This post is also available in: German
I’ve been on the road a lot in China. All in all, I spent two months railing and bussing all across the country and discovered new, amazing places at every corner. Here are my favourites, the places that really kicked ass:
1. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Hunan Province
The Zhangjiajie National Forest Park was China’s first national park and it covers a huge area of over 4800 hectares. Upon seeing the hundreds of overgrown sandstone pillars rising into the sky, James Cameron and the producers of Avatar supposedly found the inspiration for the floating Hallelujah Mountains on the fictional planet of Pandora. It is easy to see how this incredibly landscape inspired the movie: Hiking trails wind their way through and often up the 200m high pillars and walking these paths isn’t an easy feat, even for those of us who are really in shape. The park also includes cold streams, beautiful forests, several troupes of wild monkeys as well as the worlds biggest outdoor elevator, cable cars, pagodas and traditional villages.
2. Crescent Lake in Dunhuang, Gansu Province
Crescent Lake is a bit of a natural wonder. The lake is naturally formed like a half moon and has existed in this southwestern part of the Gobi Desert for the past 2000 years. Nestled in between the dunes, the little oasis also sports a beautiful pagoda and a green garden. Although the lake was in danger of drying up and getting swallowed by the sand, it has since been saved by the Chinese government and now that the freshwater spring is replenished, Crescent Lake can once again be enjoyed by visiting the small city of Dunhuang.
3. The Longji Rice Terraces, Guangxi Province
Imagine a green and brown landscape made of glittering swirls, circles and sweeps. Mist lingers in the air and in the fields below, beyond the jumble of old wooden houses, a couple Yao women are bent over working the the many coloured fields. The Longji Rice Terraces – the name literally means “dragon’s backbone” – cover a whole long valley, as far as the eyes can see. The beautifully carved rice fields are sweeping up and down hills and not leaving a single slope bare.
4. The Cave Temples in Mati Si, Gansu Province
The cave temples in Mati Si were built hundreds of years ago by the Yugur minority – a nomadic people whose origins lie in Mongolia, but who decided to settle in Gansu Province. The colourful Buddhist temples hight up in the cliffs are actually part of big cave systems zigzagging their way through the rock and include many chambers containing beautiful carvings, Buddha statues and murals. They were once an important stop along the silk road, but later got destroyed during a Muslim uprising and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Today, the cave temples have been rebuilt and are still a very underrated and barely visited attraction in China.
5. Shangri-la, Yunnan Province
Shangri-la is a small city in the far western corner of Yunnan Province. Located right at the border to Tibet, it was once called Zhongdian, but was later renamed to James Hilton’s famous mountain paradise Shangri-la to attract more tourism. Though, unfortunately, when the city’s old town burned down in early 2014, almost all tourism to the region halted. But now, with fewer crowds, Shangri-la is more than ever worth a visit. The Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery right outside the city is the biggest Buddhist monastery in Yunnan province and reminds visitors of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Located in the rolling green hills of this mountainous landscape and at the shores of a small lake, the monastery still houses over 700 monks and is a beautiful place for a day trip.
6. The Rainbow Mountains, Gansu Province
Fancy a really colourful Chinese wonderland? Search no more, the Danxia Landform, also known as the Rainbow Mountains near Zhangye, basically looks like a gigantic layered birthday cake on LSD. Different coloured layers of sandstone, ranging from vibrant hues of yellow, orange and red to blues and greens cover the landscape’s rolling hills, sharp peaks and rugged valleys. Visitors can hike through the mountains to different viewpoints high above the landform or take a bus along a pink brick road. It’s cool, it’s fun and definitely not your ordinary hiking trip.
6. The Panda Base, Sichuan Province
Sichuan Province is famous for housing a big part of the last remaining Giant Pandas. While the cuddly looking bears have found their home in several research bases, my favourite among them is the Bifengxia Panda Base in Ya’an. The town of Ya’an is located about two hours outside of the big city of Chengdu and the pandas here live among lush forest next to the incredible Bifeng Gorge. This place is far away from China’s pollution, screaming crowds and traffic jams with nothing but unadulterated nature around it. Apart from seeing the pandas in their huge enclosures and learning about panda breeding and research, visitors can also enjoy hikes to the waterfalls and through the green gorge.
7. The Westernmost Point of the Great Wall of China near Jiayuguan, Gansu Province
It doesn’t always have to be Beijing. The Great Wall of China is a long compilation of wall-fragments, encompassing thousands of kilometers and many different dynasties and cultures. The westernmost part of this immense feat of architecture can be visited in Jiayuguan, Gansu Province and is truly off the beaten tourist path. This end-section of the wall has been restored completely and at certain points, it might not seem as high and impressive as other parts to the east, but for me, having it all to myself contributed to its charm. The wall, making its way up steep, rugged mountains in the dry, desert-type landscape of Gansu and the adjoining fort, museum and tombs teach about Chinese history from a whole new angle.
8. The Karst Landscape of Yangshuo, Guangxi Province
Ok this one is fairly well known, but most people still head to Guilin, which is about one hour upriver from Yangshuo. While Guilin is a big, crowded and smog-covered city, Yangshuo is closer to nature. Of course, it still attracts plenty of tourists, but in Yangshuo you can rent bicycles or scooters and spend the days cruising through the incredible, overgrown karst hills rising out of lush, green fields. If you are feeling lazy, float down the Li River on a bamboo raft and enjoy the landscape drifting by.
9. The Reed Flute Cave, Guangxi Province
The Reed Flute Cave is located only a few kilometers outside of Guilin in Guangxi Province, but it kind of looks like it belongs on a different planet. It gets its incredibly poetic name from the reeds growing outside the entrance, which apparently can be used to make melodious flutes. Lit up in harmonious colours, the stalactites and stalagmites, with a little imagination, form mountains, patterns and many strange things. F0r example, several creatures from mythology can be found reflecting in the pools of smooth, still water. Old inscriptions and poems left behind tell that the cave was already popular over a thousand years ago, but it actually only got rediscovered during WW2, when a group of refugees stumbled upon it in search of shelter.
10. Mao’s ginormous head in Changsha, Hunan Province
Mao Zedong is usually depicted as an old, wise statesman – balding and a bit saggy, obviously. The city of Changsha went a bit rogue though and built an absolutely ginormous bust of the former leader in his youth, complete with perfect chiseled features and lush hair blowing in the nonexistent wind. The statue, which is over 100 feet high, apparently cost 300 Million Dollars but the pride in the communist revolutionary was so big, that the city simply ignored all objections of the depiction being wrong or the whole project being wasteful. The big head is located on Orange Island – a beautiful green island park – and this curiosity is definitely worth a little side trip to the capital of Hunan province.