11 things to see in China beyond the Great Wall
From narrow hutongs to wide-flowing rivers, China is a land of opposites, superlatives and fascination. There will always be plenty to see and do here, and the likes of the Great Wall, Forbidden City, the Bund, Zhangjiajie and Terracotta Army usually take the limelight. In need of more eclectic inspiration? Look no further – here are eleven other things to see in China.
1. Leshan Giant Buddha, Sichuan province
Built into the riverside’s red sandstone cliffs over 1300 years ago, Leshan’s Giant Buddha is the world’s largest sculpted figure of its kind, sitting at a gargantuan 71 metres tall. Climb to the top of the mountainous scenic area to bring you level with the ten metre-wide head, and follow his gaze across the Minjiang River. Then, clamber down the steep, zig-zag path to the Buddha’s feet and lean back until it hurts to stare up at the colossal, figure for an evocative, unforgettable image of China.
2. Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan province
Not for the faint at heart, you’ll need a sturdy pair of shoes to take on the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike in southern Yunnan province, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful things to see in China. The powerful Yangtze River surges between two huge mountains, with the 3000-metre-deep river canyon providing a continuous flank of wobbly ‘V’ shapes down the middle. With dramatic scenery, welcoming homestays and roaming wildlife, this makes for one of the most stunning hikes in China.
3. Hanging Temple of Hengshan, Shanxi province
From a distance, Datong city’s Hanging Temple looks morphed into the mountainside, with its washed-out reds, jade greens and faded yellows trundling uphill. Up close, marvel at the intricate details of the structure, which has seen Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism practiced here since its construction in the fifth century. Those who are feeling brave should tackle the ten-metre hanging plank bridge which connects the northern and southern sections of the temple.
4. Saint Sophia Cathedral, Harbin, Heilongjiang province
With its deep-turquoise domes, white crucifixes and Byzantine Revival architectural style, Saint Sophia Cathedral makes for a unique construction in China. This former Russian Catholic church was built in the early twentieth century, when Russians made up one third of the population in Harbin, northeastern China. Today, it serves as an art gallery and museum enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
5. Changbaishan Nature Reserve, Jilin province
Despite its remote location, Changbaishan Nature Reserve is easily accessible with regular transport links shuttling visitors to and from the area. Tian Chi is the must-see here and is often referred to as ‘heavenly lake’ – for good reason. During the harsh winters, the five-kilometre-wide lake freezes over, and dense forests cover the cragged mountains, making for truly spectacular scenery. The lake runs along the China-North Korean border – but, of course, straying onto the other side is strictly forbidden…
6. Li River, Guilin, Guizhou province
Lush, green foliage carpeting the sloping hills, grazing water buffalo and fishermen sharing bamboo rafts with cormorants: the Li River is an attractive introduction to southwest China’s Guizhou province. A peaceful boat trip is the best way to take in the hazy-green scenery, and part of the route includes the small market town of Xingping, the spot that is featured on the 20 RMB note.
7. Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, Sichuan province
A medley of colours can be found in Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve in southwestern Sichuan province: the still, blue lakes mirror the gold and red forests in the autumn, and the vivid blues and greens in the summer. In winter, the land is doused in brilliant-white snow. It’s also home to the milky-blue Pools of Immortals: bright turquoise bathing pools that seem to come straight out of a fairy tale. Equally impressive are the numerous waterfalls that drop like curtains over the rocky outcrops.
8. Huang Shan, Anhui province
Huang Shan (“Yellow Mountain”) in eastern China’s Anhui province is often described as the mountain that champions all others. Yet despite its popularity, there are still wedges of forest where you can find much-needed stillness, away from the crowds. The high, crooked mountains feature streaks of forests, and are joined by swirls of mist at the very top. Whether you choose one of the easier walks or a more demanding route, tackling Huang Shan can take anything from two hours to three days, depending on how much you want to explore.
9. Xi’an city walls, Shaanxi province
For 10 dynasties (spread over 1,000 years), Xi’an served as the imperial capital of China. It’s home to the famed Terracotta Army and is the starting point of the Silk Road, making it one of the best things to see in China in terms of bang for your buck. A great way to experience this impressive city is by visiting the historic city walls that still stand. Originally built in the Tang Dynasty (705-904 AD), they took their modern form in 1568, when they were reinforced with brick. The city walls rise up in a 12-metre-high rectangular formation, with a 14-kilometre-long perimeter. They still include imposing watchtowers, fortress-like gates and a small moat, so hire a bike to explore this slice of regal history in a modern city.
10.Fire-breathing opera, Chengdu, Sichuan province
Despite being a proudly modern city, Chengdu is home to some of the best Sichuanese traditions. There are teahouses to play Mahjong in and spicy hotpots to devour; but, best of all, there’s the Sichuan opera, which started in the late seventeenth century. Performers incorporate humour, storytelling, hand puppetry and more in a seemingly effortless fashion; and the show usually ends with an extraordinary, hair-raising fire-breathing display.
11. Qingdao, Shandong province
The coastal city of Qingdao has a distinctly European feel to it, thanks in large part to the existence of a German military base in the area during the nineteenth century. The German residents also established the Tsingtao brewery here, producing the now internationally sold beer (“Tsingtao” being the old transliteration of Qingdao). With Bavarian architecture, cobbled streets and small churches peppered around the city centre, Qingdao feels like a small German town. But, with food markets serving fresh, delicious seafood and market stalls selling shells from the nearby beaches, it has a distinct Chinese essence.