The sun glints off boats on the water. A dog barks. The sky turns a deep scarlet and little changes on Lingshan Island. Qingdao might well be the land of booze, beaches and tourists, but two 50-minute ferry rides away and the bottle-swilling, be-towelled masses are but a blur on the horizon. To cross these waters is to step back in time.
Lingshan is an old fishing island where life typically moves at a slower pace. We arrive at the basic, hostel-style resort (you can upgrade to a room in the island’s only inn for 323RMB) early and rattle through Lingshan’s main sights: a bunch of funny-shaped rocks, including the ‘Tiger Stone’, a roughly tigerish-looking hunk of granite that rebounds the sea wind in a haunting howl. Soon, we’re exploring the real island. Our guide has a quiet word with the naval base security guard and 30 seconds later we’re hopping over a back wall and hiking a secret route into the hills. The climb is only 50 minutes, but it’s the two-hour stroll through the winding, sleepy roads and villages on the way back that makes you appreciate Lingshan’s warm, gentle beauty.
We were sold the trip as an adventure weekend: hiking, trekking, fishing and camping. If that’s what you’re after, the set programme disappoints a little. Fishing is restricted to the quayside, despite the abundance of boats in the harbour, and the hikes won’t really test more hardened trekkers. But we find the guides are often able to accommodate our suggested changes, whether it’s camping somewhere else, renting bikes or simply going off on our own.
In the end, you go to Lingshan to escape the crowded, modern world. The island’s slow pace, ocean air and stunning views make it heaven for wanderers. It’s a side of China that’s rarely seen, with signs of ‘progress’ (all too evident on many of Qingdao’s other islands) mercifully absent, and it’s all the better for it. Gareth Clark
Price 1,530RMB for one person; 1,670RMB for two people. Additional costs include 123RMB for tent rental and 26RMB per person to rent fishing rods.
When? Trips depart every Friday and Saturday.
What’s included Pick-up from Qingdao train station, ferry tickets, English-speaking guide, activities and accommodation for two nights.
Inner Mongolia is famed for its green plains dotted with yurts, horses and shrines to Tibetan Buddhism (the religion practised by the nomadic Mongol people). Around Hohhot, the region’s capital, such scenery is notoriously tourist infested. The China Culture Center (CCC) ventures further afield to visit the pristine Hulunbuir grasslands, just outside Hailar (a two-hour flight from Beijing).
Our first night is spent on a soaring plateau in rows of mushroom-like concrete ‘yurts’ under what seem like endless unpolluted skies. The accommodation, complete with air con, flushing toilets and river views, is comfortable – if a far cry from the real nomadic deal. Lunch, however, is prepared in a local family’s yurt: expect slabs of mutton, urum (a clotted cream), and baozi washed down with salted milk tea or airag, a creamy, fermented horse-milk liquor.
As tour guides Andy and Yuan Yuan (who’s from the region) pepper our bus journeys with fascinating titbits about local life, it becomes clear that this is not about pulse-pounding entertainment: rather, the grasslands are a place to walk and contemplate life. Make sure to watch the sunset from the obos – shamanistic shrines where locals leave daily offerings, including sheep skulls and tinned food – and rise early the next day to see the herdsmen at work on horseback.
What makes this trip different, however, is a night spent in a sleepy ‘Russian’ village on the Sino-Russian border (a four-hour drive from the grasslands), complete with views of forests and a river used by locals for washing clothes, tractors and, in the case of one old lady, geese. Here, the rural landscape is complemented by quaint wooden houses. A highlight is meeting a 92-year-old Chinese Russian whose family has lived in the village for four generations. And although we didn’t partake in it, the CCC tour also features a horse-ride around the village.
Despite looking like a throwback to a bygone era, our night here is shot through with some typically cheesy hallmarks of Chinese tourism, including a group of 18-year-old Russian dancers who entertain us with Chocolate-esque moves during a Russian dinner. Still, this proved an excellent opportunity to travel in comfort to far-flung areas that we might otherwise never have visited. Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
Price 5,200RMB for adults; 4,160RMB for kids aged eight to 11; 2,600RMB for kids aged two to seven; free for kids under two.
When? The next trip runs from Friday 19 to Sunday 21. CCC also offers tailor-made tours.
What’s included Flights, transport in Inner Mongolia, entry fees, meals, English-speaking guide, local travel insurance and accommodation for two nights.
Our journey begins at the most easterly point of the Great Wall, at Old Dragon’s Head, so called because here the wall meets the sea and supposedly resembles a dragon sipping the water. You’ll have to be imaginative to let that one fly, but standing on the edge, listening to the waves crash against the ramparts, it’s certainly atmospheric. This spot is Travelthe busiest of all the places we visit – just two other couples jostle us.
We escape the ‘crowds’ and head to an adjacent beach, where we picnic before moving on to the nearby town of Shanhaiguan, home to the ‘First Pass under Heaven’ section of the wall, where an important battle helped establish the Qing Dynasty as rulers of China. Aside from the wall, the town is a pretty collection of grey brick houses against a mountainous backdrop, and has a museum – one of China’s better ones – detailing the history of the Great Wall.
The locations we visit are charming but the walls are heavily renovated à la Badaling. Our second day brings our first taste of the wild wall. We climb up a steep section hugging Jiaoshan Mountain. After pausing to take in Shanhaiguan in the morning sun below, we veer off onto a mountain trail. From here on, the wall has disappeared, except for the occasional fort. Instead, our six-hour trial is littered with rocky mounds and purple flowers, and ends in a stream-streaked pine forest.
On our final day, we trek Dongjiakou, a section where the wall has been lovingly restored but not with garish new brick. The story goes that the local villagers, direct descendants from the soldiers who once stood guard here, and driven by guilt over having taken stones from the wall during the difficult decades of the 1950s-1970s, felt compelled to return them. Further along, the wall is harder to hike as the forts are overgrown with trees and the stones with grass. But with butterflies dancing and green hills in the distance bringing to mind the landscapes of new Zealand, made famous by The Lord of the Rings films, this dilapidation is idyllic.
Be warned: with several hours a day hiking often-difficult terrain, this is not a trip for the exercise-shy. But be prepared to push yourself and you’ll be rewarded with unforgettable views. Gabrielle Jaffe
Price From 2,900RMB per person.
When? Two-night, three-day trip available year-round on request.
What’s included Trains to and from Beijing, local transport, entry fees, English- speaking guide, meals and two nights of accommodation.
Pingyao may be the perfect weekend destination for a glimpse of old China. With its preserved city walls, cobbled streets and historic residences, this Unesco-listed city is comprised of a series of walk-through museums. Culinary tour operator Hias Gourmet will take you beyond the city’s picturesque streets, into back lanes and alleys, feeding all of your senses with local flavours.
We arrive after dark, step through the city gates and head deeper into the caverns of the old town until we are met by the glow of cascading red lanterns outside Jing’s Residence. This boutique hotel is a warren of beautifully restored and renovated courtyards and still exudes the luxury favoured by its former owner, a Qing Dynasty silk merchant. Dinner here is a Shanxi menu under the stars, paired with winning wine made nearby at Grace Vineyard.
The next morning begins with a brisk walk along the city’s protective walls. While nibbling on local street snacks, we then wind through a maze of old courtyards and temples and find the kitchen God, paying homage to his statue in the Temple of the City God, as befits a food tour.
We then drive to nearby Jingsheng village, to the Wang Family Courtyard, where dozens of family enclaves attest to generations of tofu-merchandising acumen. A lunch of tender Pingyao beef is highlighted by tiles of tofu that make this simple curd more honorific.
Our final stop on this three-day tour is in Taiyuan, Shanxi’s capital. Here, we take a pungent tour of a vinegar factory and follow it up with a noodle feast that includes steamed oat rings dipped in local black vinegar with naturally blue-tinted garlic cloves. The day ends with a visit to Dutchman Marc de Ruiter, an artisanal cheese producer who’s found his niche in Shanxi. We hoist back aged rounds of Gouda made in a local village and know these prizes will stir up memories of the province. Lillian Chou
Price From 2,795RMB per person.
When? Two-night, three-day trip available year-round on request.
What’s included Round-trip transfer from airport or train station, transport within Shanxi, entry fees, English-speaking guide and meals. Transport from Beijing and accommodation are not included. Rooms at Jing’s Residence from 1,100RMB per night.
For such a big city, Beijing can be astonishingly claustrophobic. The constant rumble of traffic, trains, bikes and crowds; the yellowy murk of smog smothering the streets; the perpetual, grinding gears of work – sometimes you need to do more than just escape it: you need to purge it from your system.
And that’s precisely what 90 Percent Travel is offering with its meditation retreat at Chaoyang Temple, just outside Huairou. An early start to catch the bus from Beijing means that we’re in no fit state to take in the scenery on the way there, so our first encounter with the monastery is when we open our sleepy eyes to see it up close among the verdant peaks of the Hui Yuan Xian Gu mountain range. But this weekend is for looking inwards, not outwards, and we’re quickly spirited away to a discussion group where a jovial monk explains via translation, gesticulation, metaphor and a pad of paper and a pen, the fundamental beliefs of Zen Buddhism.
After a delicious vegetarian lunch, we’re then invited to meditate in a nunnery up a long, winding (but thankfully not too steep) mountain road. Paying money to sit very, very still in a quiet room might sound ludicrous, but pretty soon the world fades away, taking with it all the stresses of Beijing. Of course, there are other things to do – calligraphy, a tea ceremony in a beautiful mountaintop monastery, ‘walking meditation’ in which one focuses on the feeling and actions of movement, and a night spent in the comfortable Hong Luo Shan Zhuang resort – but the focus of this one-and-a-half-day holiday is to shed the worries and concerns of city life. And it achieves that spectacularly. James Wilkinson
Price 790RMB per person. Bookings require a minimum of ten people.
When? On weekends, according to customer demand.
Transport from and back to Dongzhimen bus station, meals, activities, English-speaking guide and one night’s accommodation at Hong Luo Shan Zhuang resort. Book through 90 Percent (5962 6850; www.90percenttravel.com