A vast, spiritual land lies to the east. A history of endless dynasties across a dynamic landscape. Ancient philosophies promoting social harmony and frugal living offer a view of a meditative people. The countryside’s monstrous mountains, rolling hills, and stretching rivers meticulously painted onto silk scrolls are the images in your mind as you fly over the Asian continent on your visit to China. Keep these images close when you land in one of China’s mega cities. They will be your happy place.
I love cities, but somewhere like Shanghai isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of opium. It’s massive and heavily populated; the air is polluted and full of the sound of heavy smokers hocking up phlegm. There are, in fact, numerous Chinese cities that have popped up over the last few decades that have 10 or 20 million inhabitants, which you’ve probably never heard of. Wuhan anyone? 19 million to be exact. What follows is an itinerary designed to give you a small taste of what this massive country has to offer.
One of the most obvious places to start with this mammoth country is the city’s capital. Unlike some of the newer, more industrial cities throughout China, Beijing can have more of a spacious feel to it. This is largely because the traditional housing that once occupied Beijing – consisting of narrow streets and single storey buildings – has been rapidly diminishing over recent years to make way for the ever popular skyscraper/wide boulevard combination. Today many of these hutongs are being protected in order to maintain the local culture, and lots of neat little bars are popping up in them too. Head to Dongjiaomin Xiang (Beijing Legation Quarter) to sample some of this history.
A little saunter in a westerly direction will find you in one of the Beijingers’ favourite places to hold a protest. The largest public square in the world oozes atmospheric history as you take a few minutes to recall some of the things this area has seen, including Mao’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. After tactlessly posing for a photo in front of some imaginary tanks with your shopping bags, there are some impressive structures nearby for you to nip into such as the Museum of Chinese History, the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, and, of course, the famed Forbidden City.
Juxtaposed with its name, the Forbidden City is crawling with tourists. How long you spend inside the city walls will depend on how interested you are in Chinese culture and history. The place has been the home of many an emperor, seen a few battles and been set on fire a couple of times. It was designed scrupulously to represent the country’s spiritual and philosophical values, from the layout of the buildings to the colour of the tiles. After admiring the architecture, head to the palace museum to feast your eyes on over a million rare paintings, ceramics, sculptures, and numerous other artistic collections.
North of Beijing, you’ll find a world-renowned attraction. The Great Wall stretches about 21,000 kilometres in a (roughly) west to east direction. As such a prolific tourist attraction, many parts of the wall are well maintained, but due to vandalism, construction, and erosion, other parts are disappearing quite quickly. Like all the best things in the world, get in quick before it’s ruined by human activity. Badaling and Juyongguan are the easiest sections of the wall to get to from Beijing – they are well preserved but can get crowded. Make sure you wear footwear with some decent grip; millions of tourists walking along the wall has resulted in a kind of polished effect, and the wall can get quite steep in places. There are other options to see more dilapidated, less crowded areas of the wall, but will require more effort on your behalf.
China is pretty big. If you can handle the harrowing experience of a using a domestic airline company, there’s a viable option of navigating your way around these lands by catching flights. Buses can be long and, if you’re going to lesser known destinations, the roads can be a bit wayward. The trains are generally a decent option. With the distances you’ll be covering, you’ll want to opt for a sleeper cabin. Buy the ticket, hop on the train and starting counting sheep. By the time you wake up you’ll be feeling refreshed in your new destination and enthusiastic about looking at pandas or terracotta warriors or some such thing.
Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty, took his armies and became the first emperor of a unified China. At some point he must have decided that having lots of generals at his command was quite useful, so he decided to have a terracotta army built to protect him in the afterlife. 2,200 years or so years later, visitors flock from around the globe to lay eyes on the clay based military men. Fun fact: presumably not wanting to concern himself solely with warfare forevermore in his afterlife, Qin Shi Huang also had more light hearted figures buried with him such as musicians and acrobats.
Elsewhere in Xian, try the local food and wander through the plethora of marketplaces. Remember that these are the places where everything you own that say ‘made in china’ comes from, so you really can come across some cheap goodies (amongst the mountains of tat). Another pleasant way to spend a couple of hours is to scale the city walls and hire a bike up there for an elevated view of the city.
Further south awaits the idyllic tourist town of Yangshuo, popular with domestic and international tourists alike. Known throughout China for its karst landscape. This is your first real opportunity of the trip to acquaint yourself with nature. Being a tourist town with a beautiful backdrop, there are plenty of quaint little bars, restaurants, and hotels to settle yourself into.
A visit to Yangshuo isn’t complete without hiring a bike and exploring the karsts by land. One popular route through rice paddies and countryside, with the river on one side and mountains to the other is the cycle route to Liugong 15 kilometres south of Yangshuo, where you’ll find an old village complete with temple and mud cave. Also within cycling distance is Moon Hill, named so because of the gaping hole running through the middle of it. View the natural anomaly from the ground to view the hill in all its glory, or make the 20 minute hike to the top to the viewpoint. I’d recommend both.
Another key point on the Yangshuo itinerary includes a relaxing, bamboo raft ride down the Yulong River. Sit, soak in the sun, and admire the towering rock formations from every angle as you float along this river of tranquility. For even further relaxation, take a short bus to the nearby town of Xingping for peaceful walks through the countryside spotting traditional farmhouses along the way. This place isn’t yet geared up for tourism, which can serve as a pleasant break.
Wulingyuan is almost 700 square kilometres of mountains, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, caves, ravines, and over 3,000 stone pillars, hundreds of metres high, emerging from the earth that will put your last holiday to Halong Bay to shame. This UNESCO World Heritage Site comprises of four national parks, with the most visited being the subtropical Zhangjiajie National Forest Park; hiking in the park will take you through miles of (occasionally unnerving) trails around this phenomenal landscape, which is often misty, contributing to the spiritual, mystical aura emitted by your surroundings.
Top sights include the Tianmen mountain, which I like to think shares similarities with the Rock. Admittedly it is slightly larger, standing at around 5,000 feet, but it does have a cable car, which is slightly longer. The longest in the world in fact at a whopping 7.5 kilometres. But does it have its own glass ‘Skywalk’? Yes it does! And it’s bigger.
When you’ve finished playing topography Top Trumps you can head off to visit one of the park’s two natural bridges. One, Tian Xia Di Yi Qiao (or First Bridge of the World), has nice, safe railings to ensure your safety as you walk across and take in the panoramic views. The other, Xianren Qiao (or Bridge of Immortals) does not. It does, however, have some scenic viewpoints, which will make a welcome addition to your holiday snaps album.
There are numerous other mountains, streams, and caves ripe for your exploration in this fog filled natural wonderland, notably Huanglong Dong (Yellow Dragon Cave), where you can walk into a cave until you hop on a boat for a little ride deeper into the depths of underground China. The mist, the forestry, the towering sandstone; It’s no wonder James Cameron chose this area of the world to base his epic, Avatar.
This is the main event for all your panda viewing pleasures. One of the most popular destinations with this in mind is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding about 40 minutes outside the city. The centre attempts to simulate the panda’s natural environment, with bamboo forests, rivers, and lakes over the Futoushan Mountain. Here you can see giant pandas of all ages, including cubs, safe in the knowledge that the centres ultimate goal is to release these cuddly creatures back into the wild. If looking at pandas isn’t enough for you, there’s also a museum here to answer every panda related question you could possibly think of.
Don’t forget that Chengdu is a city in itself with with a population of 15 million people. I bet their Post Office queues are long. With this many people, there must be more to do than look at pandas. Head to Tianfu Square (complete with massive Chairman Mao statue) at noon or nightfall for a watershow. The temple has plenty of museums and temples to keep you occupied, and the area of Kuanzhaixiangzi (say it three times fast) has lots of quaint little tea houses. Chengdu is also home to its own zoo if you fancy seeing animals in a crueller, less natural habit.
There’s no doubt that no matter how long you spend in this country, you’re never going to be able to explore all corners of its lands. From the population problem of cities to the underpopulation problem for pandas; the wild, endless landscape and a history captivating enough to keep you busy forevermore, you can rest in the knowledge that there’s going to be something to get you hooked enough to keep coming back.