China, Hong Kong & Tibet

China, Hong Kong & Tibet

A vast and ancient nation with an otherworldly constellation of natural beauty, China is positively bursting with cultural sites and monumental cities. From the high altitude of the Tibetan Plateau to the mouth of the mighty Yangtze River on the East China Sea, from arid deserts to supernaturally blue lakes and coursing waterfalls, China is a land of magic and mystery. Walk the electrifying modern day streets of Beijing beneath its shimmering skyline, and then step into the imperial splendor of the Forbidden City or head out of the city to stroll the ramparts of the Great Wall. Cruise through the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River, or float past water buffalo and the mystical karst towers of Guilin. A land of ancient civilizations, China has maintained some of its most impressive structures with remarkable success—visit the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, the Grand Canal that connects the country north and south, and an incredible array of temples, pagodas, and monuments. Hike the many mountainous parks and explore the islands of cosmopolitan Hong Kong, or journey to Lhasa, the ancient capital of Tibet. This is a country where the words small-scale really don’t apply, and you will be inundated and exhilarated by the majesty of the landscape, the size of the cities, and the delicious variety of the cuisine.

Beijing

China’s dynamic capital city of 21.5 million people, Beijing is a an exhilarating fusion of incessant growth and the omnipresence of ancient dynasties. The city’s modern skyline is a triumphant expression of a  legacy of architecture celebrating the country’s grandeur, with the glittering dome of the NCPA concert hall as a sterling example. There are six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the city itself, including the awe-inspiring Forbidden City—the 600 year-old palace complex is the world’s largest collection of ancient wooden buildings, boasting 980 structures and nearly 9,000 rooms. Hidden behind 26-foot walls and a 170-foot-wide moat, the Forbidden City was the home of royal dynasties until the turn of the 20th century. Striking in a different way, the vast Soviet-style Tiananmen Square is home to Mao Zedong’s mausoleum, the National Museum of China, and is steeped in historical significance. Beijing’s city center is a lattice-work of ancient alleyways called hutongs, which connect series of courtyards and are lined with shops and markets. Top-notch museums, art galleries, ancient architecture, and an endless array of cuisine ranging from local hot pot stalls to trendy restaurants dishing up specials from around the country, Beijing has it all. To the north of the city, you can visit the Great Wall as it winds its way majestically through the verdant hills.

Chengdu

The bustling, modern capital of China’s Sichuan province, Chengdu is known for its distinctive  fiery cuisine, a handful of ancient sites, and traditional teahouse culture. This city of 14.5 million people is the crossroads for travel in southwestern China and is the gateway for trips into Tibet. Though Chengdu doesn’t boast the same concentration of historical buildings as Beijing, the Jinsha Site Museum’s collection of artifacts from the 4th century BCE Shu Kingdom, which had it’s center in Chengdu, are an impressive sight. Perched along the Jin and Fu rivers, there are an abundance of walking paths and parks to relax away from the buzz of the streets. Great food is a given in Chengdu and everywhere you look you will find street-side food stalls with spicy barbecue skewers, and countless quality restaurants. The city is also home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where you can see these charismatic creatures in their natural habitat. Nearby, you can hike through forested trails up the sacred Mount Emeishan, or visit the enormous Leshan Giant Buddha, a 230-foot-tall statue carved directly into a red sandstone cliff.

Guilin

Located in southern China along the Li River, Guilin is set in a surreal dreamscape of unique limestone hills. These karst towers—formed 200 million years ago and left exposed by the receding ocean—surge from verdant rice paddies and waterways like colossal teeth stretching to the horizon. The landscape is bathed in a mystical aura that more than compensates for the city’s somewhat uninspiring modern facade, though its beautiful riverside parks and handful of historic sites make Guilin well-worth exploring on foot. One of the best way to experience the region is on a Li River cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo, where you drift between ancient towns, riverside farms, and fisherman on bamboo rafts, all set against the luxuriant landscape peppered by limestone peaks. The shifting terrain of arches and cliffs unfurl along the river, punctuated with the sight of colorful farms, cormorants, and water buffalo, making the journey a non-stop adventure. At the southern end of the river cruise, Yangshuo is a great base for hiking and cycling, with an array of guest houses and quality hotels outside of town, immersed in the tranquil countryside.

Hangzhou

This city of 9 million sits on Hangzhou Bay at the southern terminus of the ancient Grand Canal, which winds its way 1,100 miles, all the way from Beijing. Pieces of the UNESCO-listed Grand Canal date back to the 5th century BCE, but weren’t connected until the 7th century CE, under the Sui dynasty. Hangzhou’s port-canal location has helped the city maintain economic and cultural prominence for more than a millennia. The city’s main attraction is the picturesque freshwater West Lake, which is surrounded by lush hills and divided by causeways offering access to numerous gardens, temples, and pagodas—artificial islands dot the water, and willows line the shore. Alongside West Lake, you can cycle the paths and float the waterways of the Xixi Wetland Park, which is an intriguing mixture of the urban, cultural, and ecological landscape of Hangzhou. Wide pedestrian avenues, exciting nightlife, and plenty of delicious cuisine are added urban perks to the city’s natural and historic setting.

Hong Kong

A global economic powerhouse with a penchant for fine foods, this glittering metropolis is a non-stop adventure. Hong Kong was a British colony for most of the past 150 years before the territory’s sovereignty was officially transferred to China in 1997—now Hong Kong is an autonomous region, and certainly has its own distinctive flair. The city is known as an exemplar of culinary prowess, offering everything from the best of China’s regional cuisine to French and Japanese specialties. Wander through the quirky Temple Night Market where you will find trinkets alongside treasures, or track down a bespoke tailor for that custom suit or dress you’ve always wanted. Towering skyscrapers define the skyline, and taking a quick ride on the Star Ferry, or a longer tour of the harbor, dishes up fantastic views of the city. Hong Kong is a fascinating blend of timelessness and the brazenly modern—wooden boats ply the waters of the harbor alongside cruise ships, and chaotic street markets stand next to trendy restaurants. Ride the historic trams above ground and then hop onto the streamlined subway system to zip across the city or head to the hills. Victoria Peak offers panoramic views of the city, and outside of the city, you will find great hiking in an array of mountainous county parks, or you can travel out to an isolated island and kayak along its volcanic coast.

Huangshan

One of China’s most enthralling landscapes, where jagged peaks cut through low-hanging clouds, Huangshan is a crowning jewel of natural glory. Translated as Yellow Mountain, this range of more than 70 serrated peaks in China’s Anhui province is fantastically photogenic. Known for its glowing sunrises that bathe the bare granite faces of the mountains in soft pink light, there is no shortage of lookouts and well-marked paths to take you through this mystical landscape. Cable cars offer access to several peaks, or you can trek up an impressive cascade of stone steps to reach the viewpoints. Pine forests and peaks draped with clouds, hot springs, and a glittering blanket of winter snow make this a region of tranquil beauty that has inspired Chinese art and literature for centuries.

Jiuzhaigou

The preternaturally blue lakes of Jiuzhaigou National Park, located in Sichuan province to the north of Chengdu, are unquestionably one of China’s most precious natural treasures. Spectacular translucent lakes of cerulean, turquoise, and azure waters defy belief even as you are standing on their shores. Crystalline rivers churn and cascade in ribbon-like curtains and tumble over terraces through dense forests that burst into a cacophony of reds and golds in the autumn, and vivid green meadows that turn burnished bronze. Miles of wooden boardwalks and scenic overlooks make the best of this UNESCO and World Biosphere-listed park accessible to all visitors. The Jiuzhaigou valley is named for the nine traditional Tibetan villages that once existed here, seven of which are still inhabited, and their beautiful wooden buildings are a definite highlight of the region. The valley is part of the Min Mountains that sit on the fringe of the Tibetan Plateau, which provide a stunning, mist-shrouded milieu for this incredible national park.

Lhasa

Translated to the ‘Land of the Gods,’ Lhasa was the epicenter of the Tibetan Buddhist world for a over a thousand years, and remains the capital of the autonomous region of Tibet. The city’s magnificent red and white-walled Potala Palace, perched atop a hill with snow-capped mountains as its backdrop, was once the residence of the Dalai Lamas and the Tibetan government before they were forced into exile in 1959. The imposing hilltop setting of the current palace, which was completed at the turn of the 18th century, was first used by a Tibetan monarch in the 7th century BCE. In the Holy City, below the Potala Palace, Tibetan traditions live on with pilgrims walking the Barkhor circuit and incense drifting heavy in the breeze. Small temples and shops line ancient winding alleyways in the Tibetan old town, and are a welcome respite from the busier avenues of the modern parts of the city. Other highlights are the striking Jokhang Temple and the Sera Monastery, which was built in 1419 and sits in a beautiful landscape just a few miles out of town. The region of Tibet has an average elevation of 16,000 feet, and is home to some of the world’s tallest mountains—Lhasa sits at nearly 12,000 feet, so it’s worth taking your time to get acclimated before rushing off on a strenuous hike or climbing too many stairs. Turbulent history and politics means that Tibet is not the simplest region to visit, but it is well-worth the effort.

Lijiang

Located near the border of the southwestern Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, LIjiang is an ancient city surrounded by incredible natural beauty. Home to the Naxi people and a handful of other ethnic minorities, Lijiang was an economic center of the region in the 14th century, which gave rise to a picture-perfect old town that is now a UNESCO designated site. Most of the modern city was destroyed in an earthquake in 1996, but the surprising survival of many of the old wooden Naxi structures led to the city being rebuilt in a largely traditional manner. The Central Market Square sits amidst a maze of cobblestone streets, shops, and canals in the old town, which make for hours of exploration. The Black Dragon Pool, just outside of the old town, provides the perfect frame for views of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range, and is home to the elegant Moon Embracing Pavilion. Though the city’s main sights are reason enough to visit Lijiang, enchanting villages outside of the city are the perfect excuse to hop on a bicycle and start exploring. About 20 miles from Lijiang, you can take an exhilarating cable car ride up to nearly 15,000 feet on the side of the towering mountain Yùlóng Xuěshān, or Mount Satseto, which has Naxi artifacts on display in addition to the panoramic views.

Shanghai

Set on the central coast at the mouth of the Yangtze River, Shanghai is the roaring financial center and modern marvel of China. Home to the world’s second tallest building and a host of other glittering towers, the city’s rooftops truly seems to scrape the sky. China’s most populous city, with nearly 25 million people, has a futuristic swagger and brims with upscale and boutique shopping districts, exciting nightlife, and non-stop entertainment. Acrobatic shows are fantastic without fail, but you will find venues featuring everything from hip-hop to jazz if you head out for a night on the town. A notable culinary renaissance has gripped Shanghai in past decades, and restaurants and bars—serving everything from casual local fare to elegant French dishes and sushi—reign supreme on the Bund waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River. The city’s prominent towers of Pudong, across the Huangpu, might be Shanghai’s claim to fame, but the heart of the city is down along the waterfront. The Art Deco buildings of the Bund and colonial boulevards and the shops of the French Concession are a pleasure to explore. Wander through the pagodas and pavilions of Yu Garden, and plan a visit to the massive Shanghai Museum in the People’s Square before traveling onward.

Silk Road

The groundwork for the 4,000-mile-long overland trade route spanning Asia and Europe was laid in the 2nd century BCE simply as means to connect trade in central and western China. Over the next 1,500 years, the route expanded across three distinct roads and 2,500 miles in China, as Chinese dynasties and European empires rose and fell. The overland Silk Road finally fell out of fashion, replaced by more expedient maritime routes, but it was an avenue to exchange exotic goods—silks, jade, spices, artwork—and cultural ideas for more than a millennia. Traversing imposing deserts, high plateaus, mountain passes, and vast prairies, it is no surprise that trade along the Silk Road inspired the growth of cities, religious monuments, and fortifications. Visit the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, the military fortress of the Jiayuguan Great Wall, the ancient temples of Luoyang, the Heavenly Lake in the Tianshan mountains of Urumqi, and wander through the old neighborhoods of Kashgar. A journey along this ancient trade route is one of constant wonder, and traveling through this harsh and magnificent landscape is a journey unto itself.

Xi’an

Once the cosmopolitan center of the Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties and known as Chang’an, or ‘Eternal Peace,’ Xi’an is now the thriving capital of the central Shanxi province. Perched on the eastern end of the Silk Road, the city was at its cultural peak in the 8th century under the Tang dynasty when it grew to be the largest city in the world, home to two million people. Modern day Xi’an retains glimpses of its historical grandeur with its distinguished host of historical sites. Miles of ancient walls enclose parts of the city, and you can hop on a bicycle to cruise along them above rooftops and traffic-jammed streets. The center of the city is compact and easy to navigate, with plenty of historical and modern delights to keep you busy for days. The crowning attraction of Xi’an are the thousands of hand-sculpted figures of the Bingmayong, the Terracotta Army, who guard the tomb of China’s first emperor.

Yangtze River

The spectacular Yangtze River originates in the west, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, and winds its way 3,900 miles to Shanghai where it meets the East China Sea. The third longest river in the world, the Yangtze flows at the heart of China and has played an important historical role in Chinese society. Cruising along this mighty river is a magnificent way to experience the river and on-shore sites along the way. Perhaps the most striking, and ethereal riverscape is that of the Three Gorges—Xiling, Wu, and Qutang gorges which wind their way for miles below steep limestone cliffs and canyon walls, forests clinging to their slopes. Lesser gorges with names like Dragon Gate, Misty, and Emerald paint a picture of the dynamic landscape of fog enshrouded mountains and colorful craggy rock formations. Passing through the five levels of locks of the Three Gorges Dam takes several hours, and gives you the opportunity to tour this immense feat of engineering. On shore you will find peaceful villages with pagodas and temples, local markets selling beautiful silks and wooden carvings, and have the opportunity to take in other iconic sites like the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an.

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