Beijing, the capital of the People's Republic of China, is a municipality governed directly by the Chinese government. Chinese civilizations took birth in these areas and Beijing has been the capital for the last 3000 years, spanning several Chinese dynasties. It is also one of the six ancient capitals of China. With thousands of years of history behind it, Beijing is predictably on the itinerary of every visitor to China.
A first look at Beijing presents a modern city with skyscrapers and a stylish population that is familiar with the latest mobile phone technology and MTV. A far cry from the Maoist inclined population a first-time visitor has in mind. However, Beijing is an exception and hardly a representative of the rest of the country. Within the city itself you will need to scratch the surface to see its more personal and cherished side.
Beijing has the best food and nightlife China can offer. It is a good idea to stay in Beijing and visit other places nearby. There are several short trips you can take from Beijing. The city of Chengde, situated north-east of Beijing, is an interesting place to visit. Chengde, a mountain resort, was chosen by the Kangxi Emperor as his summer resort and boasts of some impressive imperial buildings. Close to Beijing are some coastal town retreats like Shanhaiguan and Beidaihe, where today's Beijing residents take a break from their daily life.
Beijing is also synonymous with the Great Wall of China. Many dynasties in China have contributed to the extension of this wall. Today parts of the wall are in ruins, but the wall built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which covers about 373 miles, is the best preserved and tourists flock to see this part of the wall.
The region north of the Great Wall is extremely cold. This area of the North China plains is comprised of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang and is called Donbei, formerly known as Manchuria. You will see vast expanses of countryside and the area is known for its history and varied culture. The region has also successfully preserved its natural beauty. Dongbei shares its borders with North Korea and some famous towns on the borders are Dandong and the port town of Dalian.
The city of Harbin in this region is full of cathedrals with onion-shaped domes, which reveal the city's proximity to Russia. The metropolitan region of Shenyang is an important industrial area and has a major share of China's natural resources. Following the formation of the Chinese Republic in 1912, Shenyang became the control centre of several warlords. The region has had a tumultuous past with the Manchu, Russian and Japanese warlords warring against each other. In 1910, Shenyang finally came under the rule of the communists. The city is now focussing on tourism growth, known popularly as the ‘Manchurian makeover', and a trip here is as close a visitor can get to the real China.
Yellow River Valley: The Chinese civilization began with settlements near the Yellow river and became the dominant culture of China. Remnants of the Neolithic period are scattered over this landscape.
Cave Temples at Datong and Luoyang: The Yungang Caves are located west of Datong and have magnificent Buddhist grotto art. South of Luoyang City is the Longmen Cave Temple. These first appeared during the Northern Wei Dynasty.
Terracotta Army at X'ian: The Terracotta warriors and horses were discovered as late as 1974 by local farmers near X'ian in the Shaanxi province and are considered the most noteworthy archaeological excavation of the 20th century. The warriors were built to stand guard over the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.
Ancient Towns of China: There are other less known ancient towns such as Kaifeng in Henan (one of the ancient capitals of China), which has attractions such as Tie Ta, the Iron Pagoda and Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius in Shandong Province. It also has the cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion, where the descendents of Confucius lived.
Tai Shan: Since time immemorial the Tai Shan Mountain has been an important pilgrimage centre for the Chinese. The Taoists consider it a sacred mountain and believe it acts as a connection between heaven and earth. The Chinese pay homage at this site even today.
Song Shan: The Son Shan Mountain in Henan sees a different type of pilgrim - these pilgrims visit the famous Shaolin Temple where the art of kung-fu originated.
Wutai Shan in Shanxi: This is also known as the Five Terrace Mountain and has been a predominantly Buddhist pilgrimage site for over 2000 years. It is a very well maintained religious site in the country.
Central China is known for its scenic beauty. It forms a basin around the central regions of Asia's longest river, the Yangtze. It was once the principle transport route and provided regular ferry rides for passengers on this great river. The provinces in Anhui, Hubei Jiangxi and Hunan are farmed extensively by the waters of two huge freshwater lakes, Poyang and Donting, which are found upstream of the Yangtze. There are a number of busy riverside ports including Wuhan, a modern commercial centre of finance, industry, trade and science. It is also a corporate and a transportation hub.
Central China's link with the past includes two thousand-year-old tombs and third-century battlefields and the Hunanese village of Shaoshan, which is Mao Zedong's birthplace. Other places worth a visit are the Huang Shan peaks in Anhui, clothed in clouds and dotted with pine trees, and Hubei's Wudang Shan Mountain, which has many Taoist temples. The Hunan's Wulingyuan Scenic Reserve has spectacular scenery and includes the Zhangjiajie National Park, Suoxiyu Nature Reserve and Tianzi Mountain Natural Reserve.
Originally a fishing town, Shanghai is now an important port city. This city is transforming itself into a sophisticated and a cosmopolitan city, much like Hong Kong. After market restrictions were lifted, Shanghai rewrote the rules of success in business. On the one hand, the Shanghai embankment or Bund has several historical buildings and monuments and on the other, Shanghai has two of the world's tallest skyscrapers. All around Shanghai you get to see scenic areas of quaint towns criss-crossed by canals.
The Jiangsu Province houses Suzhou, a city on the lower stretches of the "Yangtze River" Yangtze River, which is an important centre for China's silk industry. It has some well known classical and elaborate gardens, made during the Ming dynasty, and has been recently accorded World Heritage Site status. A short distance away to the west is the city of Nanjing, which served as China's capital for several periods in China's history. It also has been an important cultural centre. South of Shanghai, located in the Yangtze delta by the lake Xi Hu, is Hangzhou, one of China's greenest cities. An overnight boat ride from Shanghai brings you to the Buddhist island of Putuo Shan. This is still relatively untouched by tourists, and has beautiful monasteries and rural scenery. About a third of the population here are monks.
The coastal provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan Island are situated in southeast China on the coast of the East China Sea. They have contributed immensely to the economic success of China and come under the Special Economic Zone of China. However, rural areas in China are stricken with poverty. Close to Hong Kong is the Pearl River Delta, the low-lying areas of the Pearl River.
The city of Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is the capital of the Guangdong province. It is also a city of paradoxes, with skyscrapers and businessmen on the one hand and temples and beggars on the other. The city is home to both night clubs and traditional opera and fast food co-exists with traditional Chinese cuisine. You can see a lot of European architecture in this city, a result of the colonial victory of the nineteenth century. Chaozhou, located in the easternmost part of Guangdong Province, is well known for cultural centres of the Lingnan region of China. The Chaozhou opera, Chaozhou cuisine, Chaozhou Ganghu tea, Chaozhou music, and Chaozhou embroidery all form a unique part of world heritage. On the Guangdong-Fujian border, the Hakka Diaspora still lives in huge stone buildings, as it has done for centuries. Macau, which is on the western side of the Pearl River Delta, is a good tourist destination. Do not miss the casinos, the Portuguese influenced Baroque churches and fine Portuguese cuisine in Macau.
A visit to China is incomplete without a visit to Hong Kong. It has all the ingredients of a good tourist destination. It prides itself with having good infrastructure and facilities. It has some great beaches and the colonial influence is apparent in the city structures. Tourists also have good things to say about its restaurants and nightlife.
South-western China is relatively unexplored by visitors to China and it is only now that Sichuan's Chengdu and Yunnan's Kunming are getting visitors. The mountains of south-western China have unique biodiversity with the golden monkey, giant panda, red panda, and a number of pheasants endemic to this area but severely threatened with extinction.
Carved on a cliff at Leshan in the Sichuan province is the massive Big Buddha, which sees a regular pilgrim crowd. Pilgrims also come to climb the holy mountain of Emei Shan. The provinces of Guanxgi and Guizhou are well known for picturesque limestone hills, which are a popular tourist destination today.
Boat trips along the Yangtze River commence from the new province of Chongqing and travel through the ‘Three Gorges', traversing landscapes from snow-covered summits and serene alpine lakes to humid tropical jungles. The provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi share borders with Burma, Vietnam, and Laos and hence have a diverse culture.
The huge area of China referred to as the Northwest is where the population thins out and the real wilderness begins. Inner Mongolia, just hours from Beijing, is already at the frontiers of Central Asia; here, you can follow in the footsteps of Genghis Khan, horse riding on the endless grasslands of the steppe. Otherwise, following the Yellow River east, the old Silk Road heads west out of Xi'an and you can follow it right through China and out through its western borders. The Silk Road traverses through the three important towns of Xian, Tianshui and Lanzhou.
En route, you will be able to see the marvellous Buddhist sculptures at Maiji Shan at Tianshu. The caves at Maiji Shan are a veritable museum of statues. At Lanzhou you will encounter three ferry crossing points of the Yellow River. Here you can also visit the Binglingsi Thousand Buddha Caves, a rural retreat and the Buddhist town of Xiahe.
Further to the west, the end of the Great Wall of China can be seen in the city of Gansu. Close by is the Jiayuguan Pass, which is the first pass at the west end of the Great Wall of China.
The mountains and deserts of Xinjiang are the most arid of all China. It is here that you find Tarim, the lowest marsh. Aydingkol Lake (Moonlight Lake), the largest inland lake is also found here in the Turpan Basin.
Travelling beyond Kashgar is a challenge and it is here that you find passes to Pakistan and Kirgystan.