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When people dream of a trip to China, they imagine dramatic, mist cloaked peaks, the solitary and serpentine Great Wall, and small, alley neighborhoods functioning as they have for centuries.
Unfortunately, these things are becoming increasingly difficult to find as China continues to industrialize at an ever more dizzying rate. The pace and pollution of modern China often leaves travelers feeling frustrated and confused.
Still, there are many places that are, and likely will always remain, the very embodiment of a traveler’s fantasy. Following are eight of the very best:
The small island of Putuoshan is a few hours by ferry from the mainland city of Ningbo, and only an overnight boat ride from Shanghai. Still, after coming from China’s congested coast, Putuoshan seems like another world.
The island is covered by temples, pagodas, and narrow, cobblestoned, streets. It is populated by monks, monkeys, and a few fisherman and ringed by their boats and the best beaches in northern China.
Putuoshan is an excellent and extremely accessible place to escape the hustle of the coast, and would make a perfect weekend getaway from Shanghai.
If you want more information on traveling to Putuoshan, a good place to start is this online guide.
Located in central China, the small town of Pingyao makes an excellent stopover for travelers on their way to Xi’an.
Surrounded by a completely intact city wall dating to the Ming Dynasty, Pingyao allows the traveler to experience authentic imperial era architecture that has remained untouched by vigorous restorations and largely unspoiled by encroaching industry.
Certainly not unknown to tourists and travelers, Pingyao was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Even though it can, at times, be crowded, Pingyao is an excellent place to get a taste of life in ancient China.
Located in northwestern China’s Gansu province, Xiahe is home to the Labrang Monastery, one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world.
Often billed as a more accessible alternative to Tibet, Xiahe is, in fact, an excellent place to experience Tibetan culture in an intimate way.
The town is nestled in a mountain valley and though there has been some newer, Chinese-style, construction, the architecture is very much in a traditional Tibetan style.
Xiahe is very popular with foreign backpackers, but if the sound of familiar languages is getting you down there are numerous opportunities to escape.
Xiahe is a great jumping off point for further adventures, whether you are looking for an afternoon’s trek up a nearby mountain, or a multi-day overland journey through some of the most infrequently touristed terrain in China.
If you are looking to get as far away from the city, tourists, or people in general, as possible, than a trip to Kanas Lake is the answer.
Situated in the northern part of Xinjiang province, the lake lies close to the Russian border, amidst a landscape more characteristic of Siberia than the deserts of Xinjiang.
Getting to the lake is not easy. Without a prearranged tour, travelers must rely on one of the infrequent and irregular buses or a costly taxi.
Still, the trip to the lake itself, on a road that starts in the desert and climbs to grasslands and then into the mountains, is worth the effort.
Once there, visitors stay in one of several log cabins and can enjoy hiking, relaxing, and generally enjoying the natural scenery.
If you are lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the fabled “Kanas Lake Monster.”
Changbai Shan and Baihe
Changbai Shan is China’s largest nature reserve and offers near limitless opportunities for hiking and exploration. Located in the northeastern province, Jilin, Changbai Shan is an overnight train away from Beijing.
The closest town, which serves as a good entry point or base for day trips, is Baihe.
While not the most beautiful town in China, Baihe is small and relaxing, characterized more by its famous Meiren Song pine trees than its buildings and architecture.
If Baihe is not your style, or if you plan to spend several days in Changbai Shan, staying in one of the park’s guest houses may be the best option.
Though a little expensive by Chinese standards, these guest houses save a morning and evening bus trip, and allow you to explore less frequented areas of the park.
Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge
You will not be able to spend much time in China before you hear the praises of Lijiang. Located in the southwestern province of Yunnan, the old town of Lijiang has been popular with backpackers for decades.
Lijiang is often used as a starting point for excursions to the villages of the many minority cultures populating the area.
In addition to this, the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, which provides a scenic, three day, trek, is located just outside Lijiang. The trail winds through the gorge, one of the world’s deepest, offering some breathtaking and dizzying views, and passes by numerous lodges that provide food and accommodation.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge has been repeatedly threatened by hydroelectric development on the upper Yangtze River.
However, as of publication, all plans for development that would flood the gorge have been canceled. Still, it is well worth looking into before you plan a trip.
For a more detailed description of the trek, this personal account sums it up well.
Travelers coming from southeast Asia will feel right at home in Xishuangbana. Located in the deep south of Yunan province, the region is bordered by Laos and Myanmar. It is famous for its minority cultures, stilt houses, jungle treks, and lazy river cruises.
The central town is the uninspiring Jinghong, which serves as a base for journeys to the more picturesque villages surrounding it.
There are several buses that travel from Jinghong to the major outlying villages, but to find more secluded spots travelers take boats, rent bicycles, or even walk.
For more information about travel in Xishuangbana, visit this account of a bicycle trip through the region.
Wenchang and Dongjiao Yelin
China is not often praised for its beaches. Much of the coastline of the mainland is, unfortunately, densely developed or features bleak views of industrial infrastructure.
However, finding a place for quality beach time in China is not impossible, and Dongjiao Yelin, a coconut plantation off Hainan Island, is the place to do it.
Dongjiao Yelin has slowly been attracting some resort development. Fortunately, most places have maintained a pleasant, relaxing, “thatched hut” style that has not tarnished the beautiful white sand beaches and clear blue waters.
The nearby town of Wenchang is the transportation link to the coconut plantation and beaches. Though it has a few of the “gray boxes” that characterize much of modern Chinese architecture, Wenchang is, for the most part, a small, quiet, town.
The best, most up to date, information on Dongjiao Yelin for budget-minded travelers can be found at the Haikou Banana Hostel.
Modern China is constantly growing and changing. Largely, this means it is about hustle and bustle.
If your travels in China are, or you fear they may become, more hectic and frustrating than enjoyable, give one of these destinations a try.
After a few days, you will forget all about the congestion and pollution, and rediscover what makes travel in China truly amazing: great food, ancient culture, and an incredibly open, friendly people.
Some of Matador’s best writers and most inspiring people are currently in China. They include phishtopher, an anthropologist currently researching Tibetan narratives in western China and India, and sascha, a writer and shiftless hobo who survived the massive Chinese earthquake.
Thinking of studying in China? Check out the guide to study abroad in China over at the MatadorStudy blog.
For more reading on China, check out this collection of stories about China and Tibet.
Have you been to China? Did you discover any cool places? Share your travel tales by leaving a comment below!