Leave the hordes behind: 5 China trips off the beaten track
Travel in China can feel like being shoved onto the world's longest assembly line, with huge tour groups, monster hotels, and prefab fun.
But cast your glance farther afield; the nation reveals a wealth of exotic and beautiful destinations where it's easy to leave the hordes behind and blaze your own trail.
1. Zhejiang to Anhui over Hui Hang Trail
Crossing the 1500-meter peak of Qingliangshan (清凉山) between Zhejiang and Anhui, Hui Hang Trail (徽杭古道) wends through wild forests and along the sparkling Xiaoyao River (逍遥河) which feeds the crops of tiny local villages.
Most sections of the trail are still paved with stones, affording welcome stability in the vertigo-inducing valley.
The zigzagging path was developed via the Huizhou merchant salt trade, which had flourished in the 13th century and peaked by the late 18th.
The 15-kilometer hike can be divided into two days by staying and eating with the Yang family, who keep a farm near the summit.
“The Yang family met us at Qingliang’s peak and cooked a fantastic dinner packed with bacon and chicken from their farm,” notes traveler and China-based food writer Chris St. Cavish.
Along with their rustic cooking, the Yangs maintain a four-room hostel near the peak. Room type ranges from two-bed to five bed. Nightly rate starts from RMB 60 per person, which include two farm-style meals. Booking-in-advanced required -- +86 563 849 0803.
More on CNNGo: The loneliest road in China
Getting there: Enter Hui Hang Trail from Fuling (伏岭) in Anhui or Zhejitian village (浙基田村) in Zhejiang. Entry fee is RMB 20.
The best options for getting there include taking a train to Hangzhou (杭州), and then hiring a minibus to the Zhejiang-side trailhead; or train to Anhui’s Jixi (绩溪县), followed by a minibus to the Anhui-side trailhead.
Plenty of drivers are available and familiar with Hui Hang’s appeal to a limited number of intrepid hikers.
2. Kashgar’s livestock market, Xinjiang
One of the ancient and modern world’s greatest markets, Kashgar’s livestock market reputedly swells the city population by 100,000 every Sunday.
And that doesn’t include the massive numbers of sheep, goats, cattle, and fine horses marched into the dusty plaza for sale, trade, and slaughter.
Sharp-eyed visitors will savor the endless quantities of exotic foods and goods, while taking in the fine features and busy languages of the central Asian peoples, including Uyghurs, Tajiks, and Hui.
“The noise, energy and dust of the place were amazing, so I stood aside next to a giant tandoor-style oven, chewing on roasted lamb skewers and watching it all happen,” recalls U.S. traveler Michael Ferchak.
While a relatively easy flight connection from Urumqi, Kashgar retains an ancient feel that is unmatched in the region or elsewhere.
More on CNNGo: My favorite China travel photos
Gettying there: The livestock market has moved several times, but is currently about five kilometers east of the city center. Much of the action takes place early, so try getting there just after the crack of dawn.
Hop on bus 28, or tell a taxi driver you’re heading to Ulagh Bazbiri.
3. The Great Wall on two humps, Inner Mongolia
Best known for its pivotal role in global cashmere production, China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region sees few visitors (despite periodically hosting sheep beauty pageants), with a sprawling expanse of grassland and desert.
Windswept and desolate, the region's Gobi and Kubuqi deserts contain almost one third of China’s Great Wall, and are accessible from both Hohhot (呼和浩特) and Baotou (包头).
The region has the widest variety of wall sections from different eras and dynasties, the oldest built by the Zhao Kingdom in the Warring States period, around 300 BC. Many sections are best visited atop a shaggy Bactrian camel.
More on CNNGo: One night inside the Great Wall of China
Getting there: Hiring these two-humped beasts along with a guide is easy. Tour operators in Beijing and Hohhot organize small groups for treks through some of the biggest sky country in China.
Tours typically spend three to 15 days traversing the dunes and camping in distinctive felted Gers, Mongolians' preferred form of mobile housing.
Beijing Tours hosts inclusive small-group treks starting at around US$400 for five days.
4. Retreat to spiritual Sichuan
Although Jiuzhaigou’s colorful water and Hailuogou’s glacier bring hordes of visitors to China's middle province, the UNESCO site at Emeishan National Park (峨眉山国家公园) remains far less crowded.
With a 3,099-meter summit and numerous monasteries cradled in its sheer valleys, the holy mountain is home to vast tracts of wilderness, waterfalls, and plenty of cheeky monkeys. A thrilling variety of endemic flora and fauna also fill the 115 square-kilometer nature reserve.
The whole region has reliable bilingual signage and a network of trails -- perfect for leaving the crowds behind.
Both the Wannian (万年寺) and Xianfeng (先锋寺) monasteries provide austere accommodation and simple vegetarian food, along with the rare opportunity for quiet contemplation in an ancient Buddhist temple.
The east side of Emei is the resting place of Leshan Buddha, one of the world's largest stone-chiseled deities. The 71-meter-tall Maitreya Buddha took 90 years to carve and was completed in the ninth century.
More on CNNGo: 5 Chinese destinations without Spring Festival crowds
Getting there: A shuttle bus leaves Chengdu New Southgate Bus Station for Emeishan every 20 minutes from 7:15 a.m.-6: 10 p.m. It takes around two hours and costs about RMB 40.
Three-day entry to Emei costs RMB150. Temples charge RMB 20-80 for a bed on arrival.
5. Two wheels in Yunnan
Although the southern province has become increasingly connected by a series of new highways, original roads remain in good condition and secluded for two-wheel travelers.
Catch a bus (most drivers allow you to bring bikes aboard) to the small city of Jianshui (建水), about three hours south of Kunming, and load up on carbs at the historic 1915 restaurant.
Riding south out of Jianshui, road S214 climbs through massive stands of bamboo forest and high altitude scrub, peaking near a single restaurant (you can't miss it, one of its big dining rooms opens onto the street) with incredible views and simple food.
You’re next treated to a dizzying 20-kilometer plunge into a lush, tropical valley packed with rice terraces, ending at the rushing Honghe River.
From there, catch local transport up the hill to Yuanyang, home to the Hani ethnic minority and a vibrant public square full of traditionally dressed ladies.
More on CNNGo: 7 of China's coolest outdoor activities
Bikes can be rented from the Xiong Brothers bike shop at 51 Beimen Jie in Kunming’s university neighborhood (tel: +86 871 5191520). Run by a friendly gang of fearless bikers who keep their rental stable in excellent nick, Xiong Bros’ mountain bikes cost about RMB 40 per day.