Where To Go In China? First Timer Edition
The world focused their eyes on China when a mysterious virus took the world into a plunge this 2020. The novel coronavirus which has now spread like wildfire into different parts of the world and has caused global lockdowns, international travel freeze, and economic meltdown had first emerged in Wuhan, China in December 2019. This single event has put China into the limelight and the world has been steadily watching them since then.
This thought might pop into mind as you browse through travel destinations for your next trip after this pandemic and it could possibly make you unintentionally skip this country. I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t be mindful of this but know that you’re going to miss out on a lot of breathtaking views, tummy-churning adventure, and gastronomic food.
So if you’re hesitating if you should invest on a trip here, grab a donut and some coffee and take a read on the wonders China has to offer!
If you’re a little soul ready to go out into the big world, China can be a good place (although quite overwhelming if you ask me) to start your adventure.
Chinese Land Mass
China is the world’s third largest country next to Russia and Canada with a total of 9,600,00 square kilometers and is also the largest Asian country. If you can’t imagine how big that is, take a map for visualization and see the big chunk of space China occupies and compare it with adjacent countries. On its east, it is bounded by an 18,000 kilometer stretch of coastline and is bordered in land by fourteen different countries.
Aside from its large land area, China is also known for its diverse topography from basins and plains, plateaus to rugged mountains and also the beaches along the coastline. Speaking of rugged mountains, they dominate two-thirds of the land of China with ranges running from east to west and from northeast to southwest and an estimated 50 of these reach an altitude of over 7,000 meters. Mountains are generally higher in the West and go on a step ladder down pattern to the East.
The Yangtze River
China is also home for the two most popular rivers in the world namely the Yangtze River which is considered the longest river in China and third longest in the world running a total of 6,300 kilometers. And second is the Yellow River or called the Mother River of the Chinese People. These two rivers both flow into the Pacific Ocean. Beautiful lakes are also part of the nature wonders of China. One of the largest saltwater lakes in northwest China is the Qinghai Lake. On the other hand, in the southeastern part of China lies the freshwater lakes like Poyang Lake, Dongting Lake, and Taihu Lake.
You might be thinking now, “Okay! But other countries also offer captivating nature spots. What else is there in China?”
Well, China also has The Gobi Desert, world’s third largest desert. Not to mention that a fifth of China is covered in deserts. And did you know that a big percent of China is also covered by natural grassland with an estimated size of four million square kilometers which is the second largest in the world.
But hey, China is not all just nature! It has actually over a hundred cities with large metropolitan and city proper populations. China is also the most populated country in the whole world with recent data estimating it at 1,439,323,776 (repeat with me: WOAH!) So if you’re craving both nature and the city, China got you fully covered.
China’s inbound tourism in 2019 has shown the healthy and steadily-increasing number of visitors coming to explore the country. China is also pushing tourism developments to entertain their foreign visitors and help ease their travels. There are over 70 international airports all over China and are connected to 60 different countries. Locally, cities in China are linked through high speed rail system which makes it easier to jump from one city to another. There are also more than 300,000 hotels that cater to the large number of tourists coming into China as well as locals traveling domestically.
China is a very big country and it’s impossible to visit everything in just one vacation tour so we’ve compiled a list of places that you should never skip on your first tour in China. First off, we go to the Golden Triangle of tours: Xi’an, Beijing, and Shanghai.
Although most put Beijing on top of the list, I think it’s better to start with a historical heritage site to appreciate China. Xi’an or then called Chang’an or eternal city, the capital of the Shaanxi Province. Located in central-northwest China, Xi’an serves as one of the origins or birthplace of the ancient Chinese civilization that settled in the Yellow River Basin area, the terminus of the Silk Road, and the melting pot of different cultures as well as religions. With over 3000 year of history, Xi’an offers amazing historical heritage which can keep dynastic enthusiasts up on their feet for a week.
But if you’re a leisure traveler, a couple of days here is enough for you to appreciate all the historical wonders it has to offer.
Terracotta Army / 兵马俑 (Bīng Mǎ Yǒng)
This is a definite must-see in Xi’an as it is known as the most significant archaeological discovery of the 20th century and is declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located in Lington, 40 kilometers northeast of Xi’an covering approximately 6.3 acres of land with 8000 funerary statues of soldiers and horses which exhibits the mega imperial guard troops of Emperor Qin Shi Huang known as the first emperor of the first ever unified dynasty of Imperial China. There is also a live museum on site named the Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum which tells the stories of the powerful Qin Empire dating back 221-207 BC.
Xi’an City Wall
This wall encircles the city center of Xi’an stretching 13.7 kilometers long, 12 meters high and was built in 1370. It is one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world which is 12-14 meters thick at the top and 15-18 meters at the bottom. It has four main gates namely the East Gate (Changle Gate), West Gate (Anding Gate), South Gate (Yongning Gate), and North Gate (Anyuan Gate).
If you’re familiar with Avatar, you can look at it as the Great Wall of Ba Sing Se! The South Gate or the Yongning Gate is described as the most magnificent out of all the four main gates where important greeting ceremonies organized by the Provincial Government are held. You can tour the whole circle of wall starting from any point you’d like. Bike rentals can be found up on the South Gate which is a perfect way to enjoy the scenery.
Big Wild Goose Pagoda/ Dayan Pagoda
This place is a holy place for Buddhists located in the southern suburb of Xi’an. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda stands in the Da Ci’en Temple Complex, rated as a National Key Relic Preserve and an AAAA Tourist Attraction. It’s also declared as a UNESCO World Heritage SIte alongside Xi’an’s Terracotta Army.
It was built in 652 during the Tang Dynasty which is originally 5 storeys high but additional two layers were added making it now a 7-storey high building built of brick. Inside the pagoda, there are twist up stairs which leads visitors to each storey. Each storey has 4 arch-shaped doors where you can see a panoramic view of the city.
Muslim Food Street
Of course, no trip is ever complete without a food trip! Muslim Food Street is the collective term for the streets in this area. Huimin Street is the main street with some intersecting roads which include Beiyuanmen Street, North Guangji Street, Xiangshi Street, and Dapiyuan Street. This part of the city oozes with Muslim culture celebrating a haven for meat lovers.
Although for most tourists Muslim Street is a scenic spot of ancient architectural buildings, it’s more known to the locals as a snack street. Must try dishes in this street are (1) roujiamo – a freshly baked bun filled with marinated beef or lamb (2) yangrou paomo – a pita bread that is soaked in lamb soup and (3) Xi’an dumplings and noodles. There are also several bars near the area. In addition to that, other Xi’an attractions such as the Bell Tower and Drum Tower are in close proximity.
Beijing is the capital of China and is considered the most popular tourist destination in China with about 140 million local tourists and 4.4 million foreign tourists visiting annually. Beijing is the transportation hub of China and the country’s political, economic, and cultural center. It’s filled with a lot of spectacular attractions that you can tour in around 3-4 days. When touring Beijing, make sure you put these three into your itinerary.
Badaling Section of the Great Wall of China
When you think of China, I’m sure that the Great Wall of the Ming Dynasty is the first to pop out of your head. It’s 21,196 kilometer long and is divided into sections. The Badaling section is the most-preserved part of the wall depicting the deeply rooted culture of China which runs a total of 7.6 kilometers. It offers military facilities as Beijing was not only just a capital, it’s also a very strategic location for military defense.
Aside from that, it also has a circular-screen cinema and various shopping and dining facilities. This section is the most visited and during peak seasons is also the most over-crowded one. If you’re not up for big crowds, you can also try to explore the other sections with fewer tourists such as Simatai, Jinshanling, and Shuiguan. And aside from walking around, cable cars and slow roller coasters are the means of transport here.
The Forbidden City
Also known as the Palace Museum, The Forbidden City is located at the heart of Beijing, north of Tiananmen Square and is enclosed by a 10 meter high outer wall. This was constructed between 1406-1420 and served as the imperial place of the Ming and Qing Dynasty and was home to 24 emperors in a span of 500 years. It boasts a total of 90 palaces and courtyards and 9000 bays of rooms and the whole palace covers an area of 72 hectares which is four times the size of Taj Mahal!
It’s the world’s most visited museum with a unique collection of art with an estimated number of 1.8 million pieces! It also displays ancient calligraphy, painting, books, and archives as well as numerous imperial artifacts. If you love museums, you will definitely enjoy this place.
There’s no better way to immerse in a culture than living it! Hutong is a narrow alley between rows of Siheyuan (courtyards). You can ride a bike or rent a rickshaw and tour around Hutong to appreciate and gain some insights into the old lifestyle of the people of Beijing – that is the warm interconnected relationship of the people reflected in the interlacement of lanes or Hutong.
There are over a thousand alleys that you can explore and if you plan to tour here, take time to explore popular alleys and even the ones that are not so familiar and take your pick as to which ones you would like to explore.
Shanghai is known as the Pearl of Asia, a city of vibrant development as China’s financial and cultural centre situated along the Yangtze River. It is also the world’s largest city with a population of 24 million people in 2014! Being the center of business, Shanghai is also a transportation powerhouse where you can find the longest metro system in the world running 644 kilometers of tunnels and tracks.
It has a total of 393 stations spread throughout which serves as a great travel service for tourists. Since we’ve been exploring historical and cultural heritages in Xi’an and Beijing, let’s indulge on some modernity in Shanghai by visiting these two places.
The Bund is regarded as the symbol of Shanghai which is a famous waterfront located on the west bank of Huangpu River. It stretches 1, 500 meters long from the Waibaidu Bridge to East Jinling Road. You can appreciate the Bund by walking through it where you can see different western architectural styles which is why it is dubbed as the museum of international architecture.
If you’re travelling with a significant other, you can spend the sunset at the Waibaidu Bridge which is adorned in golden glows. It’s also a famous shooting place. You can also enjoy The Bund by taking the Huangpu River Cruise.
Oriental Pearl Tower
The Shanghai Oriental Pearl Tower is a 1,536 foot high structure completed in four years time and has observation decks at different heights offering different amenities. Starting from the bottom up, the Oriental Pearl Tower decks offer a multimedia show, game city with an indoor roller coaster, transparent skywalking, sky galleria, revolving restaurant, and space capsule. Aside from it being so tall, this tower is admired by tourists for its architecture.
Guilin is known as the most beautiful karst landscape, a definite must-visit for those who love their geology. It’s a small southern city with a million in population. The city is set in between karst hills – Folded Brocade Hill, Fubo Hill, and Solitary Beauty Peak. Compared to the high rise buildings you’ll find in Shanghai, buildings here are restricted to 20 storeys so that it doesn’t overpower the beautiful landscape of hills.
Aside from the Karst Hills and Caves, you can also explore Yangshuo, a beautiful countryside showing the leisure rural lifestyle. You can also check out the Longji Rice Terraces which look like scales of a huge dragon back, hence the name. The scenery here is very peaceful and relaxed so you can definitely take your rest here from all the bustle of the city life.
Chengdu is the home of China’s most celebrated creatures, the giant pandas! There are actually four Panda bases you can explore in Chengdu and three of which namely Dujiangyan, Wolong, and Bifengxiacan offer panda volunteer programs. If you’re tired of the fast-paced work life, you can refresh your soul here as you can never see anyone hurrying in Chengdu.
If you’re into Mahjong, you can immerse yourself with the locals for a game or two or while watching you can enjoy a cup of good tea. Chengdu is also the site of many Buddhism influences where you can find a big statue of Buddha located in Leshan.
If you love nature AND adventure, this is definitely the place for you. When in Zhangjiajie, make sure to drop by these three most visited destinations: (1) National Forest Park – trivia time, the mountains and peaks that you’ve seen in the movie Avatar? It’s this. (2) Tianmen Mountain or Heaven’s Gate Mountain – the famous 99 steps to Heaven’s Door and (3) Grand Canyon Glass Bridge – this is a 300 meter high and 430 meter long glass bridge made for people who love heart-thumping adventures.
One of its main attractions is the Yellow Mountains listed as a World Heritage Site where you can enjoy hot springs and hiking. It’s also a good place for aspiring photographers or those who just love taking photos of sceneries as there are many different unique pines and rocks, seas of clouds, and breathtaking sunrise and sunset views.