After one too many Xiao Long Bao and enough city smog to last a lifetime, a long hike in the great outdoors is a fantastic way to see China. Kyle Long, co-founder of UnTour Food Tour in Beijing and Shanghai, leads the way.
CHINA – It doesn't have to be all ancient temples, museums, and big cities when traveling in the world's most populous country. Here are two hikes that can be done as day or overnight trips from both Shanghai and Beijing.
Beijing: Overnight on the Great Wall at Gubeikou
Nearly everyone who visits the Great Wall goes to three main sections: Simatai, Mutianyu, or Badaling. This includes Chinese tourists, which means you're going to be fighting hard for a selfie spot.
Instead, hire a private driver to take you to Gubeikou, which is about a two-hour drive from Beijing. You'll barely pass another soul. Once you're at Gubeikou, you'll see the Great Wall on either side of the village. Head west across the river and up the mountain for a three-hour, round-trip hike in the spectacular "wild-wall" area that is not restored but offers commanding views of the valleys below and the Wall, snaking up and down the ridgelines.
If you arrive early enough in the day, you'll have time to add on to your hike. You can head back down into town, stop for a quick bite, reload your water supplies, then head east up the hill, past the ancient Buddhist temple, and to the main entry gate of Gubeikou Great Wall section. If you want to spend the night (it's not technically allowed, but many still do), you're going to have to get creative and start looking for spots for your tent that are not too close to town and are flat enough for a good pitch. Check the watchtowers that dot the wall every 300 yards for flat roofs or level insides that are protected from the wind. There are a few places where you'll have to do some guessing on which trail or junction meets back up with the main trail, but that's all part of the adventure, right?
We've been using Patrick for years as our Beijing driver and liaison. He speaks English, but his drivers don't (email@example.com), so let Patrick know the plan when you book. Expect to pay about $175 USD for a full day driver at your disposal. If you'd like a guide for a trip (not a bad idea if you're feeling nervous and/or lack Chinese skills), check out Beijing Hikers for trips with like-minded adventurers, organized by level of difficulty. There are also plenty of companies offering more commercial experiences on TripAdvisor.
Hangzhou Tea Terraces: Day Hike from Shanghai
United started a non-stop flight to Hangzhou (HGH) from San Francisco (SFO) last year, a sign of the city's growing business and cultural importance (Alibaba, the world's largest retailer and largest IPO ever, is headquartered here). More international carriers are following suit, but even if you find yourself in neighboring Shanghai (about an hour away via high-speed train), you can still wake up early and spend a day hiking and enjoying Hangzhou's peaceful tea terraces. Renown for its Longjing (Dragon well) green tea, Hangzhou is a city of nearly nine million but still boasts amazingly accessible hiking routes not too far from the city center.
While you can do what most tourists do and walk part way around the lake (it's about nine miles total), the real beauty of Hangzhou requires a bit of uphill effort to get to the altitude where the tea is cultivated. You'll find the air a bit cooler and crowds thinner. If you're up for exploring, just about any village road on the southwest edge of the lake will dead end and connect to a dirt path that leads to a paved, ridgeline trail of the hills surrounding West Lake. The views are well worth all the sweat.
For a more concrete plan, start at the China National Tea Museum and follow the path up the hill. Add in the village of Longjing as a stop (it also makes a great lunch break with lots of homestyle village restaurants), and then continue on following signs for a path called "Nine Creeks Meandering Through a Misty Forest." The path is almost as gorgeous as the name implies, but it's a little more well-known, so you will be able to join other hikers until the path's terminus at the main road with plenty of taxis to head back into town. We've done a version of this as a huge twenty-mile, one-day loop to and from our hotel located lakeside, but even if you're not up for that much walking, you can pick and choose a portion of this to do with ease and flexibility.
The best part about hiking in and around big cities in China? If you're feeling tired, or get a bit lost, you can always go back down to the nearest main road and hail a taxi, and no one will be any the wiser.