I was sitting at my office computer in Portland, Oregon, scrolling through Google Earth while pretending to work.
I dragged my cursor into China and stumbled upon the rice terraces of Yuanyang.
Immediately, I was awestruck. I had never seen anything so stunning and interesting in my life.
I ran out of my cubicle to my coworker and showed him the pictures. He was just as amazed as I was… but told me I had to stop playing around on the computer and get back to work.
In that moment, I decided to do whatever it took to get myself to that place and see it with my own eyes.
Three years later, I was there.
What Makes China So Beautiful?
From the Himalayas in the west, to the Gobi Desert in the north, to the tropical beaches in the south, China is one of the most geographically diverse countries on Earth.
That geographical diversity has cradled one of the earliest civilizations known to man.
These ancient Chinese settlers laid the foundations for some of the most interesting cultural relics this world has ever seen.
Bringing these two things together, China’s ancient societies built up, nurtured and maintained China’s natural landscapes in such a way that the overall result is some of the most strikingly beautiful places in the world.
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How to Prepare for a Trip to China
Now that you know you want to see some beautiful Chinese places, here are some things you need to do to get the most out of the experience.
- Learn Chinese. Not many people in China speak English. Even the people you would expect to speak English, like tour leaders and public servants, probably only know a few words. If you want the full experience of the culture and to figure out where the best off-the-beaten-path natural splendors are located, you need to be able to communicate with locals. While it’s helpful to be conversational, at least knowing the basics is a good place to start.
Try FluentU free for 15 days, which helps you learn the Chinese language by watching authentic videos, like game shows, music videos and news broadcasts. It’s a fun way to quickly become conversational in Mandarin.
- Set the right schedule. Make sure you plan your route strategically. China is a massive place, and while there have been great technological advancements in cross-country travel, sometimes traveling in China isn’t particularly efficient.
For instance, getting from Beijing to western Sichuan by land will require a series of buses, trains and local taxis that will cause you a lot of hassle. There are beautiful places all over the country, so plan out a route that’ll help you hit the highlights while allowing for easy travel between each destination.
- Get the right apps. Using phone apps is an amazing way to connect with the local culture easily. From translation apps to mapping apps, you’ll need to make sure that you come into the country ready to take on the challenges of being in a completely different country and culture.
- Figure out your visa. Chinese visas are a thing of wonder in and of themselves. Unless you have some special exemption, pretty much everyone needs to get a visa to travel around China. Make sure you fully understand which visa you need to obtain and how long you’re allowed to stay in the country once you have one. Apply as soon as you’ve decided you want to go to China to give yourself plenty of time to shuffle your way through any confusion during the visa process.
The 12 Most Beautiful Places in China You Probably Didn’t Know Existed
The Most Beautiful Places in Eastern China
Fenghuangling Nature Park (Phoenix Mountains) – Beijing
Located about two hours from Beijing by public bus, the Phoenix Mountains give you outstanding scenic views of Beijing and its surrounding areas.
Throughout the 4,000 acres of forest, you’ll find intrusive rock faces, babbling brooks, refreshing ponds and a whole lot of fresh, unpolluted air—an abnormality anywhere near Beijing! When you get to the top of any one peak, you’ll see sweeping views of the modern civilization that couldn’t feel farther away.
The Phoenix Mountains are also covered with culturally important artifacts from the three major religions in China: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
Among many important temples, nunneries, pagodas and historical relics, Fenghuangling Nature Park houses Longquan Monastery, one of the oldest and most culturally relevant Buddhist monasteries in China.
Longquan Monastery is itself spectacular. It houses hundreds of monks in a large campus with an atmosphere that bridges modernity with the ancient culture it was founded upon.
Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) – Anhui Province
This UNESCO Heritage site is arguably the most famous mountain in all of China.
Due to its objectively impressive beauty, Huangshan has been one of the most represented geographic features in Chinese art, both ancient and modern. This granite mountain range has 36 different peaks with the three tallest being the most well-known and well-photographed.
The vegetation is dense and varied, notably hosting some of China’s most diverse flora.
Its moist climate in the southern part of Anhui province is conducive for growing tea, gaining Huangshan fame for having some of the best tea in the world.
You can either take a cable car up to the top of the mountain or opt for the much more grueling hike.
When at the top, don’t forget to look downward at the “Sea of Clouds” that forms in dense patterns beneath the 1,800-meter mountain peaks.
Harbin – Heilongjiang Province
This city in northern China is distinct for its cultural and physical proximity to Russia. Having once even been under Soviet control, much of Harbin’s architecture and local culture bears clear Russian influence.
But the city is most famous for its magnificent winter attraction: The International Ice and Snow Festival, which is the largest ice festival in the world.
Each winter, sculptors in the city build ice models of animals, people and famous landmarks around the world. They light them up with a spectacular light show and parade shivering tourists through these “ice cities.”
It’s a stunning display of architectural ingenuity and is unique to this frigid Chinese metropolis. If you can brave the cold, Harbin’s winter festival is one of the most remarkable sights in human engineering found anywhere in the world.
And if you get bored with the sculptures, the festival also contains some other fun activities like winter swimming in the Songhua River.
Guilin/Yangshuo – Guangxi Province
Starting in Guilin and ending in Yangshuo at a distance of 83 kilometers, the Li River hosts some of the most decidedly Chinese scenery in the whole country.
Its famous karst mountains are a common sight in many ancient Chinese paintings. These mountains are so ubiquitous to Chinese culture that one of these Li River scenes is depicted on the back of the 20 CNY note.
Starting from Guilin, you can take a four-to-five-hour cruise down the whole length of the river. Or you drive to the dock an hour downstream and hop on a bamboo boat for the remaining three or so hours. Either way, you’ll be getting a firsthand experience of the iconic backdrop.
Gliding down the river, it’s easy to understand the famous Chinese saying: 桂林山水甲天下 (guì lín shān shuǐ jiǎ tiān xià) – Guilin’s scenery is best among all under heaven.
Once in Yangshuo, you can rent a bicycle and ride through the mountain villages. Observe the local minorities that have built communities under the watchful gaze of the famous jagged peaks.
West Lake – Zhejiang Province
West Lake is the UNESCO Heritage Site that sits in the western part of the bustling city hub of Hangzhou. But when you’re sitting by the banks of this idyllic lake, you feel like you couldn’t be further away from a Chinese megacity.
Surrounded on all sides by mountains, pagodas, forests and gardens, the scenery in West Lake is about as peaceful as can be.
West Lake has been the muse for innumerable songs, works of poetry and paintings, including the artwork on the back of the one CNY note. The composed beauty of West Lake has also been used as one of the major influences and models for garden design in China and elsewhere in Asia.
Additionally, the lake area is home to one of the most famous teas in the world: West Lake Dragon Well, otherwise known as Longjing tea.
When I visited Hangzhou, my friend and I went down to the lake early in the morning, before all the tourists arrived. We watched the sun rise over the lake while drinking hand-picked West Lake Dragon Well tea.
It was an incredibly serene moment at one of the most stunning places in China.
Wulingyuan – Hunan Province
This UNESCO Heritage Site in the city of Zhangjiajie is so beautiful that it inspired the setting for the movie “Avatar.”
The area is littered with around 3,000 quartzite sandstone peaks that jut up into the sky, many of those summits reaching over 200 meters in height.
It’s also home to numerous caves, ravines, lakes, rivers and even a couple natural bridges. If you go in the winter, you’ll be sure to see it all covered in snow!
Wulingyuan is separated into four different parts, with the most visited being the Zhangjiajie National Forest. There you can ride on the world’s tallest outdoor elevator and brave walking along the world’s longest and highest pedestrian glass bridge.
Because this is one of China’s most famous tourist spots, the area can get pretty packed. But you can escape all the hustle and bustle of Chinese tourism by hiking around the park instead of hanging out at all the tourist attractions.
Huashan (Mount Hua) – Shaanxi Province
Of the Five Great Mountains in China, Huashan is the farthest west.
I hiked up this mountain in late July, when temperatures reached 40 degrees Celsius. And while summers are unbearably hot, seeing pristine rivers and ravines curving through ancient Taoist temples and small mountain villages was 100% worth it.
If you don’t want to hike a super steep mountain for six hours in the crushing heat, you can always take a cable car up to the top. From there, you can venture off any number of ways, reaching various peaks and scenic viewpoints.
Huashan has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. That’s due in large part to the one-foot-wide Plank Walk along one of the faces of the mountain and the harrowing journey needed to get to the incredibly scenic Chess Pavllion, which is oddly dangling out into the valley of steep ridges.
Back in the day, it may have been dangerous. But now, strapped into a series of ropes and chains, it’s more nerve-wracking than dangerous.
Apart from its beauty, Huashan is notable for its religious and cultural significance. Many ancient Taoists would come to the mountain seeking immortality as the forests of Huashan provide a wealth of ancient Chinese medicines.
And if you’re climbing a mountain for six hours in 40-degree heat, you’ll be begging for some refreshing Chinese medicine!
The Most Beautiful Places in Western China
Yuanyang Honghe Rice Terraces – Yunnan Province
These dramatic rice terraces in southern China form the country’s 45th UNESCO World Heritage site and are run by the Hani, a rice farming ethnic minority. The terraces are an engineering marvel as the Hani people managed to tame the wild and mountainous area 2,500 years ago.
The best time to go is between November and April when the terraces are filled with water, which produces a vivid display of colors reflecting off the sunlight.
Sunrise and sunset are popular times for pictures, and the observation platforms become jam packed with Chinese tourists. But when they leave, they leave behind a peaceful quiet that’s perfect for contemplating the area’s majesty.
When I was there, I spent the whole day leisurely strolling through the rice paddies while taking in the tranquility. I came across a large group of Hani people dressed in full traditional outfits walking through the paddies. After finding the one person in the group who spoke a little bit of Mandarin, I was told they were walking back from the neighboring village where they were completing their daily trade rounds.
It helps to speak at least one of the local languages!
Tiger Leaping Gorge – Yunnan Province
Nestled between the cities of Lijiang and Shangri-La, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest and most spectacular mountain gorges in the world. Carved out of the Yangtze River, hiking along the UNESCO-protected gorge is challenging but well worth the physical exertion.
Most hikers usually take two days to navigate through the mesmerizing scenery of the Haba Mountains, opting to stay at one of the many cafe/hostels run by the Naxi minority community along the trail route.
But it’s entirely possible to hike the scenic mountain path in one day. It took me around eight hours, and I spent the night at a hostel in the nearby town on the other side of the trail.
After exiting the main hiking route, you can find several other routes to various villages and waterfalls. You can also hike down the mountain to the violently rushing Yangzte River to see the spot where the namesake tiger supposedly leaped over the gorge.
Believe me when I say, it’s extremely gorge-ous.
Jiuzhaigou – Sichuan Province
This national park in northern Sichuan province is one of the most famous and highly touristed natural areas in all of China. Spanning around 600 square kilometers, Jiuzhaigou is well known for its sprawling array of diversity, thus earning it UNESCO protection in 1992.
From raging waterfalls, to snow-capped mountains, to unspoiled rivers and lakes, this vast network of valleys is one of the most photographed areas in all of China. The dreamlike scenery is rich with natural resources, making it a haven for an abundant array of wildlife.
The park is also home to many Tibetan villages, showering the area with Buddhist pagodas and monasteries. They join the local Qiang minority in offering lots of performances and historical insights into their culture in and around the park.
In the summer of 2017, there was a massive earthquake nearby the park, and the government has only slowly started letting people come back. If you decide to go, be sure to check with the local authorities about entrance into the park. You can also try to go early in the day before the park reaches its capacity.
Qinghai Lake – Qinghai Province
Qinghai Lake is both the largest inland and the largest saltwater lake in China.
One of the best ways to explore Qinghai Lake is by renting a bicycle and riding around the area, experiencing the natural beauty up close and with relative efficiency.
On the lake, you’ll find a number of tiny islands and a large mountain right in the center. On the outside of the lake, you’ll find many smaller lakes, rivers, snow-capped mountains, ancient pagodas, city ruins and lakeside towns.
The area is filled with scenic overlooks where you can gaze at the beauty of this naturally diverse place. Housing a large cache of wildlife, Qinghai Lake is also a haven for birdwatchers as more and more birds fly in each year.
There’s no bad time to visit Qinghai Lake. The scenery changes from lush and green during the warmer months to a winter wonderland during the colder months.
Kangding – Sichuan Province
This city, located at the start of the Tibetan plateau in western Sichuan, is a perfect blend of Tibetan and Chinese culture. It was once the historical border of Tibet and China! The streets are lined with Tibetan nomads, Buddhist monks and ethnic Han Chinese, all peacefully co-existing.
Kangding is nestled inside several large mountains with the famous Paoma Mountain clearly visible all throughout the town. Kangding is also a popular starting point for hikers of Mount Gongga, the largest mountain in Sichuan province.
The city itself is home to many ancient Buddhist monasteries. Only a couple hours west, venturing deeper into the Tibetan subculture, more and more undeniably Tibetan things like monasteries, Tibetan houses and yak farms start to appear.
Stepping foot in Kangding, I was surprised that I was still in China! Quite the respite from the big cities out east, it’s peaceful, relaxed, culturally diverse and absolutely beautiful.
China is one of the largest countries in the world with some of the most striking sights.
So if you’re sitting at your office computer in Portland, Oregon, reading this article, it might be time to buy yourself a plane ticket!
Eric Michelson is a nomadic, philosophizing, peace-minded pluralist. He hopes to help bridge the divide between the diverse factions of the world by exploring various perspectives brought on by personal experience. You can follow Perspective Earth to learn more about him and his work.