China, Cathay, The Middle-Kingdom, Kingdom of Heaven . . . there are as many names for this country as its history is long. Empires have come and gone but China has endured for thousands of years. This is the country that gave us fireworks, gunpowder, paper, and the compass to just name a few things. More recently China is known for its particular mix of communism with capitalism, its spectacular economic growth rates, its cheap goods flooding Western stores, and the advantages and disadvantages that come with being the factory of the world.
Contrasting some of the largest and most polluted cities in the world, it also offers areas of great natural beauty. Love mystical mountains shrouded in mist? Countless sacred mountains are scattered around the country. Big palaces? Try the Forbidden City in Beijing, or the Summer palace or the countless others you can pick from. Into long walls? Well, there is none longer than the Great Wall. You can see thousands of life-sized terracotta warriors in Xi’an, and the list goes on: traditional villages, rice terraces, wooden bridges, temples, snowy mountain peaks and craggy canyons, crystal clear lakes, Buddhist and Tibetan Monasteries, sky-scrapers and mesmerizing modern architecture, great food like Peking Duck, different food like birds' feet, and more.
Extend your trip to Chengdu, with maybe a boat trip through the Three Gorges or a trip to Guilin. But there are many more beautiful places to see that are less visited by foreigners, though still hugely popular with the Chinese. Try Jiuzhaigou National Park, a short plane ride away from Chengdu, with stunning clear lakes and mountains -- 4 million visitors a year but only about 2000 non-Chinese. Whatever you might think of this nation, one thing is for sure, it has something to offer everyone.
Highlights from China
- Walk around Beijing with its fast disappearing hutongs, the popular Forbidden City is all it’s cracked up to be despite the crowds, the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, and for something more modern, the Olympic grounds
- Yunnan, a province off the beaten track, with far fewer tourists and great scenery, try Lijiang and Shangri-La
- Stroll the length of the Great Wall, or if that’s a bit much, just choose a section you like, from the most famous one near Beijing, to quieter spots like Jiumenkou near Shanhaiguan, or Tiger Mountain Great Wall at Dandong overlooking North Korea
- Visit the Terracotta Warriors at Xi’an and while you are there stroll along the city walls
- Climb at least one sacred mountain in China, Tai Shan for instance, or Mount Huang Shan near Shanghai
- If you are near Shanghai why not visit this city and compare old English built Bund and the old quarter with new Pudong
- The Potala Palace in Lhasa often conjures up the image of the Dalai Lama who resided there, as such it is a contentious choice in China highlights, but the fact remains that Tibet is a part of China and this is a must see site; if Tibet is out of the picture try Labrang Monasery in Xiahe for a look into Tibetan spiritualism
- Brave the freezing cold to visit Harbin in January or February for the Ice Sculpture Festival
- Walk, boat or cycle through the karst limestone landscape outside Yangshuo, or for a less touristy version try Wulingyuan in Hunan and stay in nearby picturesque Dehang
- Hobble along one of the many traditional Chinese villages dotted around the country, from the Huizhou villages in Anhui province, and Hakka Tulou villages near Xiamen, to the canal strewn villages around Suzhou and quiet cave houses of Lijiashan, to rain-and-wind bridge filled Zhaoxing in Guizhou, to name just a few
Hints and Tips for China
- Always take a card from your hotel or ask somebody from your hostel to write down the name and address in Chinese characters, so you can show it to taxi drivers. The language barrier is a big hurdle, few people speak English and for most people it is impossible to learn useful Chinese prior to or during their visit. Pointing is the name of the game here. Point to the phrase in a guidebook you want to say and let them read the Chinese version of it. Point at the name of the town you want to go to, and before you know it you have your ticket. In short, point, point, point!
- Eating can be a challenge. If you can’t read a menu or understand the waiter, it is hard to know what you are ordering. Luckily there are plenty of picture menus, or just point at the dish of the person sitting next to you in the restaurant. Street food is easy enough, you can see what is being cooked and decide if it takes your fancy or not. Some travelers may find the offerings doubtful when faced with sea slugs, birds feet, stew made from cow's spinal cords, cockroaches or scorpions on skewers.
- There are plenty of good internal flights (and new airports and terminals springing up all the time) so you can cover more than one region easily in a single trip. China is a very safe location, and you can wander round the cities with little fear of being mugged. Flying internally in China is fine these days, but delays are common.
- A guided trip may be an easier option for the first time visitor considering the language barrier. But that need not mean a package tour – you can book direct through a tourism service or one of the many reputable travel agents in Hong Kong, who will book accommodation and all transport for you.
- China has a great hostel system these days. Hostels are cheap and good. Make use of them, it is also a good way to meet young, middle class, Chinese backpackers who are eager to talk to you and practice their English.
- Chinese spit and burp without being self-conscious and generally make a lot of noise and do things that may come across distasteful. This is a different culture. Just try and ignore it, or it might ruin your trip. It is common for the toilet experience to be an unpleasant surprise for foreigners and it may be a good idea to bring your own toilet paper to be prepared.
- If visiting Tibet, check if foreigners are being allowed to visit when you plan your trip and beware the effects of the altitude and take it gently