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! Here’s how you can avoid the Chinese crowds as you travel.
Chinese tourist crowds are a growing problem, this much is for sure. Whether it’s shoulder-to-shoulder visitors to the Great Wall of China or some beautiful China beaches that have so many people you can’t see the sand.
Is it even possible to avoid large China crowds as you travel around the country?
Thankfully, it is. If you plan on traveling to China, perhaps you want to enjoy some piece and quiet, or you want to take some photos that don’t have thousands of people in them.
Either way, 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.
Tip #1: Walk or Hike Away from China Crowds
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 beautiful scenery.
Rarely do these China crowds wander far from their bus, their group or the main path.
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!
Tip #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 China 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.
Tip #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.
Getting a good China travel guide book can be valuable for your trip, but in some cases they do nothing more than tell you where the most popular sites are and what it costs to visit them. Wouldn’t it be better to find something that will teach you how to travel to China on your own? 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.
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.
Tip #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 (for dates, see the 2020 China Holiday Schedule).
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 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 Terracotta 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).
Tip #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!
Tip #6: Don’t Travel to China At All!
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. Avoiding China 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!
Hi Josh, Thanks for sharing! These are Some interesting tips though I don’t think I’ll be able to follow some, like not travel during Golden Week (I have a week off and I will take advantage, crowds or no crowds!) or avoiding China all together 😀
The others sound very doable, so I’ll keep it in mind when traveling to Beijing next week 🙂
Josh Summers says
Thanks for the comment! To you I would say this: when you have an off week during Golden Week, don’t go visit the Great Wall. Go travel to some small village nearby or take a high-speed train to a place an hour or two outside of Beijing. In my opinion, you’ll get a better sense of China’s culture and at the same time you’ll get to avoid the crowds!
I can understand some of your tips in a practical sense, but that being said I think things like not travelling in peak season is most practical for students on a gap year/people without major work commitments. However it seems like you have travelled quite a bit in china and have made some great memories 🙂
Josh Summers says
It depends on a lot of factors. For some people, it’s difficult (or near impossible) to travel during the off season. I get that and obviously there’s just no way around that. Most people, however, can usually take off a few days at their leisure or try to schedule their travel dates for non-holidays. In those cases, I advise people to try their best to avoid the high season.
Completely agree with most of these tips. since i’m an english teacher we have an odd schedule which makes me unavailable on weekends. this is perfect because i can go visit places on monday and tuesday when there are less crowds and people are at work. also, chinese people don’t really like the rain or misty weather. i went to the great wall when there was a light drizzle, completely empty. so you’re right, going off season is the way to go!
Thanks for sharing 😀
Josh Summers says
I completely agree! Drizzle days (or slightly chilly days – Chinese people don’t like that either) are a perfect way to avoid crowds.
I really like how you mention at the end that china is really not the best place to visit if you’re not a fan of crowds. truth is, even when people try not to go during peak season there’s still a possibility of crowds just because china has a lot of people! it’s something my husband struggles with because he also hates crowds! also, many of the people are very kind, although i have to admit certain things still disturb me even though i’ve lived here for a while. best thing is to keep an open mind! 🙂
Josh Summers says
Agreed! I guess that’s one thing I didn’t mention well and I appreciate you bringing up – just because there are crowds doesn’t mean the people are mean. In fact, most of the time the Chinese crowds are extremely friendly – but that can still be uncomfortable for some people.
David Brown says
Another great article Josh.
The last trip i had in China was mainly spent travelling around Guizhou with my Chinese speaking sister. we managed to stay away from the crowds most of the time.
The main thing was planning, planning, planning and a bit more planning.
China is vast, so whatever you want to see, be it ancient monuments, beautiful landscapes, fantastic culture, wonderful little villages or magnificent waterfalls, there will be similar elsewhere….with no crowds.
You may have to spend quite a bit more time getting to places off the beaten track, but believe me it’s worth it. Getting bus/train tickets from a station can be an ordeal in itself and will always take far longer than you really deem necessary. Try and pre-book any major journeys before you go but also find out as much as you can about local travel, so you have at least an idea that you can get to where you want.
There are always your hotel/hostel workers if you get stuck but we didn’t find them much use as most of them didn’t really understand that we wanted to get away from all the tourist areas. Taxis can be reasonable as well as long as you’re not on your own. if you arrange to be picked up for the return journey, don’t bank on this happening even if you have their phone number.
I think it would be very unlikely that you would ever have to sleep under the stars as the poorest areas are always the friendliest and the chances are you’ll be invited to stay in someone’s house.
I wouldn’t recommend even attempting to hitch to get somewhere simply because trying to explain what you’re doing and where you want to go can be quite an ordeal, but we’ve successfully hitched back from places when heading back to a larger town.
Off to Sichuan and Yunnan in July, I can’t wait.