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5 Underrated UNESCO World Heritage Sites to Visit in China

It’s probable that you know about China’s big players in the world of UNESCO heritage sites. The Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors, West Lake and the Historic Center of Macau are on the itineraries of most visitors to the country.

However, with more than 50 sites deemed worthy of being named a UNESCO world heritage site, it seems that most tourists miss out on some quirky and interesting places. If you want to see another side of China but aren’t ready to go completely off the beaten path, check out some of these underrated UNESCO sites and build your trip around them.

The Mogao Grottos

Known as the “Thousand Buddha Caves,” this site is said to be the most famous in China (as far as caves go anyway.) Located just southeast of Dunhuang, along with the Silk Road, the caves can be found carved into the sandstone of the Mingsha Mountains.

Built over a period of 10 years, the caves have accumulated thousands of square feet of mural paintings and colorful statues. Built from the 4th to the 14th century, the grottoes are filled with history and legends dating the first one back to 366 AD. The site is actually endangered so the sooner you get over to see it, the better.

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Old Town of Lijiang

Once a popular trading town, Lijiang is said to be perfectly adapted for its uneven topography and holds plenty of historic architecture. After an earthquake in 1996, the town was reconstructed and preserved, leaving plenty of signs of Naxi and Han architecture, customs, and culture.

The landscape that surrounds the town is stunning, and many Chinese tourists visit for its beauty and renowned, ancient waterway system. While the old culture is still intact, the area has been a bit commercialized leaving plenty of excellent restaurants and hotels for visitors to utilize.

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Mount Wuyi

This mountain and associated town is the best place to visit if you want to get out in nature and learn about the culture of Chinese tea.

Visitors here tend to hike the mountain trails and stop off at the lookout points, caves and tea terraces. You can take a bamboo raft ride down the 9 Bend River, look up into the mountains for ancient hanging coffins and visit ancient architecture.

There are plenty of tea shops that line the streets and allow for tastings and shopping. Make sure to grab yourself a ticket for the tea show as it’s one of the best performances in the entire country.

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Fujian Tulou

Also known as the Hakka Huts, this fort like structures are made from clay and sand. Found in the southeastern province of Fujian, the Tulou were built by the Hakka minority group and used as housing and as fortresses.

Due to conflicts with their neighbors, the Hakka people made their homes in a circular fashion to better protect themselves. The roof is open to allow for sunlight, rain and the escape of smoke and each building even has its own sewage and well system. This town is popular with Chinese tourists, but there won’t be many foreigners there.

You can pay to tour some of the homes and freely walk around the various courtyards inside. The views of the mountains around this area are spectacular, and the little town itself hosts quaint restaurants and a few souvenir shops.

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Chengjiang Fossil Site

This site holds a record of the marine eco-system from the Cambrian Period which dates back more than 500 million years ago. There are over 200 fossil species that challenge Darwin’s evolutionary theory of biology. Located on Mt. from the Cambrian Period which dates back more than 500 million years ago.

There are over 200 fossil species that challenge Darwin’s evolutionary theory of biology. Located on Mt. Maotian in Yunnan province, visitors can see the fossil museum and excavation site. There are multiple exhibits that house the fossils of animals and various organisms that are said to be some of the oldest on the planet.

While this site was only deemed a UNESCO world heritage site in 2012, it still goes way back in history and is loved especially by those interested in science and biology. Whether you’ve heard of them or not, each of these sites offers something of interest that is unique to the country.

While some are off the beaten track and require a little bit more effort and stamina to get to, they all offer a new perspective on this great country.


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Shannon Ullman

Hey! I'm a published American travel blogger and teacher. My travel writing has been featured on Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Matador Network and Thought Catalog. I spent over a year living and traveling around China while I taught English there. I have also visited dozens of other countries around the world.