For its size, it is a given that China is a country full of hidden treasures. When you think of these treasures, you may picture ancient monuments or areas of outstanding natural beauty, but over the past century China has amassed a collection of quite extraordinary cities. Here are 10 lesser-known cities in China that will take your breath away.
In the Kunming city district of the Yunnan Province lies Chenggong, one of the most stark examples of the vast expansion and modernization that China is currently undergoing. It also serves to remind us of the economic risks that are associated with such a large-scale building project. It is one of Asia‘s largest ghost towns with occupancy figures being estimated at around 10%, leaving more than 100,000 new apartments lying empty. The area was designed as overspill for the dense and poorly planned Kunming, complete with its own administrative centers, learning institutions and recreational buildings, most of which remain vacant. You can wander around the area for quite some time before bumping into a stray student or worker in the ghostliest of ghost towns.
Marco Polo is reported to have visited Hangzhou in the 13th century, crowing it with the honor of being “the most beautiful and elegant city in the world”. Eight centuries on, the city continues to attract swathes of tourists who are mesmerized by its temples, teahouses, reflecting pools, and, most famously, the beautiful West Lake. The city is steeped in history, with evidence of a settlement dating back over some 7000 years, through China’s most prominent dynastic eras up to the present day. Jewish and Muslim communities settled in the city from the late 16th century and there has also been a prominent, if not tumultuous, Catholic history within the city, all of which adds to Hangzhou’s beauty.
The first of the European replica cities on our list. Florentia Village takes its inspiration from Italy, complete with a Colosseum, grand canal, and Renaissance-era architecture. The city was financed by a local mining company to the tune of $220 million. Prior to the development of China’s own Little Italy, the area stood as a maze of cornfields lying between Beijing and Tianjin. The town’s location makes it a perfect catchment zone for shoppers from the two larger cities; indeed, this is arguably an economic rather than an artistic venture, with Florentia’s motto being ‘100% Luxury Goods, 100% Discount Heaven.’ It is a 14 acre complex that gives locals a slice of European quality without the hefty air fare.
Jing Jin City
An abandoned eco city occupying a 40 square mile plot in the Tianjin region visitors to Jing Jin City are greeted by a triple-arched gate which mixes European and Chinese styles: a grand entrance to a desolate area. Visitors mean that there is some demand for hotels, but otherwise the area remains hauntingly quiet. 3000 villas, a hot springs resort, golf course, museum, temple, and two colleges all stand empty. Planners, who have sunk several billion Yuan into the project, are still trying to draw people into the area, but it seems that no-one is biting. Yet another example of mismatched design and demand, large-scale forsaken grandeur.
Don’t plan on trying to book a hotel in Lion City any time soon. In one of China’s more bizarre stories, Lion City – or Shi Cheng – was purposely flooded in order to make way for a new hydroelectric power station. 50 years later, it still remains intact 26-40m below the waters of man-made Qiandao Lake. The ancient city was first built during the Eastern Han Dynasty and over time served as an economic and political center of Zhejiang. Over the past few years scuba diving companies have started running tours of the submerged city, with visitors now being able to see the temples, city walls and interior buildings, all of which have been preserved as a perfect time capsule. China’s very own Atlantis.
Look on the back of an RMB 20 Yuan note and you will see a view of the Li River near Guilin. The city and wider region are among China’s most visited areas. It is renowned for its phenomenal natural beauty, framed by the river and the extensive network of limestone karst formations across the region. Two nearby towns have gained both national and international popularity: Yangshuo for its countryside excursions, Western inspiration, and party atmosphere; and Longsheng, with its astonishing rice terraces, as well as being culturally important serving as home to the minority Zhuang and Yao cultures – if you are stopped on a walk, it’s worth paying to see a hair demonstration. A city where old meets new, Guilin is also where east meets west, and nature meets modernity.
Another city taking its inspiration from Europe, particularly from London, with the architecture modelled after the traditional English market town style. It is complete with mock Tudor buildings, a Gothic church, red telephone boxes, a local pub, cobbled streets, and even a fake River Thames for added authenticity. It was designed for residential purposes and is one of the few new cities to almost be at its full capacity of 10,000 residents. Thames Town is also one of the most popular destinations for wedding photography, particularly around the main square area. A quaint slice of England 30km from Shanghai: a testament to the enduring popularity of English culture.
Ordos has gained the reputation of being China’s, and possibly even the world’s, largest ghost city. It was built to house some of the vast populations of Inner Mongolia, a region which boasts a higher GDP than Beijing. However, this city in the desert stands largely deserted. Missed deadlines and unpaid loans means that there are whole blocks that remain unfinished, while suburban villas and imposing tower blocks loom empty over the eerie city. In a great planning faux pas, developers expanded upon the already under-populated city with the Kangbashi New Area, which was built to house over 1 million inhabitants but currently has less than 30,000. The monuments to Genghis Khan and Mongolian script on its signage makes Ordos a historically important area, but it isn’t enough to fill its deafening emptiness.
Italy may have Venice, but China has its very own water town in the shape of Suzhou. The city is situated on the shores of Lake Tai and the lower reaches of the Yangtze, and is cut by the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. It has achieved unprecedented growth over the past decade, though, thankfully, has retained its traditional charms. Like many Chinese water towns, it holds a quintessential village feel with centuries-old wooden houses, arched stone bridges, pagodas as well as the UNESCO-designated Classical Gardens. Suzhou is a fine example of how man-made structures can sit harmoniously beside the beauty of the natural world. It is a 2,500 year-old ‘paradise on earth’.
The final of the European copycat towns on our list, Tianducheng is China’s little Paris. Like Thames Town and Florentia, the town copies the architectural styles, monuments and specificities of the original city, in this case: tree-lined plazas, Parisian coffee shops and storefronts, and a 1:3 scale of the Eiffel Tower. Linking the two main themes of the list, Tianducheng is both a Chinese European town and a ghost town. It has the capacity to house 100,000 residents but currently only 2000 people call it home. Its close proximity to Shanghai means that, like Thames Town, it is a popular destination for wedding photography, and indeed it s picturesque despite its emptiness. C’est la vie.
By Sophia White