Lee Cobaj picks out her favourite highlights of China, from world-famous history to rarely visited tropical beaches
Five thousands of years of rich civilisation clashing with dazzling modernity, a booming economy and a can-do population makes China an exhilarating prospect for any traveller. Throw in wonderfully diverse geography, culture and culinary traditions, top shopping, shimmering LED-lit architecture and big-city nightlife and it’s even harder to know where to begin. Beijing, along with the Great Wall and Forbidden City, however, should be on every first-timer’s itinerary, while the following highlights offer both a selection of Chinese classics and lesser-known attractions to keep you on the right track.
1. Ancient wonders
The 23ft thick, 23ft high Great Wall of China snakes for more than 13,000 miles through four different countries — China, Mongolia, North Korea and Russia — making it one of mankind’s greatest engineering triumphs. Most visitors opt to walk the restored Ming-era sections near Beijing, with Badaling and Muitanyu being the most popular options. But, venture a little further afield to Jinshanling and you’ll find fewer crowds, as well as enchanting sections of wall, tangled through pine forests and ragged mountains, ideal for hiking. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit, avoiding the October Golden Week holiday.
From small-scale crafters producing goods in back rooms to artists’ villages, street markets, flea markets, night markets, electronics arcades, luxury boutiques and five million-square-foot mega-malls, China has got all your retail needs in the bag. Head across the border from Hong Kong into Shenzhen, China’s shopping mecca, where you’ll find everything you could possibly wish for — paintings, ceramics, furniture, rugs, collectibles, curios, clothing, handbags, shoes — at pleasingly affordable prices. Bargaining is expected in markets and areas popular with tourists, but not in malls or fancy boutiques.
Walled compounds and glazed roof tiles, wooden pavilions and upcurved pagodas, shikumen and sky-piercing high-rises, China’s architectural accomplishments are many. Must-sees include the extraordinary Forbidden City. Built in the 15th century by Ming Emperor Zhu Di, the palatial complex is made up of an elaborate arrangement of courtyards, gardens and pavilions hewn from vast quantities of marble, timber and stone. At the other end of the time spectrum, there’s the recently opened Shanghai Tower, a serpentine megastructure of glass and steel soaring
632m above Huangpu River and the historic waterfront Bund.
4. Tropical beaches
With its jungle-covered mountains, sugary beaches, colourful coral reefs and red-hot summers, the island resort of Sanya bills itself as the ‘Hawaii of China’. And while that may be somewhat of a stretch (most tourists still arrive on low-cost package holidays from the mainland), Asia’s jet-setters are increasingly being drawn to its beautiful shores and growing high-end offerings. New luxury resorts include an Ian Schrager-designed Edition hotel complete with ocean-view suites and infinity pools, an ultra-luxurious outpost of One&Only and the £1.3bn Atlantis hotel with its own water park and aquarium.
China’s 1.4 billion citizens are positively obsessed with food, with each region producing its own distinct, delicious cuisine. Start your morning in Shanghai with some shaobing crispy pancakes sprinkled with green onions, devour Peking duck smeared with plum sauce in Beijing or warm your cockles over chilli-charged hotpot from Sichuan. Head north towards the Tibetan Plateau and you’ll be fed on rice noodles, pickled vegetables and yak meat; sidle south for dim sum and zingy-fresh seafood. While on the border with Mongolia you can enjoy Uyghur-influenced dishes such as big-bottomed lamb skewers.
6. Adorable pandas
The capital of Sichuan province, Chengdu boasts ancient temples, national parks and a sizzling culinary scene — but it’s the city’s adorable panda population that everyone really comes to see. Around 1,600 of the black-and-white bears are thought to roam the surrounding mountains but the elusive animals are nigh-on impossible to see. Instead, make your way to the leafy Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can learn about animal conservation, as well as observing nearly 100 fluffy panda bears lolling in bamboo groves.
In 1974, a farmer stuck upon what was to be one of the world’s greatest archeological discoveries — a life-sized battle-ready army fashioned from clay. More than 40 years on, the Terracotta Army in Xian includes some 8,000 soldiers, horses and chariots, each with their own individual features, a fraction of the total number expected to be excavated over time. Other incredible archeological sites worth seeking out include Dunhuang’s Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, the 2,000-year old underground world of Turpan on the old Silk Road and Zhao Village in Suqian city in Jiangsu province, where prehistoric relics have recently been unearthed.
8. Diverse cultures
Snow-topped mountains, steaming jungle, sapphire-blue lakes, 1,000-year-old Buddhist temples and home to 28 distinct ethnic groups — Yunnan is the place for a big cultural hit. Sprawling from the icy skirts of the Himalayas to the steaming jungles that border Laos and Myanmar, top spots include the pretty regional capital Kunming, the temple-strewn towns of Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-La. There’s also the emerald-green near-vertical rice terraces of Yuanyang, the knee-trembling Tiger Leaping Gorge and the southern rainforests, rare and endangered wildlife — elephants, black bears, golden cats and jewel-like temples in Xishuangbanna.
9. Winter wonderland
Who doesn’t want to frolic in a snowy wonderland which lights up in a blaze of psychedelic colours every evening? Located in China’s nippy northeastern Heilongjiang province, the Harbin Ice and Snow World attracts sculptors from all over the world who come to compete in its annual festival each January and February. They transform the frozen landscape into a winter wonderland of huge fairytale castles, tunnels and bridges, slides and staircases filled with icy mythical creatures. There’s also a swimming pool cut from a frozen river for chill-seekers.
10. Great outdoors
China is huge, with a vast and varied landscape that ranges from rippling red deserts and cyan-blue lakes to fantastical karsk pinnacles and misty bamboo forests, swirling rice terraces and palm-painted beaches. It’s also home to the Yangtze, the third-longest river in the world (after the Amazon and the Nile), which stretches for nearly 4,000 miles, rising in the Tanggula Mountains before powering out into the East China Sea. The most-scenic section flows through the Three Gorges, a UNESCO-protected scenic spot made up of strange peaks, peculiar rock formations and fairy-tale waterfalls.