Ancient. Vibrant. Complex.


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If this is your first China travel experience, there are some iconic cities, sites and destinations located throughout the country that are simply a must-see for first-time travel to China, which include Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdue, Xi'an and Kashgar.


The broad boulevards and narrow alleys of this capital city are filled with Imperial legend, communist history and fledgling capitalist dreams. The entire country marches to Beijing's drum, and sets their watch to its clock.

The Forbidden City, a vast imperial complex in the center of the capital, is so named because commoners entered upon pain of death. Built during the early 15th century, it covers over 2 million square feet and has over 9,000 rooms. Each of the great courtyards was used for different occasions, such as audiences with provincial officials or imperial examinations. Today, the palace holds many museums full of imperial artifacts.

Sprawling Tiananmen Square is the heart of modern Beijing and the now world-famous venue of the pro-democracy movement of 1989. Mao Zedong's Mausoleum and the Monument to the People's Heroes stand at the center of the square. Flanking its sides are the Qian Men (Front Gate), the Great Hall of the People, the Museum of the History of the Revolution and Tiananmen Gate, adorned with a huge portrait of Mao Zedong.

A Beijing tour will quickly reveal to the traveler that this is a vast city with a dense population. Find a measure of tranquility at the Summer Palace, with its beautiful gardens, halls, pavilions and the great Marble Boat, built with funds pilfered from the Chinese Navy in 1888; or at Yonghe Gong, Beijing's most magnificent active temple, home to Tibetan and Mongolian monks, tapestries and brilliant frescoes. See the Confucius Temple and the Temple of Heaven, with its extraordinary masterpiece of Ming architecture, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.

Take a bicycle-rickshaw tour of Beijing and its many hutongs (small lanes in the old downtown), a great way to catch a glimpse of the daily lives of the locals. And whether you consider it cliché or classic, don't leave the capital without sampling Peking duck and seeing a Chinese opera.


Shanghai is booming. Once China's den of iniquity, this seductive city was established by Europeans in the mid-19th century to facilitate their trade in opium, silk and tea.

Shanghai's indigenous masses were exploited and starved, providing fertile ground for radical politics-it was here that communism first took root in China.

After decades of isolation and torpor, the city has now set its sights on replacing Hong Kong as the economic powerhouse and financial center of China. It's full steam ahead as Shanghai robustly reclaims her position on the international scene.

The Bund, lining the western shore of the Pearl River, is home to several dozen ornate 19th century banking buildings and hotels, and was considered China's Wall Street prior to the founding of the People's Republic of China. Its intersection with Nanjing Road is the hot spot when the sun goes down.

Wander through the Yu Yuan Bazaar, originally built as a private estate and garden for a wealthy Ming Dynasty family. Within the maze of traditional architecture, temples and picturesque gardens you can find almost any souvenir and see what seems like half the population of Shanghai.

The Shanghai Museum embodies the aspirations of the city itself: it's new, expensive and impressive, and gloriously showcases Chinese treasures from four millennia. Don't miss it.

Visit the Jade Buddha Temple to view its jewel-encrusted namesake then stroll through Nanjing Lu, the city's huge pedestrian shopping quarter, to find the perfect keepsake to remember your trip to China by and round out your stay in Shanghai.


An absolute must on any trip to China, you've simply got to take a walk along the Great Wall, the greatest public works project in the history of the Middle Kingdom.

It stretches from the Gobi Desert to the ocean and a section of China's most famous structure is easily accessed on a half-day trip from Beijing. Invest a few more hours and find yourself exploring a truly remote section of the Wall.


Xi'an was, at several points in history, the greatest city in the world. Its location at the Chinese end of the Silk Road has consistently made it one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan areas of China.

The numerous mosques and archaeological sites in the city and its environs stand as a testament to the greatness of a city that exercised a power and influence in the East on a par with Rome's in the Western world.

In 1974, a farmer digging a well came across a few terracotta statues in the ground. What archeologists later discovered was that he had unearthed part of the first Qin emperor's massive 2,000-year-old tomb. One section of the tomb has been unearthed, revealing over 8,000 warriors, horses and chariots, no two of which are identical. Today the Army of Terracotta Warriors rivals the Great Wall for China's most renowned historical sight.

Enjoy walking or biking along Xi'an's ancient city wall and enjoy sweeping views of the old city below. Stroll through the city's western Muslim quarter, and pass narrow streets lined with mud brick houses and home to traditional restaurants, shops and mosques.

Visit the Banpo Neolithic Village to see well-preserved relics of the cultures present in this area of China circa 4,000 BC. Remains include a residential enclosure, a cemetery and an interesting pottery-manufacturing area with six kilns. The museum houses pottery, farming and hunting tools, personal ornaments and funerary objects.

The Forest of Steles is one of the world's largest and heaviest collections of stone-inscribed books, some of which are nearly 2,500 years old. The books cover a wide range of topics, from classical texts to depictions of historical incidents to funerary memorials.

Be sure to visit the Shaanxi History Museum, one of China's best. It houses a wide variety of artifacts from both prehistoric and dynastic periods. Visit the Big Goose Pagoda and the Great Mosque, and have a hotpot lunch (we like the one at Wan Nian Hotel) for a quintessential Xi'an experience.


Like a work of art, Guilin is a study in form and line, composed both by nature and the human hand. One of the country's iconic landscapes and a must see for first-time travel to China, great limestone towers, swathed in veils of mist, jut skyward from the silver Li River, which holds their rippling reflection.

Terraced rice paddies sculpt the nearby hills into wavy green steps, which when flooded mirror the bright gold of the setting sun. Take a bicycle to Seven Star Park, with its seven peaks and numerous caves, or walk to the top of Wave-Subduing Hill for a panoramic view of the surroundings.

For pure scenic beauty, look no further than quaint and casual Yangshuo. Dramatic karst towers blanketed in verdant vegetation stud the Li River, and the surrounding countryside is a riot of green. Walk or bike to a nearby village and spend a night or two for a relaxing glimpse of rural life. Yangshuo is a great place to take a local cooking class to learn the secrets of one of the world's great cuisines. Or perhaps enjoy a hot air balloon ride over the stunning landscape.

Yangshuo also hosts a stunning live performance called Impressions, a fascinating spectacle with over 500 cast members, based on a Chinese musical movie made in 1961. The story is about a legendary woman named Liu Sanjie who worked in the fields and was famous for the magical quality of her singing voice. The epic performance was designed and directed by Zhang Yimou, director of the film Hero and of the 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies. It takes place on the water, an unusual and stunning set design, where the towers of Yangshuo provide the backdrop.


1- to 4-night cruises

The Yangzi (Yangtze) flows from the Himalayas to the China Sea, slicing China in two. It is as central to Chinese civilization as the Nile is to Egypt.

Although the Three Gorges Dam has submerged many ancient villages and displaced 2 million people, there is still fantastic scenery to behold: cruising the Yangzi you can see modern cities that seem to have sprung up overnight, small rural villages at shore stops and wonderful scenes of traditional life. Take a four-day cruise downriver from Chongqing to Wuhan, or keep going all the way to Shanghai for an unforgettable China travel experience.


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Have more time, second trip to China, or looking for something specific? Here are some additional highlights when creating your custom China travel plan.



The Imperial Summer Palace at Chengde is one of China's greatest sites and was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1994. It's well worth the overnight train ride from Beijing.

The gardens, forests, temples, monasteries and palace, most of which date back to the early 18th century, cover almost 1,500 acres.Though the architecture does not rival that of Beijing, the crisp, cool mountain air and laid-back atmosphere of the town make the Summer Palace a worthwhile visit during your China tour.


Though this Shanxi Province town itself is nothing to write home about, the early Buddhist caves outside of the city offer an exciting glimpse into Buddhism's first years in China. Cut into the sandstone cliffs of Wuzhou Mountain, the 53 caves that comprise Yungang Caves contain some of the earliest and finest examples of Buddhist architecture and art in China. The nearby Hanging Monastery is a testament to human ingenuity. Precariously perched along the sheer cliffs of Jinlong Gorge, the monastery houses many notable bronze and iron statues.


Hop onto your horse and ride in the footsteps of Genghis and Kublai Khan through the vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Experience the centuries-old nomadic ways of life that have persisted on the Mongolian plateau as you sleep out in a traditional yurt under the starlit sky. Visit with the local horsemen as they prepare a Mongolian hotpot for dinner, and learn some traditional songs as you gather round the fire.



Visit this quaint mountainside village near Longsheng to access the area known as the Dragon's Spine Rice Terrace. These are truly one of the marvels of the world. The verdant paddies are built into steep 2,500-foot mountains.

Stripe by stripe, the narrow water-filled paddies wrap around the mountains from the peaks to the valleys below where they spiral out into individual pools. The Zhuang and Yao peoples, who still wear traditional clothing and maintain most aspects of their ancient culture, live and farm on these terraces. Spend time talking with locals, hiking and photographing this amazing area. Stay at the beautiful Li-An Lodge, perched on top of a mountain, bordering a local village and overlooking magnificent rice terraces. The lodge is an entirely wood structure implementing the Chinese traditional building technique of tongue and groove without a single nail. This one-of-a-kind lodge, where Chinese tradition meets modern luxury, is an as-yet undiscovered treasure.


Journey south of the clouds to the "Spring City" of Kunming where the weather is always mild. Most people come here in transit to the tropical south or to the mountainous north, since Kunming is largely remarkable for its abundance of non-descript concrete buildings. However, there are vibrant markets at the base of the Tang Pagodas, or join the pilgrims for a trip to Yunnan's oldest and largest temple complex, Yuantong Temple. Travel south to the "Forest of Stones," Shi Lin, and lose yourself in the maze of limestone pinnacles.


The stunning scenery and small-town charm of Dali make it a favorite stop for travelers to China. Located on the western edge of beautiful Erhai Lake and surrounded by lofty peaks, the town is laced with traditional alleys and compounds, colorful hill tribe peoples and classic temples and pagodas. Hike into the hills to enjoy the view from Zhonghe Temple, explore the colorful villages of Xizhou and Zhoucheng or simply meander through the vegetables and batik fabric at Shaping Market.


Home to the matriarchal Naxi people, the town of Lijiang seems lost in an old and mystical world. Be sure to stop here on your tour of China to meander down cobblestone lanes next to ancient canals surrounded by women dressed in blue and black. Stroll around the Black Dragon Pool for the obligatory photo of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains or enjoy the wall paintings and statuary of the town's Tibetan temples. Just outside of Lijiang, Asia's highest gondola will take you up near the top (14,816 feet) of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain for spectacular views of the surrounding peaks.


The town known as Gyalthang to the local Tibetans, as Zhongdian in Chinese and renamed Shangri-la in 2001 is a must on any Yunnan itinerary. Although there is some evidence to suggest that the inspiration for the fictional utopia of James Hilton's Lost Horizon is rooted in Joseph Rock's accounts of this area, it's more likely that the Shangri-la alias is a rather kitsch ploy by the Chinese tourism board to inflate the town's mystical merits. What's in a name? Quite a bit, it seems, but whatever the moniker, this area could well pass for the quintessential Himalayan utopia with its relaxed Tibetan culture, magnificent monastery and transfixing landscapes. Abundant grasslands surround the town where cattle, sheep and yaks graze. Lunch with a local Tibetan family can be arranged. There is a celebrated Horse Festival held annually in June.


The southernmost region of Yunnan, Xishuangbanna borders Burma and Laos and shares with those countries many similar ethnic minorities and customs. Covered in areas by primary tropical rainforests, the region is home to elephants, monkeys and tigers. The lush tropical land is home to minority cultures, and visiting small villages provides an opportunity to experience local cultures and festivities. Xishuangbanna's people, temples and scenery make any trip to the region an unforgettable adventure.


Long considered the backwater of the Chinese empire, a place to send exiled officials and convicts, Guizhou is becoming a wonderful place to visit for all the reasons it was once disparaged. The province's 80 ethnic minorities have been enormously successful in maintaining their traditional ways of life; its mountainous landscape has escaped the ravages of development and pollution; its flora and fauna are relatively protected in their natural habitat. This is China travel at its adventurous best.


Splintered limestone karsts rise dramatically from the forests to create a haunting labyrinth dissected by countless trails and stairways at this favorite nature preserve in Hunan Province. Spend a few days hiking through the jagged forms and visiting with the area's ethnic minorities.


Hong Kong's little brother Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, is a jumble of intense market activity, flourishing Southern culture and lingering colonial charm. Wander through the streets and alleys of Shamian Dao for a glimpse of the city's past, then head out for a truly sensational experience in the Qingping Shichang where everything from ice to mice is on sale.

If you crave unique Cantonese culture on your tour of China, try out a local dim sum restaurant on a Sunday afternoon when family gatherings fill the air with a cacophony of talking, munching and laughing. Afterwards, amble through the hubbub at the Five Immortals Temple or the Temple of Six Banyan Trees. For a peek into the distant past, stroll through the buildings and gardens of the Chen Clan Academy, perfectly preserved from its heyday in the early Qing. Or maybe go back even further with a glimpse at the museum of the Southern Yue Tombs, where artifacts and funerary objects from 200 BC are on display.



This is one of China's more inviting and livable cities, surrounded by fertile plains. Its main draw is the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, which lies outside the city and is devoted to the conservation of China's most beloved animal. Arrive in the morning to see the resident pandas at breakfast.

The Sanxingdui Museum is highly recommended when in this area. It is near an archaeological site that dates to the Neolithic, Shang and Zhou periods. In 1988 this site was declared a National Key Cultural Relics Protected Unit, due to its scope, the wealth of its contents and the rarity and precious nature of its excavated objects. The artifacts from Sanxingdui have had global influence. In 1986, two large Shang-period sacrificial pits were unearthed with more than one thousand gold, bronze and jade objects, shocking the country and the global archaeological community. Among other things, the finds proved that Sanxingdui was the capital of the ancient Shu Kingdom more than 3,000 years ago. Of all the objects excavated at Sanxingdui, the bronzes are the most fabulous and strange, with their high degree of historical, artistic and scientific value.

Lastly, when in Chengdu don't miss the Changing Faces cultural performance, a traditional Chinese vaudeville-style show. This show features jaw-dropping sleight-of-hand involving masks and must be seen to be believed.


Towering 230 feet above the fast-flowing Min and Dadu Rivers, the Grand Buddha of Leshan is the world's largest and, for travelers on an in-depth tour of China, should not be missed; prepare to be awestruck by its mighty presence. Whether you arrive by boat below or descend from his head high above, the Grand Buddha will shatter your sense of perspective. This trip requires an overnight from Chengdu.


Visiting the Buddhist caves of Bei Shan, Baoding Shan and other grottoes throughout Dazu County is a highlight of any visit to Sichuan. Most of the sculptures and carvings date from the Tang and Song dynasties and are in remarkably good condition. The highlights are a 100-foot-long reclining Buddha set into the cliff and a Guanyin statue graced with 1,000 hands and 1,000 eyes. Can be made as a day trip from Chongqing.



Quaint and serene, the town of Zhujiajiao is laced with flowing water. Row a boat through its winding canals then savor some green tea in a cafe with architecture dating from the Ming dynasty, with its distinctive white walls, red beams, pointed eves and black-tile roofs.

For lunch try the crab, a local specialty prepared in any number of delicious variations. Small in scale and simple in feel, Zhujiajiao is one of our favorite "hidden spots" to visit on a tour of China, and we recommend it as a delightful day trip from Shanghai.


Great and noble Suzhou is home to world-famous gardens, masterpieces of design created as early as the 11th century. They are a fusion of nature and art intended to ease the mind, and each garden has its special charm. The most notable are the Humble Administrators Garden, Lion's Grove, the Garden For Lingering In and the incredible Garden of the Master of the Nets. After visiting the gardens, Suzhou's many canals and its tree-lined streets make it the perfect city for a quiet stroll. This is also a day trip from Shanghai.



Fabled trade route of ancient China's silk and spice caravans, the Great Silk Road was the main artery linking the Far East to Europe for over 1,000 years.

In reality a shifting network of desert passages, the route nonetheless converged at great centers, giving rise to some of the most culturally diverse cities in Asia, smack in the middle of some of the most desolate and remote regions in the world. The representative western cities are Dunhuang, Urumqi, Turpan and Kashgar. Explore them all in a China tour that retraces the Silk Road, or visit one or more as fascinating destinations in their own right.


One of the great points of convergence along the Silk Road, Dunhuang is a city in three colors: an oasis of brilliant emerald fields set amidst sweeping brown sand dunes, with snow-white peaks towering in the distance. The tree-lined streets are picturesque thoroughfares for Mongolian ponies and locals in traditional dress. The city itself is a beguiling study in contrasts: ancient yet modern, lively yet relaxed.

It's worth a visit to Dunhuang's rustic local museum, which provides a good overview of the history of the area, as well as nearby sections of the Great Wall. The city's market is a delight, with colorful dried fruits-raisins in ten colors!-nuts, textiles and steamed dumplings. For an authentic, unforgettable China travel experience, take a camel ride at sundown through the Mingsha Dunes in the surrounding Gobi Desert to recall a way of life that reigned here for a millennium.

The massive Mogao Caves feature stone Buddhas large and small, hewn from sandstone walls, housed in ornate, protective structures. Many of the walls are adorned with elaborate, ancient frescoes. You may also want to explore the nearby Sui, Tang and Western Thousand Buddha Caves. Have dinner at a traditional farmhouse where a delicious local meal may be enjoyed amidst apricot orchards.


Unbridled development in Urumqi has resulted in bellowing smokestacks and architecture that is, to put it kindly, less than whimsical. Still, you've got to go, because from Urumqi you can access a truly fascinating area in China, with 13 distinct ethnic minorities calling the area home.

The Xinjiang Museum houses interesting exhibits relating to the many ethnic minorities who inhabit the area. It also showcases artifacts that reveal the daily lives of the Silk Road's early inhabitants, including some of their mummified remains, unearthed from the nearby desert of Taklamakan, which literally means "go in and you won't come out."

Take a day trip during your China travels to nearby Heaven Pool, a beautiful lake surrounded by stunning mountains, rolling green hills, grazing ponies and the circular yurts of the Kazakh people. Or better still, spend a night or two in a yurt and explore the area on horseback with a Kazakh guide to witness the equestrian skills that have always made these people famous and feared.

Be sure to sample the local Uyghur cuisine, a culinary crisscross of Chinese and Middle Eastern influences. Try thelaghman, thick noodles topped with a sauce of spicy lamb, eggplant, tomatoes, beans and garlic. The fresh tandoori-oven breads are scrumptious and go down well with a cold beer or green tea with nutmeg.


The essence of ancient Asia is like a pervading fragrance in Turpan. The place is awash in traditional scenes: twisting alleys lined with mud-brick houses; grapevines winding their way up trellises; raisins and apricots drying in wind-blown chambers, the summer sun too intense for the work; ponies pulling ploughs through fields of grain. This is the grape-growing region of China, and the Uyghurs who inhabit Turpan produce the delicious wine for which the region is renowned.

At the Gaochang Ruins just to the east of Turpan you can explore the remains of this ancient Uyghur capital, which flourished as a Silk Road center around the 9th century. Recalling Pompeii in scale, this city was lost to the sands of the Gobi for hundreds of years until recent excavation. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Ramble through the Grape Valley to see the picturesque vineyards surrounded by the starkest of desert landscapes. You can enjoy lunch among the vines, or a picnic while walking in the Flaming Mountains, named for their profusion of red and purple flora.

The area surrounding Turpan is a veritable archaeological sandbox and it seems every peasant you meet has unearthed Roman coins, Persian pottery, swatches of ancient Tang Dynasty silk, even carved wood, which predates the invention of paper. To stand at such a crossroads of antiquity is an awe-inspiring experience.


Synonymous with the ultimate exotic outpost, Kashgar was, and in some ways still is, the last frontier. Until the 21st century, it was almost frozen in time, a living relic of its trading heyday four centuries earlier. The old section of Kashgar remained much as Marco Polo found it: an intoxicating, marvelous confluence of Indian, Persian, Arabian and Chinese cultures layered one on top of the other. Recent renovations of the Old Quarter by the Han Chinese have taken place, resulting in many old mud buildings being demolished, and residents relocating to newer buildings that employ modern earthquake and fire codes. This has caused an outcry among some who fear ancient ways of life are vanishing. Some steps are being taken to preserve Kashgar's ancient relics, but the forces of modernity march on. However, there is still much to see.

The Sunday Market is fascinating, and it just may be the largest bazaar in all of Asia-an absolute must on any tour of China.

The Id Kah Mosque is huge and suitably impressive; around town you'll discover dozens of smaller mosques at every turn. While strolling the city's alleyways you'll catch glimpses through the mud-brick doorways of people engaged in all manner of ancient arts, including bread making, metal forging, musical instrument manufacturing and firing of hand-made tile.

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