Beyond Beijing’s Great Wall, Shanghai’s glitzy skyscrapers and Guangzhou’s Cantonese credentials, there exists another China—less flamboyant but equally enchanting. The country is, after all, home to 52 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and many of these gems are tucked away in China’s unassuming towns and cities. Sadly, these places rarely ever make it to any must-see lists. But there is good news: The government’s recent efforts to promote tourism in far-flung cities such as Xiamen and Dunhuang, among others, are bearing fruit.
Away from the maddening crowd of China’s commercial hubs, these provinces abound with historical and natural wonders, are tourist-friendly and boast great infrastructure, down to superb connectivity and even multinational fast-food chains. Street names and directions now marked in English are a blessing. And while the country doesn’t let you use Google, there are plenty other search engines and translation apps that make navigation easier, ordering food effortless and shopping triply exciting. So the next time you plan a trip to China, remember to book beyond the obvious.
Once a strategic town along the Silk Route, Dunhuang is amongst the few Chinese cities to afford panoramic views of the Gobi Desert. Those interested in Chinese history will find the 3.5-hour trip from the main city to the Yumen Pass particularly rewarding. In its heyday, the 30-foot-high mud gateway guarded caravans passing through China. Today, stripped off its past glory, the structure stands as a testament to a bygone era. But there is more to the desert than just history, like the gorgeous Yueyaquan. The about 2,000-year-old crescent-shaped lake sits in an oasis, and hundreds of tourists flock here especially through May to October. During these months, camel caravans and dirt bikes (available on rent at the entrance) can be seen gliding up and down the sea of sand dunes. About 25 kilometres southeast from here lies another Dunhuang delight—the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mogao Caves. A cluster of 492 temples, the caves house statues and cave paintings carved into cliffs that hang above the Dachuan River. Influences of Indian Buddhist art and traditional Han Chinese styles make every frame here stunning. For a dose of Dunhuang’s nightlife, a trip to the night market of Shazhou is perfect. Keep an eye out for curios like bamboo chopsticks, clay tea sets and jade jewellery. Many establishments across Dunhuang are run by the Uyghurs—Muslims with Turkish and Mongol ancestry. These include delectable wheat flour noodles. They come loaded with chunks of lamb, beef, chicken and, because it’s China, donkey meat.
It is far for train journeys, with two or more transfers
Flight from Beijing takes 6 hr and from Shanghai 8 hr
Young Buddhist monks sparring inside Luoyang’s Shaolin Monastery—the birthplace of kung fu—could well be a scene out of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. Depressions on the temple’s stone floor, it’s said, are a result of trainees performing the same stunts in the same spot for centuries.
The temple has, after all, stood here since A.D. 477. There’s more to Louyang than Buddhism, though. It’s also where Taoism took root. It’s founder, Chinese philosopher Laozi, often retreated to the Laojun Mountain to meditate. Today, the mountain is a modern-day retreat and a biodiversity marvel. Some tourists prefer to trek up the range, others prefer snapping the breathtaking expanse from their cable cars. Adventure apart, Luoyang boasts a UNESCO World Heritage Site too. The Longmen Grottoes, embanking the Yi River, have more than 60 stupas, thousands of inscriptions, and 2,300 caves carved into limestone cliffs. Some caves are smaller than a cupboard, others larger than a theatre. If you are visiting during April and May, you will be in time for the peony cultural festival, during which most public parks in the city honour the flower with elaborate displays and folk performances. The waterfront of the Louhe River, a Yellow River tributary, is ideal to sit back and chill. The riverbank is lined with pubs and scenic spots, and boat rides starting here are a good way to see the city. Water feast, a ceremonial meal involving over two dozen soups served in a specific order, and jiangmiantiao, noodles cooked in soybean milk, are must-eats here.
Train from Beijing takes 5 hr and from Shanghai 6 hr
Flight from Beijing takes 2.5 hr and from Shanghai 3 hr
Across the Taiwan Strait, Xiamen cradles China’s southeastern coastline. With fishing, chemical and shipbuilding majors docked here, the city is a bustling industrial hub. But it also boasts picture-perfect beaches—Baicheng, where students from the neighbouring Xiamen University often swing by for an evening stroll, is great for some downtime while sipping fresh coconut water. However, if Xiamen were to parade its marquee sites, Gulangyu Island would win, hands down. The tiny, predominantly pedestrian haven is home to colonial-era buildings, lovely gardens and museums. No honking. Zero pollution. Strolling past old Japanese- and European-era homes (nearly 13 countries had their consulates here in mid-1800s) reinstates why the island is among China’s World Heritage Sites. For those unfit or unwilling to walk, the government runs electric shuttle buses to some of the island’s key landmarks. The Piano Museum is one such. The two-storeyed space houses ancient organs and more than100 pianos, some of them gold-plated. Xiamen’s love for art extends beyond Gulangyu. In the village of Wushipu, oil paintings are not restricted to the canvas alone. They spill onto porches and alleyways and are splashed on telephone poles. Another must-see site is the sea-facing Nanputou Buddhist temple. It affords great views of both Xiamen’s cityscape and the Taiwan Strait. The best way to round off your trip is with a Gezi Opera performance that brings to life folk tales told through beautiful ballads.
Train from Beijing takes 12 hr and from Shanghai 7 hr
Flight from Beijing takes 3 hr and from Shanghai 2 hr
The green onion domes of the St. Sophia Cathedral may take you by surprise much like the faint Russian writings scribbled on facades or the famed Russian black bread sold around every street corner. Welcome to Harbin. Once a fishing village in China’s Heilongjiang province, Harbin is now a buzzy city and also the province’s capital. Many Russians migrated here in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and the country’s stamp is visible in the city’s architecture and food. Remnants of Harbin’s foreign connections are also best explored on foot in the city’s Central Street. Boutiques, bookstores and bars lining this 1.5-kilometre-long pedestrian-only stretch display architectural styles that range from baroque to art nouveau. Reserve some time to shop, but just window shopping here can be equally gratifying. If you are visiting between January and March, get set to be greeted by life-sized ice sculptures. The entire city transforms into a winter wonderland for the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival. Expect replicas of Beijing’s Olympic Park and the Great Sphinx of Giza. Castles, children holding balloons, dragons taking flight—the festival offers plenty to ogle at. At night, they look even more glamo-rous with technicolour lights glinting off their slippery, snowy surfaces. All sculptures are carved out of the frozen Songhua river that runs through the city. The forbiddingly cold city is also home to Harbin Polarland, an Arctic-themed park that houses polar bears, sea lions and penguins.
Train from Bejing takes 8 hr and from Shanghai 12 hr
Flight from Beijing takes 2 hr and from Shanghai 4 hr