Seen the Great Wall of China? Does the thought of going to the Bund bore you to death? Are the Terra Cotta Warriors not cutting your sense of adventure? Then try these off the beaten paths in China. If you’ve already traveled Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian (aka the Golden Triangle) and have sailed down the Yangtze River, maybe these less famous or more out of reach sites will inspire you to return to China.
I’ve arranged these from most well known but less traveled to the less well known and less traveled.
Travel + Leisure Magazine rated it one of the next “IT” destinations to go. So maybe it shouldn’t be on this list, but it still remains one of the more remote and difficult places to reach in China. Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, is the center of Buddhism in China. It’s home to the Potala Palace, a massive palace of 999 rooms that was once home to the Dalai Lama, and the lesser known Norbu Lingka,where the Dalai Lama would spend his summers. There are hundreds of temples, the most famous are Sera Temple and Jokhang Temple. And then there’s Bahkor Street, the oldest market street in the city.
Maybe Lhasa is still too popular for you, then why not travel to nearby Tsetang. It’s home to the Samye Lamasera, where you can see the footprints of the Lotus Buddha. It’s also the closest city to Lake Yamdrok, which, at 14,400 ft above sea level, is one of the highest lakes in the world.
Traveling to Tibet on your own is nearly impossible. The Chinese government requires that all travelers have a Tibetan Permit before entering the province. These passes are only given to groups that have a licensed Chinese tour guide with them. So if you’re planning on going, make sure to bring your friends and hire a guide. OR you can also just join our tour to Tibet.
This province is located to the southeast of Tibet. It’s home to almost half of China’s 56 minorities, and in my opinion has the most spectacular views of nature in China. Yunnan is home to the Stone Forest, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Lake Erhai, and the Three Pagodas. The three major cities are Kunming (the capital), Lijiang, and Dali. It’s also where the mythical Shangri-la is located, and there’s actually a city bordering the Tibetan province that’s adopted that name. Going there makes you forget about the polluted and crowded China you hear and see on TV. It literally is like another world.
I have a bunch of entries about Yunnan on this blog and photos from my time there on Flickr if you want to check it out.
3. The Silk Road
More than any of the other sites on this list, the Silk Road really is a path and not just a place. The northern route began in Xian, wound up through the Gansu Province, then west into the Xinjiang Province, and ended in Turkey.
Xian everyone knows about, so I’ll skip introductions there. The Gansu province though, I doubt if anyone knows about it. This province, located right in the middle of China, is most famous for the Mogao Grottoes in the city of Dunhuang. These grottoes are a UNESCO heritage site for it’s Buddhist art. There’s also Jiayuguan, where you can find the western end of the Great Wall of China. It’s a much different view climbing this part of the wall than back in Beijing. For one thing, there’s less people.
The Silk Road then passes into the Xinjiang Province. This province is the largest province of China; it takes up the northern half of western China and the majority of China’s Muslim population live there. Xinjiang was the first area that European explorers hit on their travels to China. Thus, it was known as the “Gateway to China.” Kashgar, the capital of the southern Xinjiang Region, still has many markets selling pretty much what you would find during the old Silk Road days. Make sure that you check out the city’s Grand Bazaar; you can find almost anything there.
Otherwise, you can go to Urumqi, which still holds the world record for city farthest from a body of water. It’s also the capital of Xinjiang. Urumqi is a good home base to travel to Turpan, which is an oasis in the middle of the Talamakan Desert. Turpan also is a major producer of grapes and melons.
All in all the Silk Road became less and less travelled when modern technology became popular. It’s gone from being one of the most ON the beaten path to an off the beaten path. Let’s make this route not disappear in time.
4. Inner Mongolia & Ningxia
Want to ride a camel or dirt bike over a desert dune? Then travel to Inner Mongolia and the nearby province of Ningxia, smack in the middle of the Gobi Desert. What else is in Inner Mongolia? There’s the tomb of Genghis Khan in Ordos City, grasslands around the capital city Hohhot, and the Singing Sand Dunes.
Obviously, Inner Mongolia is home to a large Mongolian population. So it’s also a great place to see Chinese Mongolian culture. And, if you want to travel to the actual Mongolia, many of it’s large cities have regular train/plane transportation to Ulaanbataar.
Ningxia is home to a large population of China’s Hui minority. Since they are Muslim, Ningxia has dozens of beautiful mosques to visit. I met some people from Ningxia’s tourism board, who like to emphasize that since the province is mostly desert, you can go dune buggying or dirt bike over the dunes.
Maybe you’ve heard of a little movie named “Avatar,” where a nation of CGI blue people live atop a misty chain of floating mountains collectively known as the “Hallelujah Mountains.” Well, you can now visit one of the inspirations of Hallelujah Mountain at Huangshan (or Yellow Mountain), located 5 hours by bus or one hour by plane from Shanghai in the Anhui Province. It’s recently become more popular, since it’s so close to China’s more famous cities.
Because of it’s close proximity to Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Wuxi, it’s becoming quite popular with local Chinese and Westerners alike. The views from this mountain are popular motifs for traditional Chinese paintings and it’s local flora and fauna make it popular with research scientists. So if you’re looking for that perfect short trip away from the hustle and bustle of Shanghai, consider Huangshan.
I told you this will show up on the list. Zhangjiajie’s numerous stone pillars are the other “mountain range” that claims to have inspired the design of the highest grossing movie of all time (I have still yet to see it). Local officials who run Zhangjiajie’s most famous attraction, the Zhangjiajie National Park, had renamed one of their 3000 sandstone pillars “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain.” The area, along with China’s Huangshan (No. 5 on this list) are cited as inspirations for the design of the forest home of this hit movie.
While Zhangjiajie is popular with the Chinese and Asian tourist crowds, it’s relatively unknown to most Western travellers. We only offer a Chinese language tour to this area since it’s rather unknown. So if you’re really looking for a place to brag about to your friends, head on over to Zhangjiajie.
I have to be honest; I had no idea what this place was when I started working for this company. Yes, I heard about it in passing, about how beautiful it is but how out of reach it is to most people.
Now after doing some research, and talking with our company’s founder, I have a much clearer idea of what this place is. When we talk about Jiuzaigou, we are talking about Jiuzaigou Valley, an area located in northwestern Sichuan. It was originally inhabited by the Tibetan and Qiang minorities for centuries, until it was discovered in 1972. It became a national park in 1979.
The valley is home to 9 villages, seven of which are still inhabited. But what it’s known for is its lakes, rivers, streams, and waterfalls.
Recently, Jiuzaigou has been promoted as a major eco-tourist site for it’s natural beauty. So if you’re interested in natural scenery, ecology, and sustainable tourism, this might be a good place to visit.
8. Dongbei (Northern China)
So I just got back from my journeys through Northern China. I must tell you: it’s really really cold there. But I hear the summers are nice, and some cities transform into beach resorts when the weather’s not trying to give you frostbite.
But, like going to Quebec in the dead of winter, high season in Northern China, especially in the Harbin, is in its most unforgiving season. Every year for the month of January, Harbin hosts their annual Ice and Snow Sculpture show. Dozens of ice and snow sculptures decorate two parks, and visitors can walk around and get a feel about what it’s like to be somewhere colder than a freezer.
If you really want to see a difference in weather, then go to Dongbei in winter and then in summer. Apparently the weather is so different that residents joke that they are the most fashionable people on the planet, because they know how to dress for any season.
Also, because of it’s close proximity to North Korea, several cities in this region allow people who cannot travel there (ie. Americans) a rare glimpse into the secretive country.
So there you go, 8 off the beaten paths in China for your perusal. There are so many other places to go; I haven’t even touched upon the southern areas like Fujian or the absolute central areas like Sichuan. So if you’re feeling adventurous, give these areas a shot.