Best for travel in China
China is a huge country. There’s no ifs, buts, or coconuts about it. At 9,596,960 square kilometers – it weighs in behind only Russia, Canada, and the United States for sheer size. Couple this with China’s massive population and its jaw-dropping history, and you’ve got a recipe for a borderline overwhelming array of choices when it comes time to plan your trip to China.
China is the most populated country in the world, and probably one of the most sumptuous places in the world. To discover the Middle Kingdom is to marvel at scenery that seems to come out of a dream; to be ecstatic in front of an oriental nature underlined as it should be by centuries-old traditional infrastructures, and populated by inhabitants always delighted to meet tourists passing through. Since you have decided to set off on an adventure in this magnificent country, we have chosen to present our favorites and the most striking points of interest to be seen there.
THE TOP 10 CITIES YOU HAVE TO DISCOVER
Often referred to as the “Venice of the East”, Zhouzhuang – located between Shanghai and Suzhou in Jiangsu Province – is one of the most beautiful water cities in the country. Stroll through the city’s pretty streets and the charming stone bridges that cross its rivers and streams. But the 900-year-old city also has many sites to please history lovers. These sites include Zhang Ting – a Ming Dynasty residence with six courtyards and more than 70 rooms – and Quanfu Temple, a magnificent Buddhist temple nestled on the shores of Lake Baixian.
Nestled at the foot of lush green mountains on the banks of the Tuojiang River, Fenghuang has been hailed as China’s most beautiful city by New Zealand writer Rewi Alley. The ancient city of Hunan is home to the Miao people whose customs and culture can be seen everywhere: traditional wooden houses on stilts, or diaojiaolou, along the river and batik printed fabrics sold in the shops, local culinary delights such as spicy red peppers or ginger candies. There are also local historical sites such as Huang Si Qiao Castle – built in 687 which is the best preserved stone castle in China. It is located a few kilometers west of the city.
In southwestern Yunnan, not far from the Burmese border, lies the small isolated town of Heshun, which has only 6,000 inhabitants. A former stopping place on the Southern Silk Road, also known as the “Tea and Horse Road”, many former residents of Heshun have taken advantage of its location and traveled abroad. They built beautiful houses mixing Chinese and foreign architectural styles upon their return. This can still be seen in the city today and is what makes it so special. Walking through its beautiful cobblestone streets, visitors will discover local sites such as the Heshun Library, one of the largest rural libraries in the country, and the memorial to the Chinese philosopher Ai Siqi.
Quite off the beaten track is Shiwei, a tiny border town in northeastern Inner Mongolia on the border with Russia. A cultural enclave for the country’s Sino-Russian minority, the city’s mix of cultures is evident everywhere. This is evidenced by its architecture – from the beautiful Russian-style log houses known as mukeleng – to its local cuisine, which combines Chinese shao kao barbecue recipes and Russian bread. The city is surrounded by vast green meadows. One of the best ways to explore it and the surrounding area is on horseback.
Yangshuo is a lively and touristy city, nestled on the banks of the Li River in the Zhuang Autonomous Region of Guangxi in southern China. Although the city has seen a boom of visitors in recent years, Yangshuo has managed to retain its historic character. Its modern restaurants and stores are concentrated around West Street, the city’s main artery and its oldest dating back more than 1,400 years. Among them, visitors will find a lot of traditional architecture and charm. Treat yourself to a slow trip and catch a boat on the River Li from the nearby town of Guilin. This is undoubtedly the most picturesque way to get to Yangshuo.
An oasis in the arid expanse of the Gobi Desert, this is the small northwestern town of Dunhuang in Gansu. Once one of the most important stops along the Silk Road, this place is a paradise for history lovers. There are no less than 241 historical sites scattered in and around the city. Just outside the city, visitors will find the White Horse Pagoda which is said to have been built in 382 to commemorate the horse of the Buddhist monk who carried Buddhist scriptures from Kucha to Dunhuang. Nearby are the Mogao Caves – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which houses a treasure trove of Buddhist art.
Hongcun is home to some of the most beautiful architecture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in China, the village provided a historical and mystical setting for several scenes in Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning film Tiger and Dragon. Much of the village – which, along with Xidi, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000 – is centered around its half-moon-shaped pond. Local sites include Chengzi Hall, a large residence built in 1855. It is decorated with wood and stone carvings and now serves as a museum open to visitors.
Dali is a beautiful old town nestled on the shores of Lake Erhai famous for its natural beauty and beautifully crafted local marble. The large city gates welcome visitors into the city and give way to cobbled streets with a host of beautifully preserved traditional bay houses. The three pagodas of Chongsheng Temple – dating from the 9th and 10th centuries – are worth seeing. Many authentic handicrafts, from local marble artwork to embroidered Bai fabrics, are available for sale in the streets. Another Dali must-see is the three-course tea – a Bai tradition of welcoming customers with courses of bitter, sweet and “after-taste” tea.
THE ISLAND OF GULANGYU
A small island located a short boat ride from the town of Xiamen, Gulangyu Island takes its name from two Chinese words – ‘gu’ meaning drum and ‘lang’ meaning waves – and is named for the drumming sounds that the tide makes when it hits the reef surrounding the island. A quiet retreat from the nearby busy city, Gulangyu is listed by China’s National Tourism Administration as a scenic AAAAAA area. Remarkable for its beautiful Victorian colonial architecture, the city is worth a visit. The city’s must-see sights include the magnificent Shuzhuang Garden. Meanwhile, a trip up Sunlight Rock – the highest point of Gulangyu – offers breathtaking views of the island and the coastline.
Tongli is a small idyllic town west of Zhouzhuang. Surrounded by five lakes and criss-crossed by canals, Tongli consists of seven islands, with a total of 49 bridges (most of which are a century or more old) connecting the city. Rent a boat and enjoy the beautiful city from the canals. But be sure to stop at the Tuisi Yuan (Garden of Retreat and Reflection) – which will remind you of the classic gardens of Suzhou. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000 and is well worth a visit.
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