We are often asked about where to start when visiting China. It’s a very big, complex country with too much to see, too much to do.It’s hard to give a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as China is indeed vast and multi-layered. So below are lists of the top 5 things to explore for the first time visitor and the return visitor:
For the first time visitor:
1. Imperial China:
China has a rich history of over 5000 years. It boasts an impressive imperial heritage, which must be explored to appreciate the context of the country and civilization. Must-see sites of imperial China include the Forbidden City in Beijing- bastion of power for the last 500 years of imperial rule; and the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an- ancient relics in the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China.
2.The Great Wall:
Arguably one of mankind’s greatest architectural feats and undoubtedly one of China’s most iconic symbols. The Wall spans over 13,000 miles and its history is as fascinating as it is long. There is little to no signage on the wall to tell the stories though, so having a good guide is essential for bringing the history of the Wall to life.
There are a number of different sections to choose from depending on interests and fitness levels. Sightseers and families with young children will enjoy strolling along the restored Mutianyu section of the Wall and riding the gondola and toboggan. Hikers will enjoy the vertical treks along unrestored wild Wall sections at Jiankou. All visitors should avoid the Badaling section if possible. It is the section that most tour groups go to and is the most overcrowded and over-commercialized section of the wall.
3. Modern Cities:
The topic of China’s growing middle-class and unprecedented rate of socio-economic transformation is a big one globally. See it for yourself first-hand with a visit to one of China’s major economic centers – Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong, a truly eye-opening experience. Enjoy a drink in a bar on the 87th floor of the Park Hyatt Shanghai in Pudong and soak in the endless sea of skyscrapers and cranes that stretch as far as the eye can see. Taste Michelin star grade Chinese BBQ pork buns at Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong. People-watch at the high-end shopping district of Sanlitun in Beijing to witness the spending power of Chinese consumers.
Witnessing the simple joys of daily life in China is a must-do experience. In between the busy streets lined with skyscrapers and fancy cars, locals find oasis in public parks where they practice taichi, fan dancing, mahjong, opera singing and more. Some parks even have a match-making market where parents of China’s busy young professionals exchange photos and information in hopes of finding the perfect match. Our favorite places to see daily life- Temple of Heaven in Beijing; People’s Park in Shanghai. Morning is the best time to visit.
Away from the hustle and bustle of China’s big cities, there is plenty of serenity and natural beauty in China’s countryside. The top 2 places to explore:
1.Yangshuo, Guilin. Winding rivers dotted with cormorant fishermen and framed by poetic karst mountains. The inspiration for Chinese poetry and paintings for centuries over.
2.Sichuan. Home of pandas and lush mountains covered with bamboo. Also the birthplace of Taoism.
Our favorite region to visit for ethnic experiences is Yunnan. Located in the South-West, Yunnan is bordered by Tibet, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. There are 25 different ethnicities found in Yunnan and they make up 38% of the population. There are a number of village homestay opportunities in Yunnan where visitors can get an inside view of the lifestyle of local minority cultures.
2. Culinary exploration:
Spring rolls, sweet & sour pork and kungpao chicken are delicious, but they’re only representative of Cantonese cuisine- 1 of the 8 culinary styles of China. Regional Chinese cuisine has evolved over the years due to a number of different factors. The most obvious factor is of course climate and availability of ingredients. Staples in northern cuisine is wheat-based, so they consume more noodles, pancakes, and bread; while staples in southern cuisine is rice-based so they consume more rice, rice noodles, and rice cakes. Even more fascinating however, is the influence of culture and lifestyle, and Chinese medicine principles. Explore a little further and you’ll discover how and why cuisine is different across China.
China has no official state religion, but religion has played a big part in shaping Chinese history, philosophy and culture. From Stupas in Tibet to Minarets in Xinjiang, Buddhist temples in Henan to Taoist Temples in Sichuan, exploring the footprints of religion throughout different areas of China is fascinating and enlightening.
This historic cross-roads where East meets West harbors many rich stories and relics to explore. Follow the road from Xi’an in the heart of China all the way to Kashgar, China’s westernmost city. Visit the ancient ruins of Jiaohe, a vital node along the Silk Road during its heyday. Experience the buzz of Kashgar’s Sunday market where trade is still thriving today as it has in the past. Explore the singing sand dunes of the Gobi desert on camelback. Sip on wine from some of China’s best vineyards in Xinjiang.
5. Artisan China:
The gardens and watertowns around the Zhejiang region of Hangzhou and Suzhou are classic remnants of artisan architecture and culture from the Tang and Song dynasties – the height of China’s economic and artistic golden age. The beauty of Hangzhou’s West Lake has been inspiration for countless paintings and poems, as well as Marco Polo’s vision of heaven on Earth. Today, Hangzhou and Suzhou are well-developed tourist havens and definitely worth exploring for those with a taste for classic Chinese gardens and Longjing green tea.