The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a big country. It is the fourth largest country in the world being about the same size as the USA; spans 4 different time zones and has the world’s largest population, currently just fewer than 1.4 billion people. As well as having one of the biggest economic growth booms in history, it is also showing the biggest market growth in global tourism with visitors arriving every day by the plane load. Already China is gearing up for expected increase in national and international tourists with over 90 regional airports planned during the next 10 years. China really does do everything on a larger than life scale.
Even China’s history is remarkable being one of the four oldest civilisations in the world. It is the inventor of gunpowder, paper making and printing, with written proof dating back over 4,000 years. For centuries China outpaced many other civilisations with its extensive knowledge in science, the arts, astronomy, medicine, mathematics and engineering. Examples of these include the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canal from Beijing to Hangzhou, great engineering projects started more than 2,000 years ago. Even ice cream was invented then.
So where do you start with such a large country? Well I’m going to start with the largest and most developed city in China … Shanghai.
With a population of more than 23 million, Shanghai is truly large city so it is well worth deciding on your destination itinerary before you set foot on the streets. Shanghai has something to offer everyone including spiritual temples, inspiring museums, modern architecture, classical parks and tea houses providing wonderful people watching opportunities.
One of the first places to visit is Shanghai’s Bund, an embanked riverfront along the Huangpu River. It is a popular tourist destination offering a visual comparison between the city’s colonial historical buildings of old Shanghai down one side and more modern buildings on the other, including some of the tallest and most inspiring structures in Asia, if not the world.
Shanghai Museum founded in 1952 was designed in the shape of a ‘ding’, an ancient bronze cooking vessel and is round in structure on a square base inspired by the ancient Chinese perception of the world – round sky above square earth. The museum can be found on People’s Square and houses over 120,000 exhibits including jade and bronze artefacts; ancient ceramics and sculptures; paintings and also furniture dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Entrance into Shanghai Museum is free by obtaining one of the many thousands of free tickets issued each day.
Shanghai also offers some great spiritual temples including the Jade Buddha Temple founded in 1882 which displays a jade Buddha statue measuring nearly 2 metres tall and also a reclining Buddha made of marble that was donated from Singapore. The famous Yuyuan Garden is over 400 years old and is a delight to discover offering classical Chinese architecture throughout. There are six separate featured areas within the gardens, each with their own unique attractions including pavilions, ponds with rockeries, old trees, oriental flowers, ancient wells and the famous Jade Rock over 3 metres tall.
Beijing is the capital of China and up until its formation as a republic in 1911; it was the seat of the great Ming and Qing emperors whose dynasties date back over 600 years. It was during this time that many of the most beautiful historical buildings, palaces, temples and museums were built in the city. If you only have a flying visit to Beijing and your time is limited, then two ancient buildings well worth a visit are the famous Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven.
The Forbidden City can be found in the Dongcheng district. During both the Ming (1403-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the Forbidden City was the location of the imperial court and the highest regarded building in the city. It now serves as one of Beijing’s most popular and visited palaces. In the hundreds of years of change for Beijing, this palace has remained preserved throughout the ages. Declared a World heritage Site in 1987, it is the world’s largest surviving palace complex of over 900 ancient wooden buildings.
The Temple of Heaven is a Taoist temple found in the Chongwen District of central Beijing. The temple is the symbol of Beijing and during the dynasties, the emperor of China who was regarded as the son of heaven, would pray here each year for a good harvest and favourable weather. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Temple of heaven offers the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, and the Imperial Vault of Heaven. Surrounding the temple is a huge public park offering a great place to relax amongst the ancient trees and local residents practising tai chi.
Also found in Dongcheng district is the largest square in the world – Tiananmen Square. Built during the Ming Dynasty, the square is a huge expanse surrounded by governmental buildings including the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, Museum of the Chinese Revolution and the Great Hall of the People. Tiananmen gate to the north offers entrance to the Forbidden City while Qianmen to the south is a gate to Beijing’s historic city wall.
Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is actually a series of 4 walls build at different periods throughout China’s turbulent history starting from the Qin dynasty 221BC and ending with the Ming dynasty in 1644. Originally built to protect the northern borders of the Chinese empire from invading enemies, the Great Wall is now a hugely popular tourist destination and with being more than 8,000km in length, there are plenty of places to view it.
The wall isn’t created equally and there are some notable parts that attract more visitors than others. Badling (Juyong Pass) located just 50km from Beijing City is regarded as one of the three greatest passes of the Great Wall, the other two being Jiayuguan and Shanhaiguan. It was first opened up to visitors in 1957 and is now the most visited part of the Great Wall of China. The Badaling Expressway connects this section of the wall to central Beijing by rail. It does get very busy here with tourists so it is worth allowing plenty of time and refreshments to give yourself every opportunity to actually see the Great Wall itself.
The Terracotta Warriors and Horses were first discovered in 1974 in the Lintong district of Xi’an. Discovered by local farmers, the terracotta Army has become one of the greatest archaeological finds of the century. A collection of the army does go travelling to different countries from time to time, but it is on within the pits containing ranks and ranks of soldiers can the majesty of the army be appreciated at its fullest.
Some consider the Terracotta Army as the 8th wonder of the world and it is easy to see why. The collection of sculptures date back to 210BC and depict the armies of the first emperor of China – Qin Shi Huang and in total there are over 8000 soldiers and hundreds of horses and chariots. The figures vary in height according to their importance within the army, generals being the tallest.
The warriors were once highly coloured and exquisitely detailed which can still be seen on a handful of sculptures. Amongst the tomb of the first emperor were found knives, arrows, swords and other weapons coated with chromium oxide making them rust resistant and in pristine condition. Incredible that it wasn’t until the 18th century that anyone else noticed chromium.
If you’re relying on a map of Shanghai, Beijing, or even any other city in China, don’t take it entirely for granted that the map is actually going to be correct. It is not uncommon for maps to be slightly out of date even before they are printed with many of China’s cities changing at the incredible pace that they are. It is also a good idea to have the name of your accommodation written in Chinese for the return journey just to make sure you can find you way back.
We have some great hostels in China and a full list of them can be found by clicking Hostels in China.