Almost all of us are familiar with the great man-made attractions in China: The Forbidden City in Beijing, The Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an, and Shanghai's skyscraper forest in Pudong. For a country of its massive size and varied geography, however, it's surprising how few people outside China appreciate the extent of the country's other attractions, many of them natural wonders to rival any in the world. Here is an alphabetical list of some of those places.
Photo: Full Dose
1. Hebei: Chengde Mountain Resort / Rehe Palace (河北承德避暑山庄/热河行宫)
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this mountain resort was once a summer palace used by Qing Dynasty emperors on holiday. Delicate gardens and a 70-meter pagoda remain. Lush grasslands, marvelous mountains and tranquil valleys still make it a cool place to avoid the heat.
Shuttle buses depart from Beijing to Chengde hourly during the day, ticket is RMB 50
2. Heilongjiang: Saint Sophia Cathedral, Harbin (黑龙江省哈尔滨市圣索非亚大教堂)
Photo: Harbin Ice Festival
The largest Orthodox church in East and Southeast Asia stands in China's most Russian-accented city, Harbin.
Russian expats built the 54-meter-tall, 721-square-meter neo-Byzantine structure in the early 20th century as a spiritual symbol for the local Orthodox community after the Russian-Japanese War. The church was used as a warehouse by the Communist Party for about two decades and is now a state-run museum showcasing the city's architecture, art and heritage.
88 Xiulong Jie, Daoli District, Harbin, Heilongjiang 黑龙江省哈尔滨市道里区透笼街88号
3. Henan: Longtan Valley (河南龙潭大峡谷)
Nope, you're not in Utah. It's Henan. This 12-kilometer, U-shaped valley marked by a stripe of purplish red quartz sandstone has earned the name, "The No.1 Valley of Narrow Gorges in China." Its steep cliffs, lush vegetation and jagged valley attract sightseers from all over China.
The nearest traffic hub to Longtan Valley is Luoyang, a major city in Henan Province. It's about 60 kilometers away. Major cities connected to Luoyang Airport by direct flights include Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
4. Hubei: One Incense Pillar, Enshi Canyon (湖北恩施大峡谷一柱香)
Photo: Hello China
This is not the profile of Beaker the Muppet's giant Chinese cousin; it's a karst pillar standing between the cliffs and peaks of the 108-kilometer-long Enshi Canyon, China's answer to the Grand Canyon. This incense stick-shaped structure is 150 meters tall, but only 4 meters wide, making it incredible that it stands at all, let alone that it's survived several major earthquakes.
Local legend holds that the pillar is a piece of incense given by a deity to the ingenious Tujia people. The residents could light it in times of disaster and the deity would descend to help.
Enshi is approximately 230 kilometers west of Yichang, site of the Three Gorges Dam, and 530 kilometers west of Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei.
Flights are available to Yichang twice a week (40 minutes) and to Wuhan twice a day (80 minutes).
5. Hubei: Shennongjia (湖北神农架)
More than 400 people claim to have seen a Bigfoot-like creature among the lush vegetation of Shennongjia over the past century, yet no hard evidence has been found to prove the "yeti's" existence.
The 3,200-square-kilometer nature reserve also purports to be "the only well-preserved sub-tropical forest ecosystem in the world's mid-latitudes," with more than 5,000 species of animals and plants. It's home to snub-nosed or golden monkeys (金丝猴), a rare and protected species in China.
Wuhan is the nearest major city and traffic hub to Shennongjia. From Wuhan's long-distance bus station at Xinhua Lu, take the daily coach to Xingshan County (兴山县). Then transfer to a mini-bus from Xingshan to Shennongjia.
6. Hunan: Fenghuang(湖南凤凰)
These stilted houses are the dream lodgings of Chinese art and literature lovers. Every year, armies of young backpackers flock to the ancient town of Fenghuang (which literally means "Phoenix") for its rich Miao and Tujia ethnic culture.
Many also come to pay homage to celebrated Chinese writer Shen Congwen (沈从文), whose novel "Frontier City" put the 1,300-year-old town in limelight. Fenghuang maintains its original layout and architecture, with around 200 residential buildings, 20 streets and 10 winding alleys, all of which date as far back as the Ming dynasty.
Fenghuang is 430 kilometers west of Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan. Long-distance buses are available four times a day from West Changsha Bus Terminal to Fenghuang Bus Terminal for RMB 130. The journey takes nearly four hours.
7. Hunan: Zhangjiajie (湖南张家界)
The giant quartz sand pillars of Wulingyuan are said to have been the inspiration for James Cameron's floating mountains on the planet Pandora in his Oscar-winning movie "Avatar."
In reality, the Wulingyuan area in Zhangjiajie, a city in Hunan Province in southern China, is home to more than 3,000 of these stone columns. The tallest pillar in the stone forest stands more than 400 meters high. Wulingyuan authorities have renamed one of the pillars "Mount Hallelujah," the name of the main floating peak on Pandora.
Zhangjiajie is about 320 kilometers northwest of Changsha, Hunan's provincial capital and the region's main traffic hub.
Trains and direct flights are available between Zhangjiajie and many Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
8. Inner Mongolia: Singing Sand Bay (内蒙古响沙湾)
The sand is singing, but what's the song? Singing Sand Bay, aka Yinken Sand Bay, is a 110-meter-high dune, 50 kilometers from Baotou, a major city of Inner Mongolia. Sliding off a 45-degree angle, the wind here is said to sing in soft whispers.
Batou can be reach from many major cities in China by air, including Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou
9. Jiangsu: Brahma Palace (江苏梵宫)
Feng shui and Buddhism have deep influences on China. Both can be found at Brahma Palace. Beneath the foot of Little Lingshan Mountain, and near Taihu Lake and the 88-meter-tall Lingshan Giant Budda, the palace epitomizes Chinese feng shui -- it's surrounded by mountains and water, portending both good fortune and health.
Built for the Second World Buddhism Forum in 2009, the Buddhist theme park is filled with luxury, with gold and glamor gilding many surfaces.
Major cities connected to Wuxi Airport by direct flights include Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou.
10. Jiangxi: Mount Lu (江西庐山)
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, Lushan National Park, with its centerpiece of Mount Lu, is more than a tourist attraction. It's a cultural and spiritual symbol of China. Upward of 1,500 famed painters and poets from various periods of ancient and modern China -- Li Bai (李白) of the Tang Dynasty and Xu Zhimo (徐志摩) in 1920s, to name two -- have traveled here to be inspired by Lu. Masterpiece poems are engraved in calligraphy on the mountain cliffs.
The nearest traffic hub is Mount Lu Airport. It's about 10 kilometers away. Major cities connected to Mount Lu Airport by direct flights include Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.