If I had two weeks to explore China, this is what I would do.
Arrive in Beijing, the capital of China, where all the power has been gathered for hundreds of years, now with cool neighbourhoods and the best collection of restaurants.
In Beijing you have to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden city. Temple of Heaven is most fun in the mornings, try to get there around 7 or 8am, you can go back to your hotel for breakfast later. Other than the beautiful, old temple buildings you also get to see the best of Chinese morning exercise. And all the old guys playing cards, singing and dancing.
You need a day for the Wall, of course. If you come during spring, summer or fall, the Summer Palace can be lovely. Bring a picnic, rent a boat and enjoy the day on the lake. If you are short of time, the lakes north of Forbidden City are also great for a day outside. Then you can get a tour of the old hutongs, the traditional houses. If you want to switch history with future, hang around Sanlitun Village for shopping and hipster spotting. To find out why Chinese art is so hyped up, spend an afternoon in the art districts 798 or Caoshangdi, visiting galleries, design shops and restaurants.
For evenings you can eat great food, go to punk or rock concerts, see some crazy acrobatic or kung fu shows. Beijing opera might be for the hard core fans, but the costumes, make up and crazy singing and music is pretty fascinating.
Night train to Xi’an will save you a night at hotel, and give you a great experience. The direct train from Beijing to Xi’an is convenient, without stops and mostly for tourist. It’s no point taking the train during daytime, it takes double the time with all the stops. And the scenery is not worth it, mostly flat and dusty. There are four beds with pillow and blanket in each compartment, toilets at each end. Nothing luxurious, but comfortable enough.
Xi’an is a fun city, with a city wall you can cycle on top of, and one of the most beautiful mosques in the country. You’ll need a day for the Terracotta warriors. So two nights should be enough to see the highlights. In the evening you can see a touristy Tang dynasty dance and song show. Not saying it’s bad, just a little tacky maybe.
Flight to Guilin in Guizhou-province. Guizhou is a pleasant town in south China, famous for it’s weird mountains popping up from the ground. The best way to see the mountains is to take the boat from Guilin to Yangshuo early in the morning. Takes about four hours and around every turn a new amazing landscape opens up. Yangshuo used to be a sleepy fishing village, now it is a famous tourist spot, but still a nice place to relax for a few days.
You can rent a bike – the ground between the mountains are flat, so convenient! You can go rafting on the rivers, sitting on a garden chair fastened to four bamboo poles, under a parasol. You can go rock climbing, explore caves or just sit at an outdoor cafe and enjoy the day.
There are different exit points out of China, Shanghai and Hong Kong being two of them. Both are important, historical cities with lots of fun, and choosing between them is not easy.
Arguments for Shanghai and things to do there: The European architecture from the 1920s gives a totally different feel to the city than any other, and it’s easy to get lost among French style villas, decadent hotels and along tree lined avenues.
Shanghai is also the place to see China’s future, it has the biggest collection of great skyskrapers in the country. Big contrasts, beautiful old and modern architecture, boat trips on Pudong River, great museums and a fun city to walk around in.If you have days left of your holiday, Suzhou and Hangzhou are a daytrip away. Old town famous for their beauty, gardens, canals, tea and romantic spots. You also have the smaller water towns, old villages without cars, that are criss crossed with canals. Stone bridges, weeping willow and old houses.
If you go, please stay overnight in one of the old guesthouses. During the day, they are swarmed by Chinese tourists, but in the evenings it calms down, and you are set back hundred years in time and feel you are part of a Chinese historical movie.
Hong Kong is the bellybutton of Asia, and a city of its own. A tiny and very steep area in the South China Sea that is home to more than 6 million people, some of them the richest in the world.
Everything is narrow, houses are tall, the weather hot and humid and all the crazy neon is hypnotizing. Here also, the contrasts are big. Spend the evening in Kowloon, among thousands of shoppers and neon signs, or take the ferry out to one of the islands, where you can lie on the beach, or walk for hours in the mountains.
If you want to try your luck, Macao is only a boat or helicopter ride away, and can offer Asia’s biggest selection of casinos. And some wonderful misplaced Portuguese architecture.
This is just a suggestion, a trip that will include a little bit of everything that makes China special. There are hundreds of other great places to visit.