Early morning Chinese Tai Chi exercise on the Huangpu riverbank, the Bund, looking across to Shanghai’s extraordinary high-rise zone of Pudong.
China Pictures Tourist Information
China is a monster of a country where a traveller could disappear for months or even years trying absorb the vastness of the land, the majestic sights and the variation of the cultures within it.
The positive side
China’s history is staggering and the attractions are incredible – Beijing’s structures old and new, the Great Wall, Shanghai‘s new megastructures, the Terracotta Army in Xian, the Li River and pointy limestone hills around Yangshuo, desert towns of the old Silk Road, the monasteries of Tibet, to name but a few, while China’s infrastructure is developing at warp speed and showing great efficiency but environmental neglect.
People too are more lively and open to foreigners than previously while shopping is excellent and Chinese food is both varied, superb and occasionally revolting (Chow time? ). International cuisine is less interesting and often way more expensive than traditional food.
The negative side
Mostly in the areas of crowds, traffic congestion and city pollution. Dust and vehicle pollution is particularly bad in many cities due to massive construction projects underway all over the country, occasional dust storms, and poor industrial effluent controls as rampant capitalism grabs the new Chinese by their ancient stone balls.
A Useful Tourist Route
Note that the classic tourist cities of Beijing – 600kms – Pingyao – 523kms – Xi’an – 742kms- Chengdu – 922kms – Kunming are located roughly equidistant from each other along one axis north-east (Beijing) to southwest (Kunming) so traveling to them sequentially is relatively efficient, saving time and money.
The best time to go: September-November (or June-October for high altitude places like Tibet or West Sichuan).
OK time: April-May (some wind and dust).
Time to avoid: December, January (extreme cold though the Harbin Ice Festival is amazing); July, August (hot, humid and crowded), 1st weeks of May and October (Chinese holidays so attractions are very crowded) and the Chinese New Year (sometime January/ February).
Note that these days there are two situations you should assume on most China vacations:
• blue skies are rare and a bleached haze, if not stinging grey pollution, will be the default view.
• there will be hundreds, possibly thousands of Chinese tourists around you, wherever.
The Chinese capital of Beijing in modern times, with magnificent buildings and terrible traffic.
Things to See: the Forbidden Palace, The Summer Palace (Yiheyuan), the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, as well as stunning new architecture, terrific shopping and entertainment and a few lovely little old streets that survived the massive rebuilding for the 2008 Olympics.
The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling. Photo by Craig Nagy..
The nearest stretch of the Great Wall at Badaling is now so overcome by tourists – most of them Chinese – that you should make an effort to get to a less visited section. Two hours out of Beijing should do it and since you’ll be on the wall at least a few hours this will be a day trip or more.
A Shanghai Teahouse in the extensive, classical Chinese YuYuan Garden. It’s not all about skyscrapers in Shanghai! Photo by Jim.
Asia’s version of Manhattan is more about bling and less about Ming than Beijing. Shanghai is mostly about dazzling skyscrapers (don’t miss the views from the Bund or on high in Pudong), fashionable people, avant-garde galleries and museums, funky restaurants and bars, rivers of cars, oceans of noise, superb new transport systems and a ferocious night life. Shanghai is perfect for tourists who pursue sensory overload but not so good for seekers of ancient artifacts, though calm oases like Jade Buddha Temple, Fuxing Park, the Yuyuan Garden and a few crumbling hutongs still exist; alternatively take a Huangpu riverboat tour for a fish-eye view of China 2K.
Xi’an (Shanxi Province)
Xian’s magnificent city wall. Photo by chensiyuan.
Xi’an is one of China’s oldest cities and was the empire’s capital for 1, 000 years, ruled by 73 emperors so it’s not surprising that there are so many remnants of Chinese history here.
As the eastern terminus of the Silk Road Xi’an was rich both culturally and financially though in the 21st century it is a modern city with the usual downsides of heavy traffic, poor air quality and dull skyscrapers, but local government has worked on preserving and improving access to some memorable sights, not least the Terracotta Warriors.
Chengdu (Sichuan Province)
A Giant Panda in Chengdu Panda Reserve, Sichuan province. Photo by Jim.
The main home of giant pandas, the city of Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, about 1, 828 kms southwest of Beijing by road.
The large modern city of Chengdu is not an attractive place with dull weather much of the year, heavy traffic, over-population and distressing levels of air pollution.
But the historic region is one of the most important Taoist (Daoist) centres in China, particularly sacred Mount Qingcheng and its eleven mountain temples near Duliangyan City, 70km northwest of Chengdu.
Pingyao (Shanxi Province)
Pingyao main strip, Ming Qing Street. Photo by Jim.
The small old town of Pingyao is a popular tourist destination for Chinese people as well as foreigners it’s the best ancient walled city in the country and has retained its classic car-free layout, style and ambience. It’s a joy to visit and offers great walking and cycling after the mega-modernity of so many of China’s famous cities.
There are quite a few attractions in Pingyao county so staying in the city for a few days is worthwhile.
Yangshuo (near Guilin, Guangxi Province)
Li River, Yangshuoregion. Photo by chensiyuan.
Surrounded by amazing pointy limestone hills (karsts), rural tranquility and cormorant fishermen still in a 1, 000 year partnership with their birds, this is premium biking or walking territory though the town itself is a neon-lit bustle of tourist overdose.
Victoria Harbour seen from Hong Kong Island’s Peak looking towards Kowloon on the New Territories (mainland). Photo by Base64.
People packed, scenically dazzling and historically fascinating, Hong Kong’s tiny but affluent ex-British colony is a kind of muggy mini-China experience, with skyscrapers, colourful temples, old ladies performing t’ai chi, great food, too many pedestrians, efficient and often quaint transport systems, terrific harbour and island views and some fine beaches.
The Silk Road
The Dunhung Monastery at he Crescent lake, along the Silk Road, Dunhuang. Photo by Alex Kwok.
Also called the Silk Route, named after the old Chinese silk trade, this is an ancient caravan route linking Xian in China with Europe, started during the era of the Roman Empire. The trading route also transmitted culture and religion over the centuries, along with silks, spices, teas and other produce.
One of the main land routes was Xi’an to Turkey’s Istanbul and there are at least 48 Silk Road attractions in China such as the Mogao Caves and the sand dunes at the Yueyaquan National Park. The classic journey of the modern day starts from Xi’an, head west to Lanzhou and then north along Hexi Corridor to Dunhuang and the end of the Great Wall of China.
Tibet, Potala Palace, Lhasa. Photo by Zvacek.
The west frontier of China, Tibet, is the largest and highest plateau in the world, so visiting is a breathtaking experience, both metaphorically and literally as your lungs gasp for oxygen and your mind gasps for rational explanation of the magical mountains, strange apparel and rituals. Highlights of a Tibet visit are its cultural heritage, Buddhist buildings such as Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace, festivals such as Saga Dawa in Lhasa and the spectacular natural scenery of Himalayas.