A different kind of list
With flights to Beijing and Shanghai becoming cheaper with the advent of budget airlines such as China Eastern Airlines, a vacation to the oldest country in the world isn’t the pricey prospect it once was. As I prepare to head back to China for another tilt at the vast, fascinating, frustrating sprawl, I thought I’d revisit this old post and spruce it up with a few new recommendations.
It would be too easy for me to rattle off the generic list of places to visit in China suggesting the Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square, the Great Wall of China, and the Terra Cotta Warriors as ‘must see’. We all know those places and I think it’s safe to say that it’s a rare Chinese itinerary that doesn’t feature them. So rather than bore you with the generic, I decided I’d suggest ten different places to visit in China that I intend to visit in China in addition to the standard ones.
Rock and roll.
#10 – Nanjing, Jiangsu
Perhaps I’m a tad biased in recommending my former home and soon-to-be base of operations, but I do think Nanjing deserves its place on your Chinese itinerary. The former capital of China doesn’t get as much play as Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an, and it’s a crying shame: Nanjing has a lot of history and charm that makes it worth a look.
I’ve highlighted three below, but other spots such as Fuzimiao, the Presidential Palace Museum, and more make it a good spot for a few days on your itinerary.
The Nanjing Massacre Memorial
During the period of six weeks during the second Sino-Chinese War in 1937, Japanese soldiers raped, tortured, and murdered over 200,000 Chinese men, women, and children. While the official number varies (China claims 300,000+ while some Japanese historians low-ball it at as low as 40,000), descriptions of the atrocities are so vivid in their depiction of abject cruelty that it’s hard not to be moved at the reading.
The Memorial for Compatriots Killed in the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Forces of Aggression (or the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, as it is more commonly known) is a truly moving tribute to the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives in horrifying circumstances during that grim six weeks.
Filled with pictures, sculptures, and eye-witness accounts of the brutality that the Nanjing population received – I fully expect to spend a good portion of my visit to the memorial on the verge of tears.
Purple Mountain, The Ming Tomb, and Dr. Sun Yatsen’s Tomb
A sprawling complex that combines ancient Chinese history, modern Chinese history, and the enduring beauty of both manicured gardens and wilderness, Purple Mountain is one of Nanjing’s defining landmarks and a popular playground for locals and visitors alike.
Whether you’re wanting to wander the original Sacred Way to see the original Ming Tomb, to pay your respects at the Mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yatsen, take a refreshing dip in Purple Glow Lake, or get back to nature by wandering the park’s wilder areas, Purple Mountain is a must see when visiting Nanjing.
A beautiful park surrounding a large, man-made lake – Xuanwu Lake Park is a popular spot for locals to wander in the evenings or on the weekend. While parts of it are often crowded with screaming kids, elderly women doing Taichi, and men listening to their radios, there’s a real charm to the park as you wander its winding paths and arch-backed bridges.
Surrounded by the original city wall, Xuanwu Lake is a snapshot of China – at once green and developed, unfathomably old and frighteningly modern.
#9 – Li Jiang City, Yunnan
While Tong Li (Little Venice) is perhaps better known, I’ve had locals assure me that Li Jiang City is a far better choice if I want a Venetian experience with a distinctly Chinese twist to it.
While the bulk of Lijiang is a typically modern and crowded Chinese city, ‘Old Lijiang’ is a wonderfully rustic area full of canals, traditional Chinese architecture, and folk culture that isn’t as easy to come by in increasingly modernized China.
With over 300 stone bridges spanning the canals, paper lanterns lighting the stone cobbled streets, a nightly bonfire surrounded by Naxi dancers, and the feel of being in China as it once was – Lijiang’s closeness to me might make it the first spot on this list to get a visit.
#8 – Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival, Heilongjiang
Recommended to me by my good friend Kirk, Harbin isn’t just famous for its beer. In fact, with winter temperatures settling in at around -40 degrees during the month long festival – it’s actually colder than the notoriously frigid Russian city of Vladivostok. With such frigid temperatures comes an abundance of ice and snow, and so the locals put together a festival that has since risen to being one of the four largest winter festivals in the world.
Teams from all around the world gather to compete in the competition with inventive and massive ice sculptures depicting various scenes, people, and objects from around the world. Whether it’s a huge ice slide in the shape of China’s iconic Great Wall or a cityscape lit by LED lights, the festival is a celebration of human creativity and endurance.
It’s not all sight-seeing, either. Ice climbing and other activities give visitors a chance to participate in the fun. I guess I’d better buy a lot of extra clothing for next year’s festival. The festival kicks off on January 5th each year.
#7 – The Karakorum Highway, Xinjiang
So unlike the rest of China that it might as well be its own country (and believe me, it wants to be), the Xinjiang province of China is more akin to Central Asia than it is to the modern, Han dominated society that is China’s east.
A land of towering snow-capped mountains, vast deserts with ominous names, bustling bazaars, and smiling faces, Xinjiang is too big to explore in the detail it deserves, but the Karakorum Highway offers a snapshot of the varied terrains and experiences that can be found here.
Starting from ancient and beautiful Kashgar – your bumpy trek along the highway takes you through deserts, snow-capped mountains, tiny villages, and arguably China’s most picturesque city, Tashgorkan. The day drive out to the Kunjerab Pass, where China ends and Pakistan begins, is a bumpy one – but one laden with cultural opportunities and it’s a real photographic goldmine to boot.
It’s about as far removed from modern, bustling China as you can get, but it’s well worth a visit if the opportunity presents itself.
#6 – Guilin, Guangxi
Considered by many to be the most picturesque city in all of China, Guilin lies on the banks of the Li River in the Guangxi province of southern China. Bordered by verdant forests and the visually stunning karst topography that creates many of China’s most breath-taking natural wonders, Guilin also boasts a rich history that persists in the face of China’s increasing westernization.
Taking in all of Guilin’s charms is no mean feat, either. A quick browse of the city’s tourism page lists such intriguing options as Grotesque Peak Village, Elephant Trunk Hill, and Green Lotus Lake; historic sites like Daxu with its 1000+ year history; stunning natural wonders such as Peach Blossom River and Gudong Waterfall; and then the many lures of the city itself.
The nearby Longsheng Rice Terraces aren’t exactly ugly either…
#5 – Changbaishan Mountain, Heilongjiang
I first stumbled across Changbaishan while looking into its descriptively (and aptly) named Heavenly Lake, but the chance to visit the dormant volcano and its hot springs is one that makes me excited for my future travel plans.
As if the breathtaking lake and the chance to stand on a volcano aren’t incentive enough, the national park is also home to a hugely diverse selection of Chinese animals including bears, lynx, leopards, deer, and the fucking Siberian tiger! You can keep your pandas, people – I’d die a happy man if I ever got to see a tiger in the wild and lived to tell the tale.
#4 – Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Hunan
Avatar’s stunning scenery was a large part of the film’s immense success, so I was tickled pink to learn that Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China’s Hunan province was one of the inspirations for the magnificent floating islands of forest that are seen in the film’s epic concluding battle.
A stunning collection of quartz-sandstone pillars are the reason for the park’s population, and the near 4000ft tall Southern Sky Column (or Hallelujah Avatar Mountain) is the park’s centerpiece. Almost permanently mist shrouded, Zhangjiajie looks like something out of the world’s primordial past.
But it’s not just Zhangjiajie that’s worth seeing. My research also introduced me to the equally stunning Sanqingshan National Park in Jiangxi province. A sacred place for Taoists, Shanqingshan is well known in China for its pillars of granite, dense primeval forest, immense range of flora and fauna, and the stunning sunsets and sunrises that can be glimpsed through the perpetual shroud of mist that hangs over the park.
#3 – Sanya, Hainan
The first place on this list that I had the opportunity to visit, Hainan is a tropical island province off China’s southern coast that more closely resembles a Pacific island than mainland China. Tropical reefs, white sandy beaches, and thick jungle make this island a unique travel destination. It’s hard to believe that people were exiled here in the past. It’s pretty close to heaven.
While the island’s main centre, Sanya, is now a hub of resorts and restaurants run by Russians – there’s still a lot of charm to be found away from Hainan’s inviting beaches and (poorly made) cocktails. My own visit to the island included time amongst the monkeys on Monkey Island, bartering for pearls, eating freshly killed and cooked seafood on a floating island, and soaking in fragrant hot springs while waiting for my flight back to South Korea.
And since it was explored back in 2008 before I was travel blogging or even taking good photos, it’s just begging to be explored all over again. But you can read a little about my first visit in my entry about Hainan from 2010.
#2 – Qinghai-Tibet Railway
The highest railway line in the world, you know you’re in for an adventure when your carriage comes with specially tinted windows and an on board oxygen supply for the high altitude travel.
Connecting Xining in the Qinghai province of China to Lhasa in Tibet, the 1956km stretch of railway sees passengers soaring at altitudes of over 4000m and at speeds of 120km/h, the railway even has portions built on permafrost. It’s pretty much the most extreme stretch of railway you’re likely to encounter.
Tickets start as low as 226 RMB and even the lengthy Beijing to Lhasa ride (taken in a private sleeper) would only set me back around 1260 RMB (approximately $220 Australian) for a journey of over 4000 kilometers. Not bad!
As if roaring past stunning mountain ranges and isolated lakes isn’t enough of a lure, the train also travels through massive grasslands and the ominous ‘Life Forbidden Zone’ of China’s Holxil region. Sounds scary? It’s over 4500 square kilometers of unpopulated land where rare animals such as yaks, snow leopards, and Tibetan antelopes can be glimpsed in the wild.
49 stops lie along the Qinghai to Lhasa stretch of the line – so there’s plenty of opportunity to hop off and explore if the itch catches you – but I’d personally be most excited about the chance to visit isolated and mysterious Tibet at journey’s end.
#1 – Jiuzhaigou National Park, Sichuan
While researching to put together this article, I had it in mind that Zhangjiajie would rank as China’s most ‘must see’ national park – but photos from Jiuzhai Valley National Park in the Sichuan province have well and truly won me over. I can say with sincerity that this particular park ranks as the place I am most determined to explore in 2012.
My visit in early 2013 only confirmed this spot’s place at #1. It’s absolutely spectacular.
Known for its waterfalls, Tibetan villages, brilliantly colored lakes, and unique fauna – the park looks like something from the annals of fantasy. The place is a photographer’s and nature lover’s heaven, and some of the nine villages from which the valley draws its name are still inhabited to this day.
Laden with stunning sights, a few that really grabbed my attention include Five Flower Lake, the Pearl Shoal waterfalls, the Shuzheng Lakes, and the unique and beautiful villages that lie along the trail.
To hike your way through the park and see all of its most spectacular features takes three days, but shorter tours can be arranged with the aid of a newly opened eco-tourism group or on your own. Our visit packed most of the highlights in to a single day.
Have you been to China and visited any of these sites? What was your experience like? Did I miss somewhere that you think any real Chinese visit should include?
What about your own Chinese itinerary? What rates a mention?