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05/09/2013

Travel ideas in China

Ride along the Karakoram highway


When to go: October
Few people brave the Karakoram Highway even during China’s peak tourist season. The highway, which is the highest paved international road in the world, cuts through incredible scenery to link China with Pakistan. Surrounded by mountains and glaciers, the road is easily accessible from Kashgar and numerous companies now organise tours and trips to the area for Silk Road tours. Increasing numbers of visitors attempt to do it themselves too, hiring or buying motorbikes in Kashgar and heading out on the road. Whether with or without a guide, you should be prepared for regular and very thorough border checks along the route, with the confiscation of camera memory cards a regular complaint (the area is also a sensitive military zone).

If you are able to smuggle your memory card through however, the scenery is some of the most photogenic in the country, and – the road aside – the region is still largely untouched by manmade structures. The few signs of civilisation you do pass are small Tajik villages or collections of yurts. Despite the desolate nature of the landscape, many of the occupants are willing to give travelers a hot meal and space on the floor for a night, for a small fee. For more official accommodation, Tashkurgan, the last town on the road before the Pakistan border and home to the ruins of a 14th century stone fort, also hosts the comfortable Crown Inn with rooms from 450RMB/night.

Scale the heights of Xiling XueShan

When to go: November
A three-hour drive from the buzzing Sichuan city of Chengdu (most famous for China tour deals) is Huashuiwan, an oddly endearing mock Alpine village, complete with Shetland ponies and fake wooden churches. Although it’s increasingly busy at weekends, an off-peak visit can give you near-exclusive access to the string of picturesque hot spring resorts here. It’s also 40 minutes from Xiling Xueshan, famed as one of China’s best ski resorts.Xiling itself covers an area of 482.8 sqkm. Its peak, Daxuetang, is 5,364 metres above sea level and perennially capped with snow. It was also home to Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, who famously lived in seclusion on its slopes in a thatched house.

Echoes of Narnia are everywhere, with prehistoric forests, sheer precipices and, in the foothills, rare birds and other animals. Visibility on the peaks can be an issue – from the disembarkation point of the first cable car you wade through an ever shifting sea of cloud – but the range of sports make it worth waiting for a clear day; snowboarding, skiing, motor skiing, hot air ballooning, and gliding are all available here.

To trek the mountain only (no skiing), there’s a mind-boggling array of pricing plans depending on how much you want to walk. For a pedestrian car to the highest point and back, expect to pay an expensive 230 RMB (unit for Chinese currency) but the views justify the steep price. In November it’s also worth getting up early to catch the sunrise.

Experience winter Naadam in Hulunbuir

When to go: December
One of the largest and best-preserved grasslands in China, Hulunbuir in Inner Mongolia makes for a less-tourist-infested alternative to the region’s capital Hohhot. In the summer months, you can stay in yurts on the pristine green plateau and admire the sight of herdsmen at work in a landscape that’s almost empty apart from the osbos – shamanistic shrines where locals leave daily offerings including sheep skulls and tinned food. For exploring this remote part of China, try one of the tours from the China Culture Center, who also take you to a ‘Russian’ village on the border. All of which is great in the spring or autumn, but why visit Hulunbuir during December, when temperatures are regularly 15-20 degrees below freezing?

This is when Hulunbuir hosts a winter Naadam festival, with camel races, sledding and archery taking place in thick snow. Many of the festivities mirror those that take place during the better-known summer Naadam, but against a dramatic backdrop of snow-covered plains. The winter activities are being pushed by a local government keen on upping tourist numbers during the region’s notoriously inhospitable winter months and thus feel somewhat manufactured. But if you can brave the cold, there can be few more unique sights in China than seeing camels tearing across the snow for popular China tours.

 

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