorseTour since 2006. She’s a native Sichuanese with a special love for her home province and Tibet where she has lived and worked, and with expertise that expands across all of China.
Helen, why should we travel to China during the winter months?
There are so many reasons to choose the winter to come to China. Let me list them up for you:
– Fewer tourists! Especially the Western travelers seem to appreciate that. It’s easier to explore when there are fewer people crowding the sights.
– Cheaper prices during the low season. Not only for hotels and flights, but vendors are happy to part with their goods for a lower price when there are fewer buyers. You can really score some great bargains.
– During January and February you can visit the amazing Snow and Ice festival in Harbin. You might think you have seen ice figures before, but nothing like this.
– Northern China has some great skiing resorts. It’s a great way to have fun with Chinese people, get some exercise and do something very few foreigners do in China!
– Many of the scenic spots in China, like Huangshan, Emeishan, Jiuzhaigou and Zhangjiajie offer a different scenery in the winter. If you are lucky you can go there when a drizzle of snow cover the mountain tops, and you can take some spectacular photographs.
– Chinese love to decorate, and these days they start before Christmas and just change the Santas with the traditional Chinese characters and symbols for the Chinese New Year that falls in January or February. It’s very colorful and festive.
– Since China is so big you can escape the coldest weather if you head south. Yunnan province is comfortable all year round and you can easily enjoy everything there is to see. Same for the tropical island of Hainan and Hong Kong.
– And importantly: The winter comfort food! Eat food that makes you warm.
The last one is a good one, what is your favorite?
Hotpot*, of course. As spicy as possible, I am from Sichuan after all. I eat it at least twice a week if I can, either at home or at restaurants.
Many people are worried about the cold weather, how cold does it get?
China is so big that you can’t give one temperature for the whole country, but the further you go up north, the colder it gets. Prepare for an average low of -13F / -25C in Harbin! In Beijing, the average high temperature in January is 35F / 2C. In Kunming it’s 46F / 8C, but you know it is all relative and depending on the sun shining, wind and so on.
Is there anywhere particular you recommend to visit in winter time?
Harbin has to be on the top of any list. The sculptures are one thing, but you also have lots of activities on the frozen river, the Tiger Park and the unique Russian architecture.
For nature lovers and photographers I always recommend the mountains that I mentioned above, Huangshan, Emeishan, Jiuzhaigou and Zhangjiajie. In Yunnan you can visit the pleasant cities of Kunming, Dali and Lijiang with their old towns and small hostels. And actually, the best time to see the famous Yuanyang rice terraces in Yunnan is from November to April. You should definitively time it so that you can attend the local country fair of the Hani minority. Very colorful and fun! Same goes for the red landscape of Dongchuan, it is beautiful during the winter months. Then you have Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Macao, Xiamen… The list is so long!
What about Tibet? Most tourist companies don’t send tourists to Tibet during the winter months, but you do?
Well, it depends on the client. Since many of the faraway places in Tibet will be hard and even dangerous to reach during winter and snow, some want to wait until they can do a full tour. But Lhasa is accessible all year round, and the timing can be good. First, there are fewer tourists. Second, during the winter months many Tibetan Buddhists take a pilgrimage to the holy temples in Lhasa. During the summer they are busy with their herds, now they have time to take the slow journey to the center of their buddhist beliefs. Around the city you will see Tibetans from all over the region arriving, wearing their traditional clothes and praying as they walk. It is very special. I have myself been to the Mount Everest Base Camp in the end of November and it was fine. The sky was so clear!
Finally, do you have any words of warning?
Try not to travel between 20 days prior and 20 days after the Chinese new year / Spring festival. This is called the biggest mass movement of people in the world, and you don’t want to be stuck on an overcrowded train, or worse, the train station during this time. It is fine to be in China, but chose to be in one place only and enjoy the festive atmosphere. Also, dress for the weather, and you’ll be fine**.
Thank you so much Helen, I think we can reach the conclusion that China is a great destination during winter as well. Must go and see those rice terraces…
* Hotpot is the ultimate winter food. Different regions have their varieties, but the basic is the same: A big bowl of boiling broth is places in the middle of the table and then you cook whatever you crave until it’s done and you can pick it up with your chopsticks. Since meat and vegetables are cut really thin, this goes fast. You can call it Chinese fondue. Very good and very social!
When do you travel? And will you ever travel to seek sub-zero temperatures?! Let me know in the comments. Thank you!
**In Norwegian we have a saying that it’s not the weather, it’s the clothes you are wearing. What do you need to pack for winter in China? That really depends on where you are going, but if you know you are headed to colder climate my first tips is warm underwear! Preferable merino wool, because that is always the best (and not itchy), the point is to insulate close to the skin, and then you can add layers. Make sure your shoes can fit thick socks, remember it can be hard to find big enough shoes in China! Normally it is easy to get hold of fleece and puffer jackets, after all they are made in China. Last tip: Winter air is dry as a desert river, it feels like it sucks the moisture out of your body. Bring a fat, heavenly scented body lotion/butter and you’ll be ok.