THE GREAT CALL OF CHINA
A first-timer’s guide to the land of the panda
There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.” Simply put, we grow the most through experience. As enlightening as it is challenging, a journey through China opens your eyes in a way no book or documentary ever could.
One of the world’s four ancient civilisations, China is a complex state with a written history that dates back more than 4000 years. With its distinct culture, mind-blowing natural beauty and remnants of ancient kingdoms juxtaposed with modern metropolises, China is both spectacular and confronting. Don’t be surprised if it captures your heart.
WHEN TO VISIT
China is the world’s second largest country and its climate is as diverse as its topography. But generally, spring (April and May) and autumn (September and October) are the best months to go. Winters can be cold with below freezing temperatures in Beijing and the northeast, but it’s a unique experience to see it blanketed in snow. To beat the crowds, travel in shoulder seasons and avoid local holidays including Golden Week in October and Chinese Lunar New Year in February.
Australian passport holders can apply for a single-entry visa with a maximum three-month stay in mainland China either in person or via mail. If applying in person, head to the Chinese Visa Application Service Centre at the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in one of the major cities. Postal applications must include, among other things, your passport, a payment authorisation form for the $131.50 mail visa fee (in-person visas are $109.50) and a self-addressed return envelope. Visas are processed within four working days.
WHERE TO GO BEIJING
China’s capital is steeped in history and home to some of the country’s most important cultural and political landmarks, many of them UNESCOlisted. Now a museum, the Forbidden City was once the 9999-room bach pad of various Ming and Qing dynasty emperors for almost 500 years during China’s imperial era. It adjoins the infamous Tiananmen Square, which houses the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Within walking distance, the architecturally acclaimed Temple Of Heaven sits on 267ha of manicured gardens and is China’s largest example of ancient worship. Don’t miss the Summer Palace, with its vast lakes and pavilions, built in 1750 as an imperial retreat.
As for the Great Wall of China, the little-known Jinshanling section in Hebei province is a lengthier twohour drive from the city, but there’s a good chance you’ll have it all to yourself. Beyond the bucket-list sites, Beijing also has plenty to offer the modern traveller. Locally hosted Airbnb Experiences encourages fresh ways to explore the city, from vibrant hutong (traditional neighbourhoods) tours to Chinese calligraphy classes, plus it’s a great way to meet locals.
In 1974, farmers in China’s Shaanxi province made a remarkable discovery while digging for water. An army of life-size terracotta warriors was found buried in three large pits guarding the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The world heritage-listed Terracotta Army comprises an estimated 8000 warriors, 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, and the archaeological site is about 40km outside of Xi’an. Each face is unique and research has led scientists to believe that the clay warriors are in fact portraits of real soldiers. Seeing them in the flesh is one of those pinch-yourself moments that will send chills down your spine.
While you’re there, hire a tandem bike and cycle along Xi’an’s ancient 14-century city, one of the best preserved in China. Also worthwhile is a side trip to the Yaodong farmer cave dwellings, prevalent during the Chinese Communist Party era.
A place where time stood still, the walled city of Pingyao in Shanxi dates back to the 14th century and is one of the only ancient villages in China that’s still intact. Its narrow, cobbled streets are lined with red lanterns, old doors, sloping roofs and traditional architecture from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
There are not many places in the world where you can wake up in a World Heritage site, but this is one of them. A handful of guesthouses and B&Bs can be found inside the old city, most with traditional courtyards and all the feel of old world China.
Take a rickshaw tour around the village, explore the old city wall and its watchtowers on foot, then admire the artistry at nearby Shuanglin and Zhenguo temples, which date back more than 1000 years.
The ancient folk art of papercutting is still alive and well and the delicate stencils, crafted into everything from peacocks to warriors, make beautiful keepsakes.
SEEING THE WARRIORS IS ONE OF THOSE PINCH-YOURSELF MOMENTS THAT WILL SEND CHILLS DOWN YOUR SPINE
stuff your own face with signature spicy Sichuan dishes, including hot pot and twice-cooked pork.
When the 3.6ha Jinsha ruins were accidentally discovered in 2001, archaeologists determined that it was the site of the earliest settlement in southwest China. The museum displays 150 artefacts, including jade and gold, which date back 4000 years to the Shang Dynasty.
The UNESCO-listed Giant Buddha in Leshan City, carved into rock and built during the Tang Dynasty, is about 162km outside of Chengdu.
If you’re interested in cruising the Yangtze River, which snakes through Sichuan and nearby Chongqing, it’s easily accessed via a train to Chongqing.
The frosty capital of China’s most northern province, Heilongjiang, is one of China’s best-kept secrets. Better known for its ice festival, Harbin is a winter wonderland of world-breaking ice artworks, illuminated in neon at night and sculpted into lanterns, architecture and gigantic flowers.
Russians sought refuge in Harbin during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and their legacy remains. With its dome-topped Church of Sophia, pelmeni dumplings and old synagogues, Harbin is like a slice of Moscow in the Orient. Don’t leave home without your ushanka (fur cap).
Do as much as you can. The majority of Chinese food is delicious, with specialties found in each region. Chengdu is famed for its tea-smoked duck, while Shanghai takes its xiao long bao or soup dumplings seriously. You’ll get everything from street food to high-end international dining in the bigger cities. Menus are rarely printed in English, but most restaurants cater to tourists with photos instead. Book a food tour with a local via Airbnb Experiences to gain some insider culinary knowledge.
Pack light, shopping can turn into a competitive sport in China. Whether it’s one-off souvenirs, imitation antiques, knock-offs, saltwater pearls or cashmere, you won’t go home empty-handed. In Beijing, the sprawling Dirt Market (Panjiayuan Market) has everything from faux Tang Dynasty antiques to Tibetan jewellery, while Shanghai’s artsy Tianzifang district in the Old French Quarter houses local up-and-coming designers and hip boutiques.
Bartering is a fine art in China that requires lots of patience and a friendly attitude. Never pay the quoted price without negotiating first and only bargain if you mean to buy the item. There’s often a big difference between the asking price and final price, sometimes up to 50 per cent. Build a rapport, treat vendors with respect and they’ll do the same.
HOW TO TRAVEL
Due to the language barriers, selfguiding can be tricky in China. But the country’s soft sleeper trains are a comfortable and convenient way to travel long distances and can be booked via china-diy-travel.com.
If you’re venturing beyond the big cities, guided tours are the most seamless option. Local Chinese guides are often cheaper and many can now be found via TripAdvisor.
Travel operators and tour companies cover a range of interests and budgets, from luxury smallgroup cultural immersions to river cruises and large sightseeing tours.
The Chinese are warm, friendly, curious and uninhibited. Habits such as spitting in the streets and slurping food are culturally okay. There is no such thing as queuing, so keep your cool and embrace it.
Carry tissues, wet wipes and hand sanitiser – most toilets are squat and get worse outside the big cities.
Be aware of scams. Don’t face your chopsticks towards someone else when eating. Likewise, pointing with your index finger is rude, so use your thumb instead. Taking photos of military or government buildings is prohibited. Most taxi drivers don’t speak English, have your hotel write down your destination, or download English taxi app My China Taxi.
BARTERING IS A FINE ART IN CHINA THAT REQUIRES LOTS OF PATIENCE AND A FRIENDLY ATTITUDE
The UNESCO-listed Giant Buddha in Leshan City, carved out of a cliff during the Tang Dynasty, is the largest and tallest stone Buddha statue in the world.