When Marco Polo returned from his travels to China, his Italian contemporaries urged him to admit that his wild stories of this almost-magical land must be untrue. His response? “I have not told half of what I saw.“
Indeed, even frequent visitors to China find themselves blown away by this country ranging from high-desert monasteries to pristine lakes nestled amongst Himalayan peaks. First-time China visitors and seasoned travelers alike will enjoy this list of five destinations that go deep beneath the surface, transporting you to places you might never otherwise have found. These are our favorite off-the-beaten path destinations in China.
The legend of Shangri-La, a paradise of natural beauty in the Himalayas, traces its way back to English novelist James Hilton’s book, Lost Horizon. Having never visited the Himalayas himself, Hilton found inspiration in the photographs of Joseph Rock, many of which focused on the Yading Nature Reserve and its towering peaks looming over aquamarine lakes.
The remoteness of this region has kept it out of guidebooks and off-the-beaten-path for years, but we’ve curated a journey here that will leave travelers breathless at the sight of such untouched natural beauty.
On our On the Trail of Pilgrims journey, we’d suggest breaking into the untapped wilderness by riding horseback through the natural terrain and hiking up to the creamy pools of Milk Lake. You can then even picnic on the edges of these sacred mountains.
Yading is also a great place to experience Tibetan culture. You’ll be able to explore mountainside temples, learn the art of Tibetan calligraphy, and enjoy traditional Tibetan snacks and yak butter tea with a local family.
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For centuries, the location of Jingdezhen was kept secret by the dynastic rulers of China. The kilns of Jingdezhen fired porcelain just for the emperor but it was covertly traded all the way to Europe. You may have heard of “fine china” and here is where it got its name.
What most people don’t know is that the artisans in Jingdezhen continue making the same style of delicate, detailed pottery that they have for thousands of years. Once reserved only for the ruling classes, today, intrepid travelers can make the trip to the region, watching master craftsmen as they create some of China’s most globally recognizable art.
On the WildChina journey Jingdezhen: The Art of Porcelain, you’ll not only get to watch the process in action, but we’ll take you on a hike where the high-quality clay originates: Gaoling mountain. We’ll also provide the chance to view the Tao Xi Chuan Art District, where you can wander along the many stalls and talk with local students of the ceramics university.
During your time in Jingdezhen, you can also get your hands dirty at a local ceramic studio, where you’ll throw your own pots on the wheel and paint delicate pre-fired porcelain.
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Kanas Nature Reserve
Lying at the intersection of Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan, the Kanas Nature Reserve represents a collision of disparate cultures, all within one of China’s most stunning natural parks. Sky-blue and deep enough for a Lockness-esque monster (according to local legend), the nature reserve is dominated by Kanas Lake, an enormous body of water winding its way amongst pine-forested mountains.
A short-ride beyond Kanas Lake, just past the ancient Mongol town of Hemu, lies a series of stone monoliths dating back to the 14th century. It is said that here, amongst the towering peaks of Kanas, that Genghis Khan made a final shamanistic offering before beginning his western conquest towards Europe.
Although you might associate summer in Xinjiang with unbearable heat in the desert, the warmer months are actually a great time to visit the northern part of the province. Here, the higher altitude keeps the temperature cooler and there are a number of incredible lakes sprinkled throughout the countryside. You’ll find yourself relaxing beneath lush green trees and diving into turquoise pools. To bask in the natural splendor of Kanas Nature Reserve, we’d suggest our Northing Xinjiang: Travel to the West journey.
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Of all the 23 Chinese provinces, Gansu is perhaps the most underrated of all. Historically speaking, much of this province was ruled by Tibetan lamas, and to this day, Gansu represents an opportunity to peek behind the Tibetan curtain without dealing with the travel restrictions that accompany travel within Tibet itself. Here, visitors will wander through the Labrang monastery, where the intersection of Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism created a center for Buddhist teaching that endured for hundreds of years.
In the north of the province, you can trace the historical path of Buddhism and Buddhist art in China. The Mogao Caves, in Dunhuang, were created, revised and built upon through the rise and fall of dynasties. Mogao’s religious statues, paintings and murals document the evolution of Buddhist art in China for 1,000 years. With WildChina, we’ll also arrange a private tour of the caves with the director of the Dunhuang museum. On our Marco Polo’s Silk Road journey, you’ll make a pit stop in Gansu where you can get a taste of what makes Gansu great.
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An autonomous prefecture within the province of Yunnan, Xishuangbanna is a Chinese region with a distinctly Southeast Asian flavor. Renowned throughout China for its cultivation of Pu-Er tea, Xishuangbanna is also the terminus of the “Tea Horse Road” – an ancient path for the exportation of tea throughout China and beyond.
We work with explorer and tea expert Jeff Fuchs to bring you an award-winning journey along the Tea Horse Road. The ancient tea forests of Xishuangbanna will come to life as you spend time with tea-cultivators and learn how the beverage has intwined itself in local culture. Our Ancient Tea and Horse Road with Jeff Fuchs journey is sure to delight those curious about the history and culture of the world’s favorite beverage.
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The sheer size of China ensures that every visitor experiences a different slice of adventure, history, and culture. Whether you’re looking to wander among the dusty streets of a centuries old monastery or hike in the footsteps of Genghis Khan, we’ve carefully researched the most untouched corners of China to create a truly unforgettable experience.