When you think of the size of China, it really is a huge country. This in itself might make you wonder just how much there is to see. To my mind, to put it simply, there are just too many places to visit on a trip to China to achieve all of them in one go. A first time visitor to China will generally and should head to the attractions in Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Guilin, etc., and consequently will be well rewarded. However, after these, if another visit is the result, some of the following destinations could be considered. Exploring China will reveal just how diverse, culturally and scenically, the country is. As a frequent visitor to China, I would like to introduce you here to some of the possibly lesser-known places I have experienced and enjoyed.
Not to be confused with Chengdu, this small city is only 4 hours away by train from Beijing. The train journey itself is worth the trip as it traverses scenic mountain terrain and crosses over the Great Wall of China. Chengde has two UNESCO World Heritage sites, the world’s largest imperial garden, the world’s largest royal temple complex, and the world’s largest wooden Buddha. The Chengde Mountain Resort (an odd name for an imperial palace) is where the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) spent their summers. The grounds are very extensive with attractive gardens and a large scenic lake. There is a number of interesting Buddhist temples, one of which, the Putuozongchen Temple, is the largest and has been nicknamed the Potala Palace of Chengde, as it was modelled after the famous palace in Lhasa, Tibet. You can easily spend a day or two in Chengde on your trip to China to enjoy the peace and tranquility after a visit to Beijing.
Qufu is a city in southwestern Shandong Province. It is best known as the hometown of Confucius, the renowned Chinese philosopher (551–479 BC). There are numerous historic palaces, temples, and interesting cemeteries. The most famous of these are known as “The Three Confucian sites” and are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Temple of Confucius is actually Confucius’ former home which has been consecrated. It is basically a museum and is an attractive building containing a huge statue of the man on a throne. The Cemetery of Confucius contains the oldest graves, dating back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046 to 256 BC), and a tomb here was erected in memory of Confucius. The Kong Family Mansion is where the direct descendants of Confucius lived. It is a very large building comprising 152 buildings with 480 rooms and was the dwelling place of his ancestors right up to 1937!
Dunhuang is approximately half-way along the famed Chinese Silk Route in the Gobi Desert. The most important site here is the Mogao Caves which are very impressive and important caves stacked on top of each other, some 5 stories high. In total, there are 735 caves, all noted for containing Buddhist art and manuscripts dating back as far as the 4th century AD. Inside the caves are Buddhist murals and statues. On my visit here, it was interesting to note that some caves were locked and opened only for special tour groups. Some of the caves were so dark that I had to be supplied with a small flashlight.
Another major attraction here on a trip to China is Crescent Lake surrounded by sand dunes. It is in the shape of a crescent, naturally, and the water is crystal-clear. I quote a source that summed up the lake, “Some say it reminds them of the eye of a beautiful woman, lucid, beautiful and amorous. Others say it looks like the mysterious, gentle and seductive lips of a pretty woman, or a slice of a lush, sweet and crystal cantaloupe.” Maybe. The sand dunes range in colour – red, yellow, green, black, and white and appear to go on for miles. You can climb to the top of one of the sand dunes carrying a supplied tin sheet and slide down the hill. As you go down, the noise of the shifting sand sounds like a quiet dulcet-toned echo, hence the name, Echoing Sand Mountain. You can also have fun by riding a camel from the entrance to the lake.
Kashgar is the western-most city in China, at the end of the Silk Route, and was a very important city en route between Europe, the Middle East, and Eastern China. One attraction is the many ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities who can be seen dressed in their traditional clothes. The colourful Sunday Market here is something not to be missed under any circumstances on a trip to China. It is said to be the largest market of its type in Asia. Every week, traders, farmers and others come in from the outlying countryside in their droves to attend the Sunday Market. The market covers a vast area, and just to walk around taking in the extraordinary sights and sounds, as well as the exotic flavours and ambience will astound you. This market has been taking place for centuries. There is a dedicated area for the sale of livestock which includes everything from sheep to camels, cows, horses, and donkeys. Watch the prospective buyers haggle, checking out their purchases by riding the camels and horses. Then there is the extensive spice market which contains hundreds of different types, plus flowers and fruit. There are also food stalls from which exotic aromas arise. One of my favourite sights was to watch people having their haircut or having dental treatment done right out in the open. It looked very primitive but I presume the price was right and the farmers, etc. don’t get other opportunities for these services.
Travel the Silk Route on Your China Vacation
If you travel west from Shanghai, you will arrive in Suzhou, the attractive city of canals which can be visited on a day trip. However, just a little further west and on the Grand Canal like Suzhou which connects all three cities, is Wuxi. It is a cultural city with a history dating back over 3,000 years. The major attraction here is Lake Taihu, the third largest freshwater lake in China, famous for its natural beauty and scenery with 48 islets and 72 surrounding peaks to add to its charm. A highlight on your China vacation is a cruise on the lake itself to view the surrounding scenery. Other Wuxi attractions are the Garden of Ecstasy, which owes some similarity to the Imperial Summer Palace gardens in Beijing, the Grand Buddha of Lingshan, one of the largest Buddha statues in China at 80 metres/260 feet in height, and the many private gardens and parks built by rich people in the past.
Dali is located in southern China in Yunnan Province and is a beautiful, scenic city sandwiched between a charming lake and a magnificent mountain range. It has a year-round mild spring climate and a relaxed air about it. It is also the home of the colourful Bai minority ethnic group of people. The old town is delightful with its cobblestone streets and traditional stone architecture, plus it has many stores where you can buy all manner of local handicrafts. The traditional Bai ethnic minority folk houses give the city a distinctive feel, unlike any other Chinese city. Apart from the old town, the two big attractions are the Cangshan Mountains and Erhai Lake. The Cangshan Mountains surround Dali on three sides and can be reached by three different cable cars, depending on what you want to see. The mountains stretch for 50 kilometres/31 miles and have a total of 19 peaks, the tallest being 4120 metres/13,520 feet high. Upon arrival on the mountain, you can visit an alpine lake well-known for its beauty, picturesque Buddhist temples, and the Cangshan Gorge with its gorgeous scenery. Along the shores of Erhai Lake are 17 traditional villages which can be visited to experience village life and to meet the local inhabitants. For the more adventurous on a trip to China, you can enjoy your time in Dali by renting a bicycle or go on a hike along the lake.
There are 5 sacred mountains in China, all very attractive and well worth visiting. I have selected Huangshan, which translates as Yellow Mountain, It is located 300 kilometres/186 miles west of Hangzhou and 500 kilometres/310 miles south-west of Shanghai and can be reached by plane, train, or bus. This particular mountain and the surrounding region have spectacular natural scenery, and the mountain itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is not actually yellow but was named after a legendary dignitary called the Yellow Emperor. Huangshan’s beauty includes its many unusual pine trees, oddly-shaped rocks, seas of clouds which make the peaks look like islands in the sky, and its hot springs. It is also famous for its sunrises and sunsets. There are 3 cable cars to take you up the mountain. Accommodation can be in Huangshan City, which is 1 hour’s drive away. However, there is also a hotel halfway up the mountain reached by cable car where you can enjoy the amazing views from your bedroom window.
Jiuzhaigou means nine-village-valley and it is a valley with nine villages. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site located 490 kilometres/300 miles north of Chengdu. It is renowned for its stunning natural scenery consisting of scenic lakes, forests, and spectacular waterfalls. On a trip to China, fall is definitely the best time to visit the valley with its golden foliage. However, the valley is breathtakingly beautiful all year round. There are 114 lakes or pools and 5 major waterfalls. It could take you several days to explore everything. Shuzheng Valley is the main valley which should not be missed as nearly half of the region’s lakes and waterfalls are here with colourful names like Double-Dragon Lake, Bonsai Beach, Reed Lake, Sparkling Lake, Tiger Lake, and Rhinoceros Lake. The Nuorilang Waterfall is the most beautiful of the waterfalls and the widest. If there is a rainbow, the effect is magical as is the sight of ice hanging from it in winter, a la Niagara Falls.
You might not think of China for a beach vacation but Hainan, in the South China Sea, has been developed to provide International-style resorts with various well-known hotel chains providing accommodation up to 5-star properties including Hiltons and Hyatts. It has been described as “China’s Hawaii,” with its tropical climate of hot and humid summers and mild, pleasant winters. Sanya, a city on the southern end of the island, has several bays with large beach resorts. It has a beach that stretches for 20 kilometres/12 miles. Yalong Bay here is known for its upscale hotels. Nearby Wuzhizhou Island and its coral reefs are destinations for scuba diving, surfing, and other water sports. For a change of pace, you can visit the port city and the capital of Hainan, Haikou. It has an old quarter which features a mixture of Chinese and European architecture. The streets in the old part are filled with small outdoor restaurants and BBQ stalls which serve cheap local beer until late into the night.
I include Harbin as a place to visit on your second trip to China as it is very unique but might not appeal to warm-weather enthusiasts. Harbin is China’s northernmost major city and historically, has been influenced quite a bit by neighbouring Russia, which can be seen through its architecture. It is known as the “Ice City,” as every year, the city is invaded by visitors who attend the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival held in January and lasting around two months. At the very large Ice Sculpture Garden, you will see exquisitely carved snow and ice works which are actually preserved year-round. Around the city at the time of the festival, you can see ice and snow lanterns hanging everywhere. During the festival, there are performances, ice mazes, snow slides, a ski hill, and firework displays.
This article just scrapes the surface of what a trip to China has to offer. It is a country for every kind of interest and rarely fails to please, resulting many times, in a return visit.