22 Travel Experiences to Cross Off of Your China Bucket List
When I stepped off the plane in China, I knew I wanted to do two things:
Drink Dragonwell tea at West Lake and visit the Honghe Rice Terraces in Yuanyang.
After spending a year in China, I had both of those experiences… but I also had so many more.
I traveled from north to south and east to west looking for the best experiences that China had to offer.
These travels have helped me craft a China bucket list that incorporates a little of everything—food experiences, cultural experiences, hiking experiences and, of course, panda experiences!
How to Prepare the Best China Bucket List Adventure
- Learn Chinese. This can’t be understated. Most people in China don’t speak English, and if they do, it’s very rudimentary. In order to travel freely around the country, you should really know at least the basics of Mandarin. Try to become conversational, because knowing the local language will be of immense value when trying to identify and locate all of the most amazing adventures in China.
- Identify types of places and experiences. Everybody has a different reason to travel to China. Some people want to explore China’s ancient Daoist roots, while others want to see the headquarters of Alibaba. Figure out why you want to go to China and make a list of the kinds of experiences you want to have.
- Plan out a route and budget well. Getting from point A to point B in China isn’t always straightforward. While the high-speed rail system is pretty good, it doesn’t always make sense financially or logistically to take a bullet train to your destination. Plan your route so that you can hit all the places you want to see with ease, efficiency and sound financial sense.
22 Travel Experiences to Cross Off of Your China Bucket List
China Bucket List for Eastern China
1. Take a Class on Chinese Tea
Chinese tea is an important part of the country’s culture.
It’s the foundation of interpersonal relationships. If you know how to brew and appreciate tea, Chinese people will accept you into their culture quickly and with a considerable amount of praise.
When you’re in China, find a tea course taught by a tea master. Learn about the different types of Chinese tea, how to brew tea in a gongfu (also known as kung fu) ceremony and why tea is such a vital part of the culture.
Tip: Identify your favorite kind of Chinese tea and tell locals that you love this tea every chance you get. This will help you build rapport with the people of China, especially the older generation. My favorite is Anji white. Ask your Chinese tea teacher about it!
2. See a Beijing Opera Performance
Beijing opera is famous for its elaborate masks and costumes worn by the performers, as well as its distinct musical style.
This well-known Chinese art form drew influence from similar performance arts in other cities in China. It all congregated in the capital of Beijing and has since become an indelible mark of Chinese culture.
Tip: While the art form came from Beijing, its popularity has spread all over China, so you don’t necessarily need to be in Beijing to watch Beijing opera.
3. Take a Selfie with Mao at Tiananmen Square
Hanging over the entrance to the Forbidden City at Tiananmen Square is a giant, iconic portrait of Mao Zedong—the founder of the People’s Republic of China.
It’s a popular tourist spot, as Chinese and foreigners alike gather around to take selfies with the venerated Communist leader.
Tip: Entrance into this iconic monument, as well as the surrounding area of Tiananmen Square, is free. But it costs money to get into the Forbidden Palace and other attractions.
4. Visit the Great Wall
Visiting the Great Wall of China is an obvious thing to check off your China bucket list.
Apart from it being arguably the most famous Chinese tourist attraction, this large northern wall also allows for things like adventure hiking and camping.
Tip: Don’t go to the Badaling section of the wall. This is the most crowded and most renovated part of the wall. Opt to go to the Mutianyu, Huanghuacheng or Jiankou sections for a much more authentic experience.
5. Experience Cantonese Culture in Guangdong Province
Each region of China has an extremely unique culture.
One shining example is in Guangdong (Canton) province where Cantonese culture is still flourishing, even among the government’s efforts to minimize its regional and national influence.
Distinct in terms of language, food, architecture and general lifestyle, Cantonese culture is wickedly different than the rest of China.
Tip: While the city of Shenzhen is technically in Guangdong province, it was built exclusively to be a Mandarin-speaking technology hub. You won’t find much Cantonese culture there.
6. Climb Around the Avatar Mountains
Zhangjiajie in Hunan province was China’s first national park, and this UNESCO World Heritage site has some very distinct scenery.
Apart from being absolutely stunning on its own, its picturesque vertical mountains served as the inspiration for the floating mountains in the movie “Avatar.”
Created by erosion, these several-hundred-feet-tall pillars are absolutely breathtaking. Ride up the side of one of them in the steepest elevator in the world, then walk along the sky on the longest glass bridge in the world.
Tip: The national park is big, and each part is breathtaking. Spend a few days walking around outside of the main tourist attractions.
7. Take the Ferry Across the Huangpu River in Shanghai
Everyone recognizes the Bund, the iconic Shanghai tourist spot where people congregate to take selfies with the famous Shanghai skyline.
But you can take a ride along the Huangpu River for less than 0.50 USD to get up close and personal with the iconic backdrop without as many tourists.
The ferry takes you from one side—the Puxi side—to the other side—the Pudong side—and gives you a fun way to take a Shanghai skyline selfie.
Tip: There are many different ferry lines that take you to various places. Be sure to map out exactly where you want to go.
8. Drink Dragonwell Tea at West Lake
West Lake is the UNESCO World Heritage site in Hangzhou famous for its stunning beauty and long architectural influence on traditional Chinese gardens.
Dragonwell tea is arguably the most famous tea in China, and it comes from the areas around West Lake.
You can buy Dragonwell tea in any number of stores in Hangzhou. Buy some and brew it as you sit around the banks of the lake. I did this with my friend, and I transformed from a tourist into a local in seconds.
Tip: While it’s always a good time to see West Lake, you should try to arrive at sunrise when all the tourists are still sleeping. You’ll be able to see this idyllic paradise as it naturally exists, away from the throes of Chinese tourism.
9. Experience Shaolin Kung Fu
The Shaolin Monastery in Dengfeng is a popular tourist site for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Said to be the originator of Chan/Zen Buddhism, this ancient Buddhist temple definitely holds an important place in Chinese history and earns its designation as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
One of the most interesting things about this monastery is the martial arts practice of some of the monks. They have become famous over the years and have branded their martial art as “Shaolin Kung Fu.”
Tip: The Kung Fu you see at the Shaolin Temple is “show” Kung Fu. It’s super cool to watch but isn’t very authentic. To see the real Kung Fu martial art as originated from Chan/Zen Buddhism, consider taking a course at the Gulun Kungfu Academy.
10. Go to Harbin’s Ice and Snow Festival
Harbin is a city in Northern China that borders Russia and is famous for its annual holding of the largest ice sculpture festival in the world.
Go here to see near life-sized replicas of famous landmarks around the world, all made out of ice!
You can also take on other fun activities while you’re there, like winter swimming in the Songhua River and alpine skiing.
Tip: It should go without saying, but it’s cold there. Like, really cold. Like, colder than you’d expect. Be prepared.
11. Take a Bamboo Raft down the Li River in Guilin
Guilin is a city in Guangxi provice famous for its karst mountains on both sides of the Li River.
From Guilin you can rent a bamboo raft and drift peacefully down the Li River, taking in the idyllic sights that have inspired poets, painters, sculptors and musicians for centuries.
Tip: Once you arrive on the other side of the river in Yangshuo, opt to stay there for a couple nights and bike around the villages carved underneath the dramatic mountains.
China Bucket List for Western China
12. See the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an
Seeing the excavated tomb of the first Qin emperor and his army of clay warriors is on most visitors’ China bucket list. That’s because it’s an intense glimpse at one of the most ancient civilizations known to man.
When the Qin emperor died, he wanted to make sure he was well-protected in the afterlife. He ordered his tomb to be filled with an army of clay figurines, from infantrymen to cavalrymen.
It’s definitely an impressive sight to behold.
Tip: When you’re in Xi’an, lots of people will tell you that you need to pay for an expensive shuttle to get there. Don’t listen to them. It’s substantially cheaper and relatively easy to get there by bus. Simply find your way to the Xi’an Railway Station and take bus 306, which costs only CNY 7 (1 USD).
13. Hike the “Most Dangerous Hike in the World”
Huashan is a beautiful mountain outside of Xi’an. It’s regarded as one of the Five Great Mountains of China.
It’s also dubbed the “Most Dangerous Hike in the World” because of a narrow plank walk that’s necessary to reach one of the summits. It’s also been reported to be pretty slippery in winter when the steep paths are covered in ice.
But if you can brave the reputation, it has some seriously unbeatable scenery.
Tip: Opt to spend the night in the town of Huayin at the base of the mountain, and don’t try to return to Xi’an the same day as your hike.
The hike will take about five hours up and three or four hours down. Add in some time to wander around the top, go to all the peaks and take your time exploring, and you’re looking at about 12 solid hours of mountain time. The trains back to Xi’an don’t run all night. Don’t stress yourself out worrying about catching that last train.
14. See the Pandas in Chengdu.
Chengdu, apart from being the capital of Sichuan province, has garnered worldwide attention for one thing: pandas!
The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is based in a remote and forested area of this capital city and offers visitors unmatched views of pandas in their natural habitat.
Tip: Wake up early and go when the park opens at 7:30 a.m. Try to be the first one there. Not only will you beat the throngs of tourists pushing you out of the way to take a picture, but the pandas are typically pretty lazy and sleep through much of the day. They’re most active in the morning.
15. Ride a Camel Through the Desert
Much of the north of China contains part of the largest desert in Asia—the Gobi.
The size of this desert is what makes this bucket list item unique. You can experience the Gobi in a lot of different places, from Inner Mongolia in the east to Xinjiang in the west.
Experience what it was like to be a trader along the ancient Silk Road as you ride a camel through a never-ending series of unforgiving sand valleys.
Tip: Don’t get stuck in a tourist trap where you get to ride on a camel for two minutes in an “adventure park.” I did that once as part of a package tour in Inner Mongolia. It was very silly. Opt for a multi-day hiking tour through the desert for a much more authentic experience.
16. Eat Hot Pot in Chongqing
Chongqing is the largest city in the world by population and one of China’s four direct municipalities controlled by the central government.
It’s also home to one of the most famous Chinese delicacies—Chongqing hot pot. While hot pot generally comes from northern China, Chongqing-style hot pot is notable for its interesting ingredients—like brains and kidneys—and its intense spice.
Tip: Opt for the yin/yang hot pot—half of the pot is spicy and the other half is not. Believe me when I say the spicy side is spicy. It’s “melt your face off” level spicy. The first time I ate Chongqing hot pot, my Western stomach was not happy with me for almost a week. But it was worth it for the amazing experience!
17. Eat Lā Miàn in Lanzhou
While we’re talking about food, lā miàn is one of the most iconic foods in Western China.
Literally meaning “pulled noodle,” this Chinese delicacy is most famous in Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu province. In Lanzhou, the noodles are aggressively pulled, stretched and twisted from a lump of dough and served in any number of ways—usually placed in a beef broth soup or fried and served on a plate.
Tip: Look for the little lā miàn shops that don’t serve anything else. Look for lā miàn written in Chinese characters: 拉面. That’s where you’ll find the best, and probably cheapest, noodles.
18. Hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan
A couple hours outside of Lijiang in Yunnan province, the Yangtze River has carved an absolutely stunning gorge between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the Haba Snow Mountain.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge hike takes you between local villages and snow-capped mountains, from high vantage points overlooking the area down to the intense Yangtze River pounding through the rocks.
Tip: While it’s possible to hike the popular high trail of the gorge in one day, try to give yourself at least two or three days to take your time and fully explore the majesty of the region.
I chose to hike the trail in one six-hour stretch and stay at a hostel near the river on the other side because I was short on time. But if possible, you should plan to spend the night at one of the many hostels along the hiking trail.
19. Journey into the Tibetan Plateau
If you find yourself in Western China, do yourself a favor and venture into the Tibetan Plateau.
Apart from having absolutely gorgeous mountains, lakes and rivers, as you get closer to the autonomous region of Tibet, you’ll start to see Tibetan clothing, writing and food.
Experience the thriving Tibetan culture and understand why this community is so valuable in the world.
Tip: If you do decide to go into the actual region of Tibet, make sure you have the appropriate paperwork.
20. See the Largest Lake in China in Qinghai
Qinghai Lake is the largest inland and saltwater lake in China.
Located in the city of Qinghai, it’s one of the most famous attractions in China and attracts people for its wildlife and scenic viewpoints.
Be sure to check out the island in the middle of the lake, which is home to an ancient Buddhist temple.
Tip: Rent a bicycle and ride around the lake to get up close and personal with all the sights and sounds that the lake has to offer.
21. Go to the Mogao Caves in Gansu
This UNESCO World Heritage site in Gansu province is home to hundreds of Buddhist caves built between the fourth and 14th centuries CE.
Thousands of paintings, numerous architectural structures and libraries of ancient Buddhist texts are inside these caves.
While you can’t wander around all of the caves, you can go through a few of them and see the important cultural relics of Buddhism as it flourished along the Silk Road.
Tip: The area closes during bad weather. Be sure to check the weather report before you go.
22. Wander Around the Rice Terraces of Yuanyang
The UNESCO Heritage Honghe Hani Rice Terraces in Yuanyang County are a marvelous collection of rice terraces from the local Hani minority population.
These rice paddies, when filled with water, reflect the sunlight and are particularly dramatic during sunrise and sunset.
While walking around these terraces and interacting with the local Hani people, I couldn’t help but be overcome with a strong sense of peace that completely overshadowed the daily influx of tourists.
Tip: Many Chinese tourists crowd the viewing platforms for sunrise and sunset. But once they leave, the fields are nothing short of an idyllic paradise. Spend a few days wandering around the terraces. Try to be in the middle of the fields and not on the viewing platforms during sunrise and sunset.
China is a humongous country with lots to see and do.
But if you’re smart, you can plan an adventure that will fulfill all your China travel needs, from hanging out with pandas to eating some amazing food.
So as you travel around the Middle Kingdom, make sure you check these essential experiences off your China bucket list!
Eric Michelson is a nomadic, philosophizing, peace-minded pluralist. He hopes to help bridge the divide between the diverse factions of the world by exploring various perspectives brought on by personal experience. You can follow Perspective Earth to learn more about him and his work.