A first-timer’s guide to the land of the panda

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - COVER STORY - JENNY HEWETT

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.


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.



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.


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.


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

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.



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.

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