Now might be the best time to start planning a visit to China with a report on travel trends predicting the country will soon to be one of the top five travel destinations joining the US, UK, Germany and France.
Jackie has recently returned after criss-crossing this huge nation on bullet trains and ticking off some bucket list items. She shares some of her highlights that will inspire you to take the next steps in planning a new and exciting experience.
Beijing – city of contrasts
As we touched down in the capital and made our way through six ring roads to our accommodation at the centrally located The Regent, Beijing I realised that what I thought was a light mist was in fact a haze that seemed to blanket the city.
This didn’t detract from the excitement of our first day in China as we made an early start to the park surrounding the Temple of Heaven to watch locals mastering dance, calligraphy and tai chi or sipping tea playing mahjong. From here it was an easy walk to Tiananmen Square, past Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum where we entered one of the gates of The Forbidden City. With over 1,000 buildings, it is impossible to see and absorb all the history, but I loved the colour palette of lavish gold, terracotta red doors complemented by blues and greens following our guide through labyrinthine alley ways.
We retreated to our spacious room for an early night ready for another full day tour visiting The Great Wall of China. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for how impressive this iconic masterpiece is in real life. We visited the Mutianyu section of the wall and found it to be amazingly uncrowded. Access was via a chair lift and, if the weather had been dry, we could have returned to the car park sliding down the side of the mountain on a toboggan ride! That will have to wait until next time!
In the late afternoon we walked from the hotel to Wangfujing Street, a great pedestrian street lined with both western brand stores and Chinese artisan shops. As night fell, street food markets set up along Wangfujing Snack Street and we couldn’t resist taking some Insta-snaps of the exotic displays of deep-fried insects and scorpions on skewers – deciding this was a far better option rather than actually tasting them.
If you want to get a little off the beaten track then allow time to visit the “798 Art Zone” where a complex of factories left over from The Cultural Revolution has become one of the hottest art destinations and a visual feast of outdoor sculptures, galleries, boutiques, cafes and restaurants.
Just as inspiring, take a rickshaw ride into one of the traditional hutongs surrounding the Drum and Bell Tower – which was the town clock in ancient times when the bells rang the hours of the day and the drum tower beat the hours of the night (the drum was called the voice of earth and the bell was the voice of heaven). In contrast to the elite culture represented by the Forbidden City and Summer Palace, the hutongs reflect the grassroots of Beijing life where you can still witness the simple way of life.
Bullet train to Xi’an
With 16 high speed bullet trains daily to Xi’an it is a great alternative to flying without the angst of getting to the airport and the whole check-in process. Our guide came with us to the waiting room and when it was time to board, although it was crowded, everything was very streamlined and orderly. We chose to travel 1st Class along with many other Western tourists, and although I was disappointed that my window seat didn’t really have a window for me to watch the landscape whiz by, the time went quickly covering 1,216 kms in around 4 hours 20 minutes at a maximum speed of 341km/hr. It is worth mentioning that although there is free tea/coffee and water you need to purchase food – or better still, buy something before boarding.
Xi’an – the eastern end of the ancient Silk Road
One of the first things I noticed arriving in Xi’an was the ancient wall surrounding the city that is apparently the oldest in China. Our home for the next three nights was at the Hilton Xi’an located within these walls. We paid the extra US$32 per person to upgrade to an Executive Room which gave us access to the Executive Lounge where we enjoyed complimentary breakfast, drinks and supper each day.
To get an overview of the city, the best thing we did was hire a bike for a couple of hours and cycled the wall, which is a 13.7km track passing several of its 98 ramparts.
I had also been told not to miss the famous Muslim Quarter located just behind the Drum Tower and only a 40-minute walk from our hotel. The street was fascinating- lined on both sides with a seemingly never-ending selection of sweet and savoury snacks ranging from dried fruit to meat kebab as well as a number of unique creations such as fruit pies made with persimmon.
However, the highlight for me on this trip was always going to be The Terracotta Warriors and Horses to see up close what is arguably the most significant archaeological excavation in the 20th Century and was one of those ‘wow’ moments of travelling. We visited two pits – Pit 1 is the largest, with an estimated 6,000 warriors and horses and 40 wooden chariots in battle formation with the warriors all facing east. I found it quite incredible that each warrior is unique with detailed expressions and hair styles, and that in all the excavations so far, there has not been one that is exactly the same.
Heading to the airport for a mid-afternoon flight allowed us time for an easy detour en route to another beautifully exhibited preserved site – the Hanyangling Museum, final resting place of Emperor Liu Qi and his wife Empress Wang. Less famous and not crowded possibly because its warriors are not life size, I found it quite surreal walking on glass floors over the pit looking at nearly 5000 clay soldiers, horses and other relics more or less as they were discovered.
On our first evening we took a cruise along the Huangpu River where I could appreciate the city’s blend of the old and new – the sweeping arch of the Bund with its colonial buildings from a bygone era on one side and on the other – Pudong with its modern and futuristic skyscrapers.
The next day we were up early to line up for tickets at 8:30am and wandered through courtyards and pavilions in the beautiful Yuyuan Gardens and admired how the four elements of traditional Chinese design have been interwoven into this exquisite Ming-era garden. I loved that at this time of day we had the garden nearly all to ourselves!
A perfect day trip was our visit to Zhujiajiao, about 48kms from Shanghai. We crossed ancient bridges dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties and I loved the gondala ride along the canals lined with historic buildings and could understand why this water town dating back 1,700 years is often dubbed the Venice of the East.
One of the most popular areas of Shanghai is the Former French Concession area graced with grand mansions behind wrought iron gates, art deco apartments and tree-lined streets where I loved exploring boutique shops, artisan crafts and tempting cafes and restaurants. By chance I came across the cobblestone streets of Xintiandi, a preserved neighbourhood and outdoor mall with a mini-museum portraying life in a typical shikumen house during the 20th century.
However, to appreciate every era of Chinese history, the Shanghai Museum is a “must not miss experience”, designed in the shape of an ancient bronze cooking vessel called a ding, it has an enormous collection from furniture, ceramics, calligraphy and paintings to traditional costumes from the various dynasties.
And then there is the food! Not only is Shanghai known for its street eats culture, it also has some of the best regional Chinese cuisine and cutting-edge avant-garde gastronomy.
Taste temptations on the street were steamed fried pork buns (Sheng Jian Bao) only found in Shanghai, we joined the queue to try green onion pancakes (Cong You Bing) and steamed dumplings (Xiao Long Bao) eaten with black vinegar and ginger.
I also discovered that it is best to book ahead at some restaurants and was disappointed not to dine at M on the Bund. Many of the luxury hotels are also top dining destinations – the hottest restaurant at the moment is Café Grey Deluxe at the recently opened hotel Middle House. We settled for Dragon Phoenix which served fabulous Chinese cuisine complemented with great views of Pudong at the Fairmont Peace Hotel. Ask the waiter if you can check out the ballroom on the same floor with its famed sprung-timber dance floor and imagine a different time and then head to the ground floor to the Jazz Bar for a nightcap – a Shanghai institution since the 1930s.
Another tip I was given is when you make a reservation prior to arriving in Shanghai – print off the address so that you can show the taxi driver – otherwise your dining experience could also be an all-night adventure!
Maglev Train from Shanghai city to the airport
This is the fastest commercial high-speed electric train in the world and what would take 45 minutes by taxi took us only 7 minutes, travelling at speeds up to 431km/hr. The train runs regularly throughout the day but in the early morning and late afternoon does not operate at full speed.
Guilin – iconic scenery
Located on the River Li, we were drawn to including Guilin and Yangshuo on our itinerary to see for ourselves the landscape that seems to epitomise the natural beauty of China.
We loved taking a boat ride down the Li River offering stunning views of green rice paddies, grazing water buffalo and distant karst mountains; taking a night time stroll along the riverside and exploring the local markets plus a day trip to the Longsheng Rice Terraces learning about the different traditions and cultures of the ethnic minority groups that live here.
Final days were spent at the Yangshuo Resort Hotel which reminded me of being at an African safari lodge with rooms in separate pavilions connected via long covered walkways amidst lush gardens. It was a wonderful end to our first China trip, enjoying the idyllic surroundings of this beautiful town nestled between karst peaks on the banks of the Yulong River.
We could have taken bikes out to explore the countryside, but instead chose to wander the streets lined with handicraft gift shops for some last-minute trip mementos.
Bullet Train from Guilin to Hong Kong
This service only commenced operating in September 2018 and took about 3 hours to arrive in Hong Kong West Kowloon Station (with 2 stops at Guangzhou and Shenzhen). We chose to travel 2nd class on this part of the journey and perhaps because it is still so brand new, we enjoyed it much more than the Beijing/Xi’an trip. Food and drinks had to be purchased but by now we knew what to do and took our own.
My itinerary included four nights in Beijing, two nights in Xi’An, three nights each in Shanghai and Guilin/Yangshuo finishing with two nights in Hong Kong.
When to Go to China
In the northeast, summers can be hot and winters bitterly cold, while the southern half of the country has a more semi-tropical climate. In general, the best times to travel in terms of weather are the spring and autumn.
We were advised to tip the guides 100 yuan per day, and the drivers about a third of this. Our guides throughout were fantastic and we were more than happy to show our appreciation in this way.
General health and safety
The main thing to remember is not to drink water from anything other than a bottle and to be careful eating anything from street vendors and market stalls and if you must try – make it fried as the hot oil should hopefully kill anything nasty!