Walking in China

Most travelers visit China for man-made sights like the Great Wall, Terracotta Army and Forbidden City. But China is so much more than cities and ancient culture. “It’s a great adventure destination,” says Karen Zhao, China travel specialist at our vacation partner Intrepid. “It’s able to offer walkers the kind of natural landscapes they won’t see anywhere else.”

The world’s fourth largest country is home to huge mountains, sparsely inhabited deserts, yak-grazed highlands and many forests – bamboo, coniferous and tropical. Some of the best regions for walking vacations in China remain relatively untouched by tourism, offering travelers a very different experience to the one shared by visitors on the main tourist trail.

In a country where main attractions are known for their big crowds, it’s a breath of fresh air to leave busy city centers and spend some time in the countryside, especially knowing any money you spend will help small communities that don’t usually benefit from China’s many visitors.

Where can I go on a walking vacation in China?

Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China climbs along the mountain ridges that stretch from the eastern Yellow Sea to the Mongolian steppe. Millions of sightseers spend an afternoon at sections near Beijing to take photos and walk along its ancient stone steps, but its best sights can only be seen if you stick around a little longer. It’s what makes the Great Wall a great route for a walking vacation in China.

Easier stretches around well-maintained Mutianyu and Jinshanling are ideal for less-experienced walkers and still showcase the wall’s original architecture and landscapes. More serious hikers can scale the sheer ascents of Jiankou and explore the wilderness at Gubeikou.

Wendy Xue, from our specialists China Adventure Tours, offers some advice on what to look for when booking a Great Wall Walking vacation: “For beginners, I would recommend booking between a one- and four-day Great Wall hiking tour covering some famous sections around Beijing, like Jiankou, Mutianyu, Gubeikou, Jinshanling and Huanghuacheng. For experienced walkers, a seven- to 16-day Great Wall hiking vacation might be more suitable, so as to take in the wild Great Wall in Hebei and Tianjin.”

The Silk Road

Trekkers on the Silk Road can retrace the footsteps of explorer Marco Polo in one of the most sparsely inhabited parts of China. Unique landscapes include the kaleidoscopic Zhangye Danxia Geopark, better known as China’s Rainbow Mountains – a series of weathered hills, ridges and cliffs formed by multicoloured rock – and the naturally sculpted rock towers of Binggou Danxia Park. Nearing Inner Mongolia, travelers can rest their feet during a camel ride through the Badain Jaran Desert, passing salt lakes and the world’s tallest sand dune.

Mountains & gorges

Glaciers and snow-capped peaks aren’t usually associated with China, but some of the world’s highest mountain ranges bridge the borders between neighbouring Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan. These famous mountaineering destinations – which are often oversaturated with climbers – massively overshadow the diverse landscapes that can be found a little further east. In fact, some of China’s most remote mountain areas are little-visited by travelers at all. Remember, though, that this means infrastructure will be more basic than in areas where trekking tours are common.

Adventurers with experience of walking at altitude can join spectacular treks through the valleys surrounding sacred Tibetan mountains such as Minya Konka – the King of the Sichuan peaks. Or, for a greater challenge in the south-west, join a small group and climb to one of the summits of Mount Siguniang. Further north, in Xinjiang province, Mount Muztagh Ata Base Camp and the mighty Janblak Glacier await at the end of a week-long trek.

Smaller mountains, only half the height of the monsters above, offer summits that are achievable in a shorter trek. Mount Emei, one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, is a popular choice and an easy day trip from Chengdu. Spend a night at the base and set off early for sunrise at the top. In northern Yunnan province, which enters Tibetan territory, trekkers can follow the ancient Tea Horse Trail alongside rushing rivers before reaching the legendary Leaping Tiger Gorge.

Rural landscapes

The landscapes around the southern city of Guilin are made for exploring on foot. Start with the cascading rice terraces – said to resemble the spines on a dragon’s back – which, in autumn, carpet the Longji mountains in gold. Nearby trails lead through the surrounding bamboo forests and there are lots of traditional villages to stop in and explore along the way. Expect slower, more relaxed hiking around here – three-hour walks along river routes that showcase the magnificent karst scenery or longer, flatter trails through orange groves and past riverside towns.

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Practicalities

Walking vacations in China offer the choice between a small group tour or a tailor made trip. For many travelers, this is unfamiliar territory, so joining an expertly led group of like-minded walkers is one of the best ways to spend your first time here. However, if you already have your ideal itinerary in mind, a tailor made vacation can meet all your personal preferences and any specific requirements you might have.

Accommodation varies, depending on the area where you are walking. Most tours in the rural countryside spend a few nights in local communities – staying in guest houses in the stilted wooden villages that overlook the rice terraces near Guilin, or sleeping in the traditional tents of the Yugur people who live along the Silk Road. Mountainous locations might have access to simple trekkers’ huts, or you may be camping in flower-filled alpine meadows with views of yak herders and snowy peaks.
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: Caz and Craig MakepeaceFollow] [Intro: Joshua Earle] [The Silk Road: Yun Huang Yong] [Rural landscapes : Aaron Greenwood]