One thing you learn quickly about traveling in China is that paradoxically the closer you get to the date you want to travel, the cheaper tickets get. So, unless it’s spring festival, it’s good to keep your options open. And so my options are open, still, if narrowed down a bit for my travels post-Hangzhou and pre-Beijing:
Fly into Chengdu. That’s the location of the Panda Research Center and also the largest city near the earthquake that happened yesterday in Sichuan province. I would make my way into Northern Sichuan through Songpan with a visit to the Jiuzhaigou U.N.-designated Biosphere Nature Reserve. Then up across the border into Gansu province where I’d try to hit up the likes of Langmusi, a horse trekking locale, and Xiahe, a somewhat famous Tibetan village that serves as a stop on the pilgrimage to Tibet itself. From Xiahe, I’d have to stop in Lanzhou to hookup with the transportation hub. If I have time for an extension of the trip, I can take a 24 hour train from Lanzhou to Urumqi, which is in Xinjiang province. No trip to Xinjiang would be complete without another 24 hours to Kashgar, THE Asia market trading hub for thousands of years. I would fly back from Urumqi to Beijing.
Fly into Beijing and drop off the majority of my belongings at where I’m staying. Then find a ten hour train to Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. From there, I would visit various grassland villages and stay in yurt-style furnishings of Mongolian culture. I also might make a special Mongolian festival if I hit the timing right. This trip would be a bit more calm and relaxed since I wouldn’t have planes to catch and places to be. Inner Mongolia is considerably closer and easier to reach than Xinjiang.
This is a minor combination of options one and two. Fly into Lanzhou and do a small trip to visit Xiahe or some Tibetan villages in Gansu. Then take the train back to Beijing via Inner Mongolia being sure to stop in hotspots like Hohhot and the grasslands.
These three options are made possible by Lonely Planet, without which I wouldn’t really know what is in these places. That said, my opinion of Lonely Planet has changed quite a bit as of late. Over spring break, I traveled Taiwan (almost) entirely without any sort of guide. A few friendly emails with suggestions from friends and family and a quick peek at a book at a hostel to help with hiking Taroko Gorge outside Hualien. I realize it’s easy to just follow the book. It gives a feeling of independence without having to have a guided tour with thirty other Chinese tourists. That said, Lonely Planet is not the end all be all. It puts you in the right place to have a baseline good experience and helps manage your expectations. That last part is key, if you have expectations for a place and they are met or surpasses, then your on track to travel well.