China’s huge, like freaking huge, and there’s no way that you can see it all on one trip.
While big ticket attractions in the major cities definitely warrant a visit, there are some destinations that are still hovering under the radar.
For now, at least.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth visiting.
So here’s my totally biased list of the top 5 under-rated destinations in China:
The name itself conjures up romanticised images of the old Silk Road, but of course, you don’t visit a place just for its name.
And despite its remote location in China’s restive Xinjiang province, Kashgar is definitely worth a visit.
Which the authorities have demolished large chunks of the old town, enough remains to give you a hint of its past glory – from walking down the small, mud-brick alleyways to bustling bazaars to the extraordinary Livestock Market where you can buy sheep, donkeys and even camels.
Imagine galloping across the lower foothills of the Tibetan highlands, with snow falling on your face and icy peaks in the distance.
And then imagine sleeping in a tent with Tibetan nomads while yaks grunt away outside.
That’s what we experienced when we went to Langmusi, a town which straddles the border of Sichuan and Gansu in China.
The town is famous for its horse treks and we booked a two day trek across the frozen grasslands.
While there are no modern comforts on the trek – we had to do our ‘business’ out in the snow – it was an unforgettable experience.
And while we did not see any wolves, the nomads told us that one hovered around our camp area in the night.
Camera, lights, action!
That’s what you’re in for if you visit Hengdian, home to the world’s largest outdoor film studio.
Well, make that several studios as there are 13 sets in all, ranging from replicas of the Forbidden City to streets of yesteryear Hong Kong.
Located less than two hours away by bus from Hangzhou, Hengdian can be easily visited over the weekend.
And then, you’ll have to see if you’re lucky enough to spot any stars in town.
For the record, I saw Wallace Huo acting out a scene from Swordsman (笑傲江湖).
I also saw several mainland Chinese stars from The Bride with White Hair.
4) Jilin City
Jilin City is drab and rather uninteresting, but come winter, the city transforms into a winter wonderland.
Its ice-rimmed trees are known as one of the four natural wonders of China (along with the karst landscape of Guilin, Three Gorges and the stone forest in Yunnan), and for good reason.
The ice-rimes are formed when fog and water vapour freeze on the surface of trees, causing the trees to turn white.
I arrived late in the season, and locals tell me that I was very lucky to be able to witness the spectacle.
But they added that if I were to return, January’s a better bet for seeing the ice-rimes (wusong).
Beware though that temperatures can dip below -20 °C.
Ancient towns in China don’t come as intact and quaint as this.
Or as authentic looking.
While the streets of other old cities like Lijiang and Suzhou have been taken over by souvenir stores and cafes catering to the tourist trade, a stroll through Pingyao does feel like you’ve entered a time machine and emerged in ancient China.
Founded in the 14th century, Pingyao has many imposing buildings associated with banking – it was once at the forefront of the Chinese economy during both the Ming and Qing dynasties.
We had great fun exploring the numerous museums, temples and courtyards within the county’s old city wall.