Escape the Lunar New Year madness and discover the real China
Eluding the Lunar New Year crowds within China is like trying to swim without getting wet. The best you can do is to seek the few pockets on the mainland that will probably have fewer hometown sojourners and/or giddy vacationers. Head out to these five often-neglected Chinese regions for a fulfilling cultural adventure without fighting the holiday mob. Hopefully.
1. Western Xinjiang
Balancing flat bread on your head is not an acrobatic skill but a daily routine in Xinjiang.
We can't think of a better way to escape the Spring Festival fever than exploring a unique culture in a far-flung desert region of the country.
Out in Xinjiang Autonomous Region, along the old Southern Silk Road, live the Uyghurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims who make up the majority of the population in this fascinating area.
They generally do not celebrate Lunar New Year with the Islamic calendar being markedly different.
Wander the Central Asian hodgepodge that is the Sunday Bazaar (actually open daily) and visit the biggest mosque in China, the 16,800-square-meter Id Kah, in Kashgar (Kashi, 喀什), or chow down on delicious lamb kebabs in Hotan (Hetian, 和田), the heartland of Uyghur civilization.
Bundle up, though; despite its proximity to the Taklamakan Desert, this northwestern region can be quite chilly during the Spring Festival.
2. Western Guizhou
A little adventurousness and a regional map is all it takes to discover impressive Miao villages like this.
As if rural and landlocked Guizhou wasn't enough of a Chinese holidaymaker deterrent, the less developed western part of this often neglected province may just be your escape plan from the crowds.
The region is home to a large number of the Miao ethnic group, whose villages are scattered throughout the hilly countryside.
Western Guizhou particularly abounds in natural beauty. If sightseeing is a must, see the largest waterfalls in China, the thundering, 78-meter-high Huangguoshu Falls (Huangguoshu Da Pubu, 黄果树大瀑布), or sail under stalagmites at the Dragon Palace Caves (Long Gong Dong, 龙宫洞).
Both attractions are in Anshun (安顺), a small city 90 kilometers from provincial capital Guiyang (贵阳).
3. Southern Guangxi
Enjoy solitude at Guangxi's Beihai beach when most of China is on the move.
South of Guangxi's tourist magnets Guilin and Yangshuo lies a seaside region that's not yet overdeveloped.
The region features perhaps the best beaches on China's mainland (that is, excluding Hainan Island) at the now popular Beihai (北海), or at Qinzhou's Sanniang Bay (Sanniang Wan 三娘湾), where white dolphin sightings are not uncommon.
And when you've tired of basking in the sun at a fraction of Hainan's costs, stroll right up to the Vietnamese border at melting pot towns like Dongxing (东兴) and Pingxiang (凭祥).
Getting to Beihai: Daily flights from Shanghai Pudong International Airport on China Eastern and Juneyao Airlines.
Getting to Sanniang Bay: Two daily morning trains to Qinzhou from Beihai (approximately one hour), RMB 24; three daily afternoon trains from Nanning (approximately three hours), RMB 21; morning and afternoon buses also available from both Beihai and Nanning.
From there, buses depart every 60 minutes to Sanniang Bay from Qinzhou Bus Station from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. (approximately 40 minutes). Beach admission: RMB 30, +86 777 381 6003, more info at www.qzsnw.com.
Getting to Pingxiang and Dongxing: All trains to Pingxiang via Nanning, three trains daily, RMB 30; six buses daily from Beihai to Dongxing, three hours (Beihai Bus Station, +86 779 202 2094)
4. Xishuangbanna, Southern Yunnan
Explore the hospitality and culture similar to Thailand's in Xishuangbanna.
Xishuangbanna (西双版纳), an autonomous region in southernmost Yunnan bordering Myanmar, features year-round warm temperatures and thick jungle vegetation.
Its darker-skinned Dai minority (among others) population, tropical fruit-flavored cuisine, Thai-style pagodas, and lazy pace will make you really wonder if you're truly still in China while exploring wild elephant valleys and huge botanical gardens along the Mekong (called the Lancang).
Getting to Xishuangbanna: One daily flight from Shanghai Hongqiao Airport to Xishuangbanna Gasa Airport with China Eastern, departing at 7:25 a.m.
5. Mount Emei, Sichuan
Leshan Buddha is one of the largest stone-chiseled deities on the planet.
As one of the five holy Chinese Buddhist mountains and resting place of the Leshan Giant Buddha (乐山大佛), Mount Emei (峨眉山) ordinarily gets its fair share of foot traffic.
But over Lunar New Year, most people simply can't be bothered hiking up this 3,099-meter behemoth, and much less make it far enough to sit between the toes of the 71-meter-tall Buddha. And that's your hot ticket to enjoying this amazing place all to yourself.
Be sure to allow plenty of time for the climbs, though, as it's certainly no leisurely Badaling stroll.
Book mountainside or mountaintop accommodation well in advance. The scenic area also includes a ski resort and hot springs.