Beijing & Hebei
While there was much talk of getting to the Three Gorges on the Yangzi River before the area's partial disappearance, the real urgency is to see what little is left of old Beijing, with its ancient housing and original Ming dynasty street plan. Thanks to new construction, whole city blocks can vanish at once, sometimes taking ancient, long-forgotten temples with them.
But while Beijing suffers from being communism's showpiece for the outside world and a victim of ersatz modernization, it still has far more to offer than several other Chinese cities put together, including some of China's most extravagant monuments, such as the Forbidden City. In addition, the city has easy access to the surrounding province of Hebei with its sinuous sections of the Great Wall and vast tomb complexes.
Even if the Chinese no longer believe civilization ends at the Great Wall, most tourists still do. The frigid lands to the Northeast, once known as Tartary or Manchuria, represent one of the least-visited and most challenging regions in China, and its last great travel frontier.
Despite industrialization, the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilong Jiang, and the northern section of Inner Mongolia, still claim China's largest natural forest, its most pristine grasslands, and one of its most celebrated lakes (Tian Chi). You'll also find architectural remnants of the last 350 years -- early Qing palaces and tombs, incongruous Russian cupolas, and eerie structures left over from Japan's wartime occupation.
Around the Yellow River
As covered in this book, this region comprises an area of northern China that includes Shanxi, Ningxia, parts of Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia, roughly following the central loop of the Yellow River north of Xi'an. One of China's "cradles of civilization," the area is home to most of the country's oldest surviving timber-frame buildings, its oldest carved Buddhist grottoes, and Pingyao, one of its best-preserved walled cities.
The Silk Routes
From the ancient former capital of Xi'an, famed for the modern rediscovery of the Terra-Cotta Warriors, trade routes ran in all directions, but most famously (because they were given a clever name in the 19th c.) west and northwest through Gansu and Xinjiang, and on to the Middle East. Under the control of Tibetan, Mongol, Indo-European, and Turkic peoples more than of Chinese, these regions are still populated with Uighurs, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Tibetans, and others, some in tiny oasis communities on the rim of the Taklamakan Desert, which seem completely remote from China. Indeed, the Uighurs would rather rule themselves, and there has been a resurgence in calls for independence that most recently left over 150 Han Chinese dead after riots in the Xinjiang capital, Ürumqi, in July 2009.
The Silk Routes are littered with alien monuments and tombs, and with magnificent cave-temple sights such as Dunhuang, which demonstrate China's import of foreign religions and aesthetics as much as the wealth generated by its exports of silk.
Eastern Central China
Eastern central China, between the Yellow River (Huang He) and the Yangzi River (Chang Jiang), is an area covering the provinces of Henan, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Anhui. Chinese culture developed and flourished with little outside influence here. Luoyang was the capital of nine dynasties, Kaifeng capital of six, and Nanjing capital of eight. Qufu, the hometown of China's most important philosopher, Confucius, is here, as are several of China's holiest mountains, notably Tai Shan and Huang Shan, as well as that watery equivalent of the Great Wall, the Grand Canal.
After 50 years of being overlooked, Shanghai, the Pearl of the Orient, is once again booming and its status as the country's wealthiest city, with the highest per capita incomes, is attracting businesses and workers from around the globe. While the skyscrapers grow taller and ever more eye-catching, the sweep of 19th- and early-20th-century architecture along the Bund and the Art Deco masterpieces to be found in the French Concession behind it, hark back to the city's last glory days of the 19th century. These contrasting features make Shanghai the mainland's top East-meets-West destination, and it has the restaurants and relaxed and open-minded atmosphere to match. Nearby Hangzhou and Suzhou offer some of China's most famous scenery.
South of Shanghai and the Yangzi River, the coastal provinces of Zhejiang, Fujian, and Guangdong have always been China's most outward looking. These areas, which boomed under the relatively open Tang dynasty and which were forced to reopen as "treaty ports" by the guns of the first multinationals in the 19th century, are also those most industrialized under the current "reform and opening" policy. Remembering that this is a guide for travelers rather than businesspeople, we have focused on areas of great natural beauty such as Anji and Yandangshan, rather than "developed" coastal cities. A bit inland, the impoverished pottery-producing province of Jiangxi illustrates the two-speed nature of China's growth.
Hong Kong & Macau
Two sets of pencil-slim towers jostle for position on either side of a harbor, close as bristles on a brush. Between them, ponderous oceangoing vessels slide past puttering junks, and century-old ferries waddle and weave across their paths. The mixture of Asia's finest hotels, territory-wide duty-free shopping, incense-filled working temples, rugged and surprisingly remote outlying islands, and fun, historic transport options including the Star Ferry and trams, make this city-state worth flying to Asia to see in its own right. Macau, once a provincial backwater, now Asia's gambling capital, still offers a little bit of misplaced Mediterranean, and is a short ferry ride away.
Encompassing the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Hainan Island, this region is home to some of China's most spectacular mountain scenery and three of Asia's mightiest rivers, resulting in some of the most breathtaking gorges and lush river valleys in the country.
Even more appealing: This region is easily the most ethnically diverse in China. Twenty-six of China's 56 officially recognized ethnic groups can be found in the southwest, from the Mosu in Lugu Lake to the Dai in Xishuangbanna, and from the Miao around Kaili to the Dong in San Jiang, each with different architecture, dress, traditions, and colorful festivals.
The Yangzi River
In addition to shared borders, the landlocked provinces of Sichuan, Hubei, and Hunan and the municipality of Chongqing have in common the world's third-longest river, the Chang Jiang ("Long River," aka Yangzi or Yangtze). The home of five holy Buddhist and/or Daoist mountains, this area contains some of China's most beautiful scenery, particularly in northern Sichuan and northern Hunan.
Sichuan deserves exploration using Chengdu as a base, and the Hunan should be explored from Changsha. If you're taking the Three Gorges cruise (available indefinitely despite what you may have heard), try to at least leave yourself a few days on either end to explore Chongqing and Wuhan. And a day trip from Chongqing to the Buddhist grottoes at Dazu is well worth the time.
The Tibetan World
The Tibetan plateau is roughly the size of western Europe, with an average elevation of over 4,000m (13,123 ft.). Ringed by vast mountain ranges such as the Kunlun range to the north and the Himalayas, the region offers towering scenic splendors as well as some of the richest minority culture within modern China's borders. Lhasa, former seat of the Dalai Lamas, is dominated physically by the vast Potala Palace, and emotionally by the fervor of the pilgrims to the Jokhang Temple. However, recent discontent and unrest has brought armed Chinese soldiers to the streets of Lhasa. While a trip to the Tibetan Autonomous Region is still to be recommended, neighboring Chinese provinces, particularly Qinghai, offer similar scenery and Tibetan culture, and generally speaking, the authorities are less watchful and the atmosphere in both monasteries and on the streets is more relaxed.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.