Such stereotypes are understandably attached to a country which has more than 150 cities with a population of at least one million people.
However, with a larger land mass than Australia, China also boasts often-overlooked natural wonders.
Isolated from the chronically-crowded Eastern seaboard, Yunnan Province provides a counterpoint to pre-conceived notions of modern China.
Tucked in the country’s wild south-west, it borders Vietnam and Laos to its South, Myanmar to its West and the Tibetan plateau to the North.
Yunnan’s isolated beauty is encapsulated in its largest city Kunming which, despite a population of about seven million people, possesses a verdant, attractive centre.
On the gleaming pedestrian mall of Kunming’s premier retail precinct, Zhengyi Road, shoppers meander beneath tree canopies peering through the windows of luxury stores.
The European-style shopping avenue is littered with Chinese and Western brand outlets, exclusive restaurants and hip bars.
The area offers comfort to Western travellers seeking familiarity in a country that can be confounding for foreigners.
Yet those in search of unique experiences need only dart down the narrow side streets which stem from Zhengyi Road to unearth the China of yore.
At the city’s Cuihu Park, two-kilometres from Zhengyi Road, residents converge on the lush grounds to unwind beneath Willow trees on the edge of its Lotus-laced lake.
China’s urban parks are often gloriously landscaped, with bridges, ponds, pagodas and elaborate gardens punctuating the labyrinthine spaces.
Cuihu Park is similarly intricate in design, offering either seclusion or immersion in social settings depending upon one’s mood.
The eager observer can delight in witnessing time-honoured pastimes. While men surround tables where games of Mah Jongg unfold in the shade of pavilions, women sharpen their dancing skills in group lessons by the water’s edge.
Once the understated charms of Cuihu Park have waned, it is a just brief stroll along leafy avenues to the Kunming Zoo.
The $4 admission fee offers not only to chance to ogle one of China’s iconic Giant Pandas but also a hillside setting which affords panoramic views of the city.
The wide, roofless monkey enclosure on the crest of the hill sees the energetic animals frolic on play equipment against the incongruous background of Kunming’s shimmering skyscrapers.
Wandering through the zoo amid the hollering, chirping and guffawing of animals and excited children alike is an amusing affair.
In the shadows of the zoo’s lofty perch, Kunming’s famed Yuantong Temple offers contrasting peace. A product of China’s Tang Dynasty more than 1200 years ago, it is considered the most significant religious structure in the city.
Incense burners are handed to visitors as they enter the complex with encouragement to join others in lighting the sticks beneath the awnings of the main temple.
The relaxed mood of Kunming is amplified as you venture from the city North-West to Yunnan’s trio of renowned Old Towns at Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-La. Each of these historic settlements is nestled in a pocket of inspiring natural landscape.
Six hours by train from Kunming, Dali Old Town is flanked by the towering Cangshan mountain range to its West and the dazzling Erhai Lake to its east.
As with the majority of China’s prominent ancient towns, Dali is swarmed by domestic tourists and blighted by faux-traditional structures.
Fortuitously, this contrived tourism is typically limited only to the main streets of these towns, as it is in Dali where authentic experiences and architecture can be uncovered in its alleyways.
Perhaps the most rewarding way to explore the Old Town is on a bicycle, which can be hired for as little as $3 a day.
Pedalling through the back streets reveals the pure Dali, where rowdy schoolchildren dash through the cobbled streets past wrinkled men reclining in centuries-old courtyards.
Just beyond the walls which hem in the Old Town, the Three Pagodas sit at the foot of the Cangshan mountains.
Believed to be more than 1200 years old, the central pagoda completes the triangular formation.
One of the most famous structures in China, the Three Pagodas is a wondrous sight. But, more importantly, it acts as a magnet drawing tour groups away from the most beguiling feature of Dali – Lake Erhai and the tiny villages which dot its shoreline.
An easy, 30-minute cycle from the Old Town will land you at the water’s edge in Xiajiyicun where fishermen ply their trade, families picnic and village life unfolds in a placid, dreamy manner.
Cyclists encounter similarly quaint villages as they head north along the lake’s western perimeter in the direction of perhaps China’s best-known Old Town, Lijiang, about four hours away by bus.
Fame has done few favours for UNESCO World Heritage-listed Lijiang, ensuring it is engulfed by tourists, touts and souvenir stores. However, for those able to look past these drawbacks, its mazelike Old Town is an evocative place seemingly transplanted from a storybook on ancient China.
The narrow, stone-paved alleys weave erratically between classical buildings, over rickety bridges and across narrows streams.
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain accentuates this spectacular setting as its peaks in excess of 5000m loom above Lijiang.
Traversing the charming Old Town can leave you breathless and not only because of its phenomenal aesthetics.
Lijiang’s altitude of about 2400m above sea level – higher than the peak of Australia’s tallest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko – is a reminder your journey has seen you slowly climb towards the Tibetan plateau, also known as “The Ceiling of the World”.
The last major stop on the road to the plateau is the city of Zhongdian, which in 2001 was renamed and afforded the mythical, money-making moniker of Shangri-La
Perched on the southern edge of the plateau, Shangri-La is wedged by soaring peaks and bordered by lush, sprawling meadows where yak and Tibetan nomads roam.
Dozens of ethnic minorities, most of Tibetan origin, reside in Shangri-La and can be differentiated by their distinctive, vibrant garb.
The city’s compact Old Town has a lively main square where traders gather by day to advertise their wares, and Tibetan dancers converge after dark in an obvious but pleasant effort to entertain tourists.
Beyond the Old Town, travellers can visit the nearby Songzanlin monastery, a grand structure reminiscent of Llhasa’s iconic Potala Palace. The most striking sights though are to be found at Pudacuo National Park, a one-hour drive from Shangri-La.
The pristine wilderness, embellished by translucent lakes, flower-draped fields and densely-forested hills are representative of the wild, untamed beauty of Yunnan Province. This is China, but in a light most never imagine.
- Visitors travelling from Kunming to Lijiang and Shangri-La should make the trip slowly to help acclimatise to the lofty elevations of both places and avoid altitude sickness.
- Yunnan’s famous Stone Forest in Shilin is about two hours by bus from Kunming.
- Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest in the world, is located about 100km NW of Lijiang.
Published under license from Well Travelled