China has a total of 47 UNESCO World heritage sites but hectic schedules and other obligations means that often we don’t get to see past the side of China lined by concrete and steel bars. Choosing which of these amazing heritage sites to visit is not an easy task as each one is as breathtaking or historically significant as the other. To make that choice a little bit easier, we’ve chosen five that are bound to transport you into China’s imperial past and untouched nature, even just for a short while.
Longmen Grottoes, Luoyang. Photo: drnan tu
1) The Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan
The Buddhist figures at Longmen stand as a testament to the cultural influence Buddhism has had in China. Legend has it that on one fateful night in the year 60AD Emperor Ming Di of Han dreamt of a golden figure he could not identify and the next day he gathered his subjects to tell them about his dream. One of his ministers had heard of a man in India who fit the description and suggested to the Emperor that he might have dreamt of Buddha. The emperor then sent a thousand soldiers to India and some trusted officials on a diplomatic mission to seek out the truth behind this elusive Buddha. Seven years later the delegation returned with some Buddhist scriptures, figurines and monks.
Like most myths, this one is not to be taken literally but one’s thing for sure: looking at the 11 meter tall statues you can’t help but notice a clear diffusion of two cultures. These larger than life stone carvings represent the peak of the neo-Confucianism era. The Yungang Grottoes in Datong and the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang were built around the same time.
2) The Summer Palace in Beijing
A lot has been said about Chinese gardens’ architecture and with this one being an imperial garden you can expect even more grand dimensions, luxurious buildings, and exquisite decorations. While the palace was designed for administrative, residential and leisure functions, the latter takes center stage and is what you will be exploring as a visitor to the Palace.
The Summer Palace is also known as the birth place of the Beijing Opera. In the 18th century, opera was all the rage in Northern China. In 1790 an Anhui Opera troupe performed for the emperor’s birthday at the Palace and soon many more troupes were invited to the capital to perform. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the Anhui opera style was merged with the local styles at the time to form Beijing Opera, which became the most popular opera in China.
Huanghshan, literally "Yellow Mountain", is a mountain range in southern Anhui Province. Its bizarre granite rock features, often hidden behind the clouds, stem from an uplifted ancient sea during the Mesozoic era and have been a source of inspiration for artists for over a millennium. Many museums in China house paintings and poems illustrating the mountain’s sunsets, peculiarly shaped peaks, Huangshan Pine trees, hot springs, winter snow, and views of the clouds from above. As the Chinese saying goes “五岳归来不看山, 黄山归来不看岳” – “You won't want to visit any other mountains after viewing the Five Mountains, and you won’t even want to visit them after you come back from Huangshan.”
Coming back to notable present day artists, we can thank Huangshan for the magical world of Pandora as James Cameron, director of the 2009 film Avatar, credited the mountain as one of his sources of inspiration for designing the fictional world. If you want to see the site that featured as the backdrop in the film, though, you’ll have to go to Hunan’s Zhangjiajie.
Huangshan has many options for the type of tourist experience. One can take a cable car across the mountain or climb an estimated 60,000 steps and paved paths leading to all the main points of interests: ancestral temples. With that said, it helps to embrace the fact that crowds are a recent integral and inevitable part of the Huangshan tourism experience, especially around public holidays.
4) Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor
Located in Shaanxi Province, 35 kilometres northeast of Xi’an, Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum is the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, founder of the first unified empire in Chinese history during the 3rd century BCE.
According to an ancient and well-respected Chinese historian Sima Qian (145-95 BCE), it took workers from every province of the Empire to toil unceasingly for 38 years until the death of the Emperor to complete the mausoleum. Among other things noted in Sima Qian’s records about the tomb are the rivers of mercury used to simulate waterways and the seas in the Mausoleum, a claim that many believe to be true as high levels of mercury in the area of the tomb mound were found but have yet to be excavated for fear that if the underground palace is excavated, the mercury will quickly volatilize.
Later in his life the Emperor became preoccupied with the search of the legendary elixir of life, making the alleged nature of his death a tad ironic. It is said that he died from ingesting mercury pills concocted by his alchemists to give him immortality.
Among his great achievements, the most notable are his wars of unification, and also ordering his men to build a huge defensive wall which he instructed to be built while fighting the nomadic tribes to the north and northwest to prevent them from encroaching on the northern frontier any longer. This wall is a precursor to the current Great Wall of China.
Also, not to be confused with "The Museum of Qin Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses", the Emperor’s tomb is actually located next to the museum, which is about a 10 minute car ride away. Many recommend seeing the tomb first as a build up to the Terracotta Warriors.
Tianshan, Xinjiang. Photo: Meng Zhang
Mountain Tianshan is one of the largest mountain ranges in Asia. Tianshan stretches about 2500 kms long, is 250-300 kilometers wide and divides Xinjiang into two parts. It is best known for being part of the Silk Road trade route and its depictions in the fable Journey to the West. Tianshan and Xinjiang in general have much to offer for people willing to wander off on their own and explore the natural beauty and rich history of the area.
Tourist attractions include the ancient city of Turpan, a reported Silk Road oasis.
The Turpan basin is the driest area of China where one can drive through the Taklamakan desert, which noticeably tilts towards the now dry Ayding Lake, also known as the “moon lake”. In incident times the lake used to have a layer of white salt along its edge, giving the appearance of a shining moon hence the name. It is the world’s second lowest place after the Dead Sea.
Tianshan’s landscape is incredibly diverse, with one area covered by barren hills, which in the light of the sunrise and sun set are a scorching, almost Martian, red. These are the “Flaming Mountains” mentioned in Chinese literature as far back as the 15th century in the classic “The Journey to the West.”
In the southern borders of the Tianshan lie the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. There are 77 rock-cut caves at the site, all done by hand out of the cliff-face. There are also murals portraying the Buddha surrounded by other figures, including Turks, Indians and Europeans showing the diversity that characterized the area before the fall of Gaocheng (高昌故城), a major kingdom for 1000 years before it was finally destroyed in the 14th century. Though empires have come and gone, the rhythm of life in the mountains of Xinjiang continues unchanged. One can also find campsites away from the tourist attractions and get to know the friendly locals.
For lovers of horse trekking routes there are many routes designed especially for exactly this. There is also a Przewalski’s Horse Breeding Center farther out into the desert. Przewalskin horses (named after the first foreigner to “discover” them) are also known as the “Mongolian wild horse” and are believed by some to be the ancestors of all modern horses.
Many recommend beginning the trip in Urumuqi, the city’s capital where locating a driver and shopping for provisions is most convenient. Of all the mentioned heritage sites here, this one requires the most planning.
Hopefully you can find the time to visit the above-mentioned sites, as there is a lot of rich history and culture to be explored. Ancient China still casts a long shadow in today’s China so the more you learn about this country’s history, the more likely you can appreciate your time here and respect the local culture, language, art and traditions.
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Keywords: Unesco world heritage sites China must visit sites China
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By July 06, 2019, China already has 55 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, gained since it acceded to the world heritage convention in 1985, now ranking top in the world tied with Italy, including 37 cultural heritage sites, 14 natural heritage sites and 4 cultural and natural heritage sites.
Apr 22, 2021 10:28 Report Abuse
I cannot stress this enough, although I find Luoyang to be a nice weekend getaway (highly recommend the museum, White Horse Temple, and the Guanlin Miao), the Longmen Caves are a waste of time and money. The ticket for the Longmen Caves is very expensive, and the picture above is the picture of the only statues to survive the Cultural Revolution (and a small amount of foreign plunder). You pay an insanely high ticket price to look at the vague outlines of what once were beautiful carvings. Although I have to say Huangshan is amazing, if you can manage to be there without total cloud cover.
Nov 04, 2014 18:27 Report Abuse