When it comes to geography, China has something for everyone: mountains, deserts, rivers, beaches, deep canyons and fertile plains. Each has something unique to offer visitors. Each in some way has played a part in China's history.
The early Chinese took advantage of mountainous terrain to build the Great Wall to protect China from northern invaders. The wall starts in western China's Gansu Province, snakes through the mountains that form Inner Mongolia's southern border and ends at the Bohai Sea in East China.
Mountains also take on religious significance in China and are destinations for pilgrims and tourists alike, many of whom overnight on the mountains to see the sun rise in the morning. Mountains considered sacred to Buddhists are Wutai Shan, Emei Shan, Jihua Shan and Putuo Shan. "Shan" means mountain in Mandarin.
The Taoists also have their own sacred mountains: Wudong Shan, Longhu Shan, Qiyun Shan and Qingcheng Shan. Each geographic region has a special mountain, too: Tai Shan in the east, Hua Shan in the west, Heng Shan in the south, another Heng Shan in the west, and Song Shan in the center.
The tallest mountains in the world can be found in China. The Tibetan Himalayas are home to Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain, and K2, both of which are a Mecca for climbers.
The Gobi Desert, the world's fifth largest desert, is the most famous of the 11 deserts that span China. The Gobi experiences temperature extremes ranging from -40° in the winter to 122° in the summer. Genghis Khan, feared leader of the Mongol Empire, is buried here. Camel caravans of the Silk Road passed through the Gobi.
Silk Road caravans also passed through the Taklamakan Desert, which is known as "the desert of death" in China. That's because water is a scarce commodity in this shifting sand desert. In olden days, only the hardiest travelers made it across.
The Chinese have worked decades on reclaiming the deserts for arable farm land. One of their recent reclamation projects involves turning the desert near Ningxia into wine vineyards to rival those of France.
The Yangtze and Yellow rivers are famous not only in China but also around the world. They serve as major conduits for transportation, ferrying freight and agricultural crops between the coastal east and the interior. Land is very fertile on the plains the rivers pass through. Much of the nation's agricultural production occurs here.
The Yellow River is a river of tragedy, leaving millions of people of dead in floods. An estimated 1,600 floods have occurred in the last 3,000-plus years, Numerous dams have been constructed along the river's length, but sometimes floods cause the river to change course. Floods changed the main course of the river 18 times.
China has hundreds of rivers, some of which are more famous outside of China. This list includes the Mekong River, which starts in the Tibetan Plateau and ends in Vietnam. The Indus River also starts in the Tibetan Plateau and flows through to India and Pakistan.
Because of the dam, the Three Gorges of Qutang, Wu and Xiling are probably the most famous canyons in China. Except for the dam itself, with their stunning scenery they are the most famous attractions for passengers cruising the Yangtze.
In the hiking world, however, Tiger Leaping Gorge is more famous. It is one of the deepest river canyons in the world, deeper even than the Grand Canyon. Located on the Jinsha River, a part of the Yangtze, it is popular with visitors who like to hike the nine-mile length of its rim.