10 Tips To Avoid The Crowds When Traveling In China
***This post may contain affiliate links.***
Picture those notorious throngs of Chinese tourists you see in popular tourist cities. You know, the ones being herded like cattle out of giant tour buses all walking down the street after a guide holding tiny flag on a stick. Now multiply that image thousands of times over and you’ll be able to picture a sliver of what the major sites in China look like at any given moment.
If this terrifies you, you’re not alone. It terrifies us too.
But the Chinese have a good reason for flocking in groves to their countries tourist areas. They’re straight up amazing! China has over 3000 years of history to share with the world through its incredible monuments, and some of the most awe-inspiring natural landscapes to go along with it.
You’d be silly to let the crowds of local tourists deter you from seeing the sites in China with your own eyes. Luckily, after years of trial and error, we’ve discovered a few sneaky tips that have helped us to avoid the majority of the crowds during our travels around this incredible country.
We’ve hiked the Great Wall with only a handful of other tourists in site, gotten an entire 8 person cable car to ourselves through the Avatar Mountains of Zhangjiajie, and visited the Le Shan Giant Buddha having stood in line for only a fraction the normal wait time.
While these are extreme, albeit, awesome examples for someone who hates crowds as much as we do, these tips are less about avoiding people altogether than they are helpful tidbits of information to help you create your most enjoyable travel experience, whether you want to be completely secluded or just get a few decent photos without a million and one people in them.
1. Don’t Travel During the Chinese Holidays
I’m starting out with the most obvious of all tips, which is to avoid traveling in China during any Chinese National Holiday like the plague. The two major holidays you need to watch out for are Chinese New Year and Golden Week (or National Day as it’s also called).
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year, otherwise known as the Lunar New Year, is a floating holiday that occurs during the new moon that marks the beginning of a new calendar year. The new moon that marks the start of Chinese New Year occurs every year sometime between January 21 and February 20.
Chinese New Year has the equivalent significance that Christmas does in the West. It’s the biggest holiday of the year in China, and the one time when everyone travels back to their hometowns to visit family. They feast on tons of food and snacks, play games, and exchange gifts. The 2 weeks preceding it the entire country is in a frenzy with red decorations and shoppers everywhere. It’s a festive, but very hectic time to be in China.
Chinese New Year is the largest human migration in the world. Literally, over a billion people are all traveling at the same time. I think needless to say it’s best not to get caught in the middle of that. Not to mention the prices of transportation and hotels skyrocket during this time.
Golden Week (National Day)
Golden Week or National Day is a static holiday that starts every year on October 1. October 1 is China’s National Day where people celebrate the formation of the People’s Republic of China, like the 4th Of July in the USA or Australia Day in Australia. The difference is that in China, people generally get a week off of work. Also, they don’t seem to really celebrate the holiday itself, it’s just a nice break where people tend to travel around China with their family.
The biggest difference between the two holidays travel wise is that at Chinese New Year everyone travels back to their hometown, whereas during the National Day holiday people tend to travel as tourists.
2. Avoid Popular Tourist Sites During Peak Season
Peak season in China is the same as it is in pretty much every other country, the summertime. That magical time of year, when the weather is hot and the kids are out of school.
You’ll want to avoid traveling to popular places like the Great Wall in Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, the Avatar Mountains in Zhangjiajie, or China’s holy Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan), for example, among others. Summer is the time of year when all the locals come out to play. And there are over a billion of them.
This is not to say that you need to freeze your but off in winter time in order to not be mobbed by tourists everywhere you go in China. But summer is definitely the time to stick to those less touristy spots and explore what’ out there off of China’s tourist trail.
Some attractions you should avoid during peak travel season are:
Beijing: Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace.
Xi’an: Terracotta Warriors, Old Town, Hua Shan (Hua Mountain)
Shanghai: The Bund, Water Towns
Huangshan City: Yellow Mountains
Hangzhou: West Lake, Grand Canal
Yunnan Province: Dali Old Town, Lijiang Old Town
This might seem like an exhaustive list, but believe me, there are way more attractions NOT on this list than there are on it.
3. Travel During the Off Season
That being said, if you don’t mind the cold, and you’re willing to travel during the winter, you’ll be rewarded with short lines and low prices. Most tourist attractions in China significantly reduce their prices during the offseason which lasts from December 1 – March 1.
Popular spots we’ve traveled to during the offseason and have had almost completely to ourselves include the Panda Base in Chengdu, the Giant Buddha in Leshan, and the Avatar Mountains in Zhangjiajie. Your bag might be a little heavier with the addition of a winter wardrobe, but your experience will be 10x better for it.
You don’t necessarily have to travel during the true winter offseason though. In fact, most of our travels in China have been during the spring and fall shoulder seasons, when the weather is nicer, but the major tourist crowds haven’t come out to play yet.
Basically, as long as you avoid that peak summer season from around June 15 – September 1 you’ll be golden.
4. Travel Off The Beaten Path
Getting off the beaten path is our FAVORITE, especially in China. There’s just so much to choose from here that’s not on the tourist trail. Also, if you travel off the beaten path in China, you can travel to wherever you want, whenever you want and NEVER have to worry about the crowds. That’s right, I said never.
Seriously, getting off China’s beaten path is akin to winning the golden ticket to the Chocolate Factory. It is your key to crowd-free travel in the most populous country in the world.
Some of the coolest off the beaten path destinations we’ve been to so far include:
Guangxi Province: Xingping, Ping’an
5. Find Hidden Gems At Popular Tourist Sites
A city is more than just two or three famous sites, and a national park is more than its one famous peak. You don’t have to trek into the unknown backwoods to get off the beaten path.
Sure, see the popular things, but if you want to avoid the crowds, don’t spend most of your time there.
How do you find these hidden gems?
Well first off, stop looking up “things to do” articles and reading guidebooks and brochures, and just walk out of your hotel without a plan. Pick a direction and just start walking, or get a bike and start riding.
Don’t worry about getting lost, in fact, if you do get lost, that’s often times when you find the coolest spots. So walk or ride, and go down every street that looks pretty, or cool, or like it has a lot of locals milling about. Stop at anything that looks even remotely interesting and explore.
If this is too laissez-faire for you, you can also try and look at a map on your phone to find anything that looks obviously interesting that you never knew existed. A city park, for example, or a pedestrian street you didn’t know was there.
6. Visit Popular Sites At The Beginning & End of The Day
First thing in the morning when the tourist sites open and last thing in the evening before they close are the two least crowded times of day to visit the popular spots.
Because most people are lazy on vacation. I know we are. I mean, who wants to wake up early when you don’t have to? It’s not like that attraction is going anywhere.
In the evening, most people have been out all day and are tired so they tend to leave the popular spots sometime in the late afternoon to have time to rest before dinner.
If you can take advantage of that approximately 2-hour window in the morning and evening right when the tourist sites open and before they close, you can visit even the most popular spots without much hassle.
7. Don’t Book A Tour
There is nothing a Chinese traveler loves more than a tour. Nothing. I am not exaggerating.
Whenever we go on vacation somewhere Justin’s Chinese coworkers always ask him if we’re going on a tour. I’m not sure how they haven’t learned by now that that’s not, and never will be our thing. Being stuck with a giant group of people herded on and off of tour buses and traveling in groups like a herd of sheep following a shepherd is just not our idea of fun.
The good news for you and I regarding the Chinese love for tour groups is that if you don’t travel to China with a tour guide you can avoid getting roped into following all the tour groups around.
Don’t Visit Popular Attractions During the “Best” Times
See, all tour groups in China tend to follow a similar schedule of what sites to see when. The times they pick are supposedly the “best” times or order to see the major attractions, but that means that everyone and their families will be there with you, visiting the “best” sites at the “best times”.
When you plan your own trip and are free to do your own thing, you can make sure to not follow the typical tourist trail, and therefore not get caught in the crowds. Even if you go to all the major tourist sites in a city, if there’s a recommended route popularized on the internet and in the guidebooks, DON’T follow it. Because everyone else will have gotten the same information and will be following it too.
Visit sites on your own, mix it up, visit attractions out of order, or at odd times of day, and you’ll be sure to miss the major flood of tourists.
8. Walk Or Ride A Bike Share Bicycle Instead of Taking Public Transport
The Chinese hate walking and riding bicycles, basically, they hate anything that involves physical effort. For this reason taxis, buses, and trains tend to be full all the time. Especially the buses.
You know how in western countries when you order Chinese takeout and it comes in those white kind of cardboard like paper containers and it’s just packed in so tightly you could just flip the thing over onto a plate and the food would come out in a block still in the shape of the container?
That’s what the buses and subway/metro cars look like on the daily in China. Except it’s not noodles or rice, or even sardines, it’s people. Just when you think that no more people can possibly fit on the bus, more get on and everyone gets squished progressively tighter.
And I’ve literally seen, and unfortunately been on, buses that were so jam-packed with people that nobody had to hold on to anything because it was impossible to fall over anyway. I’m pretty sure said bus could crash into something, roll down the street, and everyone would still be stuck inside of it in the exact same position.
If it’s feasible to walk or ride a bike around a city in China to get somewhere, do it. Biking is often is the fastest mode of transportation in a Chinese city anyway because the traffic is so horrendous. Especially if said city doesn’t have a subway or metro system. I frequently get around in China faster on a bike than when I take a car.
Plus when you walk or ride a bike instead of taking public transport not only will you be avoiding getting squished like a sardine, you’ll be getting more exercise, saving money, and getting to actually see way more of the city than when you’re confined within the four walls of a car, bus, or train.
China’s Bike Share System
While the general attitude is still in favor of cars, bikes made a resurgence in China starting in 2016.
Now, nowhere in the world is it easier to rent a bike as transportation around a city than it is in China. Within the past year, the existence of bike-share bikes has exploded throughout Chinese cities. And since their explosion now foreigners and travelers can take advantage of Chinese city bikes with the simple download of an app!
You previously needed a Chinese ID card to use the city bikes, but now, after you download the app you can simply take a photo of your passport, put down a refundable deposit, and you’re good to go!
Most bike share companies in China allow you to pay with either Wechat (China’s messaging app), Alipay (China’s version of Paypal) or Apple Pay, all of which will now accept Visa and Mastercard credit/debit cards. If you don’t have Apple Pay, Wechat is definitely the easiest to set up as a foreigner as you can download the app entirely in English.
The major bike share apps you can download for use in China are Mobike, Ofo, and Hello Bike.
9. Visit China’s Minority Regions
So where should you go to get off the beaten path? China’s minority regions! These are incredible, super diverse and beautiful places that because of their difference and minority populations, are not at all popular with the Chinese people when it comes to tourism.
For those, like most who aren’t themselves Chinese or haven’t lived in China for years, you probably thought there was only one ethnicity in China, Chinese. But, while it is true that an overwhelming 91.59% of Chinese people are of the Han ethnicity (according to the 2000 National Population Census)the other 8.41% of the population is made up of many many different ethnicities of Chinese people.
Where are the minority regions?
In a nutshell, Western China. But some specific provinces that have lots of tourist potential and not so many tourists include (western) Sichuan Province, Qinghai Province, Gansu Province, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang Province, Yunnan Province (excluding Dali and Lijiang), and Guizhou Province.
10. Explore China’s Countryside
China has without a doubt the most incredible natural landscapes I have ever seen. And lucky for us, the Chinese don’t appreciate it.
China has become a nation of cities. And people really don’t hold much value in natural scenery. They basically think, yeah, it’s pretty, but it’s too inconvenient to get to or it requires too much exercise, i.e. hiking. “I’ll just look a picture and be done” is basically what they do. Or maybe drive their car into a national park, take a picture and leave without really exploring much of the park itself.
Most Chinese people don’t think that natural scenery is worth seeing because it doesn’t have any “meaning”. It’s just pretty, and that’s all. There’s no history or culture behind it, so, therefore, it doesn’t hold any value so why see it.
Our opinion? Their loss.
Even popular hikes like China’s famous Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province have virtually no one on their trails. You can tell how unpopular hiking and outdoor activities are in China by the complete lack of signs and markings on the trails here. Unless it’s one of the few popular trails, that are honestly really only popular among foreign tourists, or the Holy Mountains which now have concrete steps and cable cars up them, they’ll probably be mostly empty, even on the best of days.
As long as you’re comfortable blazing paths or have good navigation, China’s countryside is truly an outdoorsman/woman’s playground.
Like this post? Share the love and pin it on Pinterest!
*** This post may contain affiliate links. By purchasing a product or service through these links you are helping to support this blog at no extra cost to you! We only recommend products we personally use and love! ***