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As one of the largest countries on Earth in terms of area, China is filled with some of the world’s greatest landmarks, such as the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors of Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum in Shaanxi, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, and of course, the Great Wall of China which stretches from Dandong to Lop Lake.
But with a vast geography, which includes some of the highest and lowest points on Earth, and a history dating back more than 4,000 years, some of the most fascinating places in China often get overlooked. Here are 20 of the most underrated spots you shouldn’t miss.
In the southwestern part of the Fujian province, inland from the Taiwan Strait, are 46 tulou (“earthen structures” in Mandarin) built between the 13th and 20th centuries. Each of the massive, circular structures served as a self-contained village of communal living, able to house up to 800 people. Since they were built for defense by the Hakka people of southern China, they all face inward to the courtyard and only have one entrance and windows from the second floor on up.
Now the structures, which are built of mud, stones, and bamboo, are located among rice, tea, and tobacco fields and officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite looking plain on the outside, the earthen houses are incredibly intricate inside. One of the oldest houses is the Yuchang building erected in 1308 featuring titled pillars angling as much as 15 degrees, while the Chengqi building has 400 rooms! Some of the tulous offer homestays complete with Hakka meals.
Giant Buddha of Leshan
At 233 feet tall, the Giant Buddha of Leshan carved into the Xijuo Peak hillside of Mount Emei in Sichuan province is the largest buddha statue in the world — impressively withstanding the test of time since the eighth century. Looking out at the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu, and Qingyi rivers, the statue represents the site where Buddhism was brought to China in the first century C.E. In fact, the country’s first Buddhist temple, now known as Guangxiang Temple, was built on Mount Emei’s summit. The area now has more than 30 more temples and is known as one of Chinese Buddhism’s four holy lands. But it’s also remarkable for its natural beauty with 3,200 plant species and 2,300 animal species.
Guilin Lijiang National Park
The limestone karst formations along the Lijiang River at Guilin Lijiang National Park paint a stunning backdrop of jagged peaks pointing upward from the serenity of the Pearl River Basin. The two types of karsts each pierce skyward in their own way — the Fengong formations line the rivers with deep valleys between caves within the mountains, while the Fenglin formations reach nearly 1,000 feet tall with sheer vertical drops. The 102-mile river itself is also a starring attraction, as it winds between the cities of Yangshuo and Guilin. The area also features numerous trails that pass through forests, rice fields, and mountains, including the Reed Flute Cave Trail and Ping-an Rice Terrace Trail.
Zhangye Danxia Landforms National Geopark
Along the Silk Road in the northwestern province of Gansu, the mountains are a multicolored, magical sight to behold. The sandstone-layered mountains of Zhangye Danxia Landforms National Geopark are rainbow-striped with tones of reds, oranges, and yellows, looking more like a page ripped out of an illustrated storybook than the work of millions of years of natural erosion.
The mountains aren’t the only natural attraction in the area. Many rock formations near the peaks are shaped like animals and other oddities. The 124-square-mile area lies in the foothills of the Qilian Mountains near the Tibetan border, and has boardwalk paths to roam through the park without damaging the natural formations.
Classical Gardens of Suzhou
Royal hunting gardens were first built when Suzhou was founded as the capital of the Wu Kingdom back in the sixth century B.C.E. From the fourth to 18th centuries, private gardens in the same vein started sprouting up as well, mostly featuring rock gardens, rolling hills, and pavilions.
Today, 69 of the intricate gardens remain preserved with 19 open to the public and nine of them acknowledged by UNESCO, including the Humble Administrator's Garden, Lingering Garden, Lion Grove Garden, Couple’s Garden Retreat, and Retreat and Reflection Garden.
Tianjin Binhai Library
From the outside, it’s clear why Tianjin Binhai Library has the nickname of “The Eye” —not only does it look like one, but it’s also a vision into the future. Inside is a whitewashed, whimsical world of curved steps and shelves, seemingly filled with books (many of which are actually just fake book spines). Nonetheless, the five-level architectural wonder, which opened in 2017, invites the curious to explore the “new urban living room,” as Dutch architectural firm MVRDV behind the design described it. Turned into a reality only three years after its first sketch, the library is just one part of the Binhai Cultural Center, which also includes museums and performing arts venues.
Huanglong Travertine Pools
Huanglong is Mandarin for “yellow dragon,” and this natural terraced travertine formation indeed resembles a wonderment straight out of mythology. From afar, each of the circular pools looks like a scale of the legendary creature, as it stretches for a stunning 2.2 miles between dramatic mountain peaks in a dragon-like shape.
At the top of the valley is the Benbo Temple, where the bright, blue water cascades through the forest filled with giant pandas and golden snub-nosed monkeys and ends at the Xishan Cave Waterfalls. UNESCO even calls it “among the three most outstanding examples” of travertine terraces in the world — and definitely in Asia.
Houtouwan Abandoned Village
If you leave a place completely untouched, people are bound to be curious. At least that’s what happened with the former fishing village of Houtouwan on Shengshan Island in the Shengsi Archipelago. In the 1980s, the town of 3,000 was thriving. But as time passed, the challenges of reaching the remote island became tiresome and residents started moving out over the following decade.
By 2002, the village was completely abandoned and just sat there, as nature took its toll and vegetation covered the decaying structures. Now the deserted village has come to life again as a tourist destination, especially in the summer when the vegetation is at its greenest.
If you don’t know where to look, this extraordinary “art museum” can be found in the most unexpected place. The cliffs along the Dachuan River in southeastern Gansu province hold the greatest collection of Buddhist art on Earth. After all, there are 492 caves preserved here, with 484,376 square feet of murals and over 2,000 painted sculptures within these Mogao grottoes. Built in 366 C.E., this stop along the Silk Road near the Gobi Desert showcases works from the fourth to 14th centuries.
Of particular note is Cave 96 (pictured), a nine-story temple with a Tang Dynasty statue of Buddha that’s about 108 feet tall, as well as Cave 302 with a scene of a camel pulling a cart during the Sui Dynasty, and the Library Cave home to thousands of ancient manuscripts.
Mingsha Sand Dunes
To the southwest of the Mogao Caves, the sand sings as it passes over the dunes, giving the desert the name Mingsha, which means “gurgling sands.” The wide-open space is ripe for hiking, dune buggy riding, dune surfing, camel riding, and paragliding — and is the most picturesque during golden hour at dawn and dusk.
What looks like a true desert mirage at first glance is actually the aptly-named Crescent Moon Lake with a temple and pagoda. And as proof of just how striking the landscape is out here, Mingsha has recently become a favorite destination for site-specific fashion shows.
The center of heaven and Earth is believed to be here at Mount Songshan in Henan province, the only place where astronomical observations are thought to be accurate. The area was once used by emperors to establish their power, so it’s no surprise that the monuments built here were of the most elite architectural grades to ensure the utmost influence.
The monuments within the ancient city of Dengfeng, which was also an early capital of China during the Xia Dynasty, are clustered in eight areas and were built over the course of nine dynasties. The three Han Que gates are some of the nation’s oldest edifices, while other highlights include the Dengfeng Observatory, Zhougong Sundial Platform, and Pagoda of Songyue.
Zhouzhuang Water Town
While China is home to many water towns (also known as canal towns), like Luzhi, Qibao, Tongli, Wuzhen, and Xitang, the town of Zhouzhuang in the Jiangsu province between the major cities of Shanghai and Suzhou is believed to be the oldest, earning it the nickname “Venice of the East.”
Built in the Ming and Qing Dynasties more than 900 years ago, the white homes sit along the canals with stone bridges, including the 500-year-old Twin Bridge of Shide and Yong’an, linking the land. The city especially springs to life during its traditional festivals, including Lunar New Year, Wealth God Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, and Mid-Autumn Festival.
Jiuzhaigou National Park
Natural wonders and a rich culture mingle at Jiuzhaigou National Park, also known as Jiuzhai (Mandarin for “nine village”) Valley, referring to the more than 1,000 people from 110 families who live in the nine Tibetan villages within the park and preserve their peoples’ culinary, religious, and festival traditions. The 114 lakes in the area are interspersed with both forests and waterfalls, including five major ones, such as the wide Nuo Ri Liang falls. The park is especially beautiful in winter when the Pearl Shoals and Nuo Ri Liang waterfalls freeze and turn the area into a fairytale winter wonderland.
Hallstatt Replica Town
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the Austrian town of Hallstatt should be absolutely honored that an entire duplicate version of the European village has been built outside the city of Huizhou in Guangdong province. Revealed in 2012, the project was the brainchild of a mining tycoon who hoped it would attract both tourism to the area, as well as more residents. Among the exact copies are its main square, church clock tower, and wooden homes, which in total cost about $940 million to construct.
It’s not the only copycat town in China. There’s also “Thames Town,” which is meant to look like a British town outside of Shanghai, as well as a slice of Paris featuring a replica of the Eiffel Tower located in the city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province.
Guia Fortress and Lighthouse
While the Chinese region of Macau draws visitors for its famous casinos, the area is just as steeped in Portuguese influence since the island was a European colony from the 16th century until 1999, making its entire historic center a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Atop the Guia Hill sits the Guia Fortress, built from 1622 to 1638, with a tower, powder magazine, barracks, and most impressively — broad views of the Macau Peninsula.
Also within the structure is a chapel, built by Clarist nuns, with frescos melding both Western and Chinese influences, as well as the Guia Lighthouse, which was the first modern lighthouse on China’s coast when it was built in 1864.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
Over the years, the abundant rainfall in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area carved out the dramatic stone pillars of quartz sandstone in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Mixed with lush greenery and cloud forests, the unique scenery has become a trademark subject in many Asian paintings.
Trails of varying lengths and difficulties wind through the stunning landscape, including the Golden Whip Trail to Avatar Mountain. Alternatively, the Bailong Elevator, which has the moniker “Hundred Dragons Sky Lift,” is the world’s largest outdoor elevator and travels 1,076 feet up through the landscape.
Dongchuan Red Land
Legend has it that when God was passing through the valley of the Wumeng Mountains in the city of Kunming, he knocked over his palette and dropped paints of every hue there. After all, the technicolor brushstrokes of the landscape in the Dongchuan Red Land look otherworldly. But in fact, it’s the iron oxide in the soil that gives the land its red hue, which creates multicolored splotches when viewed from afar alongside the natural green fields and golden plains.
Perhaps the most charming aspect of the area is that it wasn’t planned, but simply a happenstance of farm life in the area. For generations, the local farmers developed their own techniques using terraces to grow drought-resistant crops, giving the colors a random pattern.
Mount Qingcheng and the Dujiangyan Irrigation System
Two very different ancient systems were founded in this area. The first is the intricate Dujiangyan irrigation system built in 256 B.C.E. and expanded upon through the Tang, Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties. Without any dams, the ecological system carries water from the Minjiang River to the Chengdu Plains.
And it’s on those plains that Mount Qingcheng sits — the site where philosopher Zhang Ling was inspired to establish Taoism in 142 C.E. The 11 Taoist temples, including Erwang and Fulong Temples, celebrate where the doctrines were first preached.
The villagers of Guoliang sure know how to take matters into their own hands. Their remote location in Henan province's Taihang Mountains meant the only way to get out of town was by a steep and slippery staircase in the mountains called the Sky Ladder. Since the government wouldn’t help build a roadway, they got to work themselves, carving out a tunnel roadway by hand.
Five years after they started in 1972, they had a tunnel that was three quarters of a mile long by 16 feet high and 13 feet wide — not bad for a group of amateurs! That said, the tunnel definitely wasn’t built with safety measures in mind and has become more of a tourist attraction.
Sunrise Kempinski Hotel
While its street address is still technically in Beijing, the Sunrise Kempinski Hotel in the Huairou District is a serene waterfront escape on the Yanqi Lake near the Yanshan Mountains. But what truly gives the five-star hotel its shine is the round sun shape of the hotel itself with 306 guest rooms inside. The 318-foot-tall structure also has a secondary significance. The scallop shape is a symbol of good fortune in China.