Getting to know China
Since Marco Polo’s writings more than 700 years ago introduced the world to China, this large Asian country has come to symbolize all that is mysterious and exotic. Even after decades of economic progress, this vast country has not lost its allure. Contrasting China’s ancient traditions with its emerging ultramodern state has only served to heighten interest in a culture that spans many centuries.
In Beijing, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, two of the country’s most important historical sites, have been preserved as reminders of China’s emperors’ reigns. Finally, the Great Wall, a 6,700-mile structure stretching from the Yellow Sea to Central Asia, is a symbol of China’s ancient Eastern religions.
Since China is so large, tourists can explore it to their hearts’ content. As a tourist, you’ll have the opportunity to explore the Yangtze Gorges on a luxury cruise ship, visit bustling cities, or seek out the peace and quiet of an ancient temple.
The Forbidden City and the Imperial Palace
The Forbidden City (Zjnchéng), also known as the Imperial Palace, is the largest and most important structure in China and a must-see for anyone traveling to the country. Much of the current complex was built between 1406 and 1420 during the Yuan Dynasty, which ruled China from 1271 to 1368. This sprawling complex, which contained 24 magnificent palaces, was the home of the Ming and Qing emperors, who could only be visited by the imperial family and their courtesans.
At some 720,000 square meters, this massive complex includes areas for ceremonial and administrative purposes, as well as an emperor’s private residence. It is protected by a 10-meter-high wall with watchtowers and a wide moat. With so much to see, it can take a long time to see everything, but some of the highlights include the five white marble Golden River Bridges; the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which is 35 meters tall; and the exquisite emperor’s banquet hall
Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven, one of China’s most sacred religious sites, are also within a short distance of the Imperial Palace.
The great wall of China
It is said that “No one can be a true hero unless they have been on the Great Wall,” which illustrates the uniqueness of this ancient Chinese landmark.
The Great Wall of China, known in Chinese as ‘Changcheng,’ or ‘Long Wall,’ stretches more than 6,000 kilometers from Shanhaiguan in the east to Jiayuan in the west.
The wall, which measures six to eight meters in height but can rise as high as 16 meters, has numerous battlements and watchtowers. It is wide enough for five horses or ten men to pass through. It is believed that parts of the wall date back to the 7th century BC, with the most well-known sections having been added around 210 BC when its various sections were joined together.
With public transportation or organized tours, visitors can easily get there from Beijing’s Badaling Pass northwest of the city. The section near Gubeikou, about 130 kilometers from Beijing, and the section in Mutianyu, about 70 kilometers northeast of Beijing, are two other restored sections worth visiting.
The Terracotta Army, Xi'an
A group of farmers digging wells in the 1970s unearthed China’s most significant archaeological find: The Terracotta Army. More than 8,000 life-size warriors, 520 horses, and more than 100 chariots were found in three large underground pits built to protect the First Emperor’s tomb, along with numerous other non-military characters from around 280 BC.
As time passed, some of the statues unearthed had to be painstakingly re-assembled, but they still serve as reminders of how much importance Japan placed on its emperor and the afterlife. To stand before this swarm of soldiers and horses as if inspecting a centuries-old parade is an unforgettable experience at this site, part of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Park.
Guilin's Li River
Some of China’s most beautiful countryside can be found in the Guilin region of Guangxi province, which includes the town of Guilin and the Li River, which meanders through it. Despite the fact that this spectacular landscape has long drawn poets and artists, as well as being the inspiration for countless stories and legends, it is now a popular tourist destination for people from all over the world.
Li River cruises are a great way to see the area. Some 80 kilometers of rock formations and caves with romantic names like Mount of Unique Beauty, Elephant Trunk Hill, and Reed Flute Cave can be found on the Guilin to Yangshuo stretch of the Li River. Trips can last anywhere from a few hours to several days, depending on the vessel used – from a tourist cruise ship to small bamboo punts
The Summer Palace, Beijing
The Imperial Summer Palace (Yhé Yuán) is located just 15 kilometers from Beijing and is one of China’s most popular tourist attractions. The palace itself was built in 1153, but the large lake that adorns the Imperial Gardens was added in the 14th century.
One of the most striking features is the thronged Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (Renshou Dian), which was built in 1891 to satisfy the imperial family’s love of opera. Traditional Chinese plays and musical events are still performed here, and it’s worth a visit for a show or performance.
The Hall of Happiness and Longevity (Le Shou Tang Hall) and its lovely gardens and courtyards, as well as the many miles of picturesque pathways and walking trails, are also notable highlights of the estate.. The Old Summer Palace, once one of the country’s most elaborate and aesthetically pleasing palaces, can also be visited if you have the time. Sadly, colonial forces destroyed this once impressive structure in the mid-1800s.
Panda Breeding Research Center in Chengdu
A trip to China would be incomplete if it did not include at least one encounter with a panda. There are many fine specimens of these fascinating creatures in China’s top zoos; but Chengdu’s Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan is the best place to see them in a close approximation to their natural habitat. You’ll be able to observe as many as 80 pandas in action at this facility, which features a large park-like setting.
There are numerous permanent displays and exhibits devoted to the conservation of these magnificent animals, and you can learn a great deal about them from them.
For the best experience, try to visit during the panda feeding sessions in the morning. You can even hold a baby panda if you join one of the unique volunteer programs that involve feeding and caring for these adorable animals.
Yangtze River and the Three Gorges Dam
There are over 6,000 kilometers of the Yangtze River in China, making it the country’s longest and most important river. Only the Amazon River and the Nile are longer rivers in the world.
The Yangtze River, which travels through eight provinces on its way from Tibet to Shanghai, has served as China’s primary transportation route for more than 2,000 years (some 2,700 kilometers are navigable). One-fifth of the country’s total land area and a quarter of the country’s agricultural land are covered by its 700 tributaries.
There are many places along China’s Yangtze River where tourists can visit, but by far, the most popular for visitors is its 200-kilometer stretch between Fengjie (the capital) and Yichang (the second largest city in China). Rivers in this area can be as wild and treacherous as those that run through the Grand Canyon, with white-knuckled cliffs and towering mountains rising in every direction
Suzhou Classical Gardens, Jiangsu
The Classical Gardens of Suzhou are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making them one of the most important historic gardens anywhere in the world. They were among more than 270 gardens planted in Jiangsu province’s historic city of Suzhou during the 11th century, at a time when the city experienced unprecedented growth.
Restored gardens include the Garden of Lingering, built in 1800 on the site of a Ming-era park, which is the most well-known of the surviving ones. More than three hundred stone tablets engraved with ancient Chinese characters line the walls of this lovely covered pathway in one of China’s most famous gardens. The garden includes a pool, several beautiful buildings, a man-made hill, and a grove of peach trees.
A Tibetan palace, the Potala Palace
The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, is another of China’s most well-known historic structures. In the past, it served as the seat of the Dalai Lama’s political and religious authority, and it is home to many of the religion’s most sacred artifacts.
The Red Palace, the first of the two Potala Palaces, was constructed in the 17th century and houses the most revered shrines in the complex. Murals depicting Tibetan kings and Dalai Lamas decorate the Enthronement Hall’s walls, where these can be found. The Red Palace’s many halls dedicated to the teachings of Buddhism and the elaborate tombs (known as “stupas”) of a number of Dalai Lamas are also notable features of the palace.
Although completed in 1648, the White Palace’s sleeping quarters, studies, and reception rooms have remained untouched since the Dalai Lama’s departure from Tibet in 1959. Keep an eye out for these stunning jewel gardens while you’re in Tibet. 90-acre gardens are part of the Dalai Lama’s summer residence and include everything from grand palace pavilions to pleasant lakes. They were first started in the 1840s.
One of Shanghai’s most beautiful riverside promenades, the Zhongshan Lu, or the Bund (Wàitan), is a stunning example of thoughtful city planning and preservation. You’ll almost forget you’re in the middle of China’s most populous city as you stroll along the Huangpu Jiang River’s wide pedestrian zone.
The Bund is renowned for its 52 preserved English and French-influenced buildings, many of which are now restaurants, cafes, shops, and art galleries. This is due to the district’s past as the location of the city’s International Settlement. The architecture is a mix of Gothic, Renaissance, and Art Deco styles, with highlights like the old harbor customs office, with its bell tower, and the Peace Hotel, which was built in the 1920s.
Visit the 468-meter Oriental Pearl Tower on the Huangpu Jiang River’s other side for the best Bund views. In the event that you have extra time, make sure to stop by the Yu Garden as well. This must-see garden, affectionately known as the “Garden of Happiness,” was first laid out in 1559. It’s amazing how many of the original buildings still stand.