China is not a scary place. Foreigners are greeted with curiosity, occasionally caution, but mostly with either urban indifference or with hospitality.
Vast wildernesses, high mountains
Vast cities, people mountains
China has not been shy on spending on infrastructure. One result is the world’s largest network of bullet trains.
City roads are thronged with traffic, but regional development has been a policy priority, and a system of good roads reaches every region.
Beautiful and highly photo-friendly terraces, especially in late spring and early summer, before the rice grows so much. Then the contrast between the water in the terraces and the contour-hugging mud banks is at its best.
Nearest major transport hub: Guilin, Guangxi Province, in the far south of China.
It advertises itself as Asia’s ‘global city’. Certainly Hong Kong is more cosmopolitan than anywhere else in China. Urban areas are very densely populated but there are also country parks and islands to explore.
Major centres: On one side of the harbour is Tsim Sha Tsui, where the most demanding shoppers can keep on shopping … on the other is Hong Kong island itself, and the Central district where you can find, yes, more shopping, plus ferries to islands, and Lan Kwai Fong bar area.
Lijiang is an interesting old town, but busy, with narrow lanes lined with tourist shops.
Cable car access to high altitude is available nearby, at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Tiger Leaping Gorge, a deep rocky canyon, offers opportunities to escape into wilder country. Other places, such as Xianggelila (ShangriLa) are several hours away, but form part of the same interesting area.
Transport: Lijiang and Shanggelila both have their own small but modern airports. Dali (another tourist centre) and Kunming (the provincial capital and a larger city) are some distance and some time away.
Harbin is the capital city of China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang, somewhat north of Vladivostok, in eastern Siberia. The ice sculpture festival runs from late December to late February each year. Nearby towns and villages – remote communities living from seasonal forestry – are famous for their snowfall and beautiful in midwinter.
Travel: Harbin has an international airport. Tours are available to the ‘snow towns’ – ask at hotels in the city.
The mountain landscapes match anything, anywhere in the world. The ‘four sisters’ or ‘four girls’ mountains rise to 6000 metres. There are three valleys, each at a more modest 3500 metres and each with its own character. Ponies are available in two valleys. In the third, Shuangqiaogou, there is a a road with a bus service, and a long boarded walkway that makes walking very easy.
Nearest major transport hub: Chengdu, which has an international airport. The drive doesn’t look so far on the map, but takes four hours. Wolong panda reserve is on the route.
Main local centre as a base for visits: Rilongzhen town
Xinjiang is vast. And mostly pretty empty. The Turpan basin is below sea level, two and half thousand kilometres from the sea. The cold and very dry Taklamakan desert is mostly shifting sand, with the Silk Road having routes north and south, never across.
Urumqi, the main city, is a cultural melting pot at the heart of Asia. Tourism continues, and is growing, but in the past there has been unrest and police have a higher profile than elsewhere in China.
Getting there: By plane, to Urumqi
A beautiful place, with lakes coloured by local minerals and cascade after cascade of white water. But … it’s usually very busy.
Access: The region has its own airport (Jiuzhaigou, also known as JiuHuang, JZH, at an altitude of almost 3500 metres, 53km from Huanglong and 88km from Jiuzhaigou, with flights to many major cities.
Minibus and car services are available to the attractions.
Beijing: bei – north, or northern; jing – capital.
In fact many different cities have been capitals of China, including Xi'an and Nanjing (nan – south, or southern).
Now it is very much established as the centre of Chinese government.
It has traffic. It has very serious air quality problems but it also has charms, including the old low-rise residential areas or 'hutongs'.
Main sites: The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, The Temple of Heaven, The Summer Palace, The Great Wall, plus hutongs, roast duck restaurants, teahouses in the parks, 789 Art Zone, Chinese cultural performances ...
Pingyao is a walled city with a network of lanes that are too narrow for serious traffic and are lined with shops selling antiques, antique replicas, and other goods for the large numbers of tourists. Dating back more than two and a half thousand years, having its heyday as a banking centre for several hundred years until the start of the twentieth century, it is, certainly one of the best places to get a sense of Old China.
Nearest major transport hub: Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, about 90 km away.
A three thousand year old city, matching Athens and Rome in importance … a base for visiting the ‘Terracotta Army’, which can be argued to be the GREATEST wonder of the ancient world … with 700 year old walls enclosing towers and temples, markets and museums, peaceful corners amid bustling streets …
Xi’an and the nearby centres have a population of more then 12 million. So there is an international airport, and many hotels.
This is the ultimate rock garden. The crags, the vegetation, the mountain mists and cloudscapes, in winter the snow and in late spring the wild rhododendrons – the inspiration for much Chinese painting and poetry.
Nearest major transport hub: Huangshang city, also known as Tunxi, in Anhui Province, has a train station with high speed (gao tie) link to Shanghai and Hangzhou, and also an airport.
Getting to the mountain: There are inexpensive buses from Tunxi / Huangshan town to Tangkou, taking a little more than an hour. Then, having paid for park entrance, official buses will take you to the Yuping and Xinyungou cable car base stations.
The general area is very beautiful in the springtime. Tea grows on the valley slopes and there are several old villages – see the full report.
Note: If you ask for a map in the shops you will receive an attractively decorated piece of paper that has little value for choosing pathways on the mountain.