The ‘Sleeping Dragon’ has awoken. China is now the country on everyone’s lips for its booming economy rather than for its rich and fascinating culture that stretches back over 5,000 years. From the buzzing metropolis of Shanghai to the majestic grandeur of Beijing, the evocative karst limestone scenery of Guilin or the splendours of Xi’an, China is begging to be explored.
Shanghai has an energy that will set your heart racing. To really understand what the city stands for take a boat trip down the Huangpu River. Here the past and present face off against each other as reflected in the incredible architecture. On the Puxi side, marvel at the eclectic assortment of 1930’s neoclassical architecture. The Bund was Shanghai’s Wall Street and taking pride of place reflecting this sentiment is the former Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. Rumour has it that the architect’s brief was to build the most impressive building on The Bund. On the opposite side where two decades ago were paddy fields and market gardens is Pudong; now Shanghai’s financial heartland dominated by The Shanghai World Financial Centre. A trip to the world’s highest observation tower, smog withstanding, provides amazing views.
Away from the river, wander the French Concession along the tree lined streets and admire the huge villas that hark back to a bygone era when Shanghai was the most decadent city in the world. Get lost down the old lanes where washing is still the most decorative feature. To capture the soul of the city get up early and take a stroll. In the parks and along The Bund enjoy the spectacle of early morning Tai Chi.
This is the daytime, but Shanghai is renowned for its nightlife. Dine in some of the world’s most amazing restaurants overlooking The Bund, such as M on the Bund, sip cocktails in decadent and glamorous bars and catch the city’s bright young things, expat and Chinese alike, rubbing shoulders in the coolest of clubs.
No trip is complete without a visit to The Summer Palace. Built as a playground for the Imperial Court, take in the temples, courts, pavilions and lakes and wile away a few hours.
Where Shanghai is bright and sparkly, Beijing is massive and secretive with a subtle charm that slowly and surely washes over you. And what delights Beijing has in store. Recently described as a playground for contemporary architects, it is for history that you come to Beijing. Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the Great Wall of China. Take your time at each and revel in the sheer scale, size and aura of these places. Look closely and everywhere there is a story being told in infinite detail.
Tiananmen Square is huge and imposing being the largest public square in the world. If standing to attention is your thing, go to the daily flag raising and lowering ceremony.
Directly opposite Tiananmen Square is the Forbidden City. As you walk through courtyard after courtyard you realise that it truly was a city within a city and for five hundred years was prohibited to all but those who resided within its walls. Today it is the world’s largest and best preserved palace complex. The Temple of Heaven, less grand and imposing than the Forbidden City is a delight and a perfect example of Ming architecture. Set in the middle of a park, it rises up in the centre. For many it symbolises Beijing. No trip is complete without a visit to the Summer Palace. Built as a playground for the Imperial Court, take in the temples, courts, pavilions and lakes and wile away a few hours.
Time permitting, take a lateral diversion off the beaten track and head off down some of the Hutongs for a peek at everyday life. Learn about the booming contemporary art scene by heading out to the 798 art area. And of course you must go to the Great Wall. Touristy perhaps but a sight to behold as it snakes up and down along the contours of the steep hillside. For the fit, the 10 km hike from Simitai to Jinshanling is well worth every step. If you are lucky, you may find yourself absolutely alone on the wall.
Still after more culture? Visit the world famous Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. Row after serried row of life sized warriors is a sight to behold. They were made by master craftsman to accompany the first Emperor of China on his last journey. The city of Xi’an, at the start of the Silk Road, is also home to a wonderful Muslim Quarter. Wander around and delight in the tastes of the delicious street food.
For those who have had their fill of Chinese culture, marvelling at 5,000 years of history and bustling with billions of people, there are a couple of options. Those who just want sun, sea, sand and five star luxury should head to Sanya. This is China’s Cote D’Azur with hotels and spas to contend with the best in the world. If after something still typically Chinese, head to Guilin and The River Li. The limestone is captivating and you can still savour a traditional way of life with cormorant fisherman and farmers tending their rice fields. It is this landscape that has been revered by artists and poets for centuries. A trip down the River Li to Yangshou is a must for visitors to the area.
One trip is not enough to do China justice. This is just a sampler. There are endless lateral forays to be had: Xinjiang and the Silk Route; Gansu province, known as little Tibet; or Shangri-La in Yunnan Province.