China's World Heritage Sites
China has racked up a total of 52 United Nations World Heritage Sites. Given the country's huge tourism numbers, sites can be overrun at peak travel times, but it doesn't take much to get away from the crowds.
Sitting at the heart of Beijing across from Tiananmen Square, the nearly 500-year-old Forbidden City is one of the world's most impressive imperial compounds. For the emperors and their courts, this moat-encircled complex was literally their city within a city, featuring 1,000 buildings covering more than 7.8 million square feet. Today the Forbidden City is home to the Palace Museum and its world-class collection of priceless paintings, bronzes, pottery, and documents that once belonged to the Qing imperial collection.
Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven—known in Chinese as the Altar of Heaven—was once where Ming and Qing emperors made sacrifices to heaven. The emperor and his court visited the Temple of Heaven twice each year to perform ceremonies with the hope of ensuring a good harvest—even a minor mistake could spell disaster for China. The complex was built in the early 15th century by the Yongle Emperor, who was also behind the construction of the Forbidden City.
The Great Wall of China is one of the country's most iconic structures, as well as one of the world's most ambitious engineering projects. Originally intended to prevent invasion by nomadic tribes north of China, the wall was an imperial obsession for more than 1,000 years, beginning in the 5th century BC. Built primarily of stone and rammed earth, the wall stretches 5,500 miles (8,850 kilometers) from its easternmost point on the Bohai Sea to its western terminus at Lop Nur in Xinjiang.
Old Town of Lijiang
The Old Town of Lijiang is renowned for its winding cobblestone streets, charming wooden homes, and clear, fish-filled mountain streams. The area has been home to the Naxi people (with their unique culture and architecture) for eight centuries. One of China's most popular destinations for domestic or international travelers, Lijiang is visited by millions each year. UNESCO has raised concerns that overcommercialization is affecting the site's heritage value, but it is still a must-visit destination for many tourists.
Yunnan Three Parallel Rivers Protected Areas
Northwest Yunnan is one of the world's biodiversity hot spots, primarily owing to the steep river valleys through which the upper reaches of the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween rivers flow. These protected areas contain unforgettable scenery, including the awe-inspiring Tiger Leaping Gorge and hundreds of varieties of rhododendrons, and rare animals such as the red panda and snow leopard.
South China Karst
Spread across the southwestern regions of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi, the South China Karst area is recognized for the diversity of its limestone scenery. The Stone Forest, outside of Yunnan's capital Kunming, is the best-known site in this group, featuring stone spires and strangely shaped monoliths that boggle the mind. A stony paradise for shutterbugs, Stone Forest and the other South China Karst sites are very popular, but still large enough to allow you to find your own quiet corner to take photos or just marvel at these improbable wonders.
Mist-shrouded Emei Shan is located in lush southern Sichuan Province. Emei Shan is one of China's four sacred Buddhist mountains. Emei's seemingly endless stone paths are usually hiked over one or two days. Hikers on Emei go there for the luxuriant and diverse foliage, the charming, run-down monasteries, the occasional waterfall, and the gangs of Tibetan macaques roaming its slopes. Emei's peak is best seen at dawn, when the sun rises from a sea of clouds.
The northwestern city of Dunhuang in Gansu Province was once an important stopover on the Silk Road that connected China with Europe via Central Asia. Along with bringing traders and goods in from the West, the Silk Road also brought Buddhism. The Mogao Caves near Dunhuang were first established more than 2,300 years ago as places for Buddhists to practice their faith. Over time, the caves grew into a complex of nearly 500 temples featuring astonishingly well-preserved Buddhist painting and architecture collected during a 1,000-year period.
The Terracotta Army at the mausoleum of the first Qin Emperor is one of the biggest archaeological discoveries in the last half century. In 1974 farmers discovered pits with thousands of life-size statues of soldiers, horses, chariots, musicians, and acrobats—their find instantly captured China's, and the world's, imagination. The army was commissioned by Qin Shihuang, China's first emperor, and buried with him in the early 3rd century with the hope that the warriors would protect him in the afterlife. Each 6-foot-tall statue is believed to have been modeled after a living human from the emperor's time.
The Potala Palace is one of the world's most impressive buildings. Looking out over the valley below, its 13 stories house more than 1,000 rooms with countless shrines and statues throughout. Prior to serving as the residence of Dalai Lamas, the Potala was originally used by the historic Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo as a retreat for meditation. Its first palace was begun in the 7th century, with construction finishing in 1645. The Potala suffered during the 1959 uprising that led to the current Dalai Lama's fleeing Tibet, and also was at risk during the Cultural Revolution, but this great building still stands tall today, a monument to the greatness of Tibet's past.
In Beijing's northern suburbs, the Summer Palace is where many an emperor went to escape his virtual imprisonment within the city center's Forbidden City. A peaceful retreat with a tranquil lake, a hill with scenic views of the city below, and a fantastic collection of gardens, statues, and pagodas, the Summer Palace is a great place to take a break from Beijing without actually leaving the city.
Chengde Mountain Resort
Beijing summers can be unbearably hot, even if you're the emperor. The Qing emperors, who were accustomed to the cooler climes of Manchuria, decided it was better to relocate their courts during the sweltering summer heat to higher, cooler ground, choosing a mountain in Chengde, Hebei Province, to serve as their summer capital. Legendary emperors, including Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong, escaped the heat while continuing to perform their imperial duties. The compound is loosely modeled on the Forbidden City, but its gardens, pagoda, and outlying temples give it a character all its own.
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