I studied abroad in Beijing for four months in college when my whole class took a two-week trip along a portion of the Silk Road. We did one big loop around Western China starting in Beijing traveling to Xi’an, Lanzhou, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, and Turpan. I was amazed at China’s immense deserts, rivers, and mountains—and found myself wanting to explore the rest of the country’s varied landscapes in the time I had left.
I created a list of every place in China I wanted to see, plotting out points on a map, scheming how I’d be able to make it happen. But then my passport got stolen, taking up most of the travel money I’d saved up. I went back home to the U.S. without checking off all these incredible places I wanted to visit.
Fast forward a few years later—I graduated college, had a few years working under my belt, but I’d never lost that desire to venture to these unique destinations in China full of natural beauty. After much deliberation, I left my job, packed up my whole apartment, and traveled around China for six months with only a 40-liter backpack.
These photos are a visual record and confirmation of a decade long dream finally fulfilled—and some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
Hunan Province: The inspiration for the floating Hallelujah Mountains in James Cameron’s movie Avatar truly feels like you’ve ventured into another world, wander around massive cathedrals of sandstone, subtle variations of trees, moss, and wildlife.
Gansu Province: The Danxia Landform did not look real with the different colors on the vast jagged mountains. It is wild to see the myriad of different colors on the mountains and how they change with the weather. The best times to go are right after it has rained, when it’s cloudy or at sunset.
Guangxi Province: We had to take a three-hour bus ride and hike forty minutes up a mountain to arrive at our hostel, but the Dazhai Rice Terraces in Guangxi were some of the most stunning landscapes I saw during the entire trip, with expansive views of the multiple towns below.
A lot of people do day trips to these rice terraces, but if you stay here for a few days you’ll be able to see more views, experience the dramatic sunrise and sunsets, and make friends in the village.
Guangxi Province: I unknowingly came to Yangshuo during the rainy season and was dumped on with rain. But one afternoon, I rented a motorbike right after the storm ended, cruised over to one of the amazing mountains to catch the sunset.
Sichuan Province: An image of the Leshan Giant Buddha has been sitting on my desktop computer since I was sixteen. This 233 ft. statue was meticulously hand carved out of a sandstone mountain in 800 AD. Go later in the afternoon to avoid the tour groups.
Beijing Province: The Great Wall never fails to deliver. This particular day was filled with intermittent bouts of bone chilling rain, overcast weather, and heavy clouds, which was its own unique experience.
Beijing Province: The Summer Palace is one of my favorite places in all of China. A sprawling complex filled with lakes, mountains, gardens, and palaces, I immediately felt like I’d stepped back hundreds of years into a time. I love wandering around during twilight when there are almost no people.
Shaanxi Province: Mount Hua is one of the five great mountains of China and has multiple Taoist temples strewn among the many peaks. It’s wild to see these functioning temples filled with incense and relics on top of a mountain. It takes a pretty long cable car ride to ascend thousands of feet over mountains with incredible views and serene silence.
Sichuan Provence: Western Sichuan is one of the most unique places in all of China. It lies on the eastern side of the Tibetan plateau and used to be part of Tibet. There are countless stunning mountains, large rolling plains, and some of the most kind, devout, and genuine people. There are no trains west of Chengdu, so prepare for long, bumpy bus rides of anywhere from six to eighteen hours long, but it is every bit worth it.