In a country of 1.3 billion people, it can be difficult to travel to a place that isn't already full of tourists. To help you see the incredible sights that China has to offer, we've compiled a list of locations to visit that are not only amazing, but also off the beaten path.
Story by Sallie Baxter, Luke Whelan, Susie Gordon and Geoff Ng
Head far enough west and you'll come to where China eventually meets the 'stans'—Paki, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajiki. Tashkurgan, in the western reaches of Xinjiang, is within spitting distance of Tajikistan and Pakistan, which lie just 100km down the Karakoram Highway—the highest paved road in the world. The main attraction in Tashkurgan is the city’s old fort, which boasts towering views of the surrounding area. Keep an eye out for the remains of a Zoroastrian temple that lies nearby. Take a walk around town near the end of the school day and you’ll witness brown-haired, olive-eyed kids running home in the red kerchiefs and white- and blue-striped school uniforms you see on children all throughout China.
Homestays with local families are not unheard of, but Tashkurgan is also an easy two-day trip from Kashgar. Hire a driver, get the proper permits and you’ll be able to hit the border town by the afternoon before backtracking two hours to spend the night in a yurt at the majestic Lake Karakul.
How to get there: The bus from Tashkurgan to Kashgar departs at 9:30am Beijing time, costs RMB62 and takes about seven hours (296km). You may have to pay extra for extra baggage. Alternatively you can hire your own car (ask at reception). Private cars cost about RMB400, but can comfortably carry three passengers plus luggage and stop when you like.
Located between Guangxi and Guizhou provinces, Sanjiang Dong Minority Autonomous County is home to some gorgeous scenery, rice paddies, quaint villages and wooden guesthouses. While Guilin is a total tourist trap, Sanjiang remains something of a hidden gem, although a recent government-backed tourism initiative means that it won't remain untouched for long.
Start your trip in Sanjiang city’s small bus station, from which you can access the surrounding villages. The area’s most interesting attraction is the Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge in the Dong minority village of Ma’an. Maxime Tondeur, a Shanghai-based freelance photographer and travel writer, also recommends Zhaoxing, about three hours from Sanjiang by bus. “Although it’s getting more and more popular, it’s nice to walk around in the smaller lanes behind the main street then stay at one of the wooden guesthouses,” he says.
How to get there: Take a bus from Guilin to the town’s southern bus station—a journey which takes about five hours and costs about RMB40. To get to the Wind and Rain Bridge, you have to take a short walk or even shorter taxi ride across the river to the northern bus station (the hexi bus station) where buses to Chengyang (RMB10) leave every 40 minutes. If you get lost or want more specific information, the Wind and Rain Bridge Travel Service is very helpful. Email firstname.lastname@example.org "> email@example.com or call 077-2861-3369 to talk to the manager (he speaks fluent English). For Zhaoxing, take a bus from the northern bus station—it takes about about 3½ hours and costs RMB32.
Temples are everywhere in China, but the isolated location of Bingling Si has helped to preserve its charms. Located in the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu, 100km southeast of capital city Lanzhou, the temple is accessible only by boat. Once you arrive, you’ll find 183 carved niches containing Buddhist statues, mostly from the Tang dynasty. The temple was built over a period of 1,600 years and benefitted from the riches of the Silk Road, which passed nearby. The grottoes and niches were all carved by hand by sculptors suspended from ropes. The most interesting statues include a 29-meter tall seated Maitreya and a 1,500-year-old sleeping Buddha. Plan to go in the next few months—low water levels mean that the temple is often inaccessible between November and March.
How to get there: Best visited as a day trip from Lanzhou on the way to Linxia. From Lanzhou take a bus from the west bus station. The bus ride takes two hours, costs RMB12 and will drop you close to the boat ticket office. A speedboat to the temple fits up to eight people and is about RMB400 in total. (At the ticket office, it’s quite easy to hook up with other small groups if you’re traveling by yourself.) The boat ride takes about an hour, although you can take the seven-hour ferry ride back if you want. It costs RMB30 and is open May-October.
The Hexi Corridor
Part of the ancient Silk Road that connected East and West, the Hexi Corridor runs 1,000km through Gansu Province from the city of Lanzhou to the Jade Gate at the Xinjiang border. Of the many oases which line the Corridor, Xiahe is unmissable—the Labrang Monastery is one of the most important outside of Tibet—as is the Inner and Outer Kora where many Tibetans make pilgrimage.
Zhangye has a bustling main square that comes alive in the evening but is a quiet and relaxing town during the day. The restored fort and wall at Jiayuguan are also worth a stop. The fort itself is quite commercialized, but the western towers are more secluded and offer great views of the surrounding desert. As for Lanzhou, Tondeur says that it “offers the first glimpses of silk camel caravans, bearded guys, Muslim holy men and bazaars. Central Asia seems to be just around the corner.”
How to get there: You can fly into Lanzhou from a number of places including Beijing (RMB1340). The best way to get from town to town though, is by bus. Highway G312, which connects Lanzhou to Xinjiang also passes through Jiayuguan and Zhangye. There are five daily buses between Dunhuang and Jiayuguan—the journey takes about six hours total. The sleeper coach from Jiayuguan to Lanzhou is RMB160 and takes 16 hours.
The city of Lichuan in Hubei Province is famous for two things: it is the habitat of most of the world’s metasequoia trees, relatives to North America’s giant redwoods, and it also has the longest karst cave system on the planet, which was discovered in the late '90s and is still relatively untouched. Tenglong Cave’s 74-meter entrance is so wide and high that helicopters can fly into it. Inside are nearly 60km of passages, waterfalls, pools and grottoes, as well as vertiginous stalagmites and stalactites. The cave system maintains a temperature of 16-18 degrees Celsius all year round, and is the source of the Qingjiang River.
How to get there: You can take a train from Shanghai to Lichuan (about 21 hours). Prices vary from RMB30-90, depending on whether you want a hard seat, hard sleeper or soft one. If you are already in Hubei, you can also take a sleeper bus from Yichang that leaves at 6:30pm (RMB100, ten hours).
Kaili in Guizhou Province is itself a dusty industrial town with little to uncover, but it serves as a useful base to explore the surrounding minority villages. Start at Lanhua—the only village in the area that has a Christian church—then move on to Miao village of Langli.
Shiqiao is also worth a look. It is home to a mix of minorities and is known for preserving ancient paper-making techniques. Avoid the village of Xijiang. It’s the biggest Miao minority village in the world, and has become a total tourist trap. As for traveling between the villages, Tondeur says “it’s a good idea rent a car and driver to get around. Public buses often don’t get you all the way to the villages.”
How to get there: The best way to get to Kaili is by bus. Buses depart every 20 minutes 7:20am-7:00pm from the Guiyang Long Distance Bus Station and cost about RMB60. Kaili itself has three bus stations—Kaili Bus Station is the most useful. It offers daily departures back to Guiyang and to the surrounding towns and villages.
The border town of Manzhouli is dominated by colorful Russian architecture and has a vibrant nightlife scene. “Expect to be approached in Russian by Chinese salesmen,” Tondeur says. “The town is very popular with Russians, who cross the border in search of cheap electronics and bars.” The town really comes alive at night, when the streets fill up with people and the lights illuminate the Russian-style buildings.
Sitting near the border crossing, the huge Matryoshka Square contains a giant statue of a Russian nesting doll, which is so kitsch it's cool. Not far from Manzhouli lies Hulun Lake. While the main entrance and boardwalk are touristy and slightly rundown, there are a couple of decent hiking routes around the shoreline if you’re willing to venture off the beaten track and don’t mind mud or mosquitoes.
How to get there: Manzhouli has its own airport and there are flights to Beijing, Harbin and Hohhot. You could also take the Trans-Manchurian Express from Beijing, which stops In Manzhouli on its journey to Moscow.
The province of Heilongjiang is most famous for the city of Harbin and the annual ice festival held there, but it has plenty more to offer. The Zhalong Wetlands were developed in 1979 and include 2,100 sq. kilometers of government-protected marshland. Expect endless skies, flocks of rare birds and marshy plains stretching as far as you can see. Over 300 species of birds live on the wetlands, the breeding ground of the rare marsh grassbird (also known as Japanese swamp warblers). Look out for grebes, herons, swans, storks and protected red-crowned cranes. The area lies on the summer migration path from the Russian Arctic to Southeast Asia via the Gobi Desert, which runs between April and October.
How to get there: The Zhalong Wetlands are about 30km south of Qiqiha’er, an industrial town north of Haerbin. Trains from Haerbin to Qiqiha’er are frequent and fast—express trans are RMB50 and take 2½ hours; local trains are RMB37 and make the trip in 3½ hours. There are also overnight (14 hour) train rides to Beijing (seats and sleepers are RMB182 and RMB333, respectively). If you prefer to travel by air, there are flights between Qiqiha’er and Beijing for RMB1110 on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The flight is about 1½ hours. Flights to Shanghai are RMB1850 and take about 3 hours. An airport bus goes from the CAAC office in the CAAC Hotel (Mínháng Dàshà) near the main square on 12 Bukui Dajie if you are flying home.
Guang Yue Monastery
If you think you can’t face yet another schlep to a Buddhist temple, think again. The Guang Yue monastery near Lin’an in Zhejiang Province is home to the T’ai Shen Centre—a meditation and wellness retreat where people can stay and activities are supervised by Buddhist teachers. The temple is located in the town of Zaoxi, about an hour outside of Hangzhou, with all the lush bamboo forests and misty mountains that you’d expect in this part of China. It was built in the Qing dynasty and fell into disuse until the abbot Zheng Rong visited from Hangzhou and decided to rebuild it as a retreat. The courses offered are based on Pure Land, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that focuses on the teachings of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light.
How to get there: From Hangzhou, take bus k598 from either Huanglong Stadium or the West Bus station to Lin’an. It’s only RMB10 and buses leave every ten minutes. Malcolm Hunt, the retreat facilitator, can organize a car to take you the last 30 minutes from Lin’an to the monastery. The ride is RMB100 and split between everyone in the car. Make sure you book in advance though—email firstname.lastname@example.org "> email@example.com or call 571-6389-1830 (the temple), 150-5712-8334 (cell).
Located between the tourist stops of Dali and Lijiang, Shaxi has yet to be overrun with tourists and tacky bars. The town is one of the most well preserved stops on the Ancient Tea Horse Road, a series of roads that transported tea from southern Yunnan, where it was harvested, through northern Yunnan and into Tibet and India. The town lies on the edge of the Heihui River in the middle of the Shaxi Valley, which offers gorgeous scenery for hikes and bike rides. The town itself is filled with well preserved wooden houses, courtyards and stone-paved streets and alleys centering on Sideng Square, the main public gathering space. Be sure to stop by the square on Fridays, when it is filled with stalls and stands full of fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, and crafts for Shaxi’s weekly market. Stay in one of the quaint inns and be sure to try the delicious Bai ethnic minority cuisine.
How to get there: From Lijiang or Dali (Xiaguan, not Old Town)'s long distance bus stations take a bus to the town of Jianchuan (RMB25, 3 hours from Dali, 2.5 hours from Lijiang). From Jianchuan, get on a minibus to Shaxi (RMB10, 45 minutes).
Situated in western Yunnan and traversing the Myanmar border, the Gaoligong Mountains are relatively untouched by tourists, and WildChina recommends them as one of China’s best up-and-coming destinations for the adventurous traveler. The area has an incredible range of biodiversity. In certain areas you can find gibbons swinging through the trees and see a rare species of pika (a cute, rabbit-like mammal) native to this mountain range.
There are also numerous hiking trails throughout the mountains, so be ready to spend days exploring forested paths populated with rare shrubbery and wild animals. It’s best to take a guide along with you, as some trails can be difficult to navigate. One of WildChina’s guided tours even takes you to a remote hot spring to relax at after your hike. Take a few days to explore and discover more special spots within the mountain range.
The first place most people think to visit when they go to Shanxi Province is the well preserved but touristy town of Pingyao in the north. But Shanxi has many other hidden villages in its less-explored southeast region. Our favorite, Guoyu, is located northeast of the city of Jincheng and right down the hill from Prime Minister Chen’s 17th century castle. This charming, walled Ming-era village is still inhabited, does not charge an entrance fee, and has no tourist trappings to speak of. The streets within the 20-meter-high wall are great for wandering, as is the 600-year-old Yuan dynasty Tangdi Temple. Guoyu does not have lodging, but you can make it here from Jincheng in less than two hours.
How to get there: Take a bus from Jincheng to Prime Minister Chen's Castle (RMB12, 75 minutes). From Prime Minister Chen's Castle walk down the hill ten minutes to Guoyu's gate.
Yubeng Village is a small Tibetan village located at the base of Meili Snow Mountain Range in Yunnan. Staying in Yubeng and trekking in and around this mountain range allows hikers the opportunity not only to experience nature but also to get a glimpse of the local culture that makes Tibet so unique. Black Pottery Coffee in Shangri-la hosts tours to the village and takes travelers to the nearby Dongzhulin Monastery and Ni Gu Si Nunnery to learn more about the region’s religious practices.
Other stops include a place to view the first bend in the Yangtze River, visiting the Holy Waterfall and Five Buddha Head Glacier and hiking up to Ice Lake. To get a real feel for Tibetan culture, accompany the owners of Black Pottery Coffee, Russ and Kesang, to Kesang’s home in Nixi Village, where you can learn to make black pottery yourself and enjoy a home cooked meal from Kesang and her family.
How to get there: The best way to access Yubeng is to fly to Shangri-la, and then take one of four buses from Shangri-la to Deqin, which depart daily before noon. There are also minivans that depart from the bus station, cost RMB100, and are slightly faster than the buses. Once in Deqin, you’ll take a taxi or public bus (departs at 3pm) to Fei Lai Si where several guesthouses are located that can help you make arrangements for your hike to Yubeng Village. Hiking to the village usually takes 5-7 days roundtrip, so be prepared for a long hike ahead of you.
Take a bus from the city of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province to Wuyuan and use it as a base to explore the surrounding towns and villages. Xiao Likeng is worth a visit, with its creeks, narrow lanes, Buddhist temples and traditional houses. The village is famous for beautiful sandalwood combs. Skip the touristy Qinghua in favor or Sixi Yancun, home to a highly photo-worthy ancient bridge. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, take the three-hour hike up and down Dazhang Shan to see the 240m waterfall. The mountain has been earmarked to be China’s major watersports region in the near future, so make sure you see it now before it's overrun.
Chishui and Shizhangdong Falls
The forgotten southwestern province of Guizhou is one of the poorest areas in China, but its subtropical forests, epic waterfalls and untouched ethnic minority villages offer some of the best traveling in the country. We recommend skipping the long lines and hefty entrance fee at Guizhou’s premier tourist destination, Huangguoshu Falls, China’s largest waterfall, and instead taking a bus north (or a bus south from Chengdu) to the region bordering on Sichuan that surrounds the city of Chishui.
Here you will have China’s second largest waterfall, Shizhangdong Falls, nearly all to yourself. It’s only a meter shorter than Huangguoshan, and you’ll be able to feel the spray from dozens of feet away. The area surrounding the falls is something out of a prehistoric age, with more than four thousand other waterfalls scattering the region among the lush bamboo forests that are also home to giant alsophila ferns, which date back 200 million years.
How to get there: Take a bus from Chengdu (RMB112, 5 hours) or Guiyang (RMB160, 8 hours) to Chishui. From Chishui you can either try to figure out the local minibus system, or rent out a mianbao van to take you to Huangguoshu Falls and the surrounding nature reserves.
Only 90km from the traffic-locked city center of Beijing, this 76-family Ming dynasty village provides a great opportunity for a day-long getaway and a breath of fresh, unpolluted air. The town was once a stop on an ancient postal route and still retains its ancient charm. Ming and Qing dynasty courtyard homes climb up a steep hillside hidden in a valley surrounded by impressive mountain peaks. Spend the morning walking around the small town’s cobbled alleys and steep staircases before having lunch at the home of one of the villagers. In the afternoon, climb outside the town to look at the Maoist graffiti and slogans still preserved on the village walls, admire the surrounding terraced fields and orchards and stop in at the tiny Qing dynasty Guandi Temple. You can stay in a village guesthouse for the night, but you should have plenty of time to head back to the city to sleep there, too.
How to get there: Across the street from Pingguoyuan subway station (line 1) is a bus stop where you can catch bus 929 to Zhaitang, and get a taxi from there. You can also hire a tax at Pingguoyuan station (round-trip RMB140-150).
If you want a real Sichuanese adventure, forgo the touristy Emei Shan and Leshan (see sidebar above) and get on a bus on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway to the sprawling “wild west” of the province. These high-plateau grasslands are surrounded by jagged mountains and populated with yaks and herders who are culturally and ethnically a part of bordering Tibet.
We recommend going to the village of Tagong, about 100km northwest of the Tibetan-Sichuan gateway city of Kangding. Sat right in the middle of these incredible meadows, Tagong is home to a horse racing festival in late summer and an important 17th century Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Be sure to get in touch with the Khampa Café and Arts Center which, in addition to making delicious and fresh Tibetan and Western food, also serves as a cultural center with local Tibetan handicrafts, and offers excursions like horse treks and hikes in the grasslands and even Tibetan tent-stays.
How to get there: Take a bus from Chengdu to Kangding (RMB121-131, 8 hours). From Kangding, either take a shared minivan (RMB 50) directly to Tagong, or get on a bus heading for Ganzi (RMB40, 2 hours) and get off at the Tagong monastery.
Tucked into a verdant valley in the mountains of northeastern Jiangxi, the riverside town of Yaoli comes close to your most romanticized image of China. Although nearby Jingdezhen is better known as the porcelain capital of China, many say that Yaoli is the real birthplace of porcelain. The ceramics industry still thrives in this small town—walking around Yaoli’s streets you can find ceramics workshops dating back over a thousand years to the Tang dynasty. Hike up the nearby hills for incredible views of the rural scenery, often covered in mist, that surrounds the town, and imagine you are in the Middle Kingdom of yore.
How to get there: From Jingdezhen take a bus to Yaoli Old Town (RMB11).
Dongchuan Red Land
Along with Luoping’s golden fields of rapeseed flowers, Luoxia Valley in Dongchuan Red Land is the best place to revel in northeastern Yunnan’s overlooked landscapes, which are some of the most beautiful in China. Because of eastern Yunnan’s warm and humid climate and iron-rich soil, the Dongchuan region is covered in surreal carpets of vibrant red soil, yellow buckwheat and white wildflower blossoms, all under blue skies and white clouds, which make for stunning sunrises and sunsets.
The best times to go are in early summer (May and June) or autumn (Sep. and Oct.) when the soil is not completely planted and there is no snow on the ground. This area is one of the poorest and least developed in Yunnan, so expect sparse lodging (ask around in the nearby Xintian township), and relatively inaccessible transportation (you will need to hire out “mianbao” vans). It’s also possible to do this as a very ambitious day trip from Kunming (around 200km one-way) with a chartered vehicle.
How to get there: Take a bus from Kunming East Bus Station to Dongchuan County (RMB28-38, 3.5 hours), and from there find a minibus (RMB15, 1.5 hours) or rent a mianbao van to take you out to Huagou, the most central town in the Redlands. You can also charter a vehicle from Kunming directly to Huagou for around RMB250 one way.
Escape the crowds and vendors of Dali and make the 18km bus trip (¥3) north along Erhai Lake to Xizhou, a Bai ethnic minority village still functioning as it has for hundreds of years. Wander its dirt streets and alleys and admire the stone architecture, adorned with traditional Bai paintings of rivers, mountains and animals. Pass through markets and watch farmers selling crops, men making cooking oil from canola flowers and old women selling wild mushrooms and baba, traditional, round corn-based cakes.
We recommend staying at the Linden Centre, housed in a traditional Bai courtyard complex. The Linden Centre (www.linden-centre.com) goes beyond the services of a standard hotel, providing all meals and arranging excursions in and around the surrounding village in addition to a place to stay. The Centre's aim is to foster meaningful cultural exchange and understanding between guests and locals.
How to get there: From Dali Old town's west gate, take a bus headed to Eryuan or Hudiequan and get off at Xizhou (RMB3-5, 20km). You can also get a taxi from Dali to take you directly to Xizhou (RMB40). Finally, you can rent a bike, and bike there along Erhai lake.
If you’re looking for a relaxing weekend getaway, Qiandao Lake is a convenient and picturesque escape from fast-paced city life. This man-made lake in Zhejiang Province has amazing scenery, and is dotted with over 1,000 islands. Take a breath of fresh air when you take a tour of the islands, and enjoy a day cruising around the lake and exploring some of the charming caves on the islands. Be sure to take a guided tour, as the islands each have unique histories, and a local guide can tell you various stories about the islands.
For more adventurous travelers, Shanghai-based Big Blue Scuba (big-blue.cn) runs monthly diving trips to the lake to explore an ancient city named Shi Cheng that was situated at the base of Wu Shi Mountain before Qiandao Lake was formed. If you’re so inclined, ask around and you’ll easily be able to find somewhere to camp out as well.
How to get there: To get to Qiandao, fly or take a train to Hangzhou. Once in Hangzhou, hire or rent a car to drive the rest of the way to Qiandao, which takes approximately 1 ½ - 2 hours. You can also take a bus from Hangzhou to Qiandao, which is cheaper but will take longer.