China: Wall to wall culture
China is a study in epic contrasts. Scale the crumbling ramparts of the Great Wall, or ride a crystal passenger car to the observation deck of Canton Tower, briefly the tallest building in the world. Bike and hike between karst giants in pastoral Yángshuò, or go for all that shimmers and shines in glitzy and glamorous Macau. Connect with your inner self atop a mountain in the Himalayas, or do your part for conservation at a panda research base in Chengdu. The Middle Kingdom’s exotic attractions are as diverse as any destination on earth, and could keep the intrepid traveller busy for a lifetime.
Shanghai is towering architectural marvels and culinary elegance. It is the smoky charm of the Old Town, and waves of retail therapy. A tour of the splendid Yu Yuan Gardens, a Suzhou-style wonderland of palaces, pagodas and ancient trees built during the Ming Dynasty, presents the Shanghai less chaotic; while the Bund presents the modern Shanghai at its glimmering, shimmering best. Bridging the space between then and now is 50 Moganshan Road, or M50 as it is colloquially known, a district and community of more than 100 artists working in every medium and media imaginable, presenting both contemporary and traditional China at once. Top a whirlwind day in Shanghai with cocktails on the sky deck at the Okura Garden Hotel, and a night (and early morning) immersed in Pudong’s wild nightlife.
2. The Great Wall
Perhaps the most legendary of all of China’s attractions, the Great Wall is a massive fortification that spans from Dandong on Korea Bay in the east to the salt lakes of Lop Nur in the remote northwest. Stretching some 8,850 kilometres, the Great Wall’s defensive architecture makes use of lakes, rivers, mountains and other natural defences. Sections of the wall date to the 7th century BC, while most of what remains today was built during the Ming Dynasty. Today, numerous sections are open to visitors – some of the best preserved (and quietest) sections include Simatai, a 5.5 kilometres section of the east wall, and Jinshanling, a switchbacking 10.5 kilometres section that includes three impressive beacon towers and nearly 70 other special defensive fortifications. Jinshanling is 125 kilometres north of Beijing.
Beijing is considered the cultural core of China, and for good reason. The Northern Capital, as it has been known since the Ming Dynasty, has been occupied by humans for more than 27,000 years. Beijing is home to the Forbidden City, the Old Beijing Observatory, Wangfujing Street, the Niujie Mosque, the Shichahai lake district, and countless other culturally and historically important attractions. But like any big Chinese city – with more than 21 million residents, Beijing qualifies – the capital always has one eye on the future. Shopping districts like Taikoo Li Sanlitun are impossibly popular, Beijing cuisine (think way beyond Peking duck) is the envy of the nation, while Fragrant Hills Park stands as an escape from the hustle and bustle (and a great place to practice Tai Chi). Beijing is one of the most popular tourism destinations on the planet, but don’t expect a canned experience here – the authentic is only ever as far away as you’re willing to wander.
Pretty little Wuzhen, tucked away in northern Zhejian Province, is a popular travel destination among Chinese locals, but is often missed by foreign visitors. That’s a shame, given that Wuzhen offers a glimpse at life in China as it was centuries ago. Wuzhen is a historic water village that remains home to thousands of people, and includes museums (the Mao Dun residence is dedicated to the famed 19th century left-wing activist), pavilions, scenic bridges, streets lined with craftspeople and artisans, and more. Of particular interest are the winemaking workshops, traditional medicine outposts, and the textile facilities, where traditional fabrics, shoes, hats and more are made. Most homes in Wuzhen are of a traditional design, and the atmosphere is cosy, quaint, and unique.
5. West Lake
West Lake is the jewel at the centre of Hangzhou, one of China’s most populous and commercially important metropolitan areas. While Hangzhou hums with modern verve, West Lake is like a whisper from days gone by – quiet, serene, and beautiful. Stories featuring West Lake date back thousands of years, and today there remain dozens of significant pagodas, temples, gardens, bridges and artificial islands at the site. Surrounding the lake are cafes, pathways, some of the oldest restaurants in the region, public parks, exercise areas, and more. As a popular getaway destination, there are numerous high-end hotel operations here, many incorporating the health and wellness aspects of the region into the architectural and design features. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011, West Lake is one of the most stunning green spaces in all of East Asia.
6. Hong Kong
A trip to Hong Kong is like stepping through a time portal and into the future. Hong Kong is the financial wunderkind of the east, with a post-modern skyline that reflects its position as the boom-town of tomorrow, skyscrapers stretching from one island to the next in an infinite concrete and glass conflux. The view from Victoria Peak is one you can’t miss. Max the cool factor by visiting at sunset before heading out on the town. You must visit the Fragrant Lotus Tea House. This is the sort of place you go to build your traveller’s street cred; forget about five-star dining and high-end amenities and enjoy the down-home atmosphere and real-time authenticity. Walk along Gloucester Road from Causeway Bay to Wanchi and marvel at the glint and tint of endless high-end car showrooms. Charter a junk from Pier 9 or Kowloon Public Pier and fancy yourself a smuggler as you explore the 260+ islands of Hong Kong’s sprawling archipelago. These eight-hour adventures are going to cost you, but when you drop anchor in some remote place, pop the top on a cold beer and dive headlong into the ocean, you’ll know it was worth it.
7. Chengdu Panda Base
Unofficially the “Cutest Place on Earth,” the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is China’s main research and breeding centre for the loveable giant panda, as well as other endangered animals. Once pushed to the brink of extinction due to habitat loss, the panda was upgraded from endangered to vulnerable by the IUCN in 2016, thanks in part to the work done by the scientists and conservations at the Chengdu Research Base. The research base works in tandem with some of the largest conservation and zoological societies in the world to educate the public on panda preservation, and features facilities that are open to the public – this is one of the few places in the world where you can come face-to-face with a panda in a close approximation of their natural habitat.
8. The Terracotta Army
You’ve heard the story by now – it was 1974 when a farmer digging a well chanced upon the largest collection of terracotta figures ever discovered in China, unknowingly freeing the massive Terracotta Army from its earthbound confines. Today you can view and tour the excavations sites, including the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, located in Xi’an, where more than 8,000 military figures (soldiers, generals, chariots, etc) have been discovered. The necropolis complex is massive almost beyond measure – it is believed to be more than 98 kilometres squared, with pits that also contain officials, politicians, animals, carriages, entertainers and acrobats. The Terracotta Army is an awe-inspiring site in a country known for them.
When you think of the idyllic countryside of the bygone far east, there’s a good chance that you’re thinking of the towering karst monoliths of Guilin. Xingping Village sits at the centre of the spectacular scenery, and is a great basecamp for expeditions out to Reed Flute Cave, the pagodas at Fir Lake, Silver Cave, and, further afield, remarkable Yangshuo, with its otherworldly Moon Cave, throwback central town, and the legendary cormorant fisherman, who these days are as adept at posing for tourist photos as they are keen to catch fish.
10. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
Zhangjiajie has been called Pandora on Earth, and one glimpse makes it clear why. This is the centrepiece of the Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area, known for dramatic pillars that tower over the verdant landscapes in scenes that have inspired Chinese painters, poets and artists for centuries. The park is blanketed by thick foliage, which gives the terrain an otherworldly vibe. The 1,080-metre Southern Sky Column was renamed Avatar Hallelujah Mountain for its similarities to the James Cameron epic. The national park features the bailing elevator, also known as the Hundred Dragons Sky Lift, which lifts visitors to more than 325 metres for panoramic park views, and the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass bridge, the highest glass bridge in the world. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is China at its most surreal. •
Photography by Flash Parker and other establishments.
• China National Tourism Administration: cnto.org.au