The Daily Telegraph - Perfect sanctuaries away from the crowds
October 17, 2015

Build in some downtime and find space to unwind and you’ll enhance your adventure in China, says Michelle Jana Chan.

Organised well, China can be a holiday destination as well as a history lesson and enriching cultural experience. You can return home enlightened, newly aware of the world’s next superpower – and also restored. The challenge is that many consider China to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip and understandably want to tick off all the must-sees, such as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City of Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an and the karst peaks of Guilin.

That is feasible, of course. However, the smart traveller journeying independently, or on a tailor-made trip, will also build in some downtime to break up the journey, and end the trip with a stint of R&R. New hotels in provincial towns and rural areas are opening up less-congested parts of the country to travellers, and offer a perfect pause before the flight home. Here is my selection of the best places to unwind – and a few great places to slow down in the country’s tourist hotspots.

Where to wind down: the best places for R&R

Mount Emei

A few hours’ drive from Chengdu, the gateway city to the panda reserves, is Mount Emei, or Emeishan, a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of China’s sacred Buddhist mountains. Visitors should avoid the beaten path up to the summit (via bus/cable car). A quieter route is to set off on a morning hike to Hongchunping temple (2½ hours), passing streams and waterfalls. There is a simple vegetarian restaurant at the temple serving lunch. Before leaving the national park, ask the driver to stop at Fuhu temple (translation: “calm down a tiger”), a beautiful, well-maintained complex where all the monks are female. The newly opened Anantara Emei Resort & Spa is a short drive from the foot of the mountain and has knowledgeable guides on hand.

West Lake, Hangzhou

Less than an hour by bullet train from Shanghai, the hilly landscape here has been an inspiration for much of the country’s art, literature and religion. The area is a popular tourist destination, but it is possible to avoid the crowds. Few local tourists choose to walk the cobbled Nine Creeks trail to Longjing village, famed for tea of the same name. The expansive West Lake can be explored by rowing boat, but there is an equally poetic view from Guo’s Villa with its pretty garden and teahouse. A good base is the hotel Amanfayun, located within a pilgrimage circuit of five Buddhist temples, which allows guests to visit the temples before they open to the public.

Yunnan province

This region has a dramatic landscape of high plains, lakes and mountains, as well as thriving communities of ethnic minority groups. Some areas, such as the towns of Lijiang and Dali, are overrun with domestic tourists, but the surrounding villages have retained their charm. Outside Dali, stay at the delightful Linden Centre in the go-slow village of Xizhou. This pioneering hotel, which aims to preserve China’s heritage tastefully, leads history tours of the property and can organise visits to the local market, Erhai lake and a full-day hike up to the “yak meadow”. Some may prefer to drink tea on the hotel’s rooftop overlooking the rice fields. North of here are Tibetan villages dotted around the town of Shangri-La at 3,300m above sea level. In the village of Ringha, the Banyan Tree hotel group has a property made up of a clutch of exquisite traditional farmhouses. There could not be a better antidote to a frenetic itinerary.

The “tulou” homes of Fujian

Classified as Unesco world heritage sites, the “tulou”, or “earth buildings”, in this region are a fortified commune style of architecture, designed to accommodate extended families. Some, such as the dramatic cluster at Tianloukeng, date back 700 years; others are in a pattern of astonishing concentric circles. Tianloukeng is one of the quieter sites, but be warned: many enterprising residents of the tulou are now souvenir vendors, so it can feel commercial. It is possible to visit as a full day trip from the polished port city of Xiamen, where Langham Place has opened a slick new hotel. From Xiamen there is a convenient bullet train to Shenzhen and on to Hong Kong.

Karstic landscapes of Guangxi

This region offers some of China’s most unique landscapes, with pinnacle limestone peaks, gorges and cave systems among lush paddy fields. The former backpacker hub of Yangshuo, on the Li river, is now overrun with tourists, but there are less-crowded destinations on the smaller Yulong river. Base yourself at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat Inn on a bend of the Yulong river, or Yangshuo Village Inn, with its restored mud-brick barn the Farmhouse. Both properties can loan guests bicycles and will organise caving, trekking and bamboo rafting trips.

Some of my favourite ways to slow down are by exploring a city’s backstreets; heading off on a trek; visiting a public park or traditional teahouse or a quiet temple. These activities offer a respite from sightseeing and also the chance to witness daily Chinese life, rather than the life of a Chinese tourist. Here are some top tips:

Go slow in China’s frenetic cities


Head for the park at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven: arrive at dawn or just before dusk when you can see elderly locals practising t’ai chi and walking backwards to improve their balance. Rent a bicycle or explore by foot the old hutongs, or narrow alleys, around the street Nanluoguxiang, for a snapshot of local life.


A great hideaway is the grounds of the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, just outside the city walls. Visited early in the day, it remains one of Xi’an’s quieter tourist attractions. In the afternoon, head to local favourite Lianhu Park downtown, where the teahouse overlooks a pond dense with pink and white lotus flowers.


With direct British Airways flights to the Sichuan capital, China’s pandas are closer than ever, but this city is also famed for its spicy food and traditional teahouses. While away a few hours at lakeside Heming teahouse downtown in the People’s Park. You can order Sichuanese dishes (pork dumplings, noodles, sweet sesame parcels) at the neighbouring restaurant, and various peddlers will show up offering fortune-telling and shoulder massages.


Base yourself in the French Concession neighbourhood to explore the leafy backstreets. Wake up early to visit Fuxing Park, where local residents convene to go about their morning routines, from ballroom dancing to martial arts. Stay at one of the well-established hotels here, such as the Radisson Blu Plaza Xing Guo, set in large manicured grounds and offering respite from the hustle.