Three years ago I got engaged on the Great Wall in Beijing. Since then, China has held a special place in my heart, so my husband and I jumped at the chance to tag along with our Mandarin-speaking friend during a two-week jaunt through the country.
China can be intimidating, but many of its cities are easy to navigate for English speakers. Here are five tourist-friendly locales.
1. Hong Kong
Our trip started here, where there is a large English presence because it was under British rule until 1997. The efficient, extensive subway announces each stop in English, and many locals are bilingual.
We stayed on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong and decided to take a day trip out of the city and over to Lantau Island. We made our way to the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car to take a 25-minute ride. The trip gave us a view of the Hong Kong International Airport, the South China Sea and the rolling lush landscape on the way to the Tian Tan Buddha Statue, better known as Big Buddha.
If you’re anywhere near it, this quiet city is a must-see. The vacation town is most known for its sharp mountains covered by lush greenery in an area free of the noise and air pollution that plague larger Chinese cities.
From Hong Kong, take the subway across the Chinese border to Shenzhen, where you can hop on an overnight train to Guilin for about $40. Tickets must be bought in advance.
A pre-arranged English-speaking driver can pick you up at the Guilin train station and take you to get a bowl of Guilin rice noodles, a local breakfast staple. (To make arrangements, visit www.guilincits.com/en, the website of China International Travel Service Guilin.) The driver can then take you to get boat tickets ($35) for a four-hour boat ride up the Li River.
Once in Yangshuo, hire a local tour guide to take you on an all-day bike ride. (Guides can be found through Bike Asia, www.bikeasia.com.) For about $10 apiece we hired a guide who spoke English, Mandarin and the local dialect to help us rent bikes ($5) and go on a breathtaking tour of the countryside.
This is mostly just a stop for people heading to and from Yangshuo, but it’s worth a half-day walk around while you wait for your next train. Take a stroll along the Li River and head to Fubo Shan peak to get a 360-degree view of the city.
This is home to the Terracotta Army, life-size soldiers created to guard Qin Shi Huang’s tomb more than 2,000 years ago. A farmer discovered the soldiers in 1974. Minibuses leave constantly from the local train station and can get you to the site in about an hour ($8).
After a day of sightseeing, walk through the city’s Muslim Quarter. This district offers an array of open-air restaurants and street food. We tasted spicy tofu and potatoes cooked and seasoned to order. Pick up some jian dui, a Chinese pastry made from glutinous rice flour and filled with sweet red bean paste.
A domestic flight ($70) is an easy, fast way to get from Xian to Hangzhou, which is a picturesque city 110 miles (or a two-hour train ride) southwest of Shanghai. The city is home to beautiful West Lake and is known as one of China’s most scenic and historic tourist spots.
Visitors can bike around the lake, take a covered boat ride or sit on the shore under weeping willow trees. Take a walk to Lingering Rosy Cloud Mountain, where a trail takes you to the top for a magnificent view of the city.