If you're planning a trip to China, you'll be embarking upon a journey to one of the most fascinating counties in the world. With a land space of more than 3,690,000 square miles and a population of over 1.2 billion people, China is without doubt, the epitome of paradoxes, mysteries and adventures.
China is a land of contrasts, with primitive rural villages, picturesque countryside and glittery, towering skylines of opulent city wealth enjoyed by the new and affluent bourgeoisie. Tourism has bloomed with the new economic climate: hotels, restaurants and reconstructed historical sites are abundant.
But travel in China can be overwhelming, with language being the most difficult barrier to overcome. You'll be wise to familiarize yourself with basic Chinese words for food and drinks, hotels and restaurants, purchasing necessities, and asking for directions and time schedules. It will make getting around much easier and will also lead to greater interactions with the Chinese people.
If you're the type who likes getting away from the hustle and bustle of the cities and enjoy hiking and backpacking, China is the ultimate trekking destination. I've listed three favorites.
The Great Wall: Jinshanling to Simatai
Location: Hebei Province
Hiking Duration: 4 - 5 hours
The rugged six-mile (10 kilometer) stretch between Jinshanling and Simatai -55 miles (89 kilometers) northeast of Beijing, is a great start. Taxis in Beijing are easy to arrange to either site (approx. $60. USD round-trip). Plan on taking at least four hours: the trail is stony and steep.
Other well-preserved and accessible sections of the wall are Huanghuacheng and Mutianyu, north of Beijing. For weathered travelers, the province of Hebei has no restrictions on wall walking, but almost no infrastructure for trekkers.
Most Chinese tourists take the zip line in Simatai ($4.), or head to the reconstructed section of the wall at Badaling ($6.) for an afternoon. You're apt to face fierce crowds and vendors, but it's definitely the easiest way to see the wall.
Starting in the tiny village of Jinshanling and ending in Simatai, hiking is a strenuous rhythm of climb and descent the entire way. Some stretches have fallen into disrepair, with crumbling walls and steps, thus enhancing the sensation of walking upon ruins that are more than 2,000 years old.
During this hike, you're likely to run into local farmers selling water, beer or tourist trinkets. The hike is a strenuous climb of up and down steps. For the fit, the 10 km hike could take as little as 3 hours.
It's possible to get there by public bus, but much easier to arrange through a travel agency. Tickets usually include a minibus from Beijing to Jinshanling, entrance fees, and a minibus from Simatai back to Beijing.
Two tickets are required. At the end of the hike, there is a 5 RMB fee for crossing a bridge; the zip line ticket is an additional 60 RMB.
A 'tour' obtained through a travel agency should cost 90 RMB. Be aware that an additional 30 RMB may be required for the second ticket purchased separately by you at the wall.
It's possible to sleep overnight on the wall if you have the appropriate gear. Otherwise, most people visit the Great Wall as a day trip from Beijing. Lodging in the small villages near the wall may be difficult to find.
There are locals selling water, soda, and beer, as well as kabobs and noodles. At the end of the hike in Simatai, there is a restaurant near the parking lot.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Location: Northern Yunnan Province
Hiking Duration: 2 days
Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest gorges in the world and a spectacular scenic wonder. Mountains, forests, flowered meadows, vertical walls of rock, and hamlets with terraced fields await you. Homes built with stacked slate, wood frames, and tiled rooftops give you the feeling of stepping back into another time. Far below the trail that winds along the Haba Mountains, you can see the Jinsha Jiang River (known as the Yangzi in other parts of China) that cuts into the 16 km gorge and pierces the steep walls of snowcapped mountains, rising more than 19,000 feet into the clouds.
Most people take two days to complete the 9-12 hour hike along Tiger Leaping Gorge, staying overnight at one of the numerous guesthouses in the villages.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is located north of Lijiang, several hours by bus (20 RMB). The trail starts near the small town of Qiatou. At the end of the hike, transport back to Qiatou is another 20 RMB. From there, you can pick up a bus back to Lijiang.
Entrance fee: 30 RMB
Most people hike the length (16 km) of Tiger Leaping Gorge in 2 days, starting early in the morning from Qiatou on 'Day One', and stay overnight at a guesthouse in one of the villages along the trail. Accommodations are basic, and will cost you about 30 RMB.
Accommodations in Qiatou can be found at the Tiger Leaping Gorged Cafe, which offers food, dorm beds, storage of luggage, and lots of information. At the end of the trail, Sean's Guesthouse in Walnut Grove is a popular spot with many hikers.
In Qiatou, The Tiger Leaping Gorged Cafe offers home cooked meals. There are restaurants at the guesthouses in the villages, and water and snacks can also be purchased. Outside of the villages, there are no facilities along the trail.
Location: Southern Sichuan Province
Hiking Duration: 3 days
One of China's four sacred Buddhist Mountains, Emei Shan is scattered with temples and monasteries still inhabited by monks and nuns. It's a place of pilgrimage for Buddhist followers, and as you hike, you'll think you're climbing the longest staircase on earth. At the summit of Mount Emei, you'll stand above the clouds at an elevation of over 9,800 feet as you trek on toward the Golden Temple. It's easy to see why Buddhists have chosen Emei Shan as a place of pilgrimage. Not only is it a test of physical endurance, but a test of the mind and will, as well.
The Buddhist religion is established on the principle that life is about suffering, and climbing Emei's stairs is grueling enough to make you a believer.
Hikers can make the journey to the summit and back in three days, staying overnight at one of the monasteries on the mountain, and on Day Two, at the Golden Temple. The third day is a walk or bus ride down the mountain. You may also consider taking one of several cable cars that are located on Mount Emei.
Emei Shan is located in Emei, about 150 km southwest of Chengdu. It's approximately three hours by bus.
Entrance fee is 120 RMB. Cable cars are 40 RMB going up and 30 RMB coming down (round trip is 60 RMB). The bus from the top to bottom is 30 RMB.
Hikers can expect to pay anywhere from 40 RMB for a dorm bed, and 130 RMB for a double room at one of the monasteries on the mountain. At the base of the mountain, there are numerous hotels.
There are stalls along the path selling water, soda, fruit, and instant noodles, and most of the monasteries have basic dining facilities.
Timothy Green is the co-author of SPEAK E-Z CHINESE In Phonetic English. You can find fun and easy Mandarin lessons, as well as travel and culture tips about China at The Cathay Cafe.