When traveling around China, one of the primary complaints I hear from tourists has to do with the large China crowds and too many people. Not only has foreign tourism in China grown at a rapid pace, so has domestic tourism and with a population of more than 1.4 billion people…that’s a lot of tourists!
Is it even possible to avoid these large China crowds everywhere you go?
Thankfully, it is. If you plan on traveling to China and want to enjoy some piece and quiet, or perhaps you want to take some photos that don’t have thousands of people in them, take a few minutes to read through these China travel tips that can help you avoid the throngs of tourists that descend upon China’s tourist destinations each year.
1. Walk or Hike Beyond the Primary Tourist Spot
Chinese tourism is an interesting beast that looks nothing like the western tourism that we know. Chinese tourists value photos over experiences and group travel over independent travel.
In many cases, Chinese tour groups arrive at a particular tourist destination for the sole purpose of taking a picture at a designated spot – be it an historic building (or a weird building) or beautiful scenery. Rarely do these tourists wander far from their bus, their group or the main path.
Worth Reading: Should I even consider joining a tour group in China?
Getting away from this large group of people is often as simple as just walking or hiking deeper into a particular location. Don’t be afraid to wander off the beaten path because in China you’ll often be rewarded with something few tourists find: peace and quiet.
Example: Xinjiang’s Heavenly Lake is a popular destination for tourists to western China, but it’s usually crammed with tour groups. Thankfully, it is possible to hike the entire shore of the lake in an hour or two and in so doing you’ll find yourself completely alone to enjoy the scenery!
2. Arrive Very Early or Late to Avoid China Crowds
As a photographer, I’m prone to want to visit any destination in China either early in the morning or late at night when the light is at its best. I’ve also noticed another benefit to these times of day: there are very few tourists around.
Most tourists don’t want to wake up very early while they’re on vacation and tour operators know they can’t corral a group of people that early in the morning. What happens is that most China travel destinations don’t start getting busy until 11am or later, enough time for tourists to see the site and then break for lunch.
If you arrive right when the gates open (for traditional tour sites) or at sunrise (for scenic spots), you’ll beat out 95% of the big crowds. The same goes for staying late into the evening. There might be a little bit of sacrifice involved (i.e. Having to hire a driver or waking up extra early), but it’s a sure fire way to avoid the Chinese crowds.
Example: Walking the Great Wall of China is an amazing experience but visitors are often met with crowds of thousands of people who want to do the same thing. Hiring a driver to transport you early in the morning means you might get a good portion of the Great Wall all to yourself.
3. Ditch the Lonely Planet (or whatever travel guide you use)
China loves to spend lots of money developing their tourist destinations to be fantastic, carnival-like experiences. Chinese tourists would much rather visit a re-built version of an old city than to see the original old walls in their crumbling glory.
This can be fun – I won’t lie – but it also ends up feeling like a somewhat phony travel experience.
In many cases, it is possible to search around, talk with locals or hire a local driver to take you to a more “authentic” version of what you want to visit. If you’re like me, you’ll probably enjoy these places and your memory of visiting them so much more.
Ditch your travel guide, which 95% of the time will send you to the popular sites that are built for tourism, and go searching on your own a bit. Ask a local taxi driver what he thinks and give that a try. You’ll probably find yourself one of the few tourists there and if you’re lucky, you’ll find a treasure to remember.
Photo courtesy HarbinIce
Example: Shanghai is known for its vibrant architecture and tea culture. Most travel guides tell you to visit the old Yuyuan Gardens, which are admittedly quite fun…but also FULL of people. Instead, wander around the old neighborhoods nearby to get a feel for the authentic Shanghai.
Read More: What are the best China travel guide books?
4. Visit China During the “Off Season”
Like most any location around the world, there is usually a tourism season and an “off season”. In China, there’s also the major travel holidays like National Day and May Holiday.
If at all possible, try to avoid the travel and holiday seasons in China.
Don’t travel during the beginning of May or October and consider the early or late winter months as a possibility. Not only will you be avoiding the China crowds, there are also some added benefits such as:
- Lower ticket prices: most travel destinations will have separate pricing for on- and off-seasons.
- Different pictures: imagine a picture of the Forbidden City with a layer of snow on it. It’s not the typical photo that tourists come home with, so yours will be unique!
- Cheaper hotels: hotels are usually much cheaper in the off-season, which means that you could upgrade yourself to a nicer hotel in Beijing for the same price!
I realize that many people won’t like this particular tip since it requires either a change in travel plans or a sacrifice in personal comfort. It’s the “off-season” for a reason! That said, you could save significant money while avoiding tourists in this way.
Example: I once took a trip in early December to see the Terra-cotta Warriors in Xi’an. The weather was cold but there was practically nobody else at the museum. I was able to take my time and slowly soak in the beauty of this amazing historical discovery (oh, and it was all indoors so I wasn’t that uncomfortable either).
Read More: When is the best season to visit China?
5. Travel Away from the Coastal Cities
The further west you travel, the fewer tourists you’ll run into. Places like Gansu, Xinjiang, Qinghai and Inner Mongolia (to name a few) are home to incredible history (i.e. Silk Road ruins), fascinating ethnic cultures (i.e. Mongol, Hui, Uyghur, etc.) and breathtaking scenery.
These places take time and planning to visit, though, which is why many tourist groups don’t head further inland.
Definitely take time in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Kunming, Chengdu or Xi’an…but if you have the time and budget, venture further out to explore these lesser-known Chinese regions.
Example: The Gansu city of Dunhuang won’t be part of most Chinese travel itineraries, but it’s still a fascinating place to visit. Not only can you experience the Mogao Caves, where the world’s oldest written text – the Diamond Sutra – was discovered, you can also ride a camel along some of the most picturesque sand dunes!
6. Don’t Travel to China
Ha! Bet you weren’t expecting this one 😉
It’s true, though. If big crowds aren’t your thing and you get claustrophobic just standing in an elevator, China might not be a good travel option for you. Even if you’re able to avoid the crowds at tourism destinations, you’ll still have to worry about crowded subways, restaurants, airports…pretty much everywhere.
You either need to prepare your mind to handle the big crowds or consider travel to another country in Asia.
Example: Depending on what you want to see, change things up a bit. Consider some other great southeast Asia destinations such as Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam or Myanmar.
Conclusion | Traveling & Avoiding China Crowds
China has a LOT of people – there’s no getting around this fact. Avoiding crowds altogether is practically impossible.
If, however, you’re willing to change things up a bit and try a few of these China travel tips, it is entirely possible that you can significantly improve your experience of travel around China.
My final piece of advice: don’t avoid Chinese people, just avoid the Chinese crowds. The locals you meet will usually be very friendly and more than willing to help you. I’ve been invited into many homes during my travels by locals I meet on the street!
Do you have any recommendations on how to avoid big crowds while traveling in China? Why don’t you share them with our community in the comments section below!