A true travel insight. An Australian who lived in China lets us in on some of his favorite parts of the country.
China is a vast country with unspoiled natural beauty
When people begin planning their vacation escape to China, the list of destinations is often pretty predictable. The Great Wall of China, the Terracotta Warriors, Beijing, Shanghai, and maybe something further afield like a visit to sunny Hainan or the high-tech Hong Kong.
Having lived in China for two years, I’ve experienced a lot of what this vast, fascinating country has to offer, I can certainly attest to the charms of these locations. Shanghai remains one of my favorite cities in the world and a desperately needed refuge for the foodie and beer snob in me, while Hainan has played host to two wonderfully sun-soaked and relaxing vacations for me in the past four years.
However people limiting themselves to China’s heavily developed east really do rob themselves of some truly amazing natural beauty. It is easy to get hung up on China’s ancient history and the rapid development of the country as a global superpower and forget that not only is this a vast country, but one with some unspoiled beauty still to be found.
Jiuzhaigou National Park
Nestled amongst evergreen forests and snow-capped mountain peaks, the bright turquoise waters of Jiuzhaigou National Park may be one of the most overlooked spots in Asia.
Take, for example, Jiuzhaigou National Park in the north of China’s Sichuan province. While Sichuan might be world renowned for its adorable pandas and ridiculously spicy food, few of China’s tourists are even aware of the truly stunning park that lies north of Chengdu.
While the winding, bumping eight to ten hour bus ride in an antiquated bus is a tad daunting, it’s the most affordable and practical way to get from Sichuan’s charming capital to the isolated village that seems to exist solely to house tourists who have made the journey to take in Jiuzhaigou’s bright blue waters, unspoiled forests, and the kind of serenity that is becoming harder and harder to find in modern China.
The Stone Fort in Tashkurgan, Xinjiang. This ancient fortress was damaged during the Cultural Revolution, but still cuts a rather stunning figure.
If pristine wilderness doesn’t quite do it for you, there’s always the opportunity to explore a side of China that feels so far removed from China that it might as well be a different country. Xinjiang, the country’s largest and westernmost province, is home to the Uighur minority – who have more in common with neighboring Turkmenistan than they do with the China they are today a part of.
Xinjiang is the land of big sky and broad smiles, and boasts everything from ominously named deserts like the Desert of Death, snow-capped mountains, seemingly endless grasslands, and a refreshing absence of the towering gray skyscrapers and traffic strewn streets that are commonplace in China’s developed east.
The day long journey from ancient Kashgar to the Pakistan border along the Karakorum Highway takes travelers through quaint roadside villages, across great dry lakes, past glacier-fed rivers, and winding up into the dizzying heights that eventually connect to Mount Everest. Along the way there’s the opportunity to barter for fresh fruit, ride camels along the old Silk Road, and take in a wonderfully warm and exuberant local culture that seems completely at odds with the way China portrays itself to the outside world.
Meet the friendly and ever-welcoming Bai people of Yunnan
For those who imagine China as something like Kung Fu Panda and Mists of Pandaria for World of WarCraft; Yunnan in the country’s south is as close as you’ll get to the more ‘traditional’ images of China. Here in the mountains are peaceful temples and tea houses, the warm and welcoming Bai people, and so much blue sky and fresh air that it’s easy to forget that you’re in a nation that is an economic and industrial powerhouse.
I talk to people sometimes who tell me that they’ve been to China and that they’ve seen it all. They’ve ridden a toboggan down the Great Wall of China, seen the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Warriors, and done a little shopping in Shanghai. Sure, they’ve seen some of what China has to offer – but that’s like going to the US and only seeing the Statue of Liberty or going to Australia and not leaving Sydney or Melbourne. Seeing beyond the highlights is seeing the real China.
When you’re planning your trip to China, don’t fall into the trap of never going farther inland than Xi’An or Nanjing. Get out beyond the cities and the crowds and see a wilder, more exotic China than you ever knew existed!
Aussie on the Road is Chris, an adventurous Aussie lad from rural New South Wales who has made it his life's goal to search for a life less ordinary. Since 2007 he's fumbled, romanced, and quaffed his way around the world. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
Looking for more off the beaten path travel tips for China? Learn about the charming Hutongs in Beijing and other articles on travel in Asia and around the world.