Fly north to Dali for a complete change of scene. This is the capital of the Bai people and a popular tourist spot. Escape the crowds by hiring a bike and explore the lovely Erhai Lake – all the quiet villages here have small accommodation options.
A few hours north by bus, nestling at the base of Jade Dragon Mountain, is Lijiang, homeland of the Naxi people. It’s a charming town of cobbled streets and wooden houses; though something of a tourist theme park, the local culture is fascinating. Head into the countryside for gorgeous scenery – at its best at Tiger Leaping Gorge, which can be hiked in two days; there are homestays en route.
The road north winds uphill, to the edge of the Tibetan plateau, and another minority homeland, the Tibetan town of Zhongdian. The old town isn’t very authentic, but Ganden monastery, on the outskirts, is lovely, and the rugged terrain offers good hiking. You can continue from here into Tibet, though (due to restrictions) only as part of a pricey organised tour.
2. The wild west: Qinghai & Xinjiang
Best for minority culture & wilderness
Duration: 3 weeks
Route: Lanzhou > Xiahe > Xining > Qinghai Lake > Jiayuguan > Turpan > Urumqi > Kashgar
China’s wild west is a rugged wilderness of mountains, desert and grassland. Though making up almost a third of China’s area, it contains less than 5% of the population.
And much of that population is made up of minorities, who have distinct cultures of their own – most notably Tibetans, whose Buddhist traditions link them to Nepal and Mongolia, and Muslim Uyghurs, whose language is closer to Turkish than Chinese. Add Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, among others, and you have an area that feels very different from the rest of China.
Start in dusty Lanzhou, roughly in the middle of China, and take a day to see the Buddhist carvings at Bingling. Then bus to Xiahe, on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. This laidback friendly town is home to one of the most important holy sites of Tibetan Buddhism, the Labrang Monastery.
Though the town is Tibetan, thronging with pilgrims and monks, you’re technically outside Tibet, so there are none of the travel restrictions that apply in that territory. From here, head west to charming Tongren, then on to Xining, a base to visit scenic Qinghai Lake. It’s the biggest in China, and home to rare birds, including the migratory black-necked cranes that stop here in spring.