China is a lot more than a homogenous sea of faces and bicycles. Stretching from the mountains of the West to the architectural wonders of the East, China’s splendor is rich and deep and as diverse as the 1.3 billion people that inhabit its borders. China and Tibet’s landscapes range from glacier-covered mountains, to thousand-foot gorges, to open grasslands and low plains. They’re filled with adventure, mystery and sheer beauty. It’s hard to sum up their most beautiful places (as there are so many) but I’ll give it my best attempt. The places I have chosen made the list because I have personally traveled to these locations. Below, I have also listed a few “runner-up” locations that I have not personally visited but are, most certainly, among the most beautiful places to visit in China and Tibet:
1. Everest Base Camp
PhotoDoes Mount Everest really need any explanation? Zhu Feng, Qiongmo Lama, Everest –regardless of what you call it, it’s still the tallest mountain in the world, and it looms as large as you would expect. Visiting it from the Tibet-China side might have its challenges (i.e. the road from Lhasa to base camp is not the smoothest ride but has improved considerably), but it offers a sight that only a small percentage of people in the world will ever see. If you have the time and the stamina to get there – definitely make the trip. Base camp itself makes an interesting setting when chatting with climbers and sherpas while sipping sweet milk tea. Some people opt to stay at the monastery below the camp, while others choose Tibetan-style tent lodging. Both have their own appeal.
2. Suzhou Gardens
If you’re looking for some of the most beautiful places to visit in China then skip Shanghai and go straight for Suzhou. Just as you’d expect from “Venice of China” Suzhou is a city filled with canals and gardens. Enjoying a boat ride through the canal system is a great way to pass the time on an afternoon, but Suzhou’s gardens are the main attraction of the city. Meticulously Feng Shui, the gardens are calm, relaxing and pure. They are cultivated to perfection and are peacefully beautiful, offering a uniquely Chinese experience.
3. Lake Nam
PhotoLake Nam (Namtso in Tibetan, literally meaning “Heavenly Lake”) is the largest lake in the Tibet Autonomous Region and the highest saltwater lake in the world. At an elevation of 4,718 meters, it is quite the sight to see. Vast and blue, this salt lake is surrounded by looming mountains and nomads herding their yak. Tibetans visit the site for its spiritual value, but tourists who make the pilgrimage to the lake will not be disappointed. I have visited the lake twice, once when it was entirely frozen-over and once in warmer temperatures. Whether frozen or flowing, the lake is as blue as the Tibetan sky and absolutely stunning. Take your camping gear if the weather is warm enough or find lodging at local Tibetan homestays.
4. The Great Wall
Photo No list of China’s most beautiful locations would be complete without the Great Wall. It’s easily one of the most popular places to visit in China which is not only a significant historical and cultural icon, but it’s also a gorgeous structure that stretches for 3,889.5 miles. Take a day hike on any number of wall sections or ride the cable car up and then try the alpine slide down! Regardless of how you scale the structure, it is an intriguing area that could be explored for weeks. For excellent reading on the outlying wall sections, see Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip.
5. Eastern Tibet and Lake Basam (or Draksum Tso)
Eastern Tibet is one of those places that is so spectacularly beautiful – and yet so little-known by the world – it’s almost ridiculous. Lack of access and poor infrastructure make it difficult to get to, but worth the expense of both time and money. Even in a majestic place like Tibet, it stands out in beauty and intrigue. Unlike the high desert terrain of central Tibet, Eastern Tibet is at a slightly lower altitude and is lush and green. The pine-forest landscape is a striking contrast to the dry, brown mountains of central Tibet. It’s still high enough to offer some spectacular mountains but low enough to support the forested ecosystem. If you are looking for places to visit in Tibet then the road to Lake Basam will take you passed a number of glacier-covered mountains and into the thick pine forest. The lake itself is clear and beautiful, surrounded by pristine forest and impressive mountains. Lodging around the lake is simple but adequate. You will not find foreign-owned, Western-standard hotels in this area. Most of the amenities are catered to the Chinese tourist but are perfectly adequate for the Western traveler.
As featured on The Amazing Race, Lijiang is a cobblestone-street-filled city that has a special appeal unlike any other place in China. Spend time wandering through the lanes and alleys of the old town to appreciate the best of the city. Stop and watch a Naxi group dance in the street or relax at a café and sip some coffee. The old town has an interesting beauty of its own, but if that’s not enough for you, in the distance looms Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Just a short drive from the old town, you can take a cable car all the way to the top of the mountain to enjoy the views.
7. Tiger-Leaping Gorge
PhotoA short drive from Lijiang brings you to yet another of the most beautiful places to visit in China – Tiger Leaping Gorge. As “China’s Grand Canyon”, the gorge is considered one of the deepest canyons in the world. Local folklore attributes the name to a tiger that once leaped over the gorge at its narrowest point. Tiger or not, the gorge is spectacular, and the trail through the mountains above it is one of the best natural dirt hiking trails in China. Getting a good view of the gorge from above is worth the 3-day hike, not to mention the views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and other surrounding peaks. For accommodation choose one of the Guesthouses in one of the nearby villages.
8. Mount Gongga
Western Sichuan, an area that at one time was still considered part of Tibet, has the third highest peak outside of the Himalaya/Karakoram. Mount Gongga, sitting at just under 25,000 ft., was once misidentified as the tallest mountain in the world. It looms far above vast valleys roamed by Tibetan and Minyak nomads. On a clear day, Gongga’s perfect-shaped peak can be seen from the valleys that lay below. But consider being satisfied with a view from below – the peak is a notoriously dangerous one to summit. The sight of Mount Gongga is not the only attraction in the area. I can highly recommend living among the nomads for a few days. Experiencing the local hospitality and resourceful lifestyle will leave a lasting impression on you.
Kangding is an excellent launch-point for a trip to Gongga Shan but is an incredibly beautiful city within itself. Situated in a steep valley, Kangding winds its way between lovely Paoma Shan and other surrounding peaks. Kangding, sitting at 8,400 ft. is not quite as high as most of the Tibet Autonomous Region, so hiking feels more like hiking in Colorado. Green and pretty, Kangding is a place to stay and relax after trekking through the rugged Tibetan terrain. With almost a European charm, Kangding offers a tranquil environment with some great scenery to boot. A river curves through the center of town and fine accommodations can be found throughout the city. A cable-car can also be taken up Mount Poama if your legs are sore from too much hiking. Kangding definitely has a romantic flavor – no wonder it inspired a famous Chinese love song.
I personally think Xinjiang warrants an entire list of its own. There’s a lot of Xinjiang I have yet to see, but this list would be regrettably incomplete were Xinjiang not to be represented at all. I have visited Xinjiang’s capital (Urumqi) and nearby Turpan, but Xinjiang’s true beauty lay beyond these places. Urumqi is a fairly traditional Chinese city, though it offers delicious cuisine and an introduction to Uigher culture. Turpan is also an interesting visit, full of ancient ruins and local fruit. But Xinjiang is a whole world to be explored – especially the Gobi Desert. This an area unlike any other terrain within the borders of China.
Other Beautiful Places to Visit in China and Tibet –
The following is a list of places that didn’t quite make it on my list, mostly because I have not yet personally visited them. Although all of these locations are renowned as beautiful places and are worth considering.
Yangshuo – Yangshuo in the Guanxi province, has become a favorite stop for backpackers and rock-climbers. Yangshuo is surrounded by karst peaks and is known for its unique landscape and blue waters. The town sits next to the Li River, which separates it from Guanxi’s capital, Guilin. There’s plenty of foreign-friendly hostels and restaurants to choose from (even with English-speaking staff) and Yangshuo is a comfortable, easy place to travel. Bicycling the town and surrounding area has become a popular way to see all the attractions.
Jiu Zhai Gou – Known as China’s “Yellowstone Park”, Jiu Zhai Gou is famous for its clear waters and clean air. An over-priced plane ride or dangerous bus ride from Chengdu will get you there and may just be worth it. Jiu Zhai Gou is incredibly popular among both locals and tourists, alike.
Yarlung Tsangpo River and Mount Namche Barwa – This southeast Tibetan area is one of the most remote locations on earth. Because of border disputes with India, the area is highly restricted. Its beauty, however, is heralded as perhaps the most spectacular in China. The canyon created by the river is three-times as deep as the Grand Canyon.
Mount Changbai and Heaven Lake – Running along the border with North Korea, this mountainous area is one of the best that Northeast China has to offer. Both the mountains and the lake are said to be impressive, just be careful not to end up on the wrong side of the border!
*Editor’s note – Please note this article is intended as a travel guide. If you would like to know more about the Chinese occupation of Tibet please visit FreeTibet.
Rachel Cross lives in Asia where she spends her days studying language and culture… and changing lots of diapers. She is wife to her best friend and mom to a precious baby girl. She loves to cook, travel, learn, and laugh. She writes about traveling and culture. If you enjoyed 10 of the most beautiful places to visit in China and Tibet then visit her blog The Travel Pen.