As China has opened up in recent years, so the emphasis on tourism has changed. Many well-known cities and sights have become so developed that their charm has vanished, while in remoter regions – particularly Tibet, Yunnan and the northwest – previously restricted or “undiscovered” places have become newly accessible. The following outline is a selection of both “classic” China sights and less-known attractions, which should come in handy when planning a schedule.
Inevitably, Beijing is on everyone’s itinerary, and the Great Wall and the splendour of the Forbidden City are certainly not to be missed; the capital also offers some of the country’s best food and nightlife. Chengde, too, just north of Beijing, has some stunning imperial buildings, constructed by emperors when this was their favoured retreat for the summer.
South of the capital, the Yellow River valley is the cradle of Chinese civilization, where remnants of the dynastic age lie scattered in a unique landscape of loess terraces. The cave temples at Datong and Luoyang are magnificent, with huge Buddhist sculptures staring out impassively across their now industrialized settings. Of the historic capitals, Xi’an is the most obvious destination, where the celebrated Terracotta Army still stands guard over the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Other ancient towns include sleepy Kaifeng in Henan and Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, in Shandong, both offering architectural treasures and an intimate, human scale that’s missing in the large cities. The area is also well supplied with holy mountains, providing both beautiful scenery and a rare continuity with the past: Tai Shan is perhaps the grandest and most imperial of the country’s pilgrimage sites; Song Shan in Henan sees followers of the contemporary kung-fu craze making the trek to the Shaolin Si, where the art originated; and Wutai Shan in Shanxi features some of the best-preserved religious sites in the country.
Dominating China’s east coast near the mouth of the Yangzi, Shanghai is the mainland’s most Westernized city, a booming port where the Art Deco monuments of the old European-built Bund – the riverside business centre – rub shoulders with a hyper-modern metropolis, crowned with two of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. It’s interesting to contrast Shanghai’s cityscape with that of rival business hub Hong Kong, off China’s south coast. With its colonial heritage and refreshingly cosmopolitan outlook, there’s almost nothing Hong Kong cannot offer in the way of tourist facilities, from fine beaches to great eating, drinking and nightlife. Nearby Macau is also worth a visit, if not for its casinos then for its Baroque churches and Portuguese cuisine.
In the southwest of the country, Sichuan’s Chengdu and Yunnan’s Kunming remain two of China’s most interesting and easy-going provincial capitals, and the entire region is, by any standards, exceptionally diverse, with landscapes encompassing everything from snowbound summits and alpine lakes to steamy tropical jungles. The karst (limestone peak) scenery is particularly renowned, especially along the Li River between Yangshuo and Guilin in Guangxi. In Sichuan, pilgrims flock to see the colossal Great Buddha at Leshan, and to ascend the holy mountain of Emei Shan; to the east, the city of Chongqing marks the start of river trips down the Yangzi, Asia’s longest river, through the Three Gorges. As Yunnan and Guangxi share borders with Vietnam, Laos and Burma, while Sichuan rubs up against Tibet, it’s not surprising to find that the region is home to near-extinct wildlife and dozens of ethnic autonomous regions. The attractions of the latter range from the traditional Bai town of Dali, the Naxi town of Lijiang and the Dai villages of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, to the Khampa heartlands of western Sichuan, the exuberant festivals and textiles of Guizhou’s Miao and the wooden architecture of Dong settlements in Guangxi’s north.
The huge area of China referred to as the Northwest is where the people thin out and real wilderness begins. Inner Mongolia, just hours from Beijing, is already at the frontiers of Central Asia; here you can follow in the footsteps of Genghis Khan by going horseriding on the endless grasslands of the steppe. To the south and west, the old Silk Road heads out of Xi’an right to and through China’s western borders, via Jiayuguan, terminus of the Great Wall of China, and the lavish Buddhist cave art in the sandy deserts of Dunhuang.
West of here lie the mountains and deserts of vast Xinjiang, where China blends into old Turkestan and where simple journeys between towns become modern travel epics. The oasis cities of Turpan and Kashgar, with their bazaars and Muslim heritage, are the main attractions, though the blue waters of Tian Chi, offering alpine scenery in the midst of searing desert, are deservedly popular. Beyond Kashgar, travellers face some of the most adventurous routes of all, over the Khunjerab and Torugut passes to Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan respectively.
Tibet remains an exotic destination, especially if you come across the border from Nepal or brave the long road in from Golmud in Qinghai province. Despite fifty years of Chinese rule, coupled with a mass migration of Han Chinese into the region, the manifestations of Tibetan culture remain intact – the Potala Palace in Lhasa, red-robed monks, lines of pilgrims turning prayer wheels, butter sculptures and gory frescoes decorating monastery halls. And Tibet’s mountain scenery, which includes Mount Everest, is worth the trip in itself, even if opportunities for independent travel are more restricted than elsewhere in China.