When most people go to China, they only want to see the Great Wall and Forbidden City in Beijing, walk along the Bund at Shanghai or take in the Terracotta Warriors at Xi’an. Maybe they’ll throw in a visit to Guangzhou or take a Yangtze River cruise. But there’s much more to China than just these famous sites.
There are plenty of amazing tourist attractions in China, from ancient cities to forests to temples to rice fields that look like they’ve been designed by artists to sacred mountains and stunning waterfalls. This desire to explore off the beaten path where Chinese tourists outnumber foreign tourists isn’t just confined to 20-something backpackers. Any traveler armed with a good phrase book, a pot of patience and a marvelous sense of humor should do just fine.
1. Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is one of man’s greatest engineering feats and longest outdoor museum, stretching from Gansu Province in the west to Shanhaiguan on the Bohai Sea in the east. It was built, rebuilt, and maintained between the 5th century BC and the 16th century to protect the northern borders of the Chinese Empire from the attacks of nomadic tribes from the north. Most people will visit the wall somewhere in the Beijing area, where it is more easily accessible and where it snakes impressively over the mountain peaks. It is China’s No. 1 tourist attraction.
2. Forbidden City
Built in the early 15th century, the Forbidden City served as the home for emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties until Puyi, the last Emperor of China abdicated in 1912. It is a walled complex, surrounded by a moat, that is the world’s largest palatial complex. Legend has it that its 980 buildings contain 9,999 rooms, though the actual number is about a thousand lower. It is unarguably the most popular tourist attraction in Beijing, with the crowds to prove it.
3. Terracotta Army
This mighty army of terracotta warriors and horses, found in three vaults, is one of the most famous archaeological finds in the world. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Xi’an and one of the most popular in all of China. The 8,000 lifelike terracotta warriors and 130 or so chariots have silently stood guard over the soul of China’s first unifier for more than two millennia. Although the weapons were stolen and the coloring has faded greatly, their existence and the fact that no two soldier’s faces are alike serves as a testament to the amount of labor and skill involved in their construction.
4. Mount Huang
One of China’s major tourist destinations, Mount Huang is a mountain range in eastern China also known as Huangshan (“Yellow Mountain”). The area is well known for its scenery, sunsets, peculiarly shaped granite peaks and views of the clouds from above. Frequently shrouded in mist, the many peaks appear to float on clouds and have very fanciful names such as 18 Arhats Worshipping the South Sea, Lotus Flower Peak, Celestial Capital and Paint Brush. In ancient times almost 60,000 stone steps were carved into the side of the mountain range. Today there are also cable cars that tourists can use to ride directly from the base to one of the summits.
5. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
Established in 1982, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is the first national forest park in China and is part of the Wulingyuan Scenic Areas. With its clear streams, weird-looking peaks, wildlife and abundant sub-tropical vegetation, the park is a year-round magnet for visitors. Key attractions include the Golden Whip Stream where visitors can see fish swimming in the crystal-clear water.
6. Wudang Mountains
Travelers who’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon already know how scenic the Wudang Mountains, located in northwestern Hubei Province, are. Besides being scenic, the Wudang Mountains is the most sacred Taoist mountain range in China. There travelers will find temple complexes, including the palatial Nanyan Temple, considered the most spectacular of the 36 temples on Wudangshan because it’s built of rock from the cliff behind it.
7. Three Pagodas
Located about a mile northwest of the ancient city of Dali, The Three Pagodas are one of the best preserved Buddhist structures in China having endured several man-made and natural catastrophes. The middle pagoda, built during 824-840 AD by king Quan Fengyou, is 69.6 meters (227 feet) high and is one of the tallest pagodas in China. The other two pagodas were built about a century later.
8. Mogao Caves
Travelers along the ancient Silk Road will definitely want to stop at Dunhuang for a visit to the Mogao Caves, which are representative of early Buddhist cave art. Unlike the Yungang Caves, which featured Buddhas carved into hillsides, the Mogao Grottoes mostly feature murals painted on cave walls. Some of the paintings date back to the fourth century. At one time, there were more than 1,000 cave temples.
9. Hani Terraces
The Hani Rice Terraces are located on the southern slopes of Ailao Mountain in Yuanyang, and have been cultivated for over 1,000 years. Carved by hand by the Hani people, these rice terraces have turned a barren hillside into a lush sub-tropical paradise. Water is saved in the hilltop forests, and channeled down to the terraces for irrigation. The rice terraces are flooded from December to March, presenting a spectacular view to travelers.
10. Longmen Grottoes
The Longmen Grottoes are densely dotted along the Xiangshan and Longmenshan mountains in the eastern central part of China. Construction of the grottoes began in 493 AD. There are over 2100 niches, more than 100,000 Buddhist statues, some 40 pagodas and 3600 tablets and steles in the caves. The 17 meter (56 foot) high statue of Vairocana in Fengxian Temple is the most representative of the trove.