In the past six months, I’ve had the pleasure of crisscrossing China, with countless hours aboard hard sleeper trains and shabby buses rolling through the countryside. On my travels, I’ve crossed paths with many other tourists—both domestic and international alike—seeking out famed landmarks such as the Terracotta Warriors, or modern attractions like the skyscrapers of Shanghai.
But sometimes we forget that China is an enormous and diverse nation, brimming with natural beauty and historical artifacts that are often skipped over by travelers. Drawing from both my own experience and combing through others’ recommendations, I’ve collected five off-the-beaten-path destinations that will hopefully convince you to purchase a flight to China. (Or, if you’re in China, a train ticket.)
1. Tagong, Sichuan
Tagong, situated in what is often referred to as the “Wild West of China,” boasts an altitude of about 12,000 feet and offers a special glimpse into Tibetan culture. While Tagong is just a tiny village on the map, the surrounding region is legendary for its vast grasslands—large meadows bordered by enormous peaks and scattered with nomadic families in tents.
Every year, the Tagong Village Horse Race Festival takes place, showcasing the most skilled riders of the region, while allowing visitors to participate in games, contests and delicacies.
How to get here: You can take a bus to Tagong from Chengdu, Sichuan, after making a transfer in Kangding. The entire journey takes around 10 hours by bus.
Photo: Easy Tour China
2. Dongchuan, Yunnan
Nestled in the rural Wumeng Mountainous area, Dongchuan Red Land is said to have some of the world’s most striking red earth. The unique reddish-brown coloration is an effect of the warm and humid climate in Yunnan province, coupled with the soil’s rich iron oxide that has deposited over many years.
How to get here: Dongchuan is only a two- to three-hour bus ride from Kunming, Yunnan. Bus fares are 32 yuan, as of 2013.
Photo: Winters Zhang from Flickr
3. Datong, Shanxi
During the Han Dynasty, Datong stood as a political, economic and military hub, and drew people near and far for trade and business.
Datong’s age of affluence left behind an impressive array of historical and cultural remnants such as the Yungang Grottoes and the Hanging Monastery. With 252 caves and 51,000 statues, the Yungang Grottoes are easily one of my favorite destinations to see Buddhist cave art up close.
How to get here: From Beijing, you can choose either a four-hour bus ride from Liuliqiao Long Distance Bus Station, or a six-hour train ride from Beijing Railway Station or Beijing West Railway Station.
Photo: Emma Gawen from Flickr
4. Gaoligong Mountains, Yunnan
Gaoligong is a biosphere preserve that stretches hundreds of kilometers and has just been named a National Park. The road that cuts through the mountain—recognized by some as the “loneliest road in China”—meanders through lush forests, daunting rivers and flourishing biodiversity. Mostly devoid of tourists, the Gaoligong Mountains has retained its raw, untouched wilderness—a quality that can be difficult to find in China.
How to get here: The Gaoligong Mountains are around 500 kilometers long and run north to south near the Yunnan-Myanmar border. Buses can be boarded from Dali, Yunnan, that will take you to different sections and trails on the mountain range.
Photo: rperlin83 from Flickr
5. Pingyao, Shanxi
Considered by many as the most well preserved ancient walled city in China, Pingyao became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. In fact, the city still retains its layout from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
While in Pingyao, it is possible to wander through the dusty, cobblestone streets where only pedestrians can go. Travelers will come across original banking centers, temples and homes that offer a rare look into life in ancient China.
How to get here: Pingyao is located in the heart of Shanxi Province and can be reached from Taiyuan bus or train in 90 minutes.
Photo: Wikipedia Commons