9 Best places to visit in China


9 Best places to visit in China


1-     By turns brash, gaudy, elegant, charming, polluted and historic, the Chinese capital of Beijing leaves an indelible impression on each and every traveller who passes through – this city is never, ever dull. It is one of China’s longest surviving capitals: for a full millennium, the drama of China’s imperial history was played out here, with the emperor enthroned at the centre of the Chinese universe in the Forbidden City, now one of Asia’s most famous draws. Beijing was, according to some accounts, the first city in the world to hit a population of one million; as such, despite the setbacks which plagued the first decades of communist stronghold, it should come as little surprise to see the remote control of urbanity stuck on permanent fast-forward here. Crisscrossed by freeways, spiked with high-rises and soaked in neon, this vivid metropolis is China at its most dynamic.


2-     First impressions of Beijing are of an almost inhuman vastness, conveyed by the sprawl of apartment buildings, in which most of the city’s population of 21.5 million are housed, and the eight-lane freeways that slice it up. It’s a notion that’s reinforced on closer acquaintance, from the magnificent Forbidden City, with its impressive wealth of history, the concrete desert of Tian’anmen Square and the gargantuan buildings of the modern executive around it, to the rank after rank of office complexes that line its mammoth roads. Outside the centre, the scale becomes more manageable, with parks, narrow alleyways and historic sites such as the Yonghe Gong, the Observatory and, most magnificent of all, the Temple of Heaven, offering respite from the city’s oppressive orderliness and rampant, continual reconstruction. In the suburbs beyond, the two summer palaces and the Western Hills have been favoured retreats since imperial times. Unexpectedly, some of the country’s most pleasant scenic spots also lie within the scope of a day-trip, and, just to the north of the city, another of the world’s most famous sights, the long and lonely Great Wall, winds between mountaintops.


3-       Beijing is an invaders’ city, the capital of oppressive foreign dynasties – the Manchu and the Mongols – and of a dynasty with a foreign ideology: the communists. As such, it has assimilated a lot of outside influence, and today has an international flavour reflecting its position as the capital of a major commercial power. As the front line of China’s grapple with modernity, the city is being continually ripped up and rebuilt, a factor responsible for the strange lack of cohesion, despite its scale and vibrancy; there’s rarely anything unexpectedly interesting to uncover between the sights. And despite the islands of historic architecture dotted throughout the centre, rising incomes have created a brash consumer-capitalist society that Westerners will feel very familiar with: students in the latest fashions while away their time in cafés, hip-hop has overtaken the clubs, boutique bars are integrating the back lanes, and schoolkids carry mobile phones in their lunchboxes. Even so, you’ll still see large groups of the older generation assembling in the evenings to perform the Maoist yangkou (loyalty dance), once universally learned; and in the hutongs, the city’s twisted grey stone alleyways, men sit with their pet birds and pipes, as they always have done.


4-     A somewhat anonymous region, Hebei has two great cities at its heart – Beijing and Tianjin – both of which long ago outgrew the province and struck out on their own as separate municipalities. In the south, a landscape of flatlands is spotted with heavy industry and mining towns – China at its least glamorous – which are home to the majority of the province’s seventy million inhabitants. The sparsely populated tableland to the north, rising from the Bohai Gulf, holds more promise. For most of its history this marked China’s northern frontier and, as a buffer zone protecting the nation from barbarian invasion, the area has long been heavily militarized. It was here that the first sections of the Great Wall were built in the fourth century AD, along the Hebei–Shanxi border, in an effort to fortify China’s borders against her aggressive neighbours.


5-     The parts of this barrier visible today, however, are the remains of the much younger and more extensive Ming-dynasty structure, begun in the fourteenth century as a deterrent against the Mongols. You can see the wall where it meets the sea at Shanhaiguan, a fortress town only a few hours by train from Beijing. Just south down the coast from here, the seaside resort of Beidaihe hosts busy throngs of happy holidaymakers throughout the summer months, a good place to experience how the Chinese like their holiday spots the way they like their restaurants – renao (literally “hot and noisy”). Well north of the wall, the town of Chengde is the province’s most visited attraction, an imperial base set amid the wild terrain of the Hachin Mongols and conceived on a grand scale by the eighteenth-century emperor Kangxi, with temples and monuments to match. Given their popularity and easy access from Beijing, it’s worth arranging trips to all three destinations as far ahead as possible, as accommodation and – especially – transport can get booked out long in advance.



6-       Tianjin, Beijing’s one-time port and former Concession town with a reputation for antiques markets, is worth a day-trip from Beijing to explore its hodgepodge of colonial architecture, visit an unusual museum and to make an evening river cruise through the city centre.


7-     Dongbei (东北, dōngběi) – or, more evocatively, Manchuria – may well be the closest thing to the “real” China that visitors vainly seek in the well-travelled central and southern parts of the country. Not many foreign tourists get up to China’s northernmost arm, however, due to its reputation as an inhospitable wasteland: “Although it is uncertain where God created paradise”, wrote a French priest when he was here in 1846, “we can be sure he chose some other place than this.” Yet, with its immense swaths of fertile fields and huge mineral resources, Dongbei is metaphorically a treasure house. Comprising Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, as well as part of Inner Mongolia, it is economically and politically among the most important regions of China, and, for much of its history, the area has been fiercely contested by Manchus, Nationalists, Russians, Japanese and Communists. With 4000km of sensitive border territory alongside North Korea and Russia, Dongbei is one of China’s most vulnerable regions strategically.


8-     In addition, economic pressures have made it prone to internal unrest, with worker protests common and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots that is threatening to become a chasm. Redressing this imbalance is tourism, a good portion of it domestic, which has become the leading growth industry. The region is cashing in on its colourful history, seen most vividly in the preservation of long-ignored Russian and Japanese colonial architecture, some of which you can actually stay in. The region’s food is heavily influenced by neighbouring countries, and every town has a cluster of Korean, Japanese and, up north, Russian restaurants. The local specialities are also quite diverse, ranging from fresh crabs in Dalian and river fish in Dandong, to silkworms in the countryside.


9-       Furthest south of the Dongbei provinces, Liaoning boasts the busy port of Dalian; the provincial capital Shenyang, home to China’s “other” Forbidden City; and Dandong, which sits right on the North Korean border. Moving north is Jilin province, whose capital Changchun sports the Puppet Emperor’s Palace, home to Puyi during his reign as “emperor” of the Japanese state Manchukuo. Lastly, and hogging most of China’s border with Russia, is Heilongjiang: the province’s capital and major city, Harbin, is a thoroughly likeable place, and world-renowned for its amazing Ice Festival – in winter it is very, very cold, with temperatures as low as -30°C, combined with howling gales. Summer, conversely, is very pleasant across the region, and Dongbei can be a lovely escape from the rest of China, sweltering away down south.

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