China has a seductive mystique. Most people in the world know little about Chinese history and culture, yet realize that China has been around for centuries. It is this mystery that enchants us and makes us want to visit and learn more about this fascinating place. Join me on a tour of China’s greatest attractions. Stay tuned for the photo album which will inevitably follow.
1. Great Wall of China (Changcheng)
The Great Wall of China (Changcheng) is one of the world’s most enduring testaments to man’s presence on the planet, Earth, and it is also a brooding testament to man’s penchant for violence and aggression, since the wall was built to frustrate and resist incursions from beyond China’s borders. The wall extends some 4000 kilometers (almost 2500 miles) across northern China to the sea.
The most accessible and most popular part of the wall, the section at Badaling, is only about 70 km (43 miles) northwest of Beijing. Because of its proximity to the Ming Tombs, it is frequented by numerous tour groups and busloads of visitors. Because of this, some may want to consider visiting other sections of the wall, if only to avoid the hordes. Probably the best alternative is the Mutianyu section, about 90 km (56 miles) northeast of Beijing. Here, access to the wall is via a strenuous one-hour climb, but there is also a cable car. Another alternative is the section at Jinshanling, about 130 km (80 miles) northeast of Beijing, where the wall is younger (about 1600 A.D.) and features circular towers and a more elaborate structure.
The wall is a model of engineering as it winds its way across the hilly, forbidding landscape. It is over 8 meters (25 feet) high and over 7 meters (20 feet) wide in sections. Some of the wall is not restored, but hikers can still traverse long sections.
Beijing, China, is certainly one of the great cities of the world. It is the political, and cultural center of the vast and heavily populated country. It has also suffered because of its importance. When China became communist, many of the old Chinese traditions were discarded, along with much of the old city. More recently, as China has begun to modernize and take its place in the world’s political and economic scene, some of the city is being razed and replaced with more modern structures. However, essential China can still be found, and some of the monuments in the city are truly timeless.
Any visit to Beijing revolves around Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest square, which is noteworthy for its immensity, for its location and proximity to the Forbidden City, Beijing’s most visited tourist attraction, and for its notoriety associated with the student rebellion of 1989, which was brutally suppressed by the Chinese Army. Near the center of the square is Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum (no photos inside).
The most important site for any visitor is certainly the Forbidden City (Gugon Bowuguan), a vast complex of palaces, halls, courtyards and gardens to the north of Tiananmen Square, through the famous Gate of Heavenly Peace, a Chinese icon. Must sees within the complex are the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian), Ningshou Gong Huayuan, Leshoutang, Nei Ting, the inner palace, and the Imperial Gardens.
But there are other significant sights within Beijing which must be visited. For example, the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan), a complex of structures and their surrounding park, south of Tiananmen Square, contains the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, one of the most exquisite buildings in the world. Its blue-tiled roof and intricate ceiling are its hallmarks.
Another must-see Beijing attraction is the Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan), about 12 kilometers (7 miles) northwest of central Beijing. This complex includes Kunming Lake, whose northern shore has the majority of worthwhile sights, especially the Long Corridor (Changlang), a covered walkway along the lake which has thousands of paintings of scenes from Chinese history, mythology, etc.
The last of the must-sees in Beijing is the Lama Temple (Yonghegong), northeast of the Forbidden City, another complex of buildings, this time with distinctive yellow-tiled roofs. The crowning attraction within the temple is the Statue of Maitreya, a huge sculpture of Buddha, carved from a single piece of white sandalwood.
On weekends, visit the immense flea market of Panjiayuan, to the southeast, on the outskirts of the city and bargain for treasures.
Most visitors make an excursion to the Great Wall (see #1 above). However, try to combine this day trip with a visit to the Ming Tombs, which are about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the city, along the Sacred Way, a pathway of sculpted animals and historical figures.
3. Hong Kong
Hong Kong, China (at least the downtown area), is about as un-China-like as can be imagined. It appears to be a modern city of the Western World, transplanted onto the edge of the Chinese mainland as some cruel joke. But it is, in fact, a monument to capitalism and positively spectacular, with its backdrop of tall mountains, including the majestic Victoria Peak looming over stunning skyscrapers. Take the Peak Tram up to the top for glorious views of the city skyscrapers below and the harbor beyond.
Ride the (very quick) elevator to the 43rd floor of the Bank of China building for a great view of the city.
The central city and mountains are on an island (one of about 230 islands which make up the entire city), Hong Kong Island, which is a Mecca for business and commerce. For a look at more traditional commerce, stroll along Bonham Strand, which has shops selling Chinese medicines and herbal remedies, very different from the typical pharmacy in New York or London. Another sight on the island is the Man Mo Temple (Man is green, while Mo is red). If time permits, travel to the southern shore of the island to visit Stanley Village, for discounted goods and pretty beaches.
Across the harbor lies the Kowloon Peninsula, with hotels, and small businesses and some of the best shopping (there are professional shoppers who can be employed to assist in finding the best bargains) in Asia, especially along Nathan Road. The Star Ferry terminal is at the southern tip (which also has stupendous views of Hong Kong Island) and the ferry ride is a must for the visitor to experience Hong Kong’s majesty from the water.
4. Terra Cotta Warriors & Xi’an
No one suspected that Xi’an, a former capital city of China and starting point of the Silk Road, held a secret which would become the most important archaeological find of the 20th century, until, in 1974, a farmer stumbled on a piece of sculpture which presaged this unbelievable find — an army of life-size Terra Cotta Warriors, about a mile from the recently discovered tomb of Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, who became emperor in 221 B.C. Since that fateful day, archaeologists have excavated thousands of the warriors, as well as an intricately sculpted chariot, in the first three vaults. No one knows how many there are in the entire complex. Visitors are allowed to proceed on a walkway by the pits which hold the warriors. The entire area is now classified as a museum, the Qin Shihuang Bing Ma Yong Bowuguan.
The city of Xi’an, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of the complex, is a major tourist destination itself. It is a walled city which is pleasant to stroll and which contains several attractions. These include Nanmen (South Gate) where the visitor can access a walk along the walls (with great views of the old city and the new), Da Qingshen Si (the Great Mosque), with its well landscaped grounds, Gulou (the Drum Tower), and the Zhonglouo (Bell Tower). Just outside the city walls are the Da Yan Ta (Great Goose Pagoda) and the Xiao Yan Ta (Small Goose Pagoda).
5. Lhasa, Tibet
Lhasa, Tibet, lies in the Khy-chu Valley, within the vast Tibetan plain, between ranges of the Himalayas. Because of its altitude, 3700 meters (over 11,000 ft), visitors must get acclimatized, so plan to spend at least several days here in order to be able to accomplish what could be done in a day or two at lower elevations. Lhasa was the home of the Dalai Lama, the head of the Buddhist religion, but, because of the invasion and subsequent takeover of the country by the Chinese, in 1959, the Dalai Lama was forced to flee. Many of Tibet’s religious buildings, and many of its people were destroyed during the reign of Chairman Mao, but hostilities and destruction have eased and a number of important Buddhist sites remain.
The most important and most impressive attraction in Lhasa is, without doubt, the Potala Palace, whose origins go back to the 7th century. It actually consists of two parts, the White Palace, which is the outer section of the complex, the former residence of the Dalai Lama and also the government headquarters, and the Red Palace, the inner, central section and also the spiritual area. The palace complex is now a museum and visitors have access to a number of its 1,000 or so rooms.
The most sacred structure in Tibet is the Jokhang, a complex of temples, residences, and other buildings which also date to the 600’s. It is in the center of the old city and still the focus of pilgrimages. Stroll the walkways of the complex, especially the Barkhor, admire the murals, and check out the chapels.
Other notable sights within the city are additional temples, such as Meru Nyingba, Norbulingka, and Ramoche, and also other religious sights, such as Ani Tsahamkung, a nunnery, and the Sera, Drepung, Ganden and Nechung Monasteries.
6. Li River Cruise
A Li River Cruise is probably one of the most memorable experiences in any visit to China. The cruise begins in the city of Guilin, in south central China, and ends in Yangshuo, 96 kilometers (60 miles) to the south. The Li River is languid and shallow, but it winds its way through some of the most breathtaking and serene scenery in the world. The limestone hills rise precipitously from the river. Formed about 200 million years ago, the area is a beautiful example of the glorious effects of erosion on the landscape. Guides will describe some of the mystical legends and fairy tales which surround some of the named features along the river. The entire cruise takes about 6 hours, four of those composed of the journey downstream, then a 2 hour bus ride back to Guilin. Lunch is served on board the boat.
While in Guilin, explore Seven Star Park, which contains the beautiful Flower Bridge and Light of China Square, among other sights. At the southern terminus of the boat trip, explore West Street in the village of Yangshuo.
If Beijing (see above) is the political and cultural center of China, Shanghai is the economic center, and one of the country’s most progressive locations. With a past that is associated with opium parlors and decadence, this one-time fishing village at the mouth of the Yangtze River has morphed into a business and commercial force in the world economy.
Sightseers should plan to spend the majority of time in the old part of the city, Puxi (west of the river), on the Nanjing Lu, Shanghai’s busiest street, strolling through the Yu Garden, and walking along the Wai Tan (the Bund), the riverside avenue. For museum lovers, there is the Shanghai Museum.
Not far from Shanghai are several interesting towns, known as “water villages”, which are a delight to explore. These include Suzhou, whose Grand Canal purports to be the longest man-made waterway in the world and whose gardens are world-famous (check out, in particular, Lingering Garden and the Humble Administrator’s Garden), Xitang, which dates to the Ming Dynasty period and boasts over 100 bridges, and Zhouzhuang, with its beautiful, arched, stone bridges and tile-roofed homes.
8. Stone Forest, Kunming
The Stone Forest, near Kunming, in southwestern China, is a geologically unusual area, in which erosion has produced thousands of vertical limestone rocks jutting upward, close together, as if a forest of rocks (hence the name). The rocks have interesting shapes which, in many cases, have a resemblance to creatures and people, and so have been given appropriate names. The area is about 125 kilometers (80 miles) southeast of the city. Access to the area, known as Shilin, is either by train (which takes 2 hours one-way) or by bus (4 hours one-way, because of numerous stops).
9. Yangtze Cruise
The Yangtze River is the longest river in China and the third longest in the world. The river has long been used for commerce and its waters have provided irrigation for much of China’s most fertile farmland. More recently, because of annual flooding and because of the need for electricity, the Chinese government has begun the Three Gorges Dam Project, which will ultimately supply about 33% of the nation’s energy needs. Cruises are offered (and are extremely popular) which traverse the part of the river in the Three Gorges area because of the spectacular scenery afforded by the sheer cliffs rising vertically from the river. Many tour operators are available and the duration of the cruise, as well as the starting and ending locations vary with the choice of operator.
Be sure your cruise includes a visit to Shibaozhai, a 17th century pagoda, built on the side of a cliff, overlooking the river.
Chengdu, China, is best known for its Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, which can be visited. Here, there are a number of pandas in beautiful habitats and a breeding area for those special times. Because these creatures have always been beloved by people around the world, this venue has become increasingly popular as a tourist sight.
The best time to view Giant Pandas is in the morning when they are most active.
The most important excursion from the city is approximately 160 kilometers (100 miles) south to Leshan City to view the Giant Buddha of Leshan, the world’s largest Buddha rock sculpture, 71 meters (230 feet) tall, which is carved into a mountainside and looks out over the junction of three rivers. Nearby is Emei Mountain, one of China’s most sacred mountains, which has numerous Buddhist temples on its flanks.