China’s combination of epic monuments, natural beauty, and striking modern architecture make it a fascinating place for photographers. Train your camera on little-known corners of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, and zoom in on Xi’an’s terra-cotta warriors. Frame the beautiful karst landscapes near Guilin and the terraced rice fields of Longsheng, and document rural life during planting or harvest time. Cap off your journey in dazzling Shanghai. From catching great monuments in the right light to capturing everyday moments in picturesque places, see inside China with the help of a National Geographic photographer and learn how to coax stunning images out of some of China’s most legendary and evocative sites.
Fly to Beijing, cross the international date line, and arrive on Day 2.
The Peninsula Beijing
Head out on our first morning photo shoot at the Temple of Heaven, where locals come to play chess, do morning exercise routines, and socialize. Then capture the bustle of activity on vast and historic Tiananmen Square: the laughing child pulling a kite behind her; the stern-faced guards at the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong; the chattering tourist groups from the countryside, thrilled to be visiting their country’s political epicenter. Just before noon, the sun will be behind you as you face Mao’s portrait over Tiananmen Gate. After lunch, when the Forbidden City is less crowded, stray off to the sides of the palace to find quiet, hidden gems. The main buildings in the middle are impressive and worth a shot or two, but the best photos will come from the more intimate sections where fewer people visit. Our festive welcome dinner tonight is at a restaurant in Beihai Park. Softly lit, overhanging with willows, the park is a great spot for night photography.
The Peninsula Beijing (B,L,D)
Early this morning, we’re off to the Great Wall. Visit the wild Jinshanling section, relatively empty of tourists. The wall is spectacular here, and it can be seen tracing the tops of the mountains for miles in either direction. There are restored and unrestored sections, providing great opportunities for comparative shots. Back in the city, enjoy a traditional Peking duck dinner this evening.
The Peninsula Beijing (B,L,D)
Early in the morning, venture into a lively market to photograph abundant, varied, and colorful food, and maybe a smiling vendor. Later, visit Yonghegong, Beijing’s premier Lama temple, whose iconography is typically Tibetan: bold, bright, and full of color. After lunch, stroll through one of Beijing’s traditional hutong neighborhoods. Humming with activity, the hutongs offer a glimpse of age-old Chinese courtyard architecture—and life in Beijing before skyscrapers and traffic jams. Tonight, we’ll attend a traditional Chinese opera. Before the show, step backstage to photograph the actors as they apply their heavy makeup and dress in their elaborate costumes.
The Peninsula Beijing (B,L)
Fly to Xi’an in the morning. Stop by Yangling, the tomb of the fourth Han emperor Jing Di. Here, by special arrangement, we are permitted into the restoration area, where archaeologists are working on artifacts uncovered from the tomb and its surroundings. Enjoy a rare chance to photograph 2000-year-old funerary objects up close. Drive to Xi’an’s city wall, the largest complete city wall in the country. From the top of one of the guard towers, much of old Xi’an is visible. Frame the cityscape with a wide-angle lens, or zoom in on the city streets below. Walk part of the way around the wall before checking into the hotel.
Hilton Xi'an (B,L)
Depart for the tomb of China’s First Emperor, known for its thousands-strong army of terra-cotta warriors. After a briefing with a director of the museum, we are allowed access to the VIP viewing area, where we’ll have the opportunity to shoot one of archaeology’s greatest finds up close and unobstructed. Back in the city, visit the Great Mosque, the most important mosque in eastern China, and meet the director of education for a talk on Islam in China. Today is Friday, so the mosque will be busy with worshippers, and with special permission, we’ll photograph their comings and goings. Stroll along the colorful Muslim section of town before an unforgettable—and picture-worthy—banquet of artisan dumplings shaped into whimsical forms.
Hilton Xi'an (B,L,D)
A morning flight brings us to Guilin. Stop to photograph the stunning karst landscape on our drive to Yangshuo, a lovely town perched on the Li River. Spend the afternoon on a photo walk, exploring Yangshuo’s streets, its creeks and bridges, and the mountains that bump up against the town.
Yangshuo Resort Hotel (B,L,D)
Visit the market town of Fuli, just down the Li River from Yangshuo. Later, glide in small sampans along a tributary, photographing the mystical karst landscapes that have inspired countless poems and paintings. We split into small groups, no more than two people per boat, to maximize visibility.
Yangshuo Resort Hotel (B,L)
Head into the countryside this morning to photograph everyday village life. With permission from the village council, visit a local community, meet the residents, and document their daily rituals. In the mid-afternoon, drive north to Longsheng, home to the fabled Dragon’s Backbone terraced rice fields.
Ping An Hotel (B,L,D)
The hills surrounding Longsheng are stacked with verdant terraces, but Dragon’s Backbone boasts some of the highest, reaching more than 2500 feet. Walk through the fields, climb the hills to gain a good vantage point, and snap away. The fields will be busy with activity, spring or autumn. Stop by a Yao minority village for a specially arranged photo shoot before driving back to Guilin in the late afternoon and flying on to Shanghai.
Garden Hotel (B,L,D)
Immerse yourself in China’s splendid fine arts at the Shanghai Museum, where the collection includes porcelain, jade, paintings, calligraphy and more. Then walk through Yu Garden, an excellent example of a classical landscape garden. Capture details of the garden’s stunning design, or set up your tripod to photograph Shanghai residents out for a stroll in this popular spot. Head over to the Bund as the afternoon sun lights up the dazzling skyscrapers of the Pudong district across the Huangpu River.
Garden Hotel (B,L)
This morning, take in the view from the other side of the river, catching the early light on the stately European facades of the Bund. Then visit Longhua Temple, the largest working Buddhist temple in Shanghai, and photograph some of the most remarkable temple architecture in the area. Take a walking tour through the French Concession to document the city’s colonial architecture. As darkness falls, return one last time to the riverfront to capture both sides of Shanghai’s colorfully lit cityscape. Enjoy a festive farewell dinner back at the hotel.
Garden Hotel (B,D)
Fly back to the United States, arriving the same day.
Photographer Greg Girard lived in China for more than two decades, documenting Asia’s transformation. His assignments for National Geographic magazine include “Can China Go Green?” (June 2011) and “The New Great Walls” (May 2008). Greg has produced four books, and his work has appeared in TIME, Newsweek, and Fortune.
Greg will join the following departures:
May 10 - 23, 2014
Sep 13 - 26, 2014
Price is per person, double occupancy. For a single room, add $2,395. Economy airfare from Los Angeles to Beijing and return from Shanghai is $1,200, and flights within China are $690 (subject to change).