When planning my trip through China one summer, I decided that I wanted to stay out of the well-known cities and explore smaller villages and lesser known areas where I could find less tourist traps and more cultural fare. While Beijing and Shanghai are both excellent cities to visit, here is an itinerary that will take you off the radar and help you discover nature, minority villages, Chinese traditions, and more. To make planning easier for myself I did this trip through Intrepid Travel, but you can also recreate it for yourself.
First stop: Hua Shan, Ning Ming County
Before coming to China I had been traveling through Vietnam and had entered the country from the Lang Son Province into Guangxi, China. From there you can catch a train or bus via Pingxiang to the mountainous village of Hua Shan, which is located in Guangxi. The journey takes about 2-3 hours.
There is a lot to be experienced in peaceful Hua Shan, which is miles away from civilization, located in the heart of mountains, valleys, forests, and near the Dong and Zhuang minority village. I stayed at a family-run guesthouse called Butterfly Valley, which felt more like a homestay than a hotel, as the family would cook for my group, take us on hikes, and end each night playing Mahjong and singing kareoke with us. It also helps to learn a bit of Chinese as not everyone in the area speaks English.
Take a walk through the countryside and notice the myriad plants and crops, like the gum leaves that locals use to cure a stuffy nose and the various edibles like corn, pumpkin, potatoes, and rice fields. Make sure to visit the minority village, which is dominated by wooden and thatched houses and livestock running around. It’s interesting to hear and see the music, dance, and art of the people of the community who are, for the most part, quite friendly and were happy to talk to me via my translator. In fact, the people in Hua Shan in general were very friendly and excited to talk to me. Many of the young girls knew basic English and even asked me to hangout with them to help them practice their language skills. Hiking in the area is also a fun activity, and there are many trails that allow you to explore the various flora and fauna of the area. As the region is completely rural you can literally just wander towards the trees and mountains to find your own paths. If you’d like to see indigenous art, boat trips go out to Mount Huashan where a vivid rock painting of various types of people, animals, and symbols is located. The painting is about 725 wide and 131 feet high, making it a bit of a mystery how it was created.On to Liuzhou
From Ning Ming we took a bus to Liuzhou via Nanning. While Liuzhou is a city, I still did not see many tourists and it makes for a nice break after spending time in the middle of nowhere. I stayed at the Nanjiang Hotel, which was actually like an everyday hotel (unlike many of the other accommodations on this itinerary). My favorite part about the property was their on-site tea room, where I spent a lot of time ordering authentic Chinese teas and playing Mahjong with anyone who would play, which is really easy in China. One guy even saw me sitting with tea and cards through the hotel window and came in to see if I would play with him.
My favorite part about this city was the YuFeng Shan (Fish Peak Mountain), which looks like an upright fish, and the park it’s located in, YuFeng Gongyuan (Fish Peak Park). There is also Ma’an Shan (Horse Saddle Mountain) adjacent. Walking through the park, you’ll see interesting architecture (shown above), lakes, gardens, and locals enjoying various leisure activities like dancing, Tai Chi, smoking, playing Mahjong, and chess. I spent hours just strolling around the different park paths, people watching and interacting with locals (one woman even tried to get me to join in on her dance group!). I hiked to the top of Fish Peak Mountain which is a great way to get a view of the entire city. There’s also Sanjie Rock Cave on the way up, which is interesting to visit to see the carvings, statues, and lifelike figures that tell the tale of Liu Sanjie, a popular Chinese love story.
From Liuzhhou, we boarded a train to Sanjiang and then caught a bus to Chengyang Village. I stayed at the Long Feng Hotel in the Bridge Scenic District, which was a cozy, wooden guesthouse run by a friendly family. They have a bar and restaurant with picnic tables on the main floor, and you can order delicious fruit shakes and Asian specialties. The Chengyang Village is extremely scenic, and it can be worth it to hire a guide to help you translate what people are saying as well as give you historical and cultural information. I would recommend doing a tour of the village and checking out the Wind-and-Rain Bridge, which has 5 pavilions, 19 verandas, 4 spans, 3 piers, and 3 floors constructed without the use of nails. You can buy handicrafts from locals, view art and sculpture, and even have your name inscribed on the bridge for Y10 (less than $2). Moreover, if you’re with a guide who can translate make sure to visit the village Drum Room, which is where the local men hangout to smoke, talk, and play cards. When I visited they were really excited to meet me, and through a translator asked me a lot of questions about where I was from. There is also a Dong Minority Cultural Show (shown above) everyday in the center of the village near the outdoor stage at 10:30AM and 3:30PM. It was really interesting to see the bright and ornate costumes and literally be a part of traditional songs and dances, as you will get called up to take part. Hiking up the nearby mountains is also a great way to spend time and will give you breathtaking views of the entire village and countryside.
From Chengyang, you’ll be able to take a bus to Longsheng and then a local bus to Ping’an. While the bus drops you off right outside the village, you’ll need to hike passed a row of handicraft and food market stalls before making your ascent up a steep rock quarry-like mountain to get to where the accommodations are. We stayed at the Li Qing Guesthouse, a traditional wooden guesthouse run by two sisters, Yuan Li and Yuan Qing, and their husbands. The hotel had a western toilet, as well as a menu that consisted of Western favorites and Asian fare. My favorite part about the accommodation, however, was the view from my bedroom window of the unique terraced countryside. Through the hotel the group was able to hire a guide to take us on a tour of the Longji Rice Terraces as well carry our backpacks (only Y100 for 3 bags, about $16), as we were hiking for five hours to the next town we would be staying in, Dazhai. “Longji” literally means “Dragon’s Backbone” as the rice terraces appear to be dragon’s scales with the summit resembling the backbone. The effect is almost unworldly as hills and mountains swirl about in a natural kind of staircase in order to preserve water, which rice needs a lot of to grow. Along the way you’ll see get to see traditional homes as well as the Yao and Zhuang minority women working in the fields. When it got to be around lunch time, our group actually got the chance to stop at one of the homes and have a home cooked meal which was picked for us from the on-site crops when we got there. Once we got to Dazhai, we stayed in the Yue Bing Guesthouse.
From Dazhai you’ll have to walk about 45 minutes to the bus station to catch a bus to Yangshuo via Guilin. Yangshuo is a lot more touristy then the small villages discussed previously, but still has a lot to offer the traveler looking for a unique Chinese experience. My group stayed at the Morning Sun Hotel, which puts you in the center of town, equal distance from the Western-inspired streets and the more authentic Chinese area. One activity I highly recommend is a bike tour with Roy, who also runs a language school. Roy can take you to visit the school and will even allow you to teach a class if you’re interested. If not, you can simply enjoy being lead on a scenic bike tour through the city as well as the countryside and rice fields. He’s also a really down to Earth guy and I found myself having really honest and open discussions with him about life in China vs. life in the United States. Moreover, rafting down the River Li, which you can do with Roy or on your own, is a relaxing way to see the scenery while also viewing wildlife. The hotel can also set you up with an instructor who will take you down to the local park and give you private Tai Chi lessons. It took me a little while to get comfortable with doing the moves out in the open, but in China people seem to do everything in outdoor spaces from practicing martial arts to dancing and singing, so it didn’t take long.
For more information on doing this itinerary with Intrepid Travel, click here.