Spotlight on China

by eons contributor on April 25, 2008

Spotlight on top experiences in China

Trying to pick the Top 10 places to see in China is like tossing a boxful of joss sticks out on the floor and having somebody say “pick out the stick that looks the best.” I’ve been going to China over a 24-year period and I think I’ve just hit a bit of the surface.

But here goes, with apologies to Old China Hands who may disagree and have their own lists, I’m sure, based on personal experiences and emotion.

I’m going to use the categories of Beijing, the Silk Road, Inner Mongolia, the Yangtze River, the Monsoon Jungles, Xian, Mountain People, Food, and Photos & History.

I realize all people come to see the Great Wall. The problem is that it is overused, the walkways are crumbling, the traffic’s a mess and if you have a heart attack you’re in a lot of trouble. I’m reminded of the famous network TV executive who was driven the 42 miles to the Wall’s closest gate, put one leg out of the limousine, snapped a photo, and said, “Thanks, now let’s get back to Beijing.” But I guess see it you must, climb it at your peril, and keep in mind that it probably was not to keep barbarians out (they rode around it) but merely to say “Here lies the boundary of emperor Qin Shi Huangdi’s land.”

Similarly, the so-called Forbidden City requires a couple of hours of walking and more steps than seriously arthritic knees can tolerate.

So I’d suggest a leisurely two-day motor tour to see those things but not necessarily perambulate them all. Instead, check out Tiananmen Square, go to a Peking Opera performance, have a lunch at the Dowager Empress’s old cottage, now a restaurant on Beihai Lake, and dinner at an authentic Peking duck restaurant (see below under food.) Try a short trip on the “Underground Dragon”, Beijing’s air-conditioned subway. Many people seem to use the ride to sleep.

And for those interested, get up early, go to any park, and join in those doing tai chi chuan (taijiquan), that Chinese form of exercise and shadow boxing. Maybe attend a mass in the Southern Cathedral. It’s packed on Sundays with Chinese who remain steadfastly Catholic.

Silk Road
People argue whether Marco Polo really traveled the Silk Road or made up his story from tales he heard from travelers while he was in jail. No matter, this ancient trail from India and Persia into China holds a mystical attraction, even today. But you have to decide which part to visit.

Dunhuang is popular. You can see a 2,000 year old watchtower that guarded the Great Wall’s end at the caravan trail to the west into the desert. Buddhism came here early with drawings and sculptures in dark caves. There are nearly 500 caves with maybe 2,000 sculptures. Ten centuries of art. People call this an “archaeological sandbox” where people find ancient coins and pieces of pottery in the dirt.

The Grand Sun and the Silk Road are among the better hotels in Dunhuang and both have helpful travel desks to help you plan trips to the caves.

Urumqi is the central city of the region of the Silk Road, with a heavy Uighur Muslim minority and a history of dissidence and argument with the Han Chinese from Beijing and elsewhere who have flooded the region. It’s the headquarters for planning vehicle trips to see Uighur villages and the hillside yurts of the Kazahk and Tajik sheep herders who welcome tourists for a fee. They’ll kill and boil a sheep for you and suggest that as an honored guest you should eat the eyes.

For those up the journey to the Very End of China, there is Kashgar on the far west border with the 25,000- foot Pamir mountains, nomadic travelers on Bactrian camels, the Id Kah mosque with room for 8,000 worshippers, and all manner of countryside travel easily available through Discover China Tours.

Inner Mongolia
They are tearing down most of the old houses in the capital of Hohot, so go while there are still some left to photograph. But the real reason tourists come to this city is to make air or train connections out to the northeast Mongolian grasslands. This once was an outland, but the Chinese government encouraged a flood of immigrants to put a Han stamp on the land and the politics, and now Mongolians are a minority of about 20 percent of total population.

They used to all be farmers and herdsmen (women do house and children) but more and more they are settling into the urban centers. Travel agents such as Discover arrange for small groups to visit grassland families where you can live in a yurt (they call them gurs) or just stay a while and drink fermented mare’s milk or tea, have someone play the string instrument called a huqin and ask questions about the nomadic life. The nomadic life these days is likely to include a car, or a truck, or at least a motorcycle.

In winter it can get down to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit at night.

The Yangtze
The Yangtze runs for 3,900 miles so you can’t easily see it all. Yes, you can cruise part of it (see Boats & Cruises). The gateway to it is Shanghai, which is on a tributary called the Huangpu and which is the money center of China, the business powerhouse, polluted beyond belief, but a must-see for foreigners because … well, because it’s Shanghai.

See Shanghai for its architecturally-stunning high rises on the Pudong side of the river as well as the old Bund, the foreign enclave from the Opium War days, on the opposite side. Stay at the old Peace Hotel. See the Shanghai Acrobats perform. Tour the old city, but keep an eye on your flag-carrying guide because it’s easy to get lost in the crowds.
One of the best events is to go a Children’s Palace. Those are old homes that have been turned into after-school classrooms for ambitious (and paying) students in everything from music to computers. They welcome visitors who come on organized tours. One such agency is

See if you can arrange a half-day river trip on a junk with a quilted sail, the kind that mainly carry cargo but take some tourists, too. They are called fanchuan and the same kind traded with India six centuries ago. Check with for all Yangtze outings.

The Monsoon Jungles
Way down south, near Laos, is where China turns jungly and unlike any other part of the country. The area is known as Xishuanbanna and you get there by train or plane from Yunnan. The trip to the main city of Jinghong is well worth your time and the effort and extra fare.

Some years ago it was a risky trip because of malaria. But that’s almost been eradicated and there’s little chance of the carrier mosquito being around Jinghong.

This is the home of the Dai people who look very similar to the people of northern Laos and Vietnam. And yes, it’s jungle. But historical jungle. Shang people were here 4,000 years ago. The first road didn’t come across the mountains from Yunnan until the 1950s. There are elephants and golden monkeys and people adorn themselves with flowers. During an annual spring festival they throw water on anything and anyone that moves.

The food leans toward bean curd, braised fish, water buffalo meat, bean sprouts, chicken and eggs. Hotel facilities have grown quite luxurious as more tourists come every year, especially for the spring Water Festival.

Everybody comes to Xian to see the Tang empire tombs with their armies of life-size terra-cotta soldiers. Alas, outside the tombs are the belching smokestacks of the steel, chemical and textile factories. But the Xian digs are something! On the approach to the tombs are sculptures of lions, winged horses and headless generals. That’s tribute to Emperor Qin, popularized in the movie Hero, the man who first unified China.

This is one of China’s most popular tourist spots and you need to make early reservations to get a good room in a top-flight hotel. Luckily, you can now do that easily on the Internet. There are plenty of pictures and descriptions. What the sites don’t tell you is that there usually are two prices, one for Chinese and another for foreigners.

The Mountain People
There are many of them scattered around China but my favorites are the ones of Guizhou Province in the southwest between Yunnan and Sichuan. It’s one of the few places where the central Han Chinese are a minority.

The best way to see Guizhou is to book with a car or bus company that will take you both southwest and southeast in the province. Southwest because you’ll want to see Huangguoshu Falls, the largest cataract in Asia and actually nine falls in a series. You can walk, or for a small fee take an elevator and escalator down to the falls viewing area from the hotel-with-pool topside. Most of the visitors here are Chinese.

On the southeast side is Zhaoxing, the all-wood Dong village that’s just put in a new, modern hotel for foreigners who find Lulu’s Wooden House Inn too primitive.

And all the way along the mountain roads both southeast and southwest of the capital city of Guiyang are the small hillside villages of the Miao, Shui and Buyi minorities.

There are small hotels in every sizeable town along both roads into those areas, so overnight accommodations are not a problem.

Many people come to China for the food. It seems to change dramatically with every hundred miles you travel. Finding news restaurants with new food is definitely worthy of being listed as one of the Top 10 travel events in China. Author K.C. Chang has written that “the overriding idea about food in China is that the kind and amount of food one takes is intimately relevant to one’s health. Food, therefore, is also medicine.”

It’s said that of the 4,000 people who typically ran an emperor’s quarters, 60 percent handled food and wine.

Ah, but where to eat? Shanghai people make no bones about the claim that there is no better food in China. I might have to agree. Hairy crab (Eriocher sinensis) is Shanghai’s #1 dish and pork dumpling is number 2. Old timers say that the Crystal Jade Restaurant has the best of the latter. The upscale Xintiandi restaurant is renowned for its ten-course crab banquet.

In Beijing, the Quanjude Restaurant is my choice for Peking duck. It may be the largest roast duck restaurant in the world, with 41 dining halls, one which can serve 600 diners. It’s commonly known as the Sick Duck restaurant because it’s next door to a major hospital.

As with many other things in China, food comes in two prices. One for Chinese and another for the foreigner, even if you speak fluent Chinese.

Photos and History
These really go together because most of the history you can see is history that you’ll want to preserve for your memory in photographs.

One of your big problems will be lighting. Most of the best historical sights are indoors (that’s why they are preserved) and intentionally not exposed to sunlight or even much artificial light. Using a flash seems to give you a bright spot in a black tunnel.
So one of my Top 10 recommendations is to get a first-rate digital SLR camera, one up there in the $700+ range, that can capture your indoor photos lightless by setting 1600 ASA and using the no-shake function.

For most outdoor shooting in China, I use both a warm-up filter because bright sunlight can be rare due to air pollution. When shooting near water or snowy mountains, I use a polarizing filter.

One of the common mistakes is to shoot too many photos of buildings and not enough of people. When you get home, those buildings won’t all look so special any more. The people shots will evoke many more memories of you times in restaurants, village homes and markets.

And make good use of the Internet before you go. Look up many travel agencies and airlines. Check on hotel deals you can make yourself. Read up on things to do in each town you’ll visit.

You can never be too well prepared when you travel China.

Bob Jones (Eons member: bj449) was the first television reporter allowed into the western, Muslim province of Xinjiang. He has done five China documentaries and traveled through Yunnan, Inner Mongolia and Guangdong, plus multiple trips to Beijing and Shanghai. He has also taken a group of middle-aged schoolteachers on a China north-to-south train run with many stops en route.

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