What to see and do in Mainland China
January 1, 1970
by Jenica Suson
According to the World Atlas, China is the fourth largest country in the world and the second largest in Asia. It’s approximately 9.6 million square kilometers big! That’s huge compared to my home country, the Philippines. Despite how massive this country is, people tend to conclude that the whole of China is dirty and unpleasant to travel. In this article, I want the rest of the world to see the beauty and diversity of Mainland of China.
33 Provincial Level Administrative Units
The People’s Republic of China includes 22 provinces, 4 municipalities, 5 autonomous regions and 2 special administrative regions. The special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macau, aren’t part of Mainland China. In this article, I will only feature Mainland China.
For easier understanding, let’s refer to the municipalities and autonomous regions as “provinces”. This adds up to 31 provinces. I have been to 20 provinces plus 2 special administrative regions. I will only use pictures that were taken from my trip so I won’t have pictures for the 11 provinces that I haven’t been to, but I will write a short description based on what I have learned about those provinces.
China has 55 minorities and more than 100 dialects! So get ready to see Mainland China like you’ve never seen before. Enjoy its karst mountains, historical sites, and clear, pristine lakes and rivers.
The capital of this province is Hefei city. You can take a long distance bus or a train from Shanghai to Anhui province. This province has at least 3 ancient villages. The ancient villages are already very touristy and a bit pricey to get in, but still very interesting. The movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was filmed in one of the ancient villages, Hongcun. When I was there, there were a lot of painters in Hongcun. In fact, it is even called “a village in the Chinese paintings” because of its dramatic willow trees near the river and the reflection of the ancient Ming and Qing houses on the riverbank. The best part of this village is the Moon Pond, also called Yuezhao.
Despite the beauty of the ancient villages that is unique in China, I chose to post a picture of the Yellow Mt, also called Huangshan. The view from above the mountain is breathtaking! I slept on top of the mountain and I had a pretty good view of the sunset and the sunrise. If you don’t like to hike, you don’t have to cross this mountain off the list because, like every mountain in China, Huangshan has a cable car service going up and down. I stayed at Huangshan Yupinglou Hotel, which is a 15-minute hike from the cable car.
Beijing used to be called Peking, is the capital of China. Here you can learn how to eat the famous Bejing duck. Aside from the Bejing duck, this ginormous city offers a wide range of delicious food. From the roasted lamb and Beijing hotpot to the countless international restaurants, Beijing will certainly satisfy your appetite. If you’re adventurous with food, you should also go to Wangfujing night market and try exotic foods such as scorpion or starfish.
This city is composed of 16 urban, suburban and rural districts. It also hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. The Water Cube, now a huge waterpark, and the Bird’s Nest, also known as the Beijing National Stadium, are definitely worth seeing.
What I love most about this city are the historical sites within the city. When in Beijing, don’t forget to check out Nanluguxiang (a “hutong” or old street) the Forbidden City (the emperor’s home), and the Summer Palace (the emperor’s Summer vacation house). Beijing used to have an underground city that Chairman Moa built to shelter the people in case of a nuclear attack. It was never used and unmaintained, so they decided to close it.
Chongqing used to be known as Chungking. This is one of China’s 4 municipalities. This city is well known for the very spicy hotpot. It is very much similar to Sichuan culture, the food, and the language.
Chongqing is the start of the Yangtze River cruise that goes all the way to Yichang, Hubei province. This cruises along the Yangtze River, the longest river in Asia and the third in the world, that offers scenery from the famous Three Gorges Dam, misty mountains, and bamboo groves.
Another tourist attraction is the Tea Mountain Bamboo Sea. If you enjoy a peaceful walk surrounded by thousands of bamboo trees and tea plants, then this is the place for you.
The capital city is Fuzhou. This is where a lot of Filipino-Chinese come from. It used to be called Fukien but is now changed to Fujian. They speak the Hokkien dialect.
The capital city is Lanzhou. This province contains unique geological formations. An example is the Rainbow Mountains within the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park (see the picture below). You can also enjoy a variety of scenes from mountains to the Yangzte river to the Gobi desert.
Gansu province is a very important part of the silk road. Therefore, tourism is focused on the historical significance of this province. If you have time, you can visit the Silk Route Museum in Jiuquan or the Gansu Provincial Museum in Lanzhou.
Dunhuang (the Mogao Grottoes), Jiayuguan (the west end of the Great Wall), and the Labrang Monastery are some of the stopovers from the people who used to travel along the silk road thousands of years ago.
The capital city is Guangzhou, which used to be called Canton. Cantonese cuisine (Dim Sum is an example of this cuisine – shaomai, shrimp dumpling, spring rolls, etc) and Cantonese language are more common in Guangdong province. The Hakka cuisine is also popular in the Eastern part of this province.
It’s proximity to Hong Kong helped with the rapid growth of the economy, especially in Shenzhen, which is the border of Hong Kong. Shenzhen is also the headquarters for many of China’s high-tech companies and foreign high-tech companies’ operation centers. So if you are a techie, Shenzhen will be heaven for you.
Guangxi province/ Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region
The capital city is Nanning. The Zhuang minority is more prevalent in Guangxi province.
Most tourists fly/take a train to Guilin then take a small boat/bamboo raft on the Li River to get to Yangshuo. You can also hike from Yangdi to Xingping or vice versa. It is a scenic hike with breathtaking views of the Li River and the surrounding mountains. If you check the back of the 20yuan bill, you will see the same view as the cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo. Once you get to Yangshuo, you can rent a bike for cheap and cycle around the small picturesque town to see the Moon Hill and the caves. You can also take a mud bath and go rock climbing.
If you can ride a motorbike, you can rent one in Guilin and ride your motorbike all the way to the Longji Rice Terraces. Take note that this going to the opposite direction from Yangshuo so you’ll have to go back to Guilin if you come from Yangshuo.
Don’t forget to try the Guangxi rice noodles and the beer fish.
The capital city is Guiyang. This province is rich in culture with one of China’s most diverse provinces. It is home to at least 11 different minority groups. Huangguoshu Waterfall, which is the largest waterfall in China, is located in Guizhou province.
The capital city is Haikou. According to Wikipedia, it is the smallest and southernmost province of China. The most famous tourist destination in this province is Sanya. It’s no Boracay but this is probably the best beach you can get in China. Sanya has become very touristy and the beach can be filled with people.
The capital city is Shijiazhuang. The east end of the Great Wall, also known as the “Wall Meets the Sea” or the “First Pass of the World”, is located in Shanhaiguan (translated to Shanhai pass). Shanhaiguan is significant to the Manchu/Qing dynasty, which was the last imperial dynasty of China. The Manchu forces passed through Shanhaiguan to conquer China and rule for nearly 300 years.
The capital city is Harbin. This city is famous for the Harbin beer and the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. This festival has been going on for 32 years since 1985. It begins on January 5th and lasts for a month but the sculptures stand before and after the festival. Visit Harbin during this festival to have a taste of Winter Wonderland. Make sure you pack enough warm clothes because you will have ice burn if you don’t.
Heilongjiang province is located in the northeastern part of China. Its location makes it popular for winter sports. Minority groups and Russians can also be found in this province. The tacky tourist shops in Harbin sell a lot of Russian dolls and chocolates.
The capital city is Zhengzhou. Henan province is rich in culture and history. Three of the Seven Ancient Capitals of China are in Henan. One of the Five Sacred Mountains of China is also located in this province. The 2 most famous attractions are the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang and the Shaolin Temple on Mount Song. For those who are interested in Kungfu, you will see a lot of young people practicing kungfu at the foot of Mount Song. There are also a few impressive performances at the foot of the mountain. If you are staying in Luoyang city and would like to watch the main performance at night, make sure you book transportation going back to the city since the last bus back to the city leaves before the show.
My highlight of this trip was getting to know the guy selling noodles in the middle of the mountain. We stopped by to rest and eat while talking to the noodle guy. He told us he used to teach kungfu and we convinced him to show us his moves and to teach us a few moves. I wish I had more time to learn kungfu with my new “shifu” (master).
The capital city is Wuhan. Wuhan’s strategic location in Central China hastens the economic development of this city. It is also known as the transportation and education center of Central China. Two hours away from the capital city is a hidden gem called Yichang. Among the things to see in Yichang are the Three Gorges Dam, the Three Gorges Tribe (Sanxia Ren Jia), the Tujia Mountain and the Chinese Sturgeon Museum.
The capital city is Changsha. Don’t bother with the capital city because Hunan province has way too much to offer that you won’t have the time to do everything! Ever since James Cameron’s Avatar, more and more tourists have been flooding to Hunan. The movie was inspired by the mystical environment of Zhangjiajie National Park.
Aside from the unique rock and mountain formations of that inspired the magical world of Pandora, this province also boasts red rocks (from the Red Rocks National Geopark) that took 450 million years in the making! I haven’t even mentioned the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon with the world’s longest and highest glass bridge.
If you still have enough energy and time to get lost in a Chinese ancient town, check out the Pheonix Ancient town, also known as Fenghuang. Not convinced of Hunan’s awesomeness? The great Mao Zedong was born in Hunan province. What can be more awesome than Hunan province?
The capital city is Hohhot. Don’t confuse this with the country Mongolia. Inner Mongolia borders Mongolia but is part of China. Hohhot is a typical Chinese city so once you get there, go directly to the grasslands or the desert. I booked my grassland tour and desert tour from a hostel in Hohhot. I slept in a yurt, learned how to shoot a bow and arrow, and went horseback riding for the first time. The sky was so blue, it was such a treat since I was living and breathing the Beijing smog for so long.
The capital city is Nanjing. Nanjing was the capital of various Chinese dynasties. As you walk on the historical streets of this city, bask in the beauty of the temples, mausoleums and the City Wall. Another important historical event that occurred in this city is the Nanjing massacre committed by the Japanese troops during World War 2. You can visit the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall to learn more about this mournful event in history.
People living/touring in Shanghai love to escape the busy city life to go to Suzhou. Suzhou is admired for its lovely Chinese gardens and water towns. It is even known as “the Venice of China.” The Chinese like to describe it as “Heaven on Earth.”
The capital city is Nanchang. This province is supposed to be the birthplace of Taoism.
The capital city is Changchun. Jilin province borders North Korea. The most popular tourist attraction is the Heavenly Lake, a crater lake within the Paektu Mountain. If you’ve seen a crater lake before then you know what to expect, if you haven’t then this is a sight to behold!
The capital city is Shenyang. Like Peurto Princesa, this province also offers a boat ride through an underground river located in Benxi Shuidong National Park. Not a fan of a subterranean river? What about jade or Buddha? Anshan has the world’s largest Buddha made of jade located in the Jade Buddha Palace.
The capital city is Yinchuan. This is one of the 5 autonomous regions of China. Majority of the people are Hui people.
The grassland and desert can also be experienced here.
The capital city is Xining. Qinghai is very interesting as it is a melting pot of different minorities and is located in the northeastern part of the Tibetan Plateau. This province is famous for the Qinghai Lake, which is the largest saltwater lake in China and is located 3,600m above sea level. The water is so blue that people say it’s hard to tell the difference between the sky and the lake.
The capital city is Xi’an. Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China. The famous Terracotta Warriors were discovered a few hours from this city. While you’re there, enjoy the treats along the Muslim quarters and ride a bike on the City Wall to enjoy the view of the city. Xi’an is also the start/end of the Silk Road. Its historical significance gives this city a nostalgic feel.
The capital city is Jinan. Shandong province is famous for Qingdao, which is a beach city and also where Tsingtao beer originates. If you are a hiker, try hiking on Mount Tai, which is closer to Tai’an city. It is one of the Five Sacred Mountains of China. Make sure you’re ready for the steep steps because this hike isn’t for the faint of heart, but you can always take the bus and the cable car to the top.
Shanghai is one of the 4 municipalities. It is known as “the New York of Asia.”Ballets, musicals, plays, and concerts are often held in Shanghai. The first Victoria Secret fashion show in Asia was held in Shanghai in November 2017 and the first Hollywood movie premiere in Asia was held in Shanghai Disneytown for Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. From the traditional architecture of the Yuyuan Gardens to the modern skyscrapers of the Bund, Shanghai is definitely full of wonder.
The capital city is Taiyuan. Shanxi means “west of the mountain.” No wonder the monks decided to carve 50,000 images and statues of Buddhas and Boddhisatvas on the mountain. The Yungang Grottoes is one of the 4 most famous grottoes in China. The other 3 are the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Maijishan Grottoes in Tianshui and the Mogao caves in Dunhuang.
Aside from the images and statues carved on the mountain, the monks also carved a whole temple on the mountain. It is called the Hanging Temple and it has been “hanging” on that cliff for 1400 years!
Another tourist spot is the Hukou Waterfall, which is the 2nd largest falls in China.
The capital city is Chengdu. The home of the cutest bear on this Earth…the pandas! When in Sichuan, it is a must to go to the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuary. You can even take a picture next to the panda if you are willing to pay 1000yuan for a picture. Nevertheless, the sanctuary is worth going to. If you’re lucky, you will see baby pandas. They also have other animals such as a peacock and the red panda.
Sichuan province is also famous for super hot and spicy food. So this can be heaven or hell to some people.
Sichuan has so much more to offer with a rich Tibetan influence. Jiuzhaigou National Park is my favorite part of China. Among the places worth visiting are Huanglong, Mt Emei, and the Leshan Giant Buddha. This Giant Buddha is also carved on the mountain and is the largest and oldest one in the world.
Tianjin is one of the 4 municipalities of China. Like London, you can also see the view of the whole city with the Tianjin Eye.
This city is an hour away from Bejing. We took a day trip from Beijing. We enjoyed the beauty of the colonial buildings in the Old Concession, had lunch at the German restaurant, then crossed the bridge and walked towards the Old Town for snacks.
The capital city is Lhasa. This is one of the 5 autonomous regions of China, but it’s important to know that everybody, including Chinese citizens, needs another visa to get in. People who like wandering on their own are not allowed to be on their own in Tibet. You also need to apply for a visa with an agency. It’s a bit of a pain to get there and that is why I chose to travel to other provinces, such as Gansu, Yunnan, Sichuan, and Qinghai, with strong Tibetan influence.
If you do get a chance to go to Tibet, maybe you can challenge yourself to hike up the base camp of Mt Everest or even go all the way to the peak! One of the places I would love to see is the Potala Palace, which is the former residence of the Dalai Lama.
Tibet, with its history and culture along with its snow-capped mountains and vast lakes, is definitely on my bucket list.
The capital city is Urmuqi. Xinjiang borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India, Mongolia and Russia. Because of this, you will meet a lot of people traveling all the way from the West (mostly Europeans) to the East.
The landscape and scenic views are unreal! The highlight of my trip is the Karakoram Highway. Another must-see is the Sunday Livestock Market of Kashgar. From what I’ve read and heard, people from different ethnicities (mostly Ugyurs, Kyrgyz, and Kazak) come together to trade livestock. You will get to see people shouting at each other trying to haggle, and dozens of animals such as cows, sheep, yaks, goats, donkeys, and even horses. This market has been open for trade for thousands of years! Unfortunately for me, my visa expired on a Saturday!
To add icing on the cake, Xinjiang cuisine is one of my favorites in China.
The capital city is Kunming. Yunnan province borders Tibet Autonomous Region, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. Yunnan is home to 25 ethnic groups and was a significant part of the Southern Silk Road. The land is just as diverse as the people, from rice terraces in Yuanyang to the vast grasslands and snow-capped mountains in Shangri-La to the Shilin Stone Forest near Kunming to the many Tibetan temples all over Yunnan.
Don’t miss the Potatso National Park in Shangri-La.
The capital city is Hangzhou. Tourists flock to this city to see the West Lake and buy tea from the Tea plantation.
Another famous tourist attraction is the Moganshan (Mogan mountain). The rich people of Shanghai used to come here to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. A lot of foreigners used to have summer houses on this mountain. Nowadays, more people can afford to travel and stay on this peaceful mountain, but it can still be a luxurious vacation with the Naked Castle and Naked Stables. The Naked Castle is a British style castle built in 1910 which offers sleeping quarters, an outdoor pool, horseback riding, mountain biking and other sports. It feels like Europe without leaving China.