10 authentic China trips for 2012
We’ve all heard of Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu -- but there is more to China than tourist hot spots.
With a population of 1.3 billion (and growing), China’s geographic locations are extremely diverse and often overlooked.
Here are 10 top destinations to visit in 2012. No panda-watching is involved -- but there will be tigers, camels and yaks.
The list is ordered from north to south to showcase the dramatic landscape changes within a country that's spread over 9,600,000 square kilometers.
1. Harbin, Heilongjiang Province (黑龙江省哈尔滨市)
The capital of China’s northeastern province, Harbin, is a frigid city with rich Russian influences that permeate everything from architecture to food.
Bone-chilling winters average at minus 16 C.
Harbin is home to the International Ice and Snow Festival, one of the world’s largest snow festivals. The massive ice sculptures are carved throughout December and last until mid-February.
More details on 2012 Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival.
For anyone unwilling to brave the winter chill, warm summers do exist in the “city of ice.”
Top attraction is the Harbin Beer Festival in August. It’s a massive drunken beer party in the city square with great tunes and tons of alcohol.
Foodies can make their way to Harbin’s best barbecue joint, Daquan BBQ (大全烧烤). They serve unconventional items like mutton kidneys as well as conservative choices like pork or eggplant skewers.
More on CNNGo: 6 tips for traveling with kids in China
Siberian Tiger Park, 88 Songbei Jie, Songbei District, Harbin 哈尔滨市松北区松北街88号, +86 451 8808 0098, RMB 90 (adults), RMB 45 (children), free for children no taller than 1.2 meters, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., www.dongbeihu.net.cn
Daquan BBQ, 86 Donglai Jie, near Caoshi Jie 东莱街86号, 近草市街, +86 451 8834 8888, 10 a.m.-midnight
2. Dunhuang, Gansu Province (甘肃省敦煌市)
Escape to this Gobi desert oasis which provides clean air, historic treasures and the chance to ride a camel.
Book your flight early -- only a handful of planes fly to Dunhuang each day.
Take advantage of the tourist activities at Mingsha Sand Dunes (敦煌鸣沙山). You can paraglide over the sand dunes, race dune buggies, and pretend you’re in a massive sandbox while sliding down the dunes and screaming at the top of your lungs.
Ride a camel. They’re adorable creatures, even though getting on them is a bit terrifying at first.
Dunhuang is the home of the Mogao Grottoes (敦煌莫高窟), a treasure chest of Buddhist paintings and currently the site of a major international excavation.
The city is also a former trading hub on the Silk Road, so make sure you do some serious modern trading at Shazhou Night Market (沙洲夜市), which carries a wide selection of local crafts and souvenirs.
Next to Shazhou vendors sell heaps of dried fruit and nuts, which make good desert day-trip snacks.
If you want something with more substance, Dunhuang cuisine revolves around wheat noodles and meat. Some staples include saozi noodles, stuffed bread with meat and mutton kebabs. The food pavilion next to the night market is the best place to sample a little bit of everything.
More on CNNGo: 8 China travel tips from a professional fixer
Shazhou Night Market, Shazhou Lu, Dunhuang. The night market runs from around 6 p.m. till midnight every day.
3. Pingyao, Shanxi Province (山西省平遥县)
The economic capital during the Ming and Qing dynasties, Pingyao’s most defining feature is its city wall.
The outline of Pingyao's city wall is said to resemble a tortoise and it encloses one of the most well-preserved historic cities in China. More importantly, you can walk along the top of the 600-year-old wall (accessible from the north and south gates).
Mostly off-limits to cars, the 14th-century trading town is lined with cobblestone streets.
True to Pingyao’s economic history, one of the most popular attractions is its historical bank -- the Rishengchang Draft Bank (日升昌旧址).
The earliest bank in China, Rishengchang opened in 1824 and symbolizes the beginning of modern China’s financial growth. At one time, Shanxi province's banks constituted more than half of the banks in the country.
Rishengchang closed down in 1914, and its original structure now houses the China Draft Bank Museum (中国票号博物馆).
The town is also known for its beef jerky, which tastes like corned beef. Get the Pingyao beef in soup at Yunjincheng Restaurant (云锦成). Average price per person is RMB 40-50.
More on CNNGo: China's 8 best heritage hotels
China Draft Bank Museum, 373 Xian Dao, Pingyao 平遥县373县道, RMB 120 (adults), RMB 60 (kids), +86 354 568 3261, 8 a.m.-7 p.m.
Yunjincheng Restaurant, 56 Xi Da Jie, Pingyao, +86 354 568 0944, 7 a.m.-9 p.m., www.pibc.cn
4. Huangshan, Anhui Province (安徽省黄山市)
One of the best-known mountains in China, Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain, is the site of breath-taking scenery and, at more than 1,000 meters high, a heck of a view.
Huangshan’s peaks are frequently shrouded in mist, which makes it look like they’re floating (very Avatar-esque).
A six- to- seven-hour hike leads to the summit; the route is completely paved with stones. It’s great for those looking to tone the thighs but horrible for the more sedentary.
Thankfully, there is also a cable car (RMB65-80 one-way, depending on the season).
Opt to stay in a hostel or hotel at the top or camp if the weather allows.
Bring your own snacks for the trek but remember to pack lightly. It’s a long way up, but for those famished after an entire day of climbing, a well-deserved buffet is available at the 1,630-meter high Beihai Hotel (北海宾馆), which is located at the top of the mountain.
Beihai Hotel, Beihai Scenic Area, Huangshan 黄山北海景区
5. Dujiangyan, Sichuan Province (四川省都江堰市)
Most people come here to pay homage to the world’s oldest functional irrigation system. It’s massive, ancient, and cost a whooping 100,000 taels of silver to make.
The project controlled flooding in the area and has, to the pride of the Chinese, weathered the past 2,000 years.
The water system irrigated the landscape so successfully that the Chengdu plain is to this day known throughout China for its agricultural abundance.
The engineering feat dates back to the Qin Dynasty and draws water from the Minjiang River (岷江), a major branch of the Yangtze River originating in Sichuan.
At the irrigation site, a rope bridge makes for great photo opportunities and a guaranteed adrenaline rush.
Of course, you can’t go to a Sichuan town without trying the fragrantly spicy food. Dujiangyan has its fair selection of spicy hot pot that will either make your tongue go numb or eyes water. Or both.
Check out Xiao Tian'e Hot Pot Mall (小天鹅), a popular hot pot restaurant with locations throughout Sichuan.
The bus ride from Chengdu takes about 50 minutes.
More on CNNGo: 10 of China's spiciest dishes
Xiao Tian’e, No. 215, Building. 23 Yufu Jie, Yutang Town, Dujiangyan 都江堰玉堂镇玉府街23栋215号, +86 28 8718 2698, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
6. Suzhou, Jiangsu Province (江苏省苏州市)
Suzhou lies 30 minutes west of Shanghai by bullet train; the city is a scenic haven with a lot of canals, carefully planned-out ancient gardens and delicious freshwater river fish.
Don’t get stuck on the modern shopping streets. It’s not worth it. Instead, venture to Shantang Jie (山塘街) or Pingjiang Lu (平江路).
Shantang Jie is an 11-kilometer strip of ancient architecture, lined with shops, restaurants and opera houses. Canal boat rides are also available but this hub is primarily for people looking to shop for souvenirs.
Pingjiang Lu is an idyllic cobblestone street that runs alongside a canal. It’s narrow but is a typical old-school Suzhou street with its quaint teahouses overlooking the canal and pedestrian-only roads.
Once the sightseeing is done, try the city’s signature mandarin squirrelfish (松鼠桂鱼) -- a porcupine looking fish dish that is both sweet and sour.
It can be found at most high-end Suzhou restaurants, but De Ye Lou (得月楼) is one of the best. The establishment dates back to the Ming Dynasty. The fish is priced at RMB 168.
De Yue Lou, 27 Taijian Long, near Guanqian Jie, Suzhou, 苏州观前街太监弄43号, +86 512 6523 8940, 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 4:30 p.m.-9 p.m.
7. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province (江西省景德镇)
The porcelain capital of the Orient, Jingdezhen is the place to get china from China. Even the local traffic lights are adorned in bright blue and white porcelain.
Jingdezhen has a 1,700-year history of porcelain production. Budding artisans and tourists alike can try their hand at the antique craft for RMB 50 at the Ceramic History Museum (陶瓷历史博物馆).
For a more scenic day trip, visit the Dragon Pearl Pavilion (龙珠阁) for its historical ties to the ancient ceramic industry.
The landmark used to be the imperial ceramic plant of the Ming and Qing dynasties. But it has been transformed to a museum featuring hundreds of imperial ceramic wares produced at the height of the Ming dynasty.
Local specialties like jiaoziba (sticky rice cake dumpling) and fried wontons can be found in the Dajianong area. Dajianong is home to a ceramic factory but is surrounded with food stands and local snacks.
Ceramic History Museum is inside Jingdezhen’s Ceramic Culture Exhibition Area. Panlong Gang, Mable Hill, Jingdezhen 景德镇市枫树山蟠龙岗, +86 798 852 1594, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Dragon Pearl Pavilion, Zhonghua Bei Lu, Zhugan District, Jingdezhen 景德镇市珠杆区中华北路
8. Gulangyu, Xiamen, Fujian Province (福建省厦门市鼓浪屿)
Motor vehicles are completely banned on this 1.87-square-kilometer island south of Xiamen, which makes for a great stress-free strolling experience (a rarity in China).
Only accessible by ferry, the island was an international settlement in the early 20th century.
Today, it’s a major tourist hub complete with an aquarium and nightly piano concerts. The miniature oasis has extremely clean streets and is perfect for those looking to literally sit back and relax.
Spend an entire day strolling through the city alleyways and you’ll find yourself in a maze of restaurants, shops, hotels and a surprisingly large concentration of churches. On Sundays you can hear hymns being sung in churches throughout the island.
Nicknamed “Piano Island,” Gulangyu is known for its music and houses China’s only piano museum. Local households on the island contain more than 200 pianos, including rare collector pieces dating back from the 1800s.
Gulangyu’s cuisine is all about the sea. Shuyou Seafood Restaurant (舒友海鲜大酒楼) has one of the freshest seafood selections in Xiamen where you can take your pick of scallops, lobsters and crabs.
More on CNNGo: 15 places to see in China that aren't the Great Wall
Gulangyu Piano Museum, inside Shuzhuang Garden, Gulangyu 鼓浪屿菽庄花园内, RMB 30, 8:15 a.m.- 7 p.m. (summer); 8:15 a.m.-6:30 p.m. (winter)
Shu you Seafood Restaurant, 97 Hubin North Road, Siming District, Gulangyu 鼓浪屿思明区湖滨北路97号, +86 592 5338899, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m.
9. Lijiang, Yunan Province (云南省丽江市)
Escape to a timeless land known for its scenery but worth the visit simply because it has yak milk.
The Yunnan town was a major trading hub eight centuries ago due to to its extensive waterways and bridges.
A trip to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town is practically mandatory; bonfires are lit at night and people dance in the city square.
Also be sure to head over to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山), an iconic Lijiang attraction capped with snow all year long.
Lijiang is the home of the Naxi, an ethnic minority group and one of the few remaining people to still write using hieroglyphs in the world.
The local Naxi cuisine features dairy and beef products like yogurt, yak cheese, yak steak and yak butter.
The local beverage is yak milk tea (who would’ve guessed?).
And if you still haven’t had enough, you can take a day trip out to Yak Meadows (60 kilometers from Old Town) and ride on a yak.
More on CNNGo: Trapped in Shangri-La: Seven days of (mis)adventure
10. Hainan Province (海南省)
During winter, Chinese and Russian tourists alike flock to Hainan to escape the bitter cold.
Literally meaning “south of the sea”, around half of the island’s coastline is made up of beaches between 600 meters and 1,000 meters wide. The combination of tropical monsoon climate, beaches and luxury resorts has granted its title as “China's Hawaii.”
To experience five-star luxury at its height, stay at one of the many international resorts along Yalong Bay in Sanya (三亚亚龙湾). Most have private beaches where you can enjoy a variety of water sports, such as surfing, jet-skiing and yachting.
Last November, Mission Hills opened the world's largest spa complex in Haikou -- Mission Hills Volcanic Mineral Springs. The whole complex covers nearly 89,000 square meters.
Nanwan Monkey Island (三亚南湾猴岛), which is about an hour's drive northeast of Sanya, is also worth visiting for its state-protected macaques and its 2,000-meter transoceanic ropeway.
At the centre of Hainan island, Wuzhi Mountain (五指山) is known for its waterfalls and small villages of the Li and Miao minorities.
More on CNNGo: Hainan Riyuewan: The best surf beach in China
Mission Hills, No.1, Mission Hills Blvd., Haikou, Hainan 海南省海口市观澜湖大道1号, +86 21 6868 3888, www.missionhillschina.com