China is such a huge country that where do you start when you only have two weeks to visit? We faced this dilemma recently and have suggestions for you if you are looking at a two week highlights of China itinerary. We travelled as a family and also in relative comfort so that this itinerary is suitable if you intend a luxury China tour. For example, we took internal airline flights or high speed trains within China. You wouldn’t be able to cover the same distances otherwise. Our two-week trip covered an area of over 2000 miles.
Our China Itinerary
We chose to spend a minimum of 3 days in each place we visited. Travelling with kids in a foreign country can be exhausting. We felt we needed this amount of time to really enjoy our experience.
We had spoken to friends who have visited China and/or lived in China as expats and knew that travel in the country would not be smooth sailing. We opted to have our trip organised by Abercrombie & Kent who were excellent. They arranged all the tickets, transfers and guides as well as guiding us through the visa process.
Having used Abercrombie and Kent previously on a trip to India, we were equally impressed this time. Abercrombie and Kent are our go-to agency for real hassle-free holidays. They leave other upscale travel agencies we have used on occasion, such as for example, Scott Dunn for skiing in Val d’Isere, in the dust.
We started and ended our time in China in Beijing. We spent a total of 5 days in Beijing – 3 days in the beginning of the trip and 2 days at the end. Although we would have liked to fly out of Shanghai, we benefitted from (relatively cheap) tickets to Beijing thanks to the American Express British Airways Companion flights.
British Airways Companion Tickets
With the BA companion flights, you get a free companion flight if you spend a certain amount on your American Express card every year. My husband and I both have individual cards on which we accrued points. We were both able to get companion vouchers so each of us could take one child.
At the end of this post on British Airways miles, you get a good explanation of how the American Express card works. What this writer doesn’t say is that you are able to get one non-household card per adult member of the household (so you can double your companion vouchers like we did). And, obviously you are going to maximise those free flights which usually means the longest direct flight in the highest seat category you can find.
Using British Airways Avios points and the American Express companion vouchers, we flew round-trip from Heathrow to Beijing in first class paying just the taxes for each ticket (about £500). Our children got to fly first class for the first time and they loved it! We told them not to get used to it though. Even if we have four vouchers, we may want to use these tickets for 2 different flights for ourselves!
Sightseeing in Beijing
Beijing is the location for several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace and The Great Wall of China. Mao’s Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square is being refurbished and not open to tourists currently.
Beijing has plenty of diversions to offer tourists – we went to the theatre to see Chinese acrobats, caught a demonstration of the Kung Fu masters of the Shao Lin temple, wandered though the 728 Arts District and took a rickshaw ride through a hutong. One of the highlights for my kids? The largest Apple store in Asia.
Accommodation: Red Wall Garden Hotel in Beijing
In Beijing, we stayed at the Red Wall Garden Hotel in the centre of the city. This boutique hotel is located in a converted courtyard house in a hutong and was absolutely charming. We loved the location right near the Beijing equivalent of Fifth Avenue which meant we could walk to good restaurants nearby without having to wrangle a taxi. Unfortunately the Red Wall Garden Hotel is closed.
We took a domestic flight from Beijing to Chengdu. We spent a total of 3 days in Chengdu which we thought was an appropriate length of time. If we had another day we would have been able to see the giant Buddha in Leshan which is the world’s biggest stone Buddha.
Tourist Attractions in Chengdu
People come to Chengdu to see the giant pandas. The area, however, has much more than just pandas even though they are indeed adorable. We went to two panda centres in Chengdu (including volunteering at a panda research centre). Although the panda visits were designed to keep the children happy, my husband and I enjoyed it as much as they did.
In addition to pandas, Chengdu offers lots of great street food, Szechuan opera, city centre parks, etc. We also did a day trip to QingCheng mountain which is where the religion of Taoism started.
Accommodation: Shangri La Chengdu
In Chengdu, we stayed at the Shangri La Hotel. As you would expect, the Shangri La Chengdu was large, spacious and comfortable. The hotel’s central location overlooking a river that meanders through the city was not only convenient but attractive.
This hotel probably had the best wifi of all our hotels which no doubt was helped by the fact that Chengdu is considered a major technology hub in China.
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After an internal flight from Chengdu to Guilin, we spent 4 days in Guilin and Yangshuo in rural Guangxi province.
Occupied by the Japanese during World War II, Guilin itself got flattened to a pancake during that war. A forward-thinking city mayor redesigned the city with attractive lakes and walking paths. The Reed Flute Cave in Guilin is easily one of the most impressive caves we have ever visited.
Tourist Attractions in Yangshuo
Yangshuo is about 2 hours from the main city of Guilin. The Chinese government has spent a lot of effort on promoting Yangshuo for domestic tourism and the changes are apparent.
The countryside was beautiful and a welcome respite from all the city experiences we had previously. In Yangshuo, we spent a lot of time biking around the countryside, river rafting and visiting the rice terraces in the mountains. The mountains are also home to some Chinese minority tribes who were interesting to meet. We definitely could have spent more time just hanging around Yangshuo.
Accommodation: The Yangshuo Mountain Retreat
We stayed at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat which also has well-deserved great TripAdvisor reviews. Although the rooms are on the small side for a family room, we enjoyed everything else about the hotel. Frankly, we also didn’t spend that much time in the room.
The location was very peaceful – once again with beautiful riverside views ringed by the weirdly-shaped karst mountains. We would have drinks or meals watching the locals push tourists along on bamboo rafts. The food was excellent as well. The hotel also had good WiFi which was a bit of a surprise considering WiFi in the cities had been so woeful.
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Our last internal flight in China went from Guilin to Xi’an. The city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province has a history that goes back thousands of years. One of the old Imperial capitals, Xi’an is known for the terracotta Army of the First Emperor dating from the 2nd century BC, considered by many to be the biggest archeological find of the 20th century.
Tourist Attractions in Xi’An
Other than the world-famous Terracotta Army, the city of Xi’an has lots of other sightseeing opportunities which tell of its position at the crossroads of history for thousands of years. For example, Banpo Village is a Neolithic archeological treasure trove from 5000-3000 BC.
There is also the Great Mosque of Xi’anGreat Mosque of Xi’an which is the oldest and largest mosque in China and a testament to the city’s participation in the Silk Trade. Moreover, unlike in Beijing, the Great Mosque of Xi’an is still in existence around the historic part of Xian allowing you to walk or cycle around it. Just to give you an idea of scale, this city wall is wide enough for 6 chariots to travel abreast!
Accomodation: Xi’an Hilton
We chose the Xi’an Hilton because of its central location in the historic district of the city. After being wooed by the boutique charm of the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, we were a little disconcerted to find ourselves back in a large hotel chain. Although we were on the special executive floor, we had the same view as everyone else – rows of shabby-looking Chinese tenement apartments.
The best part of the Xi’an Hilton was probably the grand hotel lobby. Our rooms were spacious with comfortable beds. The buffet breakfast and dinner were nothing special. Luckily we were near lots of restaurants so we just ate elsewhere. The location was indeed excellent.
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Transportation Within China
At almost 4 million square miles, China is a vast country to visit with attractions spread out over the country. For example, the distance from Beijing to Chengdu (our first visit outside of the capitol) is almost 1000 square miles. We had a choice of a 3 hour non-stop flight or 20+ hours on a train. We obviously picked flying!
Domestic Flights in China
China has 20 domestic airlines providing regional flights. We took 2 flights on Air China and 1 flight on Sichuan Air. We had no problems on any of our internal flights although we had been warned that delays may occur. There are so many planes in the air that departure and arrival slots at the airports are tightly slotted. We were not adventurous enough to try any of the in-flight meals!
Chinese Bullet Train
We returned to Beijing from Xi’An by high-speed train. We had First Class seats which confusingly are really what we would could consider business-class seats. They are spacious seats with 2 seats on each side of the aisle. There is complimentary snack service but no WiFi.
The really luxurious seats on the Chinese bullet trains are called Business Class seats. These seats are wider (only three across an aisle) and can recline practically flat. Our train from Xi’an to Beijing had only one carriage of Business Class seats.
Abercrombie and Kent arranged for Red Cap service for us. We had a porter (with a red cap) take our bags and arrange them on the train before we boarded. On our exit, the porter was waiting to unload our bags. We found this little extra touch a real bonus because our suitcases had gotten heavy by this stage of the journey!
We found the train service, especially the high-speed train service, in China excellent. The Chinese government has plans to extend the service throughout the country by spending $509 billion on train infrastructure through 2020.
Other Options for This China Itinerary
We felt we had seen enough of China to see some of its highlights. Ideally we would have flown into Beijing and out of Shanghai. With our British Airways tickets, we needed to fly in and out of one airport. I have no regrets about having missed the Yangtze River cruise though.
If we had flown out of Shanghai, we would have been able to visit China’s financial centre. I would have allocated at least 2 days for Shanghai. Known for its food scene, I would have loved to do a Shanghai food tour of the markets as well as dine in the French Concession area.
Yangtze River Cruise
In one version of our China itinerary, we considered a Yangtze river cruise. This version would have been possible if we had cut some of our stays down to 2 days each.
The shortest Yangtze cruise is 3 days. The cruise would fit into the timetable right after Xian because the departure point of Chongqing is located nearby. We would have taken the Yangtze Explorer which is considered an upscale option for a Yangtze river cruise. W would have stopped to see one of the relocated villages and the Three Gorges Project Dam.
We felt this variation including the Yangtze cruise was too rushed for our family. We would have had less time at some of the other destination which we really wanted to explore in further detail.
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Moreover, we spoke to people who had experience with this cruise and said it was a fairly standard cruise experience. My kids would have gone stir-crazy with 3 days on a boat. Unlike some of the Caribbean cruise lines, there are no water slides, kids clubs etc on the Yangtze Explorer. Traditional Chinese morning exercises would not have cut it for them.
In addition, trapped on a boat they probably would have been subject to having their picture taken with an endless stream of Chinese tourists. As it was, my children were a bit startled by how often the Chinese wanted to photograph them. I asked my daughter why she hated it so much because she is generally an easy-going child. She said that no matter how friendly everyone was, they made her feel like a freak show attraction. Fair enough.
Our Opinion On our China Itinerary
Even though we thought we were taking it relatively easy, we did find ourselves exhausted by the end of the 15 day trip. Getting on a plane every 3 days even for a short internal flight can be wearying. If we had more time, we would have planned a beach holiday at the end of this trip just to unwind. On the plus side, we did love our trip to China and would do it again in a heartbeat.
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