Rural China

“People tend to forget how big China is and how diverse the land and the landscapes are,” says Karen Zhao, China travel specialist at our holiday partner Intrepid. “We try to bring more diversity to our itineraries so that when people think of coming to China, they are not always stuck with the same options of the Terracotta Warriors, the Great Wall or Shanghai.”

Overtourism is a big issue in many Chinese cities and at most of its famous sites, and visiting can often be a busy and noisy experience without many opportunities to get a real feel for the place. But China is an enormous country with lots to see. It’s very easy to get away from the rush if you’re with the right tour guide.

Train travel, cycling and walking holidays all open the door to a different China – the one that doesn’t make it onto the tourist billboards. Spreading tourism away from the main cities also disperses much-needed income into often poor and remote parts of China. In some rural areas, like mountain villages, only the old and the very young remain – the rest move on to big towns and cities to earn more money.

Wendy Xue, manager of our specialists China Adventure Tours, says: “Our main idea is to provide travellers with something special, to introduce them to the real and authentic China, but also to bring benefits to local people.”

Highlights of rural China

Yangtze river

Asia’s longest river twists and turns through China’s ever-changing rural landscapes before it finally reaches Shanghai and the East China Sea some 6,000km away from its source. Starting high up in the remote Tibetan mountain plains in the west, it carves its way through deep gorges in Yunnan province and the green and fertile landscapes further east. Its most famous stretch, the Three Gorges, once inspired Chinese artists and poets with its wild and untamed beauty. Once unnavigable, the area is now transformed since the completion of a controversial dam and is a popular spot for multi-day Yangtze river cruises.

Guangxi province

Visitors to south-east China will discover a cluster of fantastical landscapes: towering domed mountains blanketed with greenery and filled with caves and underground pools; a stone forest of stalagmite-like limestone formations; the ridged hillsides of the Longji Rice Terraces, which resemble the scales on a dragon’s back. The fertile soils here are filled with crops, tea plantations and fruit orchards that are all farmed by the neighbouring villages.
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Rural villages

Swap your hotel for the experience of life in rural China and an overnight stay in a traditional village guesthouse. Some tours in south-east China offer the chance to spend the night in a Dong village – a community best known for their wooden buildings and large multi-tiered drum towers which sit in the centre of town. Tours to the eastern Anhui province might visit the lesser-known villages of Huangshan and Hongcun, both of which feature well-preserved ancient Hui architecture – the black tiled, white-walled houses you might have seen in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Yunnan province

Bordering the Tibetan highlands, south-westerly Yunnan province is a landscape made for adventure. Yunnan has a very different feel to it, far from the cultural influence of eastern China. Here, the horizon is blocked by the white-capped peaks of enormous mountains and prayer flags flutter in the wind. Some of China’s most spectacular hiking trails can be found here, including the legendary Tiger Leaping Gorge which rises more than 3,000m above the raging path of the Yangtze river. Other trails include the Ancient Tea Horse Road, used for trading tea as far away as India.

Sichuan province

Thanks to its provincial capital Chengdu, Sichuan is best known as the home of all things panda – the world’s leading panda breeding research centre is based here. But beyond its black-and-white residents, Sichuan is a beautiful mountainous area that’s worth visiting for its hiking and cycling trails. Paved roads flanked by quivering bamboo forests, tea terraces and riverbanks lead cyclists and walkers up into the foothills of Emei Shan, one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains.
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: Qingbao Meng] [Intro: Marc-Olivier Jodoin] [Yangtze river: Chensiyuan] [Rural villages: Zhangzhugang] [Sichuan province : jetsun]