China 2 week itinerary into the wild: discover the best national parks of hidden gay China

Legends have told of wild China since the early Chinese dynasties when its forested landscapes and misted peaks created tales of eternal life and the powers of ancient gods. It is said that when a jealous devil forced goddess Wunosemo to drop her magic mirror from heaven, the mirror fell to earth and shattered, becoming the myriad shimmering lakes of Jiuzhaigou, now a prized UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, developing at unbelievable speed, China can seem like the most high-tech place in the world, at odds with its conservative authorities. Besides the fast-tempo financial centre of Shanghai and the cultural heart of Beijing however, China is a nation of rural delights, best discovered by hopping between its 225 national parks, where towering karsts, epic lakes and wild pandas await.

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Huangshan Mountains | Photo: Joshua Earle

LGBTQ+ Travellers in China

Though homosexuality was made legal in the 1990s, it remains true to say that China and LGBTQ rights do not go hand in hand. On the contrary, the Chinese government opposes the advancement of LGBT people in the country, refusing to recognise same-sex couples and going as far as to ban gay people from becoming social media influencers in the worry that – god forbid – others may be influenced. Freedom of expression is not a privilege granted to citizens and China’s censorship laws are often stretched to cover LGBT-related content. This means that while there is no strong legal opposition to LGBT rights, the attitude remains one of ‘don’t encourage, don’t discourage, don’t promote’ and this can mean that even gay-friendly organisations will censor themselves to avoid government scrutiny.

Nevertheless, politics is not a common topic of conversation for the average citizen and greater tolerance exists for LGBT people among individuals. In the major cities especially, LGBT China and gay nightlife is easily found and socialising on dating apps common. You should feel safe to book a double room and explore the country freely regardless of orientation though holding hands in public could garner some eyebrow raises and unwanted attention. Here our 2-week guide to gay travel China refers only the mainland and it should be noted that Hong Kong, Macau and the rogue state of Taiwan are all markedly more liberal in their attitudes towards the queer community, particularly Taiwan, the first Asian nation to legalize gay marriage in 2019.

Photo: Road Trip with Raj

Photo: Thai An

When to go to China

Covering a vast 9.6 million square kilometres, China offers a diversity of climates. From the chilly mountain regions near Tibet to the Guilin Province in the subtropical south, China sees all of the weather all at once. In general, both spring and fall are the best seasons to visit, between the months of April to May and September to October respectively. The busiest time across the country is during the summer vacation period (July to August) and over festive holidays such as Chinese New Year which falls around February in line with the lunar calendar. This is high season and, in a country of 1.4 billion vacationers, we highly suggest you avoid it! Other high seasons include early May and October when travel prices are hiked and crowds are likely.

The long rainy season in southern areas is also a time to avoid, often lasting from April until August. Towards the north meanwhile, winter winds rolling in from Siberia and the Himalayas make December and January particularly icy, and spring closures in Tibet should also be worked around. With all that in mind, consider wrapping up warm and travelling in the off-season early or late in the winter. By doing this you can take advantage of fewer crowds, lower ticket prices and cheaper accommodation.

Guilin Li River | Photo: Maria Teresa Martínez

Travel tips

One of the things to know before going to China is that most of you will need a visa to get here. Citizens of the US, UK, EU and Canada must apply for a tourist visa via the Chinese embassy in their home country, while the lucky people from Brunei, Japan and Singapore (along with 14 other countries) don’t need any paperwork at all. The Chinese government does not recognise dual nationality, however.

Another important thing to bear in mind is the fact of internet control. While the most obvious banned service is Facebook, there are many other sites and social media platforms restricted and accessible only with a VPN. Mandarin is the official language across China but dialects are not uncommon to hear in both cities and rural regions. English is not widely spoken outside of the cities however and so having a fair understanding of where you’re going and how to get there before leaving your hotel (with a location written in Chinese) is sure to be helpful.

One of the biggest travel complaints is large of crowding in beauty spots, particularly during vacation season when mobs of locals descend on top sites such as the Great Wall or the prettier beaches. Bear this in mind and start your day earlier than the crowds, aiming to reach the best attractions before 11 am or start later, around 3 pm, to beat the hordes.

Photo: Max Ilienerwise

Jiuzhaigou | Photo: Playon

1. Huangshan National Park — the Legendary Yellow Mountains

Over in Anhui Province lies our first look at China’s unique natural world, made famous by Huangshan (or the Yellow Mountains China), one of the nation’s five great mountains home to rugged landscapes bathed in cloud and winter snow. Noted by UNESCO and visited by millions each year, the Huangshan National Park is best seen at sunrise and sunset when its peaks change colour in the dimpsy light. As well as pine forests and sky vistas, the park also holds much cultural importance since the time of the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century. According to legend, the summit held the secret to immortality and attracted the attention of many, including poets, artists and Ming Dynasty painters, throughout the centuries. Though the granite peaks distract attention, the entire park is worthy of exploration, comprising 150 square kilometres and all types of rare wildlife, such as Asiatic wild dogs, grey wolves and spotted eagles.

Having arrived from Hangzhou by coach (3 hours), or directly from Huangshan City to the main gate (1 hour), save at least 2 days to hike the main trail or many of the smaller trails below, taking in anthropomorphic rock formations, vast gorges and cloudscapes passing over the land. Though summer has the best weather, we recommend the quieter winter months to avoid queueing along the narrow passes towards the top attractions such as the Welcoming Guest Pine. Other routes up the mountain include the three cableways and a monorail allowing for non-hikers to reach the viewpoint restaurants and mountain-top hotels with ease. To enter the park you’ll need to pay an entry fee of $40 USD in high season and $25 in low season.

Huangshan Mountains | Photo: Joshua Earle

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The most esteemed of China national parks and a global wonder is the Wulingyuan Scenic Area with its famed floating pillars within the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park

2. Wulingyuan Scenic Area— Zhangjiajie's Precipitous Pillars

The most esteemed of China national parks and a global wonder is the Wulingyuan Scenic Area with its famed floating pillars within the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Chances are you’ve seen photos of these lofty pillars before (or caught sight of them in the movie Avatar), but nothing beats seeing them up close alongside the gorges, ravines and waterfalls that make the park so popular. Also known as Avatar Mountain China, the 3,000 quartz-sandstone columns here dominate the landscape, created by a long-ago expansion of ice and thousands of years of erosion thereafter, and are awe-inspiring from any angle. Other attractions in the area include caves, forests and various mountain peaks accessible via countless hiking routes, but the summer favourite is rafting along rivers such as the Maoyan.

As always, avoid the holiday season but do consider summer and fall, popular times for clear skies and fall foliage respectively. Winter, while more cloudy, has its own charm thanks to snow-covered peaks veiled in mist. Regardless of when you visit, enter via the town of Zhangjiajie or Suoxiyu where a number of good hotels can be found, staying for three days to explore the main attractions within the park. Tickets into the park cost $40 USD, plus extra if you wish to ride the cableways. If time allows, make sure to visit the nearby Suoxiyu Natural Resource Reserve and the Tianzi Mountain Natural Resource Reserve for more epic landscapes.

Zhangjiajie | Photo: Robynne Hu

Zhangjiajie, Hunan | Photo: LaputaZ

3. Guilin Li River National Park — Karst Landscapes

More rocky wonders lie this time within Guilin Li River National Park, stretching through the land from Guilin to Yangshuo, along the Lijiang River. Renowned for its beauty since before the Song Dynasty of the 10th century, this southern China attraction is distinct for its river cruises passing karst caves, towering columns and overhanging forests. The top sites along the way are the Reed Flute Cave with its ancient rock carvings and the Qin Dynasty-era Lingqu Canal built as far back as the 3rd century, giving it the title of the world’s oldest operating canal. Travel along the serene Li River noting the karsts’ reflections in the crystal waters while enjoying a buffet lunch, before moving to dry land for hiking and trekking adventures.

Try Elephant Trunk Hill, Peak Forest or Green Lotus Peak for a challenge, or explore the flatter grounds of Xingping Ancient Town at the foot of the mountains. As well as cruising, another way to see the river is via bamboo raft, stopping at any of the humble farmer restaurants at the river’s edge for a bite to eat. Unlike many of China’s national park’s, Guilin River Park is free to enter, offering a good selection of hotels in Guilin and Yangshuo, or more modest accommodations in Xingping and along the river. Stay for one or two days to take in the main sights, all oddly named for their worldly resemblances; including Nine Horse Fresco Hill, Yellow Cloth Shoal and 20-Yuan-Bill Hill.

Guilin Li River | Photo: Zhimai Zhang

Guilin Li River | Photo: Zhimai Zhang

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Jiuzhaigou National Park, otherwise known as the ‘Land of Fairytales’, is the pièce de résistance of Sichuan Province, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and hosting as many as 108 lakes, 3 waterfall groups and all kinds of endangered flora and fauna across the Rize, Zechawa and Shezung Valleys

4. Jiuzhaigou National Park — Multicolored Mountain Lakes

Jiuzhaigou National Park, otherwise known as the ‘Land of Fairytales’, is the pièce de résistance of Sichuan Province, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and hosting as many as 108 lakes, 3 waterfall groups and all kinds of endangered flora and fauna across the Rize, Zechawa and Shezung Valleys. Spanning 720 square kilometres, Jiuzhaigou actually translates as the not-so-catchy ‘Valley of the Nine Fortified Villages’, in recognition of the historical sites still inhabited today. All but closed to outsiders until the 1970s, Jiuzhaigou retains an untouched feel, home to extraordinary species such as the snub-nosed monkey, giant panda and Sichuan takin which live across the mountains and woodlands that cover the park.

Most famed of all are the colourful lakes which can be found in the high-altitude valleys hidden among the forested slopes coming down from snowy peaks. Allow one day for travelling to the park – accessible via flight or 8-hour bus ride from Chengdu – making use of the park roads served by public buses to reach the centre of the park. Be prepared for altitudes of over 3,000 meters in the upper valleys, or remain at the lower levels to appreciate the Tibetan villages dotted about. Fall is said to be the most beautiful season to view the lakes when the foliage surrounding turns deep red and orange, but snowfall in winter makes the valleys largely off-limits thereafter. For the best amenities, stay two nights at the hotels around the park gate or take a gamble within for simpler guest houses amid inspiring landscapes. Ticket prices are around $50 USD, plus $12 for the handy 2-day bus pass.

Jiuzhaigou National Park | Photo: Rosalind Chang

5. Lijiang Yulong Xueshan National Park — with Tiger Leaping Gorge

Anglicised as ‘Jade Dragon Snow Mountain’, you can already guess the Lijiang Yu Long Xueshan National Park is a destination set to impress. The main mountain here peaks at 5,596 meters and is best reached via the popular Tiger Leaping Gorge over to the mountain’s west side. If you brave the 30-kilometre gorge hike (starting 40 kilometres north of Lijiang on the G214 road) you’ll be rewarded with views of glaciers and the Yangtze river crashing through the gorge below. This hike, hard as it is, is well laid-out for tourists, offering day-visit facilities as well as oxygen, shops and hostels on-site. Otherwise, for an easier time of it, reach the park’s gate 15 kilometres north of Central Lijiang where the tram awaits to take you up to the glacier park at an altitude of 4,500 meters. Stay in Lijiang and do the main hike over two days, allowing time to also explore the Jade Dragon Mountain. February to June is considered the best time to visit but Yunnan is pretty fun all year round, excluding those pesky Chinese holidays when crowds get crazy. Expect to pay $30 USD for snow mountain (eco transport included) and an additional $12 for Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Mount Yulong, Lijiang | Photo: Jon Geng

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Guilin Li River | Photo: Sam Beasley

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