Karakul Lake in Xinjiang. Photo courtesy of Aussie on the Road.

Five Places to Visit in China (that aren’t Beijing or Shanghai)

by Heather on 28 April, 2013

With the Chinese May Day holiday this week, I have a ten day vacation. Where should I go? What should I do? I’ve already hiked the Great Wall in Beijing, admired the Bund from a fancy restaurant rooftop in Shanghai, and laid out on the beach in Hainan. I’ve also found myself in Lianyungang, Changzhou, and Hangzhou over the last six months. So, how would you spend ten days in China? I’ll tell you five places to visit in China without visiting Beijing or Shanghai.


Xinjiang is China’s largest province and largest provider of  natural gas, yet only a small portion of the land is inhabited. But that shouldn’t deter you from visiting. Why is this? A lot of the land consists of desert and mountains. It’s a mecca of natural beauty from Heavenly Lake to the Taklimakan Desert to the Karakorum Highway.

Stone Fort in Xinjiang. Photo courtesy of Aussie on the Road.

Stone Fort in Xinjiang. Photo courtesy of Aussie on the Road.

If riding a camel through the desert; dipping your toes in ice cold, fresh lake water; or awing at the beauty of snow-capped mountains aren’t enough to peak your interest, you’ll still be excited to learn that Xinjiang is home to the Muslim population of a Chinese minority referred to as Uighur. And they’re far from the traditional Beijinger or Shanghaier. While some of their cities are being modernized, you’ll still be able to experience their culture in the Old City section of Kashgar.


When you think of China, you can’t not think of giant panda bears. And if seeing panda bears close up is what you’re dying to see, you’ll be happy to know that Chengdu has two research centers that provide comfortable homes to dozens of giant panda bears and red panda bears. You can even volunteer to help the research center by cleaning the panda’s living space, preparing their food, or monitoring their behavior to collect data about their habits.

Photo courtesy of China Roamer.

A cute panda bear enjoying a stick of bamboo in Chengdu.

If volunteering isn’t your interest, you’re free to visit the research center at a small charge to watch them eat and play while snapping pictures and recording videos. And if you want to get even closer to the endangered fellows, you can even pay (a hefty donation) to hold and feed one.


If you’re looking for the glitz and glamor feel of Las Vegas in China, Macau will be your port of call. While gambling is illegal in mainland China, you won’t be able to visit Macau without pulling a few levers or rolling a few dice. Hey, maybe you’ll get lucky!

The skyline of Macau at night.

The skyline of Macau at night.

While gambling in Macau is a must do if you’re visiting, the former Portuguese settlement is home to some beautiful architecture, such as the Sao Paulo Cathedral and the Guia Fortress. Of course, the Portugese-inspired cuisine makes it an easy pick, as well. And the best part, you don’t even need a Chinese visa to visit Macau.


Waterfalls, multi-colored lakes, and Tibetan villages. Need I say more? Jiuzhaigou literally translates to “Nine Village Valley” to presents the nine Tibetan villages that inhabit this land. The park attracts more than 2.5 million visitor annually.

Photo Courtesy of  Loraineltai.

Five Flower Lake in Jiuzhaigou.

It is suggested to spend two days exploring the area, one day visiting Five Flower Lake, Panda Lake, Pearl Shoal Waterfall, Nuorilang Waterfall, and Zhongcha Canyon and one day visiting the Tibetan villages. The best time to visit is September through November so you can experience the backdrop that the changing autumn leaves provide to the clear blue-green lakes. While it’s still considered “high season”, the crowds will be thinner. And although the weather will be cooling, the trails and boardwalks will still be open.


With one of the most backpacker friendly cities and some of the best food in China, you have to include Yunnan on your trip to China. While there are a lot of developed and developing cities in the Yunnan Province, you’ll be happy to know that Dali is a beautiful stop for backpackers looking to take in the mountain scenery and smell fresh air (something difficult to find on the east coast of China).

Photo courtesy of Troncquo.

Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan

But it’s not generic mountains or forests that should attract you to Yunnan. Yunnan boasts one of the most beautiful water cities in China and one of the deepest gorges in the world. Lijiang, like many other cities in China, is a collaboration of old city meets new construction, but you’ll still be impressed with the water town that is home to many canals and Black Dragon Pool. If you couldn’t care less about water cities, you may be interested in exploring the Tiger Leaping Gorge on a multi-day trek.


What do you think?

With such a large mass of land, you won’t be shocked to learn that there are more than five places to visit in China that aren’t Beijing or Shanghai. With that being said, I think there will be a second addition that includes the theme parks in Shenzhen, the mountains in Tibet, and the food in Sichuan.

What do you think about this list of five places to visit in China? Have you visited any of these places?

Escaping Abroad April 28, 2013 at 5:57 pm

Great list! I would advise anyone interested in China watch “Wild China” on Netflix ( http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Wild_China/70205730? ) it does an amazing job of showing the country’s spectacular natural beauty and unique landscapes.

Heather May 8, 2013 at 7:54 pm

That sounds like a good show. I’ll have to check it out!

Will April 29, 2013 at 1:55 am

Thanks for the list – very nice read. Liaoning Province gets my nod as an excellent escape from the masses. The Hushan portion of the Great Wall – along the Yalu River outside of Dandong – offers spectacular views of the river and North Korea. On the “backside” of the wall there is a trail to the left (DPRK side) that meanders along the DPRK border, complete with suspension bridges and challenging climbs along sketchy (but safe) metal stairs. The trail can be hiked sans wall hike by entering from the main parking area. Be aware that the hike is literally on the DPRK/China border, complete with the occasional armed North guard walking the fence. I was there in September and saw very few people.

Heather May 8, 2013 at 8:04 pm

That sounds awesome! I’m going to look into that. I’d absolutely love to do it! Thank you so much for the information :)

l1v.in June 6, 2013 at 5:21 am

Great suggestions for us as we’ll be heading to China in some months.
First we like to finish Europe before jumping on the Transiberian Express.
Thanks for a great list!

Heather June 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm

I’m glad my list was helpful. That’s awesome! I’d love to take the Transiberian Express. Enjoy :)

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