We all know about the most famous – and justifiably so – sites across China: the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Warriors and Horses, the Shanghai Bund. Indeed their fame is such that a wide variety of travel packages attempt to cram visits to all three into tightly packed air and hotel bundles. Of course a first-time visitor to the Middle Kingdom, especially one with limited time and planning, would do well to begin with such an excursion.
Full disclosure: when I visited China with my family for the first time in 1999, it was on a mixed package tour. Our time in Beijing was ours alone and involved getting cards from the hotel and showing them to taxi drivers as well as wondering lost on several occasions through the hutongs. In Xi’an, however, we enjoyed a formal tour and were met at the airport, taken to our hotel and escorted to the major sites including the Huaqing Hot Springs, Banpo Neolithic Village, and, of course, the Terracotta Warriors.
After living in China for several years I and many other long-term residents have come to notice that the best tourist experiences in China are often those to the less-than-famous sites. Although few places can challenge the Forbidden City, Great Wall or Terracotta Warriors for “WOW” factor, it is in the small things that China excels. Those with larger amounts of time, and a greater sense of adventure, will do well to consider taking to China off the beaten track.
This is more than just visiting the less visited sites in Beijing and Shanghai – although there are many opportunities to do just that – but rather a plea to any would-be China traveler to consider the smaller places far away from the tourist crowds, places developed and protected – often with UNESCO World Heritage status – but woefully underutilized and visited.
Throughout the life of this blog I will attempt to introduce some of these out-of-the-way places, presenting their history, their charm, and a few tidbits of practical information for visiting them. A few tips for travelling to the less visited sites in China:
1. Go local – plan your visit through a local travel agency or through a resident foreigner. To get the best feel for a place you cannot rely on big tour companies based far away from the area in question. That being said, many national tour companies in China have locally-based tour guides who meet tour groups at the airport once they arrive in the region in question.
2. Carry a phrasebook – some of the most interesting places in China are also those where English is the least widely spoken. Fear not, however, most of the nationally ranked sites at least have signage in English and many now have eager – and highly capable – English language tour guides.
3. Be patient – my boss in China once told me: “In China you must do three things: you must be patient, you must wait, and you must open your mind.” When travelling off the beaten path it is not uncommon to have delays, mixups, cancellations, and other challenges – like interminable traffic jams on mountain roads. Take these in stride as they are part of the whole experience.
4. When in Rome – When my grandparents visited China in the early 1990s, they were served a Peking Duck banquet at nearly every new city they visited. While I am a huge fan of Peking Duck, to limit one’s Chinese dining to this staple would be a great tragedy. Seek out (or ask) what and where to eat. You will not be disappointed. Seeking out and noshing on local delicacies is one of the indisputable best parts of China travel.
5. Bring a towel – trust me on this one. The towels provided in many smaller hotels are less than ideal (actually this is a good practice anywhere in the world – including in the USA).
Over the coming weeks we will visit some of the best – and less well known – sites around China including:
Hakka Tulou – a collection of rammed-earth fortress/clan houses in the verdant hills of Fujian
Gulangyu Island off the coast of Xiamen in Fujian
Shaxi – a Tea and Horse Caravan Town in Western Yunnan
Zunyi – a major city in Northern Guizhou with great, and largely unknown, historical significance
Hengdian Studios – the underappreciated Chinese Hollywood in central Zhejiang, films shot here include “The Opium War” (1997), “Hero” (2002), the “Curse of the Golden Flower,” (2006) and even “Mummy 3” (2008).
Kaiping Diaolou – A collection of turn-of-the-century fortresses and palaces built by wealthy overseas Chinese in Guangdong
And of course, many more!
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