by Sacha Bunnik
China is one of the most diverse and interesting places I have ever visited, a country of constant contrast, old and new, busy and peaceful, manmade and natural beauty.
It’s also a country that is rapidly changing so now is the time to visit China.
One of the world’s great capital cities, Beijing is full of grand buildings, monuments to the success of China and the Communist party, and wide boulevards. These all work together to create a real buzz and a feeling of global importance.
During our time in Beijing we visited the impressive Tiananmen Square, the heart of the city and at times the meeting place of hundreds and thousands of Chinese. The square is 109 acres in size, was designed and built in 1651 and plays an important part in the country’s rich history. We spent a good few hours walking around, just people watching and soaking up the atmosphere. It was in Tiananmen Square that I got mobbed by locals to be part of their family photos; I think it was because I was a westerner, about a foot taller and a good part heavier than the average Chinese person. I felt like a fatter version of Brad Pitt without hair.
Our next stop was the World Heritage-listed Forbidden City, this massive complex is a must see when visiting Beijing, as you need to experience the sheer size of this place. The Forbidden City has over 900 buildings, over 8500 rooms, surrounded by an 8 metre wall and 6 metre deep moat, making it one of the largest imperial palaces in the world.
One of the Seven Wonders of the World and a true global icon, the Great Wall of China stretches over 6000 kilometres across China and can be seen from the moon. Built as a fortification to keep invading armies out of China, parts of the wall date back to 7th century BC, making it one of the oldest manmade structures in the world. We visited the section of the Great Wall closest to Beijing and it was truly a wonderful experience to be able to walk on such a famous historic wall.
Just outside of Kunming is the World Heritage-listed Stone Forest, a magical place to visit as it’s so unique. The whole area is dotted with limestone rocks that jut out of the ground, many looking like petrified trees, thus creating the illusion of a stone forest. The main area of the Stone Forest has been beautifully landscaped with water features and is crisscrossed by walking trails, making it a great place to explore and relax.
Li River – Guilin
We took the touristy river cruise on the Li River from Guilin to Yangzhou and it turned out to be one of the most scenically beautiful river cruises we had ever done. The journey took about 4 hours and passed hundreds of mountain peaks that seemed to rise out of the landscape straight into the sky. This is the scenery that most people think of when they think of China, it’s even on the local currency.
A nice part of the cruise was being able to watch local rural life taking place on the river bank, from locals swimming and washing their livestock, to fishermen in little boats and children playing on the river banks. It is a world apart from the mega cities of China.
Shanghai is China’s version of New York, with a population of over 26 million people and a skyline filled with hundreds of skyscrapers. This mega city has grown from a small trading port on the Yangtze River Delta in the 1800’s to the largest city in China and home to most of China’s international business.
A must see in Shanghai is the historic waterfront area called the Bund. The Bund is the oldest part of the city and is home to a large range of architecturally unique buildings dating back to the era when Europe controlled most of China’s trade. Here you can take a walk along the waterfront, with one side of the river offering historic buildings, while the other side is full of skyscrapers, a real contrast.
Nanjing Road is home to the best shopping in Shanghai, with the latest fashions and electrics on show. Make sure you bargain hard, it’s all part of the fun of shopping in China.
The Yu Gardens founded in 1559 is a peaceful pocket of green in the concrete jungle of the city and a great place to recharge your batteries. The centre piece of the gardens is Jade Rock, surrounded by a maze of waterways and ponds.
To be 100% honest I was a little nervous about the whole food situation in China, I had heard stories about tourist eating all sorts of animals (not the normal cow or sheep) and insects. Well I was pleasantly surprised and really enjoyed most of my meals during our journey in China. Rice and noodles are the mainstay of most meals and each city has its own speciality dishes.
One of my favourite meals was in Kunming where we got to eat yak. This local livestock looks a lot like a very hairy cow. Yak is very tender and tastes like beef, yummo. While in Shanghai we enjoyed a hot pot, which was cooked at our table while we watched on, different. Well it was different as I found half a chicken head mixed with the noodles looking up at me. They say chicken brain is very healthy for you and also very tasty.
China has one of the largest and most extensive train networks in the world, carrying millions of people each week. No trip to China would be complete without experiencing some sort of train travel, so we decided to take the overnight sleeper train from Shanghai to Beijing, which turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in China. Our cabin was small as would be expected on a train, but it was private (twin berth) which was good, meaning we both had a good night’s sleep.
Before we retired for the night we walked the full length of the train, mixing it up with locals and tourists alike, which was great fun.