This grand China adventure kicks off in Hong Kong with day trips around the city plus a jaunt to Macau, known as the "Las Vegas of Asia." Then it's off to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where you'll visit a giant panda breeding center before heading to Zhangjiajie and its famous towering sandstone cliffs. The trip culminates with a boat ride down the Li River in the tranquil southern region of Yangshuo.

Highlights

  • See the famous sights of Hong Kong and Macau
  • Visit a panda breeding center and see these animals up close
  • Tour the massive Leshan Giant Buddha, in Chengdu
  • Marvel at towering sandstone peaks in Zhangjiajie Park
  • Take a cruise down the tranquil Li River amid limestone mountains

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Hongkong Hong Kong
Day 2 Day Trip to Macau Hong Kong
Day 3 Fly from Hong Kong to Chengdu - Tour Jinli Street Chengdu
Day 4 Chengdu Panda Base & Leshan Giant Buddha Chengdu
Day 5 Fly from Chengdu to Zhangjiajie Zhangjiajie
Day 6 Zhangjiajie Park Tour: Yuanjiajie & Tianzi Mountain Zhangjiajie
Day 7 Zhangjiajie Park Tour - Glass Bridge & Tianmen Mountain Zhangjiajie
Day 8 Fly from Zhangjiajie to Guilin Guilin
Day 9 Yangshuo Day Trip Guilin
Day 10 Train from Guilin to Hong Kong - Departure  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Hongkong

Welcome to Hong Kong
Welcome to Hong Kong

Welcome to China!

You'll touch down in Hong Kong, one of the great international hubs of the world. Despite being a small island city, Hong Kong is nevertheless home to over seven million residents. This makes it one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Due to its history as a former British colony and its current status as a "special administrative region" of China, it's a melting pot of cultures. 

Hong Kong is also a major global financial center and a hotbed of commercialism. After transferring from the airport to your hotel for check-in, you can head out and visit the city's department stores and shopping districts. For luxury brands and high-end boutiques, head to the business and retail district of Central; for jewelry and electronics visit the adjacent Kowloon City District and Peking Road.

Day 2: Day Trip to Macau

Macau
Macau

In the morning, you'll board a ferry for the two-hour trip to Macau. Situated on the Pearl River estuary, Macau was a Portuguese colony for over 400 years, during which it was little more than a sleepy fishing port. In 1999, the city liberalized its casino regulations and in fewer than 20 years rose to become a bigger generator of gambling revenue than Las Vegas. Like Hong Kong, Macau is a special administrative region, which explains its identity as an island of capitalism and excess in the sea of communist China. 

This half-day tour goes beyond the casinos and takes in the major sights. You'll stop at Lotus Park to see the iconic Lotus Flower in Full Bloom, a 19-foot (6-meter) gilded bronze flower statue.  Other sights include A-Ma Temple, built in 1488 and dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu; the Macau Museum, which details the history of the city; the Ruins of St.Paul's, a 16th-century colonial church; the Venetian Resort (for a bit of glitz and fun); and Fisherman's Wharf, an outdoor entertainment area on the waterfront.

After the tour, you'll board another ferry for the return trip to Hong Kong. You can spend the remainder of the afternoon shopping at Stanley Market, one of the city's premier open-air marketplaces. Here you'll find shops selling everything from silk garments and handmade jewelry to art and souvenirs. Of course, there's also a wide variety of traditional restaurants and food stalls here should you feel a bit peckish.

Day 3: Fly from Hong Kong to Chengdu - Tour Jinli Street

Chengdu
Chengdu

In the morning you'll transfer to the airport, where you'll catch a three-hour flight to the center of the country and Chengdu. This city is the capital of China's Sichuan province, an area famous for many things, not least of which is its namesake chili peppers and mouth-on-fire cuisine.

Besides the spiciness of its food, Sichuan is also known for giant pandas, whose native environment is the highland bamboo forests of central China. These threatened animals are the icons of the region, and just outside the city you'll find the Chengdu Panda Base. This is the largest non-profit panda research and breeding facility in the world, and it's open to visitors.  

Upon arrival at the airport, you'll transfer to your hotel for check-in. You'll then head out for a visit to Jinli Street, a historic pedestrian area that dates back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE). Today the brick-and-wood buildings are done in the traditional, ancient-China architectural style and include hotels, boutiques, and tea houses. There's also plenty of bars, restaurants, and street-food vendors.

If you do get hungry and want to test your tolerance for piquant food, head to a local restaurant for some notoriously spicy hot pot. This dish is a communal cauldron of rich broth spiked with merciless amounts of five-alarm-fire chili peppers.

Day 4: Chengdu Panda Base & Leshan Giant Buddha

A group of pandas lounging around at Chengdu Panda Base
A group of pandas lounging around at Chengdu Panda Base

Early in the morning, you'll transfer by car to Chengdu Panda Base, located about 6 miles (10 km) outside the city. The goal of this non-profit is to replicate the living conditions of giant pandas and facilitate breeding, as this species is threatened in large part due to its low birth rate. The base also doubles as a zoo, with various enclosures and habitats home to around 50 giant pandas. This is on top of other rare and threatened animals, such as red pandas and the black-necked crane.

But it's the giant pandas that are the star attraction for visitors. This is the only place in the world to see so many of them in one place. Nearly the size of an amusement park, you could easily spend half a day at Chengdu Panda Base before exhausting all the exhibits. The real surprise is what great climbers panda bears are. It's fascinating to see these rotund animals, which weigh around 250 pounds, shimmy up a tree and balance themselves precariously on a thin branch bending under the weight.

And if you're wondering why you need to arrive at the park at such an early hour, it's because pandas are notoriously lazy. Left to their own devices they'd prefer to do nothing but eat and sleep. This is a big reason for their low birth rate: they can't even get motivated for romance. Pandas are only really active in the morning around feeding times, and by afternoon most of them are sprawled out on the ground enjoying a snooze. 

After breaking for lunch, you'll visit one of the most awe-inspiring sights on the planet: the  Leshan Giant Buddha. Located a couple of hours south of Chengdu at the confluence of the Min and Dadu rivers, this red sandstone monolith was first built in 713 ACE during the Tang Dynasty. And at 233 feet (71 meters) high it has the distinction of being the largest stone statue of Buddha in the world.

You'll transfer to the site by car, and upon arrival get out and follow a narrow path around the Buddha leading to its feet. To stand directly below this massive structure is an amazing experience that reveals its full size and scope. After hiking around the Buddha you'll then hop on a boat for a river cruise, which will give you great vantage points looking back at the statue from a distance. Naturally, throughout the day there will be plenty of opportunities to snap photos.

When the tour is complete, you'll drive back to the city and have the remainder of the day free.

Day 5: Fly from Chengdu to Zhangjiajie

Zhangjiajie
Zhangjiajie

In the morning, you'll have a bit more free time in Chengdu, which you can use to visit Wangjiang Park or Kuanzhai Alley. The former is a public park featuring a four-story pavilion dedicated to the Tang Dynasty poet Xue Tao, and the latter is a historic pedestrian alley abounding with street food vendors. 

You'll then head to the airport for the 1.5-hour flight east to Zhangjiajie. This city in northwest Hunan province is famous as being the jumping-off point to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, an 11-900-acre (4,810 hectares)  protected area and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Within the park is the Wulingyuan Scenic Area, one of the true natural wonders of the world. This region is comprised of temperate forests dotted with thousands of towering sandstone pillars that rise hundreds of meters into the sky, often poking through misty cloud cover. Between the pillars are lakes, streams, and waterfalls. To describe Wulingyuan as otherworldly would be something of an understatement. 

Upon arrival at Zhangjiajie's airport, your guide and driver will pick you up for the transfer to your hotel. If time and energy permits, you can take walk around Xibu Street, a famous pedestrian thoroughfare lined with boutiques, bars, and street food stalls.

Day 6: Zhangjiajie Park Tour - Yuanjiajie & Tianzi Mountain

Yuanjiajie
Yuanjiajie

Today you'll embark on a full-day tour into Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. There are two scenic areas that you'll visit on this tour, both featuring the famous pillars: Yuanjiajie & Tianzi Mountain.

First up is Yuanjiajie, a mountainous area of the park home to the Southern Sky Column. This group of towering sandstone pillars is the most iconic image of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, so much so that it inspired the landscapes in the film "Avatar." You'll appreciate its full majesty on a ride 1,070 feet (326 meters) up the side of a cliff to the top plateau. Here you can visit natural attractions like the First Bridge under Heaven, a natural bridge that connects the peaks of two pillars.

Then you'll take a shuttle bus to visit other highlights of the park. These include Tianzi Mountain, a section of limestone pillars that takes up 22 square miles (67 square km) and whose peaks reach well above 1,000 meters. This mountain area is sacred to the ethnic minorities who live in the area, and the peaks look particularly spiritual when shrouded in misty clouds. 

You'll also visit some scenic spots that offer great views of the surrounding peaks. These include He Long Park (dedicated to a local revolutionary leader), Yubi Peak, and more. To cap the day you'll take the shuttle to Golden Whip Stream, the most scenic area of the park at the foot of the pillars. A hiking route here runs about four miles (seven km), following along a tranquil stream and passing pagodas and various lookout points. 

After the tour, you'll return to Zhangjiajie, where you'll overnight.

Day 7: Zhangjiajie Park Tour - Glass Bridge & Tianmen Mountain

The natural archway at Tianmen Mountain
The natural archway at Tianmen Mountain

In the morning you'll venture back into the park for another day tour. Your first stop is at Zhangjiajie's own Grand Canyon, a gorge with two peaks connected by a glass suspension bridge. At 1,410 feet long (430 meters) and 984 feet above the ground, this is the world's longest and highest glass bridge. The experience of walking across it is exhilarating because all that separates you from the fall is two inches of glass. 

Then you'll take a drive to Tianmen Mountain (Heaven's Gate Mountain), which stands 4,982 feet (1,518 meters). Tianmen is famous for the cable car that runs to its top, and which you'll get to ride. Like the Glass Bridge, this lift also holds a record: it's the longest passenger cable car in the world. It runs 24,459 feet (7,455 meters) and ascends 4,196 feet (1,279 meters). Once at the top you can hike to Tianmen Cave, an incredible natural archway.

Day 8: Fly from Zhangjiajie to Guilin

× Elephant Trunk Hill
Elephant Trunk Hill

In the morning, you'll transfer to the airport for the one-hour flight to Guilin. Located in southern China towards Hong Kong, the area around Guilin is known for its subtropical climate, tranquil rivers, and beautiful rural landscapes abounding with green karst mountains. 

Your tour of this incredible region begins right away. Upon arrival in Guilin, a guide will pick you up for the half-hour drive to Reed Flute Cave. This massive limestone cavern was named after the reeds that grow outside of it, which locals do indeed use to make flutes. Inside, the cave is a veritable wonderland of rock formations, stalactites, and stalagmites, which are lit up in a dizzying array of colors via artificial lighting.

Your guide will then drive you to Elephant Trunk Hill, which is located at the confluence of the Taohua River and Li River. This unique rock formation extends into the river in the shape of an elephant appearing to have its head bowed and drinking water. After visiting Elephant Trunk Hill, you'll transfer to your hotel in Guilin for check-in.

Day 9: Yangshuo Day Trip

Cruise down the Li River
Cruise down the Li River

This morning, you'll leave your hotel for a day trip just south of Guilin in Yangshuo County. The excursion starts with a memorable boat cruise along the Li River. It's a leisurely ride complimented by the incredible scenery of endless green rice paddies, grazing water buffalo, and local farming villages. 

After a break for lunch, you'll continue down the river and visit a rock formation named Moon Hill, which features a near-perfectly formed natural archway. You'll also visit another natural highlight of the region, Big Banyan Tree. Located near Gaotian Village, this iconic tree which has survived the elements ever since it was planted nearly 1500 years ago.

When the tour is over, you'll transfer by vehicle back to Guilin, where you can spend the remainder of the day relaxing by the pool.

Day 10: Train from Guilin to Hong Kong - Departure

Farewell, China
Farewell, China

In the morning you'll head to the railway station in Guilin and board a bullet train to Hong Kong. You'll be traveling first class and the entire journey takes around three hours. Upon arrival in Hong Kong, you'll transfer to the international airport where you'll catch your flight home. Until next time!

Map

Map of Essential China: Hong Kong, Chengdu, Zhangjiajie, & Guilin - 10 Days
Map of Essential China: Hong Kong, Chengdu, Zhangjiajie, & Guilin - 10 Days