First-time visitors to China are always drawn to the country's iconic sights: Beijing's Forbidden City and the Great Wall, Xian's Terracotta Warriors, and Shanghai's 21st-century skyline. But it's important to get out of the big cities to engage with the nation on a more human scale and see the rivers, lakes and mountains that have inspired artists and writers for generations. Here are five tours for first-time visitors that go further than the classic Beijing-Xian-Shanghai triangle.
China can be exhausting: the gridlocked streets, oppressive crowds and high-decibel dining halls can take their toll. Cultural tour specialist Martin Randall addresses these concerns by spending more time in fewer bases: Beijing, Xian, Hangzhou and Shanghai. The hotels it uses are central and carefully chosen; meals are taken in top restaurants. Excursions include visits to a remote section of the Great Wall, a stroll through Xian’s Muslim Quarter and a visit to Hangzhou’s tea estates. Chinese guides tend to stick to a well-rehearsed script so the company uses top academics to lead the sightseeing aided by a UK tour manager to make sure everything runs smoothly. October departures from £5,930pp for 14 days including flight and most meals for its Essential China tour. Its Sacred China itinerary includes more time in rural locations.
Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com)
On Telegraph Tours' new 15-day Highlights of China itinerary, BBC broadcaster Kate Adie and The Telegraph's China correspondent Neil Connor give insights into their experiences as reporters there on what promises to be an action-packed tour. As well as taking Beijing, Xian and Shanghai, the itinerary includes a Three Gorges cruise on the Yangtze, a walk through the Delta water town of Zhujiajiao and a boat ride along the River Li through the beautiful karst landscape and rice paddies of Yangshuo in the south. October departures from £3,490pp including flights and all meals.
Telegraph Tours (0333 005 9078; telegraphchina.com)
If you don't want to join a group tour but need a helping hand, Audley Travel offers a wide choice of tailor-made options using a private car and driver for excursions and as much guiding as you want. It also provides transfer guides to help you navigate airports and railway stations which can be confusing places as little English is spoken. Its Classic China itinerary includes all the big sights but in ways that help you avoid the crowds of domestic tourists with their megaphone-wielding guides. For example, a walk on the Great Wall at Jinshanling, the most beautiful and least crowded stretch within striking distance of Beijing, and a stay in Longji village near Guilin famous for its centuries-old casading rice terraces. From £3,340pp for 13 days, b&b including flights.
Audley Travel (01993 838 220; audleytravel.com)
On the right track
China now has a superb network of long-distance high-speed trains which travel at a consistent 185mph, the top speed of Eurostar. Great Rail Journeys has designed eight rail-based itineraries to see the country from the ground. Its 14-day Wonders of China itinerary is particularly diverse. As well as sightseeing in Beijing, Xian and Shanghai, there is a two-day rail journey across central China from the dry Loess Plateau that surrounds Xian to the lush sub-tropical rice bowl of Guilin. There's a chance to see village life along the River Li and watch teapickers at work in the hills around the former imperial capital, Hangzhou, whose West Lake has been the subject of poems and paintings for a thousand years. Departures between April and October, from £2,695pp including flights, most meals and services of a UK tour manager.
Great Rail Journeys (0800 140 4444; greatrail.co.uk)
The Yangtze River is the third longest in the world and a cruise along its middle reaches a good way to wind down after busy days in the cities. Avoid July and August departures when the weather is unbearably hot and humid. The Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer is the most luxurious ship on the river for the four-day transit of the Three Gorges from Yixing to Chongqing. It carries 124 passengers and has large cabins, all with private balconies. There's a la carte dining, an indulgent spa and a teak observation deck. A particular highlight is the excursion by traditional sampan through the Shennong Stream tributary. Departures between February and December, from £4,445pp including flights and most meals for a 14-day Best of China itinerary also taking in Beijing, Xian and Shanghai.
APT (0800 012 6683; aptouring.co.uk)