15 places to see in China that aren't the Great Wall

15 places to see in China that aren't the Great Wall

Glacier lakes, mountain forests, sandy beaches and more. Here's a list of some dramatic destinations that you may not have yet considered for your trip to China

If you're in China for the 2010 Shanghai Exposition, then we're fairly sure you're not planning on spending the entire time at the Shanghai Expo. If you are, well, don't. There's a whole lot more to China than an expo, cheap food and a big wall. Book a train or some plane tickets and check out some of these other Chinese spectacles. 

1. Karakul Lake, Xinjiang

Karakul, a glacier lake 3,600 meters above sea level tucked in the Pamir Mountains, feels like the edge of the earth. Along the Karakorum highway and a stone's throw from the Tajikistan border, Karakul is home to camels, yaks, Kyrgyz herders and not much else. The walk around the lake (Karakul means “black lake” in Kyrgyz) takes about three hours and offers a spectacular view of the 7,500 meter high Muztagh Ata Mountain.

Many visitors spend the night in a yurt belonging to a local family. For about US$10 a night, you’ll be fed rice, vegetables and yak meat and sleep in a collective bed heated by a small fire pit. Dress warm. 

2. The Tibetan towers of Western Sichuan

These mysterious towers pepper the Tribal Corridor of Western Sichuan province. Hundreds still stand -- some 50 meters high with as many as 13 star-like points -- and the oldest are thought to be 1,200 years old. 

Nobody knows why they’re there or what they’re for, but some say they were defensive structures used for observing the lawless valleys that surround them. Others suggest they could have been used as status symbols, or storehouses, or both. Regardless, these secret towers of the Himalayas are one of China’s best kept secrets.

3. China’s wild rivers

China is home to some of the mightiest rivers in Asia -- the Yellow, the Yangtze, the Mekong -- and for many, the country’s massive damming projects are a tragedy. But China is still home to some unspoiled waterways that can offer glimpses of the country rarely seen.

Last Descents River Expedition, run by a young American trying to protect China’s river heritage, can lead the way. The company organizes trips to rivers in Western China -- including Tibet, Qinghai and Yunnan -- that combine tourism with a social and environmental purpose.

4. Heaven Lake, home to China’s Nessie

Since the beginning of last century the Heaven Lake Monster has made several alleged 'appearances'. In 2003, a group of soldiers claimed to have spotted a black and green animal with scales on its back and horns on its head. In 2007, a TV cameraman supposedly caught video and stills of three pairs of finned, seal-like creatures that “could swim as fast as yachts.”

Monster or not, Heaven Lake is a marvel. The volcanic lake in Jilin province was considered holy land during the Qing dynasty. From the top, catch a rare glimpse of North Korea just across the border.

5. Burma Road, Yunnan

The Burma Road once ran from Mandalay to Kunming and was the scene of bloody battles during World War 2. On the Chinese side, start in Riuli, once known as a Golden Triangle hub, today home to several jade markets. Pass by spectacular valleys and terraced rice plantations on the way to Tongsheng, which is home to the Museum of Yunnan-Burmese Anti-Japanese War.

Before heading to Dali, spend a few days hiking through unspoiled villages along the southern portions of the Nu River. Once in Dali relax in one of the Old City’s myriad cafes before heading to Kunming, Yunnan’s capital and one of China’s coolest cities. 

6. Guangzhou’s Little Africa

Tucked into the heart of Guangzhou’s Old City is one of the most fascinating corners of China you didn’t know existed: A community of some 20,000 traders hailing from Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and elsewhere in Africa.

Situated near Canaan Export Clothes Wholesale Trading Center, Little Africa, or “Chocolate City,” as some politically incorrect locals sometimes call it, arose in the 1990s as traders flocked to the southern Chinese province nicknamed 'the world's factory.' Vibrant social and religious communities have developed and many traders will gladly talk with visitors about their lives -- both the good and bad -- in Guangzhou.

7. Get Naked in the Moganshan Hills

Early last century, wealthy foreigners living in Shanghai came to Moganshan to lounge away the summer in stone villas, play tennis and swim in the municipal pool. Today, Moganshan is making a comeback, thanks in part to Naked Retreats, a collection of restored farmhouses. (Don't be fooled by the name -- any nudity should probably be confined to your bungalow.)

Upon arrival, guests are taken on a 'decompression walk' and encouraged to spend a few minutes in awe of the scenery. Activities include cycling, bass fishing and mountain hikes. Visitors can wander through dewy tea plantations and bamboo forests, or swim in a reservoir to the buzz of cicadas. Accommodations are basic -- the wooden floors creak and there's no air-conditioning -- but bungalows come with Western-style kitchens, flat-screen TVs and wireless Internet.

8. Gulangyu Island

Every visitor to China has a car story -- or several (see Peter Hessler’s Country Driving) -- and rarely are they positive. Gulangyu, an island off the coast of Xiamen, might be the only place of true calm left in today’s auto-obsessed China.

Gulangyu, home to 16,000 people on one square kilometer of land, famously has no motorized vehicle (with a few exceptions). Not even bicycles. No honking, no traffic jams, no near-death experiences. Can this place even be called China? The hilly island is part Old Havana, part Hawaii -- a pedestrian’s dream.

9. Cuandixia village, Beijing

Beijing is great, but sometimes you just need to escape. It’s not hard. Just outside the city are some charming villages tucked in the lovely hills to the west, many in the shadow of the Great Wall.

Cuandixia village, about 90 kilometers from downtown Beijing, is more than 400 years old and is home to more than 70 preserved courtyard homes built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. It’s often a stand-in for ancient China in films and TV shows. The nearby hills are green and lush, a contrast to the dusty landscape that surrounds the capital. Cuandixia makes for a good day trip and home stays can also be arranged.

10. Surf in Hainan

Hainan Island, sometimes called, perhaps generously, “China’s Hawaii,” is a growing tourist destination off the country’s southern coast, just east of Vietnam. It’s famous for hosting Chinese beauty pageants, but is also home to a small but growing community of surfers -- both Chinese and foreign. Each November, Sanya, the island's capital, hosts the second annual Surfing Hainan Open. Check out Hainan Adventures for surf lessons and travel packages.

11. Three Parallel Rivers, UNESCO heritage site

The Nu River Valley is one of China’s most spectacular destinations, home to a third of the country’s ethnic groups, a rare and diverse ecosystem, and some breathtaking scenery. It’s also virtually devoid of tourists. Drink local liquor with Tibetan Catholics, snap photos of the river’s turquoise water, and marvel at wooden homes clinging to impossibly steep cliffs.

In the warmer months guides lead treks from the Nu Valley across a mountain range to the Mekong River (known as the Lancang in China). The three-day trek ends in tourist-heavy Shangri-La, but the real treasures are the remote, untouched villages along the way.

12. Drink and cycle in a Beijing hutong

Beijing’s hutong alleyways are the capital’s best feature. Though many have been demolished in the rush to modernization, clusters of these historic ‘hoods are still there for exploring. Avoid the rickshaw tours around Hohai Lake and hop on a bike and get lost.

When the sun sets, hit the hutong bars. Grab a latte or glass of wine at the city’s best café, Café Zarah, then check out Amilal, an Inner Mongolia bar just around the corner. Salud, a French-owned Tapas bar, is the best of touristy Nanluoguxiang, and Bed Tapas & Bar continues to be the classic hutong watering hole -- part bunker, part opium den.

13. Terelj National Park, Mongolia

Alright, alright we know Mongolia isn't in China, so technically this shouldn't be on this list. But it was just too good to pass up, so here it is for better or worse. Located just 60 km from Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator, Terelj National Park offers a glimpse into nomadic Mongolian life without having to journey for days via truck and unpaved road. It can be done in a day, but many visitors choose to stay with a family and sleep in a ger, the traditional yurt dwelling that many people continue to call home. 

The small area of the park that is populated can seem a bit touristy, but Terelj is vast, largely uninhabited and can be explored on foot or horseback. A few minutes ride from the main camp and you’ll see Mongolian cowboys breaking wild horses and herding sheep. Other activities include rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking and cross country skiing. Stop by Khagiin Khar Lake, a twenty meter deep glacier lake, and Yestii Hot Springs.

14. The Wild Wall

Alright, so this is technically the Great Wall of China, but it sure isn't the typical experience a tourist would get. The Great Wall of China might have kept out barbarian hordes, but is futile against Chinese kitsch. The Wall's most popular areas -- Badaling and Mutianyu -- are often overrun with tourists and hawkers.

Hiking and camping on the Wild Wall -- the un-restored bits, often in ruins and overgrown --– is the best way to experience its true majesty. There are some 640 km of wall north of Beijing, much more in bordering Hebei province and beyond, and it’s remarkably easy to find a section to yourself. At sections of the Wild Wall you can hike for hours without seeing another traveler. Bring a sleeping bag and spend the night in a crumbling watchtower.

15. Song Zhuang Artist Village, Beijing

Song Zhuang Artist Village, located in the Beijing suburbs, is home to about 2,000 artists from China and elsewhere. Many of Song Zhuang’s resident artists are synonymous with Chinese avant-garde and some are renowned internationally. Unlike Beijing’s more famous 798 Art District, Song Zhuang hasn’t become a tourist trap -- yet. The artists there are welcoming and hospitable, and the town is best viewed with someone in the know.

Mitch Moxley is a journalist based in Beijing. He's written for publications including Time, The Globe and Mail, Foreign Policy and The Guardian from China, Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

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