Written by Guia Sciortino, who is part of indigoeight’s network of pr consultants, and has a passion for Asia. Currently living and studying in China, Guia shares her Far Eastern experiences on our blog.
As of last year, almost 50 destinations in China were inscribed on the UNESCO’s heritage site list. Most travellers would be familiar with the sites in and around Beijing, but there are many more worth discovering all over the country. China is – let’s not forget it – almost as big as Europe and the wide spectrum of climates allows for an incredible variety of natural landscapes, as mind-blowing and diverse as those of North America and Australia. However, since the country has only recently opened up to foreign tourism, some of its fabulous hotspots still remain the domain of local tourism. So if you really want to ‘go native’ on your upcoming visit to China, be sure not to miss the following:
A mere hour and a half train ride from Shanghai, it was the host city of of the latest G20. The first foreigner to step foot in Hangzhou was the Venetian Marco Polo. He referred to it in his journals as the ‘most magnificent city in the world’. The Chinese are still extremely grateful for this positive PR, so much so that the adventurous merchant has been honoured with statues and commemorative plaques all over town.
The main attraction is West Lake, surrounded by lush forests peppered with pagodas and temples. Coming from Shanghai, here time really does reverse. Gazing at the lake, crossed by ancient-looking boats in slow motion, you may well be back in the Tang dynasty era.
In spring and autumn, strolling along the tree-shaded lake banks and stopping by to explore the city’s temples and ancient buildings is sheer pleasure. Do pay a visit to Lingyin Temple whose origins date back to the 4th century A.D.
West lake is crossed by the Su Causeway, which connects its shores. Lined with weeping willows, this 3 km ‘garden bridge,’ surrounded by lapping waters, is a must for all avid walkers. I challenged myself to walk the full length of the lake in an afternoon (4 hours) but it’s not something I’d recommend doing if you want to be able to stand on two legs for the rest of your trip!
My advice is to take it slow and savour every step, get lost among Hangzhou’s ancient alleys and refuel at Hangzhou’s local eatery 外婆家 （waipo jia, grandma’s home). Restaurant names – it appears – remain the same no matter how far you go.
Famed for its gardens and Grand Canal, Suzhou is one of China’s most visited destinations…by Chinese tourists. Travel + Leisure has listed it in its ‘Top 50 Places to Visit in 2017’ so it’s about time you paid a visit. A quick 25 minute train ride from Shanghai, Suzhou’s relatively untouched historic centre boasts residential architecture dating back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). This is a rarity in China and makes for a blissful stroll along pedestrianised paved roads such as Pinjiang Lu.
On the map, this picturesque city looks much smaller than it actually is so cycling around is your best bet. Bikes can be rented easily from guesthouses, hotels or bike shops for the day.
Suzhou’s classical gardens replicate natural landscapes in miniature and showcase the interplay of the ‘mountains and water’ elements with pavilions, terraces, bamboo groves and islets. Dating from the 11th-19th century, the nine gardens’ design reflect the profound significance that natural beauty and harmony play in Chinese culture.
Among my favourite was the lesser known Couple’s Garden in the eastern part of the city, the Master of the Nets Garden and Lions’ Grove, often overlooked in favour of the larger (but less impressive, in my opinion) Humble Administrator’s Garden.
Shopping aficionados should know that Suzhou is the silk capital of the world. There’s no better place to have that traditional cheongsam dress tailor-made at a tenth of the price you’d pay in the UK. But… don’t forget to bargain!
3. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
Located in Hunan province, in the inner southern part of China, this mountain reserve is one of China’s best kept secrets for foreigners. Fly into Zhangjiajie from any big city in the country and plan a stay in Wulingyuan village, which gives you easy access to the park. Zhangjiajie’s vast landscape is spectacular and you’ll want to secure a quiet place to sit down and contemplate this glorious view.
Early morning trips are the best for keen photographers and you might be able to miss the crowds (this is China, after all) for an hour or two. Board the cable car up to Tianzi ‘Son of Heaven’ Mountains – a fitting name for such a gift of nature. With this forest of limestone pinnacles and columns before your eyes, you’ll begin to wonder whether you are still on Planet Earth.
Waterfalls, caves and natural bridges suspended hundreds of metres above sea level make this place both surreal and magical. Wildlife includes black bears, clouded leopards, squirrels and apparently snakes which made my trip to Zhangjiajie all the more adventurous.
From Tianzi continue on to the Yuanjiajie Scenic Area, which was the inspiration behind the film Avatar’s floating rocks. Chinese tourists flock here by the thousands to see the Hallelujah mountains, so arm yourself with patience. But do rest assured that these canyons, often draped in mist, will be the highlight of your trip to China.
4. Hainan Island
Who knew China had a tropical island? Well it does and it boasts a coral reef too. Opposite the eastern coast of Vietnam, Hainan island is the pearl of the South China Sea, a mecca for affluent Chinese travellers in desperate need of some Vitamin D.
Unlike Hangzhou, Suzhou and Zhangjiajie, this island is not inscribed on the UNESCO list. Yet I think it was worth adding to this round-up as it’s completely off-the-beaten track for Westerners – except Russians – and it offers, arguably, the best scuba diving in China.
The beaches of Sanya, in the south of the island, are the reason to head to Hainan and Yalong Bay is the place to be and be seen. Plan a half day excursion to Wuzhizhou Island, near Haitang Bay. The butterfly-shaped tropical island is surrounded by coral reefs and pristine sandy beaches with turquoise water. If you have already dived in all oceans and seas of the planet, then you have to add this to your snorkelling bucket list.