China's Most Strangely Beautiful Destinations

  • 01 of 07

    China is Beautiful

    Yu Yuan Gardens
    Robert Schrader

    When you think about China, these days anyway, you imagine overcrowded cities and, probably, that any nature between so destroyed by industrialization you couldn't possibly want to spend time there. Yet the proverbial Middle Kingdom isn't just home to the world's biggest human population—it arguably boasts natural beauty unlike almost anywhere else on the planet. No matter where in the country you find yourself, or what sort of experience you seek, awe-inspiring scenery is never too far from you in China.

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  • 02 of 07

    Zhangjiajie National Forest Park

    Mountans of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, landscape scenery, Zhangjiajie, Hunan, China
    thipjang/Getty Images

    The scenery depicted in James Cameron's 2009 movie "Avatar" is otherworldly by definition: It depict Pandora, a planet that's not only fictional, but completely separate from the Earth. On the other hand, if you had to imagine where artists might've found inspiration for a place like Pandora, China probably wouldn't have been your first choice. As it turns out, however, central China's Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (specifically, its "Heavenly Pillar") is the real-life cognate of the Hallelujah Mountains in Avatar.

    Zhangjiajie is located in China's Hunan province, whose capital Changsha enjoys nonstop flights to Los Angeles. From Changsha, it's about four hours by car or bus to the park or 55 minutes onboard the once-daily China Southern Airlines flight.

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  • 03 of 07

    Gansu's Desert Oasis

    Yueyaquan Desert City
    Zossolino via German Wikimedia Commons

    Since most of China's 1.3 billion people live along its east coast, it's tempting to forget the vast western part of the country, to say nothing of the discrepancies in scenery. To be sure, the desert appearance of the Chinese West also calls to mind an oft-forgotten (among casual observers, anyway) piece of the country's history: The fact that it was the eastern terminus of the ancient Silk Road.

    Nowhere in China best evokes this part of the country's past that Yueyaquan, a literal oasis in the middle of the desert of Gansu province. To visit Yueyaquan, fly to Dunhuang, which is the Gansu airport closest to it. You might be tempted to book a flight to Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu province, but due to Gansu's massive size and questionable ground transport, this wouldn't be a good decision, practically speaking.

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  • 04 of 07

    Anji Grand National Bamboo Forest

    Anji Bamboo Forest
    Robert Schrader

    What if you're stuck in one of China's more mainstream cities, but still want to experience some of its cinematic beauty? If you're in Shanghai, you're in luck—both when it comes to beauty, as well as beauty of the specifically cinematic sort. That's because the Anji Grand National Bamboo Forest, located about four hours from Shanghai in rural Zhejiang province, was where the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was filmed.

    To reach the forest from Shanghai, catch one of the twice-daily buses from Shanghai South Railway Station to Anji City, then catch a taxi or auto-rickshaw the rest of the way. The forest is even more easily accessible from the Zhejiang capital city of Hangzhou, an amazing destination itself (even if it's one often relegated to "day trip from Shanghai" status).

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  • 05 of 07

    The Red Beach at Panjin

    Panjin Red Beach
    Kashif Pathan via Flickr

    If Beijing is where you find yourself based in China, on the other hand, it's beauty of the more maritime sort that you'll enjoy. Panjin Red Beach is a time-sensitive destination, however—like the leaves in parks in and around Beijing city, it glows its fiercest red during the autumn, when temperatures cause the algae responsible for its dramatic color to light up like a flame; during most of the rest of the year, the so-called "red beach" is dull and forgettable.

    If you do happen to be in Beijing between about October and December, however, Panjin is definitely a worthwhile reason to get out of town. To reach Panjin, take one of the semi-frequent trains from Beijing station to Panjin Station, then take a taxi the rest of the way. Alternatively, you could hire a taxi from Beijing for the entire day, but getting out of Beijing this way might be a hassle, given the traffic you're certain to face as you exit the city.

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  • 06 of 07

    Jiuzhaigou: A Rainbow in Autumn

    Jiuzhaigou in Autumn
    Chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons

    Of course, as China's autumn destinations go, there can only be one true king: That's Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park, located in Sichuan province. The reason Jiuzhaigou is so special is that it's like looking at a rainbow, at least during the fall season. The glacier-fed lakes and streams of the park are a clear, green color; the sky is blue on many days during September and October; and the leaves on the mountainside are red, orange and yellow.

    While it's true that you might need to wear a purple jacket and indigo pants in order to complete the full color spectrum, Jiuzhaigou is the real deal. Even better? It's only a short flight (or a much longer bus ride) away from the major Chinese cities of Chengdu and Chongqing, which not only makes it a convenient weekend escape, but even more remarkable, given its contrast to those crowded cities.

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  • 07 of 07

    Yuanyang Rice Terraces

    Yuanyang Rice Terraces
    Aries Tottle via Flickr

    One Chinese province that's loved by locals and almost always overlooked by foreign tourist is Yunnan, located in the southwestern part of the country near the more infamous Tibet. The province's capital, Kunming, is known as China's proverbial "Spring City," but you'll need to travel a few hours south by bus (actually, a couple of them) in order to reach Yuanyang County, either in Nansha or Xinjie, the latter of which is closer to the terraces.

    Here, you'll find some of the most impressive rice terraces in the entire world, which look particularly beautiful when you look upon them at sunrise and sunset times. TIP: The best place to watch sunrise is from the Duoyishu view point, while sunset is best seen from Laohuzui, about an hour away from Xinjie by car.