China is a fascinating and frustrating place to travel, where many toil with the idea of travelling. As one of the world’s largest countries, it’s not one you can traverse through easily or quickly and you may just have to visit multiple times. Yet it’s a country that is developing rapidly and losing much of its history to the destruction of Western modernisation and should be visited soon. With pockets of charm, an array of landscapes and attractions to suit all kinds of traveller, as well as unique cultural experiences you will never forget, there are at least five reasons why you should put China on your travel list.
The Great Wall
While sounding cliché, the Great Wall of China is an absolute must-do when you are in China. Although I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my expectations (which I had harbored since childhood) I was wrong – it was an extraordinary and emotional adventure to be within this incredible feat of architecture. Not only can you cherry pick from a variety of locations from the closer and more touristy Badaling or the crumbling and harder to reach Huánghuā, but you can choose to camp out overnight (if you are lucky not to be thrown off), go for a long hike between Jinshanglin and Simatai or even use the toboggan slide at Mutianyu. I visited Jinshangling where I saw only a small number of other tourists and stayed overnight in a small guesthouse on site – the perfect opportunity to catch sunset or sunrise.
See What’s Left of China Before the Heritage is Destroyed
Nearly all the places I visited in China were in a state of destruction and reconstruction. Each town and city was being modernised with profitable ventures and high rises at the expense of history and heritage. The Chinese like to build and re-build, and you will frequently come across rubble piles and cranes. Where our definition of preservation means saving what’s old and wonderful about our heritage, in China it means pulling down an ancient building and constructing a brand new one in its place using the same style. Don’t be fooled by what looks old… it probably isn’t. Get there before there is nothing left of the traditional China we all hear about. It really is vanishing rapidly.
The Vast and Diverse Landscape
Whether you love cities or village dwellings, hiking mountains, cruising rivers or trekking through forests, China’s vast and diverse landscape means that there is something for everyone. The rural plains in the southern provinces area are a welcome contrast to the hectic and huge sprawling cities of Beijing and Shanghai. For the adventure seekers there are plenty of mountain ranges (mainly found in western China) including Emei Shan, Mian Shan, Wu Tai Shan and Wudang Shan. Walk along ancient city walls in Pingyao and X’ian, wander through local villages or slow travel down the Yangtze River on a two day cruise. Just hope that the smog doesn’t cloud your view.
Chinese food is nothing like your average takeaway at home – it’s more delicious and varied. Whether you eat at a local restaurant or sample the street food, each province has its own unique dishes, from Beijing’s established (Peking) duck restaurants to the famous Szechuan pepper and the hot and spicy dishes of the Hunan province. There’s always something new to try. And it’s inexpensive, which means there is no excuse not to give new and exotic dishes a try. You’ll have to take your chances though since the language barrier may result in the need to point at random pictures and hope for the best!
You Will Become a Hardened Traveller
It’s true when people tell you that China is one of the hardest places to travel in. When you arrive it’s one of the biggest cultural shocks you will face (with the exception of the more Westernised Shanghai). My first few days in China were spent in complete bewilderment and learning to acclimatise to the completely different way of life. You need patience in droves but in time you will learn to deal with the daily frustrations and how to quickly overcome them. I became more confident, more assertive and prepared for any challenges.
Two of the hardest things are the language and the fact that China isn’t really a solo traveller destination. The majority of your conversations will exists of a few keys words you will soon pick up (mainly ‘tim-poo-dong’ meaning “I don’t understand”) and lots of miming. It’s amazing what you can communicate with your hands. While solo travel in China is safe, many people were in established friendship groups, or were teachers and students on a break or on work projects. You will have to work a lot harder to meet people and deal with more alone time than you may be used to. It might be worth mixing up your time in China with your own travel and a tour to get to some more remote places.
China is a unique place to travel and I came away from 10 weeks of travel there loving and loathing it in equal measures. But with so much to see and do and with multiple travel paths to follow, both trodden and off the beaten track, we can each come away from it with a different perspective. I have yet to see everything and am already planning to return… especially before its ancient charm is completely lost.