Hong Kong, known as the gateway to China clearly boasts this paradigm shift, as most airlines will only land in the bustling port city, forcing many who want to travel China to begin there.
Hong Kong is more than worth a trip as it is a melting pot of all of China’s various cultures. Perhaps the most overt example of how Hong Kong has preserved Chinese culture is through the strict adherence to the core values of Confucianism, which have all but fallen away on the mainland.
This coupled with many Chinese traditions and exotic influences, mixed in with the last shreds of British culture, makes the city both a colourful and interesting place to visit.
Festivals take place throughout the year and add a vibrant reminder of “old China” to the modern backdrop that is Hong Kong. This city is still a great introduction to China as it makes apparent a theme which runs throughout the country: China is very much a land of contrasts.
Where else would one find highly traditional pavement food stalls (known as dai pan dong to the locals) outside quintessential luxury restaurants, tenements next to office blocks or San-pans next to huge liners.
The China Internal Tourism Service (CITS) is ‘Your only choice’, as the large sign will say outside most of their offices throughout the country. This harkens to the intense government control which is prevalent throughout China. Still, the service is a good one and you will probably be put into a CITS tour group as you travel the country. CITS also sort out flights and accommodation.
A tour group is not be a bad idea when you realise that your Mandarin is not up to scratch. Several dialects of Mandarin are spoken in China so expect your tour guide to change.
After a surprisingly cheap flight I reached my first destination on the mainland – Shanghai. The city is situated on the estuary of the Yangtze River and serves as the largest base for industrial technology in China. The industriousness of the Chinese is truly apparent in the streets of Shanghai as everyone is doing something.
Our Shanghai tour guide took us to what is known as the ‘Bund’ – the promenade along the Yangtze River. The sights to see here are the Workers Freedom Statue and the Oriental Pearl TV tower, which is on the far bank of the river.
Shopping is definitely the main attraction for visitors, with the main area for shopping starting at Nanjing Road. For those with modern and fashionable tastes make sure you visit Huaihai Road. Xujiahui Shopping Center, Yuyuan Shopping City and Jiali “Sleepless” City are popular with those who want mementos to take home.
Shanghai’s cuisine is also a must to explore with traditional food from all over China on offer as well as its own local dishes. Most eating places are open till late and welcome foreigners.
My next stop was Beijing, the capital of China. The city has a history dating back 500 000 years and Beijing itself has been a capital for more than 800 years. Some of the major sites can be found in ‘old Beijing’, where you can find many small temples, gardens and teahouses beside the canals and tree-lined streets. A guide is absolutely essential here.
On the beaten track you can find Tiananmen Square, reputed to be the biggest central square in the world, and of course the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. There is also a preserved section of the Great Wall just a short drive out of the city, sadly this feat of engineering has mostly fallen into disrepair with the section close to Beijing being possibly the most accessible to tourists.
Beijing’s nightlife caters for many different tastes. For those who enjoy the more traditional entertainment there is the Beijing opera as well as acrobatics and martial arts. Modern activities including concerts, pubs and clubs can also be found. Don’t leave the city without trying the Peking duck, the famous local speciality dish, it truly is delicious.
Next was Xian, which is one of China’s furnaces because temperatures can soar into the late 40s in summer. Always make sure to ask for the local speciality dish of dumplings to be made into the shapes of their fillings because you don’t always know what you are eating. For nightlife activities there is the famous Tang Dynasty Dinner Show as well as places for karaoke, which seems to be a national pastime in China.
After Xian I went overland to Chongqing, a city on the banks of the Yangtze River near the site of the enormous Three Gorges Dam project, which will displace around two-million people upon its completion. As far as tourists are concerned, the city is really a way-station for people taking a cruise down the river – which is an absolute must if you want to experience the river properly.
Your guide will probably take you to a lookout point to view the construction of the dam before you move on to the cruise ship. The ships themselves are usually excellent but it depends on the price of your package tour.
I was taken through ancient hanging coffins on the crags of its cliffs, which was truly a sight you have to see for yourself.
Yangtze cruises usually go upriver from the dam site and stop at in the city of Wuhan, where there are various museums and cultural centres. Most tours end at Wuhan and it’s a short flight from the city back to Hong Kong and then out of the country.
Just be aware when planning your trip that the Chinese are very strict on issuing visas and you will probably discover that you have been given a visa which lasts for exactly the amount of time you are going to be in the country.