A First Timer’s Guide to China

Starting out: China seemed so intimidating when I started planning for it. It seemed huge (because it is), filled with must-sees (because it is), and also a bit harder to plan for than someplace like Europe (because for me it was). I was also running on limited vacation time, which meant this would be a relatively short trip for Asia (nine days), so we opted to use a planning company.

Tour Guide: We used ExoTravel for a customized private tour and highly recommend them. They were competitive on price–I got quotes from several companies–and phenomenal communicators. I went in with opinions and some definite priorities, and they were great about helping me plan a trip with realistic expectations, while getting us to the sites I cared most about and mixing in a few I might not have found on my own. They also saved us considerable time while on the ground by fast tracking through some lines and having tickets for almost every site that required them ahead of time. Our favorite Exo guides were Ming in Xi’an and Selena in Beijing.

Before You Go:

  • Get a Visa.
    • There isn’t a consulate where we live, so we used Visa Central, A CIBT Company and scored some United miles through their MileagePlus program out of the deal while paying a competitive price.
  • Download WeChat.
    • Should you need or desire to communicate with anyone in China, from tour guides to friends back home, it’s the easiest to access, has voice and text service, and every local we met used it extensively. You also won’t have to use a VPN,
  • Download VPN apps.
    • Websites and services like Facebook and Gmail (or any Google run app or site) may still not function wonderfully, but you’ll get to more than you might otherwise.
  • Understand your traditional communication methods might not function.
    • iMessage, Facebook, Gmail, Instagram… None function well on China networks/wifi.
    • WeChat and WhatsApp are great alternatives.

Getting There: We knew we wanted to spend some time in Beijing, both for the obvious tourism reasons and because we happened to have family there. This meant we flew round trip out of Beijing for the cost savings. Our flights, roundtrip from Seattle, only ran us about $700 each. I recommend Hopper or Skyscanner, as well as Google flights to help get an idea of flight costs and possible savings.

Here are some recommendations from our time, in March of 2016.

Main Destinations: Beijing –> Xi’an –> Yangshuo –> Beijing



Getting There: We flew directly into the Beijing Airport (PEK).

Sites to See:

  • Temple of Heaven
  • Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
  • The Great Wall
    • This is probably a given, but is definitely a must. We opted for the Mutianyu site because we wanted a less crowded area without driving for too long.
  • Summer Palace

Other Highlights:

  • Motorcycle Sidecar Tour
    • This was amazing, shows a different side of the city, and gets you to way more sites in way less time than virtually any other method of transportation. This tour would also be a hit with all ages, from the littlest members of your party to the grandparents! See more in this post about our second chunk of time in Beijing.
  • Hongqiao Pearl Market
    • If you want pearls, come here to get them. Actually… you could probably find almost anything here. Plus, you can barter over souvenirs with a Tsingtao beer in your hand. Why not?
  • Tea Tour
    • We were able to enter a tea market without too many tourists by finding a local to take us on a tea tour. We enjoyed learning about tea ceremonies, varieties of tea, and the culture that goes with it.

Learn more about any of the Beijing attractions by reading (much) more detailed and photo rich posts here and here.



Getting There Option A: Take the high speed train from Beijing to Xi’an. This takes about three hours give or take, is clean, comfortable, and you have an assigned seat.

Getting There Option B: Take the overnight train from Beijing to Xi’an. This is more budget friendly, takes all night, and you might share your car with a chicken if you travel coach. I do hear it’s quite an experience, so if you’re up for adventure and want to save a night’s lodging, it might be the way to go!


  • Terra Cotta Warriors
    • These are definitely worth a visit. You have to see them, if only once.
  • Old City Walls
    • We biked atop them, which was a great change of pace and fun way to see the city. Be warned, it’s bumpy. The city walls haven’t been resurfaced in a few years 😉
    • You can rent bikes at several points along the walls for various periods of time.
  • The Great Mosque and Muslim District
    • If you love food, plan to eat here. There are amazing options and restaurants if you’re not up for the street food!

To learn more about our experiences in Xi’an, read here.

Yangshuo Featured


Getting There: Fly to Guilin Liangjiang International Airport (KWL), Hire a Driver to Yangshuo

Where We Stayed: Yangshuo Resort — Beautiful, right on the river, very nice. These were easily our most luxurious accommodations of the trip, but we felt it was worth it for the views and convenience.

Why You Should Go: Yangshuo is the perfect escape from the city. It’s the perfect break from smog and crowds. It’s also a unique window into a lifestyle we don’t hear much about, in a country we mostly know for the industrial areas and cities. Learn more here.


  • Bike Tour
    • Sam took us on an absolutely incredible tour through the countryside on bikes.
    • Words will not do this experience justice, so I urge you to check it out here.
    • The image above is just one of the stunning views from this day.
    • If you’d like to book a bike tour with Sam, comment on this post, and I’ll do my best to put you two in touch.
  • Bamboo (or PVC Pipe) Rafting
    • You’ll see the beauty of the area from the water.
    • The photos here do a much better job of explaining why this is well worth your time and resources!

If you have questions, leave a comment and I’m happy to answer them! You can also read about our trip in detail at these links:

China Part 1 – Beijing

China Part 2 – Xi’an & Chinese “Culture Shock”

China Part 3 – Yangshuo

China Part 4 – Back in Beijing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *