Home to a people as old as civilization itself, China has been around for over 5,000 years as a kingdom, empire, and now, as a socialistic republic governed by the Chinese Communist Party since their successful revolution took control back in 1949. Going through a series of reforms, some ending in abject failure and others enjoying much greater success, the China of today is a society that embraces most of the tenets of capitalism, while remaining closed off in other regards, most famously shown in its mistrust of the internet (hence the introduction of the Great Firewall of China, blocking many external websites).
Despite many preconceived notions that many from the West hold towards the Chinese administration, there are countless aspects of this spacious nation that make this place a bucket list destination. While you may think that China is a claustrophobically overpopulated nation, it covers as much land area as the continental United States, making for wide open spaces in sectors of the country located away from the chaotic East Coast, where a mass exodus of rural peasants in recent decades has ballooned the populations of cities like Beijing and Shanghai into the tens of millions.
Indeed, while you can live out your urbanista fantasies by shooting along from one megacity to the next via state of the art bullet trains, you can also reconnect with nature in many locations across the country. Whether you want to spend your time in the mountains of Tibet, the deep canyons of the Yangtze River, or on the sands of China’s tropical getaway, Hainan island, an ideal outdoor experience with a unique Chinese twist is never that far away from any urban centre.
So head off to your local Chinese embassy, endure the bureaucratic hoops that you’ll have to jump through, and if you must, invest in a good VPN to bypass the Great Firewall. When all this hassle is behind you, and you’re inside one of the world’s most timeless civilizations, it will be more than worth all the trouble you had to put up with to get here.
Currency: Chinese Yuan (Renminbi)
Languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu, Hokkien, various other Chinese dialects
What To Do
We’ll start this section by getting this nation’s most obvious attraction out of the way. The Great Wall of China is one of mankind’s greatest civil engineering feats, with these impressive works being visible from space even now in the modern era. The first sections were completed well over 2,000 years ago, with the most recent sections of the wall being erected in the 1600’s, in a semi-successful effort to keep the ravenous hordes of the Mongol empire at bay.
While their efforts ultimately were thwarted in the end, the wall fell into disrepair, only being refurbished in various sections in the 1980’s. The most conveniently accessible pieces lie within an easy day trip of Beijing, but you will be fending off tonnes of tourists as a result. More isolated sectors of the wall can be found all across the nation, with access points in Gubeikou, Jinshanling and Simatai being recommended for a more calm experience that is not possible at the wall in Beijing.
Heading back into Beijing, the one sight you must see if you are in a rush to get down the east coast towards other destinations would be The Forbidden City. In the heady days of the Chinese dynasties, it was a sanctum that commoners were not permitted to breach, making it a refuge of the emperors that ruled this land from 1420 to as recently as 1924.
With its doors flung open to reams of visitors every year, view the countless rooms (well, there’s only about 9,999 of them … good luck seeing them all!), treasures, paintings, sculptures and gardens that adorn the grounds of this colossal palace, while contemplating the decadence that rulers of this period enjoyed. For fun, purchase Roger Moore’s (of James Bond fame) narrated tour of this vast palace, as travelers on the web have reported that it is well worth the price paid for his illuminating commentary.
Further south in Xi’an, the world’s most famed stone army, The Terracotta Warriors, stands guard awaiting your arrival. Found in the tomb of a Qin dynasty emperor, the scale of this tribute to this leader is mind-numbing in scale, as they number in the thousands. Even more impressive is the painstaking work put into the project, as each warrior has individually distinctive physical features, right down to the type of armour that indicated their rank in the armies of that day and age.
One of the most impressive water carved canyons on Earth, the Tiger Leaping Gorge is situated north of Lijiang City in Yunnan. Measuring up to 6,600 feet deep, the canyon is as narrow as 25 metres at one point, hence the name, which is based on a legend that a tiger leaped over the chasm at its slimmest point while escaping from a hunter. The waters of this gorge are unrunnable by watercraft, but hiking in the area has become very popular, making it a top shelf destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
In Tibet, the highest peaks in the world await mountain lovers, including the mother of them all, Mount Everest. Enjoy some of the world’s most auspicious alpine scenery through scores of trekking experiences, but remain vigilant for signs of altitude sickness, and seek treatment if symptoms persist for longer than a couple of days. Those less inclined to be active have a wealth of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries to explore, including the Potala Palace, home of the presently exiled Dalai Lama.
Finally, if the mountain heights of Tibet have chilled you to the bone, then retire to the sub-tropical beaches of Hainan for a week or so. This island is located in the sub-tropical south at the northern end of the South China Sea, and while the rapidly rising middle class of China are flocking here in ever increasing number, it still makes for a welcome R+R break during an extended exploration of China. Of note are the significant numbers of sea turtles that nest here during part of the year, with opportunities to volunteer to help their efforts available with local organizations.
What To Eat
Before we begin, it is important to note that the food available in China, which varies greatly over its expansive territory, is NOTHING like the westernized versions you have eaten your entire life. Some dishes were adapted to suit western appetites and tastes, while others were invented by kitchen staffs in their new native countries entirely (Ginger Beef in Canada and General Tso’s Chicken in America are some examples that come to mind).
That said, the food here is the stuff of dreams and will have you extending your visa at the earliest convenience. Starting with food from the capital region, Peking Roast Duck is a decadent dish that is well worth the expense, as the greasy, sweet dish will send you over the moon in gastronomic ecstasy, and the common side dish of thin pancakes will balance out the experience, making the overall meal very filling and satisfying.
Further south towards Hong Kong, Cantonese cuisine reigns supreme, and as such, the brunch favourite of Dim Sum is a treat enjoyed by locals and travelers alike. Consisting of bite-sized morsels of seafood, pork dumplings, congee (a type of rice porridge), among other various treats, it is a pushcart buffet of awesomeness that should be indulged upon during your journey in China.
Finally, those that like it hot will be best suited to try some Szechuan cuisine. Its best known dish is Kung Pao Chicken, which is a stir-fry that is made with chicken, peanuts, vegetables, and some very spicy chili peppers. Westerners who think they are well acquainted with this dish would be well-advised to take it slow, and perhaps ask for less spice to be added to their meal, as the full-on version of this classic Chinese dish will light your mouth on fire unlike most foods that you have ever tried in your life.