I hope to provide here an itinerary for travelling through China in three weeks with plenty of street food thrown in for good measure. Also in this post there are heaps of tips and lists that we gleaned along the way. All in all a full feature with of course my photography.
Our fabulous trip was very much self-organised while some days were just plain old ad hoc – whatever we felt. We did not hire a guide at all. No tour buses to speak of. Now the itinerary ain’t perfect. It was mainly about keeping a balance between fun, culture and sanity! In India you keep safe, in China you keep sane.
Wrap your brain around this that 1.386 billion people live in China. Consider that thought in comparison to Europe which only makes up about half of that at a stretch. China is up there as the third largest in terms of landmass only outnumbered by Russia and Canada. For a glimpse of the land’s sheer breath we aimed to do a mixture of culture and nature, metropolises, mountainous and even tropical regions. We were prepared to travel the distance.
Itinerary for China
Our itinerary for 22 days was Beijing (2 nights) – Xi’an (2 nights) – Chengdu (3 nights) – Yangshuo (4 nights) – Lijiang (4 nights) – Beijing (3 nights).
Each day breaks down as follows
Travel Photography Itinerary
Photography wise I was light on. Wanting to have fast lenses for evening street scenes and a wide angle also. I used the 24mm for about 90% of the time. The 50mm I used mainly for the Great Wall and the Pandas. I’m not a fan of zoom lens, I much prefer getting close to the subject. This brings intimacy to the images.
One advantage of the XE-3 camera is the ability to film video in HD or 4K resolution.
- Fujifilm XE-3 Camera
- Fujifilm 16mm ƒ1.4 (24mm equiv.)
- Fujifilm 35mm ƒ1.4 (50mm equiv.).
- Gorillapod a kind of knobbly mini tripod.
- 64Gb SD memory card for both video and images.
- A rake of batteries in total six.
- Two polarizers for each lens.
Day 1 – Arriving in Beijing 北京
We arrived and departed through the same city – Beijing, meaning city of the north. (This was the first lesson in Chinese, ‘bei’ 北 means north.)
We decided to take the local bus from the airport to the city centre which is very inexpensive. However you’ll lose time within the Beijing traffic heading towards the city. We discovered later using the Airport Express for 25 RMB one way was a much more convenient option which we utilised on our way back to Beijing at the end of our trip. You live and learn I guess. The Airport Express is on the very bottom floor of terminal 2. A bit of a wee walk. Bear in mind in China you’ll walk a lot especially in Beijing and in the metro too.
Our absolute highlight in Beijing were the buzzing street food night markets. We visited two night markets in Beijing:
- Wangfujing night market (王府井小吃街)
- Nanluoguxiang night market (南锣鼓巷)
Wangfujing night market (王府井小吃街)
The Wangfujing night market is located in a very narrow side lane parallel to Wangfujing Street, the main shopping drag in Beijing. This night market was packed and there were loads of Chinese specialities on offer such as meat skewers and tasty tripe! On top of that you also get to try more touristy attractions of stinky tofu, barbequed scorpion, grasshoppers and roasted maggots.
Nanluoguxiang night market (南锣鼓巷)
We found the Nanluoguxiang night market to be a bit more relaxed located in a beautiful Hutong-neighbourhood. Also this night market is close to the Bell and Drum tower.
Beijing Street Food
We arrived early in the morning into Beijing. After dumping the rucksacks while fighting the urge to sleep in attempt to sync towards local time we set out. Tackling the jetlag of seven hours isn’t really nice but to heck with it! Time to lap it up with the first dumpling on the agenda. This was no ordinary western style dumpling.
This is the soup dumpling in which you pinch a hole with a thick straw and suck out the tasty contains!
Now the proof is in the dumpling of course. Quite a tasty and interesting experience.
Peking Duck Wrap
Next on list of specialities has to be duck. When you come all the way around the world to Beijing you must encounter Peking Duck. A take-away duck wrap costs 20 to 30 RMB while you can order a whole duck with pancakes and sauce in a restaurant at a prize of around 200 to 300 RMB. To be honest we tried the street option and the more costly option in the restaurant. What’s clear is you are really paying for the ambience and a chef who cuts and prepares the duck in front of you. The street food duck is just as good in Beijing as the restaurant duck. You just make sure it’s fresh and not reheated.
The perfect Peking duck
Top Mobile Apps for China
Before you enter China get your smart phone ready with these useful and vital apps.
- Bing Translator – for OCR image recognition perfect for food menus – on the off chance there’s dog on offer!
- Metroman – for navigating through the subway/metros of each of the massive cities such as Chengdu, Xi’an, Beijing etc. .
- Trip – for booking trains and flights without the hassle of knowing the lingo.
- Nord VPN – to get through the great firewall of China if you need access to YouTube, Google and the like.
- MAPS.ME – really handy for maps and it works offline too.
Note: I would strongly recommend not using WeChat just watch this video for more info – https://youtu.be/DMHwVU-8BHM
Read Day 2’s itinerary for more street food treats.
Day 2 – The Summer palace 颐和园
After setting in and tackling some of the jetlag we ventured out to the summer palace using the metro. Later we treated ourselves to more of Beijing’s street food.
Metro Cards in China
I recommend getting the contactless metrocard for convenience. The deposit is 20 RMB. The card can only be bought in certain metro stations, we bought ours in the Beijing Railway Station where the airport bus dropped us off. The card can be topped up at the machines in every station. These machines have an English option and are fairly self-explanatory. A usual ride for a couple of stops in Beijing will cost you 3-4 RMB. Longer rides like to the Summer Palace for 45 mins cost us 7 RMB.
Tip: you can return the Metro Card, receive the deposit and any amount left on the card at the metro stop in the airport when departing Beijing. We did this on our last day.
The Summer Palace
The origins of the Summer Palace date back to the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty in 1153, when the fourth ruler, Wanyan Liang (r. 1150–1161), moved the Jin capital from Huining Prefecture (in present-day Acheng District, Harbin, Heilongjiang) to Yanjing (present-day Beijing). He ordered the construction of a palace in the Fragrant Hills and Jade Spring Hill in the northwest of Beijing. [Source]
Night street food market
If there’s a queue for food usually it’s usually for something good. My personal rule is if food is moving then eat it. You can’t go wrong with this practise.
Tip: Many times we’d no idea what you can order as like most westerners without a clue in China do – you order by pointing and nodding! This happens to work really well when you enter into a place seeing someone eating something that looks good. Point at his/her meal and indicate you’d like that. No one gets offended. Often many place have picture cards too under the counter.
Regarding insects this is a bit of a novelty but nonetheless definitely worth a go. I even tried out Grasshoppers on a stick but the scorpions not. This night market will probably offend a lot of vegetarians/vegans alike. Furthermore many street markets have live animals such as various types of duck, fowl, fish and insects in cages on display. This is a normal practise in China.
Blackened Spicy Tofu
My favourite was finding this blackened spicy tofu. It was wickly tasty and hot with chilis and fresh coriander on top.
Day 3 – Train to Xi’an
The first major train station huddle featuring an unfathomable amount of platforms, 66 in total. Everything is modern and well organised. It seems very similar to a major airport in terms of waiting to board and the compulsory security checks all the way.
Security Checks & Photography Film
One thing in China to get used to is security controls when entering metros, trains, airports and many tourist attractions. If you are considering taking a film camera to China, the number of x-ray scans you go through is just insane. This may very well affect undeveloped negatives. It’s not so simple or practical to shot film anymore in China.
(However I did meet a guy later on into my trip shooting medium format film with a Rolli in Yangshuo. He was a Chinese tourist. I guess you’d need to post in and out your film to China. Not an easy task.)
Giant size information board compared to what I am normally used to. The number of folks queueing to board the train just like a western airport. One thing that’s makes the people flow easier is the use of RFID paper tickets. Instead of barcode scans typically found in Airports.
Street Food in Xi’an
The fast train got us to Xi’an in about 4 1/2 hours. Xi’an is regarded a mecca for food. We had watched the Food Ranger’s videos on YouTube and read his blog. So a big thanks to Trevor James!
So we had a plan for Xi’an – Street food and the Terracotta Warriors.
Suantang Jiaozi – Sour and Spicy Dumplings
We couldn’t wait. Dropped down our backpacks in our accommodation and literary ran out the door. We first had to try the spicy sour dumplings. They were to die for! – delicious.
Next Lamb and Beef Skewers
Oh wow incredibly flavourful beef and lamb skewers with crispy bread.
Day 4 – Xi’an Street food
Resting our bones in the massive city of Xi’an within the bustling Muslim quarter just to experience one of the world’s celebrated street food was well worth its journeys.
The Jianbing for breakfast
The Jianbing features very much for brekkie in Northern China. It’s basically a pancake with egg and contents. It contents usually a dough stick or meat with pickles and other good things. Get it spicy, it’s the best thing in China to have for a good start of the day!
Three marvelous ladies made us the most wonderful Xi’an Jianbing you ever taste.
Real pulled pork pita
We were on a mission to taste the next culinary delight on offer. We hailed down a precarious electric motor pedi. Which is basically a rickshaw with a motor and battery. It shaked and rackled something fierce, unsure what to hold onto. The doors really couldn’t be kept shut. It was exciting.
This time it was the experience of a real pulled pork pita.
We had the toasty crunchy homemade pita bread with off the bone pork on a very cold November day. We were now officially food rangers if not food warriors ready to tackle the Terracotta army.
Next it was off to the warriors!
Language and Communicating
China isn’t easy especially regarding the language. You really get an insight in what it would be like to be illiterate. Simply you can’t read, write or speak. Sometimes I felt if I were mute when attempting to ask for something. The level of english spoken is weak throughout the country even in major cities.
Be patience with people who try to speak with you. Try to speak clearly and simply in return. Keep your sentences short and to the point. Otherwise it becomes frustrating very quickly for both sides. Use the mobile apps I suggested in this post, they really help. Above all don’t panic. The Chinese people we met were very kind and willing to get you to your destination.
The Terracotta Warriors
Since breakfast was behind us, we were all set and ready to head out to see the amazing site of one of the greatest wonders of China. There is something like over 9000 of these handmade characters across three pits. It’s best to start with pit 2 and 3 to work yourself up for the main event – pit 1.
Each of these figures is unique. Each has its own face, different nose, lips and eye shape. The mammoth task took over 36 years to complete. Once achieved it was all sealed up for the emperor in his afterlife. His very own army with archers, generals and other military components.
Now it’s onto Chengdu and Yangshuo by G-Train but before that we have to have more street food. Bring it on!
Keeping on track with the Food Rangers suggestions.
Guantang Jiaozi Plump Steamed Dumplings
Plump and meaty so darn right yummy. The meat and spice inside with a little soupy juiciness has to be one of the most flavoursome packages you’ll find on the planet. Plus they also come with spicy chili oil dripping sauce!
Liangfen Rice Jelly with Vinegar and Chili
Yet another treat well worth gobbling up is these sensational cold noodles. They may sound odd but they’re addictive once you start.
Day 5 – Travelling to Chengdu
Travelling at high speed on the ultra modern Chinese G-Train. Their top speed travels at 400 km/h.
Biang Biang Mian
Biang Biang Mian for breakfast because it was so good the evening before!
Oh wow, this was one of the highlights in terms of food dishes in Xi’an. It’s difficult to choose a favourite but the Biang Biang Mian we had was out of this world. Full of flavour and goodness with homemade wide rice noodles. Which were freshly made for us in front of our eyes.
Once in Chengdu it was time to try out their famous hot spicy and numbing hotpot. You pick the skewers of meat and veggie, these were then cooked for us. This was a wonderful introduction to Chengdu cuisine.
Day 6 – Chengdu Pandas and the Tea house
Who doesn’t love Pandas ? This was an early start of the day. This was key to avoid the crowds and selfishly have the black and whites to ourselves. However after the metro we weren’t too sure which bus to take. We were lucky to meet two kind students. They came from remote part of northern China next to Russia. They were studying here and knew which bus to take. We followed suit.
Later that day we found ourselves in the People’s park. Famous no only for tea but also for ear cleaning.
Even a haircut while you sip on your organic Jasmine tea is possible.
Folks gather for tea and to play Mahjong. What could be better to whittle away an afternoon in the park.
Day 7 – Chengdu
At this point we needed to hang loose and take a wee break from buses and trains.
During our stay in the Lazy Bones Hostel we met Christina who has traveled by bike from Switzerland to Chengdu. http://www.silkroadbybike.ch
An amazing adventure crossing deserts and multiple countries to reach China.
We had arranged to have a meal at the monastery close by – the Wenshu temple. The restaurant is vegetarian which we were delighted after the meat fest from the last couple of days.
Day 8 – Chilling out in Chengdu
We were back on the trail again with the help of the Food Ranger’s guide to Chengdu.
“Sweet Water Noodles”
This place features noodles with sugar and chilli. Not sure if it’s main course or dessert, either way it’s good.
Also not far from the Wenshu temple we stumbled across a queue of people at this place. We figured it had to be good and yes it was super scrumptious. In fact later we realised it was on the Food Ranger’s list of places for Chengdu. This was the stuffed Pita we had.
Stuffed Sichuan Pita
We were well rested and feed of course! It was time to pack up and head to south.
Day 9 – Travelling to Yangshuo
One taxi, two trains, two buses and 900 metres walking…
Travelling by high speed train, eventually we had arrived in the splendid Yangshuo. We had booked ourselves into the Sudder Street Hostel. We laid down and fell fast asleep on a well earned proper mattress.
Next morning now on day 10, we woke to such an amazing view even if the weather wasn’t to our liking. It was rainy and hazy outside. It was time again for adventure!
Day 10 – Yangshuo Bamboo Rafting
Waken by the light and the outstanding view of the green luscious hills, a backdrop while the local farmers tended their small patches from our window.
One thing we noticed throughout the people’s republic was that folks had adopted to the e-scooters. Doing away with noisy petrol mopeds and scooters of the past. We rented a black and white cow themed e-scooter with a range of about 50km. Top speed of 60km/h with two of us on it with the wind behind us! Oh it was also equip with a very functional bright pink umbrella. Very suitable for the weather conditions we’d encounter.
Once on the e-scooter we searched out the location of the Yulong river for bamboo rafting. But before rafting could commence lunch was required. We found a place opposite the Guilin Romance Park.
The e-scooter was mounted onto its stand. We sat down and began to decipher the menu. Knowing Beer-Fish to be the area’s speciality. This was the obvious choose. It was absolutely delicious and nothing was left.
Then it was onto Bamboo rafting.
Our raft made entirely of bamboo unlike the plastic versions I had heard of. Two metal chairs and holder for a umbrella in the event of rain were the feature set of our raft. Each raft is rented for 90 minutes with a local rafter to bring you down stream. Life jackets were handed out and worn.
Our journey began through breathtaking green rounded hills on each side of us. It was just us on the river at the time. Later others came from another rafting company. As it was off season we basically had everything to ourselves. Even with the overcast and the patches of rain in between it was a remarkable adventure. Definitely a highlight of Yangshuo. Close to nature and the pleasure of the waterways of Yulong river.
Later we had the curiosity to walk down West Street for better or for worse. A bizzare experience of noise, music and bright flashing lights. I was informed the Chinese love to holiday this way. Inside me I was screaming and yet bewildered. I filmed what appeared to be a dough-dance. Then they roped me into it. We ate some kind of ice cream with smoke or dry ice inside. Just a novelty but fun to film.
Day 11 – Fuli Farmer’s Market
We found a vendor offering a Jianbing for breakfast. We love Jianbing. Once we scoffed up a delicious fest it was back on the scooter to Fuli. We were kind of pushing the limit of the battery but it seemed to work.
Fuli farmer’s market is famous for dog meat and noodles. Not knowing this at time we had lunch. A bowl of rice noodles, spicy and hot on a cold November day.
The meat sat on top with the spring onions. The warm and tasty dish cost a mere 5 RMB. Satisfied we explored the market.
We saw smoked meat and dog of course. Then we had realised from the guide book this was the place for this famous speciality. That night we thought about it. At one point I woofed in my sleep a few times. Had we eaten dog ?
The market in Fuli is so authentic. It really a great to see a piece of Chinese day to day life. Well worth the ride out of the bike.
Day 12 – Yangshuo, Moon Hill Hike
The incredible natural arch – on Moon Hill and a horrid Tourism centre. The centre was the usual monster size like everything else in China. That was the impression. However the short hike to Moon Hill to see the arch was worth it. Watching climbers while we snacked below. The lesson here was ignore the Tourism Centre and the hawkers.
Day 13 – Travelling to Lijiang
We used the Trip app to book a flight a few days previous to Lijiang from Guilin. The hostel had arranged for a shuttle bus to bring us to the Airport bus for Guilin. This was perfect service. We drove in style.
When we arrived the weather was wonderful, finally blue skies. Lijiang is at over 2,000 metres above sea level. The air was good and clean.
It was time to try chicken feets. I had avoided them so far. However when in Rome… or China do what the Chinese do – eat chicken feet!
Earlier in the more traditional part of the old town we came across a reenactment of sending soldiers off to fight.
When you get to Lijiang ensure to search out Yunnan Coffee. Find some beans and stocked up, to bring them back home. I myself was so surprised how good this coffee was. I will be truly sad when I run out.
Yunnan grows a variety of coffees, including Arabica Catimor, Typica, and Bourbon. The unique geography high above sea level and the differences between the temperature during the night and day creates the original character of Yunnan coffee – “Fruity fragrance, rich but not bitter, and aromatic but not overwhelming”, reflecting the beauty of the Yunnan.
Yunnan covers a huge 98% of the coffee farms in China, so it is clear that most coffee in China is Yunnan coffee. [Source]
Day 14 – Lijiang, Baisha and Shuhe
We hopped on the local bus number 6 to Baisha and Shuhe. A one way journey costs about 2 RMB.
In Baisha we enjoyed a fish served with a dish of wild mushrooms. Such a simple and scrumptious meal. A real surprise. We knew we stumbled on a local place. Both Baisha and Shuhe are touristy in small scale to Lijiang.
Day 15 – Lijiang, Black Dragon Pool
The scenic Black Dragon Pool we missed on the first day. This gentle stroll around the riverbank leads into the captivating surroundings with striking pagodas with the Snow mountain featuring in the background.
Day 16 – Lijiang, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Blue moon lake, White water river we arranged the trip ourselves by taking the Bus 7 opposite to chairman Mao’s eyesore. You’ll find it quite easily in Lijiang.
The Snow Mountain is something you should do if you are in the region. However expect pack loads of local tourists by the bucket and bus load. Selfie sticks and the usual regala. The chinese tour groups sell or rent jackets in a variety of colours against the severe cold. At 4 and 1/2 thousand metres on Snow mountain, they are kind of convinced that they’ll die or something. Most if not all are carrying bags with canisters of oxygen.
Not really sure why. Probably the same old propaganda and fear. We didn’t heed the advice. We breathed normally and walked a little slowly at the top. Wrapped up warmly if we were back in Austria. The panic was over we came down on the gondola and took the bus to the next attraction. A bit tired from the altitude.
Blotting out the hordes of visitors in red, orange, purple or green jacket we took in the scenery. The color is a sort of an opal blue without doubt. When appearing into the Blue Moon Lake.
Day 17 – Lijiang, Jade Water Village & Yuhu
We hired a driver to bring us to these awesome peaceful place. Of course you can also reach them by local bus too.
These places I found were far less crowded and much more enjoyable. Relaxing and being chauffeured around this was how a holiday ought to be!
Later that evening, our kind hosts at Dreamer Inn, the hotel who had chatted to us each evening on our return each day invited us to join them for a tea ceremony.
We talked via two guests from Hong Kong who translated English and Chinese back and forth. It was great to finally express ourselves and ask questions about tea and the ceremony.
Day 18 – Travelling to Beijing
Carrying on from the night before the tea ceremony start once again after breakfast. Then it was off to the airport for a flight back to the capital.
When we arrived into Beijing we searched out a place for Peking duck fancy style this time around. We were curious.
I have to say even those the restaurant was nice and the experience of the chef cutting the roasted duck in front of our table, I still think I prefer the street food version. Chinese food in China aka food is so not same as I eat in Ireland or Austria. It’s different in many regards.
Where to stay in Beijing
Beijing is huge and can feel overwhelming. To get the most out of your trip we strongly recommend to stay somewhere fairly central and in walking distance to a station of the metro line 1 or the metro line 2. It is a bit of a pain to change metro lines because you get to walk a lot within the metro stations, so it is great when you are already on the line 1 or 2. The stop on line 1 to see the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square is Tian’anmen West or Tian’anmen East, on line 2 the stop to see the major sights is Qianmen.
Day 19 – Beijing, Forbidden City and Acrobats
A busy day we lined up to Mao’s tomb and then into the Forbidden City. I would recommended watching the film – The Last Emperor beforehand to understand the history of the Forbidden City.
It’s recommended to go as earlier as possible to the Forbidden City to see it with reduce crowds. However its so large in size with over 1 millions sqm! it can never really be full. There is always a corner you can find where no one is.
Finally in the evening the Chinese Acrobats.
Day 20 – The Great Wall
A great day at the Great wall over our trip we didn’t get to many blue skies. In the end a super duper highlight of visiting this incredible structure.
Day 21 – Return Home
China is big not just in size and people but in history and culture. It’s hard to understand and reason why things are the way they are in China. I would wish they take a lead in environmental policy in regard to city pollution. I guess when red politics becomes green we’ll see more blue in the sky again especially in Beijing.