Identifying the "best of China" becomes a more and more difficult task. As this once isolated giant awakens, forces are being unleashed that impact tourism. Devastating pollution, widespread corruption, and the sheer volume of tourists have transformed many of China's best-known sights into filthy, overpriced circuses. To find the very best that China has to offer, it is sadly becoming more important to know what to avoid, rather than what to see.
Perhaps the best advice that we can give is to focus on nature. After suffering through the devastating Cultural Revolution, what little remains of the country's much-vaunted 5,000 years of culture is being lost in the rush to get rich -- even small cities have become heavily polluted sweatshops. Fortunately, China still has some of the most spectacular natural scenery on the planet. Many places within the People's Republic have only recently been opened to visitors, so we have only had a few decades to unlock some of this enormous realm's secrets. While we certainly do not claim to have uncovered everything, we have been truly inspired by this huge treasure house, and have included here what we have discovered so far.
Wake up gracefully to tai chi on The Bund in Shanghai, facing the crystalline skyscrapers of Pudong. Beijing's Tiananmen Square, with its huge portrait of Mao Zedong, is the world's largest public square -- it's dwarfed, however, by the 9,999 rooms of the nearby Forbidden City, the gateway to Ming and Qing dynasty mysteries. The Terracotta Army stands to attention in Xi'an, the start of the fabled Silk Road. Slow down in Chengdu's incense-perfumed temples and tea gardens.
From crowded markets to ultra-modern malls, shopping is a national pastime. In Beijing, browse for pearls and silk in Hongqiao Market or antiques and name chops in Liulichang Xi Jie's Qing-style courtyard houses. Haggling is de rigueur for the tailor-made suits at Shanghai's South Bund Fabric Market. Hong Kong's neon-lit Temple Street night market is best for high-tech gadgets and designer fakes. Green tea from Chengdu, floor-length yak coats from Yunnan and jade from Xinjiang all make unique souvenirs.
Eating and Drinking
With chopstick skills and a Mandarin phrasebook, you're ready for China's mixing pot of cuisines. Go local eating hairy crab and "jeweled" duck in Shanghai's Old City and splurge on haute cuisine on The Bund. Beijing dishes up Peking duck dripping in plum sauce and spicy hotpots on magical, lantern-lit Ghost Street. Snack, Cantonese-style, on seafood and dim sum at Hong Kong's Causeway Bay. Food stalls in Sichuan make eyes water with chili-laced pork dishes and peppery bean curd.
China is a country of poetic landscapes, reaching from the seemingly infinite Great Wall, snaking over mist-enshrouded mountains, to Guilin's limestone pinnacles rising above emerald rice paddies. Giant pandas peep through bamboo at UNESCO-listed Wolong Nature Preserve near Chengdu. China's longest river, the Yangtze, carves its way through enigmatic mountainscapes to the Three Gorges Dam, one of the world's largest hydroelectric dams, and Yunnan's staggeringly sheer Tiger Leaping Gorge.