Travel China with the Yangxifu: Getting Beyond the “Postcard China”

John and I cooking Chinese food during Chinese New Year
Sometimes, it's the ordinary moments in travel that can make China come alive. Here are a few ideas to help you get beyond the glossy "postcard China"

Last week, someone asked me the China travel question. “What’s your favorite place to visit in China?”

Faster than she could say “Terracotta Warriors,” I had just the place in mind: “My husband’s family home in the countryside.”

Okay, yeah, it’s easy for me say that. I’ve bounced around Beijing, sashayed my way through Shanghai, and chilled out in Chengdu. And while I love the allure of the road, I still find myself yearning for those small moments at the family home — whether it’s making dumplings with my mother-in-law or reading my father-in-law’s story about his ancestral village.

The thing is, sometimes it’s the most ordinary things and places that make travel extraordinary — and China is no exception. So, for my last article of the year for “Travel China with the Yangxifu,” I thought I’d help you find more small moments in your own travel — and you don’t need a family home in China to do it.

1. Get a little residential.

You may not live in China, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a feel for daily life in Shanghai or Beijing. Instead of just hitting the Forbidden City or the Bund, immerse yourself in a more everyday, average Chinese residential area — without even having a contact on the ground.

Just ask someone you meet along the way (ask them where they live in the city — as if out of curiosity — and then try to locate it on your map). Or, simply hop on the subway, ride it to the end of the line (where the more affordable real estate — and, thus, more average Chinese in the city — live), and have a look.

Many communities have gates and will question obvious outsiders (i.e. anyone who doesn’t look Chinese), so be careful if you want to walk through a residential community. But you can always wander around the vegetable markets and stores, eat at the restaurants, and see what people like to do there. It’s a great way to see the world outside of the glossy postcard China in our minds, perhaps making new friends and creating some memorable moments along the way.

Best of all, there’s no extra charge. All you need is some free time, and a little sense of adventure.

2. Find a friend in China.

Okay, maybe you don’t have family in China, or even a friend there. But that doesn’t you can’t discover someone through your own network of friends.

Just tell people (who you trust) that you’re visiting the Middle Kingdom, and see if they have friends on the ground you could meet up with. Either Chinese or expats work great, as long as they’re residents of the city you’re visiting — which means more opportunity to discover those cool, off-the-beaten-path places or scenes.

Even if you live in a place so uninterested in China that they dismantled the Chinese language program at your university (that’s me), just ask. I’m always floored by how many people tell me “Oh, my father used to work in China” or “My husband just came back from a trip to China” or “My sister taught English in China” (I heard all of these, and more, just in the past month here). And every one of these people is a potential conduit to an on-the-ground local guide.

Be sure to keep your contact with your potential “local guides” casual. In other words, don’t ask to crash on their sofa. (Unless, of course, you found them on Couchsurfing, and they advertise it.)

Which leads me to another suggestion — search for people on Couchsurfing. Some offer accommodation, but the majority are just offering their time and goodwill to show you around their chosen city. Just a few clicks and the right search could land you an unforgettable local guide, and unforgettable time in China.

3. Do a little “voluntraveling”

Volunteer your time to travel with a purpose (i.e. “voluntraveling”) in China. Spend a little time on the ground, doing good and building relationships, so you can have an even better time traveling around China.

Why better? Because once you get to know people there, they can help you discover places you never would have imagined or even thought of visiting. And if you stay long enough doing the volunteer thing, you might even get a few invitations to visit someone’s home, or even hometown (say “yes” — even if it’s way off the tourist path, you’ll probably have one of the most unique and educational experiences of your entire trip).

The most obvious? Teach English in China. But if teaching isn’t your style, you can do everything from learning about Pandas to helping disabled or orphaned children. Just keep in mind that most, but not all, volunteer opportunities come with a price (which usually includes things such as housing, airport transfers, and possibly meals). Both Volunteers Abroad and Transitions Abroad have listings.

4. Learn something

Yearned to polish your Mandarin beyond that “Ni Hao?” Working on your Yang style Tai Chi? Itching to unleash that hidden calligraphy artist? Wondering how to make the ultimate Kung Pao Chicken? Consider building your trip to China around a class or course, so instead of just admiring the culture, you can discover it yourself. For a price, of course. 😉

For Chinese classes, Lonely Planet suggests checking around the expat magazines — the Beijinger, That’s Shanghai and That’s Guangzhou — to get the scoop on language schools. Additionally, Transitions Abroad offers listings of Chinese language schools.
According to Lonely Planet, the Beijing-based China Culture Center is a popular choice for people wanting a side of culture with their China travel. And it’s no wonder — they offer classes covering pretty much everything within the Middle Kingdom, from Tai Chi to learning how to cook spicy Sichuan to even Beijing Opera Face Painting. Check out their full calendar to see what’s happening during your trip (or try to request a class if it’s not). You can also browse other cultural travel possibilities at Transitions Abroad.

What did I miss? What are some other great ways to get beyond the “postcard China”?


This is the Travel China with the Yangxifu series, which appears every 2nd Wednesday of the month. Thanks to Rich for inspiring me to launch this series.

To read more, visit the Travel China with the Yangxifu archives.

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7 Replies to “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Getting Beyond the “Postcard China””

  1. I completely agree! Making friends with locals has made my experience so much more unique than my American friends who come here to study abroad and end up hanging out with only foreigners. To be honest, though, having a Chinese boyfriend has not helped much in exploring the city, since I am a lot more familiar with off the beaten path places than he is =)

    I read your interview with the travel blog China 2.0 with Winser Zhao. Small world! I am now working at China Luxury Travel Network, and Winser is my co-worker there!

  2. The college I attended paired us up with a Chinese partner, I got lucky in that mine was the best english speaker, teacher, and nicest girl! She became my best friend in no time. So I agree with you! My favourite place in all of China is my best friends village, spending time there helping to prepare food, share a little room, and just hang out Chinese style is the best.

  3. Totally agree with getting away from the POSTCARD China. With my wife there are places that I can’t ever begin to explain to my family. She has relatives in Chongming Island in Shanghai…totally countryside but I want to go back SO bad!

    And making dumplings with loved ones is always a good thing.

  4. I love off the beaten path China. I could never live in my husband’s countryside hometown, but I look forward to our yearly visits back probably more than he does. The countryside isn’t for everyone, but it can be awesome if you give it a chance.

    1. @Michelle, how funny that your Chinese boyfriend is no help in discovering those hidden corners of the city! Well, at least it sounds like you’re an adventurous girl, and that counts for a lot. Yes, of course, Winser Zhao — it really is a small world, to know you’re working for him. Wow!

      @Alexandra, ah, sounds like you more than lucked out with your experience. There really is nothing like visiting someone’s hometown in China, and experiencing their daily life.

      @Magnus, oh, Chongming Island, that is so cool you have relatives there! I love that place! It’s just so laid back and has some of the best birdwatching in china. You’re very, very lucky!

      @Jessica, I can totally relate. I don’t think I could ever live full time in my husband’s family home, but it’s definitely nice to visit.

  5. I have done some traveling in China and I loved the country. One of our nicest experiences was enjoying a Chinese meal with and elderly couple in the Hutong area in Beijing. They were such a warm and welcoming couple and we met their daughter and son during lunch, and learn t about their lives. It was just so interesting to be able to have that interaction. How long have you lived in China?
    Thanks for the information on teaching and volunteering abroad. A very helpful article.

    1. Thanks for the comment, and glad you found this post helpful. How fantastic that you had the opportunity to connect with this couple in one of the hutongs! Sounds like it was a highlight of your trip.

      (I lived in China for 5 and a half years. Now my husband and I live in the US.)

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