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China’s highlights: the big three

China is a county of huge historical importance to the human race. It has nurtured empires and seen great advances in art and science. It is also home to the world’s largest population, its highest peak, Everest, and Asia’s longest river, the Yangtze. The importance of China has been known by many for centuries, Napoleon once said of China “There lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep, for when he awakes he will move the world.” The pace of change in life in China is clearly visible, where cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong twist and bend to incorporate old and new ways of life in harmony. These changes are echoed throughout many cities around the world, but in China it is particularly evident.

Pic: zebble/Flickr

China’s history has gone through periods of peace and opulence with each passing shift in power. Each of these changes in power, called dynasties, have been key in shaping the countries rich and dynamic past. The Great Wall of China, started by the Qin dynasty between 220-206 BC, and expanded by the Ming dynasty is one of the nation’s most iconic features, a World Heritage Site and serves as an example of what could be achieved by the rulers of one of the world’s most powerful nations.

If you are planning a trip to China, the best time of year to go is either the spring or autumn months as the summer months can be very wet and humid. Winters in China can be particularly harsh, especially to the north and west of the country in Tibet. However, winter does present the more adventurous traveler with fewer tourists and having the opportunity to experience the Great Wall and other areas in the snow. Visitors to China during the spring months will be able to experience the wonders of the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year to the western world. This two-week-long festival features visits to temples, street processions with paper dragons and the setting off of firecrackers.

The casual traveler is well advised to remain in the central and eastern ‘Han heartland’ of China, where the 21st century cities are home to tea, chopsticks, stir-fried tofu and calligraphy. Beyond this the adventurous traveler can explore further to the west where the population thins out to the Himalayas and Mongolian steppe. Here much of the land is used for agriculture where workers in conical hats work the rice field between the cities and wild extremes in order to feed an ever-increasing population. However, here you will find what many call the real China, where you can truly see and experience life in this immense country.

For the majority of travelers to China, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong will hold the most appeal, with a mix of the vibrant new China and the traditional old China combining to create three exceptional and truly exciting cities.


To the first time visitor, Beijing appears to be very similar to the majority of other major metropolises across the world. This vibrant city with its population of 13 million boasts all of the modern features that we have come to expect from a city of this size with motorways, high-rise buildings and huge shopping centers supporting its inhabitants. The 2008 Olympic Games brought about the construction of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, a testament to the cities ambition to become a cultural and economic world leader.

Pic: Earth Hour Global/Flickr

Visitors to Beijing have a wide range of historical landmarks to take in that can be found within and beyond the geometric city plan radiating out from the Forbidden City. Much of the country’s history has been sculpted from within the Forbidden Cities walls and has been seen as the symbolic-center of the nation for almost 500 years. Over the years 20 emperors have ruled from within its walls until the last emperor, Pu Yi, was abdicated in 1912. Opened to the public in 1949, the Forbidden City is now one of the star attractions of Beijing where tourists are well advised to arrive early to avoid the crowds.

Tiananmen Square is yet another of Beijing’s world renowned sights. Located just south of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square is perfect to see on the same day. Also known as ‘The Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace’, the square is still widely associated with the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests during 1989. Despite this, the square remains a pilgrimage destination for many Chinese who visit the central mausoleum that contains the body of Chairman Mao, leader of the Chinese Revolution.

The Great Wall makes up, what I refer to as ‘Beijing’s Big Three’, and the restored fortifications located at Badaling are the closest to the city. Consisting of roughly 5,500 miles of wall, 223 miles of trench and 1,387 miles of natural defenses (rivers and mountains), the Great Wall of China was built as an attempt to defend the northern borders from nomad invasion. The restored fortifications at Badaling are the most accessible and most visited. However, sections at Mutianyu, Simatai, Huanghua Cheng and Jinshanling are also worth visiting to avoid the crowds.


Home to 18 million people, Shanghai is Chinas largest city and just like Beijing, combines old and new to signify Shanghai’s vibrant and long history. During the mid-19th century the British traded freely from Shanghai and the city served as a major commercial port, eventually going on to become one of the world’s largest financial centers. Before the communist era, Shanghai, like many colonial outposts, stood for opulence, wealth and extravagance, with many foreigners from the likes of Great Britain, France and America living in concessions. The Pudong area across the river from Bund now plays host to Shanghai’s vibrant and active city life.

Pic: archer10(Dennis)/Flickr

The Bund is home to Shanghai’s grandest colonial buildings and a stroll or boat trip along this riverside area will allow you to take-in building such as the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, said to be the most beautiful building in Asia when build in 1921. From the riverbank you can also experience Shanghai’s skyline in all its glory.

Shanghais most famous temple is the Jade Buddha Temple. Built in 1882 it is home to two Buddha statues which were brought to China from Burma. The tea ceremony at the temple is an experience to sample and almost a work of art. Upstairs in the temple sits a statue of Buddha that is carved from a single piece of jade and is encrusted with jewels; it is a sight to behold.

Pleasing and satisfying in Chinese translates to a single word, ‘yu’. Aptly named, the Yu Gardens in Shanghai are almost 400 years old and are considered to be the finest and most lavish in the region. Established in 1559 and build over a period of 20 years by Pan Yunduan, the gardens are a must see for any botanist visiting Shanghai.

Hong Kong

Up until 1997 Hong Kong was the last great outpost of the British Empire. It now stands as a symbol of China’s booming commercial success. The Blade Runner-esque skyline and the blend of old and new make this city a must see for any world-wide traveler. Hong Kong embodies the spirit of every active and fast-paced city on the plant with the bustling markets of Nathan Road, constant redevelopment of Hong Kong Island’s waterfront skyscrapers, and busy port on Victoria Harbor all reflecting a city that is always on the move.

Undulating from east to west along Hong Kong Island is a mini-mountain range simply called The Peak. Home to many British diplomats during the colonial past, a funicular railway enables people to travel right to the top to take in the fantastic views of the city, harbor, and somewhere off in the distance, mainland China. Without a doubt the best time to take a trip to the top of The Peak is sunset, where you can witness Hong Kong’s skyline transform in to a mouth-dropping spectacle of neon and light.

Pic: xopherlance/Flickr

Hong Kong is also home to what has become the world’s largest and permanent light and sound show. The Symphony of Lights used to take place every spring during the Chinese New Year celebrations, but now takes place throughout the year each evening by a group of laser and light show enthusiasts. With buildings on both sides of the harbor being lit up, it is a truly amazing spectacle and one not to be missed.

In keeping with China’s reputation for big, bold, and magnificent; Hong Kong, or rather the nearby island of Lantau, is home to one of China’s biggest Buddha statues. Tian Tan Buddah, or the Big Buddha as is it is known, is located 268 steps up from the Po Lin Monastery and sits upon a lotus flower overlooking the area. The peace and serenity of the Monastery represents the underdeveloped area well and is a far cry from the newly added Disneyland to the north.

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