Where to go and what to experience in the mesmerizing Middle Kingdom, by Daniel Allen
The top destination for U.S. tourists in the Asia-Pacific region, China is now attracting more American visitors than ever before. From January to September last year, more than 1.66 million U.S. nationals visited the country, representing an annual increase of 7.5 percent.
American travelers often want to experience China old and new. The current and former capitals of Beijing and Xi’an offer unrivaled windows onto the country’s imperial and revolutionary past, while futuristic Shanghai embodies China’s whirlwind economic development.
Most specialist Chinese tour operators offer prospective travelers a choice of a fixed itinerary — either with a group, or following similar arrangements on a private, escorted tour — or a customized, bespoke trip, where the client selects certain destinations and attractions to be included in a program. Another increasingly popular option is the ‘mini-package tour’, which combines the best aspects of organized group tourism and independent travel.
Thanks to the expanding Chinese visa waiver program, which now includes cruise passengers, and the availability of 10-year, multiple-entry tourist visas, much of the red tape involved in visiting China is cut away. When you take into account the country’s increasingly sophisticated hotel and culinary scene, and ever-growing number of English speakers, there’s never been a better or more compelling reason to cross the Pacific.
Shanghai: Stylish second city
A century ago Shanghai was busy earning itself notoriety as the world’s pre-eminent hotbed of hedonism. Today, it’s far more conservative, but remains a city brimming with joie de vivre and jarring juxtapositions. Elderly, pyjama-clad women share street corners with designer-clad beauties, while street food vendors peddle their delectable wares beside Michelin star-quality eateries. Marvel at the skyscrapers of Pudong, shop in Xintiandi or along Nanjing Road, people watch in Fuxing Park, stroll down memory lane in the French Concession, or get away from it all on Moganshan, the city’s nearby mountain retreat.
Hainan Island: Chill out on China’s Hawaii
Powdered sand beaches and limpid waters aren’t usually the first things to spring to mind when you visualize China, but Hainan Dao — the country’s southernmost province — is an island idyll worthy of Thailand or the Maldives. Expansive sweeps of sand and surf skirt the entire island, offering myriad opportunities for swimming, boating and snorkeling. Complemented by some high-end resorts, these make Hainan the ideal Chinese destination for a blissed-out family getaway. Head inland to experience the island’s hot-spring culture and increasingly popular options for rainforest hiking.
Beijing: A captivating capital
Beijing, the time-honored metropolis of Kublai Khan and the Empress Dowager Cixi, is today one of Asia’s most dynamic capitals. Star attractions here are the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven, plus Tiananmen Square. Several stretches of the Great Wall are available on a day trip to the north. Newer destinations are the Olympic Village, and 798, a contemporary art quarter packed with galleries and hip cafes. Try Peking duck, sample Beijing opera, and explore the hutongs, or narrow alleyways, of Nanluoguxiang and Shichahai for more local color.
Kashgar: China’s wild west
You can’t travel much farther west in China than Kashgar, in the west of Xinjiang Autonomous Region. A trading post on the fabled Silk Road, today this venerable city on the edge of the desert remains a bastion of Uyghur (a Muslim minority) culture. While much of Kashgar’s Old Town has unfortunately been knocked down, it’s still possible to see some fascinating remnants: check out the historic quarter near
Around JieFang Lu there are also alleys lined with Uyghur workshops (a great place to pick up silks, knives, jewelry and rugs). Kashgar’s Sunday market, one of Asia’s most incredible open bazaars, is a must-see, as is dramatic Lake Karakul, a (long) day trip away in the Kunlun Mountains.
Lijiang: Natural splendor in the Naxi heartland
The UNESCO Word Heritage site Old Town of Lijiang, where most visitors base themselves when visiting the city, is a beguiling maze of narrow cobbled streets, timber frame buildings, stone bridges and burbling waterways. The Naxi ethnic minority, who make up a significant percentage of the local population, give the place added cultural appeal. Try the delicious baba — thick flatbreads served with savory or sweet fillings — a good breakfast alternative to the ubiquitous banana pancake. Numerous attractions lie in wait beyond the city limits, including Tiger Leaping Gorge, the 18,360ft Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and the Tibetan monasteries of Shangri-La City (Zhongdian).
Qinghai: Lakes and local culture in nomad’s land
Encompassing most of the former Tibetan region of Amdo, the up-and-coming, high altitude province of Qinghai offers travellers a fascinating insight into Tibetan culture. Without its southerly neighbor’s system of travel permits, it’s far easier to visit than Tibet proper. Capital Xining is an intriguing melting pot of cultures and cuisines, with its mix of Tibetan, Han Chinese and Muslim (Hui, Salar and Uyghur) ethnicities, while Qinghai Lake (a long day trip from Xining) boasts stunning scenery, spectacular birdlife and colorful Tibetan nomads. On the border with Tibet, Yushu’s relatively new airport gives access to one of China’s wildest and most culturally intact regions.
Xi’an: A blast from the past
Xi’an natives say: “If you want to see China over the past 100 years, go to Shanghai. If you want to see China over the past 1,000 years, go to Beijing. But if you want to see China over the past 5,000 years, go to Xi’an.” The Terracotta Army is the main attraction, but the Ming Dynasty city wall, Big and Small Wild Goose Pagodas and Great Mosque are also worth a visit, as is the ancient pottery village of Chen Lu. Foodies will enjoy the yangrou chuan (kebabs), roujiamo (fried pork or beef in pitta bread with green peppers and cumin) and heletiao (sorghum or buckwheat noodles) in the city’s Muslim Quarter.
Jiuzhaigou: A gem of a park
High on the edge of the sprawling Tibetan Plateau, northern Sichuan is begging to be explored. If you’re hardy enough to withstand the seasonal temperatures and lofty elevation, the stunning alpine scenery and fascinating Tibetan and Qiang culture make this an exhilarating travel destination. Jiuzhaigou is the main attraction here: its translucent, aquamarine lakes and multi-tiered cascades make this the jewel in the crown of China’s national parks (make sure to stay inside the park in a Tibetan village). Lucky visitors may even spot a wild panda.
Hangzhou: Polo’s paradise
Dynamic Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, is still one of China’s most important cultural centers — it was actually capital of the Southern Song Dynasty from 1127 until the Mongol invasion of 1276. It was at this time that the great Marco Polo stopped by, describing Hangzhou as “the City of Heaven, the most beautiful and magnificent in the world”. The centrally located West Lake is Hangzhou’s most famous feature, immortalized by countless Chinese wordsmiths and artists, and the source of the city’s most famous dish — Xihu cuyu (West Lake vinegar fish). The lake’s ‘10 Prospects’ have been specially selected to give visitors outstanding views of water, mountain and highly prized dynastic architecture, and are easily explored by bike or on foot. Widely regarded as the cradle of Chinese silk production, Hangzhou is also home to some of the finest silkworms in China — learn more at the fascinating China National Silk Museum.
Guiyang & beyond: Minorities and more
Sandwiched between Yunnan, Sichuan and Guangxi, Guizhou is a revelation to many visitors. From Yao to Zhuang, Bai to Miao, this southwestern Chinese province boasts a colorful kaleidoscope of minority groups, who together account for more than a third of the region’s population. In addition to the beautiful karst topography, the rich culture of these diverse ethnic groups — which manifests itself most notably in a wonderful array of cuisine — is what makes Guizhou so appealing to tourists.
While the capital Guiyang makes for a gentle introduction to the varied charms of Guizhou, the main attractions are to be found in the province’s rural hinterland. Of these, Huangguoshu (Yellow Fruit tree) Waterfall is the headline attraction. From May to October, when the Baihe River plunges 245ft into Rhinoceros Pool, this thundering cascade is an awe-inspiring sight, throwing up huge clouds of spray.
Pingyao: A walled wonder
UNESCO World Heritage site Pingyao dates back to the Western Zhou dynasty (1054-771BC) and offers a unique view of the architectural styles and town planning of imperial China. After a wander through the temples, courtyards and thoroughfares here, travelers are transported back to the days of ancient China. The current city wall, around four miles in circumference, is over 600 years old, and is the only undamaged Ming Dynasty city wall remaining in China.
Harbin: Winter wonders and cross-border culture
Rather than endure the icy harshness of winter, residents of Harbin — the notoriously cold capital of Heilongjiang Province — choose to celebrate it instead. The annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, an extravaganza of frozen water, runs from January through to mid-March. There are plenty of reasons to visit in summer too, thanks to the city’s Russian influence, which manifests itself in the magnificent Saint Sophia Cathedral, matryoshka dolls and some tasty local cuisine (think pelmeni savory dumplings and European-style sausage).