Photo Explorer Tours:
Custom Tours for Independent Photo Explorers
Classic Highlights of China
All photos © Dennis Cox / Photo Explorer Tours x xHuangshan, Li River, Sichuan, Xian and Shanxi; plus Shanghai, Beijing & the Great Wall

This is our most comprehensive China itinerary, the Classic Highlights of China photo tour. This 23-day tour, which can be modified to meet your schedule, includes the misty peaks of magical Huangshan (the Yellow Emperor's Mountain); the Li River and the Longsheng minority nationality area near Guilin; the ancient cities of Xian, Pingyao, and Datong; Sichuan's Jiuzhaigou and Leshan; and the booming cosmopolitan excitement of Shanghai. In addition to a shoot at a remote section of the Great Wall, the Beijing stay will feature the city's most important historical and cultural sites: the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, plus the newly built architecture of the National Grand Theater, Bird's Nest and Water Cube Olympic sites.

A price quote will be determined for this tour, based on the size of your group, which will include domestic flights and all ground transportation, hotels (your choice of mainly 3 to 5 star) selected for both their value and strategic access to photo locations, and most meals in China (including mostly western breakfasts, and possible western dinner upon request). It also includes the services of our English-speaking photo guide throughout the tour, photographer Tiger Li, as well as local guides. Not included are the visa for China, personal expenses, and tips, including to the national guide.

International airfare for this tour is available via Northwest, United, and other trans-Pacific airlines with connections from several U.S. and Canadian cities. To save you money on your air booking, we can provide information on reliable consolidators; or your air can be arranged for you with an added service charge. Optional extensions of the tour can also be made to other areas of China and east Asia, or more time can be added to the stays in Beijing or Shanghai. If you are interested in an optional pre- or post-tour extension, please request a price quote.


All photos © Dennis Cox / Photo Explorer Tours

Classic Highlights of China Itinerary


Arrival in Beijing to be met by our local guide in Beijing and transfered to our accommodation downtown. After the long flight, there may some time to rest in the hotel until the whole group meets up for a trip orientation over a drink in the hotel or the restaurant. Tonight, enjoy a delicious Peking Duck Banquet in an authentic courtyard restaurant. First of three nights at the Crowne Plaza, located in the center of Beijing. Overnight Crowne Plaza Hotel or similar hotel (D)


This Morning, start our visit with photography of the new National Grand Theater which was just finished in June of 2007. The main building of the National Grand Theater consists of an exterior shell, which is a shell in the shape of a half ellipsoid. Most of the shell is covered by titanium panels, and it is broken in the middle by a curtain of glass that opens gradually from top to bottom. After shooting the exterior of the theater, we walk through Tian'anmen square, the largest public square in the world and the symbolic center for China to the south gate of The Forbidden City, and then spend the morning on a guided tour through this vast and magnificent seat of the emperors' power. After lunch, visit the Temple of Heaven, where emperors once prayed for a good harvest, making offerings of grain, silk and animals. Constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), its harmonious proportions and bold colors make it a masterpiece of Chinese architecture. The highlight of the Temple of Heaven is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, built without a single nail. Tonight, have dinner at another local restaurant. If time permits, after dinner, those interested can attend an optional acrobatic performance. (B, L, D)


This morning, depart for an excursion on the Great Wall with a picnic lunch. Though the underlying architecture dates from the Ming Dynasty, the original plan for the Great Wall and some of its construction date back to the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.). After about 2.5 hours driving, arrive at Jinshanling, one of the best places to photograph the Great Wall. Furthermore, there are few tourists here and it provides very good photo opportunities of the Great Wall devoid of people. Arriving back downtown of Beijing, we drive by the Olympic Center of Beijing to photo the two main stadiums of Beijing Olympics, the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube. Bird's Nest or Beijing National Stadium, will be host to the Opening and Closing ceremonies. The Water Cube, or the National Aquatics Centre, will be one of the most dramatic and exciting venues to feature sporting events for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Tonight, if time permits, clients can take a walk to Wangfujing night market next to our hotel. (B, L, D)


Today, we will drive about 5 hours from Beijing to Datong. We depart our hotel in Beijing around 7 am, to avoid rush hour traffic, and head north along the Badaling Expressway. Gradually, we will get into Yanshan Mountains and see other parts of the Great Wall. We will pass Juyongugan Pass, Badaling Great Wall, and get to the northern side of Yanshan Mountain after Badaling tunnel. The Great Wall winds its way on the top of the mountains and will escort us till we get to Datong. Around 12pm, arrive in Datong city, have lunch and check into the hotel before we head out for tje Yungang Grottos. Yungang Grottos were built against the mountain and extend about 1 km (0.62 miles) from east to west. The construction of the caves was started under the auspices of the noted monk Tan Yao in 453 and took 50 years to complete. The 53 grottoes in Yungang Grottos include some 1,000 niches with about 51,000 statues - a treasure-trove of cave art that combines traditional Chinese art forms with foreign influence, particularly Greek and Indian. Tonight, stay in Hong'an International Hotel in Datong. (B, L, D)


Out of Datong, drive to Hengshan, the Northern Mountain of the Five Sacred Mountains. Legend has it that 4,000 years ago when King Shun visited the mountain and saw the lofty peaks, he named it the "Northern Sacred Mountain". During the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC), Emperor Shihuang named 12 famous mountains, and Hengshan was regarded as the "Second Mountain in the World". In ancient times, many emperors and celebrities visited Hengshan and left numerous stone inscribed poems. However, we get to Hengshan for the Hanging monastery (Or Xuankong Temple), which was built 1,400 years ago,and hosts worship for Taoists, Confucians and Buddhists. The temple is hung on the middle of the cliff and is still in perfect condition after so many years. After lunch, drive to Yingxian for the Wooden Pagoda. The real name of the pagoda, located in Fogong (Buddha's Palace) Temple in the northwestern corner of the county town of Yingxian, is Sakyamuni Pagoda. Since it was built completely of timber, it has been known popularly as the Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County. Standing 67.31 meters high, it is the only extant large wooden pagoda in China and also the tallest among ancient wooden buildings of the world. From Yingxian, drive about 3 hours to Pingyao ancient city via Taiyuan, the capital city of Shaxi Province.First of two nighta at the Yunjincheng Hotel (B, L, D)


Pingyao Ancient City is one of the best preserved examples of a walled city center of Shanxi province. The city was at its peak during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the walls and design of Pingyao are typical of the symmetrical layout of cities of the era. The narrow streets, courtyards and rooftops are particularly attractive and are authentic examples of Ming and Qing dynasty (1644-1911) architecture. If the beautiful streets of Pingyao seem familiar it may be because Zhang Yimou's "Raise the Red Lantern" was filmed here. In 1997 it was named as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This morning, drive out of Pingyao ancient town to the south to see an ancient courtyard -- Wangjia Dayuan, the mansion of Wang family. The mansion consists of three large yards and was appraised as the Lesser Forbidden City. Photographing will take all morning before returning to Pingyao. After lunch,take the ancient city tour for the whole afternoon which includes Kuixinglou, the ancient yamun, the old street and the ancient city wall et al. (B, L, D)


This morning, wave goodbye to Pingyao ancient city and drive about 100kms to Taiyuan for our flight CZ6469 (10:40/11:40) to Xian. Xian, the capital of Shaanxi province, was the capital for the Middle Kingdom for over 1,000 years and there is so much history to learn. Our local guide in Xian will meet us and transfer for lunch, then to the famed Terracotta Army, which was made to guard the tomb of Qinshihuang, the first emperor to unite China. This major archaeological discovery consists of three underground vaults containing a collection of nearly 10,000 terracotta figures of warriors and horses, each differing in features and facial expressions. Before dinner, if time permits, we might visit the Muslim quarter. This evening, enjoy a tasty dumpling banquet in an authentic local restaurant. Overnight at the Hyatt Regency (B, L, D)


This morning, arise early for our flight HU7823 (08:00/09:00) to Jiuzhaigou. Upon arrival at Jiuzhaigou airport, we will be met by our local guide and transfer from the 3,440 meters high airport down to Jiuzhaigou valley. Stretching over the northern part of Sichuan in the Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of Aba, the vast expanse of Jiuzhaigou Valley offers spectacular landscapes with alpine features including crystal clear lakes, water falls, snow-capped mountains, and lush forests. Its natural reserve is home to more than 140 species of birds and numerous endangered animals, including the giant panda. The remoteness of the region has so far kept it from becoming a major tourist destination, and the valleys scattered with Tibetan prayer wheels and stupas are a reminder of its strong Tibetan character. This afternoon, take our first visit in Jiuzhaigou to the Long Lake and the other beautiful lakes in the same valley, such as the five-color lakes. First of two nights lodging at the Sheraton Jiuzhaigou (B, L, D)


This morning continue our exploration of Jiuzhaigou with a walk down from Arrow Bamboo Lake, which is known for its open spance and large area of young arrow bamboos. We walk from the side of the lake along the trail into the lush shrubs, where a fantastic view appears of an arc-shaped waterfall with a large span hidden among the bushes. The tranquility and wonderful scenery there belies a land of wonder. While hiking along the trail in the bush, observe a number of small lakes formed by the glacier movement before arriving at the quiet side of Panda Lake. A picnic lunch will be in a meadow near the five-flower lake. After lunch we continue on to Mirror Lake, located at the mouth of Ri Tse Valley. As indicated by its name, the lake has a mirror-like flat surface onto which surrounding scenery -- flowers, grasslands, forests, as well as distant mountains -- is reflected. A walk by the lake will explain a local saying "that birds fly in water while fish swim in the sky." From mirror lake we can either take a local shuttle bus or further hike to Nuorilang Waterfall before returning to our hotel for a rest. (B, L, D)


Today's program starts early. After checking out of the hotel and having breakfast, drive out of Jiuzhaigou and up to Chuanzhusi, retracing the we came the day before. From Chuanzhusi, descend the huge mountains down to Songpan ancient town. Songpan was known as Songzhou Town and was considered the 'West Portal of Sichuan'. Due to its advantageous situation geographically, it functioned as a military base from the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It has recently gained a reputation as one of the most interesting historical towns in Sichuan Province. In Songpan, we can take a stroll on the ancient city wall and explore around the town before we have our lunch in the town. After lunch in Songpan, we continue our 150km/93miles driving to Maoxian. The road also starts to trace downstream following the Min River. However, the road is zigzagging and the scenery is breathtaking all the way. We could see the upper lake and lower lake on our way down. The two lakes were formed by earthquake in 1930s and the landslide simultaneously buried two villages in the valley. In late afternoon, arrive at Maoxian, a must stop place on our way from Jiuzhaigou to Wolong. Overnight Maoxiang Guibinlou (B, L, D)


After checking out and having breakfast, drive 60 km (37 miles) to Taoping Village (Qiang nationality) for lunch and to photograph the local Qiang people and village. Tao Ping is a wonderfully preserved Qiang village of stone and wood, with origins dating back over 2,000 years. Found only in northern Sichuan, the Qiang ethnic group comprises an ancient people who continue to maintain a traditional lifestyle. We will embark on a tour of the village and stop to enjoy afternoon tea and some interesting local snacks, before continuing on to Maoxian, another picturesque town occupied by a Qiang community. After lunch, drive 125km (78 miles) to Wolong Nature Reserve. Established in 1979, and designated as an international biosphere preserve, the reserve has become synonymous with giant pandas. Covering an area of nearly 495,000 acres, this key region, designed mainly to protect and breed pandas, is also home to between 3,000 and 4,000 species of plants. Nowadays, it is no longer possible to view pandas in the wild, but Wolong offers a rare close up look at pandas living close to nature. A guided tour with a Chinese expert follows. During our visit, we will also have a private discussion with one of the directors of the sanctuary, learning about panda protection programs and how the panda is faring in the reserve. The remainder of the day can be spent with the pandas in the nature reserve, including an optional opportunity to take photos or play with the pandas in their enclosure. Overnight Wolong Hotel (B, L, D)


A little more time will be spent photographing the Giant Pandas at the panda sanctuary before departing Wolong and driving 70kms (43.5 miles) to the south to Dujiangyan Irrigation System, a project started in the 3rd century BC to rechannel the Min River into irrigation canals. This ambitious project has contributed to the prosperity of the civilization in the Chengdu Plain. After photographing Dujiangyan Irrigation System, drive for a further 50 km (31 miles) to Chengdu and continue another drive about 150 km by expressway to Leshan. (Since there is not so much to see or photograph in Chengdu, we drive to Leshan directly.) Overnight Shanwan Hotel (B, L, D)


The Leshan Giant Buddha is a statue of Maitreya in sitting posture. The Buddha is located to the east of Leshan City, Sichuan Province, at the confluence of three rivers, namely, Min River, Qingyi River, and Dadu River. Begun in the year 713 in the Tang Dynasty, and finished in the year 803, the statue took people more than 90 years to carve. During these years, thousands of workers had expended their efforts and wisdom on the project. The statue makes itself the most renowned scenic spot in Leshan City. In December, 1996, the location of the Buddha was included by UNESCO on the list of the World Heritage sites. This morning, we drive to the Giant Buddha Park and walk on the trail up to the head of Giant Buddha to photograph at close distance. After lunch in Leshan city, drive 40 km to Mt. Emei. Mt. Emei is like a huge green screen standing in the southwest of the Chengdu Plain. It is the highest one among all the famous sight-seeing mountains in China. Its main peak, the Golden Summit, is 3079.3 meters (10,103 feet) above the sea level, seemingly reaching the sky. Standing on the top of it, you can enjoy the snowy mountains in the west and the vast plain in the east. In 1996 Mt. Emei was enlisted in the world natural and cultural heritage by the UNESCO. This afternoon, ascend up to Mt. Emei by green bus and to shoot the sunset on the top of Jinding, the Golden Summit. It is stunning on sunny days to shoot the clouds sea under your feet with the mountain peaks with white snow on the top in the far west. Overnight at the Jinding Hotel (B, L, D)


Early morning provides the opportunity of photographing the sunrise on the Golden Summit, as well as some free time to explore around before starting the descent of the mountain by cable car first, then green bus, just the reverse of yesterday on our way up. Lunch at the foot of the mountain is in a local restaurant before a visit to Baoguo temple nearby. Baoguo temple is one of the main attractions of Mt. Emei and more about Buddhism can be learned there. After the temple, drive to Chengdu along the expressway to catch our flight 3U8777 (19:50/21:20) to Guilin. Today, dinner is near Chengdu airport. Upon arrival at Guilin, meet our local guide and transfer to accommodations downtown at the Sheraton Guilin (B, L, D)


Guilin is a historical and cultural city as well as a tourist wonderland of world fame. It literally means "cassia tree forest", named for the local cassia trees, whose scent wafts through the city in autumn. The green hills and fields, forests of peculiar pinnacles and the beautiful Li River winding through the city enrich great charm to the city. This morning, we get to Yaoshan for a photo shooting warm up if weather permits, or Yao Mountain in the suburb of Guilin. Yaoshan is the highest mountain around Guilin and a cable chair can be taken up to the top of the mountain. It is quite beautiful to take photos of the karst formed mountains around. After Yaoshan, drive to Longsheng terraced paddies, where we start our gentle hike up to the terraces for more shooting. It is one of the two most amazing terraces in China (the other one is located in Yuanyang, Yunnan province). Now, it covers an area of 66 square kilometers or 16,308 acres and spans an altitude between 300 meters/984 feet and 1100 meters/3608 feet. Spend the restof the day photographing the scenery. Tonight, stay in Lian lodge, the best available hotel in Ping'an Zhuang village. (B, L, D)


The two scenic sites above Ping'an village are the best place for photographing all of the terraces. Spend the whole morning here to photograph around the terrace or the village. About 10 am, we depart here for Guilin and have our late lunch in Guilin today. After lunch, take a city tour in Guilin cityto include the Elephant Trunk hill, which has been regarded as the symbol of the city because of its formation resembling an elephant. Then drive to visit the Reed Flute Cave. Reed Flute Cave is 790 feet deep, and a visitor will walk for some 550 yards through a zigzagging sea of stalactites and stalagmites in dazzling colors and various formations like birds, plants, and animals. It is the largest and most impressive cave in Guilin. Fubo Hill is also a small but nice hill for shooting the entire city of Guilin. After our dinner, we continue our photo shooting of the night view of the city. We will hang along the two lakes for the double pagoda in the Shahu Lake with lights, then to the ancient city gate of Guilin and the bridges on the waters in the city. Overnight at the Sheraton Guilin (B, L, D)


We get up early this morning, check out of the hotel and drive about 1 hour 46kms/28miles to Yangdi Village with box breakfast. Around Yangdi Village, The elegant mountains, winding Li River, dense green bamboos and dotted villages form a beautiful landscape painting and that is great for photography. We will board a local boat in Yangdi and cruise down a little bit down stream to Luanshi Village where the river is wider, we could see the vista with apple hill and the scenery is just like an Ink & Water painting. We stay here for some while for the sunrise.

After the sunrise, we cruise back to Yangdi Village and board our bus then drive about 1.5 hours to Yangshuo for hotel check in after our lunch on the west street.

Yangshuo is a small town but quite well known for its beautiful landscape and nice to walk around. After a short rest in the hotel, we get reloaded and drive to Xingping for photo shooting. Xingping, an old town with history of over 800 years, is one of the best places to shoot the Li River, particularly when all tourist boats gone. We will explore around Xingping town in later afternoon. The bamboo raft with cormorants and fisherman in the sunset is really an expecting scene for us. In the evening, we drive back Yangshuo and have our late dinner. First of two nights at Mountain Retreat (B, L, D)


Today, our photo shooting will focus on the other countryside scenery near Yangshuo at Gaotian and along the Yulong River. In the morning, we get up early and drive a few minutes to Gongnong Bridge where the Yulong River runs through and we can get very impressive sunrise photo shooting in the morning if weather permits. Then, we can get up to the Moon hill for the birds' eye view of the mountains around Gaotian area. The villages nestle down the steep hills are also very charming as well. Late afternoon, we will come back here again for sunset if weather permits. The hotel we stay is located right on the Yulong River and hanging around the Li River would give us some surprise shots. This evening, after dinner, we provide an optional performance directed by Zhang Yimou, named Impression of Liusanjie. (B, L, D)


Early morning drive to Xingping for another opportunity to shoot the amazingly beautiful scenery there before the tourist boats come down the Li River. Different time, different shots. We depart Yangshuo for Guilin airport for our flight MU5380 (13:25/15:30) to Shanghai Hongqiao airport. Then we drive from Hongqiao airport to Pudong airport for our flight FM9256 (20:35/21:45) with a dinner stop on the way. Upon arrival in Huangshan city, meet our local guide and transfer to the hotel. NOTE: There is no flight from Guilin to Huangshan. The only way is to fly to Shanghai then take connecting flight to Huangshan. There is also only one flight from Shanghai to Huangshan and it is in the evening. The same as the flight from Huangshan to Shanghai. Overnight Hongta Hotel (B, L, D)


We can start our tour a little bit late this morning since it is a long day yesterday. After breakfast in the hotel, we board on bus and transfer for the ancient village Hongcun. Hongcun Village is located at the foot of the southwest side of Mt. Huangshan, only 11 kilometers away from Yixian town. It is a unique, buffalo-shaped ancient village. The whole village is measured to be 30 hectares, it is bedded at Mt. Leigang, facing Nanhu Lake. The village is very representative one of ancient traditional village in Jiangnan region. We will spend the whole morning to explore the village till lunch time. After lunch, we drive to the cable car station of Huangshan and take cable car ascend the mountain. After check into the hotel, we start our exploration on Huangshan. Huangshan, known as "the loveliest mountain of China", was acclaimed through art and literature during a good part of Chinese history (the Shanshui "mountain and water" style of the mid-16th century). Today it holds the same fascination for visitors, poets, painters and photographers who come in pilgrimage to this enchanting site, renowned for its magnificent scenery made up of many granite peaks and rocks emerging out of a sea of clouds. We will shoot the sunset at Paiyunting in the afternoon and better to get there earlier to get better location for our cameras.Note:Since we will just stay on the top of Huangshan for one night, we could leave other luggage in the hotel in Huangshan city and pick them up on our way for Shanghai. Overnight Xihai Hotel (B, L, D)


This morning, get up early for the sunrise around Shixinfeng, which is a few kilometers away from our hotel. After the sunrise, walk back to the hotel for breakfast and then go out to explore around Huangshan until check out time for departure in the afternoon. Our driver will meet us at the foot of Huangshan and drive us back to Huangshan city. If time permits, explore around the old town of Huangshan city before our dinner. After dinner, we transfer to the airport for flight FM9266 (22:40/23:40) to Shanghai. Upon arrival at Shanghai Pudong airport, be met by our local guide and transfer to our hotel. First of two nights in the Jinjiang Tower (B, L, D)


Shanghai, the largest city in China, is a wonderful place for shooting photos. Start with Fuxing Park, a small but lovely park in the French concession, surrounded with skyscrapers. Every morning, people come here for morning exercise, like dancing, Taichi, singing or even practicing calligraphy with giant brushes using water on the sidewalks, a very vivid scene of metropolitan life. After the park, drive to visit the Shanghai Museum and Urban Exhibition Center on People's Square in the center of Shanghai. A large museum of ancient Chinese art, the museum's style and presentation surround visitors with artifacts demonstrating ancient wisdom and philosophy. Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center sits nearby and offers a wonderful brief review of the development of Shanghai. A late lunch is in the restaurant near Yu Garden, the only ancient neighborhood surviving in Shanghai. There is some free time to explore around the neighborhood before getting on the bus to drive to the Bund. Tonight, enjoy our farewell dinner in the restaurant in the historic Peace Hotel, where a beautiful night view of the Bund can be enjoyed. After our dinner, our tour winds up by shooting the brilliant night views of the Bund, the meeting place of modern sky scrapers and classic European style buildings. (B, L, D)


Transfers to the airport for flights back home. (B)

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May all your journeys be care free,

And may all your days be filled with wonder. 

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