A Trip to China – In the Eye of the Beholder

I am reluctant to recommend China as a travel destination. There are plenty of great places to see in Asia (Malaysia, Nepal, and Thailand spring to mind), but I don’t consider China one of them. For the haven’t-been-but-am-really-curious sorts, I would recommend reading a travel narrative about the country before booking a flight. Peter Hessler’s Country Driving is probably a good choice. Rob Gifford’s China Road is very balanced, which some people, for some reason, find important. Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster and Colin Thubron’s Behind the Wall are excellent but dated (from the 1980s), yet still relevant. But if you’ve read those books and are still undeterred, and if I had to come up with a China itinerary, I’d come up with one that looks like the following.

To get a travel visa for China, your best option is Hong Kong. Hong Kong is fantastic, pulsing with energy, light, sound, and color. A trip up Victoria Peak is a must and the territory has a surprising amount of natural scenery. The New Territories, for instance, are quite striking and a good place to go if you’re suffering from neon overload. From Hong Kong, travel by ferry to the former Portuguese enclave of Macau, where you can spend a day eating almond cookies and inspecting colonial buildings. Next, hop on the bus to Guangzhou, a monster of a metropolis. Be sure to visit its Qing Ping Market to discover why the Chinese say they eat anything with four legs except a table. Deep-fried starfish-kebab anyone?

Now that you’ve seen a big brassy Chinese city (and, with a handful of exceptions, they’re all the same), make your way east by train through the limestone-knolled south. Scenic Yangshuo, a town in the countryside, is a decent spot, and Dali Old Town, in Yunnan Province, is touristy but pretty – but what you really want to do is get a travel permit for Tibet. You can do this in tiny Zhongdian in Yunnan province.

Lhasa won’t disappoint. In fact, a jaunt around Tibet would likely be more rewarding than one around any other Chinese “province.” Patrick French’s Tibet, Tibet makes for good background reading. So does Ma Jian’s Stick Out Your Tongue. The Potala Palace is unforgettable. So is the Barkhor, the neighborhood that houses the frenetic Jokhang Temple. A lot of Westerners hire a driver to take them to Nampsto Lake. Take into consideration altitude sickness.

Done marveling at the creamy zeniths and the yaks and nomads on the rooftop of the world, you can fly anywhere. I would fly to Bali, Indonesia, but if you’re still not finished with China then I’d suggest a flight to China’s most interesting city, Beijing.

What sets Beijing apart is that it still retains a sense of traditional culture. Nanjing is China’s most handsome city and Shanghai is its biggest and brightest, but from a cultural perspective, neither compete with the capital. Yes, “Peking” is heavily polluted, heavily policed, and has heavy traffic, but it’s easy to navigate, features fine restaurants, and is still culturally authentic – it has a traditional atmosphere which most municipal governments have bulldozed. There are the well-known attractions (Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace), but more engaging are the hutong or traditional alleys with their fortress-like courtyard homes and their portly, smudgy lanterns. Walking around the hutong on a bright winter’s day, or at night, is like stepping back in time. You gain an understanding of how people live, much more enlightening than observing honking thoroughfares or inspecting one of the burg’s dire museums. An exceptional guidebook is The Rough Guide to Beijing by Simon Lewis.

I suppose you’ll want to go to the Great Wall. Everyone does. But there’s no such thing as the Great Wall – it’s just an idea, a myth; and the walls north of Beijing are probably younger than you are. But a visit still makes for a fun day trip, and the surrounding mountains are pleasant to gaze it. Don’t go in for a tour that includes a trip to (Cousin Li’s) Jade Factory or the Ming Tombs. There’s nothing to see at the Ming Tombs. Just go to “the wall” (and back). To learn more about “the Great Wall,” read John Man’s The Great Wall.

My final China recommendation (and, yes, I realize I haven’t included Jiuzhaigou Valley, Xian, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Qingdao, or a dozen other oft-touted spots) is Harbin during the Ice Festival. To my way of thinking, wandering around a sooty and frozen Chinese city filled with old Russian buildings and marked by the taint of industry is infinitely more stimulating – or at least genuine – than clicking pictures of the Terracotta Warriors, Shanghai’s lights, or inert pandas behind bars in awful Chengdu. But I’m a bit different, not to mention biased. Living in Taiwan for a decade will do that to you.

Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World.

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