Places to Travel in Western China - Straight On Detour

Being the size of a continent, the places to travel in western China are understandably endless, but we were on an overland expedition from Thailand…

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Being the size of a continent, the places to travel in western China are understandably endless, but we were on an overland expedition from Thailand to Kazakhstan and so, kept ourselves to as far west as possible. We had intended to stay 1 month but threw on the brakes the second we arrived. Enraptured by four Provinces: Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Xinjiang, we found visa extensions along the way and left China with enough glorious memories to last a lifetime.

 

 

Welcome to the apple of our eye, the place that we always drift to when we think of our finest world travel adventures and most breathtaking sights. Welcome to China and our complete destination guide to the west.

 

One thing we couldn’t help noticing is how misunderstood China is. The majority of reviews we read come from major cities and China’s obvious and eastern highlights, but using these to judge the entire nation is ludicrous and wholly detrimental to what China has to offer. If I see one more blog dedicated to the top 10 sights of China without having left Beijing, I am going to scream. China overthrew my expectations within the first few days and it didn’t take us long to realise we were somewhere very special and possibly the most beautiful place on Earth… if you don’t believe us check out our popular post: Ten Natural Wonders of China.

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Places to travel in China, Destination Guide

 

 

From Chinese food to festivals we have to clear up a few common China misconceptions…

 

FACT: Vegetarian food in China is the best in the World.

FACT: Hitchhiking in China is fantastic. The level of hospitality from Chinese people will astound you but as our blog shows, you need to retain your patience!

FACT: It IS possible to attain a hassle free visa for China. Obtaining your Chinese visa in Thailand is fast and pleasurable at Chiang Mai’s immigration department.

FACT: China has elements of culture that will blow your mind. A Tibetan Burial with vultures and a Litang Horse Festival are both humbling experiences.

FACT: It is cheap to travel in China. We spent $33AUD per person per day!

DOUBLE FACT: China is naturally beautiful, more so than most other places (and we’ve only been to 4 of its 23 Provinces).

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But the rumours aren’t all errors, unfortunately some Chinese horror stories were indeed true…

 

FACT: China Toilets are often nightmarish and frequently provide travellers with horrifying stories.

FACT: Western China travel, especially without speaking Chinese, can and occasionally will drive you crazy. For us travel in China occasionally took us to heaven before dumping us in hell.

 

Places to Travel in Western China, China

 

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 Our Western China Route

Places to Travel in Western China

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Yunnan Province

(Red Markers on Map)

 

A Province the size of France that is ideal for adventurous hiking, enjoying unique Chinese cultures and exploring age old towns and ancient architecture. Despite having several secretive pockets and mountainous regions, Yunnan’s fantastic transport connections makes everywhere accessible. Not only that, but it is simple to arrange overland transport from Laos and Vietnam. With many travellers sticking to south east Asia, you’ll have most of Yunnan’s treasures all to yourself and that is one reason why it’s one of our top places to travel in western China.

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Yunnan is a must for outdoor adventures. Walk or drive along valleys of undulating rice terraces in YuanYang, take on the dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge trek or a hike to Mingyong, China’s lowest and most spiritual glacier. From Bingzhongluo you can take a gruelling bike ride to the border of Tibet or tackle the remote, 3 day trek to Deqin and really test your lungs at altitude. In these far flung destinations you will have numerous encounters with traditional China and its tribespeople. The Mosu, Naxi and Yi tribes live harmoniously, yet simply, working from the land on Yunnan’s fertile soil.

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Numerous historical sights in Yunnan are also very impressive, from Jianshui’s old town (picture above) to the centuries old Caravan town of Shaxi. In the far north of the Province, Shangri La has daily communal dances in the town square and the worlds largest spinning Prayer Wheel. Shangri La is also the access point for seriously high passes and adventurous hikes. Cross 5000m twice and you might just reach Feilai Si’s cliffside temple. Its views of Yunnan’s highest peak and local glacier will capture your heart forever.

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Places to Travel in Western China, China

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Sichuan Province

(Green markers on map)

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One of the most culturally sensitive areas on this planet, Sichuan Province is cloaked in jagged mountains, National Parks and Tibetan Culture. Cultural treasures and historic artefacts have avoided decimation in China’s cultural revolution thanks to it’s high altitude, extreme remoteness and terrible roads. Not much has changed I can assure you.

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Western Sichuan is a world away from its Eastern counterpart, it claims to be ‘more Tibetan than Tibet’ and travel is defined by rough and decrepit roads. Trains are non-existent and buses are far less comfortable, plus there us the added difficulty of Sichuan’s strict governmental control. China is trying to reduce tourism in its ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region’ so don’t be surprised if a ticket office refuses to sell you a bus seat or your accommodation has a sign saying ‘NO FOREINNER ALOWED.’ You’ll have to be inventive; Get someone to buy you a bus ticket or try hitchhiking. Ha, twice we were helped by friendly Monks to attain a bed for the night.

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Places to Travel in Western China, China
Larung Gar, Sertar, Sichuan

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Believe me, if you are up for the challenge and are willing to rough it (because often you will have to), western Sichuan will reward you. This region is the key to untouched Tibetan culture. In Sertar, Larang Gar monastery houses 40,000 Monks and Nuns and continues to defy destruction by its Chinese government. A printing Monastery continues to make hand copies of Buddhist scriptures from wooden tiles, Tibetan Sky Burials take place every week and Horse Festivals continue to congregate on Litang’s 4000m high plateau.

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In contrast East Sichuan has great roads, comfortable buses and one enormous city, Chengdu. A typical Chinese metropolis strangled in smog with some phenomenal day trips on its doorstep. Day trips include seeing the ‘World’s largest carved seated Buddha’, Sichuan’s serene bamboo forest or the Panda Breeding Research Center (We didn’t visit here as it is more of a zoo than a wild habitat). A 12 hour detour from Chengdu will land you in the popular and bizarrely colourful Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve; an amazing array of colourful lakes.

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Sichuan is basically a place that rewards exploration. Whatever you put into it you will most definitely get out.

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Places to Travel in Western China, Jiuzhaigou
Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, Sichuan

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Gansu Province

(Orange markers on map)

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Stepping up to a phenomenal history, Gansu holds its own as one of the top places to travel in China. This stringy Province commands precedent over China’s ancient trade route, the Silk Road and once signified the end of China and the beginning of a vast desert.

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Embarking upon the Silk Road in Gansu is to be transported back in time, a time of trading Nomads, camels ladened with goods, bandits and a need to construct one seriously Great Wall. Reigning the skies are mountain passes that navigate the traffic and continue to do so to this day. With fantastic and affordable train services, you can nip through Gansu’s parched landscape and gaze upon abandoned pieces of Over-hanging Great Wall and other crumbling remnants of China’s age-old fortification.

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Zhangye’s claim to fame is being called an oasis of China by the one and only Marco Polo. He might not agree with that statement so much today but his statue retains its posture in the town that he liked so much. For us, Zhangye was the link to one phenomenal sight, the Danxia Landform. It reigns supreme as the most colourful earth on earth with vivacious chords of colour slicing through its undulating hillside. A hop, skip and a jump away from Zhangye is Jiayuguan and its monumental fort. Jiayuguan Fort may no longer be the mouth of China but that does not stop you from gazing around it in awe or feeling a shiver of fear down your spine for anyone who was abolished from civilisation and turned out to the empty desert. Jiayuguan is the point of no return, with some scenic and deserted portions of the Great Wall of China and its first lookout post you might want to absorb where you are and pay a little bit of respect to anyone who has travelled by foot through the gateway. Further Westwards you reach the final frontier town of Gansu Province and the entrance to the stunning Gobi Desert. A hub of natural beauty and architectural history, Dunhuang offers a range of day trips from the Mogao Caves and their historic buddhist paintings to ancient gateways along the Silk Road and natures sculpted desert-scape of Yadan National Park. 

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Places to Travel in Western China, Danxia
Danxia, Gansu

 

 

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