China - Great walls and ancient silk roads, vast terracotta armies and forbidden cities, buzzing modern metropolises and other-worldly limestone landscapes, coupled with sensational wildlife, fabulous food and intoxicating culture. With all this and more there's no one best place to visit, if time permits visit them all. To help you decide where to go we've listed six of the very best places to visit.
Some say it can be seen from space, but unless you’re a top gun at NASA, perhaps you’ll never know. Instead, experience the real deal. One of the Seven Wonders of the World and an enduring symbol of Chinese civilisation and genius, the UNESCO protected Great Wall of China was built as a defensive structure to protect China against marauding invaders from the north. Although the present wall dates mainly from the Ming dynasty, some 20 states and dynasties were involved in its immense construction over a period of 2,000 years and followed different routes and building extensions as required. Snaking some 6700 kms across barren hills, deserts, mountains and plateaus, the now partially ruinous Great Wall stretches east to west in northern China and is believed to be the longest man made structure in the world.
In 1976 three farmers near the city of Xi'an were digging a well and in doing so discovered one of China's greatest treasures - Emperor Qin's 7000-strong terracotta army. Believed to have been made 2200 years ago these life-size warriors stand in military formation in excavated pits under the cover of a modern protective hanger. Made of local clay, no two faces are alike – each is said to be an individual portrait. Delicate excavation continues on site, where hundreds of warriors remain smashed to pieces, not due to the passage of time but rather a peasant revolt after the emperor’s death. The emperor’s tumulus (ancient grave mound) is located about a mile away and is said to contain untold treasures.
Renowned for it’s striking, if bizarre scenery - vast areas of karst limestone outcrops that rise up from flat rice paddy fields, and beautiful pagodas, Guilin is often the subject of Chinese painting. On our tours that travel to Guilin, we will visit the enormous and dazzlingly beautiful Reed Flute Caves. The city is filled with a delicious fragrance of Sweet Osmanthus trees and indeed this is the meaning of the name Guilin - "forest of Sweet Osmanthus". As it is located in the subtropical zone in the southern part of the country, Guilin boasts a pleasant climate throughout the year. When there, take in the views from the intriguingly named Elephant trunk hill, and visit the beautiful Banyan Lake, so smooth it looks like a mirror.
Capital of the People’s Republic, Beijing is China’s political, economic and cultural centre. With a chequered history, Beijing was established in 1045 BC and for 800 years served as the capital of several dynasties. At first glance Beijing can appear as nothing more than a modern cosmopolitan city, with soaring skyscrapers, sprawls of apartment blocks and a crisscross of freeways. But hidden amid the concrete and glass one can still find remnants of the city’s past dynasties and evidence of traditional Chinese culture still practised today. Vast squares, magnificent palaces and beautiful gardens are just some of the treasures still visible from the city’s imperial past, while down narrow alleyways one can find charming teahouses, traditional workshops, and quiet courtyards.
Although the river itself and life along the banks are fascinating in themselves, centre stage on a Yangtze cruise is the awesome journey through the Three Gorges on a cruise from Chongqing to Wuhan. The Three Gorges (Qutangxia, Wuxia and Xiling) were formed around 70 million years ago during movements in the earth’s crust. Towering perpendicular cliffs and sharp gorges give way to the Yangtze below. Despite China’s controversial Yangtze dam project, where the waters are set to gradually rise until 2009, creating the world’s largest dam, it is thought the Gorges will still be as breathtaking, although some villages and landmarks will ultimately disappear.
Suzhou in Jiangsu Province is one of China’s most charming cities, its fame rests on its waterways and canals that are dotted with traditional bridges, houses and gardens. A cruise on the Grand Canal is the perfect way to discover Suzhou’s beauty and allows you to see the local people going about their day to day business. The city is renowned for its silk as it was the original source of the 'sea' silk road.
You can also see bamboo and pine forests, winding streams, sheer hills without even leaving the city in the UNESCO heritage Humble Administor's Garden. There are elegant pavillions and courtyards interwoven with nature, and fragrant lotus filled pools and floral exhibitions - heaven in a garden!