Top 10 Least Popular Places in China That You Don't Want to Visit
Top 10 Least Popular Places in China That You Don't Want to Visit

With over 5,000 years of history, China’s bound to have a few ghosts waiting in the nooks and crannies. From the wiles of eunuchs in Beijing to deserted mansions in Shanghai, China’s chock full of possible encounters of the spooky kind. Steel your nerves and prepare yourself to be haunted by legends and tales of China’s paranormal and unexplained.

There are loads of fantastic things to do in China. Whether you desire to explore the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, admire the Bund of Shanghai, climb the Great Wall, or traverse the rice paddies in the South, you’re sure to tick off a few bucket list items in this country. But what about visiting one of the nontouristy places in China? Here you can really experience China like a local and enjoy an experience not many travelers have. And they’re a lot more accessible than you think! Here are some great places that least visitors every year.

Things to Know Before You Visit China

Don’t be fooled by China’s fake “ancient” towns

China is filled with incredible old towns and villages, authentic places where traditional lifestyles and architecture survive. It also has dozens of misleading “ancient towns” which are inauthentic and unappealing recreations of historic communities.

This is a peculiar and recent phenomenon. China’s rush towards modernization has seen it bulldozing many of its oldest neighborhoods to make way for new developments. To try to fill this void, it has built endless faux-ancient towns where mostly local visitors can see what China’s communities once looked like. They’re pretty, no doubt, with their arched bridges, quaint teahouses, narrow stone streets, and graceful buildings embellished by ornate multi-tier roofs. Except that, like a movie set, there’s nothing behind the attractive facade.

These touristy locations are typically located on the outskirts of China’s cities, whereas the genuine old towns are further afield. The latter are well worth the effort, whereas the former are a waste of time, so research these locations before you visit. I detailed five of my favorite real ancient Chinese towns in this story for World Nomads.

China’s rail system is phenomenal

Japan is world-renowned for its bullet trains, having pioneered this futuristic mode of transport in the 1960s. At that time, China’s rail network was rickety and limited in scope. In the past 15 years, though, China has not just caught up with Japan but overtaken it.

Incredibly, China now has more miles of high-speed rail than every other country in the world combined, stretching almost 23,000mi (37,000km), and the system is constantly expanding. Every major city in China has high-speed stations, and these bullet trains are efficient, modern, comfortable, and very cheap. For example, the 180mi (290km) trip from Shanghai to the historic city of Nanjing takes just 60 minutes, and costs only USD $24. A similar bullet train journey in Japan or Europe could easily set you back $70-plus.

Don’t overlook China’s extraordinary national parks

China is synonymous with skyscrapers, monumental temples, and teeming markets. This leads many visitors to think of China as an urban destination and fill their itineraries with city experiences. What a mistake that is. I recently went deep into the Swiss Alps – world-renowned for its jaw-dropping alpine scenery – yet it was no more spectacular than many mountainous locations I’ve visited in China.

I still daydream about the days I spent trekking and staring in awe at the dramatic Jiuzhaigou National Park. That wonder in Sichuan Province, central China, is one of a cluster of untamed national parks on the Tibetan Plateau.

I was equally smitten with the spiky karst mountains and snaking rivers of Guilin Lijiang National Park. Not to mention the tranquil West Lake National Park in Hangzhou, where that body of water is fringed by willows, stone bridges, classical gardens, and ancient structures. China’s cities are massive and deeply interesting but don’t let them dominate your itinerary.

Don’t expect locals to be able to speak English

In many of Asia’s most-visited countries – Japan, India, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam – you’ll rarely have trouble finding someone who speaks at least some English. Not so in China, and especially if you’re outside of its most-visited cities Shanghai and Beijing.

Beyond high-end hotels in Chinese cities, it’s very rare to find anyone who speaks English (or is willing to speak English). Certainly, the people foreign tourists in China most frequently need to talk to – taxi drivers, shop staff, restaurant workers – are very unlikely to be able hold a conversation.

Now, I can’t speak a word of Mandarin or Cantonese, so there’s no judgment here. But you will face major inconveniences if you don’t prepare for China’s language barrier by downloading translation apps or going old school and wielding a printed guidebook with Chinese language translations.

Top 10 Least Popular Places in China That You Don't Want to Visit

1. Leye Tiankengs

2. Qui Mansion

3. Qaidam Ghost City

4. Zhangjiajie

5. Zhada Earth Forest

6. Badain Jaran desert

7. Fengdu Ghost City, Chongqing

8. Sangke Grasslands

9. Emei Shan

10. Zhangye Danxia Landform

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1. Leye Tiankengs

Photo: ecns
Photo: ecns

A bird’s-eye view of Leye would indicate that Leye seems to be smashed by a meteoric swarm. 28 Tiankengs (a Karst Topography) confine to a land of 20 km2, which is rare in the world with such a large density. The 7 Tiankengs in Leye are dominantly in excess of the total numbers of world’s Tiankengs: 13. Especially the awe-inspiring Dashiwei Tiankeng is the second deepest Tiankeng and the Tiankeng with the third maximum volume in the world. Let’s have a real example to help understand how deep it is: the Taipei 101 will not outcrop in the Dashiwei Tiankeng! Leye Tiankeng had been listed as “the world-class geopark” by the UNSECO in 2010. Today you can take the sightseeing cable car to explore the superb Karst landscapes!

2. Qui Mansion

This mansion was constructed by two Qiu brothers who were migrant workers in Shanghai. They used to sell paint and build two identical mansions. The architecture and ornamentation of the mansion were magnificent and popular in town. The two brothers were wildlife enthusiast and collected fierce species like Burmese tiger and crocodiles in their artificial lake.

One day the Qui brothers disappeared mysteriously and the neighbors started taking care of animals. They later ate some of those animals and left the garden unattended. Soon it turned into a tangle of barren branches.

It is reported that the voices of fierce animals and shadows of weird species can be seen in the mansion. Some people believe that the Qui brothers loved the animals so much and when neighbors mistreated them their spirits started to haunt people. There is a hotel with the name Four Season Hotel near to Qui Mansion, the duty guards of hotels have reported frequent mysterious activities. Moreover, a number of guards were admitted to the hospital for treatment of animal bites which are mysterious in appearance and none of the guards knows how these injuries occurred.

3. Qaidam Ghost City

Photo: inf
Photo: inf

Qaidam Ghost City is the largest Yadan landform in China, and probably the most beautiful one. A maze-like soil forest is rising in the deepest of the wild desert, the unusual landscape formed under the erosion by wind and rain shocks the visitors with the landforms as the same bleak as the surface of the moon. The dead silence reigns everywhere when winds stop, you can even hear your heartbeat echoing in the weird mounds as if you are the only human here. The wind howls to carry the sands of the Ghost City when the red setting sun in dusk curtains a half of the sky, a strange feeling mixed of dread and exclamation to beautiful sights rises from the heart bottom of each visitor.

4. Zhangjiajie

If you know anything about Zhangjiajie, it’s that it was made famous by 2009 flick, Avatar. Located in Hunan Province, the forest is not just China’s first national forest park, but also played a fairly big part in the hit film itself – the park’s 3,544 ft Sky Column being the inspiration for the film’s Hallelujah Mountains. As pictures attest, this forest is one surreal place.

Much of it is composed of ‘floating peaks’ i.e. quartzite-sandstone formations that appear to float in a sea of clouds. Found nowhere else in the world, they’re the definition of spectacular, but there’s also diverse flora and fauna, forests and streams, and even endangered species to be found – the Chinese giant salamander and Chinese water deer, for starters.

5. Zhada Earth Forest

Photo: mysterioustibet
Photo: mysterioustibet

The picture is very different at Zhada Earth Forest with the earth pillars and pagodas standing on the yellow plateau. At the moment of eyes closing due to the blinding sunlight, a doubt rises in mind: what did happen there? The changes of rivers and lakes together with the erosion from water and wind make the ever Zhada Basin to today’s grand landscapes of earth forest. Even the mysterious Guge Kingdom had existed among the wild earth forest in the remote era. The official viewing platform provides the best angle to admire the gorgeous views of Zhada Earth Forest. Remember, do not miss the hours of sunset or sunrise to take some satisfying photos!

6. Badain Jaran desert

This remote desert stretches across the provinces of Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Ningxia and is the third-largest desert in China. What makes it so special are the mesmerizing sand dunes, which are some of the highest in the world. The average dune is 200m high, with some giants reaching up to 500m. Scattered through the desert are numerous colorful lakes, where you can swim as camels and other animals take a well-earned drink. Badain Jaran is also one of the few places in the world where the “singing dunes” phenomenon occurs.

7. Fengdu Ghost City, Chongqing

Photo: atlasobscura
Photo: atlasobscura

Nestled on the banks of the Yangtze River, Fengdu Ghost City’s spooky past dates back over 2,000 years. According to legend, two Eastern Han Dynasty imperials officials used Taoist practices to become immortal in the nearby Ming Mountain. Their names combined to mean ‘King of Hell’ and they dragged all local villages into the underworld.

Today, the area is surrounded by temples and shrines dedicated to the underworld. Visitors can journey through the dark side of traditional Chinese culture with the paintings and sculptures lining the temple walls – each depicting scenes of villagers being tortured for their sins. Perhaps not a place for a first date, then.

8. Sangke Grasslands

Just outside of Xiahe town spread the epic Sangke Grasslands, a place where you can forget about everything and just enjoy the nature and breathtaking scenery of Tibetan Plateau. Near Xiahe town, some parts of these stunning pastures have been spoiled by large circus tent attractions catering to tourists, but they can be easily avoided and left behind, and you can just get totally lost in nature. The best way of exploring Sangke is by bicycle or on horseback.

9. Emei Shan

Photo: novo-monde
Photo: novo-monde

Despite its title as one of Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, Emei Shan is often skipped by travelers jumping from Beijing’s Great Wall to Xi’an’s Terracotta Army to Shanghai’s big city offerings. This is all the better for you, because it’s one of the holiest places in China, and the landscape is truly stunning.

Home to hundreds of temples and monasteries that mark Buddhism’s arrival into China long ago, the area is both a center of pilgrimage and home to hikes aplenty. The Golden Summit is the conclusion of many of these, with up-in-the-cloud views that makes the steep, monkey-filled journey 100% worthwhile. Even cooler, Intrepid’s trip there give you the unique experience of sleeping in an actual monastery.

10. Zhangye Danxia Landform

Danxia is probably the most photographed one among all China’s unusual landscapes, enchanting endless travelers with the bright colorful hills hidden in the barren mountains. Looking from a distance, the mountains’ textures and venations are compressed into distinct layers, the gray layer tiered on the yellow layer and red layer upon the yellow one… like layers of waves sketched by bright colors. The Rainbow Mountain scenic area impresses visitors by the oil-painting-like views, thick and heavy in colors while Binggou Danxia earns its fame with the surreal forms that the red rocks, after wind erosion for millions of years, look like huge mushrooms, pillars, window lattice, and more, shocking the visitors by a fantasy that they are at Roman Palace relics.

Zhangye National Geopark seems almost as if it were created with Instagram in mind (it wasn’t…the site is way too historic for that). The technicolor mountains in China’s north really are a sight to behold, and one that’s thanks to layers of different colored sandstone getting pressed together and sculpted by wind and rain over millions of years. Think of it like a layer cake, but on an epic scale.

And since the region was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010, it’s become a little easier to visit, with boardwalks and roads being built to help explorers. It’s still not easy to get to, but the insane site is well worth it.

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