20 China adventures you won't find in most guidebooks
As travel in China gets easier, more visitors are searching for experiences outside the ordinary.
I'm one of them. Traveling for the past few years from my home base in Shanghai, I've gotten to parts of the country even many Chinese never see.
These 20 destinations and experiences are among the most memorable -- and often most photogenic -- I've found.
1. Xanadu: the town where two legends met
The spot where Marco Polo allegedly met Yuan Dynasty founder Kublai Khan 800 years ago still exists and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in July 2012.
The fabled Yuan summer capital in modern Inner Mongolia, Xanadu is now in ruins, but it's a site with potent atmosphere.
Xanadu (Yuanshangdu) Relic Site, Xilingol League, Inner Mongolia; open daily 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; adults RMB 30 (US$5), children free
2. Suma Bay Eco Park: easy beach getaway
Reached by a causeway from the mainland, Suma Bay Eco Park on Liandao Island is a sheltered cove in the midst of a lush patch of jungle.
Located in Lianyungang city in north Jiangsu, the seaside park is a perfect beach break midway between Shanghai and Beijing.
Suma Bay Eco Park, Liandao Island, Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province; open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; adults RMB 50 (US$8), children RMB 25 (US$4), vehicles RMB 15 (US$2.40)
3. Mati Temple: unique grottoes
Mati Temple in northwest China is an extraordinary labyrinth of tunnels, stairs and passageways carved into the inside of a cliff face over six palpitation-inducing levels. This Buddhist temple and monastery dates back 1,500 years.
Mati Temple, Sunan, Zhangye, Gansu Province; open daily 9 a.m.-5.30 p.m.; adults RMB 70 (US$11), children RMB 35 (US$5.60)
4. Zhangbi Underground Castle: ancient underground fortress
Below Zhangbi (a village of about 1,000 people in southern Shanxi Province) is a complex network of tunnels, booby traps, secret passageways and cubbyholes built 1,500 years ago as a military hideout large enough to hold an entire army.
Some 1.5 kilometers of the tunnels have been restored and can be explored with a guide.
Zhangbi Underground Castle, Zhangbi Village, Longfeng Town, Jiexiu City, Shanxi Province; +86 354 708 6001; open daily 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; adults RMB 60 (US$9.60), children RMB30 (US$5), English-speaking guide RMB 40 (US$6.40)
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5. Hotan wild livestock market
On the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, Hotan holds a wild and chaotic livestock market every Sunday.
The streets leading into the market are lined with bleating goats. Inside, the real action takes place -- cattle, sheep and camels are bought and sold on a handshake.
Hotan Sunday Animal Market, San Xiang Connection Line, Hotan, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region; open every Sunday 7 a.m.-noon
6. Jiayuguan: fortress at the end of the Great Wall
At the westernmost point of the Great Wall sits the ancient fort of Jiayuguan. It's located in far-flung Gansu Province in the midst of spectacular desert broken by the winding canyon of the Great North River.
Jiayuguan Gliding Base flies ultralight planes over the area, allowing travelers a breathtaking view of the edge of the former Ming Empire.
Jiayuguan Fort, Jiayuguan, Gansu Province; open daily 8:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; adults RMB 120 (US$19), children RMB 60 (US$9.60)
Jiayuguan Gliding Base, Jichang Bei Lu, Xiongguan District, Jiayuguan, Gansu Province; ultralight flights RMB 300 (US$48) per person for six minutes
7. Black glacier
Cleaving its way through an alpine valley in western Xinjiang, the black ice of the Oytagh Glacier is an impressive sight from the warmth and comfort of a traditional felt yurt.
Filled with firs and meadows, the secluded Oytagh Valley is accessed through an impressive ravine from the Karakoram Highway.
Yurts RMB 150 (US$24) per person, per night including dinner and breakfast. Park entry fee adults RMB 50 (US$8), children free. Tours can be arranged through Silk Road Expedition.
8. Little Austria
You can find a little bit of Austria in Inner Mongolia and take to the warm waters in the resort town of A'ershan.
The town's natural hot springs are set among quirky Viennese-style architecture where open carriages trundle up and down the main street, pulled by handsome ponies.
The 40-room A'ershan Haishen Hot Springs Spa Hotel has direct access to the springs.
A'ershan Haishen Hot Springs Spa Hotel, Wenquan Lu, Aershan, Inner Mongolia; +86 482 715 8888; nightly rate from RMB 900 (US$144); no website
9. Hairy crabs
From January to August, Yangcheng Lake is a quiet little town northeast of Shanghai. This changes in September with the arrival of hairy crab season and an influx of food lovers from all over China who enjoy these small crustaceans from the lake's protected waters.
The lakeside Fairmont Yangcheng Lake hotel has seasonal hairy crab weekend packages from around RMB 2,388 (US$383), which include one-night stay, breakfast and hairy crab dinner for two.
Fairmont Yancheng Lake, No. 3668, Ma’anshan Xi Lu, Kunshan, Jiangsu Province; +86 512 5780 0888; nightly rate from RMB 1,680 (US$269), plus 15 percent
10. Amdo: Tibet without a permit
It's possible to visit Tibet without the hassles of getting a Tibet Alien Travel Permit and following restricted itineraries.
In the Amdo region of neighboring Qinghai Province, the population is predominantly Tibetan and the high altitude and cool weather add to the experience.
Tongren (also known as Rebgong) is home to the graceful Longwu or Rongpo Monastery, which dates to 1301.
Local men, women and children circle the monastery every day from dawn till dusk.
Longwu Monastery, Tongren, Qinghai Province; open daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; adults RMB 30 (US$5), children free
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11. Yourantai: exotic guest house
Languid, lush and perpetually summer even during China's most bitter winters, Jinghong is home to one of China's most beautiful guest houses.
Located in the Xishuangbanna region of Yunnan, close to the Myanmar border, Yourantai's villas are built in traditional Dai style, scattered through a large garden rich in tropical fruits and flowers overlooking the Mekong River.
The Swiss owner has thought of every small luxury to make for a relaxing stay.
Yourantai, Galan Bei Lu, Jinghong, Yunnan Province; email@example.com; nightly rate from RMB 850 (US$136); www.yourantai.com
12. Shanxi Museum: huge, underrated
The Shanxi Museum in Taiyuan houses a world-class collection of artifacts spanning the last 5,000 years of human habitation in China, including an exquisitely decorated 3,000-year-old bronze phoenix.
This 50,000-square-meter complex is possibly China's most underrated museum and entry is free.
Shanxi Museum, No. 13, Binhe Xi Lu, Taiyuan, Shanxi Province; +86 351 878 9555; open Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; free
13. First Bend of the Yangtze
The vast and mighty Yangtze River might never have been Chinese at all, were it not for its sudden and unexpected about-turn, heading away from Myanmar and firmly back into China at the sleepy hamlet of Shigu in Yunnan.
First Bend of the Yangtze River (长江第一湾), Shigu, Yunnan Province
14. Black Sesame Kitchen in Beijing
The Black Sesame Kitchen in Beijing provides the chance to learn how to make Shanxi noodles, Beijing dumplings or Chinese imperial dishes during three-hour, hands-on classes in an old hutong dwelling.
The cooking school was founded by chef Jen Lin-Liu, who authored the renowned Chinese food memoir, "Serve the People." Courses are given in English.
Black Sesame Kitchen, 3 Black Sesame Hutong, Dongcheng District, Beijing; +86 136 9147 4408; classes from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; RMB 300 (US$48) per person per class; www.blacksesamekitchen.com
15. Shilin Stone Forest: spectacular rocks
A naturally occurring oddity rising from the surrounding landscape, the stone forest of Shilin is a 400-square-kilometer wonderland of rocks eroded by wind and water into towering sheets and improbable shapes, such as elephants and turtles.
The site is roughly 78 kilometers east of Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan Province.
Shilin Stone Forest, Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan Province; open daily 7:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; adults RMB 175 (US$28), children RMB 100 (US$16)
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16. Miao festivals
The area around Kaili in Guizhou is crowded with beautiful villages peopled by the Miao ethnic minority.
Each year, two vibrant festivals take place -- the Sisters Meal Festival in March or April and the Lusheng Festival in November. These are the only two occasions in a year when the local authority organizes English-speaking trips.
The lusheng is a melodic bamboo pipe played by men while the women dance in vibrant ethnic dress.
Gulong village, Guizhou Province
17. Xiaoqikong Nature Reserve: stunning scenery
The 100,000-square-kilometer Xiaoqikong Nature Reserve is situated amid towering mountains in rural Guizhou.
Naturally peacock blue waters from the UNESCO-protected Zhang River tumble over stunning waterfalls and weave past karst mountains and deep forest in this hidden corner of the country. The reserve is easily accessible from the nearby town of Libo.
Xiaoqikong Scenic Area, Libo, Guizhou; open daily 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; adults RMB 110 (US$17.60), free for children under 1.4 meters (four and a half feet)
China has marathons spaced throughout the year: Xiamen Marathon (January), Great Wall Marathons (both in May -- one near Beijing and one at Huangyuguan in Tianjin), The Grassland Extreme Marathon in Inner Mongolia (June) and the Shanghai Marathon (December).
19. Lugu Lake: Kingdom of Women
Clear, deep blue and surrounded by mountains, Lugu Lake is situated high on the border between Sichuan and Yunnan.
The Sichuan side of the lake is quieter and ideal for cycling, swimming or exploring one of the lake's small islands in a traditional dugout canoe, paddled by the local Naxi or Mosuo people.
Lugu Lake is also known as the "The Kingdom of Women" in China, where Mosuo female rule supreme over men.
Lugu Hu Nature Inn, Dazui Village, Lugu Lake, Sichuan Province; +86 834 630 2198; nightly rate from RMB 168 (US$27) for rooms with private bathroom directly overlooking the lake. Dugout canoe trips start at RMB 30 (US$5) per person.
20. Qinghai Lake: scenic race
The 14-day Tour of Qinghai Lake bicycle race takes place every June and July in Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia Provinces at around 2,680 meters above sea level.
The race covers some of the most stunning landscapes in China and attracts cycling teams from all over the world.
More info and registration at the race’s official website.
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