So you’re putting in the hours and blasting away at learning Chinese – congrats! It’s a challenging and rewarding journey. But how will you take advantage of your newly-earned language skills, while sharpening them and broadening your horizons ALL AT THE SAME TIME?
By travelling through China, of course!
Despite the occasional complaint that all of China’s cities look the same (there’s some truth to it, certainly), it’s nonetheless a ginormously ginormous country (approx. the size of the US including Alaska), and a surprisingly diverse one culturally, geographically and even linguistically.
Everyone knows the big cities and landmarks, but once you get past that, there are some remarkable, beautiful and (sometimes) not at all crowded places that make China such an enticing travel destination.
I’m excited to share some of my favorite spots with you guys.
1. 西双版纳 (Xīshuāngbǎnnà)
East Asia and Southeast Asia collide in Xishuangbanna.
Situated in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province and on the border with Thailand and Burma, Xishuangbanna is one of China’s most unique places.
The area is centered around the city of Jinghong (景洪) , and is about as far from the hustle and bustle of China’s east coast cities as you can get.
There's mountainous terrain and a substantial population of the Dai (傣) minority, as well as tons of good hiking and sightseeing and a very strong Southeast Asian influence.
The architecture is particularly interesting, a mix of the blocky low-rise buildings you’ll find everywhere in China and golden-roofed structures that immediately scream THAILAND.
I loved the 烧烤 (shāo kǎo, street BBQ) and just the general cultural mixing that you can’t really find elsewhere. The warm weather year-round doesn’t hurt either.
2. 阳朔 (Yángshuò)
Away from the crowds, Yangshuo is about as peaceful as China gets.
This picturesque region is hardly off the beaten path, but it’s worth fighting the crowds: these mountains are all kinds of stunning.
The town itself is kind of hit or miss and really touristy, but the relatively nearby city of Guilin (桂林) is pretty cool and wandering around Yangshuo you’ll encounter friendly locals and scenery that’s hard to match anywhere in the world.
There’s rock climbing and other outdoor/adventure sports to be found, and the lakes and mountains bear a resemblance to New Zealand’s famous Mitre Peak.
The scenery might be confusingly familiar to you, actually – Yangshuo was a direct inspiration for the floating mountains in the film Avatar, and the Li River and accompanying peaks are featured on the back of China’s 20 yuan bill:
The upside of the crowds is that there’s good tourism infrastructure, though I preferred the quiet parts and scenery myself.
3. 大理 (Dàlǐ)
I was briefly part of a very beneficent biker gang in Dali.
Another classic Yunnan backpacker spot, Dali is possibly the most laid-back place in China, which is actually a pretty laid-back country on the whole.
Cultural and religious significance is everywhere in Emei Shan, amid some awesome scenery.
My adopted home city is really unlike any place in the world, and even though everyone says that about everywhere, I seriously totally mean it.
Often described as China’s showpiece, it’s a case study in what happens when a preposterously old and established culture meets the late 20th century head-on.
The best word to describe it is 热闹 (rènao) , a hard-to-translate term that basically means bustling, happening, or busy, but with a highly positive connotation.
There’s just an unavoidable feeling that this is where things are happening, and it’s palpable to locals, long-term visitors, and tourists alike.
Aside from the standard tourist itinerary (skip Yu Gardens if you enjoy sanity), the best thing to do is just wander around the city’s older neighborhoods and see how the classic and the modern mix in ways you never thought possible.
Easily accessible from Hangzhou, Daming Shan is the laid-back alternative to the region’s main tourist hotspot, Huangshan (黄山) .
9. 新疆 (Xīnjiāng)
I really can’t reiterate enough that the mountains are stunning; the Tianshan mountains are part of the same range that features the Himalayas, and while many parts aren’t really accessible, the hiking is sublime and the people in rural areas are astoundingly friendly, as they don’t encounter Westerners very often. The food is also exceedingly fantastic.
Before I went a friend told me that Xinjiang is “the least Chinese place in China,” but I’m not sure that’s true. I think Chinese culture is so old and substantial that we often consider it a monolithic entity, whereas in reality, Uighurs and Han have been interacting for thousands of years. They, and Xinjiang, are as “Chinese” as a Beijing-raised Han is, in my book at least.
I’d love to hear/see your China travel stories and pictures – what are your favorite spots and what should be avoided? Let me know!