This is my Top 5 List of Things to See in China if You Can’t Go Anywhere Else. There’s pithier ways to describe this list, but I elected for this. I tried to choose 5 places that were distinct enough to create a cohesive list.
If you want to truly understand China, then you should also see Shanghai, Guangzhou and Taiwan, none of which are on this list. You should visit an endless list of places if you wish to “understand” China, but following that logic to its extreme, you will never stop traveling to random villages.
This list isn’t intended to be exhaustive, but rather informative. It isn’t so much designed to be guide for a week of travel as traveling to these five places isn’t geographically logical in a short time. If you travel to these five, you’re traversing a rather large geographic footprint, and should be visiting other places, in addition.
I intend for these 5 places to be representative of the China both as a Han nation and as a nation-state as understood in the West.
China is a wonderful place, and I hope this list elucidates that.
I’m going to start this list out with a super hackneyed choice. Sorry, but the obvious choices are usually worth it. Saying Paris is a great city is both boring and true. Beijing, to me, is one of the world’s great cities. New York, Paris, Beijing.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to hate about Beijing. There’s a lot that could peg it back. It’s crowded and housing is expensive, but the worst part of Beijing, bar none, is the smog. It usually ranges from incredibly irritating to reasonably carcinogenic. It’s definitely not pleasant.
Some people spend weeks in Beijing and never know there’s a mountain range off in the distance. If you were to spend one day in the winter, you’d be forgiven for not knowing what the skyline looks like.
That said, if you never look upward from the horizon, the city is fantastic.
One measure of mine for world’s great cities is the ability to walk aimlessly, directionless and still find cool things. Cities after all are a collection of people, and without cool people they suck.
Beijing is chock full of what-the-fuck moments. One moment you will be crossing an overpass with illegal fake diploma salesmen and the next you will be down an alleyway housing a brewery owned by some expat who’s lived in the city since before he was born.
The alleyways, or hutong, are what make the city unique, despite the government’s attempts to dismantle this culture. As the political capital of the country, Beijing is home to many of the country’s companies, government agencies and museums.
While the National Palace Museum in Taipei has much of the Chinese nation’s treasures as a legacy of the civil war, the Palace Museum located in the Forbidden City in Beijing is no slouch.
798 is one of my favorite places on this planet, full stop. It’s the distillation of the idea of repurposing old factories. The rugged backdrop of an old Chinese equipment factory is now an open air modern art gallery, and its lovely. I would travel back to Beijing just for that.
Beijing has sections for nightlife, expat culture, international exhibitions. It has sport culture, music culture, and everything a modern city should have. While it is little rough around the edges at times, the balance of modernity and antiquity is remarkable.
Simply, please go to Beijing and appreciate it for what it is. (And ignore the smog if you can.)
This city was initially a low quality piece of land. It was a rocky, crappy island that the Chinese gave the British after an awful war against centuries of policy against foreign access to trade. In any case, the British took it over and made a delightful place.
Many folks opt for this Cantonese city if they can only elect one metropolis in China. It has different visa laws and is easier to access for most Westerners, with the exceptions for Bosnia and Moldova from what I can tell. It’s all Moldovans talk about these days. Ok we get it, you have favorable visa policy with Hong Kong. Enough already.
Hong Kong has a list of superlatives almost as long as its subway, one of the cleanest most efficient in the world. Getting from the peninsula to Hong Kong island is ridiculously idiot proof, given how easy the MTR is.
Much of the aimless walking principle that makes Beijing so great is true in Hong Kong. The city is absolutely humming at all hours. High end malls, cheap shops, street stalls and deceivingly delicious food is in abundance. One of my favorite restaurants in the world looks like a dump, and has Michelin star rated roast pork. Do. Not. Miss. Out.
Hong Kong is a truly international city on the same scale of London and New York. Something about British imperialism seems to create global cities, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Anyways.
You will find all sorts of delicacies the world over on this island. South Asians, Brits, Yanks, Latinos, Middle Easterners, Africans. EV-ER-Y-ONE. (God that’s awkward to write out.)
Hong Kong can also be a fairly dirty place. In a literal sense, the side streets are frequently littered. Moreover, as the city came to fame by essentially turning a blind eye to everything and thus creating a very much free market, you will all sorts of dirty practices from prostitution to drugs. Heads up, might not be great to let your teenagers roam the city solo.
Hong Kong is a center of Chinese culture, very much different from Beijing. You can get your urban vibe from Beijing, but southern Hong Kong is a different place altogether. Classism is palpable in spades in this context.
Do yourself a favor and visit Hong Kong if you can. It’s even easy to bounce to Macau for a day trip if you so choose.
Daocheng Yading, Sichuan Province
This is the most beautiful place in the world. I will preach that from now til the end of time.
There is a place in China called Shangri-La, located in Yunnan province. If you know Shangri-La as the work of fiction by James Hilton, you’re right. It’s a stunning utopia depicted in the novel, based on a real life location. But it’s not based on Shangri-La, Yunnan. That place is bullshit and I hate whoever renamed it from the real name of Zhongdian to the epitome of paradise.
The inspiration for his book is actually at Daocheng Yading in Sichuan province. Today, it is a national park and for good reason. This is the most wonderful hike I’ve ever taken. It’s not super hard or demanding, and lazy people pay over $100 to have a horse take them up. But they’re silly. Allot a whole day to just stare at raw natural beauty. The most difficult by far is the thin air.
Getting there used to be a two-day bus ride from the provincial capital of Chengdu. Whether your country even has direct flights to Chengdu or not, I don’t know. For reference, the US doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot itself.
Today, Daocheng Yading has an airport, the highest commercial one in the world at 4,411 meters (14,219 feet). I have hiked in Kazakhstan before close to 3,300 meters (10,800 feet), so I knew that I wouldn’t get some crazy illness from altitude like scurvy or something. (Shut it, I’m not a doctor.)
But when you get off the airplane at that altitude and you’re not used to it, oh boy. You get a little light head. I swear Snickers should do a commercial there, cause we needed a little sugar afterwards.
This is the kind of location that absolutely needs pictures. We went in May, when it’s still cold and the flowers haven’t bloomed, the grasses lay aren’t vibrant and the hues are dimmed, and yet it’s still magnificent. The lakes, the peaks, the snow, the valley, the grasslands. It’s just too much.
When we think of China, we often think of overcrowded, smoggy Eastern seaboard cities. However, the western part of the country is incredible, on par with Yellowstone or the Alps. It’s wonderful.
In the same vein, Inner Mongolia is incredibly beautiful in a raw, rugged sort of way. If grasslands are your thing, then definitely go here. If you find them boring, well, then go somewhere else.
In the Qing era (1636-1912 roughly) what is now the country of Mongolia was well within the empire’s limits. It essentially was brought within the fold as empires tend to do.
Inner Mongolia is aptly named, juxtaposed Outer Mongolia (you can drop the qualifier when referring to the country). Mongolia was essentially created because of Soviet influence. If you notice the borders of Russia and China, they only touch in very small parts on the corners of Mongolia.
This was purposefully done, so that the competing Communist powers couldn’t invade very easily. Funny, that whole history thing. Because of this, Inner Mongolia uses Mongolian script, while the actual nation-state of Mongolia uses Cyrillic, the same that Russian uses.
Anyways, the northern grasslands of this area is integral to Chinese culture, history and identity. The people from this region are why the Great Wall exists. A visit to this area is a must so you can marvel at its wonder.
The last one on this list is a bit of a stretch.
I contend that Hangzhou is 100% not a city you should travel from all over the world to see. There, I said it.
That said, Hangzhou is indeed remarkable and emblematic of what a modern city should be, and moreover what modern Chinese cities will look like given the ability. If it’s emblematic of a nation, I should include it in a Top 5.
Hangzhou doesn’t have that much that one would necessarily endure a 15 hour flight for. There’s a Tea Village with a world renowned variety of leaf. There’s a super cool island in Hangzhou in the shape of Taoist symbols. West Lake is found through millennia of Chinese history. In fact, Hangzhou was once the capital of China. It also has a silk museum as the coastal city was once the global hub for the commodity.
But none of this does it justice. The remarkable thing about Hangzhou is mostly operational, which really isn’t something one talks about in a travel blog. The way the city runs is just silky. (Horrid pun intended.)
It has a super-efficient subway system accompanied by ultra effective bus routes. The world has shown that by simply reshuffling old routes, buses are entirely viable. The city centers on its picturesque central lake. It’s got a ridiculous number of quality restaurants nearby. It’s gotten easily navigable streets and clean alleys.
The wonder of Hangzhou is intangible. I think Hangzhou is worth a visit because it can be the future of urban planning and is essentially a Chinese blueprint. It’s got food, nature, transit, people, clean air, and everything else a good city should have. So why aren’t you there yet?
I think these 5 places summarily express the Chinese ethos. They cover a geographic footprint, representative of Chinese history and culture. They are all fantastic visits on their own and have so much to do. In short, Beijing, Hong Kong, Daocheng Yading, Inner Monglian grasslands and Hangzhou are all incredible ambassadors of China and worthy locations.
Let me know what you think in the comments below. Are there more representative places in China??
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