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China is a massive country with more to see and do than you can experience in one lifetime. When planning a trip to China, a good idea is to focus on one region of the country. In this post we’ll take a look at an awesome South China adventure that you can easily do by bus and train in two weeks.
Start your trip off with a few days exploring the many different faces of Hong Kong. Whether you’re into history, culture, outdoor activities, shopping, or just wining and dining, you’ll find something in this former British colony and current SAR (Special Administrative Region) of China. Many who visit Hong Kong and the mainland find the two to be like night and day. For first time visitors to China, a few days in HK is a good buffer to get you ready for the madness ahead – the city is a mix of East and West and a bit more, shall we say “civilized” than the rest of China. Make sure you give yourself enough time to visit Hong Kong, Kowloon, and at least one of the surrounding islands. Lantau is an easy day trip and has plenty to keep you busy.
Macau is known as “Vegas of the Orient” for its abundance of casinos that bring busloads of mainland tourists in every day to try their luck at the only place with legal gambling in China. Although Macau is best-known for these massive casinos, there’s a whole other side to this city showcasing its history as a former Portuguese colony. It’s a fascinating place to spend a few days seeing both sides of the city. Walk to the Fortaleza do Monte (Mount Fort), which was originally constructed to defend from pirates. It is now home to the Museum of Macau where you can learn about the culture and history of the city. From the fort, you can enjoy one of the best (and free) views of the city, which is the most densely populated place on Earth. Also, make sure you try some of the local specialties such as a pork bun and the delectable egg tarts.
After exploring the SARs, it’s time to venture into the mainland. From Macau, your best bet is the city of Zhuhai. There’s not a whole lot to do here, but it’s a pleasant place to spend a day before moving on. You can take a walk on the beach past the famous Fisher Girl statue, feast on fresh seafood at a bustling night market, and grab a drink at a local bar before retreating to your hostel. There’s still a lot more to see and do on this South China adventure!
Next up, you can hop on a ferry and head over to Shenzhen. When you arrive, you may find it hard to believe that this place was a mere fishing village some 30 years ago. Back in 1979, the Chinese government decided to make Shenzhen a “special economic zone” due to its proximity to Hong Kong. Fast forward a few decades, and it’s a bustling metropolis with a population of nearly 15 million. If you’ve got a few days to spend here, you can balance your time visiting some of the cool theme parks like “Splendid China,” shopping for cheap electronics, feasting on tons of delicious food, and hitting a bar or two in the evenings. From here, you have tons of options for continuing your journey by train or bus.
Guangzhou is the third largest city in China and the capital of Guangdong province. It’s also commonly referred to as Canton, and yes Cantonese is still the local language. Although many travelers seem content to simply see the train or bus station here, there’s more than enough to do here to warrant sticking around for at least a day. Wake up to a dim sum brunch, then take a few hours to stroll along the peaceful streets of Shamian island (沙面岛 – Shā miàn dǎo), part of the former British and French concession. Hit a temple or museum in the afternoon for your culture fix, and then hop on the subway to go see the new city and the impressive Canton Tower. If you’re getting sick of terrible Chinese beer, you’re in luck in Guangzhou – head to the Strand Cafe for delicious imported brews and craft beer on tap that’s made locally.
From Guangzhou, you can catch a sleeper train to get to the coastal city of Xiamen. Also an SEZ, this city has flourished thanks to its tourism industry and Taiwanese investments over the years. Kick back on the beach, munch on fresh seafood, wander around night markets, and take a day to explore the small island Gulangyu (鼓浪屿 – gǔ làng yǔ), which is free of motorized vehicles and just a short ferry ride away. Xiamen is often touted as one of the most livable cities in China, so if you’re thinking about moving here it might be a place you’ll want to consider. The main reason for visiting Xiamen on this trip, however, is its proximity to the next destination.
The tulou, or “earthen buildings” are amazing structures built by the Hakka (客家 – kè jiā) people throughout southeastern China. These massive compounds are basically an entire village in one building. They are usually circular or rectangular and consist of multiple levels that house up to 80 families. Although you can find them all over Fujian province, 46 of them have specifically been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites as they are “exceptional examples of a building tradition and function exemplifying a particular type of communal living and defensive organization [in a] harmonious relationship with their environment.” You’ve got to see these places to believe it, and it’s much better to stay nearby a cluster of them for a few nights instead of just taking a day trip. From the small cities of Longyan or Yongding, you can catch an overnight train to your next stop.
That does it for our South China adventure. This trip gives you a nice mixture of a lot of things. You’ve got the two SARs (Hong Kong and Macau), which are totally different from the mainland. You also hit a few of China’s biggest (Shenzhen and Guangzhou) and most beautiful (Xiamen and Zhuhai) cities. The amazing tulou villages make for the perfect place to end the trip. Now the only question is where to next?