BeijingBeijing literally means ‘northern capital’. It is China's second largest city in terms of population, after Shanghai and emperors and entrepreneurs have both called this flashy capital home. Although joint venture capitalists have replaced royalty and uniformed school children throng to shopping malls instead of the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, Beijing is still China’s cultural tour de force, boasting more than 50 museums and cultural centers.
Stroll through the palaces, temples, and parks where emperors once pranced on heated marble, or sip tea at a trendy teahouse and hobnob with Beijing’s nouveau riche. For an architectural delight, be sure to visit the Hutongs or alleys, which connect the interior of Beijing's old city. While ancient treasures abound, Beijing is a thriving, bustling metropolis, offering world-class amenities, all connected by an intricate system of freeways and subways.
ChengduThis 2,300 year old city of 4 million people is the capital of the Sichuan region and is famous for its pandas and spicy cuisine. One additional attraction is Chengdu's many tea houses, an important part of its cultural heritage. There, locals chat the hours away sipping tea and eating snacks, or maybe playing a little mah-jongg or chess. Chengdu also has a vibrant arts community, with many of the country's best and brightest living and working there.
Visit the city's zoo where giant pandas are on display. Or head to the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center in the northern part of the city. The Provincial Museum and the Sanxingdui Museum are worth a browse for their amazing Shu/Ba bronze humanoid figures. Nearby is the Wolong Nature Preserve, home to golden monkeys, golden langurs and more than 500 pandas. Although panda sightings are rare, the beauty of the reserve makes the trip worthwhile. Chengdu is also the main gateway to Tibet with flights departing daily to Lhasa.
GuilinWhen you first see Guilin’s serene landscape, you may experience a sense of deja’vu. Its bamboo forests and mist-covered hills look so familiar, and they may well be. Painters and poets have been inspired by patchwork paddy fields and the meandering Li River for centuries, and its image can be found on everything from traditional silk scrolls to tea towels. Drift down the Li River and spot oxen grazing at the river's edge, or marvel at the sight of limestone hills as they dramatically rise above your head. For subterranean splendor, look no further than the Reed Flute caves. Walk through the vast network of chambers dripping with stalactites and elaborate rock formations and learn of their role in local folklore.
HangzhouSeven centuries ago, Marco Polo pronounced Hangzhou "the finest, most splendid city in the world, where so many pleasures may be found that one fancies oneself to be in Paradise." Today, Hangzhou's claim to paradise does not lie in the city’s streets, but in its shoreline and the surrounding countryside, where strolling and biking are perfect ways to discover the city. The focus of Hangzhou's exceptional beauty is West Lake which can be maneuvered in less than four hours – unless you stop to linger at a temple, pavilion, café, or park in the area. The islets and temples, pavilions and gardens, causeways and arched bridges of this jade-like lake have constituted the supreme example of lakeside beauty in China.
Hong KongHong Kong is a city of contradictions. Colorful junk-filled Victoria Harbor reflects innovative skyscrapers while the perfume of temple incense mingles with the distinctive scent of McDonald’s French fries. Because of these dazzling contrasts, Hong Kong offers something unique – the chance to experience a vibrant Chinese city without sacrificing the comforts of home. This vibrant city is crowned by the imposing Victoria Peak, which soars above Hong Kong’s hustle and bustle, providing stunning views of the shopper’s seventh-heaven, Kowloon Peninsula, across the bustling harbor. Head to the floating village of Aberdeen and dine on dim sum while your restaurant sways on a gentle swell. Overload your senses with a trip to Central Market where everything from fruit to flip-flops spill out onto the streets.
MacauFishermen from Fujian and farmers from Guangdong were the first known settlers in Macau, when it was known as Ou Mun, or "trading gate", because of its location at the mouth of the Pearl River downstream from Guangzhou (Canton). During ancient times this port city was part of the Silk Road, with ships loading here with silk for Rome. Following the Opium War in 1841, Hong Kong was established by Britain and most of the foreign merchants left Macau, which became a quaint, quiet backwater. Nevertheless it has continued to enjoy a leisurely multicultural existence and makes practical use of its historical buildings, in the process becoming a favorite stopover for international travelers, writers and artists. In modern times Macau has developed industries such as textiles, electronics and toys, as well as building up and a world class tourist industry with a wide choice of hotels, resorts, sports facilities, restaurants and casinos.
ShanghaiShanghai is an architect’s playground. Colonial and Art Deco architecture grace one side of the Huangpu River – Shanghai’s very own Mississippi – while the world’s tallest hotel, the Grand Hyatt, casts a late afternoon shadow over the opposite bank in Pudong. Pudong, nicknamed “East Shanghai,” is a steel city of monuments to materialism, and is home to China’s largest financial district and would-be Wall Street. Wind your way through a maze of Ming Dynasty pavilions, arched bridges and goldfish ponds in the Yu Yuan Garden. For those who find contentment in retail rather than rockeries, head to the Bund, Shanghai’s scenic waterfront, or treat your eyes to a treasure trove of ancient Chinese ceramics and sculptures at the impressive Shanghai Museum. Shanghai weaves the seaport legacy of its past — silk, tea and opium trade — together with impressive new hotels and shopping complexes.
SuzhouCentral Suzhou, surrounded by remnants of a moat and canals linked to the Grand Canal, has become a protected historical district in which little tampering and no skyscrapers are allowed. Here the outlines of old Suzhou are still clearly imprinted on its chessboard of canals and bridges. More than 170 bridges arch over 20 miles of slim waterways within the moated city. Known as the city of gardens, no other Chinese city contains such a concentration of canals and gardens. Visit the magnificent Classic Gardens – a collection of formerly private gardens, they are the finest surviving examples of the classic tradition; exquisite jewels of landscaping art. Among the most perfect of Suzhou’s gardens is the Master of the Nets Garden; a masterpiece of landscape compression it is hidden at the end of a blind alley.
Xi'anIn 1974 a farmer from the dusty town of Lintong was digging a well when he unearthed a chamber that housed one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. Inside the chamber stood an ancient army of more than 7000 life-sized terracotta soldiers guarding the entombed Emperor Qin Shihuang. Millions of tourists visit the sea of soldiers each year, making this “eighth wonder of the world” one of China’s most alluring historical sites. Long before the underground city was discovered, Xi’an had made its mark on the map as a city of ancient imperial treasures. Xi’an was the capital of China’s first two great dynasties and boasts artifacts from both including the 6000 year old Banpo Beolithic Village, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the 40 foot high city wall marking the birthplace of China’s first Buddhist temple.
YangshuoLocated forty miles south of Guilin at the terminus of the Li River cruise, is the small town of Yangshuo. Here the vast landscape is reduced to a garden scale, nature in microcosm, where hills, mountains, oceans, and rivers are reduced to rocks, karsts, streams, and pools. Set amid an awesome cluster of limestone pinnacles Yangshuo boasts impressive karst scenery that can be found just a short bike ride outside town. With its Western style cafes and small town feel, some foreigners have been known to stay for months, sometimes even years.
Yangtze RiverSail along the Yangtze and bear witness to the most impressive section of the river, the Three Gorges; Qutang Gorge, Wu Gorge, and Xiling Gorge. The river setting is enchanting with rushing waters and vertical limestone cliffs perpetually enveloped in mist and clouds. View the impressive construction site of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric power project, expected to supply “clean” electricity to as much as one-fifth of the country and reduce the risk of summer flooding.
The spectacular Qutang Gorge is the shortest, but perhaps most dramatic of the Three Gorges. Its sheer, steep cliffs reveal stunning vistas and interesting oddities, such as the Meng Liang Staircase carved by a murdered Song Dynasty official’s bodyguard, in an attempt to recover his master’s body from the cliff-side depths. Wu Gorge is noted for its plunging valley and the tranquil beauty of its forested mountains. The stunning Twelve Peaks flanking the gorge are universally renowned for their picturesque charm and fanciful shapes. Xiling Gorge is the Yangtze’s longest gorge and winds 40 miles through rich canyons dotted with fruit orchards, lovely villages and historic relics. See Huangling Temple, originally built during the Three Kingdoms period of the 3rd century A.D.