chinese culture

5 Reasons To Explore Off The Beaten Path In China

When you think of visiting China, what comes to mind? Eating Dim Sum in Hong Kong? Exploring Shanghai’s Bund? Or heading to Beijing to hike the Great Wall? While China is known for its massive coastal cities, there are many hidden gems all around China that are well-worth a visit.

Venturing “off the beaten path” in China has so much to offer; from vibrant minority cultures to breathtaking natural scenery. And with overnight trains and cheap budget flights, why not explore the bustling East Coast?

Here are 5 reasons why you should consider getting off the beaten path in China.

1. Explore the “Real” Ancient China

When you think of ancient China, you probably think of Beijing — Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall. But there is far more to the story of China. This country’s ancient history goes back 5,000 years.

For example, if you take the Silk Road to Dunhuang, you’ll find the Mogao Caves. In these caves, you will find incredible Buddhist carvings that have been created over the centuries by various artists.

Here you can discover how Buddhist art has changed over the years, starting with the Indian inspired art that appeared with the first arrival of Silk Road traders, to the fat, happy Chinese Buddha you see today. The art spans a period of 1,000 years, starting in 300 BC!

You can also travel to Xi’an for some real ancient history. Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China, unified the kingdoms of China into one state. The infamous Terracotta Warriors were created shortly after his death in 210 BC.

The main section of the Great Wall was built in the 14th century by the Ming Dynasty, but if you take a trip to Gansu province, you’ll see age-old mud brick sections of the Great Wall from the 5th century BC.

2. Save Some Cash

plants growing out of coins

It’s no secret that Western China is much cheaper than the large cities of the East. For example, a bed in a hostel dorm in Shanghai’s Nanjing Road will cost you about $10 while the same accommodation will cost you about $6 in Chengdu where you can visit the Giant Panda Reserve.

Food, transportation, and entertainment are all cheaper outside of the cosmopolitan East. A few weeks in China’s West can also help to stretch your kuai a little further, which will help your budget.

3. Breathtaking Hikes Through Natural Scenery

China may be famous for its Great Wall, but for some real natural scenery just head to the west. The Zhangjiajie Mountains in Hunan Province were the inspiration behind the floating mountains in James Cameron’s Avatar. Visit the mountains on a cloudy day, and you’ll see why.

Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan is one of the world’s most beautiful hikes. You will see stunning cliff formations and rice terrace villages where you can stay at a small guest house.

You can also hike Jiuzhaigou, a gorgeous nature park located in Sichuan’s Tibetan Plateau. Here you will find tree-covered mountains reflecting in crystal clear pools, giving them stunning shades of aqua.

With turquoise lakes, glaciers and breathtaking mountains, Tibet’s rugged mountain landscape is also a must-see. If you take the train from Qinghai to Tibet, you’ll experience even more amazing scenery!

4. Actually Experience the Chinese Culture

chinese culture

China may be 92% Han Chinese, but the country still has a vibrant minority culture you can explore. The South’s Yunnan province is widely known for its variety of ethnic minorities. Among the country’s 56 recognised ethnic groups, 25 are found in Yunnan! Take some time to learn about the traditional matriarchal societies such as Mosuo and Naxi. Admire the sparkling headdresses of the Miao or participate in the ‘3 Cups of Tea’ ceremony with the Bai.

You can always go way off the beaten path by travelling along the border of Yunnan and Vietnam on a motorbike. Here you will find lots of small villages rarely visited by tourists. Communication is scarce between these villages as each one has occupants from different minority backgrounds and speak different languages from one another.

For a fascinating glimpse into China’s politics consider visiting Xinjiang or Tibet. Because Tibetans and Uighurs aren’t culturally or ethnically Chinese, relationships with the Chinese government are very tense in these provinces.

5. Escape the Smog and Crowds


Sometimes China’s cities are quite smoggy and polluted, especially around the industrial centres. Personal space is almost non-existent in China’s big cities. After all, there are over 20 million people in cities like Shanghai and Beijing alone!

If you’re looking to get away from the smog and crowds, look to China’s West. Go horseback riding in Sichuan, Take a bike ride along the Li River in Guilin, or just get lost in the mountains;  it’s easy to get away from China’s crowds if you know where to go.

So Get Off the Beaten Path!

On your next trip to China, don’t miss out on China’s interior. While it’s impossible to see everything in just a few weeks, pick a province or two off the beaten path and explore. Add ten days in Yunnan or a week in Sichuan to your travel plans. You’ll have an unforgettable experience, see an entirely new side of China, and escape the crowds.

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Lesley Daunt

Lesley Daunt is a travel writer that has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including The Huffington Post, Examiner, Digital Journal and more.
Lesley Daunt