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How to make the most of a short visit to China

China is now the hottest tourist destination in the world with a booming domestic tourism industry and the fastest growing inbound tourist economy anywhere in the world. Although I have lived in China and explored many of its most popular travel destinations, there is something about China that keeps pulling me back. It also makes me want to know more about its history, culture and language, to the point where I am now studying for an advanced degree in Mandarin language – for no other purpose than to get more out of our future travels there!

Attractions like the Forbidden City draw tourists from all over the world
Attractions like the Forbidden City draw tourists from all over the world

As one of the oldest civilisations in the world, China has so much to offer to tourists and travellers from all over the world. On the other hand, it can also be one of the more difficult countries for independent travellers to negotiate unless you have at least some fluency in the major Chinese language, Mandarin. Although China may be united under a single government, there are still many “Chinas” to explore, each of them quite different and offering incredible experiences for the traveller.

While the broader definition of China includes such locations as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao, these locations are well-covered in other travel guides so we’re not including them here at this stage. Besides, they offer few challenges to independent travellers. Some popular destinations in China include:

Beijing and Hebei province

The Great Wall still runs for more than 8000 km through wildest China
The Great Wall still runs for more than 8000 km through wildest China

Situated in the north of China, Beijing is the administrative capital and the seat of central government. For most tourists the top attractions in Beijing include:

  • Tiananmen Square – still the largest public square in the world (with an area of 440,000 square metres) and the site of the so-called “pro-democracy demonstrations” in 1989 (they were not really about democracy as such), Tiananmen square is surrounded on four sides by the Great Hall of the People (the Chinese parliament), The Museum of Chinese History, the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, the Qianmen Gate and the famous Forbidden City.
  • The Forbidden City –  palace of emperors from the Ming Dynasty (15th century) to the Qing Dynasty (20th century), the Forbidden City ranks among the greatest and most culturally significant palace constructions in the world, with almost 1000 separate buildings.
  • The Great Wall of China – although parts of the wall are spread over a distance of over 8000 km from Shanghai in the central east to Lop Nur in the far west of China, Beijing offers one of the most easily accessible opportunities to see and walk the Great Wall in relative comfort and as, perhaps, it was originally intended.
  • The National Stadum – known as the “bird’s nest” and built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the National Stadium is the home for major sporting events in Beijing and also one of the new modern icons of a resurgent China.
  • The Temple of Heaven – reputed to have been an imperial sacrifical altar in the 15th century, and built by the same emperor as the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven is an iconic piece of Chinese architecture surrounded by beautiful parks and gardens. It is one of four famous temples in Bejing (the others being the Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Moon and Temple of the Earth.
  • The Summer Palace – once the getaway home of an 18th century Chinese emperor, the Summer Palace was designed to provide the emperor with an environment which reflected the various beautiful and monumental locations and architectures of the empire he ruled.
  • The Hutong District – the ancient alleyways of Beijing where aristrocratic Chinese families built their homes around a central courtyard. Most of the Hutongs were demolished in the frantic reconstruction prior to the Beijing Olympics, but a small section still remains where you can wander around and chat to the locals.

Guilin and Yangshuo

Picture postcard scenery is everywhere in Guilin and Yangshuo
Picture postcard scenery is everywhere in Guilin and Yangshuo

There’s a saying in China that “Guilin is the most beautiful place in the world, and Yangshuo is even more beautiful than Guilin”. Situated in south-central China in the Zhuang autonomous minority province of Guangxi, the landscape around Guilin, and particularly aroung Yangshuo, is like a scene from a Chinese wall hanging. Some of the more intersting places in this area include:

  • Guilin – one the provincial capital of Guangxi, Guilin is a picturesque small city and a great base to explore all the attractions of this region. It has rail connections north, south, east and west and daily flights to most major Chinese cities.
  • Yangshuo – Yangshuo is surrounded by breathtaking karst (limestone) mountains with seemingly gravity defying temples hanging off the top and is bounded by the gorgeous Lijiang River, the scene printed on the back of a 20RMB banknote.
  • Longsheng rice terraces – sometimes known as “the dragon’s backbone”, the Longshen rice terraces climb over seemingly impossible hills and mountain tops, descending all the way to pictureque valleys below.
  • Sanjiang – literally translated as “three rivers” and sharing a boundary with Longshen, Sanjiang is a peaceful community of Dong minority rice farmers located in one of the most beautiful and tranquil valleys I’ve ever seen, and a chance to step back in time to the China of over a century ago.
  • Longzhou – a bit further south, below Nanning, this rural town is a chance to see rural China before it disappears forever. The locals here say “we have an embassy but no ambassador, a train station but no trains, an airport but no planes”, referring to the town’s once prominent position as the northern end of the French Indochina Railway.
  • Jingxi – the undiscovered Yangshuo in the south of Guangxi, deep in the heart of the Zhuang minority homelands. Gorgeous karst limestone peaks, deep waterfalls and caverns to explore … and no bloody tourists!

Chengdu and Sichuan Province

China is rebuilding its historical precincts for tourism in Chengdu
China is rebuilding its historical precincts for tourism in Chengdu

Chengdu, located on the Funan River,  is the capital of Sichuan Province in South West China. Once the ancient capital of the Shu Dynasty and the Jinsha culture, Chengdu is now one of China’s economic hubs and is proclaimed as China’s “4th most livable city”. It’s also the home of the Panda Research Centre, which attracts a large number of tourists from all over China and around the world. Attractions in and around Chengdu include:

  • Panda Research Base – the largest giant panda research facility in the world and houses about 60 pandas of varying ages (depending on what time of year you go there), along with so-called Red Pandas, giant cranes, peacocks and other animals. Well worth a visit, but hire a guide!
  • Tianfu Square – a large, open square and park dominated by a huge statue of Mao Tse Tung, with the Tianfu station of the Chengdu Metro railway line in one corner. The park includes well maintained flower gardens, musically-synchronised fountains and a large underground shopping mall at the station entrance. It is also host to occasional peaceful protests.
  • Chunxi Road – the most famous shopping street(s) in Chengdu, closed to traffic and filled with Chinese bargain-hunters most days. This area has some of the best brand-name fashion shopping in Western China and is ranked as the No 3 shopping street in all of China.
  • Wenshu Ancient Street – a peaceful and very tasteful recreation of “old China” around the precincts of the Wenshu Monastery (which itself contains some 450 Buddha statues and one of the most popular temples in Chengdu).
  • Jinli Ancient Street – while a little more touristy and contrived than the Wenshu area and still partly under construction, well worth exploring for its many restaurants, bars and nightclubs fashioned in the ancient Chinese style as well as some interesting street food.
  • Jinsha Archeological Site – there’s a lot of history around Chengdu and much of it is being dug up in this 3000 year old archeological site which includes displays of ancient pottery, jade, art and ancient weapons.
  • Songxian Qiao Antiquities Market – an interesting array of communist era memorabilia, Chinese antiques and jewellery, porcelain, jade and other art mixed up with Tibetan souvenirs, old pocket watches and other nicknacks. Near Songxian Bridge.
  • The Giant Buddha – a day trip from the city in Leshan, but a very popular sight-seeing destination with a visit to one of the world’s largest buddha statues and Emei Shan, a holy Buddhist mountain nearby.

Xi’An (Xian) and Shaanxi Province

The Terracotta Warriors, the main event in Xi'An
The Terracotta Warriors, the main event in Xi’An

Once known as Chang’An and hailed as the root of Chinese civilisation, Xi’An has been a major city for more than 3000 years and once had a population of over 1,000,000 people within its massive city walls. The walls are still intact (although repaired and restored). Also home to the famous Terracotta Warriors. Things to see and do in and around Xi’An include:

  • Terracotta Warriors – the drawcard for most Chinese and western tourists, this massive archeological site covers more than 20,000 square meters and contains over 8000 life-size terracotta soldiers, archers, horses and chariots. It is called the “8th Wonder of the World” and has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
  • Xi’An City Wall – one of the oldest, best preserved and restored ancient city walls in all of China, with over 14 km of wall perimeter averaging about 10 metres wide and 30 meters tall, including four large gates and a number of smaller gates. You can ride a bike around it or take an electric buggy ride.
  • Drum and Bell Tower – The Xi’An Bell Tower is the dominant feature of the city centre, situated in the middle of a huge roundabout and accessed by four under-street tunnels. The Drum Tower is located about 300 metres away at the top of a famous Muslim street food and shopping street.
  • Temple of the Eight Immortals – although the original was destroyed during the cultural revolution, it has been faithfully and comprehensively restored based on original plans and drawings and covers an entire city block in the old streets.
  • The Grand Mosque – the first mosque to be built in China and the centrepiece of Muslim culture in Xi’An, it’s sited behind the Drum Tower.

Dali, Lijiang and Yunnan Province

China is rebuilding its historical precincts for tourism

The most north-westerly province of China, bordering Burma (Myanmar), Tibet, Laos and Vietnam, Yunnan Province was once known mostly as a destination for hippies, backpackers and adventure travellers, but destinations like Lijiang are now drawing a huge number of Chinese and international tourists for its stunning beauty, ancient streets and unique activities. Some things to do and see in Yunnan Province include:

  • Kunming – called the “City of Eternal Spring”, situated at 2000m above sea level and almost in the tropics, Kunming is a very busy city but has remarkably clean air due to its elevation. Mostly visited on the way west and south, it does have a few attractions of its own including temples, museums and parks.
  • Dali – an ancient walled city with a fully restored old town full of great bars, nightclubs, restaurants and small shops as well as street markets and roving entertainment. Once a backpacker’s haven, it is now attracting more sophisticated travellers for its peaceful, laid back lifestyle, traditional architecture and the proliferation of minority Bai, Yi and Hui peoples. It is surrounded by the larger Chinese city of Dali.
  • Lijiang – an ancient Song Dynasty town populated mostly by people of the Naxi minority with a beautiful old town district of winding cobblestone streets, bubbling streams, arched bridges, water wheels, markets, restaurants and small shops, again surrounded by a larger modern Chinese city.
  • ShangriLa – a small taste of Tibet, although the population is mostly Han Chinese, Naxi, Bai and Lisu minorities. Outside the town you’ll find Tibetan nomadic lifestyle that have barely changed in over 1000 years.
  • Jade Dragon Snow Mountain – Also known as Yulong Snow Mountain, it’s a taste of the Swiss Alps in South Western China. A Swiss made cable car ride to a height of nearly 4000 metres where a winter playground of deep snow provides a gorgeous alpine scene. Best visited from Lijiang.
  • Tiger Leaping Gorge – a 3 kilometre hike through the most breathtaking landscape you are ever likely to encounter takes you almost 1000 metres down to the massive rapids of the upper Yangtse River where 4-5000 metre peaks, including Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, tower over you.

We’re still working on the China section, so come back soon for more information and detailed travel destinations.