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China - Off the beaten track


Card players near Rear Lakes

Karakoram Highway

This yak-nibbled highway over the Khunjerab Pass(4800m/15,740ft) is the gateway to Pakistan and was used for centuries by caravans plodding down the Silk Road. Khunjerab means 'valley of blood', a reference to local bandits who took advantage of the terrain to plunder caravans and slaughter the merchants.

Longgong Caves

Guizhou province's awesome Longgong caves form a network through some 20 mountains and can be reached by bus from the town of Anshun - about 23km (14mi) away. The caverns lie in Anshun county, at the Bouyi settlement of Shitou Zhai. Another scenic cave in the vicinity is Zhijin Cave. Anshun is two hours by minibus or regular bus from Guiyang. From there, it's a flight or a series of bus and train trips to Beijing, some 1750km (1085mi) away as the crow flies.

Nanjing

In a country where provincial capitals are rarely known for their beauty, Nanjing shines. The construction work that's churning up the face of China seems to have affected this city less than most and it remains a place of broad boulevards and shady trees. This is just as well considering the oppressive summer heat that grips Nanjing, which is known as one of China's 'three furnaces'. The city enjoyed its golden years under the Ming, and there are numerous reminders of the period to be found. One of the most impressive is the Ming city wall measuring over 33km - the longest city wall ever built in the world. About two-thirds of it still stands. On the slopes just east of Nanjing is the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum. Sun is recognised by the communists and the Kuomintang alike as the father of China. Nanjing is asscessible by rail, bus and air. It is roughly 1000km (620mi) from Beijing.

Qufu

Qufu, near the sacred Taoist mountain Tai Shan, is the birthplace of Confucius (551-479 BC). Its massive Confucius Temple features a series of impressive gateways, clusters of twisted pines and cypresses, inscribed steles and tortoise tablets recording ancient events. One of the pavilions dates from 1190, while one of the junipers is said to have been planted by Confucius himself (though a Confucian aphorism about gullibility may descend on you if you believe this). The core of the complex is the yellow-tiled Dacheng Hall. The Confucius Mansions date from the 16th century and are the most sumptuous aristocratic lodgings in China, indicative of the former power of the Confucian descendants, the Kong family. The town itself grew up around these buildings, and was an autonomous estate administered by the Kongs. North of the mansions is the Confucian Forest, the largest artificial park and best preserved cemetery in China. The timeworn route features a 'spirit way' of ancient cypresses, passing through the Eternal Spring Archway before reaching the Tomb of the Great Sage. The nearby town of Tai'an is a 9-hour train ride from Beijing. Buses then run regularly to the mountain.

Turpan

Turpan is 180km (112mi) southeast of Ürümqi and lies in a basin 154m (505ft) below sea level - the second-lowest depression in the world after Israel's Dead Sea. It's also the hottest spot in China: the mercury hovers around an egg-frying 50°C (122°F) in summer. Uyghur culture is still thriving here and it's one of the few quiet places in China. The living is cheap, the food is good, the people are friendly, the bazaar is fascinating, and there are interesting sights scattered around. Within easy reach are the Gaochang Ruins, once a major staging post on the Silk Road; the Flaming Mountains, which look like they're on fire in the midday sun; and a Sand Therapy Clinic where rheumatics come to get buried up to their necks in sand. To reach Turpan, you'll first have to find your way to Ürümqi by air or - if you're brave - by train. From there you catch a regular bus. The ride takes four hours.



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