China is massive! There are twenty-three provinces of China, and all of them have an abundance of activities and attractions to offer the adventurous, culture-seeking backpacker. While it is impossible to experience all of China in one trip, unless that trip lasts for years, you can certainly see a lot, especially if you pick a couple of provinces to explore. For a mix of culture, adventure, nature, and history, these ten provinces offer a great starting point for your first or next trip to China.
The Sichuan province of China’s southwest territory is a nature adventure and culture-loving backpacker’s ideal destination. In fact, there are so many alluring activities and attractions in this province alone that you could easily spend your entire backpacking trip to China here! But, if you only have a few days, there are three things in particular that you should not miss.
The famous Leshan Giant Buddha towers 71-meters-high at the convergence of the Dada, Qingyi, and Minijang River. This incredible monument was carved into the cliffside. It is truly a mesmerizing and spirituality-evoking sculpture to admire.
Next, you must spend some time in the Jiuzhaigou Valley. Also, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the valley is famed for its Nine Tibetan Fortified villages, multi-level waterfalls, and color-changing crystal-clear lakes. Depending on the time of the year and weather conditions, the color of the lakes fluctuates between a brilliant blue, green, turquoise, and emerald.
Sichuan is also home to the very special Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding. This is the most popular attraction in Sichuan. The giant panda is considered China’s national treasure and is one of the rarest animals in the world. This being is also critically-endangered. This is your best opportunity to get up close and personal to these adorable bears in a place that is genuinely dedicated to their care and survival.
The Shaanxi province is a culture and history-loving backpacker’s perfect province. It has been referred to as one of the cradles of Chinese civilization and was the capital for thirteen different dynasties. The most popular tourist attraction in this province in China is the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. The history behind these unique terracotta clay soldiers, all of which are different from one another, dates back to the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. He was responsible for uniting China as a singular empire from seven individual kingdoms. He commissioned 7,000 artists to create 6,000 life-size soldiers and 600 horses to protect him in the afterlife.
Of course, there is a lot more to this story and visiting this site is a fascinating way to learn all about this remarkable piece of Chinese history. The Terracotta Army is located an hour and a half from the center of Xi’an. This province is home to a wealth of other incredible monuments and attractions too like the Famen Temple, Tang Paradise, Xi’an Beilin Museum, and the Huaqing hot springs.
It would seem like something is missing if the Great Wall of China didn’t make the cut of backpacker-worthy things to do in China today. The Great Wall of China might be the most recognizable and sought-after attraction in China, and understandably so. The original wall, which was built in 200 BC and made out of hard earth and stone, stretched a staggering 13,171 miles.
However, over many years, this wall eroded and had to be rebuilt several times. The Ming Dynasty constructed the majority of the remaining wall in the 14th century out of sturdier stone and brick. This wall, commonly referred to as the Ming wall, is around 5,500 miles long from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Lake in the west.
There are many different access points, and it is possible to walk the entire length of the wall if you have endless energy and absolutely no time constraints for the next eighteen months. The wall begins in the province of Hebei and is a great place to start your guided or self-guided walking tour of this ancient architectural marvel.
When you are backpacking through the province of Shanghai, especially during the spring and fall, the Yuyuan Garden is a beautiful place to spend some time wandering through. The garden dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and was originally owned by a government official who had this garden specially designed for his elderly parents. This particular garden is a beautiful and classic example of a traditional Chinese garden. It is divided into six parts and includes the Ten-Thousand Flowers Pavilion, the Hall of Heralding Spring, the Lotus Pool, the Grand Rockery, the Hall of Jade Magnificence, and the Inner Garden.
The Yuyuan Garden is located next to the City God Temple and the Yuyuan Bazaar, which is a fascinating cluster of shops and restaurants.
The Mogao Caves, or the Thousand Buddha Grottos as they are interchangeably called, are home to an impressive collection of Buddhist artwork that dates back more than 1,000 years. These caves are carved into the cliffs of the Dachuan River. They house more than 45,000 square meters of murals and sculptures. This amazing attraction is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is truly a beautiful celebration of the Buddhist religion.
You can easily get to the caves via taxi or bus from Dunhuang.
Inner Mongolia is a province in China that is entirely different from all the others, especially in terms of culture and history. The northern Chinese province is a land of seemingly endless grasslands, sun-scorched deserts, and nomadic herdsmen. Horses are an essential and integral part of the culture and daily life in Inner Mongolia, and the best way to experience this incredible province is by this traditional mode of transportation.
If you want an authentic nomadic experience while in Inner Mongolia, you can book a five-day horseback riding tour. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience where you will roam the open plains, learn about the fascinating nomadic way of life, admire wildlife, and sleep beneath sheets of stars. As a backpacker, this is the province to truly embrace your inner nomad.
The Karakoram Highway connects the historic Silk Road city of Kashgar with the Sino-Pakistani border. Definitely one of China’s most scenic highways. You can opt to rent a car and drive this highway on your own or book a tour. Tours vary in price but they all offer you the chance to learn about everything you see along the way. Along this highway, you can stop at the Stone Fort in Tashkurgan. Red Mountain, Karakul Lake, Sand Mountain, are also among countless photo-worthy viewpoints.
The highest paved international road in the world is this 808-mile long scenic highway! Taking this road trip while in the Xinjiang province of China is an exciting and off-the-beaten-path experience. This is best for the open-road seeking backpacker.
The Zhangjiajie National Forest Park contains Avatar Mountains. Aside from the towering sandstone pillars, the park is a cloud forest that is also abundant with wildlife. This absolutely mystical national park earned the recognition of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a very popular destination for both local and international travelers. There are six different areas within the park that you can visit. Yuanjiajie is by far, the most popular and crowded spot, though.
September and October are the best two months to visit, as the weather is generally pleasant. In those months, the crowds are a bit lighter as well. You can also enjoy an elevated cable car ride. There are also suspension bridges or even an elevator ride to the top of Yuanjiajie.
It is probably safe to say that no one envisions China as a pristine island with white sand beaches, palm trees, and budget-friendly luxury accommodations. Maybe they won’t even imagine quiet and inviting towns when they think about China. The island of Sanya in the province of Hainan is China’s version of Hawaii. While this island has so much to offer all different types of travelers, it is still relatively under the radar.
Aside from basking on the gorgeous beaches, you can also explore a volcano park. There’s also a healthy tropical rainforest, tea culture, and the world’s only protected monkey island.
You can fly to Sanya Island for around 200 USD from the mainland. You should definitely stay at least a few days.
Yellow Mountain is located in the Anhui province and is one of China’s most famous mountains. Its strange twisted pines, massive stone spires, unobstructed panoramic views, and immense natural beauty is famous in all of China. Visiting Yellow Mountain will be a welcomed breath of fresh air.
In Anhui province is the Hongcun Village, which offers backpackers the opportunity to witness the amazing architecture of the Qing and Ming era.