The jaw-dropping land formations of Avatar are real. They’re in China. When most people think of China, they think of pandas, pollution, and the Great Wall. While the Great Wall is pretty great, it was the unexpected and unrivaled vistas that caused me to fall in love with China. From ancient city walls, to sheer, white mountains, delving into these photos will make you want to travel China. As with the post 14 photos that will make you want to travel the Philippines, many of these photos come from people we know and love.

  1. Mount Hua 
    Climb Mount Hua in the middle of the night. Drag yourself up, hour after hour, because it is one of the best experiences you’ll have in China. Fall in love with the fact that even in the middle of the night, on a mountain, you feel like you’re in the middle of a Chinese party. Love the Chinese girls who will take your hand when they can see you’re struggling. Love the group sing-alongs to cheesy American music. Love the brutal indifference of the mountain face. Be thankful that every time you ask how much further, you are told it’s only half an hour more. Return every 加油* you are given. Sit, exhausted and elated, on the peak, as the sunrise melts vivid colors over the white mountain. Watch the dark ribbons tied to the metal chain link fence flutter and reveal their bold red color, signifying everlasting love. This moment will escape words. This is China.Mount Hua is the westernmost mountain of the Five Great Mountains of China. The dangerous “soldier’s path” catapulted Mount Hua to internet fame in recent years. Multiple structures exist on the mountain, including temples, dorms, and eating areas. Located approximately 120 km outside of Xi’an, it is easy to catch a train to Mount Hua. Xi’an is also worth exploring. It’s home to the Terracotta Army and still has its ancient city wall as well as its famous Bell Tower.*jia you: term of encouragement

    Zhangjiajie peaks covered in foliage and clouds
    Tim Latta
  2. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
    Relatively well known thanks to James Cameron, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park has an otherworldly appeal. Rock pillars are covered by heavy vegetation and look like works of art whether they’re dappled by sunlight or shrouded in mist. It’s no wonder that this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though not yet open to the public, Zhangjiajie now has the longest, highest glass bottomed bridge in the world. A walking tour is highly recommended to reach all the highlights. The park is very large, as well as confusing and sometimes crowded.Though beautiful in Spring and Summer, Autumn will offer a different vista than usually found in pictures, with the changing leaves turning the infamous lush green vista into a pattern of reds, oranges, and yellows. The breathtaking landscape becomes slippery and dangerous in winter. Therefore, it’s best to wait to visit until the weather warms in the spring. Tianmen Mountain and Yellow Dragon Cavern are nearby attractions.

    Fenghuang Ancient Town river
    Tim Latta
  3. Fenghuang Ancient Town
    Much of this list has been given over to natural wonders. Fenghuang is a reminder that towns can be built to incorporate nature for a result that is captivating, harmonious, and peaceful. In stark contrast to the ostentatiousness of Shanghai, visitors to Fenghuang Ancient Town meander slowly along the riverbank, or float along in a rowboat to take in the quaint houses on stilts, emerald green river, and equally green mountains surrounding the town. Well-preserved buildings and a simple lifestyle remind residents and visitors alike of pre-modern China. Though its history dates back to 686 A.D., the stone buildings in Fenghuang Ancient Town that still stand today were completed in 1715 A.D.The serene beauty of Fenghuang during the day becomes vivid and exciting as the town lights up at dusk. Pop into one of the many outstanding local restaurants and try out the region’s infamously spicy cuisine. It wouldn’t be a night out in China without beer and KTV. As a foreigner, expect to receive many invitations to join groups of Chinese for beer, pictures, and conversation.

    Reflection in underground lake in Reed Flute Cave
    Kathy Ridle
  4. Reed Flute Cave
    Located in the southern city of Guilin, Reed Flute Cave is over 180 million years old. Fantastic enough to be a popular destination even in ancient times, Reed Flute Cave was rediscovered in the 1940’s. The cave is a dramatic landscape of stone pillars, stalactites, and stalagmites. The aesthetic intrigue of the cave is added to by reflections from bodies of water. Artificial multicolored lighting increases the visual wonder of the cave’s terrain. Reed Flute Cave is also fascinating from a cultural standpoint. Ink inscriptions from 792 A.D. are still visible, including poems from intellectuals in the Tang Dynasty. Many formations within the cave have whimsical names and folk tales or legends attached to them. A tour guide is well worth the fee to hear the rich history and lore of Reed Flute Cave.

    Shilin Stone Forest
    CEphoto, Uwe Aranas
  5. Stone Forest
    Add the Stone Forest, known in Chinese as Shilin, to the list of natural wonders in China that seem too cool and weird to be real. The limestone “trees” that comprise the Stone Forest are thought to be about 270 million years old, making the Reed Flute Cave look quite juvenile. For reference, the Stone Forest existed approximately 40 million years before dinosaurs walked the earth. If being in the presence of  geographic forms so ancient doesn’t awe you, the size and severity of the topography surely will.As with everything in China, there’s an epic legend associated with the site. Ashima, a beautiful girl of the Yi people, was kidnapped by a rich landlord who wanted to marry her. Her true love challenged her kidnapper and won her freedom. While they were returning home, the landlord flooded the valley. Ashima was drowned and turned into stone. Her stone still stands today. The Stone Forest is separated into seven scenic areas and includes waterfalls, lakes, and caves. Try to attend the Torch Festivalon the 24th day of the sixth lunar month to see spectacular feats of wrestling, horse racing, and dance shows. The Stone Forest’s AAAAA-class tourist rating is the highest rating available in China.

    Satbir Singh
    Satbir Singh
  6. Wall meets the Sea
    It is impossible to comprehend the magnitude of the Great Wall without standing on it. It is equally impossible to not wonder at the sheer determination and manpower that it took to create this unfathomably massive structure. Any section of the Great Wall is fantastic and well worth visiting, but where the wall meets the sea is one of the more interesting parts to visit. The general shape of the wall going into the Bohai Sea makes it easy to see where its nickname, “Old Dragon’s Head,” came from.Old Dragon’s Head is approximately 300km east of Beijing. Built during the Ming Dynasty and bombed by the Japanese in the early 1900’s, what is seen today is a replication. Discover the two towers, fortress area, and temple that are all part of this section of the Great Wall. When you get tired take advantage of the lovely sand beach to relax and take it all it.

    Harbin Ice Festival at night
    Anthony Ryan
  7. Harbin Ice Festival
    Harbin’s extravaganza of ice and snow sculptures is one of the most internationally known festivals in China. Sticking to true Chinese style, the sculptures are colossal and ornate. What’s even more insane than the size and level of detail is the fact that these giant works of art are created every single year according to a chosen theme. The amount of hours that goes into creating these impermanent works of art is staggering. Colorful ice lanterns illuminate the grounds to create a magical and surreal nighttime experience.Harbin in and of itself is a fascinating place. There’s a strong Russian influence that is seen in the architecture and the cuisine. Plenty of other winter activities attract the adventurous, and can be packaged together. Choose from a ski trip, safari-style tiger viewing, and dog sledding. Harbin in the winter is blisteringly cold, with average nightly temperatures of -20 C (-4 F).  There’s plenty of time to see the entirety of the festival and explore the city since the festival lasts through most of January and February.

    Yangshuo Mandarin Plantation
  8. Yangshuo Mandarin Plantation
    Yangshuo’s countryside is varied and rich. Mountains, rivers, caves, and temples offer multiple days worth of expedition. Perhaps the most unique part of the Yangshuo countryside is the mandarin plantations. Wandering through the trees colored with the bright bits of fruit is as pleasing for the nose as it is for the eyes. Tea plantations are a wonderful experience as well, with some plantations offering tea picking, tea tasting, and information on tea culture in China.Decidedly atypical and relatively small, Yangshuo is the perfect spot to end your trip and reflect on your time in China. Yangshuo is separate from the size, grandeur, or status that defines many tourist spots in China.  A laid-back cafe and bar culture invites conversation over a drink with international or Chinese tourists, of which their are many. The surrounding karst landscape has inspired writers and artists throughout history. Travel China to see some of the most stunning landscapes in the world.


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