Discover China's hidden gems
Huairou DISTRICT, Beijing Mutianyu Great Wall
Most tourists seem to make a beeline for the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China, within easy reach of Beijing, for its restored walkways and watchtowers. Further afield is Mutianyu, a quieter alternative with multiple sightseeing options, plus eco-friendly accommodation if you’re after unspoiled views.
There are three ways to reach the Wall here: climbing 4000-plus steps, taking a chairlift or gliding up in a gondola. Come down the same way or pick up speed on a single-rider toboggan — just fast enough to
get your adrenaline pumping but not so speedy that the scenery blurs.
At the foot of Mutianyu is its namesake village, which includes Brickyard Retreat. This one-time tile factory is a boutique hotel and spa with Wall vistas. The owners of Brickyard Retreat turned an abandoned primary school into a restaurant, Schoolhouse Canteen, where you can sip Tsingtao beer on the rooftop. It’s a great base for those keen to tackle the Mutianyu-Jiankou trail, a hike covering parts of the Wall few other tourists see.
Fujian Province, Tulou
Packed-earth structures in China date back thousands of years, but Fujian Province’s tulou take the style to new levels. From above they resemble giant doughnuts and these mostly circular rammed-earth villages cut a dramatic form amid rice and tea fields in the province’s south. Built between the 12th and 20th centuries and now UNESCO-listed, tulou were erected in clusters by Hakka migrants fleeing the Jurchens
and later the Mongols in northern China.
Using compacted mud reinforced with river stones, bamboo and wood, they built dozens of the fortified structures, some reaching five storeys in height and able to accommodate 800 people. Inside, courtyards were designed to maximise natural light, and were decorated in bright colours to be used as a communal meeting space for familial clans. Some tulou remain occupied, but many welcome visitors, with guides happily showing you internal facilities including halls, shops, wells and schools.
Guangxi Province, Li River
The Li River has inspired poets and painters for centuries, with its jade-hued waters and striking karst backdrop leading to it often being listed among the most scenic riverways in the world — so it’s no wonder the river is immortalised on the nation’s currency (on the 20 yuan note). The stretch between the towns of Yangdi, Xingping and Yangshuo is particularly idyllic, with a collage of surreal limestone peaks draped in rainforest, standing alongside ancient stone villages that appear to have quietly drifted into the 21st century unnoticed. The best way to take in the scenery is on a slow-paced boat, navigating wallowing water buffalo and their child minders, waving to cormorant fishermen and farmers as you glide downstream. Stop and explore weekend markets or scramble up rocky outcrops affording lofty views over the river, part of a system of waterways connecting the Yangtze in central China with the crucial Pearl River Delta in southern Guangdong.
Zhejiang Province, Anji Grand National Bamboo Forest (Dazhuhai)
One of the last remaining bamboo groves in eastern China, the Anji Grand National Bamboo Forest is home to an astonishing diversity of flora, including dozens of species of bamboo both unique to China and also those cultivated from rare plantings sourced from around the globe. Needless to say, the area is an important research base and a pilgrimage site for horticulturalists, not to mention many architects and designers at the forefront of sustainable building design.
It’s a favourite of urbanites, who will often come here for a rare moment of Zen — and to see the bamboo backdrop Ang Lee chose for his 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Climb the hill for great views
or head to the observation tower. There is also a roller-coaster through the forest, but we advise giving this a miss. Several restaurants around the forest will dish up plates of spicy bamboo shoots served with a glass of bamboo wine.
Hunan Province , Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
Rising from the jungle in northwest Hunan, Zhangjiajie looks like it has slipped from the paper of an old-style Chinese ink painting. One of the world’s largest concentrations of quartzite-sandstone formations, and one of several national parks comprising Wulingyuan Scenic Area, the UNESCO-protected park is said to have inspired the setting for James Cameron’s 2009 hit film Avatar. (The park’s 1080-metre-high Southern Sky Column was, in fact, officially renamed Avatar Hallelujah Mountain in 2010.)
The 240-plus peaks and roughly 3000 karst pinnacles and spires in Zhangjiajie’s subtropical forest are home to a diverse array of fauna. Some travellers take in the scenery from hiking trails and switchback roads (Heaven Linking Avenue, up to the peak of Tianmen Mountain, is strictly for the brave), while others opt for cable cars and a glass-enclosed elevator, zipping you up 326 metres in less than two minutes. The glass-bottom bridges and walkways — the newest opened in 2016 as the world’s longest (430 metres) and highest (300 metres above the valley) — are stunning.
Sichuan Province , Leshan Giant Buddha (Leshan Dafo)
Not too far away from Chengdu, the capital of southern Sichuan Province, is a cliff carving that sets almost every record. The largest, tallest stone Buddha in the world, Leshan Dafo is a 71-metre-high incarnation of Maitreya (a successor to the current Buddha), etched into the mountainside.
It’s believed the Chinese monk Hai Tong began work here in 713, with the goal of crafting a metaphysical being to tame the rivers’ waters. The carving was completed almost a century later in 803, featuring a sophisticated drainage system to help prevent weathering.
There’s a reason Tong chose this part of the world for his sculpture, with southern Sichuan the home of what UNESCO identifies as China’s first Buddhist temple, built on the summit of Mount Emei in the first century AD. More than 30 other temples, pavilions and statues now dot the area, enveloped by an ancient forest that ranges from subtropical to subalpine.
By Natasha Dragun
GETTING THERE Virgin Australia offers flights to China with its codeshare partners Singapore airlines/Silkair, Hainan Airlines and Hong Kong airlines. To book, visit www.virginaustralia.com or call 13 67 89 (in Australia).