As the fourth largest country by area, China has a massive variety of landscapes ranging from plateaus and deserts to grasslands and mountains. With the country’s infrastructure improving all the time, China is a great place for planning some amazing road trips.
Those who pack up their vehicle and hit the road will be rewarded in other ways. Some of the best road trips take travelers to China’s hinterlands like Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang autonomous regions. In these areas, the distinct cultures and customs of minority groups showcase the country’s impressive diversity.
Here’s a quick look at some of China’s best routes.
Route 1: Chengdu to Shangri-la
Starting from Chengdu in Sichuan and head to Shangri-la in Yunnan, this is a journey covering mostly mountainous terrain and gorgeous valleys.
The ideal route from Chengdu to Shangri-la includes Rilong, Danba, Tagong, Litang and Daocheng.
Xiangcheng County, whose name means beads in the hand of Buddha in Tibetan languages, is a relatively low altitude area in the region. The villages in the area dotted along the Shuoqu River like beads. The locals make good use of it by growing a variety of fruits and other crops.
Yading Scenic Area is worth visiting, time permitting, of course. Some say the snowy peaks stand against the blue sky are incarnations of three bodhisattvas, Chenrezig, Chenadorje and Jampayang watching over their world.
Route 2: Beijing to Xi’an, via Hohhot
Clocking more than 2,000 kilometers, this road trip can be broken down into several sections. It takes roughly 12 days, but travelers can spend more time in places they like. Start in the capital and head to Datong via Jingzang highway, Tanqinxia tunnel, Jingxin highway and Dayun highway. Datong is famous for its Buddhist frescoes.
From there head to Yinchuan in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region along Jingxin highway, the longest stretch of this route at 967 kilometers.
If time permits, take a detour to Hohhot, Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, to savor the beauty of its vast grassland. In Yinchuan, travelers can get a look at the Yellow River, considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. Motorists will encounter mountain and desert scenery along the way from Yinchuan to Pingliang on Fuyin highway. The final section takes you to Xi’an, an ancient capital. Xi’an is, of course, famous for the terracotta warriors, its Muslim Quarter and ancient city wall. Take a few days to explore the city.
Route 3: Sichuan
Sichuan is a land famous for its pandas, rivers, lakes, beautiful scenery and spectacular mountains.
Travelers can plan on a trip of at least 12 days to cover this route, some of which includes the ancient Tea Horse Road, also known as the south Silk Road. The trading trail exporting tea, salt and Sichuan-style silk works from Sichuan to Tibet starts from Ya’an. The Sichuan city that suffered a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in 2013 has a great production of quality tea leaves from ancient times. Check out the clumsy yet cute pandas at Bifengxia Panda Reserve in Ya’an.
Kangding is a major stop en route. Wait for the sunrise or sunset along the crystalline Muge Lake. Tagong Grassland is at its utmost beauty in spring. The route then runs through Chengdu’s vast red land of various shades.
Another highlight includes Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where travelers can learn about the habits of these cute and lazy bears.
Don’t forget to stop at Songgang stone fortress and Sirin Kar Monastery of Kagyupa School near Lianghekou Village.
Other spots include Dege Printing House (Dege Yinjingyuan), Pelyul Monastery and Litang Monastery.
When driving from Yajiang to Danba, gaze in awe at Mount Minya while stopping in Xinduqiao. Its summit is 7,556 meters above sea level although the mountain peak is often obscured by clouds.
There’s also Lhagang Monastery, or Tagong Si in Chinese, and views of Mount Zhara Lhatse (5,820 meters) in Tagong.
Route 4: Urumqi to Kashgar, Xinjiang
Feel like an ancient trader as you explore part of the ancient Silk Road and drive on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, which is farther from the ocean than any other desert in the world.
Start in Urumqi, capital city of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and head east to Turpan on highway 314. From here, head west to the Taklamakan, the largest shifting sand desert in the world, toward Kashgar. This section on the northern edge of the desert was once part of the Silk Road. Travelers can stop in Yopurga, whose county is about 76 kilometers from Kashgar, and take a camel trek through the desert.
The Silk Road was primarily a trading route between China and the West, but it also led to cultural exchanges. Over the course of 2,000 years, countless merchants, caravans, wandering armies and adventurers have left their marks on this incredible route.
Conclude the journey in Kashgar, China’s western most city close to the border with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kashgar’s Old City is a good example of a traditional Islamic town. Id Kah Mosque is the country’s largest and there is a 12.26-meter-tall statue of Chairman Mao Zedong.
Route 5: Guizhou to Guangxi
About eight days is needed to cover this route wandering in mountains from Guizhou Province to the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Starting in Guiyang, the provincial capital of Guizhou Province, highlights of this route include the chance to visit small villages of different ethnic minorities and the odd karst formations often found in the southwest region of China.
The first day takes you from Guiyang to Kaili, home of Xijiang Village, the biggest Miao ethnic village in the country. Then drive up Mount Leigong to Rongjiang and stop for the night.
The next day starts with a drive to Congjiang in the morning to visit Basa Miao People’s Village. Check out the local products as they may make great souvenirs of the trip. The various villages have different traditions and customs. Villagers living in these places haven’t changed much over the centuries as they have little communication with the outside world.
Next up is Gaozheng for more intriguing villages and Zhaoxing, before venturing to Guilin, Guangxi. The Wind and Rain Bridge, a signature kind of covered bridge built by Dong minority in Chengyang is an amazing piece of architecture with several traditional Chinese bridge houses along the span. Locals use the bridge houses for public events.
After getting your bearings in Guilin, take a boat to Yangshuo, a famous haunt among backpackers craving for a laid-back vibe. Yangshuo is also renowned for karst landscape views and many find a bike tour in the area very rewarding.
While driving across Guizhou, bear in mind the province is home to 6,000 species of wild plants. More than 500 species are edible and about 3,900 are considered medicinal plants.
Route 6: Around Beijing
Beijing makes a great base for a series of one or two-day road trips containing a good deal of surprises.
Chengde is a pleasant hilly area with many rivers. Chengde summer palace is a former imperial garden, the largest still in existence, and is surrounded by temples.
Chengde is some 200 kilometers’ drive from Beijing.
This 90-minute drive from Beijing Badaling highway brings travelers to Yanqing County, which is famous for its mountain scenery, including Yudu Mountain. Other recommended scenic spots include Northwest Ditch and Southwest Ditch, Lujia River, Wulipo and Sancha River Valley.
Jinshanling Great Wall
There are numerous sections of the Great Wall to see around Beijing. The Jinshanling section is 130 kilometers from the downtown Beijing and can be reached by taking highway G45.
Once arriving, plan on spending at least half a day clambering about the Great Wall. This section is on the border of Hebei Province and stretches 10.5 kilometers from Wangjing Tower to Gubei Pass, a key fortress between Shanhai Pass and Juyong Pass of the wall. The wall wriggles its way up, down and around the mountains. With a bit of luck, you’ll get a clear sky for some amazing pictures.