10 Off the Beaten Path Destinations in China

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When I was a kid, I loved Chinese landscape paintings. I could spend hours examining the few reproductions that my parents had at home. One day I was told that they depicted the Karst Mountains of Guilin. Ever since then, I had wanted to discover these peaceful landscapes for real.

 

A few years ago, we finally made it to China. But since we also went to Hong Kong to attend a friend’s wedding, we only had one week to explore China. It didn’t take me long to decide to travel to Guilin instead of Beijing or Shanghai. I imagined it to be a small and tranquil town, surrounded by picture-perfect mountains. However, we soon found out that the image I had of Guilin could not be found in this huge city. The serenity I was looking for was actually a few hours away from Guilin, such as in Yangshuo, Daxu, and Longsheng.

 

 

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This time, before planning another (much longer) trip to China, I wanted to make sure to travel to some “real” off-the-beaten-path destinations. And there’s no better way to find out than to ask our fellow travellers! So, just like we did before heading to Peru and Bolivia, we reached out to other travel bloggers for their recommendations and advices.

 

Along with Longsheng and Daxu that we visited in Guanxi a few years ago, we would like to share with you 10 off-the-beaten-path destinations in China.

 

Hiking the Dragon’s Backbone in Longsheng, Guanxi

By Mei and Kerstin

 

 

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Located only 2 hours away from Guilin, Longsheng is mostly famous for its rice terraces. They are also called Longji Rice Terraces or the “Dragon’s Backbone”, because the summit of the mountainous rice terraces looks like a dragon’s backbone. These terraced fields date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). And today, rice in Longsheng is still harvested by the local ethnic groups.

 

There are in fact more than 10 ethnic groups in Longsheng. But the Yao, the Zhuang, the Miao and the Dong are the best-known ethnic minorities in the area. The Yao women are recognizable by their very long hair that they never cut, whereas the Zhuang ladies usually wear embroidered towels as headwear.

 

When we were hiking through the misty rice terraces from one little village to another, we met several people from different ethnic groups. We barely heard them from afar, and suddenly they walked past us, carrying fruits or vegetables in a woven basket on their back. If you wish to get to know the ethnic minorities better, it’s best to spend a day or two on your own in small villages, such as Ping’An, or Huangluo Yao Village also called the “Long Hair Village”. There we even saw some Yao women washing their long hair along the riverbanks. One of them even told us that her hair is more than 1 meter long!

 

The best time to hike the Longsheng Rice Terraces is said to be Spring or Autumn. But with the actual climate change, it really depends of your luck! We visited in November, supposedly the best time weather-wise, but it was quite foggy and rainy. Despite the bad weather, it did clear up a few times. And when it did, the views of the rice terraces were simply breath-taking! And definitely worth the 5-hour-hike!

 

Gyantse in Western Tibet

By James at Travel Collecting

 

 

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The Gyantse in western Tibet is well off the beaten path, but it also has one the most important monasteries and one of the most impressive fortresses in all of Tibet. The Palcho Monastery’s most famous feature is the Pango Chorten, the largest chorten (stupa) in Tibet.  It is dark inside the main hall. And the pungent smell of yak butter, ubiquitous throughout Tibet, hangs in the air.

 

The best time to visit Tibet is June-August because the weather is more hospitable then. And this is also the best chance to see the Palcho Monastery monks creating large sand mandalas on the monastery floor.  They spend several days pouring colored sand into intricate geometric patterns. Then sweep them away a few days later.  This symbolizes life and the short time we are here on earth. It also makes witnessing this event even more special.  The multi-layered monastery is beautiful and dominates one end of town.

 

The center of town, however, is dominated by Gyantse Dzong, the 13th century fortress that sits atop a rocky outcrop rising straight up from street level.  There is a small museum in the fortress – worth a short visit – but the views of the fortress from town are especially dramatic.

 

It is only possible to travel into Tibet on an organized tour.  Trains, buses and planes go into Tibet’s capital Lhasa. And from there, a minivan will take you to Gyantse (most likely via Shigatse). The drive is at least 6 hours. Gyantse is not easy to get to, but it is totally worth it when you get there.

 

The Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan

By Nikki & Michelle from Cheeky Passports 

 

 

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The Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan has to be one of the best hiking routes in China. Not only is it a great workout for those who love the outdoors, but it is also blessed with amazing vistas and wonderful spots in which to relax along the way.

 

The best way of accessing the starting point of the hike is to go to the city of Lijiang in Yunnan. From here you can find public or private transport to Qiaotou, a small town where the trail starts. You can also get to Qiaotou from Shangri-La.

 

The trekking route can be hiked in 1-2 days by those who are very fit and do not intend stopping much along the way. Or in a more leisurely manner in 2-3 days. The third day itinerary would include going right down to the gorge and climbing back up via a series of ‘sky ladders’ (not recommended for those who suffer from vertigo!).

 

Most people of moderate fitness levels can hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge although the notorious part of the trail, which consists of a never-ending ‘28 bends’ is rather challenging!  There are several guesthouses along the way, which cater to trekkers, providing hot meals and a cozy room for the night. You can usually turn up without booking ahead, so that you can stop to rest at whatever part of the trail is most convenient!

 

Yao Minority in Guangdong

By Krasen from Journey beyond Horizon

 

 

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Guandgong Province is well known mainly with its high-developed area around Pearl River Delta, including the mega cities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Zhongshan and Zhuhai, as well as the two famous Special Administrative Regions Hong Kong and Macao. But if you go north of this area, to the northern cities Qingyuan and Shaoguan, you can find a very different Guangdong.

 

Qingyuan is the northernmost city of the high-developed urban area. From here to the north, the views change significantly. You enter into a land of mountains, small remote villages, rice terraces, deep subtropical and bamboo forests, and canyons. Further north, a new fairy landscape begins – the limestone (karst) hills of Yingxi, of the same kind as the famous Guilin. Proceed more to the north, and you will enter the land of Yao minority, in the counties of Liannan and Lianzhou.

 

Yao minority is considered one of the oldest inhabitants of South China, along with some minorities like Zhuang, Miao and others. Most of Yao live in Guangxi and Guizhou provinces. But their easternmost branch is settled here, in the northernmost part of Guangdong.

 

There are some tourist destinations, especially presenting the culture of Yao. The most notable of them is “Qian Nian Yao Zhai” (Thousand Years of Yao village). This village is situated on a hill with stunning views to the endless limestone mountains area. There you can enjoy not only the native environment of Yao, but also their culture, folklore performance and artifacts. Entrance fee: 60 CNY.

 

But since it is a tourist attraction, if you are looking for something natural and virgin, you can go to many other villages around Liannan, from which I would notice Youling village.

 

There are buses from Guangzhou to Liannan, few times every day. Then from Liannan town you can take a local bus or taxi to the nearby villages, including Qian Nian Yao Zhai. Or you can join a one-day trip by travel company from Guangzhou or Qingyuan.

 

Chengdu in Sichuan

By Elaine & David from Show them the Globe

 

 

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The capital of southwest China’s Sichuan Province, Chengdu is one of China’s most populated cities and is renowned for the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, as well as its teahouse culture and awesome Sichuan food.

 

The highlight of a trip to Chengdu is undoubtedly the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Around 2,000 giant pandas remain in the wild in the remote, mountainous regions of central China. And a trip to the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding provides a rare opportunity to see the giant panda in its natural habitat. It’s incredible to watch the pandas munching on bamboo and rolling around their enclosures. While the new-born pandas instantly capture visitors’ hearts in the panda nursery.

 

A visit to an open-air tea house is a must before indulging in the local cuisine: a super spicy Chengdu hotpot is our favourite! Tea pouring is a work of art in Chengdu and is often accompanied by an ear cleaning service offered by the teahouse master.

 

Chengdu is also a great base from which to visit the UNESCO World Heritage designated Leshan Giant Buddha, located an 80 minute train ride from Chengdu. The Huanglongxi ancient town and Qingcheng Mountain are other great day trips.

 

Chengdu is a three hour flight from Beijing and Shanghai and is also easily accessible by train from the two cities. March to June and September to November are the most popular times to visit while the heavy rainfall during July and August deters many visitors. The pandas are most playful when the temperatures are lower.

 

Lhasa in Tibet

By Talek from Travels with Talek

 

 

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Lhasa, the capital of Tibet is a remarkable place of ancient customs and natural beauty. It is not only physically remote and challenging to get to, it is also politically remote. Tibet is an autonomous region of China where political issues have flared up periodically.  As a result, the Chinese government implements controls on tourism. The requirements for entry into Tibet change occasionally. So people interested in visiting need to be aware of the most recent regulations. I was fortunate to travel to Lhasa with a group of Chinese tourists who happily welcomed me into their group.

 

There are several ways to get to Lhasa by train or car. Our group entered from the north-east and drove in a caravan across central China to Lhasa.  The trip took about three days.

 

Once in Lhasa, you must visit the number one attraction, Potala Palace. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that started in 1645 and consisting of two separate palaces. The White Palace houses the religious leaders’ tombs; and the Red Palace is used for religious purposes. You have to climb 2,564 steps to get to the palace, which is now a museum over 1000 rooms full of fascinating articles.

 

The other top Lhasa attraction is Barkhor Street, a circular street in the center of the city. The local custom is that people walk on this street in a clockwise direction circling the Jokhang Temple, an important religious site.

 

Watching the people on this street is a unique experience. This is a holy site and the faithful perform religious observances in full view. The local Tibetans drag themselves on the street towards Jokhang Temple with padding attached to their knees and wood slabs protecting their hands. Exploring this street with its shops and restaurants is a fascinating experience in Lhasa.

 

Mount Huashan in Xi’an

By Claire from Claire’s Footsteps

 

 

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Mount Huashan, located about three hours from the ancient capital of Xi’an, is a great off the beaten path thing to do in China. It’s actually got a reputation for being the most dangerous mountain in China. Although this isn’t strictly accurate, as it only refers to one part of the mountain.

 

This is the ‘plank walk’, where hikers are strapped into a harness and must tentatively navigate their way along a very small plank suspended on the edge of a sheer cliff. It’s definitely adrenaline pumping. But it isn’t a necessary part of hiking around the mountain, so don’t worry if it’s not for you!

 

Still, some parts of hiking in Huashan aren’t for the faint hearted. Hikers will find themselves having to climb up and down ladders on a few occasions. And if you decide to climb up rather than take the cable car (although most people do take the cable car), you’ll find a few obstacles along the way.

 

Huashan is a great spot to enjoy the scenery, see the distinct terrain of the mountains and interestingly, visit temples. The mountain is actually one of the holiest mountains in China, with plenty of Taoist places of worship to admire and photograph.

 

It’s possible as a day trip from Xi’an but to make the most out of your time, you can stay in Huashan Village. Visiting this mountain is certainly a must-do on any thrill seeker’s China itinerary.

 

Cycling in Shangri-La’s Napa Lake in Yunnan

By Pashmina from The Gone Goat

 

 

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Imagine rolling hills and a wide stretch of asphalt as you bike your way through Shangri-La’s famous Napa Hai Nature reserve. Situated at 3,270 metres above sea level, and approximately 8km northwest of Shangri-La, this is a well-kept secret in China’s Tibetan Valley.

You’ll find yourself surrounded alongside horses, pig and cows grazing in the field and stumbling across Tibetan people who are going about their day in the mystical land called Shangri-La or the lost horizon.

 

China’s secret landscapes are a traveller’s dream. The lake fills up a valley surrounded on three sides by mountains usually covered in snow during winter and springtime. The best time to visit is between February and May when it is cool and the sky is deliriously blue.

 

Spend the day cycling and take a break to ride a horse, eat yak yoghurt and stay in a yurt. The closest town is Shangri-La, the ancient Tibetan village where you can also visit the Potatso National Park, or spend time in the Old Town. Only just a handful of streets managed to survive the January 2014 fire that reduced most of the old town to ashes. But you’ll notice a mix of cobbled lanes and renovated wooden buildings that showcase the charms of Shangri-La’s old town.

 

The easiest way to get to Shangri-La is to take a train from Kunming to Dali / Lijiang. And then take a bus from Lijiang to Shangri-La.

 

Wuzhen Water Town in Zhejiang

By Constance from The Adventures of Panda Bear

 

 

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Wuzhen, a famous ancient water town, is an amazing off the beaten path place to visit in China. The scenic water town is part of the town of Tongxiang and is located in the Zhejiang Province, a stone’s throw away from larger cities such as Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Suzhou.

 

The beauty of Wuzhen has been depicted throughout history in poetry, paintings, and today’s modern age, in photos all over the internet. Aside from being beautifully scenic, the town is quite historical. Wuzhen is approximately 1,300 years old and was founded in 872 AD. It is known for its Ming and Qing dynasty buildings.

 

Be sure to explore the narrow alleyways of the town, check out the museums, and sample delicious street food! The two best museums in Wuzhen include the Residence of Mao Dun, a famous poet who grew up in the town, and the Indigo Tapestry workshop, a cloth factory. The museums are amazing to see and provide you with historical insight to the town.

 

For delectable street food, try the famous fried stinky tofu, dried tofu, Chinese crepes, and roasted chestnuts. These local snacks are sure to keep your bellies happy and full!

 

The best time to visit is typically in April or October when the weather is milder. However any time is a good time to check out Wuzhen. To get there from Shanghai, take the intercity bus from the Shanghai South Bus Station to Wuzhen Bus Station, then take the local bus K350 to the Wuzhen West Scenic Area.

 

The Ancient Village of Daxu in Guanxi

By Mei from Travel with Mei & Kerstin

 

 

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Daxu is another off-the-beaten-path village that we visited in Guanxi. Located only 20 kilometres south of Guilin, this little Chinese village founded during the Qing Dynasty (221-207 BC) still has lots of well-preserved ancient buildings and paved bluestone streets. For history buffs and ancient architecture lovers like us, Daxu is a true gem! And a must-visit spot if you’re in or around Guilin.

 

When we arrived in the village in the morning, we were the only people walking in the streets. Behind a corner, we then saw a few locals chatting. They stopped talking, looked at us, especially at Kerstin, and wondered if we were lost. When they understood that we were just travellers, they turned around and kept talking to each other. On the streets lay bits and pieces of bright red papers. And red lanterns hung along the facades of the streets. Ling, our guide, explained that there was probably a wedding…

 

We then head to Wanshou Bridge – or Longevity Bridge. Built during the Ming Dynasty between 14th and 17thcentury, it’s entirely made of stone and looked like it would fall apart if we stepped on it. But it survived for so many centuries, so why would it crumble now?

 

Exploring well-preserved ancient houses dating back to the Ming or Qing Dynasties was another great experience in Daxu. We wandered around the little courtyards on our own. Examined the wonderful wooden furniture inside the houses, and felt like traveling back in time. Being the only people visiting these historical buildings, we were not even sure if they were private or open to visitors. But since no one was there, we kept strolling around.

 

Before leaving town, we were stopped by a very friendly old local man. He invited us to visit his humble house. And showed us with enthusiasm many – if not all – of his instruments, artefacts and even his fishing gear. He’s a local who grew up in Daxu, and always had new ideas how to turn used old gadgets into new tools. When he learned that I speak some Chinese, he talked even more. Now thinking back, I wonder if he’s still alive. If you ever visit Daxu, make sure to pay him a visit!

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China: Off the Beaten Path © Travelwithmk.com

China: 10 Off the Beaten Path Destinations © Travelwithmk.com

10 Off the beaten path destinations in China © Travelwithmk.com

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Traveler - Storyteller

Mei is a 30-something Archaeologist, born and raised in Luxembourg. Besides traveling, she loves eating sushi and stinky cheese (although not at the same time), as well as listening to Kerstin's funny stories while driving on long road trips. She's afraid of heights, but adores panoramic views. Her favorite places are those she chose to live in: Paris, Greece, San Francisco.

22 Responses

  1. Ulrike Hecker
    | Reply

    Of this list are only no 4 and No 8 “off the beaten path”. In Germany we do not even advise for tours to Daxu, is it is tooo touristy. But we know other places.

    Best regards
    Ulrike

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Well then the German agencies certainly advised you to go at the wrong moment! 😅 Because when we visited Daxu, we were the only tourists in the village. And in Longsheng where we spent two days hiking from village to village, we only met two “white” couples. The rest were only locals. In fact, when visiting China (or other countries in fact) we definitely advise to book your trips through local agencies that work with local guides, and not go through German (or other Western agencies). Chinese culture (like many other cultures in the world), history and traditions are quite complexe, and even a Western guide who’s lived in the country for 20 years wouldn’t be able to understand and explain all the details. We were lucky to have a guide who’s from one of the local minorities in Guangxi, because even as a Chinese person it was hard for me to understand everything. 😉

  2. Mike
    | Reply

    What a solid blog. We spent 5 weeks in China and didn’t even hit half the spots you mentioned….so many beautiful places to explore. Have you ever heard of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park? It was hands down our most amazing experience in all of China. Definitely add it to your list

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks Mike! Yes, we’ve heard of Zhangjiaje, it’s where the movie Avatar was filmed, and we hope to go there too someday! This year, we’ll visit Beijing, travel along the (Chinese) Silk Road, and also go to Yunnan Province. So there won’t be enough time to go to Zhagnjiajie…

  3. Marlene
    | Reply

    What an amazing post! These are such incredible places that i wouldn’t mind visiting all of them. But I do have a fascination about Tibet. Definitely on my bucket list! Also, so cool you’ve invited other travelers to participate in the post. Well done!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks Marlene! We hope you get to visit Tibet soon. Our favorite way to get inspired before choosing the exact destinations we want to explore is actually to ask our fellow travel bloggers’ for suggestions! 😉

  4. Suruchi Mittal
    | Reply

    Loved your post and this list. These surely are some off the beaten path destinations in China. Out of all these Lhasa tops our list. After seing the Leh Palace, replica of Potala palce, we are craving to see the original one. And that circular street too sounds quite cool. Hopefully soon China we will be there.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Oh we’ve never heard of Leh Palace, and that the Potala Palace was its model! Very interesting! So yes, you must go to Lhasa to see the “original” one and let us know which of both palaces you prefer! 😀

  5. We did love our 4 weeks in China. It just made us want to go back. But your post added a few new reasons to return. Hiking the Dragons Backbone looks like a great way to see rice terraces. Tibet is another spot we wanted to visit but missed. But we would probably want to take the suggestion to find an organized tour. Potala Palace looks quite amazing! We loved our stop in Xian but it was not long enough. We wanted to go back to explore more of the city. But now would add in a visit to Mount Huashan. So many new spots for a return visit. Thanks!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      How long did you stay in Xian? We’ve planned to stay there for only 2 days. Ii’s probably not enough, but like you said, we’ll have a good reason to return another time then. 🙂 Hiking along the Longsheng rice terraces was such a unique experience (despite – or perhaps because – of the fog!), so we definitely recommend you to add it to your China bucket list!

  6. Lisa
    | Reply

    Though I’ve never seen a dragon’s backbone, the picture of the Longji Rice Terraces is incredible and I could definitely see the similarity 😁😁 I love hiking, however the Tiger Leaping Gorge sounds very challenging and would push me to my limits, I think! Love the guesthouses along the way though 💛 Hiking in Huashan sounds like my style 🙌🏼✨ Love this entire list!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      We also thought that the Tiger Leaping Gorge sounds challenging to hike. Because of our backpains, we decided to not do this this year, although we’ll explore Yunnan, so we’ll let you know what else you can do in this region! 😉

  7. Anda
    | Reply

    I think the best way to explore any country is by going off the beaten path. However, unless you know a local (or you hire one) it’s very difficult to get to many of these interesting places by yourself. I’ve never been to China. Although I’d love to visit some of its bigger cities like Hong Kong, or Beijing, I would be way more excited to hike through the misty rice terraces, or go with a boat through the famous ancient water town of Wuzhen. But visiting the monasteries of Tibet would definitely be my number one priority.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Hong Kong can definitely be visited on your own, because everyone speaks Chinese (well, it used to be a British colony until 1997), and we had no problem at all exploring HK by ourselves. But you’re right about the need to know a local or hire a local guide to explore lesser known places in China. When we went to Guilin, Yangshuo and the Longsheng rice terraces, we went through the travel agency China Highlights. We contacted a dozen local agencies, and found that this one offered the best services. Their guide (well the one we had…) was really very good! That’s why we decided to go through them again this year.

  8. Milijana
    | Reply

    Tibet is on my this year bucket list. One needs to be fit to climb 2,564 steps to get to the Potala Palace!
    Wondering can you recommend any site for checking the most recent regulations for visiting Tibet?
    Thanks in advance.

    xoxo Milijana

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      There’s the hike but the altitute sickness that make us think about going to Tibet or not one day. We really wanted to add it to our China trip this year, but decided to go to Shangri-la instead. Regarding the regulations to visit Tibet, it’s best to book your trip through a travel agency, who can help you arranging for all the necessary documents. We’ve also heard that you definitely have to have a visa before going to China, as it might be complicated for foreigners to ask (and wait) for a visa once in China.

  9. Carolina Colborn
    | Reply

    The little villages of Longsheng’s rice terraces, the Gyantse monasteries. Mount Huashan’s face, the Whuzen Water Town, and the Ancient Village of Daxu are truly awesome off-the-beaten path destinations but I hardly think Chengdu, very popular because of the pandas, and Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, are.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You’re probably right, we’ve also heard about Chengdu and Lhasa being more touristy than other places in China. But since we haven’t been to both of them, and we had/have to trust our fellow travelers’ and travel bloggers’ recommendations. 😀

  10. Indrani
    | Reply

    oh those childhood dreams!Good you could turn them true.
    China is way more than Great Wall!I hope U can experience them.

  11. Pashmina Binwani
    | Reply

    Love this list Mei! There’s so many places in China to visit, that I will need to come back. Thanks for including my recommendation in this post 🙂

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You’re welcome Pashmina, and thanks a lot for your recommendation! Your description of biking around Shangri-La’s Napa Lake inspired us so much that we ended up adding this in the program of our upcoming trip to China! 🙂

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