I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how cheap the flights were. Perth, Australia to Beijing was just AU$280 return with Singapore Airlines! It was November 2016 and I’d spotted the deal at 5.30am on my way to the gym. I quickly forwarded the alert to my boyfriend, who was still asleep. I got home around 8.30am just as he woke up and I frantically asked him if he’d seen my email. He yawned and rubbed his eyes which indicated no, so I gave him the rundown.
The sale was for September 2017, so 10 months away. The date worked for us as we would return from Europe in May 2017 and have three months to save. We did our mandatory checks for booking flash sales (what’s the weather, are there any national holidays and what’s the average hotel price). By 9.30am, we’d booked two of the four remaining seats. We were going to China for 19 days!
It turns out the airfare was a company error but Singapore would honour our bookings. Six months later, we returned from Europe and sprung into action. China was just four months away!
Planning our trip
The first task was deciding where exactly we wanted to go, as neither my boyfriend or I had been to China before. Obviously we were flying into Beijing and wanted to see the Great Wall, Shanghai would be easy to get to, and my boyfriend was set on seeing the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. I wanted to eat Sichuan food so its capital Chengdu was added to the list. I’d grabbed some catalogues from a travel expo and was enchanted by photos of pillar-like mountains in Zhangjiajie, so that went into the possibles too. We had the first draft of our China holiday.
Organised tour or solo?
My boyfriend and I had limited time and wanted to see as much as possible so we looked a few organised tour companies, including Intrepid and G Adventures. However their China tour dates didn’t quite line up with our flights and what’s more, the itineraries weren’t that attractive. There were multiple long train rides (necessary to keep costs down) but also things like ‘traditional performances’ and visits to ‘local culture villages,’ which I generally loathe as entirely constructed experiences.
In the end, my boyfriend and I devised our own three week itinerary for China. It was the best decision we could’ve made! We allowed roughly four nights in each city, booked trains and flights, and then pencilled in essential sightseeing (for example, some attractions were closed certain days). While it was a physically demanding holiday, there was also plenty of food, beer, culture and luxury. If you’re considering doing a self-guided trip of China, I really recommend it! It was much easier to get around than we expected, with trains modern, punctual and organised.
I’ll share specific posts about each location in the weeks ahead, but for now, here’s what we covered in three weeks.
our three week itinerary
Days 1 – 4: Beijing
- Day 1: Arrive in Beijing. Hit a rooftop bar and watch the smoggy sunset with local beers.
- Day 2: Drive two hours to the Great Wall of China. At night, head to Beijing’s hutong area for dinner and drinks.
- Day 3: Walk around Tiananmen Square before heading to the nearby Forbidden City. Continue to Jingshan Gardens for sweeping views of Beijing. At night, head to the shopping and food precinct Wanfujing Street.
- Day 4: Visit the Temple of Heaven and surrounding park. Check out art and street eats in Beijing’s 738 Art District. Check out My Must-Do in Beijing for more details!
Days 5 – 8: Xi’an, Shaanxi
- Day 5: Catch a high speed train from Beijing to Xian. Have dinner in the Muslim Quarter.
- Day 6: Cycle around Xian’s city wall before spending an afternoon at the Terracotta Warriors. Craft beer at night.
- Day 7-8: Hike Mt Huashan, staying overnight on the mountain. Watch sunrise and continue hiking before returning to Xi’an. *See note at end of post.
Days 9 – 13: Chengdu, Sichuan
- Day 9: Fly to Chengdu. Head to Jinli Street for Sichuan hot pot and street snacks.
- Day 10: See pandas at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding. Check out the world’s biggest building New Century Mall. Go on a night time food tour.
- Day 11: Explore the city, taking in Tianfu Square, Chengdu Museum, the People’s Park and pedestrian street Chunxi Road. Check out craft beer and Anshun Bridge at night.
Days 14 – 17: Zhangjiajie, Hunan
- Day 14: Fly to Zhangjiajie and have dinner downtown.
- Day 15:Head to Zhangjiajie National Park, before driving an hour to the Glass Sky Bridge and Grand Canyon.
- Day 16: Return to Zhangjiajie National Park to see the mountains featured in the movie Avatar.
- Day 17: Take the world’s longest cable car to Tianmen Mountain. Walk the Glass Sky Walk and visit Tianmen Cave. Late flight to Shanghai. *See note at end of post.
Days 18 – 20: Shanghai
- Day 18: Explore Shanghai on foot, visiting the former French concession, Xintandi, YuYuan and the famous Bund. Have dinner and drinks in former French concession.
- Day 19: Learn to make noodles or dumplings in a local cooking class. Head to Nanjing Road for retail therapy before cocktails from the 87th floor Cloud 9 Bar in Pudong.
- Day 20: Return to Beijing via high speed train.
- Day 21: Depart Beijing.
Not including airfares, the trip cost us around AU $5500 plus we each spent roughly $1500 extra mostly on food, drinks and admission fees. Here’s a rough breakdown of costs:
- Accomodation: $1800 (3x nights 5 star hotel, 7x nights 4 star hotel, 4x nights hostel, 1x night overnight train). Not included = 3 nights in Zhangjiajie (part of package tour).
- Internal flights & trains: AU$2000
- Guided/package tours: AU$1400 (four days in Zhangjiajie) + USD$300 (Great Wall day trip)
- Activities (i.e. cooking class, food tour): AU$200
I was surprised by how expensive internal transport was, particularly airfares. There were cheaper train options, but they were often much slower and we had limited time.
My boyfriend and I agreed afterwards our China trip was one of the best we’ve ever done! There was a good mix of sightseeing and relaxing, and we didn’t feel like we were moving around too much or rushing any location despite the internal flights and some early starts. I would’ve loved more time in Shanghai but there’s always the next holiday!
I highly recommend the following websites when planning a trip to China:
- Booking flights: CTrip
- Train information: China Mike, Seat 61
- Getting to/from attractions: China Highlights
In coming weeks, I’ll share the highlights (and disappointments) from each destination along with my general travel tips for China, such as which apps to download and why you should bring a thermos.
*Note: There was very little information online about hiking Mt Huashan and Zhangjiajie, and most of it was inaccurate. If you’re planning to visit either of these places, I’ll be sharing our experiences in detail in the weeks ahead. Subscribe to my newsletter to stay up to date.
QUESTION: What’s the best airfare deal you’ve scored?