By: Gary Bowerman
Shrouded in equal parts mystery and modernity, China is a country on the verge. In 2008, it will host the Olympics, and within a decade, experts say, it will become the world’s most-visited nation. Which is why now – right now, before the crowds descend – is the best time to visit.
Roughly the size of the United States, China spans glacial mountains, lush rainforests, and dense, multifaceted cities. It is the fourth-most-visited country in the world (behind France, Spain, and the U.S.), but only for now. Each year, as the government throws the doors open wider, tourism increases by leaps and bounds. Despite the new openness, China remains a challenge for western travelers. There are dozens of languages to navigate and, except for in a few major destinations, tourist infrastructure is fragile at best. Fortunately, its gateway cities of Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai – where most visitors take their initial steps – are increasingly accessible yet still provide authentic experiences. Now is the time to visit and witness the show.
A varied but fast-paced 3-week trip would start in Beijing. Don’t rush this important city. Aim to spend at least 4 days here, including a visit to the Great Wall of China. Two full days in Xi’an is sufficient to explore the city and see the terra-cotta warriors. Then spend a few days in Shanghai, including a day trip to Suzhou and an overnight in Hangzhou. After those urban experiences, you’ll want to see rural China. Time spent in both Dali and Lijiang will acquaint you with the diverse cultures of the magical Yunnan province and afford some real time for relaxation. A couple of day’s trekking in the rainforests of Xishuangbanna sets you up nicely for a final shopping splurge in Hong Kong, taking in a jet foil trip to the high-stakes gambling tables of Macau.
A 2-week trip should also include Beijing (dividing up the time spent here between the start and end of the trip), the Great Wall, Xi’an, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Suzhou, and 2 nights in Lijiang. If there’s time to spare, 2 days and 1 night exploring the European architecture, fine coastline, seafood restaurants, and Olympic sailing facilities of Qingdao is recommended.
A 1-week trip should take in Being, the Great Wall, Xi’an, Shanghai, and Suzhou, with a brief final flourish in Hong Kong.
Additional coverage: Olympic highlights, emerging destinations, and travel tips.
Despite the new openness, China remains a challenge for western travelers. There are dozens of languages to navigate and, except for in a few major destinations, the tourist infrastructure is fragile at best. Fortunately its gateway cities – where most visitors take their initial steps – are increasingly accessible yet still provide authentic experiences. Whether it’s Beijing’s pre-Olympic makeover, Shanghai’s luxury brand malls, or Hong Kong’s financial nexus, each offers a front-row seat to China’s current paradox.
Asia’s World City
Bound by verdant mountains and anchored by animated skyscrapers, Hong Kong is by far China’s most photogenic city. But this former British colony offers much more than a Technicolor urban-meets-rural cityscape. It is a booming economic capital dotted with amazing luxury hotels, arguably the best restaurants in China, and definitely some of the best shopping and markets in the world (there is no sales tax here). The standard of living is comparatively high in Hong Kong, and its residents are sophisticated and friendly.
At Hong Kong’s heart, the broad Victoria Harbor splices the downtown districts of Kowloon (Tsim Sha Tsui) and Central (Hong Kong Island). The latter serves as Hong Kong’s municipal center, and boasts the city’s most inventive architecture and many of its high-end shopping malls, restaurants, and hotels. Though not as glamorous, Kowloon has the highest concentration of mid-range hotels, and is a lively hub offering an authentic Chinese feel. The Causeway Bay, Soho, Aberdeen, Stanley, and Yaumatei neighborhoods are known for their shopping, bars, and restaurants. Crossing the harbor is easy on the iconic green Star Ferry. Name brand stores reside on Queen’s Street at the Landmark, which houses Harvey Nichols, Lalique, and Miu Miu. Nearby, Shanghai Tang‘s colorful silk cheongsams dress the windows of its flagship Pedder Street store. Hollywood Road‘s antique shopping is some of the best in the world. Visitors who want to purchase a custom-tailored suit should check out Sam’s Tailor (94 Nathan Rd; www.samstailor.com), one of the city’s finest. The Jade, Ladies’, Stanley, and Temple Street Night markets are certainly worth poking around and haggling in for bargains.
Hong Kong Bests: View: The Peak Tram to Victoria Peak Shopping: Hollywood Road Antiques Experience: Green Star Ferry Dining: Hutong’s contemporary Imperial cuisine Nightlife: Kee Club’s members’ room
High Stakes Macau
Colonial City Antes Up
Once a sleepy outpost, Macau has become a thriving gambling destination for global high rollers as well as residents of Hong Kong (38 miles north). The city recently overtook Vegas in the amount of money moving across its gambling tables, and while the casinos (including one by Steve Wynn) are amazing, Macau also boasts fantastic colonial-era architecture, which earned it UNESCO heritage status. Shoppers love to hunt for deals on gold jewelry here, especially along Avenida Infante D. Henrique. Nearby Colôane is a good bet for scoring one-of-a-kind woodwork, leather, and antiques, while luxe shopping can be done next to the Wynn hotel. Take a walk through Senado Square and the bustling Red Market food stalls for an authentic Macanese experience.
The Orient’s Lap of Luxury
Mainland China’s most luxe-loving city is also its economic and commercial capital. Here, more than anywhere in the country, money is made and spent. Consequently it’s also where many of China’s trends take root and where the world’s savviest designers, chefs, and hoteliers have descended en masse. Travelers come to Shanghai to experience firsthand the city’s breathtaking transformation and to sample its unique combination of eastern and western culture. While the ultramodern skyline looks to the future, the city’s villas and grand mansions are whispers of an elegant colonial past. For those interested in seeing where China came from and where it is heading, there has never been a better time to visit.
The city is bisected by the Huangpu River, a Yangtze tributary. On the east side is lackluster Pudong, a sprawling commercial and residential district, while westward, Puxi remains Shanghai’s historical heart. Hugging the west bank are elegant 19th-century Bund mansions. A vibrant art scene has exploded recently in Taikang Lu‘s galleries and boutiques and across town at Moganshan Lu‘s gritty studios. Beyond the Bund, designer shopping is stretched out along West Nanjing Road, referred to as Shanghai’s Fifth Avenue, and in Xintiandi. The Dongjiudu Fabric Market is a great place to score cheap silk, linen, and wool, while the Fuyou and Xiangyang markets are better for antique-rummaging and knockoff bags. Silk King (Tianpíng Lù 139; 011-21-6282-1533) is the place to custom-tailor a quality suit in less than 24 hours.
Shanghai Bests: View: Morning walk along Bund Shopping: West Nanjing Road Experience: Taikang Lu’s galleries and boutiques and Moganshan Lu’s raw art studios Dining: Tea-smoked eggs and sevruga caviar at Whampoa Club Nightlife: Cocktails at the Glamour Bar
China’s Lakeside Paradise
Occupying a unique spot in Chinese hearts, tranquil Hangzhou and its mystical West Lake have inspired generations of emperors, poets, and peasants. Fringed by hills and dotted with temples and pagodas, the city has become a major attraction both for local and, increasingly, foreign tourists. The Linyin Temple, one of China’s most colorful Buddhist landmarks, has a handful of prayer halls built around a hillside courtyard. At the entrance is a labyrinth of grottoes featuring 350 images of Buddha carved into the rocks. The fertile surrounding hills produce China’s choicest tea, Longjing (Dragon Well). The original plantation is nearby, and visits can be organized through most hotels.
Pearl and Silk Deals
Marco Polo noted that Suzhou has “6,000 bridges, all of stone,” and for the most part, the epithet still fits. Though many of its signature humpbacked bridged canals are long gone and its intricate waterways superseded by road and rail, Suzhou remains an alluring silk-trade city that is worth leaving Shanghai for, if only for a day. Classical Ming and Qing Dynasty gardens are a prime attraction, each one exquisitely landscaped with bamboo trees, bonsais, shaded pavilions, and lotus ponds. In spring, the Master of Nets, Surging Wave Pavilion, and Humble Administrator’s Gardens are at their most mystical. The Suzhou Silk Museum‘s gift shop sells silk wares, including wonderfully soft, handspun silk duvets. Freshwater pearls harvested from nearby Lake Tai, another draw, are available at great prices throughout the city.
A Less Forbidden City Surfaces
Unlike walkable Shanghai and maneuverable Hong Kong, China’s political capital is a vast, initially bewildering city that encapsulates China’s imperial past, current societal growing pains, and Olympic-fueled spring toward tomorrow. Its 5,000-year history and wealth of cultural treasures draw overseas and domestic visitors alike, but the city’s political reticence is what makes it so different from the rest of China. Today, bold new stadiums, airport terminals, subway networks, roads, and shopping malls form part of the grand plan for the 2008 Olympic Games. More traditionally-Chinese in character than semi-westernized Shanghai (its historical nemesis) and Hong Kong, Beijing will convince you that it is the beating heart of a formidable nation and a fascinating place to visit. The set-piece contrasts are absorbing: Yao Ming advertises mobile phones on giant billboards where before there was only propaganda, and while city elders gossip in hutong dialects at Peking duck diners, their affluent grandchildren sip lattes and discuss MP4 downloads.
Historic must-see attractions, such as the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, and the Summer Palace, are complemented by new highlights, namely the “Birds Nest” Olympic Stadium by Herzog and de Meuron, Dashanzi Contemporary Art Commune, and the Legation Dining and Entertainment District.
Beijing Bests: View: The 800 ancient buildings in the Forbidden City Shopping: Bartering for Mao-era collectibles at Panjiayuan Market Experience: Dashanzi, a former factory colonized by China’s new wave of artists Dining: Courtyard, overlooking the Forbidden City’s moat Nightlife: Cocktails at Lan, Philippe Starck’s lounge
China’s Great Wall
Choosing the Right Section
Construction of this monumental 4,000-mile structure began in the 5th century and was completed over 1,000 years later. Designed for division and protection, the Great Wall has become a symbol of Chinese strength and determination.
Views from the wall are spectacular. The reconstructed sections nearest to Beijing span perilous mountain ledges, jagged peaks, and expansive tree-clad valleys. The scenery changes with the seasons, and is particularly photogenic when covered in snow, from January to March, and in spring and fall when early-morning mists gently lift to reveal the wall marching across the sparkling mountain backdrop.
The most accessible section is at Badaling, a 2-hour drive from the capital, but this area gets quite crowded. Just as scenic and only an additional half-hour drive is the Mutianyu section. If you visit early on a weekday it can feel like your own private stretch of history. President Clinton visited here in 1998, and the cable car he rode bears his name. Nearby, the private Shuigan Mountain segments are sublime. The more remote Simatai section (70 miles north of Beijing) offers a rugged hike for adventurous spirits who wish to trek the “Wild Wall” to Jinshanling (a 4-to-5-hour hike).
Home of Frozen Warriors
Located in central farmland 750 miles southwest of Beijing, Xi’an has always been a meeting point for divergent cultures. Once China’s ancient capital, Xi’an was the starting point of the legendary Silk Road trade route to Europe. Those who wish to experience a deeper archeological and historical view of China will want to spend a few days here, otherwise an overnight is sufficient to see the major sights. There was little tourism until 1974, when farmers digging a well northeast of Xi’an unearthed shattered pieces of clay. Today, the Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses Museum is pure tourism gold. The restored, life-sized warriors are eerily human, with determined facial expressions, and hairstyles relating to army rank. Visitors can walk and cycle around the city’s wall for great views of Chinese architecture and the Muslim quarter. Don’t miss the beautiful Great Mosque, tucked away in a traditional Chinese courtyard.
Gateway to Tibet
The Yunnan Province, near Tibet in the mountainous southwest, is rich with dramatic alpine scenery, picturesque towns, and 24 ethnic groups that offer a glimpse into life beyond the bright lights of urban China. Distances between key sites are considerable, and absorbing the diverse landscapes can mean some long, bumpy journeys, though increasingly, this area is being served by China’s airlines.
One of the area’s most engaging cities is its provincial capital, Kunming (known as the Eternal Spring City for its sunny climate). It has temples, flower gardens, markets, delicious Yunnanese street food (such as fried potatoes served in a spicy pepper sauce with onion and coriander), and a relaxed feel. Rural Lijiang, Dali, and the rainforest at Xishuangbanna are other areas worth visiting.
To the north, UNESCO-listed Lijiang is a picture-postcard ideal of rural China, with cobbled backstreets, three rivers, ancient stone architecture, and rustic Naxi cuisine like pottery rice dishes and fried goat cheese. Lijiang is also the most touristy part of Yunnan, packed with visitors who come to experience the indigenous Naxi culture. Beloved by backpackers, Dali, in western Yunnan, is a small, historic, and much-visited town, home to the Bai people. Trekking through the tropical rainforest at Xishuangbanna, fringing the Burma and Laos borders, is a great way to experience the Thai influences of the Dai people.
Many first-time China visitors avoid corporate chain hotels and stay at Chinese brand hotels, thinking it Many first-time China visitors avoid corporate chain hotels and stay at Chinese brand hotels, thinking it will be a better value and/or cultural experience, but Chinese owned and operated hotels charge the same as the foreign chains and most often offer inferior service and amenities. Beware of China’s star-rating system for hotels, using it as your guide will likely prove disappointing even if you book a so-called 5-star hotel. Ratings come from Beijing authorities and are awarded to properties based upon their amenities immediately after opening with no regard for maintenance and upkeep, making the system virtually worthless. We’ve outlined the best hotels in each city below; no matter your budget you’re sure to find one that suits.
Chain hotels abound in Hong Kong, but most cater to leisure travelers, with opulent spas and restaurants. Prices are considerably higher than on the mainland. Our pick for a smart splurge is the Landmark Mandarin Oriental (011-852-2132-0188; rooms from $398; www.mandarinoriental.com) which has spacious rooms with clean, contemporary lines. A great value is Philippe Starck’s new Jia (011-852-6882-8888; rooms from $231; www.jiahongkong.com) in hip Causeway Bay, which offers Venetian chandeliers, plump satin armchairs, and entry to the private Kee Club.
The Mandarin Oriental (011-853-2856-7888; rooms from $139; www.mandarinoriental.com) is our luxury value pick for its central location and landscaped outdoor pool. More colonial, the boutiquey Pousada de São Tiago (011-853-378-111; rooms from $320; www.saotiago.com.mo), has large rooms overlooking the 17th-century fortress.
Shanghai’s hotels are dominated by pricey, 5-star business brands that rarely offer discounts. Our smart splurge pick is 88 Xintiandi (rooms from $288; www.88xintiandi.com), located downtown, with modern suites with balcony views and access to the adjacent private Villa du Lac restaurant/club. For great value, we love the 12-room Old House Inn (011-86-21-6248-6118; rooms from $90; www.oldhouse.cn), a renovated lane house in the French Concession. In February Jia (sister to the boutique Hong Kong hotel of the same name; 011-86-21-6217-9000; rooms from $275; www jiahongkong.com) opened on hip Nanjing Road.
Our top pick for lodging is the Hangzhou Xihu State Guesthouse (011-86-571-8797-9889-7806; rooms from $83; www.xihusgh.com), a slightly Spartan lakeside retreat of the Party elite, which offers the most charming accommodations in town.
Suzhou’s hotel scene has yet to really get going, though the guest book at the newly-renovated leafy Garden Hotel (011-86-512-6778-6778; rooms from $163; www.gardenhotelsz.com) includes Mao Tse-tung, Teng Hsiao-p’ing, and Jimmy Carter.
After a slow start, Beijing’s high-end hotel scene is picking up speed and the city now offers the best range of accommodations in all of China. For short visits, it’s wise to book a room near major sights in Wangfujing Dajie, but most of the luxe hotels are found in the Chaoyang District, near the embassies. The stylish and classic Raffles Beijing (011-8610-6526-3388; rooms from $458; www.beijing.raffles.com) in Wangfujing is our smart splurge; it recreates its Singapore sister’s timelessness, down to its Asian furnishings, high-backed leather armchairs, and signature Beijing Sling cocktail. Each of the five rooms at Red Capital Residence (011-8610-8403-5308; rooms from $190; www.redcapitalclub.com.cn) has a unique historic theme, such as the Chairman’s Suite, decorated with Mao-era furniture and memorabilia. Our great value pick is the brand new Hotel Kapok (011-8610-6525-9988; rooms from $100 www.hotelkapok.com), with 80 warm, modernist rooms, and hotel amenities like private bars, a small library, and a fitness room.
Large-scale hotel construction is underway in Xi’an. Our top choice is the small, friendly Shang Hao Binguan (Jianshe Xi Lu 8; 011-8629-8553-9111), which offers spacious rooms.
Nestled amid eucalyptus trees near Dianchi Lake is Dianchi Garden Hotel and Spa (011-86-871-4334-888; rooms from $100), with gorgeous views.
Finding good regional food in China is the same as anywhere else: you have to seek it out. Organized tour groups often treat visitors to cheap, lackluster, pan-Asian dishes designed to minimize complaints and keep costs down. It really pays to try the regional specialty of the area you’re in and seek out your own restaurants, off-the-beaten path. If traveling with a tour group, break away during mealtimes to experience your own deeper connection with the food. Many servers will always suggest the most expensive dish on the menu, so be weary of recommendations. Chinese food is designed to be eaten in pairs or larger groups, so if you’re dining solo, ask for small portions (xiao pan), which are found on most menus, and are about three-quarters the size (and cost) of regular dishes. If asked what kind of tea you’d like, assume you will be charged for it, and note that some teas can cost more than the meal itself. Don’t ask for or expect a fortune cookie (though its roots go back to the Mongols, the modern-day cookie custom was actually invented in California). Tipping is appreciated but not expected.
Hong Kong has the most ethnically diverse cuisine in China. Our dining picks include Lumiere at Two IFC Tower (011-852-2393-3933), blending floor-to-ceiling harbor views and inventive South American-Szechuan cuisine. For local flavor try Yung Kee (www.yungkee.com.hk), whose signature roast goose has sated diners for more than 50 years. Hong Kong’s 5-star hotels also offer top-grade cuisine, notably Nobu (opened at the InterContinental in fall 2006), Gaddi’s (Peninsula), and Alain Ducasse’s Spoon.
Sample Macanese cuisine (a fusion of Cantonese and Portuguese) at Henri’s Galley (011-853-556-251), renowned for spicy prawns, roast fish, and African chicken. Venture over to romantic Fernando’s (011-853-328-264) in Colôane, for traditional Portuguese fare.
We love the stellar Asian-Australian fusion at T8 (www.t8shanghai.com) in Xintiandi. But Shanghai is known for its “drunken” dishes marinated in local Shaoxing wine. Baoluo (Fùmín Lù 271; 011-86-21-6279-2827) is a local spot that serves it, as well as dishes like braised mushroom with crab and twice-cooked lamb in pancakes.
Hangzhou Good restaurants are in relatively short supply, but be sure to check out the ancient Hangzhounese cuisine, marked by refreshing combinations of local pork or lake-caught fish with vegetables, often mixed with bamboo shoots. The dinner cruises at Lou Wai Lou are a romantic way to experience the unique beauty of this city.
Suzhou’s dining scene has yet to really get going, but evening dinner on the waterside Garden Brasserie (011-86-512-6510-3388; rooms from $230; www.sheraton-suzhou.com) terrace is romantic.
Restaurants open and close quickly in Beijing, so be sure to call before showing up. The city offers a great and diverse selection of affordable international fare but be sure to check out Andie Anniang (Chaoyang Gongyuan; 011-8610-6591-0231), in a sweet charming setting with delicious Beijing cuisine. We also love the fanciful Alice in Wonderland-esque decor and organic, tea-infused New Chinese cuisine at Green T House (www.green-t-house.com). But our favorite is the tasty and succulent signature Peking Duck served in a modern interpretation of a Beijing courtyard kitchen at Made in China (www.beijing.grand.hyatt.com).
Xi’an is famed for its delicious dumplings (baozi), available everywhere. We love the ones at Jiasan Guàntang Baozi (011-8629-8725-7507) as well as its other spicy Xi’an dishes.
Kunming is the best bet, and though it lacks top-grade hotels and dining, the town’s tea houses offer the region’s famed pu’er tea.
Obtain a China entry visa before flying. If entering via a mainland city but subsequently visiting Hong Kong or Macau, you will need a multiple entry visa.
Money Visiting China, Hong Kong, and Macau means encountering three currencies: China’s yuan or RMB, Hong Kong’s dollar, and Macau’s pataca. Many stores in Hong Kong and Macau accept yuan notes, but Hong Kong dollars and patacas are not accepted in mainland China. Check values before traveling, as the U.S. dollar is weakening almost daily. Hotels and banks change U.S. dollars and ATMs are ubiquitous in major cities – spend all you exchange, the Chinese yuan is non-convertible outside China.
Nonstop flights to Shanghai depart daily from San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Nonstop flights to Hong Kong depart daily from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Nonstop flights to Beijing depart daily from San Francisco, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.
GETTING AROUND CHINA
From Hong Kong to Macau: Day trips are certainly possible, but an over-night stay (see Where to Stay) is recommended. A 1-hour jetfoil provides access from Hong Kong (011-852-2859-3333; www.turbojet.com.hk).
From Shanghai to Hangzhou: Trains run hourly to and from Shanghai South Railway Station. Journey time is 2 hours. Round-trip fare: $10-$12.
From Shanghai to Suzhou: One-hour train rides run to and from Shanghai Railway Station.
Getting to Xi’an: Non-stop flights from all major Chinese cities fly into Xi’an daily.
Getting to the Great Wall: Hotels in Beijing arrange transportation by private car to and from the Great Wall. Cost: $80-$110.
Getting to Yunnan Province: Nonstop, 2.5-hour flights from Beijing and Shanghai fly into Kunming daily.