When most people go to China, they only want to see the Great Wall and Forbidden City in Beijing, walk along the Bund at Shanghai or take in the Terracotta Warriors at Xi’an. Maybe they’ll throw in a visit to Guangzhou or take a Yangtze River cruise. But there’s much more to China than just these famous sites.
There are plenty of amazing tourist attractions in China, from ancient cities to forests to temples to rice fields that look like they’ve been designed by artists to sacred mountains and stunning waterfalls. This desire to explore off the beaten path where Chinese tourists outnumber foreign tourists isn’t just confined to 20-something backpackers. Any traveler armed with a good phrase book, a pot of patience and a marvelous sense of humor should do just fine.
Hundreds of years ago, the Chinese built massive stone walls around their cities to defend them from invaders. Xi’an was no exception. This city’s wall survives today, and is considered one of the most well preserved in China. The wall is 12 meters (40 feet) tall and about 15 meters (50 feet) wide at the bottom, tapering to 12 meters (40 feet) at the top. Walking on this wall is a must-do for visitors to this ancient capital of China.
Located about a mile northwest of the ancient city of Dali, The Three Pagodas are one of the best preserved Buddhist structures in China having endured several man-made and natural catastrophes. The middle pagoda, built during 824-840 AD by king Quan Fengyou, is 69.6 meters (227 feet) high and is one of the tallest pagodas in China. The other two pagodas were built about a century later.
Established in 1982, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is the first national forest park in China and is part of the Wulingyuan Scenic Areas. With its clear streams, weird-looking peaks, wildlife and abundant sub-tropical vegetation, the park is a year-round magnet for visitors. Key attractions include the Golden Whip Stream where visitors can see fish swimming in the crystal-clear water.
The Stone Forest, or Shilin in Chinese, is a set of karst formations in southwest China. The stones jut from the earth similar to the way a stalagmite does in a cave. These stones are thought to be 270 million years old. The area was an ocean floor and the flow of water created the majestic pinnacles. The stone forest receives over 2 million visitors a year.
Lijiang Old Town is one of Yunnan Province’s top tourist magnets, drawing visitors who want to sample life in a minority area. Kublai Khan was the first emperor to live in this 800-year-old town that is affiliated with the Naxi minority culture. Almost 350 bridges cross canals that meander through the city, which is a good place to see colorful Naxi architecture and residents wearing native costumes.
Travelers who’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon already know how scenic the Wudang Mountains, located in northwestern Hubei Province, are. Besides being scenic, the Wudang Mountains is the most sacred Taoist mountain range in China. There travelers will find temple complexes, including the palatial Nanyan Temple, considered the most spectacular of the 36 temples on Wudangshan because it’s built of rock from the cliff behind it.
Zhouzhuang is one of the most famous water towns in China. Often referred to as the “Venice of the East,” the town is criss-crossed with rivers and streams lined with ancient houses. Located less than 32 km (20 miles) from Suzhou, Zhouzhuang is famous for its twin bridges, Shide and Yongan that are symbols of the town. A boat ride is a good way to see the city.
Mount Tai, in Shandong Province, is one of China’s Five Sacred Mountains. Climbing Taishan (“shan” is mountain in Mandarin) was one of the first things a new emperor did; it’s said that 72 emperors made the climb. They left behind great temples, inscribed tablets and other cultural relics. Travelers with imperial leanings will want to climb the 6,000-step east route as that’s what the emperors did.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is situated on the Yangtze River in southwestern China. About 15 km (9 miles) in length, the canyon passes through a series of rapids surrounded by mountains on both sides that sharply rise 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) above the river. It is believed to be the deepest canyon in the world – depending on the criteria applied. The hiking trail through the gorge is one of the most accessible and satisfying in China, with dramatic scenery. The hike is not to be taken lightly though. Even for those in good physical shape, it’s a workout and can certainly wreck the knees. Accommodation along the way is in guesthouses, so hikers won’t need a tent.
Suzhou is a picturesque city located on the Grand Canal about 65 km (40 miles) from Shanghai. It is famous for its silks, the canals that run through the city, and for its classical gardens with their fish ponds and rockeries. Suzhou has about 80 classical gardens; the Humble Administrator’s Garden is among the most famous. A canal boat ride is a good way to experience the exquisiteness of Suzhou.