China – Part 1

The prospect of writing about China is one I have been holding off on as there is so much to write about but where to start.  China is a country of extremes on many levels, from Xinjiang’s 40°C (104°F) summer heat to Heilongjian’s -30°C (-22°F) winter.  From the snow-capped peaks of Tibet to the rainforest of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province to the massive singing sand dunes of Dunhaung, Gansu Province.  For this reason, I will be breaking China up into a 3-part blog.

Part 1: The must see places in China.  Places where everyone should visit at least once.

Part 2: Secret gems of China.  Those amazing places little known by those outside of China.

Part 3: The food of China.  Each region of China has its own distinct cuisine.

For now, lets begin with part 1.

With a history that dates back at least 3000 years, China is one of the 4 ancient civilisations.  With a history dating back this far you are bound to find historic sites and other wonderful places all through China.  In this post I will be looking at 3 major places you should visit.

Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and has been since 1949.  Although China has a history dating back 3000 years, Beijing has been the capital city of China for just under 600 of those years (not continuously).  Beijing has however, been a regional Dynasty capital at many points throughout China’s history.  A visit to Beijing will see ancient architecture side by side with modern day architecture.  Beijing’s must-see sites are as follows:

The Forbidden City

Completed in 1420 and consists of 980 buildings was once the Imperial Palace from the Ming Dynasty through to the end of the Qing Dynasty.  Once closed off to all except the Imperial family and who ever they decided to let in this 72-hectare marvel is now open to all.  Allowing at least 3 hours you will come across breathtaking palaces, magnificent halls and grand towers.  Some of the top attractions within the Forbidden City are The Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Central Harmon, Hal of Preserved Harmony, Meridian Gate, Palace of Heavenly Purity, Palace of Earthly Tranquillity and Hall of Celestial and Terrestrial Union.

Tiananmen Square

Located just in front of the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square.  Ranked currently as the 7th largest city square in the world, Tiananmen Square is surrounded by The Great Hall of the People, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.

Yonghe Temple (Lama Temple)

Construction of this temple started in 1694 and in 1722 half was converted into a lamasery and the other half for Prince Yong who had ascended the throne as the Yongzhen Emperor in 1722.  Today Yonghe Temple is still a working Temple with a mixture of tourists and people going in to pray.  Unfortunately, a lot of Western visitors are unaware of this place and therefore don’t have it on their to do list.  For its beauty, architecture and surroundings the Yonghe Temple will in many people’s opinion will have a longer lasting effect than the Forbidden City.

Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven is a Taoist temple which was first completed in 1420 by the same emperor responsible for the Forbidden City.  It was then expanded in the 16th Century.  The temple was used by Emperors from both the Ming and Qing Dynasty during their annual prayer to heaven for a good harvest.  Today the 2.73km grounds of this temple is open to the public.  The grounds consist of The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, The Imperial Vault of Heaven, The Circular Mound Altar and parklands.

The Great Wall of China

Originally a series of fortifications built by various states around 771BC, it wasn’t until Emperor Qin Shi Huang around 221BC had the fortifications joined together to protect his Dynasty from Northern invaders.  The wall was then continuously expanded up until the Sui Dynasty which ended in the year 619AD.

The Great Wall of China can be seen in many places in China, however most people choose to visit the wall from Beijing.  One of the most popular sections of the wall most tour companies want to take you is Badaling and Mutianyu.  Badaling is one of the most popular places among Chinese tourist while most foreign tourists are taken to Mutianyu as it is also quite child friendly.  Other options include Jinshanling which is great for hiking, Simatai which is the only section open for night tours and Huanghuacheng which offers stunning mountain and lake views with some parts of the wall actually immersed in water.

Other notable sites

Two other notable sites well worth visiting are The Summer Palace and Beihai Park.

The Summer Palace was used by Emperors for around 800 years to escape the blistering Beijing summer heat.  The Summer Palace also has the longest decorated corridor in the world.

Behai Park was once a Winter Palace for Emperors and was completed in 1179.  Two thirds of the park is covered by lakes.  Beihai Park is one of China’s oldest and best protected Imperial Gardens and well worth the visit.

 

Xi’An

Xi’An is home to 10 ancient Dynasties and is the first capital of Unified China under Emperor Qin Shi Huang.  Xi’An is also home to the first Empress of China, Wu Zetian, who was also the first and only female ruler of China who held the title of Emperor.  Xi’An sort of fell off the map after the decline of the Tang dynasty until 1974 when a farmer digging a well accidently stumbled across the Terracotta Army.  Today is Xi’An is back on the map with so much to see and do.  The must-see places in Xi’An are:

The Terracotta Warriors

As mentioned above these 2200-year-old terracotta statues were discovered by accident when a farmer was digging a well.  Estimates to date put the terracotta statues at 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses.  The tomb was ordered by Qin Shi Huang when he first ascended the throne and is meant to depict his army protecting him in the afterlife.

Located under an hour from Xi’An, this is an absolute must see and will exceed all expectations.

City Walls

One of the best-preserved fortifications in China, this 600-year-old city wall stretches 13.74 kilometres in length and 12 meters in height.  The best way to get around is by bicycle on top of the wall.  The wall measures 15 metres wide giving plenty of room to cycle around the wall.  Bicycles can be rented from the southern watch tower.

Big Wild Goose pagoda

Built in the Tang Dynasty around 1600 years ago, this 64m pagoda was dedicated to Xuanzang, a monk who travelled to India to learn about Buddhism and even bought back various Buddha figures and over 650 Buddhist Sutras which were said to have been stored in the pagoda and translated from Sanskrit to Chinese.

The Plaza at the foot of the pagoda is a great place to watch people practice Chinese Calligraphy, public entertainment and a musical fountain show at various times of the day.

Bell Tower

The Bell Tower built in 1384 marks the geographical centre of ancient Xi’An.  From the Bell Tower heading North, South, East and West will take you to each of the 4 main city gates.  The 36m wooden tower is the biggest and best preserved of its kind in China.  The tower was built as a way of warning against attacks from rivals.

The Tang Dynasty Show

The Tang Dynasty Show gives an insight to the culture, music and dance of the Tang Dynasty.  Held at the Tang Dynasty Palace this show can be enjoyed either as just the show or also include a delicious dumpling banquet.

Other Notable Sites

Other notable sites of Xi’An include the Drum Tower and the Muslim Quarter.

The drum Tower North West of the Bell Tower combines the architecture from both the Tang and Qing Dynasties.  One thing to note with this is that no iron nails were used in the construction.  On the north and south side of the tower you will see 24 drums which is for the twenty-four Solar Terms which is a weather calendar created by the Chinese in order to guide the agricultural production.

The Muslin quarter is adjacent to the Drum Tower.  Being such an important part of the Silk Road, it stands to reason that Xi’An is home to a small Muslim population.  With around 20000 Muslims in Xi’An and the Muslim Quarter hosts 10 mosques, one of which is the Great Mosque.  The Muslim Quarter is a wonderful place to sample amazing foods and markets.

 

Shanghai

Shanghai is a city that can rival Paris and New York in terms of modernity.  Shanghai is not just another big city.  Shanghai has an amazing blend of East meets West and is definitely true of our first must see in Shanghai:

The Bund

A water front area in central Shanghai along the banks of the Huangpu Rivers.  The Bund is full of European and American style architecture.  Once home to Once home to numerous consulates, banks, hotels and trading companies from countries like the UK, US, Netherlands, Japan, Italy and Russia, the Bund is now a 1.6km of architectural beauty.  With buildings in the style of Romanesque Revival, Gothic Revival, Renaissance Revival, Baroque Revival, Neo-Classical or Beaux-Arts styles you will have a wonderful time strolling through this area.

Yu Gardens

Built during the Tang Dynasty in 1559 this 20000 square metre garden is an absolute beauty and a must see.  Set out in a Suzhou style a walk around Yu Gardens and you will come across various rockeries, koi ponds and halls.  Some notable sites to look out for is the Huxinting Teahouse built in 1855 and Exquisite Jade Rock a porous 5-ton boulder which rumour has it was originally intended for the Huizong Emperor at the Imperial Palace Beijing but the boat carrying it sunk and the rock was then later recovered and ended up here at the Yu Gardens.

Oriental Pearl Tower

The Oriental Pearl Tower was the tallest structure in China until 2007 reaching to height of 468m.  Located across from the Bund in the Pudong New Area the Oriental Pearl Tower has various observation decks (15) with the highest being at 351m with glass flooring.  There is also a revolving restaurant at 267m which will give you a great view of Shanghai while have lunch or dinner.

Nanjing Road

One word. . . Shopping.  Nanjing Road is a shopper’s paradise.  With everything from street vendors to high end designer brands.  Nanjing Road is 5.5km of shopping and is one of the busiest shopping streets in the world with over 1 million visitors daily.  Nanjing Road is also full of restaurants and entertainment to help refresh from all that shopping.

Other Notable Site

A trip to Shanghai will also allow you to visit some of the other cities close by.   One which deserves a special mention is Zhouzhuang.  Zhouzhuang is one of the best water towns in China.  Only 30km from Suzhou (another city worth visiting) and just over an hour from Shanghai. This magical water town will transport you back in time.  With majority of its current buildings constructed during the Ming and Qing Dynasty this quaint water town with its canals and picturesque setting is the perfect remedy to relax and unwind from the hustle and bustle of Shanghai.

 

These are just 3 places in my Must-See list and is a great choice if you don’t have a lot of time.  Although China is attracting more and more foreign visitors, English is still not widely spoken through out the mainland.  While it is possible to travel without a tour, a few day trips here and there will help take the stress out of finding your way around.

For part 2 of our China special click here http://www.theflyingpandablog.com/china-part-2/

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