Heading to China to usher in the Year of the Sheep? Former China resident, Kaye Holland, has the low-down on the destinations you mustn’t miss while in the Middle Kingdom
Want to see the real China? Make a beeline for Beijing whose bustling streets are alive with rickety tuk tuks, vibrant smells of food stalls and where English is most definitely a foreign language - you’ll find yourself using gestures and smiles to interact with people. Challenging? Yes but in the same breath, Beijing embodies everything that is great about travelling.
Beijing is also a historical treat (note this is not the kind of place that Wayne Rooney goes on his holiday) and history and archaeology buffs alike will be astounded by the thousands of years of history at their feet - from the ancient sites of the Forbidden City (which took 15 years to build and served as the imperial headquarters during the Qing and Ming dynasties) and the Great Wall (the symbol of China) to Tiananmen Square (the largest public square in the world) and the Temple of Heaven (a place of worship for emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties). Yet while it’s steeped in history, Beijing is striving forward and cutting edge architecture abounds signalling Beijing’s intent to become a world city. Check out the CCTV building and the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium (proof is any was needed that Beijing had arrived on the world stage), for starters.
What’s more, Beijing is blissfully affordable: you can eat like a king at humble prices while accommodation costs a fraction of the price it does back home. Of course China’s capital has its problems - corruption and pollution prevail, while historic hutongs are being destroyed forcing families out of homes they have lived in for generations. Nonetheless there is a real reason for optimism and to overlook Beijing is to miss out on the big travel destination - China - and its most dazzling city.
Beijing maybe the political and cultural capital of China but it’s Chengdu - home to China’s most famous face, the panda - that is dominating the headlines right now. British Airways recently launched direct flights from Heathrow to Chengdu while the Sichuan city became the fourth city (after Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou) to offer visa free stays of 72 hours for transit passengers. All of which means that is now easier than ever to get up close with China’s cuddly national icon.
The city’s 80 famous residents live at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base which lies about six miles north east of Chengdu. Only a philistine would travel all the way to Chengdu without bothering to see the bears but you’ll need to rise early. The pandas tend to wake up for a breakfast of bamboo (99 per cent of a wild panda’s diet is made up of bamboo) at 8.30am before taking a long nap around noon.
Pandas aside, you could check out the Chairman Mao statue in Tianfu Square - aka the heart of Chengdu - which is set against a backdrop of floodlit fountains. I’d also recommend making a pilgrimage to one of the city's many temples, in particular Wenshu - Chengdu’s best preserved (and biggest) temple.
Staying in the Sichuan Province, look out for The Leshan Giant Buddha Statue - the world’s tallest Buddha. The 71m statue began to be carved into the mountain in AD713, but wasn’t completed until 90 years later. Inside the Buddha’s body, there’s a water drainage system to prevent weathering, although erosion continues to be an ongoing problem. The Buddha, whose fingernails are bigger than the average human being, is an easy day trip from Chengdu.
What was once hailed as the ‘gate of hell’ is now known as China’s tropical gem. And rightly so: the ‘Hawaii of the east’ is blessed with beautiful beaches - especially Sanya (which marks the southernmost tip of the island that’s roughly the same size as Belgium). Dubbed “the end of the earth” (or the “tail of the dragon” due to its remoteness in relation to Beijing), this tropical city is famous for its sugar white sands and doesn’t disappoint. Dadonghai Bay and Sanya Bay are both fine spots for those who want to fly and flop but, budget permitting, aim to base yourself 15km east at exclusive Yalong Bay. The beach here is the best and, unless you’re mad enough to go over Chinese New Year, it’s virtually empty.
However there’s more - much more-– to Hainan than sun, sand and sea. For a change of pace, take a trip to Nanshan Temple, tramp through Jiangfeng Ling Forest Reserve (voted one of the top 10 most beautiful forests in China by China National Geographic Magazine), scale a mountain such as Mount Wuzhi, Mount Diaolu or Mount Qianxianling or hike to Hainan’s highlands – a collection of postcard pretty villages, situated slap bang in the middle of the island. It’s here that you’ll encounter the fabled Li and Miao minorities, who were among the first to settle permanently on the island some 3,000 years ago, and still live in the same boat shaped, thatched bamboo houses as they have always done. Throw into the mix the fresh air (and fact that visitors don’t need a visa) and Hainan is hot - in every sense of the word.
Xian - the former capital of the Tang Dynasty and the starting point of the Silk Road (which connected China with the Middle East and Europe) - should feature high on every traveller’s itinerary. The eternal city records the great changes of the Chinese nation or, as the saying goes: “Travel to Shanghai and you will find a one hundred year old China; go to Beijing and you will find a thousand year-old China; visit Xian and then you will find a three thousand year old China”. Today, together with Athens, Cairo and Rome, Xian is regarded as “one of the four major capitals of ancient civilisation”.
No visit to Xian is complete without taking a trip to the Terracotta Warriors - Xian’s premier sight and one of the most famous archeological finds in the world. The army of life size warriors and horses were built for Emperor Qin to serve him in the afterlife more than 2,000 years ago. However they were only discovered by chance in 1974, by peasants digging a well. Today the former farmers have become celebrities and sit outside the museum signing guide books - for a small price, natch - all day long. The famous forces are instantly familiar, iconic landmarks guaranteed to jump start a cold tourist engine and offer an amazing insight into the world of ancient China.
Once you’ve ticked of the Terracotta Warriors, check out Xian’s City Wall - the largest and most intact Ming Dynasty castle in the world - the Drum and Bell Tower and the Big Goose Pagoda (aka the most famous landmark in Xian proper).
Only a fistful of places on earth, are more seductive and beautiful in the flesh than on the postcard: Yangshou, in the Guangxi province, is one of them. Make no mistake - the stunning limestone peaks and the impossibly picturesque Li River (featured on the back of Y20 bank notes) will have you scraping your jaw off the floor.
Hiring a bike (bike rental shops are nearly as common as a bowl of mi fan) is a fun way to explore the gorgeous countryside - ask your hostel, hotel or guesthouse for information on great Guangxi bike rides. Too active? One essential - no matter what your budget - is to take a memorable cruise down either the Li or Yulong River on a bamboo raft. A river tour (which can be arranged through your hotel/hostel) allows visitors an intimate glimpse into the lives of local people, completely hidden from the road. As you meander through miles of water, expect to see farmers tending to their crops, washing lines and villagers cleaning both themselves and their clothes in the water.
When night falls head to buzzy Xi Jie (Yangshuo’s lively thoroughfare that’s a warren of restaurants, bars and souvenir shops) or book a ticket to see a performance of Impressions Liu Sanjie. The brainchild of movie maker Zhang Yimou - the man behind the Beijing Olympics’ Opening Ceremony that wowed the world - Impressions Liu Sanjie features a cast of over 600 performers, including local fishermen. However the real stars of the show are the 12 dreamy karst peaks, which are illuminated as part of the 60 minute production.
Kung Hei Fat Choi!