Top 5 Chinese highlights, outside the big cities

Discover majestic mountains, atmospheric rural villages, tiered green rice paddies and treasures of the ancient world: here are 5 of China’s lesser-visited highlights
Fenghuang (Phoenix) ancient town at night
Fenghuang (Phoenix) ancient town at night

Fenghuang (Phoenix) ancient town at night. Photo: Shutterstock


With the bright lights and vast urban cityscapes of Beijing and Shanghai, China’s smaller towns and rural areas are often eclipsed. A vast and varied country, China boasts some extraordinary landscapes and dramatic scenery, from striking snow-capped mountains and verdant valleys to swathes of desert and oasis towns. If you want a break from the major cities, try visiting one of these alternative show-stopping destinations:


  • 1. Explore the Yunnan Province in southwestern China

The Yunnan Province is an amazingly diverse region, and exploring it can take an entire holiday in itself. Stunning mountains and steep river valleys abut lush terraced rice paddies; traditional villages sit with pretty pagodas; and the magical Naigu Stone Forest’s enormous stone spires (naturally created) tower above the trees in great jagged formations.

The region is relaxed, and there are several attractive towns and villages here. Yunnan is inhabited by a great variety of different peoples and ethnic groups – exploring the area provides an opportunity to wander around rural minority villages – travel on Insight Guides’ Incredible Yunnan trip and you'll discover the region's lesser-visited sights. Dali and Lijiang are two of the most popular places to visit here: Dali is laid back, with traditional pagodas and a beautiful lake; Lijiang is irresistibly charming with cobbled streets, and a network of pretty canals and vaulted footbridges.     

Don’t leave the region without visiting what is believed to be the world’s deepest gorge ­– Tiger Leaping Gorge. In favourable weather conditions hiking along the gorge is possible, and the views to the valley below are stunning.

  • 2. Cruise the magical Li River Valley

Depicted in numerous Chinese scroll paintings, the majestic scenery along the Li River is certainly art-worthy. Looming grass hills fringe the riverbed, created by millions of years of wind and rain, which have eroded their limestone bases, gouging out distinct shapes, caves and grottos into the landscape. Those who have visited Vietnam may note the similarity of these spectacular hills to those found at Halong Bay.

Boats float down the river from Guilin to Yangshuo, past verdant paddy fields and farmers in traditional cone hats, grazing water buffalo, and fishermen on bamboo rafts who use highly trained cormorants to help with the daily catch.

River cruises are popular here – it makes a very relaxing way to take in your atmospheric surroundings. If you want to combine an excursion to the Li River Valley with the bigger city destinations, Insight Guides' Best of China trip is for you.


The impressive landscapes of Guilin, Li River and the Karst mountains. Photo: Shutterstock


  • 3. Visit Turpan: a Silk Road oasis

Travelling along the Silk Road (the ancient system of trade routes that once connected the East and the West) is a fascinating way to take in some of the lesser-visited areas of northwest China. It was along this route that people traded not only goods, but also knowledge and ideas ­– as such, many towns lying on the Road have maintained a unique and distinct character. Our selection here is a fertile oasis in the heart of the desert, Turpan.

Atmospheric Turpan was once an important staging post on the Silk Road. It has long been irrigated with water collected and channelled in underground canals, which prevents evaporation in the hot desert sun. The Water Museum in Turpan pays homage to this irrigation network on which the town depends.

The surrounding area contains the sites of two ancient desert capitals, Jiaohe and Gaochang, which are well worth a visit. Book with Insight Guides and our local travel experts can add this special stay to your China itinerary.

  • 4. Climb Emei Shan, one of China’s Sacred Mountain

Reaching the peak of one of China’s Sacred Mountains is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in spectacular scenery and look out above a blanket of clouds. China has nine sacred mountains ­­– five Daoist and four Buddhist. Emei Shan, 10,167 feet (3,099m) high and situated in the Sichuan Province, is one of the most frequented. Daoist temples were built here as early as 2AD, but as Buddhism became more popular, so too it became a sacred place for Buddhists.

Today, Emei Shan is still a pilgrimage destination, and if you walk to the top you are rewarded with panoramic views on your way up and (depending on weather conditions) a magical end position above the clouds. Arrive in time for sunrise for additional colour. Emei Shan is nestled in protected pine forests, which are home to a wide variety of butterflies and several rare species of bird and animal.  

Want to add one of China's Sacred Mountains to your holiday? Request a trip quote online now and our local experts can create an itinerary to suit your travel interests. 

  • 5. Marvel at the ancient town of Fenghuang

Deep in the heart of China's southern interior, Fenghuang is an immaculately preserved ancient town built around the banks of the Tuo River. Fenghuang was first established in 248BC; today it sits within red-sandstone city walls and imposing gateways, with Ming- and Qing-style architecture giving the impression of a bygone age. The surrounding green mountain slopes, along with Fenghuang’s wooden stilt houses and pretty temples, add to the charm of this irresistible riverside town.  

The locals of Fenghuang are of Miao and Tujia descent, and minority ethnic languages, arts and culture flourish here. The town’s name, Fenghuang, translates to ‘Phoenix’, deriving from an ancient legend. Two phoenixes flying overhead were so captivated by the beauty of this ancient town that they simply hovered above it ­– they couldn’t bear to leave. 


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