Little-known gems lie across the border

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 June, 2009, 12:00am

While mainland tourists flock to Hong Kong, the city's residents are heading in the opposite direction to visit tried-and-tested destinations and seek out lesser-known areas.

Cultural ties, reasonable prices and convenience all rank among travellers' reasons for getting to know the motherland better.

'As a result of the Olympics last year, there is still very strong interest in mainland China, which is right on Hong Kong's doorstep,' said Alex Lee Chung-ping, general manager of Miramar Travel.

'Hong Kong people want to see the stadiums where the Olympics were held. As children are learning Putonghua in schools nowadays, parents reckon that going to the mainland will not only educate them about the motherland but also give them a chance to practise their newly acquired linguistic skills.

'Shanghai is popular. Hainan Island is taking off fast because the beaches are excellent, there are stunning resorts and there is a lot to do and see. It is often first choice for parents with younger children.

'Families still tend to sign up for a group tour as they see it as an inexpensive option and it makes the best use of their time. However, younger couples often prefer to travel on their own, particularly to nearby destinations, such as Shenzhen, where they can shop and enjoy the nightlife.

'Guilin is also a favoured destination, especially taking a cruise along the river to admire the scenery.'

The Li River cruise remains a Chinese travel classic. On the six-hour journey from Guilin to the picturesque town of Yangshuo, it passes stunning mountains with exotic names, buffalo wallowing in the fields and fishermen punting bamboo rafts with tame cormorants used for fishing.

The traditional seaside resort of Qingdao hosted Olympic sailing events. Apart from being home to the world-renowned Tsingtao Brewery, the German architecture of the former concession area remains pretty much intact. Qingdao was one of Mao Zedong's favourite holiday spots, a fact that the city still recalls with pride.

Rather more off the beaten track, Moganshan - in the mountains some 60km north of Hangzhou - is enjoying a renaissance.

The resort area traces its origins to the first half of the last century when it was popular as a summer retreat.

Newly restored guesthouses, including Moganshan House 23, and restaurants, such as Moganshan Lodge, which also includes an eclectic library and an array of board games and DVDs, are adding a certain allure to the area's natural charms, of which hiking in the hills is the most prominent. The trails are also suitable for mountain bikes, which can be hired on site.

'Apart from the traditional destinations in China, the area around Shanghai has become increasingly sought after,' said Ash Bhatnagar, director of product development at Concorde Travel Consultants.

'Cities such as Suzhou are well known for their ancient gardens. Hangzhou is nearby, so travellers can get to both within a fairly short space of time.

'We've found that people are really starting to look for the less visited parts of China. Yunnan, for example, is still less developed than most areas and, while Lijiang is fairly well known nowadays, it still retains a lot of its charm.

'If you fly up to Kunming, you can take in the best of the region in less than a week.'

Honeymooners and those of a romantic turn of mind have long sought out the Mount Huang range in Anhui province.

Now a designated Unesco world heritage site, it is particularly famous for its soaring granite peaks, many of which are more than 1,000 metres high, including Lotus, Bright Summit and Celestial Mountains, which were formed about 100 million years ago.

Cable cars provide the easiest access to Mount Huang and there are about 50km of well-maintained footpaths to aid further exploration. This is one of the most popular natural sights on the mainland and a place of pilgrimage for lovers, many of whom secure a padlock engraved with their names at one of the highest points before symbolically throwing away the key.

Higher still than Mount Huang, Tibet has exercised a fascination for travellers for centuries, and getting there by rail has simply added to its attraction.

The line from Xining to Lhasa is the world's highest, rising to 5,072 metres, with nearly half of its 1,956km of track located more than 4,000 metres above sea level. Travelling at speeds of up to 120km/h, the train acts as a mobile sightseeing platform.

Passengers can usually spot plenty of wildlife en route and enjoy the spectacular panoramas as the line winds over the Kunlun and Tanggula mountain ranges.

Inner Mongolia is one of the last frontiers of China. Its capital Huhot stands some 400km northwest of Beijing. Two new Shangri-La hotels in the region have done much to ease the previously mediocre accommodation situation, but Inner Mongolia's prime attraction is the rolling grasslands that were once home to feared warrior Genghis Khan.

Local entertainment includes thrilling displays of horse-riding by men and women, traditional wrestling bouts and song and dance shows lit by a bonfire. However, nothing beats the sheer spectacle of the grasslands and the dazzling asterisks in the heavens which illuminate the plain at night, unimpeded by artificial light.