[an error occurred while processing this directive]
If you expect the same reception in China that you've had in other countrieswelcoming, but nothing over the topyou might be in for a surprise. Here, the traditional relationship between tourist and local sometimes gets turned delightfully on its head: A Chinese couple might ask if they can snap your photo.
Even in big cities, passersby might gather for no other reason than to watch you make a purchase. It may have been 700 years since Marco Polo poked around China, yet in its own way, the country still feels unexplored. It's hard to imagine this openness lasting forever, which makes a compelling case for visiting soon.
All prices in U.S. dollars
Hong Kong to Shanghai Circuit
Start in Hong Kong for a trip that includes the limestone landscapes of Guilin as well as the Yangtze River. The onetime British colony feels both foreign and familiar, so it's a good place to decompress for a few days.
Take a jet-boat ferry to Guangzhou (three hours), then catch an overnight train to Guilin. Exploring the area's otherworldly peaks is like walking into a Chinese painting. Base yourself in Yangshuo, a backpacker hangout an hour's bus ride away.
If you like to climb, try Moon Hill, a rock arch with panoramic views. Contact China Climb (www.chinaclimb.com) for guides.
From Guilin, an overnight train will take you via Guiyang to Chongqing, the launching point for trips down the Yangtze River. A boat ride to Yichang takes three days, but don't surround yourself with other Westerners on a luxury ship; take a budget Chinese ferry.
Spend the night in Yichang, then take a bus to Wuhan and catch the overnight train to Shanghai. Wall and Warriors Circuit
For history and the outdoors, start in Beijing, well worth several days or more. Take a day trip by bus to hike atop the Great Wall, but avoid the masses in Badaling. Instead, hike a remote stretch at Huanghua; you'll be undisturbed for hours among the ancient towers and ramparts. For nightlife, hit the expat bars along Sanlitun Street, near Workers' Stadium.
From Beijing, take an overnight train to Xi'an, a walled city full of architectural and archaeological marvels, including the 2,200-year-old Terra Cotta Warriors.
Now catch an overnight train to Nanjing, the former Ming Dynasty capital. The next day, take a bus ten hours to Huangshan, whose peaks have inspired artists for centuries. A cable car runs to the 6,200-foot [1,900-meter] summit, but there's no glory in riding. A hike up the easier of two trails can be done in several hours.
Be sure to spend a night or two on the summit; there are dorm beds at Shilin Fandian. From Huangshan, travel to Shanghai on an overnight train TWO-MONTH ITINERARIES
With two months, many travelers can experience the best of the northern and southern circuits. From Beijing, make your way to Xi'an; then take an overnight train southwest to Chengdu, Sichuan's capital, and watch pandas wrestle at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base.
An all-day bus ride north will get you to Jiuzhaigou, a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site that offers miles of hiking trails past waterfalls and turquoise lakes and into Tibetan villages. Back in Chengdu, take an overnight train to Panzhihua and catch the bus to Lijiang. Then it's one more bus to the laid-back town of Dali, a longtime backpacker favorite.
Ethnically diverse Kunming, 12 hours away by bus, is also worth a stop. From there, take a train (or fly) east to Guilin and join the Hong Kong to Shanghai circuit. East Meets West Circuit
For an exploration of China's civilized east and its wilder west, the cross-country journey to Tibet is ideal. (April to October is prime time.) Head to Xi'an, where you'll have your pick of two routes to Lhasa: an overnight train to Chengdu, then a flight to Lhasa; or the scenic but grueling overland routea train from Xi'an to Golmud, with changes in Lanzhou and Xining (two days), then a 36-hour bus ride.
Be aware that highway breakdowns are as common as great alpine views, and some travelers carry oxygen to fight altitude sickness. Once in Lhasa, where outfitters abound, you're at the gateway to world-class trekking.
Note: Travel in Tibet is heavily regulated; before you enter the province, you're required to register with an accredited travel agency, such as China International Travel Service (www.cits.net), for a group tour. But once you arrive, you can travel independently. Non-trekkers often stay in Lhasa a few days and then fly back to Chengdu to explore southern China. ONE-YEAR ITINERARY
Go Local Circuit
To get the most out of your travels, you'll need to speak the language. Begin in September with a four-month Mandarin course at the Beijing Language and Culture University ($1,300; www.blcu.edu.cn/eblcu.htm). By graduation, you'll be ready to drink beer in Qingdao, eat dumplings in Shanghai, and sip tea in Xiamen as you train-hop south.
After a shopping fling in Hong Kong, swing northwest in springtime to the hill tribes, tea plantations, and river cruises of Guangxi, Yunnan, and Sichuan. From Chengdu, a plane ride puts you in Tibet for the trekking season, which begins in May.
By the time the late June rains hit, you'll be far away in the Silk Road city of Kashgar. From there, you can explore the Taklimakan Desert or return to Beijing and catch a train north to explore the Mongolian Steppe.
India and Nepal >>