Beijing and Shanghai mark the start of an authentic Far East travel experience
Sure, there's lots of tea in China. But there's so much more. Thanks to the 2008 Olympics and continued worldwide exposure, China is very popular these days as a sought-after exotic destination.
With one of the worlds longest and largest continuous civilizations, China can be overwhelming with more than 1.3 billion residents. But the history of various societies on Chinese soil over the decades has influenced the China of today with western culture very much a part of the countrys evolving modern landscape.
Visitors will see and experience historic evidence of Confucianism, many dynasties like the Ming Dynasty--the Ming Tombs are in Beijing, Maoism, and much more.
The Typical Trio
China is a big country, but first-time visitors with limited time typically join a tour of varying lengths that heads to the very different cities of Beijing and Shanghai--along with a cruise on the still-fascinating Yangtze River.
Returning visitors or those with more time may want to add: Xian (with its famed Terra Cotta Warriors and tasty local dumplings); Lijang (probably Chinas best-preserved ancient town); Zhongdian (home of the 17th century Songzagling Monastery); Guilin, the Li River, and the village of Yangshuo; or Chinas Silk Road to the west. Further afield, Hong Kong, Tibet, Vietnam, Japan, or other destinations are often included on longer itineraries.
The Olympics showcased China and, more specifically, the mesmerizing city of Beijing. Theres truly no other destination like it in the world.
First settled around 1000 BC, Beijing is the capital of the Peoples Republic of China. In many ways, the city is the heart and soul of what visitors think of as China. Highlights of any visit to Beijing have to include:
*The Forbidden City, officially, the National Palace Museum: As Chinas center of political power for more than 500 years (it was generally off-limits during those five centuries), the Forbidden City is the countrys biggest and best-preserved ancient area. Must-sees include Tiananmen Square, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the Great Hall of the People, Mao Zedongs Mausoleum, and much more.
*The Summer Palace: This is where royalty headed to avoid the oppressive summer heat of the Forbidden City. The park and gardens are simply stunning, as is the Benevolence and Longevity Hall, with its throne and bronze animals.
*Hutong: The ancient alleyways, homes, and businesses of this huge neighborhood actually feels more like the real Beijing and China than does the Forbidden City. An escorted tour is definitely the way to go here.
*The Great Wall: Stretching more than 4,000 miles to the horizon(actually the Gobi Desert), Beijing is normally the jumping-off point for the Great Wall. Located about 40 miles from Beijing proper, busy Badaling draws most tour groups. Some operators do head to less touristy Simatai, Jinshanling, or Huanghuacheng, providing a much quieter Great Wall experience.
*Food: Dining in Beijing can be world-class, but its the local delicacy of Peking Duck that every visitor must try (Beijing was once the city of Peking). The molasses-lacquered and roasted duck is typically served in two stages--boneless meat and crispy skin served with crepes and sauce is followed by duck soup. Beijings night market is a must for any foodie, with fried grasshoppers, scorpions, and much more on the menu (or at least on the digital camera).
*Shopping: The Xiushui Silk Market (watch for fakes), the bustling Panjiayuan Market (teapots and much more), and the long shopping street called Wangfujing (look for the Oriental Plaza mall) are all top spots for Chinese souvenirs.
Shanghai and Beijing are very different cities--in fact, they dont even feel like theyre in the same country at times. Mostly modern Shanghai is a shock to the system after ancient Beijing, but thats the beauty of being in a country this size.
With more than 7 ½ million people packed into a relatively small area, Shanghai ranks as one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The hordes of residents (and more and more visitors) make for a lively visit. See these Shanghai highlights:
*The Bund: Shanghais waterfront promenade features a cornucopia of architectural styles and facades. For a look at earlier times, the Bund History Museum is well worth a stop.
*Old Shanghai and the French Concession: Buildings constantly are being torn down in Shanghai, but these areas (including the Chinese city section) maintain a bit of Shanghais history.
*Nanjing Lu: Long Chinas commercial golden mile, Nanjing Lu is home to some of Shanghais top shopping, dining, and accommodations.
*Pudong New Area: The Bund Tourist Tunnel takes visitors to modern Pudongs tall buildings, including the famed Oriental Pearl TV Tower and its high-speed elevator. Ironically, the excellent Shanghai History Museum is located at the base of the Tower.
*All the tea in : Tea and teapots are particularly plentiful in Shanghai, with Yu Gardens Bazaar and Huangshan Tea Company providing two shopping spots (for the real deal, ask for Yixing teapots).
The Yangtze River
Also known as Chang Jiang or the Yangzi River, the Yangtze River is the worlds third longest at more than 3,700 miles. The third part of the typical China trio gets visitors on the water with a wide variety of river cruise offerings. Ranging from basic to quite luxurious (many now include cabins with balconies), river cruises have definitely come of age in China.
Cruises generally ply the waters between Chongquing and Shanghai, with a wide array of itineraries (typically combined with Beijing and Shanghai visits) offered by tour companies. They can range from a couple of days on the river to a weeks journey between Chongquing and Shanghai.
Depending on the section of the Yangtze cruised, possible highlights of a trip can include: Chongquings Stillwell Museum (General Stillwells former residence, with lots of U.S.-supplied World War II artifacts); the Three Gorges Dam Site in Yichang (a true architectural wonder); and Badongs Shennong Stream, where small sampan boat excursions provide insight into interior China life.
The completion of the Three Gorges Dam, which created the worlds largest hydroelectric power station, meant cruise ships no longer headed up into the beautiful Three Gorges. However, several other gorges, including the stunning Small Gorges, as well as historic and natural sites, make a Yangtze River cruise an important part of a Chinese trifecta.