Best for architecture: Kaiping, Guangdong
Until the early 2000s many of the spectacular structures in the area around Kaiping in Guangdong had been neglected for decades. Becoming a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2007 awakened the tourist market, before the buildings were thrust firmly into the spotlight thanks to Jiang Wen’s 2012 blockbuster Let the Bullets Fly. Built in the early 20th century by returning Chinese immigrants from America and Malaysia, the fortified structures provided the perfect backdrop for Jiang’s scenes of tussling warlords. Though you’re now more likely to do battle with a megaphone-wielding tour guide, the clusters of watchtowers and mansions still make for incredible scenes rising up out of the treetops.
In their heyday in the ’20s and ’30s, there were around 3,000 diaolou (watchtowers), but today only around 1,800 are left standing. Despite significant restoration efforts by local authorities, most of the structures remain in various states of disrepair. This, in part, is what gives the region its beauty – the watchtowers are arguably more striking when in decay than when they’ve been patched up.
The main areas to explore are found in and around four villages: Jinjiangli Cun, Majianglong Cun, Zili Cun and Tangkou Zhen. The leaning watchtower in Nanxing Cun and the preserved gardens at Li Yuan are also popular destinations. One of the best ways to navigate the watchtowers is by bike.
Best for wildlife: Wolong
Most people head to the famous Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Wolong to get their dose of China’s most famous animal. But if you’re after a more meaningful experience, Bifengxia Panda Base offers a far less touristy alternative. Also located within the bounds of the Wolong Nature Reserve, Bifengxia receives fewer visitors than the nearby Breeding Centre and also offers volunteer placements. Before you summon up romantic visions of rolling around with cute and cuddly black and white bears, however, be warned that the majority of your work will be focused on cleaning up. Most of the programmes offered limit volunteer work to just two hours a day, allowing you plenty of freedom to explore the surrounding nature reserve, but making it hard to feel like you’re really making an impact at the panda base.
Nevertheless, there are opportunities to help feed the pandas (something not offered to visitors) and if you want to hold one, you can do so – albeit for an extra charge of 5,000RMB (nearly Dhs3,000) for three minutes with a baby panda.
Best for art: Jingdezhen
People in Jingdezhen are obsessed with porcelain. Students from around China study it at the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute, visiting artists are hooked on opportunities to experiment with it, and city planners have decorated lampposts and traffic lights with the stuff. The city is a uniquely Chinese travel destination, featuring regular markets as well as numerous open factories and studios.
The Sculpture Factory is where you’ll find the studios of artists who work with the local craftsmen. Production slows in the winter, but here you’ll find The Pottery Workshop and a solid hostel. The workshop was established in 2005 and features its own small gallery, café and a well-attended Saturday market, with around 60 individual stalls run by entrepreneurial young potters selling mugs, modern, beautifully painted vases and much more. The Pottery Workshop offers group tours and classes. It also has kilns for hire.
Another spot worth a visit is San Bao (www.chinaclayart.com), a collection of traditional buildings that now house an international ceramics institute. It’s easily the most picturesque place in Jingdezhen. The institute, which was inaugurated in 2000, boasts a bar, the best restaurant in town and a museum.
Best for mountains: Yangshuo
The jagged karst peaks of Guangxi that stab their way skyward from a base of picturesque rivers and rice paddies are one of the most remarkable natural sights in a country that’s filled with them. Urban hubs such as Guilin and Yangshuo are predictably packed with tourists during peak months, but it is possible to shake off the hordes who flock to the area and see the stunning rural landscapes.
One of our favourite ways to escape the tourist melee is to hire a bike and head out into the surrounding countryside. Most places that rent wheels (there’s an abundance of cafés and hostels offering the service in Yangshuo) will also offer you maps of the area with well-worn cycle routes zigzagging around the region. It’s hard to make a wrong turn given that you’ll find pleasant villages, dramatic countryside and photo opportunities galore in any direction you choose to take.
Best for adventure: Gobi Desert
Academics can’t quite agree how Buddhism first arrived in China from India, but one of the most plausible theories is that it came along the Silk Road, and the Mogao Grottoes near Gansu province’s Dunhuang are one of the key pieces of evidence to support this claim. The Unesco-protected caves host one of the biggest collections of early Buddhist art in China, dating back to 366AD, but unfortunately the site has become something of a tourist trap. However, an increasing number of cafés and hostels in Dunhuang offer camping trips out into the nearby Gobi Desert, enabling you to escape the crowds in a thoroughly rewarding manner.
Heading out into the middle of the desert might not seem like an ideal break, but camel treks to sites such as Crescent Lake (a half-moon-shaped body of water beside a dusty pagoda) and the nearby Mingsha Shan, or ‘Singing Sand Dunes’ (so-called because of the sound caused by winds whipping over the top of the sand), make for memorable trips. Tours can be tailored to individual requests, with a standard journey to the lake and dunes costing around 400RMB (Dhs235) a day and most including a camp stay overnight. Temperatures get to below freezing in winter, so best visit between April and October.
Best for stunning scenery: Muztagh Ata
While much of Kashgar’s incredible old town has now been demolished, the surrounding region still boasts some spectacular landscapes that have remained largely untouched for generations. Tours out of Kashgar up into the mountains near the border with Kyrgyzstan and along the Karakoram Highway, the highest paved international road in the world, make for breathtaking experiences, with most taking in the beautiful Lake Karakul, 3,600 metres above sea level.
Take a private tour that allows you to stay in a small clutch of Kyrgyz family yurts on the opposite side of the lake. From this base, you can wander around the lake and take motorbikes up towards the nearby glaciers.
For a full-on trek, you can head via Tashkurgan and its old stone fort towards Muztagh Ata, a 7,546 metre-high peak that is a relatively straightforward climb (often with the help of a camel to take your luggage some of the way) compared to most mountains of its size. En route, accommodation is often with local ethnically Kyrgyz families in yurts, and facilities and food are basic to say the least. But the reward is seeing the second highest mountain in the Tibetan Plateau, which lives up to its imposing Uyghur name of ‘the ice mountain father’.
Follow the money
Your quick-fire guide to the destinations featured on China’s paper currency.
Naturally, Tiananmen Square’s Great Hall of the People dominates the back of China’s highest denomination.
On the 50RMB is Lhasa’s Potala Palace, one of the most sacred sites in the Tibetan capital. The palace was originally constructed in 1645 by the fifth Dalai Lama.
The section of the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo featured on the back of this note has remained largely untouched for decades – to the extent that you can still take out your note and match it up with the real landscape.
The Three Gorges is on the back of the 10RMB. The area has undergone significant changes since the infamous dam was built, though operators still run regular Yangtze River cruises from Chongqing to close to the site.
The back of the 5 kuai note shows the sun rising over Taishan in Shandong province. The name of the mountain means ‘peace’, which is ironic given the huge crowds that congregate at the site every day.
Hangzhou’s West Lake is depicted as a tranquil stretch of water on the back of the 1RMB, a scene that is sharply removed from the tourist-packed modern day reality.