World ? Asia ? China

China: The Best Small Towns and Villages

  • Xia He (Gansu): This delightful monastery town nestles in a mountain valley at an elevation of 2,900m (9,500 ft.). It's divided into two sections, primarily Hui (Muslim) and Han Chinese at its eastern end, changing abruptly to Tibetan as you climb westward to the gorgeous gilded roofs of the vast Labrang Monastery. Tibetan pilgrims make you welcome on the 3km (2-mile) circuit around the monastery's perimeter.

  • Manzhouli (Inner Mongolia): A tiny town of 50,000 on the Russian border, lost in a sea of grass, Manzhouli is the East-meets-Wild-West frontier outpost David Carradine should have used as the backdrop to the TV series Kung Fu. It stands on the edge of the Hulun Buir, an emerald expanse of grassland shot through with radiant patches of wildflowers.

  • Dali (Yunnan): This home of the Bai people, a backpacker's mecca recently gentrified for larger numbers of tourists, remains a retreat from the world. You can hike part of the impressive 19-peak Green Mountains (Cang Shan) to the west, sail on the cerulean Er Hai Lake to the east, and take a bike ride into any of the nearby Bai villages.

  • Dunhuang (Gansu): Surrounded by barren deserts, this oasis town beckons with sand dunes, camel treks, and the Buddhist cave art of Mogao. Its tree-lined streets and backpacker cafes give it a laid-back feeling that is hard to find elsewhere in China.

  • Yangshuo (Guangxi): While much of the central area is now tacky and overcommercialized, this small town on the Li River, nestled in a cluster of spiny pinnacles, has retained enough of its laid-back charm to be a delightful alternative to Guilin. Yangshuo is at the cutting edge of Chinese tourism and features some of its best innovations as well as some of its worst.

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