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For thousands of years China has been shrouded in mystery and intrigue, and foreigners, especially Westerners, still find it difficult to penetrate the inner depths of this fascinating and enigmatic nation. However, in recent decades and particularly since the Olympic Games in 2008 when Beijing showcased some of its most spectacular attractions, there has been a major increase in travellers interested in exploring this vast and intriguing destination. And it's no wonder, as there is a great deal to discover in China, the world's third largest country.
What makes it so attractive as a travel destination is its unique culture and ancient antiquities. Ruins and relics from Neolithic settlements and the dynastic reigns of the mighty emperors of yore await, while there are plenty of adventures to be had and exciting attractions that have to be seen to be believed. The Forbidden Palace, the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Army of Xi'an are some of the prominent and tourist-heavy, but no less breathtaking, attractions in this ancient Eastern empire, but there are many, many more.
The People's Republic of China has been under a communist government since 1949, but is currently undergoing a boom in social and economic development with a great emphasis placed on tourist facilities and infrastructure. The country has been opening the doors to its wealth of historical and cultural treasures, with awed visitors flooding in.
Organised tours are still the favoured way to explore China, but independent travel is slowly becoming easier. Major cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, are modern metros offering fast food and glitzy stores alongside centuries-old historical buildings and traditional eating houses. Archaeological wonders vie with amazing architecture in the interior, while majestic mountains and remote monasteries crown the country's northern territories.
With all this to marvel at, China would take several years' worth of holidays to explore properly, so keen travellers best get started...
China's attractions are so many, and its landscapes so vast, that travellers will need a lifetime to fully explore this fascinating and impossibly diverse country. That said, the must-see sights are fairly obvious and highly accessible, and, as previously restricted areas open up, the list of world-class attractions keeps growing. In addition to big draw-cards like the Great Wall, the Xi'an Terracotta Army, and the Forbidden City, travellers can choose from a huge range of cultural treasures, traditional temples, incredible landscapes, national parks, and festivals. Travellers should choose areas that they would like to explore wisely, especially if travelling on a budget, because the country's vastness can make travelling from place to place considerably expensive.
One of the most amazing sights in China can be seen in every Chinese city every day: the incredible pace of modernisation reflected in the energy of the people, frenetic urban development, and the relentless embrace of capitalism, with all its virtues and vices. These impressions are likely to leave the deepest mark on visitors to China. The contrast between the ancient and the new is intriguing and makes exploring China a joy for both history and culture buffs as well as the more modern tourist interested in technology and development.
China is a year-round destination, although visitors might want to plan around Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) in late January and early February, when much of the country shuts down for a week and public transport is completely booked up.
The Stele Forest in Xi'an, also called the Beilin Museum, contains more than 3,000 ancient standing stones, dating back to the Tang dynasty (618-907). The museum itself is nearly as old, having been established in 1087. The steles are divided into seven exhibition halls, displaying classic examples of traditional Chinese calligraphy, painting and historical records. Travellers interested in history, writing and philosophy will delight in its collection, while English guides are recommended as a lot of the interesting cultural relevance of the inscriptions may otherwise be lost. The museum also enjoys lovely grounds with fountains, pagodas and a gift shop, making it a great place to relax after a long day of sightseeing.
No trip to Shanghai would be complete without a walk along the famous Bund. Shanghai's picturesque waterfront promenade stretches for a mile (2km) along the bank of the Huangpu River. Once the most famous street in Asia, it's still renowned for its strip of Art Deco buildings. One of the grandest of these buildings is the home of the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank. From the Bund, visitors can take a river trip down to the mouth of the Yangtse. Boats leave regularly from the Shiliupu Pier south of the Bund and the trip takes about three hours. Those preferring aerial vistas with a drink in hand could visit rooftop Char Bar in the Indigo Hotel.
The Shanghai Museum is found at the People's Square, the political and cultural centre of Shanghai. Shaped like a giant bronze urn, it contains a collection of some 123,000 artefacts in 21 categories. Permanent galleries cover anything from ancient jade assemblages and Chinese minority art, to intriguing calligraphy and furniture from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Foreigners should look out for the museum's advanced audio tour, which is offered in eight languages, and be sure to get there early to avoid long queues. As well as the impressive exhibits, there's a restaurant, gift shop and green space, surrounded by the Grand Shanghai Theatre and City Hall.
The Yuyuan Gardens, or the Gardens of Contentment, date back to 1559 and are the best example of classical Chinese gardens in Shanghai. A peaceful refuge with koi ponds amid trees and pagodas, the gardens have been divided into six sections. The gardens' intricate designs are replete with pavilions, rockeries, ponds and a traditional theatre arranged in an ornate maze.
The gardens are on Yuyuan Street in downtown Shanghai and can be reached via the Town God Temple Market, a warren of shops and stalls that is becoming increasingly popular as a tourist bazaar. It is best to visit the gardens during the week because they become crowded over weekends and the crowds can detract from the spirit of the place.
In 1974, a group of peasants digging a well in Lintong District unearthed fragments of a life-sized warrior figure. Further excavation revealed several timber-lined vaults filled with thousands of greatly detailed terracotta soldiers, horses and chariots: an entire army assembled in position to follow their Emperor Qin into eternity. The pits are now open to public viewing and thousands of visitors flock to gaze at the stunning array of figures with their vivid facial expressions.
The Terracotta Army Museum consists of the original pit that was discovered in 1974, which has been enclosed to preserve the ranks of 6,000 soldiers found there. A second pit, containing 1,400 figures of cavalrymen, horses and infantrymen, and 90 wooden chariots, is also part of the museum.
Visitors can also see Qin's Mausoleum and view almost 100 sacrificial pits containing the skeletons of horses buried with him. There are also about 20 tombs holding the remains of his counsellors and retainers. The emperor's tomb itself is under a 249-foot (76m) high mound that has not yet been excavated, but is believed, according to historical records, to have contained rare gems and other treasures.
The graceful complex of the Shaanxi Provincial History Museum is built in the style of a Tang dynasty pavilion, itself a staggering sight. The museum's exhibits are even more breathtaking, consisting of about 113,000 artefacts unearthed in the province and chronologically arranged in three exhibition halls. The exhibits cover the Han, Wei, Jin, North and South, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as the prehistoric and bronze period. Shaanxi province was a vital region for the cultural development of China, and the capital of 13 glorious dynasties. The Shaanxi Provincial History Museum stands as testament to the area's importance, serving as China's premier, world-class history museum. Travellers are advised to get there early to avoid massive queues.
The remains of the ancient settlement of Banpo, dating from about 5000 BC, are found in the Yellow River Valley east of Xi'an. The site makes up one of the most complete examples of an agricultural Neolithic settlement in the world. It contains the ruins of more than 40 homes, 200 cellars, a collection of pottery and tools, and more than 250 graves belonging to a matriarchal community of the Yangshao culture.
There is an on-site museum, with two smaller exhibition halls displaying various archaeological artefacts that have been unearthed in the area. More than 400 archaeological sites similar to Banpo have been discovered in and around the Yellow River Valley in China, giving the area the reputation of being the birthplace of ancient Chinese culture.
The Huaqing Hot Springs at the base of the Lishan Mountains is where ancient emperors bathed and relaxed. Huaqing is one of the Hundred Famous Gardens of China and the setting is tranquil and beautiful.
The spa has been operating for more than 12 centuries and its warm (109°F/43°C) mineral waters, containing lime, sodium carbonate and sodium sulphate, are still enjoyed by locals and visitors today.
The waters are particularly recommended for the treatment of dermatitis, rheumatism, arthritis and muscular pain. Even the Hibiscus Pool, dating from the year 712 and having been restored, is open to the public. There is also a fascinating museum at the site containing building materials from the Tang Dynasty.
Another attraction at the springs is the Hovering Rainbow Bridge, which reflects the sunset in such a way that it appears to be a rainbow. Visitors can also take a cable car up to take in marvellous mountain vistas.
The Great Mosque is the pride of China's Islamic community, with the religion arriving in the country along with Arab merchants and travellers in roughly the year 600. The Great Mosque in Xi'an is the best-preserved ancient mosque in China, having been built in 742. It is built in traditional Chinese style with platforms, pavilions and halls, and is divided inside into four courtyards. Visitors can explore the passages, courtyards and archways, with furnishings dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The main prayer hall can accommodate 1,000 worshippers and its ceiling bears more than 600 classical scriptures in colourful relief. This unique mix of Islamic and Chinese architecture is surrounded by landscaped gardens, ideal for quiet sanctuary and contemplative walks. It remains a place of worship, so visitors should dress appropriately and behave respectfully.
The vast Potala Palace stands on a cliff top above Lhasa, considered the greatest achievement of Tibetan architecture. The palace was originally built in the 7th century by the then emperor for his bride. It was later partially destroyed by lightning and war, but restored and extended in 1645 by the Fifth Dalai Lama when he became the political and religious leader of Tibet. The Fifth Dalai Lama took up residence in the palace in 1653, and it remained the Dalai Lama's official residence until the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama in 1959.
The palace is renowned for its interior splendour. It consists of two main sections: the White Palace which is the secular section containing offices, dormitories, a Buddhist seminary and printing house; and the Red Palace, which is the sacred sanctuary dedicated to religious study and prayer. The latter contains chapels where the mummified remains of three Dalai Lamas lie, and the Great West Hall famous for its rich murals. The only remaining structures dating from the 7th century are the Dharma Cave and the Saint's Chapel, but the palace houses many ancient cultural treasures and relics. In fact, the palace contains over 10,000 shrines and 200,000 statues.
The Jokhang Temple lies in the heart of Lhasa. It was built nearly 1,300 years ago but remains the spiritual centre of Tibet, drawing pilgrims from all over the region who come to demonstrate piety to the Buddha. The original structure was enlarged under the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama and it now stands as the product of Han, Tibetan and Nepalese architectural design. It is a four-storey timber temple with a golden roof that contains a number of valuable cultural relics, sacred sculptures and magnificent murals.
Possibly the most special statue is the site's original sculpture of Buddha called Jowo, which is richly decorated with jewels and silk. An annual prayer festival is held in the temple, which is also the venue for the initiation of the Dalai Lamas. The Jokhang Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is generally considered to be Tibet's most sacred and important temple.
Tashi Lhunpo is one of Tibet's most revered and influential monasteries, lying about a mile (2km) to the west of Shigatse at the base of Drolmari Mountain. Founded by the First Dalai Lama in 1477, it became the seat of Tibet's second most important spiritual leader, the Panchen Lama, in 1713. The monastery today houses about 800 monks in its 3,229 square foot (300 sq m) of muraled buildings.
The oldest section is the main chanting hall that houses the throne of the Panchen Lama. The tallest section is the Maitreya Chapel, which contains the world's largest brass statue of Maitreya. The seated figure is 86 feet (26m) high and decorated with gold, pearl, amber, copper, coral, diamonds and other precious stones. It's said that it took 900 craftsmen nine years to complete the statue.
There are other treasures such as the remarkable Thangka Wall, which is nine floors high and used to display massive images of Buddha on important days in the Tibetan Lunar Calendar.
The Shigatse prefecture is the gateway for climbers to the North Col route of the world's highest mountain. The ultimate climber's challenge, Mount Everest towers at 29,028 feet (8,848m) on the border between Tibet and Nepal. Access to the Everest Base Camp is via the town of Tinggri. About 20 miles (30km) from the town, climbers embark on a 48-mile (78km) trek to the first camp.
About six miles (10km) from the base camp is Rongbuk Monastery, the highest monastery on earth at an altitude of 16,728ft (5,099m). The monastery is continually being restored and offers hostel accommodation. Just south of the monastery is the world-renowned Rongbuk Glacier.
Because of its height, adventurers wishing to climb Mount Everest will need to allow several weeks simply to acclimatise to the thin atmosphere. Climbing Mount Everest is not to be attempted without the aid of a guide, and should only be tackled by extremely experienced climbers. Numerous travel agencies offer package multi-day hikes around the area and up to the Everest base camp.
The fascinating Pelkor Monastery is situated at the foot of Dzong Hill in Tibet. Also called Baiju Monastery, it has an unusual structural style incorporating Han, Tibetan and Nepali influences. The main structures were built around the beginning of the 15th century, and now house richly embroidered Tibetan opera costumes of pure silk dating to the Ming and Qing dynasties. It's unique in that it's the only monastery to accommodate monks from three different Buddhist orders. A popular pilgrimage site, it houses a number of shrines, frescoes and the renowned Arhat clay sculptures. But the most famous attraction at Pelkor Monastery is the Bodhi Dagoba, a building consisting of nine tiers, 108 gates and 76 shrines to Buddha.
The majestic Forbidden City is a historical precinct situated in the heart of Beijing. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been declared the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. The Forbidden City, called Gu Gong in Chinese, was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
It is the biggest and best preserved complex of ancient buildings in China, and the largest palace complex in the world. Construction began in 1407, and for 500 years this inner sanctum was off limits to most of the world as the emperors lived in luxury, secluded from the masses and surrounded by their families, servants and members of court.
The Forbidden City has a permanent restoration squad working continuously to keep the more than 90 palaces and courtyards, 980 buildings and 8,728 rooms in perfect condition. Now open to all visitors, its museum is home to a priceless collection of ancient artefacts. The complex can get overrun so it is best to go early in the morning to fully appreciate the layout of the place without too many crowds.
The famous and distinct Tiananmen Square is at the heart of Beijing, a place of so many historic events. The largest city square in the world, it was a gathering place and site of government officials during ancient imperial days. Major rallies took place in the Square during the Cultural Revolution when Chairman Mao reviewed military parades up to a million strong. But the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre meant it has become a site of great political significance in modern history.
The square is surrounded by several monuments, some ancient and some modern, including the former gates to the Forbidden City, the Gate of Heavenly Peace and Qianmen, as well as the Chinese Revolution Museum and the Mao Mausoleum, where China's former leader lies preserved. There is also an underground walkway connecting Tiananmen Square with the Forbidden City. Like most big tourist attractions in China, it is best to try and go early in the day to avoid the masses, with the square open to visitors as early as 5am.
The magnificent Summer Palace was built in 1750 by the Emperor Qianlong, and continued to be an imperial residence until the Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1908. It is the largest and most well-preserved royal park in China, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The palace and stunning gardens are open to visitors, who pass through a grand courtyard into the Hall of Benevolent Longevity, the Hall of Jade Ripples and the Hall of Joyful Longevity. Empress Cixi's private theatre in the Garden of Moral Harmony is a must see, as is the long corridor that skirts Kunming Lake's northern shoreline to reach the marble boat, an elaborate two-storey structure of finely carved stone and stained glass.
All in all, the Summer Palace boasts not only famously beautiful grounds but also 3,000 man-made ancient structures, including mansions, temples, pavilions, bridges and towers. Once a place for weary royals to relax, the Summer Palace is now a sanctuary for travellers and, although it can get crowded, it always seems calmer and cooler than the rest of the city.
Chimelong Paradise is one of China's largest amusement parks and is recognised internationally as a quality establishment, with one of its rollercoasters even being featured in the Guinness Book of Records. The park has more than 100 rides and is guaranteed to delight thrill seekers and kids of all ages. The water world section boasts one of the largest water stunt shows in the world and is a famously enjoyable place to spend a sunny day.
The Chimelong International Circus is said to be the world's largest permanent circus and the theatre can hold nearly 7,000 people. This show is wildly popular and it is recommended that visitors book their tickets in advance, especially if going over the weekend. The Chimelong International Circus includes award winning acts from all over the world and its set, lighting and costume design are sublime. Chimelong certainly tops the list when it comes to family attractions in Guangzhou.
Although Chairman Mao Zedong requested to be cremated, his body was instead embalmed. After a supposed mishap during the process, a wax model was made as backup and it's unknown which version of the Great Helmsman is on display today at the Mausoleum. The Mausoleum itself was built in 1977 on the prior site of the Gate of China, the main gate of the Imperial City during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The tomb is on the first floor and on the second is a museum dedicated to other great communist leaders, including Mao himself. Those interested in visiting the Mausoleum can join the long line of visitors outside the building every day. Visitors should remember to dress respectfully and maintain silence in the mausoleum, as the site is a place of worship more than a tourist destination.
A place of tranquillity and grand imperial beauty, the Beihai Park is one of the great attractions of Beijing. It's centrally located and close to the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park, providing a peaceful, natural haven after a long morning of sightseeing. One of the oldest and best preserved imperial gardens in China, Beihai Park's history extends over 1,000 years to the ancient Liao dynasty which ruled between 916 and 1125. Built up through five dynasties, the park is an emblem of old-world China, designed according to the ancient Chinese art of landscaped gardens with artificial hills, colourful pavilions and intricate temples.
Kublai Khan lived in what is now the Circular City of Beihai Park. The Tibetan-style White Dagoba, built in 1651 on Jade Island, is a landmark for both Beihai Park and Beijing, having been constructed on the suggestion of a famous Tibetan Lama priest, NaomuHan. Apart from the famous White Dagoba and the Circular City, landmarks within Beihai Park include Hao Pu Creek Garden, the Quiet Heart Studio, Nine-Dragon Screen and the Five-Dragon Pavilions. The Fangshan Restaurant, started nearly a century ago by royal chefs, is also worth a visit.
Beijing's prominent art district is home to 798 Space, an art gallery housed in a former electronics factory that built components for China's first atomic bomb and early satellites. Exhibiting the latest in contemporary Chinese art in its lofty viewing rooms, 798 Space is a visual delight for any traveller. Besides regular national and international exhibitions, 798 Space also hosts corporate and commercial events such as fashion shows, product launches, conferences and fairs. Also housed in the gallery there is a film and video viewing area and a gallery bookshop, as well as a colourful little restaurant. The art precinct itself is dotted with avant-garde statues, charming coffee shops and noodle bars, and a plethora of other wonderful art galleries to visit.
The Qing Temple is home to the Ancient Bell Museum (Gu Zhong Bowuguan) and is a great stop for travellers en route to the Summer Palace. A 47-ton bell with a height of 22.7 feet (6.9m) was transported to the original temple on ice sleds in 1743. It is inscribed with Buddhist Mantras on both the inside and outside and features over 227,000 characters.
The bell was often chosen by the emperors to pray for rain and blessings for the people of China, and was one of three projects that the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) commanded after reestablishing Beijing as the capital, the others being the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. The bell is considered auspicious in Chinese tradition and is nowadays rung 108 times to begin the celebrations at grand ceremonies. There are a further 31 bells on display in the Ancient Bell Museum, most with tributes to various emperors inscribed on them.
Beijing's Underground City is a forgotten vast bomb shelter eight to 18 meters beneath the ancient capital's downtown area, built in case of nuclear attack. Aside from some rather odd recent additions, it features factories, restaurants, hospitals, schools, theatres and shops. There's even a mushroom farm to provide food easily cultivated in darkness. On Mao Zedong's orders, it was built from 1969 to 1979 by more than 300,000 local citizens including school children, mostly by hand. The tunnels were initially intended to accommodate all of Beijing's six million inhabitants upon completion. Winding for over 18 miles (30km) and covering an area of nearly 53 square miles (85 sq km), the underground City includes more than 1,000 anti-air raid structures.
Located within the Beijing Zoo, the Beijing Aquarium is one of the world's largest inland aquariums. Its interactive exhibits provide an immersive experience that never fails to delight, such as an imaginative Amazon rainforest, complete with piranhas and pandas, as well as an exquisite shark tank, dolphin shows and displays of rare and endangered fish. A boat from the canal south of the aquarium runs to the Summer Palace, giving visitors the opportunity to sightsee while en route to the attraction.
The Beijing National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest due to its appearance, was the hub of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, hosting all of the track and field events as well the opening and closing ceremonies. The unique-looking supports make it the largest steel structure in the world, created using a web of steel frames converging in a grid formation. The visual effect is unique and impressive and it was designed to symbolise harmony between technology and nature. The stadium has reopened as a tourist attraction, and the public can tour the facilities, or visit the ski resort now housed inside during the Happy Snow season.
The Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou is one of the top 10 most famous Buddhist temples in China. Built in 326 AD and situated in the breathtaking Lingyin-Feilai Feng Scenic Area, it housed some 3,000 monks during its heyday and is still one of the largest and wealthiest temples in China.
The forested walkway to the temple is strewn with hidden grottos, alcoves and ancient sculptures. Jovial and beautifully carved, the Laughing Buddha is particularly beloved. The temple's name can be translated as 'Temple of the Soul's Retreat' or 'Temple of Inspired Seclusion', both aptly describing its wondrous and meditative atmosphere.
Although you can view the famous statues carved into the mountain independently, the Lingyin Temple complex is definitely worth exploring too. One of the many treasures Lingyin displays is a Sakyamuni statue 82 feet (24.8m) tall, which is one of the largest wooden statues in China and covered in gold leaf. The temple also stores an important collection of Buddhist literature that makes it popular with scholars.
Happy Valley is a fantastic place to spend the day with or without the little ones. It features about 40 rides, an IMAX Theatre and even a shopping centre. It is similar in style and layout to Disneyland, featuring six theme parks: Fjord Forest, Atlantis, Happy Hour, the Aegean Sea, Lost Maya and Shangri-La. Atlantis is probably the favourite of these, with a massive palace built in its centre. But Happy Valley gets equally crowded on the weekends, with queues lasting up to three hours for rides. To avoid disappointment, visitors are advised to find out ahead of time whether the state-of-the-art roller coasters will be running as some rides close during quiet periods.
The fascinating Sony ExploraScience museum is an interactive educational centre that encourages children to take an interest in science. It features live science shows and interactive exhibits combined with Sony's latest digital technology. There are four themed sections, covering illusion, refraction, light and sounds. Attractions include robotic dogs that play soccer, musical sculptures, soap bubble rings and much more. All young enquiring minds will love a trip to the Sony ExploraScience, but it's probably an experience best suited to kids aged five to 12. The museum is located in Chaoyang Park, the largest in Beijing, boasting lakes, swimming pools, a bungee jumping tower, a wetland, fountains and a funfair. It is a beautiful area and a fun place to spend the day, especially for those travelling with children in Beijing.
The Beijing World Park is must see on the itinerary of those travelling with children in Beijing. It features about 100 miniature models of some of the world's most famous tourist attractions from over 50 countries across the globe, and is designed to let visitors experience a trip around the world without ever having to leave Beijing. The sights include Egypt's Great Pyramids, France's Eiffel Tower, India's Taj Mahal, England's Stonehenge and New York City's Manhattan Island. The park is a great place for kids to learn and enjoy naming the attractions as they stroll through the replicas. Summer is the best time to visit Beijing World Park, as it's a venue designed for sunny weather.
A trip to Tianmen Mountain Park is an ideal weekend excursion from Guilin, boasting some of the most beautiful and most photographed landscapes in China. The city of Zhangjiajie nestles within the famous mountain park, from where visitors can take one of the world's longest scenic cableways up into the mountains.
Tianmen Cave, a massive archway created by an ancient cliff collapse, is known as Heaven's Gate because it resembles a doorway into another world. Travellers have to climb 999 steps to reach this natural phenomenon, but it is well worth the effort and is said to bring happiness and health, the number 999 being a lucky number in Chinese culture.
Other attractions in the park include various scenic areas, some impressive temples and the terrifying Walk of Faith, a walkway constructed of glass so that, as visitors edge along it, they can see the ground 4,690 feet (1,430m) below. The transparent pavement is a uniquely thrilling sightseeing experience, with those who brave it rewarded by truly heart-stopping scenery. The mountains can get cold, so the best time to visit Tianmen is during summer and autumn (May to October).
A must-see attraction in Guangzhou is the impressive Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. This ancient Buddhist structure was built around the year 537, and still attracts many local and foreign visitors. Aside from its three famous Buddha statues, one of the temple's best features is the magnificent statue of Kuan Yin, the Buddhist bodhisattva associated with compassion and mercy. The nearby six-story Flower Pagoda is a beloved landmark, with its distinctive petal-like layers and rich collection of cultural treasures. The temple is surrounded by some lovely gardens that add to the impression of it being a centre of serenity in a bustling city.
The South China Botanical Garden is stunningly beautiful and varied, and one of the largest in the country. It's divided into three areas: a nursery and arboretum, which house modern conservatories and over 30 specialised gardens; a research and residential zone; and Dinghushan Nature Reserve, which was the first national nature reserve in China. The South China Botanical Garden has a plethora of local flora for visitors to admire, including collections of magnolias, orchids and medicinal herbs, as well as bonsai, bamboo and endangered plants. Long Dong Magic Forest is a particularly special attraction, as it is one of the top eight scenic spots in Guangzhou. Non-botanical attractions at the gardens include the Science Education and Information Centre and Guangzhou's Oldest Village, which was rebuilt on Neolithic ruins.
Baiyun Shan Mountain is a popular tourist attraction just outside of Guangzhou, with the lofty vantage point providing phenomenal panoramas of Pu Valley, the Nengren Temple and the sprawling cityscape of Guangzhou. There are cable cars running for just over a mile (1.7km) between Yuntai Garden and Peak Park, the park itself consisting of 30 peaks and covering over 17 square miles (28 sq km). It's stunningly beautiful, with well-maintained gardens, numerous temples and a sculpture park, and time here is best spent walking along the winding paths up in the clear mountain air and relishing a break from the city. As with most monitored nature areas in China, visitors are sadly not really given the freedom to wander, hike or picnic beyond the paths.
The Grand Canal in China is the largest man-made canal in the world. It once ran from Hangzhou all the way to Beijing, covering a stunning 1,115 miles (1,794 km). It was built section by section over many centuries, but the majority of it was developed under the Sui dynasty during the 7th century. The canal played a vital role in Chinese history, not just as a trade route, but also as a military asset and an important cultural and economic link between the north and south of the country. Boat trips along the Grand Canal are a popular way to see the countless scenic river towns in southern China, with spectacular river vistas, attractive bridges and old buildings on its banks. It is also lovely to walk or cycle along the canal through central Hangzhou.
The limestone formations of Reed Flute Cave resemble everything from lions and monkeys to the skyline of Guilin itself, each with a name and story. Myths and atmospheric lighting add to its mystery and magic, with guides pointing out main attractions and ancient inscriptions dating back to the Tang dynasty more than 1,200 years ago. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the cave, and visitors should be prepared to wait for more people if they are in a group of less than 20. The cave is situated in a park with ponds, bridges and pavilions; a beautiful place in which to relax and wander either before or after the tour. For those travelling near Guilin with children, this is a wonderful attraction for the whole family.
The Stone Forest of Shilin is a breathtaking and eerie landscape. The limestone pillars and stalagmites poking out of the green hillsides look like petrified trees, with rock formations believed to be over 270 million years old and formed by the slow erosion of time. The Shilin National Scenic Area includes seven areas: the Greater and Lesser Stone Forests (also called Lizijing Stone Forest), Naigu Stone Forest, Zhiyun Cave, Lake Chang, Lake Yue, Dadie Waterfall and Qifeng Cave. The Naigu Stone Forest and Suogeyi Village, also within the scenic area, are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Visitors can avoid the masses by going in the morning or early evening, and avoiding weekends and Chinese public holidays. They might even catch one of the few guides who can speak English.
Elephant Trunk Hill on the banks of the Li River has a large natural arch, faintly resembling an elephant drinking water. This natural limestone monument rises over 180 feet (55m) above the water. The opening of the arch is called Water Moon Cave as the reflection of the moon at night appears as though it is both in and out of the water. Inside this cave there are more than 50 inscriptions dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
Visitors can explore the hill and the cave by hiring one of the traditional bamboo rafts that paddle around the base. At the top of the hill is a two-story pagoda built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), intended to resemble a vase on the elephant's back when viewed from afar. The hill is part of a beautiful park with lovely lush hills, winding paths and a number of sculptures, many of which are elephant-themed. Dusk is possibly the best time to visit, as this is when the scenery is at its most dramatic.
The Jiuxiang Scenic Area near Kunming is a breathtaking cave complex and the largest in China. Stone forests of karst limestone are littered throughout, with lush forests and underground waterfalls common in this subterranean world. Jiuxiang is also the home of the aboriginal Yi people and the excavated Yi cliff paintings of the Qin (221 BC - 206 BC) and Han (206 BC - 220 AD) dynasties. Yi customs and culture are still evident today in the many legends and folk stories. These are brought to life in the magical underground universe of Jiuxiang, which includes more than a hundred caves, as well as bridges, valleys and rivers.
The Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre is a must see for animal lovers. The largest centre of its kind, Chengdu was founded with the aim of increasing the population of giant pandas in captivity so that more may be released into the wild. The park is also a home to other endangered Chinese animals, such as the South China Tiger, red pandas and golden monkeys. It takes about two hours to walk the grounds; alternatively, visitors can ride in a tour cart. It is best to go for feeding time (9amâ€'10am) which is when the animals are most active.
Lhasa is a holiday destination set in a marshy valley dominated by surrounding mountain peaks. It is the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region and one of the highest cities in the world at an elevation of 12,000ft (3,658m). Lhasa has long been the religious, cultural and political centre of Tibet, sheltered from the harsh winds of the Tibetan plateau in a spot that has been inhabited for at least 1,500 years.
Being the religious centre for Lamaist Buddhists since ancient times, flocks of pilgrims have made their way to Lhasa over the centuries to worship at the feet of the Dalai Lama. Now tourists on holiday are following in their wake to explore the surrounding mountains and investigate Tibet's unique culture and long history. While the city is currently enjoying a period of rapid modernisation, it retains its importance and aura as a holy city.
Mount Qingcheng is said to be the birthplace of Taoism, serving as a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. It's two sides provide rather different experiences. The front of the mountain is more tourist friendly, boasting an impressive array of cultural and historical landmarks such as the Jianfu Palace, Tianshi Cave and Shangqing Palace. The back of the mountain is more off the beaten track, offering stunning but demanding hiking routes through narrow and unspoilt passes, waterfalls and woods. Although the paths are well maintained, there is a cable car which can be taken halfway or all the way up. The mountain is an ideal escape from crowded urban sightseeing and is a must for those interested in the region's flora and fauna.
Kuanzhai Ancient Street is one of three historic preservation areas in the city and scores highly on most visitors' lists of things to see and do in Chengdu. It is formed by the confluence of three alleys: Kuan Alley, Zhai Alley and Jing Alley. The city once boasted 45 18th-century courtyards, and Kuanzhai contains the only three that remain well-preserved. Kuanzhai is trendy and artistic and an entertaining cultural experience for visitors, with ancient Chinese architecture providing a captivating contrast to modern restaurants and art galleries. It is particularly interesting to walk this street in the evening when the ancient attractions are juxtaposed with a lively nightlife, bright city lights and cultural dance performances.
Famed for its natural beauty, West Lake in Hangzhou is perhaps the landscape most representative of ancient China owing to its immortalisation in art. This is where visitors will recognise the blue waterscapes, bridges, and gardens on many ceramics. The lake itself is sheltered on three sides by mountains where travellers can truly feel that they have escaped the city.
West Lake is a UNESCO World Heritage Site full of historical points of interest, including the various temples, pagodas and museums. Visitors can easily hire a boat to take them to the islands in the centre of the lake, which is a lovely way to view the area. Many visitors hire bicycles and ride all the way around West Lake, a trip of about six miles (10km) depending on the route.
There are so many things to see and do in West Lake that visitors will need at least a day to explore. Famous scenic spots worth seeking out are Su Causeway, Crooked Courtyard, Flower Pond and Broken Bridge â€' considered the most romantic spot in West Lake.
The ancient Yuantong Temple is easily one of the most popular tourist attractions in Kunming. The 8th-century temple is situated in a natural depression at the foot of Yuantong Hill, showcasing an interesting mixture of architectural styles from the Yuan and Ming dynasties. It should be remembered that it's still an active temple, where visitors can hear chanting and classes being conducted as they explore beside the monks and pilgrims.
For a remarkable, panoramic view of the temple complex, travellers can climb Yuantong Hill by taking one of the stone staircases carved into the mountain on either side of the main hall. These stairways boast the most ancient inscriptions in Kunming, carved into the stone wall and still readable after centuries of exposure to the weather. There are also some impressive statues and carvings within the temple, such as the two ferocious dragons carved into the pillars, while the lovely scenic area of Green Lake is a 10-minute walk away.
Chinese Phrase Book
|ni hao||hello||nee how|
|zai jian||goodbye||zai jee en|
|xie xie ni||thank you||shay shay nee|
|shi/bu shi||yes/no||shr/boo shr|
|wo jiao||my name is||waw jeow|
|zai na li||where is||zai na lee|
|Ni shuo ying yu ma?||do you speak English?||nee shoo-oh ying yoo mah|
|wo bu dong||I don't understand||woe boo dong|
|yi, er, san, si, wu||one, two, three, four, five||ee, are, san, see, woo|
China covers extensive territory and has a complex topography, therefore the weather differs substantially from region to region. The southeast, below the Nanling Mountains, tends to be very wet with high temperatures all year round. In the central Yangtze and Huaihe River valleys there are four distinct seasons with very hot summers and extremely cold winters, and rain all year round. The dry north experiences a short but sunny summer, with long, bitterly cold winters (between December and March), with temperatures in Beijing dropping as low as -4ºF (-20ºC). The coast is humid and experiences Typhoons during summer. Travellers are advised to research the climate for the specific region they are visiting.
This modest little courtyard restaurant has an impeccable menu and flawless delivery. Everything from their kangkung belacan (water spinach) to the spicy signature dish, the Kapitan chicken, is exquisite as their Malaysian chef takes great pride in his work.
This fine-dining restaurant, located on the Bund, is part of a highly respected international chain, serving exceptional Chinese fusion cuisine. There are three different dining spaces: the Ling Ling Lounge offers a stylish setting for cocktails with beautiful views; the main dining area, known as the 'Cage', is enclosed in delicate woodwork; and then there are a number of luxurious private dining rooms. Reservations are essential and smart casual dress is encouraged, though dress jackets are not required.
Chinese royalty were famously picky eaters and ate only speciality dishes with carefully selected ingredients and even more carefully selected names. Such dining gave way to its own culinary tradition, which can be enjoyed at Fangshan's enormous banquet-style dining hall with such imperial classics as 'Jade Phoenix Returning to the Royal'. Choosing from a huge selection of dishes is a perfect way to go back in time and truly eat like an emperor.
Providing top-notch international cuisine in a uniquely Chinese setting, TRB is set in a 600-year-old temple which has been tastefully renovated to create a modern fine-dining haven. The food is mostly European but with a bit of local flavour mixed in. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner on weekdays and brunch, lunch and supper on weekends. Reservations are recommended.
Dining 66 floors above the sparkling city makes any dish seem dazzling, but the views aren't the only reason to eat at China Grill. The international menu is a simple selection of fine dining with both Chinese dishes and grilled western classics. The romantic ambiance is set by a surprisingly cosy interior surrounded by floor to ceiling windows for a 360-degree view of the city.
Scena is located within the glitzy Ritz-Carlton Shanghai Pudong Hotel and serves authentic Italian cuisine. The restaurant is on the 52nd floor of the hotel, with floor to ceiling windows providing spectacular views over the city. Although comparatively expensive, Scena gets consistent rave reviews from travellers and the service is known to be of an excellent standard. Reservations are recommended.
This Shanghai restaurant serves Chinese staples such as wonton soup, sweet-smoky fried fish and braised bamboo shoots, but what it's best known for is its lip-smacking xiao long bao (steamed soup buns). They're roughly 10 times what you'd pay at a street stall, but most who have tried them say they're worth it. Located in the Super Brand Mall, the walls are covered in watercolour sketches of famous Chinese celebrities. Din Tai Fung is also a child-friendly restaurant, so don't be afraid to take the little ones.
For those looking for a sports bar in Shanghai to have a pint and watch the game, The Camel is the best place in town. The restaurant is broken up into three viewing areas, so multiple games can be watched simultaneously on the many flat-screen televisions. The menu is standard gastropub, serving such classics as fish and chips, steak, burgers and pies, and there's a good selection of beers and cocktails to go with them.
China's currency is the Renminbi Yuan (CNY), which is divided into 10 jiao or 100 fen. Make sure you exchange your leftover Yuan before returning home because you may have difficulty exchanging the currency outside China's borders. Foreign cash can be exchanged in cities at the Bank of China. It is not possible to exchange Scottish or Northern Irish bank notes. Banks are closed weekends. The larger hotels and the special 'Friendship Stores' designed for foreigners will accept most Western currencies for purchases. Major credit cards are accepted in the main cities, but acceptance may be limited in more rural areas. ATMs are scarce in rural areas.
The official language is Mandarin Chinese, but there are hundreds of local dialects.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. Plug types vary, but the two-pin flat blade and oblique three-pin flat blade plugs are common. Adapters are generally required.
US nationals: US nationals require both a valid passport and visa for entry into China.
UK nationals: UK nationals require a passport valid on arrival and a visa for entry into China. Passports endorsed British National (Overseas) are not recognized and holders should carry a Mainland Travel Permit for Hong Kong and Macao Residents together with their Hong Kong ID.
CA nationals: Canadians require a valid passport and visa for entry into China.
AU nationals: Australians require a passport valid on arrival, and a visa for entry to China. Visa exemptions include passengers with an APEC Business Travel Card valid for travel to China for stays up to 60 days.
ZA nationals: South African nationals require a passport valid on arrival, and a visa for entry to China.
IR nationals: Irish nationals require a passport valid on arrival, and a visa for entry to China.
NZ nationals: New Zealand nationals require a passport valid on arrival, and a visa for entry to China.
Persons holding an APEC Business Travel Card do not require a visa, provided that it is valid for travel to China. Travel to Tibet will also require a special Tibet Entry Permit. There are a few complex exceptions to Chinese visa requirements, which will not apply to the majority of visitors, but all requirements should be confirmed with a Chinese embassy before travel. All documents necessary for further travel and sufficient funds to cover intended period of stay are required. Period of validity is stated on visas, and care should be taken when reading dates on visas for China as they are written in year/month/day format. We always recommend that passports be valid for six months after intended period of travel.
A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required from travellers coming into China from infected areas. There is a risk of malaria throughout the low-lying areas of the country, and it is recommended that travellers to China seek medical advice about malaria before departure. Vaccinations are recommended against hepatitis A and hepatitis B, typhoid (not necessary if eating and drinking in major restaurants and hotels), Japanese encephalitis (usually only recommended for rural areas), and rabies (only recommended for travellers at risk of animal bites). Tap water shouldn't be drunk unless it has first been boiled, filtered or chemically disinfected. Street food should be treated with caution. High levels of air pollution in major cities and industrialised areas in China may exacerbate bronchial, sinus or asthma conditions. There is generally a high standard of health care in major Chinese cities, but it is not provided free of charge; travellers are advised to have comprehensive travel health insurance.
Tipping is not officially recognised in China, though the practice is has become increasingly common among tour guides, top-end restaurants, tour bus drivers and hotel staff. Travellers wanting to tip should leave a gratuity of about 10 percent. Large hotels and restaurants often include a service charge in their bills, usually of around 10 percent, so travellers should make sure that they aren't doubling up.
China is generally safe, and there is currently little threat from global terrorism. The risk of terror attacks is higher in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and travellers should exercise caution if travelling to or around Xinjiang. Serious crime against foreigners is rare but does occur, particularly in isolated or sparsely populated areas. There has been an increase in the number of muggings and robberies at Beijing International Airport and around the Jianguomenwai area of Beijing, as well as in Shenzen, bordering Hong Kong.
If travelling alone, including following parts of the Great Wall, it is advisable to leave an itinerary and expected time of return with a third party. Travellers should take extra care in street markets and at tourist sites, which attract thieves and pickpockets, and around the popular expat bar areas at night, where lone foreigners have occasionally been attacked. Travellers should be cautious about using pedicabs in Beijing, as tourists have reportedly been mugged by the drivers; women in particular have been targeted. Disputes over taxi fares can occur. Insist on paying the metered fare and ask for a receipt; this has the taxi number on it.
Seasonal heavy rains and typhoons cause hundreds of deaths in China each year, particularly those areas bordering the Yangtze River in central, southern and western China. Demonstrations have taken place in Lhasa, Tibet, as well as in some Chinese provinces in protest against Chinese rule in Tibet. Even though the situation seems to have stabilised, visitors are advised to stay up to date on the situation before travelling to the region and to avoid all protests. The Chinese government sometimes suspends the issue of permits for travel to Tibet due to unrest.
Chinese people usually have three names, the first of which is their surname, or family name. As a result, visitors should be prepared for hotels mistakenly reserving rooms under their first names. For clarity, surnames may be underlined. When addressing Chinese people, the surname should come first and official titles should be used. Chinese handshakes last longer than those in western countries, and it is customary to stand close together when in conversation. Politeness in western terms is often foreign to the Chinese, and they rarely bother with pleasantries. It is considered disrespectful to keep prolonged eye contact, avoiding eye contact is considered reverential rather than rude. All foreigners should carry their ID on them at all times, as spot checks are common. Failure to show evidence of ID when requested by an official may result in a fine or detention.
The Chinese are strict timekeepers and being late for a meeting is considered rude. When meeting people for the first time it is normal to shake hands and say 'ni hao', which means 'how are you'. Note that handshakes generally go on for longer in China than in most western countries. Business cards are commonly exchanged at the start of meetings in China; it is customary to have one side printed in Chinese and one in English. When giving or receiving business cards or a gift, it is customary to hold it with both hands. Chinese consider gifts an important show of courtesy. Decision-making may take longer than expected during negotiations. During a meal or reception, your host is likely to offer a toast; foreigners may be expected to offer them one in return.
Women are generally treated with respect and courtesy when doing business in China and it is increasingly common to find Chinese women in senior positions, especially in the big cities. Businesswomen should, however, avoid showing too much skin. Business dress for both men and women tends to be conservative and plain without much ornament or bright colour.
Business hours are 8am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday. A five-day week is more common in larger cities and international companies. Workers usually take their lunch break between 12pm and 2pm and it is not unusual to find offices empty during this time.
The international dialling code for China is +86. In hotels, local calls are generally free or will be charged only a nominal fee. Hotels, cafes and restaurants offering free wifi are widely available. As international roaming costs can be high, purchasing a local prepaid SIM card can be a cheaper option.
Travellers to China do not need to pay customs duty on 400 cigarettes or 100 cigars or 500g of tobacco; 1.5 litres of alcohol; perfume for personal use; and personal articles up to the value of ¥2000. Prohibited goods include arms, ammunition, or printed material that conflicts with the public order or moral standards of the country. Also prohibited are radio transmitters and receivers, exposed but undeveloped film and fresh produce. Strict regulations apply to the import and export of antiquities, banned publications, and religious literature. All valuables must be declared on the forms provided.
Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Guangxi: +86 773 288 5326, www.topchinatravel.com/
Chinese Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 495 2266.
Chinese Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7299 4049.
Chinese Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 789 3434.
Chinese Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 (0)2 6228 3999.
Chinese Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 431 6500.
Chinese Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 219 6651.
Chinese Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (0)4 473 3514.
United States Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 8531 3000.
British Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 5192 4000.
Canadian Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 5139 4000.
Australian Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 5140 4111.
South African Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 8532 0000.
Irish Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 8531 6200.
New Zealand Embassy, Beijing: +86 (0)10 8531 2700.
The Great Wall of China is a perennial favourite among tourists. Stretching some 4,000 miles (6,350km) and built in stages from the 7th century BC onwards, it snakes across the mountains and valleys of five provinces in northern China and originally served as a mammoth defensive bulwark against neighbouring Manchurian and Mongolian peoples.
Several sections of the wall, which has become the most prominent symbol of Chinese civilisation, can be viewed in the greater Beijing area. In Yanqing county, in northwest Beijing, is the 600-year-old Badaling Fortification, representative of the Ming dynasty sections of the Great Wall. Other sections can be seen at Jinshanling, Mutianyu and Simatai.
The more popular sections can be very crowded but, generally, if travellers walk a little way they can escape the worst of it. There are some wonderful stretches of the wall to hike, such as the roughly six-mile (10km) section between Jinshanling and Simatai, but visitors should be careful about setting off alone as parts of the wall are unstable and unsafe.
We recommend that tourists take their own water and snacks and pack warm clothes if planning to go during winter, as temperatures at the wall can be freezing. There are countless vendors, but their goods are usually overpriced and of questionable quality. It is illegal to remove stone from the wall and Chinese authorities are clamping down on the practice.
About 25 miles (40km) south of Beijing, in the Fangshan District, is the Zhoukoudian Cave, the source of the largest collection of Homo erectus fossils from any single site in the world. The fossils recovered from the cave represent about 40 individuals, most famous of which is a cranium element commonly known as the 'Peking Man', the world's earliest fire-using primitive man who lived between 200,000 and 700,000 years ago.
The Zhoukoudian site on Dragon Bone Hill has a comprehensive seven-room exhibition of fossils and artefacts depicting human evolution and the lifestyle of primitive humans. It showcases fossils from all over China, allowing visitors to compare the different lifestyles of the ancient communities that were discovered here.
Built by the emperors of the Ming Dynasty of China, the majority of surviving Ming tombs are clustered near Beijing and easily reached on short excursions out of the capital. Thirteen emperors' mausoleums, dating from between 1368 and 1644 and collectively UNESCO-listed, can be seen in the Ming Tombs Scenic Area at the foot of Tianshou Mountain.
Currently only three of the tombs are open to the public (Chanling, Dingling and Zhaoling) but this is more than sufficient as all the tombs are similar in design and the three that can be explored are arguably the most interesting. The Changling Tomb is the largest, oldest and best preserved, looming majestically at the end of the Sacred Way. The Dingling Tomb is the only one which has been properly excavated but tragically many of the artefacts and the remains of the emperor and empresses entombed in the mausoleum were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Even so, the excavated Underground Palace in Dingling is fascinating and some magnificent artefacts can still be viewed.
Many operators in Beijing offer tours to the Ming Tombs, often combined with trips to the Great Wall and other nearby attractions. Visitors travelling independently will need to pay entry to each tomb separately.
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