How to see China the real way

Locally based travel companies to give you the inside track

Beijing Hikers
Best known for its thrice-weekly day trips out into the wilds around Beijing, this small, friendly company also organises expeditions further afield. From deserts and mountains to grasslands and forests, it offers hiking-focused tours throughout China’s diverse landscapes, with accommodation in three or four-star hotels and guesthouses.

You needn’t be an intrepid mountaineer to join them but, as travellers will typically be trekking three to six hours a day, you’ll need to be in reasonable shape. The five-day ‘Zhangye Danxia Landform’ tour (from Dhs5,330 per person, includes flights from Beijing, land transfers, accommodation, entrance tickets and most meals) explores a Han-dynasty section of the Great Wall, temples built into a cliff face, cave murals and the coloured mountains of a little-explored area of Gansu province.

CCC Travel
As the travel division of the China Culture Center (CCC, a space in Beijing offering Chinese culture classes), CCC Travel specialises in cultural journeys around China and the rest of Asia. Guests normally sleep in four-star local boutiques or are given the chance to experience homestays in local communities. The company aims to pick guides that are experienced educators with good English, to help travellers get under the surface of Chinese customs and history. The four-day ‘Southeast Guizhou’ tour (from Dhs3,705, includes flights from Beijing, transport, meals and accommodation) takes travellers into the mountains and valleys of the Yungui plateau, where they’ll explore its karst peaks, hike through rice terraces and enjoy a homestay with Miao villagers – a minority famous for the stunning silver headdresses.

China Highlights
Founded in 1998 by a former CITS (China International Travel Service) guide who realised that more and more tourists wanted to get off the tour bus and explore for themselves, China Highlights has many years of experience offering tailor-made tours for foreigners. The company deals with more than 10,000 clients a year and has a wide selection of tour packages all over the country, but specialises in customising trips according to individual requirements.

Almost every travel company offers a trip to the karst peaks of Guilin with bamboo rafting down the Li River, but China Highlights’ five-day ‘Guilin the Tour with More’ package (from Dhs2,202, includes flights from Beijing, transfers, four-star accommodation, meals and entrance fees) is packed with additional highlights. This includes a visit to the houseboat of a local fisherman, lessons in tea-making from Yao minority villagers at the famous Dragon Back rice terraces and guides leading you up Laozai Mountain in the early morning to get that perfect shot of the peaks in the mist.

China Minority Travel
Run by Henriette Buist, a Dutch woman who has lived in China for 16 years, China Minority Travel focuses on treks out to, and emersions in, rural communities. Based out of Dali, Yunnan, this travel agency has particular expertise in southern China, especially Yunnan, but also offers a selection of overland Tibet trips and tours of China’s cities. Trips are all tailor-made and accommodation is with local families or in boutique-style hotels built in traditional style.

Setting off from Baoshan Stone Village, a charming collection of cottages set on a cliff near Lijiang, the five-day ‘Lugu Lake trek’ (Dhs2,570, excludes flights from Beijing, transport to Baoshan and from Lugu, but includes accommodation and meals) traverses mountainous scenery in the remote north of Yunnan to reach the province’s highest lake at 2,685 metres. Guests stay in the homes of Pumi, Mosuo, Naxi, Yi minorities on route.

Country Holidays
One of the longest-running groups to offer tailor-made tours in China, the Beijing and Shanghai-based Country Holidays started off specialising in trekking trips in the Himalayas. Today, the company offers high-end, private, culture and adventure trips throughout Asia and beyond (even including the Arctic and Antarctica) and covers a wide selection of Chinese provinces.

Fancy seeing the Silk Road on two wheels? Country Holiday’s eight-day ‘Xinjiang Biking Adventure’ (from Dhs14,632, includes flights from Beijing, accommodation, meals, transport, bikes and entrance fees) has you exploring China’s last frontier by bike and by horse. From Urumqi, you’ll ride to the ruins of a 2,000-year-old city and see the old bazaar and mosque in the oasis of Turpan. At Yining near the border with Kazakhstan, you’ll pass by meadows and lakes, visit Kazak nomads in their felt yurts and meet members of the Xibo minority. Trucks with mechanics and back-up bikes are provided and, at the end, travellers are treated to a foot massage.

Eco Action
The brainchild of Luo Peng, a major in ornithology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who has a background in working in environmental NGOs, Eco Action organises small group and private trips across China. Focused on nature and wildlife, their trips are often led by PHD students with expertise in the field. Eco Action is a supporter of responsible travel, meaning their trips are also designed to benefit the host community. Five percent of the payment for each trip goes towards non-profit projects for the benefit of conservation and local communities.

If you want your encounter with China’s most famous mammal to be more than just a quick, point-and-shoot of your camera, consider booking a space on the seven-day ‘Ya’an Giant Panda’ trip (from Dhs7,259, excludes flights, but includes accommodation, meals and transport). As well as spending a couple of days volunteering at the Ya’an Bifengxia Giant Panda Center in Sichuan, where you’ll come into close contact with baby pandas as they feed. There’s also a chance to track pandas in the wild, as you stay overnight and trek through the stunning scenery of Liziping Nature Reserve. The trip includes a homestay in nearby Haiyun county, where your hosts will teach you to forage for mushrooms and bamboo shoots.

Wild China
Wild China’s story began on the slopes of Tibet’s Mount Kailash. Despite the breathtaking views, Yunnan native and company founder Mei Zhang found herself disappointed by how little support there was for travellers to get off the beaten path in China and so decided to start her own travel business offering high-end trips to China’s most remote and unique destinations. Wild China provides customised private journeys and small group journeys led by experts with specialised knowledge. Accommodation ranges from five-star hotels to elegant boutiques and ‘glamping’ (luxury camping) experiences.

New for 2014, the 16-day ‘Western Jaunts’ group journey (from Dhs21,631, excludes flights to and from Lhasa, includes all land transport, some meals and accommodation) takes travellers to Tibet’s far West, a land of snow-capped peaks, crystal blue lakes and isolated monasteries. Setting off from the capital Lhasa, they’ll walk in the steps of generations of Buddhist, Jain, Bön and Hindu pilgrims to the sacred Mount Kailash, see the canyons and ancient temples of the Guge Kingdom and camp under the stars of the Tibetan plateau.

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