Forget the button up Mao suits, the little red books and soldiers marching in the Square – Beijing is a modern city and it’s moving at an incredible pace. The home of the 2008 Olympics, construction is taking place at a rapid rate all over the city. However, Beijing is a very ancient city, full of rich historical sites. It’s still easy to see the “old China” in Beijing’s quaint teahouses, in the bicycles negotiating the maze of side-streets and alleyways and old men smoking pipes and playing mah-jong in the park. Beijing may not yet have the sophisticated reputation of younger, larger Shanghai but it offers a fascinating insight into China’s past, and future.
The Forbidden City, or Palace Museum was built in the 15th Century during the Ming Dynasty. A vast complex of courtyards, gardens, halls and pavilions, it was the imperial home of 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Today it houses an immense collection of priceless relics and is a stunning example of Chinese architecture and artwork.
Built in the north-west of the city during the Qing Dynasty, the Summer Palace provided a shady retreat for the emperor and his court during Beijing’s sweltering summers. It now serves as a public park, centred around a huge lake and dotted with old buildings and sculptures, including a beautiful 17-arch bridge leading to a small island. Perfect for picnicking and sightseeing from one of the large dragon boats.
The largest public square in the world, Tiananmen Square is a great place to observe daily Chinese life in the city. Although it is notorious for tragic massacre of protesters that took place in 1989, it has been the site of many groundbreaking events throughout modern Beijing’s history. The entrance to the Square, the Gate of Heavenly Peace was where Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Half of this 67 hectare park is taken up by Beihai Lake, a popular place for boating in summer and skating in winter. Qiong Hua Island (Jade Flowering Island), in the southern end of the lake, is reached by an arched marble bridge and is home to the Temple of Eternal Peace.
Great Wall of China
One of humankind’s greatest architectural achievements, the Great Wall stretches east-west for more than 5000km, beginning at Shanhai Guan on the Bo Hai Sea snaking its way to Jiayu Guan in the Gobi Desert. In the 7th Century, independent kingdoms began constructing separate walls to keep out invaders. China’s first emperor linked these walls together during the Qing Dynasty. The closest part of the wall to Beijing is at Badaling, an hour’s drive away. Younger kids and people with disabilities will find Badaling easily accessible as you can take a cable car to the top of the wall. It’s generally very busy with tourists however – longer treks can be arranged along the wall but they are generally quite arduous. Well worth the effort if you’re feeling fit!
Today, prosperous Shanghai, the commercial centre of China, is one of the world’s most vibrant and exciting cities. Once known as the Paris of the East, it was the centre of European Imperialism in mainland China, and entrepreneurs and travellers alike flocked to the city, lured by its reputation as a glamorous city of wealth and decadence. The Cultural Revolution put an end to Shanghai’s glittering image as a cosmopolitan city, and it soon fell into decline. Today, Shanghai has reclaimed much of its former glory and is a modern, sophisticated city with an international feel. While Shanghai is justly famous for its incredible restaurants, shopping and nightlife, among its gleaming sky rises and maddeningly crowds, you can still find glimpses of it’s colonial past, and of traditional Chinese culture and history.
Chinese people of all ages love to fly kites, and this is one of the few places they can do so without the risk of getting tangled in phone and electricity lines. On the weekends, kite vendors set up their stalls and the square is full of families flying an assortment of beautifully coloured kites. Next to the people’s square is the bilingual Shanghai Museum.
Jade Buddha Temple
Shanghai’s most famous Buddhist temple, this ornate temple, known as Yufu Si in Chinese houses a sacred 1.9m tall seated Buddha carved from a single piece of white jade from Burma. The temple also houses a smaller, reclining Buddha also made from white jade.
Shanghai’s famous waterfront and the symbol of the city for centuries. Also known as Zhongshan Road, it boasts dozens of grand historical buildings in a variety of architectural styles – it’s often referred to as an art exhibition of architecture. In the interest of conservation, building heights are restricted in this area, making it a magnificent place to photograph, particularly at night when the entire Pudong (a collection of striking modern buildings across the Huangpu River opposite the Bund) is stunningly illuminated. Many of the buildings house high-quality restaurants and cafes. Early in the morning the area is filled with locals partaking in their daily exercise.
Bund Sightseeing Tunnel
Connecting Chen Yi Square at the Bund to the Oriental Pearl Radio and Television Tower in Pudong, this artificial sightseeing tunnel crosses the Huangpu River and has a total length of 646.7 metres. The interior walls are decorated using high-tech design techniques
Yu Yuan Garden
A 400 year old classical Chinese garden in Shanghai’s Old City, near the Bund, this exquisitely landscaped garden contains scenic spots with names such as Hualin Charming Valley, the Most Enjoyable Water-stone Site and Treasure in the Universe. Exploring the garden’s zig zag paths you’ll come across stone bridges over ponds, shady pavilions and enchanting statues of dragons, dogs and lions. Surrounding Yu Yuan is the Shanghai Bazaar, a maze of small streets and alleyways lined with shops selling trinkets and food to tourists and locals.
An 8000-strong army of terracotta warriors and horses were unearthed in 1974 in Shanxi province – they are roughly 2200 years old. Today, these archaeological wonders are housed in the Terracotta Museum, a giant aeroplane hangar in Xi’an. The museum can be done as a day trip from Beijing if you are willing to fly there and back in a day (it’s a 16 hour rail trip from Beijing). It’s best to spend a few days in Xi’an to get a feel for the provincial city and explore it’s many other historical attractions.
China’s lifeblood, the mighty Yangtze is the third largest river in the world. Coursing over a distance of 6211km, its fast flowing waters run from the snowy heights of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to the East China Sea just north of Shanghai, passing through some of China’s most spectacular scenery. The most dramatic section of the Yangtze is the Three Gorges, a narrow stretch through thousand-metre tall peaks shrouded in mist. Many travellers with limited time choose to just do this section of the river on a Yangtze cruise, accessible from Chongqing, a two-and-a-half hour flight from Beijing. A trip on the Yangtze - whether you stay for just a couple of days or immerse yourself in a week long journey – is unforgettable. A must.
TOP TEN THINGS TO DO IN CHINA
1. Climb the Great Wall
2. Cruise along the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges
3. Shop till you drop in Shanghai
4. Marvel at the Terracotta Army in Xi’an
5. Photograph Shanghai’s Bund at night
6. Explore the Forbidden City
7. Observe daily Chinese life in Tiananmen Square
8. Imagine life as an Emperor in the Summer Palace
9. Fly a kite in the People’s Square
10. Eat a traditional Yum Cha brunch
Chinese New Year
By far the biggest event of the year, Chinese New Year falls on the first day of the lunar calendar, which is usually in February. (In 2007 it will be on February 18). Officially the holiday lasts three days but the celebrations usually go for two weeks. If you want to stay in China during this period, booking your accommodation well in advance is strongly advised. Among the myriad of festivities held during the New Year are fireworks, parades and dragon and lion dances.
Held on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, this festival marks the end of the New Years celebrations. All over China, people gather with the families in the evening to admire the beautiful array of lanterns on display. Kids carry their own lanterns and parade them down the street.
On the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month (August 15), this ancient celebration is also known as the Moon Festival. It originated with emperors following the rite of offering sacrifices to the moon. On this night the moon looks extremely round and bright, and families get together to watch the moon, eat sweet moon cakes and tell stories.