China is a big place. It’s as big as the United States. So while it may be tempting to pack your itinerary with sights, it’s best to focus on a few areas and explore them dutifully. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
The Great Wall
You know the story: the Great Wall of China is an 8000-plus-kilometre-long bastion built from the 7th century onwards as a measure to repel nomadic invaders. Some sections have fallen into disrepair, and other sections are in incomprehensibly good shape. The chunk most visited is the easily-accessible Ming Dynasty-era section at Badaling, about 80 kilometres from Beijing (catch a train from Beijing North railway station to Badaling station). Considered the wall’s best-preserved and most picturesque section, it features 16 restored watchtowers along four undulating kilometres.
The Forbidden City is the world’s largest palace complex. Encircled by a moat in central Beijing, the palace museum amounts to a full day’s worth of exploring in any itinerary. If you don’t have much time to spare, see the Three Great Halls and the majestic Imperial Garden. Beijing is also home to Tiananmen Square, which is incidentally the world’s largest. Security is tight there, but you’re allowed to see the vast space famously occupied by pro-democracy protesters in 1989. Go at night when the square is impressively illuminated.
Cosmopolitan Shanghai blends east and west into a seamless display of futuristic architecture. Stroll along The Bund, once home to international banks and trading houses, but now a dazzling high-end shopping and dining precinct. Lost Heaven on The Bund serves ‘mountain Mekong’ cuisine, which is a collection of Tibet’s best culinary creations: try wild vegetable cakes or stir-fried lily bulbs with snow peas. Wherever you are in Shanghai, you’ll find the elegant twist of Shanghai Tower high above. It’s one of China’s tallest buildings.
Travellers can easily spend a few days exploring China’s third-largest city. Shamian Island, with its lush trees, grand thoroughfares and pastel colonial mansions, is one of the city’s most photogenic spots. It’s popular for wedding photography. Ascend Canton Tower to ride the slow-moving Bubble Tram or head to Redtory Art & Design Factory – a Soviet-style canned-food factory transformed into an arts hub with sculptures, studios, galleries, cafes and markets.
Guangzhou is one of several major Chinese cities that allow Australians in transit a 72-hour visa-free stay. Double check with the authorities before you go as this could change.
Once the end of the Silk Road, Xian now draws history buffs keen to see its famed army of Terracotta Warriors unearthed in 1974 by farmers digging for a well.
It’s also worth walking around the city’s imposing 14th century walls – an expedition that will take about four hours.
Known as the ‘Venice of the East’ because of the pretty flower-lined canals criss-crossing historic Old Town, this World Heritage-listed city in Yunnan province is where young China goes to party. Wobble across a timber bridge into one of Bar Street’s raucous drinking holes and join the drinking games. Before long, you might find yourself dancing on tables with new friends. 60 kilometres from Lijiang is Tiger Leaping Gorge – a scenic canyon on a tributary to the upper Yangtze.
Track down the best street snacks, lunch spots and multi-course feasts by asking locals for their favourite eateries. Many cities and provinces have their own specialties. Guangzhou’s Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street, for example, is a snack street famous for a dish called double-skin milk with ginger. If you’re sitting down to a meal in a restaurant, chopsticks are used for everything except the soup. We suggest practicing your chopstick skills before departure. Tea accompanies meals but beer and rice wine are also widely available. The Chinese favour red wine over white. The country is also developing its own wine-making industry; vignerons in the north-eastern Shandong province are leading the charge.