Vast in stature, size and appeal, China’s spectrum of enthralling experiences makes it relevant to travelers the world over, says Duncan Forgan
It’s almost impossible to overstate the sheer scope and variety that China offers travelers. From space-age architecture, teeming ultra-modern cities and state-of-the-art high-speed trains to towering mountain ranges, vast deserts and isolated, centuries-old rural communities, this vast country provides a stirring blend of the ancient and contemporary.
The nation’s gargantuan size and multifaceted personality ensures a broad appeal across the travel spectrum, whether catering to general tastes or single interests such as history, food, sightseeing or even golf. Most visitors opt — at least on their first time in the country — to peruse China’s greatest hits. And, as the world’s oldest continuous civilization, the Middle Kingdom has more than just a few attractions to make any traveler’s bucket list.
The capital, Beijing, may have modernized intensively in recent years but sights such as the Forbidden City — the world’s largest palace complex — retain their exotic allure. Other ancient wonders include the Terracotta Army at X’ian, a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. And, of course, there’s the Great Wall, an engineering feat that extends for thousands of miles across the north of the country.
China’s amazing landscapes also retain an aura of venerable majesty. It’s easy to summon up images of Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes when taking to horseback on the epic grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Equally evocative are the fairytale karst pinnacles of Yangshuo and riverine wonders such as the Yangtze River and Tiger Leaping Gorge, renowned for cruising and hiking respectively.
China, however, isn’t just about history and legendary sights. In fact, China’s National Tourist Office launched a campaign for the US in late 2013 aimed at broadening the country’s appeal by promoting attractions such as modern architecture, art and design and world-class shopping that encapsulate the new face of the nation. An emphasis is also being put on the country’s options for soft adventure, including skiing, culinary tours and golf.
Furthermore, many of these options are available in or near some of China’s main cities and resort areas, meaning contemporary dining options, sleek hotels and other creature comforts are always at hand.
In 2011, 2.12 million US tourists visited China and growth is set to continue in the wake of new drives to attract visitors. So whether you’re seeking one of the country’s signature widescreen experiences or something more modern, there’s never been a better time to visit. To whet your appetite, here’s a rundown of China’s unmissable attractions and experiences…
Horse ride in Inner Mongolia
Although around 83% of the population of Inner Mongolia is ethnically Chinese, this giant and sparsely populated autonomous region still has a very Mongolian feel. Mongolian language is co-official with Mandarin in the area while writing on signs and menus is usually bilingual. The nomadic Mongolian lifestyle is also very much in evidence in the region’s vast empty spaces and is easily accessible. A number of companies run horseback adventures out into the scenic grasslands near the towns of Hohhot, Baotou, Erenhot, Ulanhot and Hailar. Here, visitors can marvel at the epic scenery and experience traditional nomadic activities such as folk singing, dancing and dining on whole roast lamb. Itineraries can last up to five days or longer and highlights include spotting wildlife such as wild boar and foxes, camping under the stars and witnessing the region’s jaw-dropping sunrises and sunsets.
Walk the Great Wall
The first formal measurement of the world’s largest man-made structure, conducted in 2012 by China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage, revealed it measures 13,170 miles. With extensive sections inaccessible due to disrepair, difficulty of access and official restrictions, visitors can cover only a tiny fraction of the wall’s amazing span. Nevertheless, a hike along the route of the great barrier built by successive Chinese empires to repel invaders from the north is one of the country’s undoubted highlights. The sense of history is acute while the vistas over the mountains of northern China are sublime. The most popular section for walkers is between Jingshanling and Simatai West, taking around four hours to complete. For those seeking an even more epic adventure, several companies operate multi-day Great Wall treks with accommodation in rural villages.
Cruise the Yangtze
Rising high on the Tibetan plateau and flowing 3,964 miles east before emptying into the Pacific Ocean at Shanghai, the Yangtze is Asia’s longest river. And along with the Yellow River, it’s the most important stretch of water in the history, culture and economy of China. Its delta generates as much as 20% of China’s GDP, but for tourists the section of the river that holds most appeal is between Chongqing and Yichang. This is where most of the cruise ships that ply the river operate; encompassing the Three Gorges region, a 150-mile stretch of misty mountains, sheer river walls and bamboo groves. This area is also the site of the spectacular Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric power station, completed in 2012. Cruising the Yangtze has become a major draw for tourists in recent times and practically all the ships that operate the route are kitted out with state-of-the-art Western amenities.
Panda-spot in Sichuan
No prizes for guessing the identity of China’s most-beloved national emblem. Although designated as an endangered species and driven from the lowland areas where they once thrived, wild panda populations continue to inhabit the mountain ranges and bamboo forests of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces in central Western China. Seeing a panda in its natural habitat is no easy task — they’re highly alert with a keen sense of smell and can often detect humans from miles away. Nevertheless, sightings are possible, especially in the giant nature reserves of Sichuan Province. Here the Tangjiahe and Wolong reserves offer the best likelihood of seeing a panda in the wild. The latter is the best bet if you’re determined to see a panda at all costs. As well as wild pandas, the 494,210-acre conservation area has many captive pandas at its breeding center, which is a world leader in propagating the species.
See the future in Shanghai
Nowhere is China’s breakneck development better showcased than in Shanghai. Located at the mouth of the Yangtze, the nation’s largest conurbation blends tradition and dazzling modernity. For those seeking a snapshot of today’s China, there’s no better place to start than Pudong. Mere farmland until 20 years ago, the city’s financial and commercial hub is now a jumble of skyscrapers and landmark buildings. Prime architectural sights here include the Shanghai World Financial Centre Tower, Jinmao Tower — home to the palatial Grand Hyatt Shanghai — and the Pearl TV Tower. The latter features an 850ft-high glass-floored viewing platform and the Huangpu River. As well as offering a glimpse into China’s future, Shanghai also has countless pointers to its past. These are most evocatively revealed in enclaves such as the Old City, French Concession, and the Bund, the city’s colonial-era financial center.
Play at the ultimate golf resort
When it comes to one-stop shops for golf fanatics, few places come close to Mission Hills Shenzhen. Nestled among rolling hills and natural lakes near the southern Chinese city, the resort boasts an incredible total of 12 18-hole golf courses, many of them designed by some of the biggest names in the game such as Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman. With the caliber of designer the resort has attracted you’d expect standards to be high, and they are. Nicklaus’s effort was the first course to be opened for play and is still revered as one of the finest layouts in Asia. Norman’s course, too, is highly lauded, as is the one designed by Spanish Ryder Cup legend Jose Maria Olazabal. Off course, facilities are equally impressive, with an onsite luxury hotel and a range of dining options. For those who can’t get enough, there are a further 10 courses at Mission Hills Haikou on the island of Hainan.
Navigate the karsts near Yangshuo by bike
If your impression of Chinese cities is of towering skyscrapers, charmless housing and pollution, Yangshuo will come as a pleasant surprise. Popular with Chinese tourists and foreigners alike, as well as a significant contingent of expatriates, the city is extremely clean, has great accommodation options and harbors an array of good restaurants and shops. Its popularity as a destination can be attributed to its location amid a picture-postcard landscape of spectacular karst outcrops and winding rivers. Rock climbing and other adventure activities are popular but the most sedate way to take in the scenery is by means of pedal power. Bikes are readily available for rental at outlets throughout the city and usually come with a map, lock, helmet and advice on the best routes. One of the most popular excursions is to take a boat ride with a bike and then cycle back to town.
Dine like an emperor in Beijing
The Chinese capital for centuries and a magnet for migrants from all corners of the nation, Beijing is a paradise for foodies looking for the definitive taste of the Middle Kingdom. The capital is renowned for its restaurants specializing in the imperial cuisine once served up to aristocratic families and their courtiers inside the Forbidden City. It’s also famed for an array of street snacks, including chuan’r, lamb kebabs from the western Xinjiang Province; jian bing, a savory pancake that originated on China’s east coast; and baozi, steamed buns usually eaten for breakfast. For many visitors, however, the one dish they simply must try before leaving Beijing is Peking duck. Prized for its thin, crisp skin and juicy meat, the dish has been prepared in the capital since the 13th century, during the Yuan Dynasty. Ducks bred especially for the dish are slaughtered after 65 days and seasoned before being roasted in a closed oven. The meat is eaten with pancakes, hoisin (sweet bean) sauce and scallions.
Climate: China’s climate varies greatly, ranging from tropical in the far south to subarctic in the far north. Generally, the best times to visit are March to June, or September to November. Winters can be very harsh and summers exceptionally humid.
Currency: Renminbi (CNY). $1 = CNY5.05.
Time: GMT +8.
Dial code: +86.
Getting there: Air Canada offers direct flights to Beijing from Detroit and Chicago; United runs direct to Shanghai from New York. Many other airlines operate non-direct routes including Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines.
Getting around: China’s size makes internal flights essential, while CRH trains are recommended for short trips. Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Nanjing have metro systems and all offer inexpensive metered taxis.
Red tape: Visas currently cost $140 for US citizens and must be obtained prior to arrival.
Geography: China stretches over 3,120 miles across the East Asian landmass. Its geography is highly diverse, with hills, plains and river deltas in the east and deserts, high plateaus and mountains in the west.
US Visitors: 2.12 million in 2011.
Tourist Board: Chinese National Tourist Office (New York). T: 1 212 760 8218. cnto.org
Sample: China Discovery Tours offers a 12-day package, taking in some of China’s greatest hits, including Beijing, Xian, Guilin and Shanghai. The package includes a cruise on the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo. It costs from $2,899 per person, including hotels, food, transfers and internal flights. T: 1 866 992 4462. chinadiscoverytours.com
PUBLISHED IN THE SPRING 2014 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork