With its far-reaching history and incalculable prospects, China is a must for anyone interested in past civilizations and the future of our world. It also contains three of the world’s greatest man-made sights: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Terracotta Warriors.
It is tempting to cover too much ground, choosing a whirlwind tour of its 5,000-year history and ending up coming away with little idea of contemporary China and how life is lived today by most of its 1.3 billion people.
The clever way to visit this vast and diverse nation is to think quality, not quantity. In Beijing, for example, I suggest visiting the Forbidden City but dropping the Summer Palace (both are former imperial estates). I include a day devoted to the capital’s vibrant, cutting-edge art scene but sacrifice visits to its museums, as similar artifacts can be seen at top-class museums in Xi’an and Shanghai instead.
When I lived in China in the 1990s, it was possible to do it all. There were few domestic tourists, and the traffic ran smoothly. Now the Chinese are eager to explore their homeland and crowds at the main sights – and the traffic jams to get there – cannot be ignored. Avoid the main public holidays: Chinese New Year (usually in February) and the National Holidays in the first week of May and October, when the whole country appears to be on the move.
In this tour designed for first-time visitors, I have included the ancient capital of Xi’an to demonstrate how far ahead of the game this country was when Britain was still in the Dark Ages, as well as Beijing and a little-visited stretch of the Great Wall where you will still get a real sense of how lonely a posting it must have been for a Chinese soldier.
Shanghai is one of the world’s most thrilling international cities and should not be missed as it may offer a glimpse of all our futures. I have also selected the smaller cities of Pingyao and Hangzhou, to slow down the pace and provide insights into China’s mercantile and literary heritage.
Trains on China’s high-speed rail network travel at more than 200mph, making them a convenient and more interesting way to travel. Use Mark Smith’s excellent rail travel website, seat61.com, for information on how to buy tickets from the UK which can be delivered to your hotel. Hotels can easily be booked online.
There is no need to employ a driver or a guide every day. Few taxi drivers speak English, so ask your concierge to write your destination in Chinese characters, and take the hotel’s business card. In Beijing and Shanghai, use the Metro.
So ditch the idea of trying to do it all. In doing so you, will return home not only with a deeper understanding of the world’s next superpower but also feeling restored rather than exhausted.
Fly overnight from London to Beijing on British Airways
The flight lands at 09.30. It takes around 45 minutes to transfer to the Kapok Hotel, with its contemporary design and convenient location near the Forbidden City. Some three-night-stay packages include airport transfers.
The park at the Temple of Heaven, a 15th-century imperial sacrificial altar, is one of my favorite places to relax and watch the locals practicing t’ai chi and singing rousing ballads in the late afternoon.
Walk to the south entrance of the Forbidden City, 100 acres of palaces and gardens where Ming and Qing dynasty emperors lived, loved and ruled. Arrive at 8.30am when it opens, pick up an audio guide or a site plan, and head for the Hall of Supreme Harmony and its dragon throne.
Afterward visit the Palace of Benevolent Tranquility, restored to give some idea of its 18th-century splendor and opened to the public last October. The imperial clock and ceramics collections are other highlights here.
Exit by the north gate to explore the old hutong alleyways around Nanluoguxiang street, full of cafés and shops selling ethnic textiles, retro Mao gear, and ceramics.
Spend the day at 798 Art District, a former armaments factory now occupied by dozens of contemporary art ateliers and galleries. Much acclaimed are Long March Space, 798 Photo Gallery, and UCCA. Located in eastern Beijing, it takes about an hour by taxi. Most galleries are open by 11 am. Lunch at Timezone 8, which has a handy bookstore.
For dinner head out to De Yuan (0086 10 6308 5371; 57 Dashilan W St) one of Beijing’s best roast duck restaurants. It’s just south of Tiananmen Square.
The least crowded and most authentic stretch of the Great Wall is at Jinshanling, a two-hour drive from Beijing. The hotel can organize a car and driver for around £130. From the entrance gate, walk up the road to access the Wall at Zhuandaokou Pass.
Turn left at the top and enjoy a two-hour walk as the Wall climbs and swoops over forested ridges. This section has been largely restored – but you will need sturdy shoes and be fit enough to climb steep flights of steps with no handrail. Exit at the Houchuankou Pass, where a stone-flagged path takes you back down to the entrance.
It’s a four-hour train ride to Pingyao. Afterward, stretch your legs on a walk along its four miles of city wall which give views over the traditional tiled roofscape and glimpses of gardens and pillared courtyards. Stay at the Yun Jin Cheng Hotel, a beautiful collection of renovated merchants’ houses with antique furnishings.
Wander Pingyao’s streets, which are laid out as a simple grid. Highlights include the County Government Office, the City God Temple, and the country’s first bank, Rishengchang Financial House Museum, said to have controlled half the country’s economy in the 19th century. Book an afternoon train for the three-hour journey on to Xi’an.
Check into the Sofitel Xi’an, a five-star property with an excellent spa. It lies within the City Walls, but you’ll need a taxi to visit the sights. At dusk head for the city wall’s South Gate, a hub of social life, where toddlers practice Chinese calligraphy in the water on the pavement, and older children fly kites.
The Shaanxi History Museum is outstanding but very crowded. Join the queue at 8 am to be among the first in. The bronzes from the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties are a reason to visit alone. But don’t miss the sensational Tang murals displayed in an underground exhibition hall; they’re definitely worth the hefty £30 entrance fee.
Afterward try a steaming bowl of yang rou pao mo, a spicy mutton soup with flat bread croutons, in the city’s atmospheric Muslim quarter before viewing its historic Great Mosque. Finish the day with a stroll in Lianhu Park, one of my favorite hideaways in the city. The teahouse overlooks a pond which is filled with lotus flowers.
Leave at 7.30am with a guide and driver for an excursion to the Terracotta Warriors, who guard the mausoleum of China’s first Emperor, Qin Shihuang, who died in 210 BC. Visit the site in reverse starting at Pit 3 and ending in Pit 1; the most impressive with thousands of life-size soldiers lined up in battle formation. Leave time for the exquisite pair of bronze chariots and horses in the small museum.
Visit the Museum of Han Yangling, a tomb complex from the Han dynasty which followed on from Emperor Qin. As well as pottery figurines, there are thousands of sculpted farmyard animals said to represent food for the afterlife. The tomb is dimly lit but at the museum, a short trip away by car, excavated artifacts can be photographed under better lighting. Take the afternoon flight from Xi’an to Shanghai on China Eastern.
Check in to the Art Deco style Yangtze Boutique Hotel, in a great location just off People’s Square. Walk down Fuzhou Lu for 20 minutes to the historic Bund, a sweeping neoclassical curve of former trading houses, foreign banks and customs buildings beside the busy Huangpu River.
The cheapest place for a sunset drink with a view of the neon-lit futuristic Pudong skyline is the Captain’s Bar on the rooftop of Captain Hostel at 37 Fuzhou Lu. Or dress up and splash out on a cocktail at rooftop Sir Elly’s Terrace at The Peninsula.
The Shanghai Museum is a 10-minute walk from the hotel and has a good audio-tour to navigate its trove of Chinese antiquities. Focus on the calligraphy and ceramics galleries. The shop is a great place to pick up postcards, books, and tasteful reproductions of artworks.
Afterward, explore the French Concession neighborhood’s leafy boulevards and colonial homes. Start at Talking Lu (also known as Tianzifang) lined with galleries, ateliers, and boutiques and finish at Fuxing Park, where parents hand out flyers advertising the marriageability of their offspring.
For smart and authentic Shanghainese dining, try Yuan Yuan (201 Xingguo Lu near Taian Lu; 0086 10 6433 9123) for fresh seafood or, for a break from Chinese food, Bistro 321 Le Bec (321 Xinhua Lu, near Dingxi Lu; 0086 10 6241 9100) where Nicolas Le Bec serves flawless French food in rustic surroundings.
Escape the city for a relaxing overnight in Hangzhou, less than an hour by bullet train from Shanghai. Its famous West Lake and hilly landscape have inspired much of China’s art and literature for years.
Treat yourself to a night at the Amanfayun which occupies stone courtyard dwellings on the site of a former Tang dynasty village. Set within a pilgrimage circuit of five Buddhist temples, guests are allowed access outside opening hours. Visit Yongfa Temple, which has a tea house and views over West Lake. For dinner, try some of Hangzhou’s delicious specialties in the hotel’s Village Eatery.
Before breakfast visit Lingyin Temple, founded in 326AD, and which often has chanting ceremonies at dawn. Checkout time is noon, so there’s a chance to indulge at the hotel spa, which offers traditional Chinese massages, reflexology and t’ai chi.
Return to Shanghai by train and check back into the Yangtze Boutique Hotel. In the evening take Metro Line 1 to the Shanghai Circus World station to watch ERA – Intersection of Time, an extreme acrobatics show. Buy tickets in advance.