After a period of isolation, China’s vast lands and myriad ethnicities are opening up for exploration, revealing attractions beyond its big-name imperial monuments
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION The world’s fouth-largest country, China stretches from the Siberian border to tropical Hainan Island, and from the East China Sea to Central Asia. The capital city is Beijing
POPULATION Around 1.3 billion
LANGUAGES Mandarin, Cantonese in the provinces of the south, and numerous dialects
Over a period of 30 years, China has undergone a remarkable transformation: from isolated Communist state at the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, to Olympic host nation and impending global superpower today. Its appeal as a tourist destination is growing, as is the list of sites accessible to visitors.
Regions little known to anyone but the locals are following the lead of Beijing and Shanghai, and beginning to let foreign travelers into their secrets.
Known locally as Zhongguo, or Middle Kingdom, China is so vast and geographically diverse that it appears more like a continent than a country. First- time visitors face a standard conundrum: “Where do I begin?” Most travelers arrive through one of three gateways: Hong Kong in the south; Shanghai in the east; or the capital, Beijing, in the north. Each city is multi-layered, with its own distinctive culture, cuisine, and nightlife as well as plentiful sights through which the China of the past, present, and future comes alive. Nevertheless, these cities represent only a part of this vast country’s multifaceted appeal.
Planning a more extensive trip will involve traveling large distances. Fortunately, China’s transport system is improving almost daily. Massive investment in air and rail travel is speeding up journey times and improving levels of comfort and service. Japanese-style “bullet” trains already serve certain shorter inter-city routes, and are due to be rolled out on longer trips over the next few years.
The standard China tourist route traditionally encompasses the imperial palaces of Beijing and Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta warriors in the former capital, Xi’an. From there, it’s customary to head south for a boat journey along the Yangtze river, or to visit the town of Lijiang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the alpine terrain of Yunnan province.
A popular “last stop” is China’s capital of hedonism: Shanghai, where the legacy of early 20th-century foreign domination clashes spectacularly with the country’s self-confident sense of futurism.
In recent years, getting off the established tourist trail in China has become much easier. Two of its largest and most historically significant cities, Guangzhou and Chongqing, are investing heavily to attract more visitors. The ancient gardens and canals of Suzhou are being restored and improved to entice day-trippers from Shanghai. And a visit to the remote province of Guizhou, in southwest China, is particularly rewarding, affording a fascinating insight into the culture and traditions of the ethnic Miao people, whose picturesque villages dot the lower reaches of the fertile alpine countryside.
FORGET CHINA’S TOURIST TRAIL?
THE BUILD-UP China claims several millennia of civilization and, while its rapidly expanding cities hold some attractions, it’s the historic landmarks that draw visitors. Built to prevent Mongol raids on Beijing, the Great Wall of China tops the “must see” list. The capital’s clutch of stellar sights includes the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and Tiananmen Square. Beyond Beijing, the famed Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, the Three Gorges section of the Yangtze river, and the buzzy brashness of Shanghai all provide an insight into the country’s fascinating culture, history, and landscape.
THE LETDOWN Tours in China are usually led in large groups led by a guide wearing a microphone. As a result, the major stops on the tourist trail are frequently crowded and unnecessarily noisy. The Chinese state also has very defined views about how China is portrayed to foreigners, and “information control” is most evident at major attractions.
DOING IT ANYWAY? While the guides are expert at reeling off official dates and figures, they rarely volunteer much in the way of context. Don’t be afraid to ask polite questions. Doing some research yourself can also help to ensure you’re in a position to form an objective opinion.