Just received a call from Jim from Colorado, a potential traveler of WildChina, and this was what he said: “Hi, some friends recommended you. So, I am calling because I want to go to China in mid-December. First time. I don’t know where to start.”
I am sure Jim is not alone, wanting to explore this vast country, but not sure where to start. He has about 14 days and probably won’t make another trip out to China in the near future. So, I tried to introduce to him the places that he absolutely cannot miss. Here are my picks:
1) Beijing. You just cannot go to China without going to Beijing, even if it’s winter. It’s the capital, and you have to go there to see the iconic Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The Great Wall is long, but most people only visit the most popular sections of the wall, so at these tourist places, there are maybe 6 million visitors a year. It can get crowded. So, if you want to see the real wall and get to meet some of the villagers who live by the wall, then take a car and driver to go to some of the sections further out of town. Spend a day, walking and really experience the wall. Then you’ll want a good half day the next day for the forbidden city. This is where a lot of your impressions of China will become reality. The guide can tell you stories behind the dragon and phoenix and bring history to life to you. Then, you’ll want to wander around the old part of Beijing. This is like the old town of Marrakesh, where people live along narrow alleyways. Kids still run around the courtyard houses. 3rd day, you can visit the Temple of Heaven or some markets, before taking a flight to Xi’an.
2) Xi’an, home to the famous terra cotta soldiers. China’s first emperor Qin Shuihuang had all these terra cotta soldiers built to guard him in afterlife. There are thousands of pieces to see, and they really are stunning when you see them in person. Other than that, there are some other activities you might want to experience. Farmers’ painting is famous, also calligraphy. Easily, you can spend 2 days in total here.
3) Yunnan Province, located in Southwest China and a 2-hour flight away from Xi’an. To me, this is home, but also it gives the largest contrast to Beijing and Xi’an, so that you really get to see the diversity of Chinese culture. It’s located on the eastern extension of the Himalayas. It’s a combination of high elevation and low latitude, resulting in a very pleasant winter. During wintertime, the average temperature in Lijiang (one of the major tourist destinations in Yunnan) is in the 50s during the day. So, quite pleasant. Lijiang is a UNESCO world culture heritage site, and is a must-visit.
4) Shangri-la, a 5-hour drive north of Lijiang and the Tibetan area. If you don’t have time to do a dedicated trip to Tibet, Shangri-la is an absolute must-see. It’s higher in elevation, around 10,000 feet. So, it is cold, but worth it, since you definitely don’t want to be here during the summer, when millions of Chinese tourists also visit this place.
5) Shanghai, my favorite stop and the best place to exit China. Particularly, after spending 5 days covering Lijiang and Shangrila, Shanghai is a whole world away. The Bund, the skyscrapers really tell you why all the multinational companies are relocating their headquarters from Hong Kong to Shanghai.
This is my list of top 5 places in China.