Days 1-4: Xinjiang
Though the capital of China’s westernmost province is anything but close to nature, the rest of Xinjiang is filled with more beauty than you can fathom. Start your journey in Urumqi, the capital, then hire a private car to take you on a sweeping tour of one of China’s most surprising locales.
The eight-hour drive from Urumqi to Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture may sound like a bore, but there are many off-the-beaten-path wonders along the way. Enjoy the change in scenery from desert to grasslands to mountains and everything in between. The prefecture itself covers 280,000 square kilometers in northern Xinjiang and contains some of the most impressive nature of the province. The Nalati Grasslands, worthy of a one to two-day excursion, offer a peek into nomadic Mongolian life, and crescent-moon-shaped Kanas Lake, located in the Altai Mountains, is famed for its turquoise waters and mythical Kanas Lake Monster.
Its lakes really are the gems of Xinjiang. In addition to Altai Lake, Sayram Lake on the China-Kazakhstan border is worth the trek for those interested in a local sheepherding experience with a breathtaking backdrop. Or, take a camel ride around the popular Karakul Lake, close to the city of Kashgar.
And you can’t leave the massive and diverse province without a look at Tianshan Tianchi National Park. This park, located only a two-hour bus ride from Urumqi, encompasses Tianchi Lake and the Tianshan Mountains, both of which are named for Heaven, and fittingly so. Some say the area is the most beautiful in all of Xinjiang, and that’s not just due to its accessibility. The national park features waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, fresh mountain springs, and an all-in-all refreshing break from city life.
Days 5-6: Hailuogou Glacier Park
China may not be as famous for its hot springs as nearby Japan, but the few hot springs it does have are world-class. For heated pools with incredible views, you can’t beat Hailuogou, where you can soak in nature’s hot tub and take in the majesty of pristine glaciers all at the same time. Here you might feel like you’re the only living person that has ever seen these sights, as the nature is so pristine and untouched.
Days 7-11: Yunnan
Located in southern China on the borders of Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos, Yunnan is well on the backpackers’ trail. This diverse province, home to the highest concentration of Chinese ethnic minorities and over sixteen languages, is arguably one of China’s most beautiful and perfectly demonstrates that China is not a homogeneous country.
Start your journey through this unique landscape at Tiger Leaping Gorge. The gorge is located on the Jinsha River, which winds its way between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain. Hiking the length of the gorge will require several days and some strenuous trails that are not recommended for beginners. It is possible to drive the length of the gorge as well, although the hiking trail offers more varied scenery.
From there, travel even farther south to Xishuangbanna. Harboring much of the biodiversity of Yunnan, this prefecture that borders Myanmar and Laos is home to rainforests, rare plants and the last few Asian elephants in China.
Days 12-14: Yellow Mountains (Huangshan)
Huangshan, meaning Yellow Mountain, is one of China’s most popular tourist draws for a reason. If you have ever seen a traditional Chinese ink painting, you will recognize the signature look of the Yellow Mountains’ granite cliffs and the iconic way that the clouds hover above the peaks on a rainy day. It is these idyllic scenes that have inspired countless paintings and poems and made Huangshan Scenic Area a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mountain requires at least a few days of your time and is best viewed during sunrise and winter snows.
The mountains are also conveniently located a short bus ride from Shanghai, which puts you in the perfect position to fly home from a major international airport.