It’s hard to turn on the TV or open a paper without reading something about China. The questionable human rights record, the Beijing Olympics or Shanghai Expo, and of course the fastest economic growth in the history of civilization. There is so much information on this country floating out there its hard to tell what the truth is.
The fact is, I don’t know either. This is not a country with easy answers. It is modernizing rapidly but has perhaps the longest history in the world. It has some of the world’s largest cities, but still has a small town feel. It can feel crowded or incredibly empty. There really is only one way to describe China, the world’s largest contradiction. At moments the country makes you want to bang your head against the wall, but at sometimes it gives you a sense of calming and fulfillment that you can only truly get being far away from home. The real joy of China is finding your own ways to see the contradictions.
If you aren’t sure where to start to look, here are the nice places and experiences that should help grant a bit of clarity into what China is all about.
Unquestionably a must for anyone who come to this country. The capital is an excellent and through summary for the entire nation. It has new wealth, especially after the 2008 Olympics, yet it is full of history with such relics as the Forbidden City, and of course the aptly named Great Wall. This city has a phenomenal energy that makes you want more.
Beijing is of course the crown jewel of China’s history, however it does not begin or end there. Other major locations to get a good glimpse at China’s magnificent past include the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, the Silk Road in the West, the Tibetan Capital of Lhasa, and far more locations than I could begin to fully list in this short post.
With its varied landscape, colourful cultures, and cute pandas, Guangxi, Yunnan, and Sichuan provinces are absolute musts for anyone coming to the Middle Kingdom. With a myriad of sights including the magical peaks of Guilin, Tiger Leaping Gorge, and the Panda Research Centre, it is easy to see why the Chinese Southwest is quickly becoming one of the hottest backpacker trails in the world.
Everyone knows that China has a population of somewhere around 1.3 billion and counting, but what people tend to forget is that the population of the Han Chinese makes up 90% or so of the total population. While this seems like a very homogeneous population, the Hans are primarily located on the East Coast and in the Centre of the country. This leaves the other 130 million non-Han people (note: that’s three Canadas worth of people) located mainly on the outside of the country, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and the aforementioned Yunnan. It is simply fascinating to see the portions of the country where China seems to end and turn into something different all together.
Forget everything that you know about Chinese food! The majority of Chinese food in the west usually originates in Guangdong Province and is very Americanized. Chinese food has a variety of different regional styles, from “Numb and Sore” food from Sichuan, to the sweet food from Suzhou, it’s exciting to find the style that suits you best.
While it can be hard to see now, a little over 120 years ago China was getting carved up into various European colonies and treaty ports. When Macau returned to China in 1999 that era ended, however the influence is still very much felt in parts of the country today. The most famous of these places is of course Hong Kong, which feels like a beautiful mix of England and mainland China. There are plenty more places including the Portuguese Macau, German Qingdao, or Russian Haerbin. However the most cosmopolitan is definitely Shanghai, as it has French, British, and Japanese areas which can still be found today.
Yangtze Delta Area
The Yangtze river comes to an end at Shanghai, but the entire region around the city, making up Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces are well worth a visit two. This area includes the two cities that Marco Polo labeled as “Heaven on Earth” Hangzhou, and (my home) Suzhou.
One of the many contradictions of China is that it is home to three of the world’s major religions (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism) yet it is the most openly secular nation in the world. While the government is officially atheist, there are people in the nation who are very spiritual. Some of the best places to see this spirituality include the five Taoist Holy Mountains (Song Shan, Tai Shan, Hua Shan, Nan Heng Shan, and Bei Heng Shan) or the four Buddhist Holy Mountains (Emei Shan, Wutai Shan, Putuo Shan, and Jiuhua Shan). While I can’t speak about all of these nine mountains the ones that I have been to are absolutely spectacular and I can’t wait to find out about all of them.
Mandarin Chinese is an incredibly difficult language, but it is well worth the effort. Learning bits about the language has helped me learn a bit more about the culture and vice-verse. Also, the locals will be thrilled with any progress in the language and will be ecstatic with even the simplest “ni hao”.
About the Author: Glen met Celine met in the charming Chinese city of Pingyao while they were both wandering the world. After sharing a few bottles of Tsingtao they realized that they had a great deal in common. Then in August 2008 Glen has realized that he can’t stay away from the Middle Kingdom, where he works in Suzhou as a teacher in an International School. In his spare time he rambles about China at the popular Chinese blog Lost Lao Wai.