How do you sum up a country that's home to almost a quarter of humanity and an ancient civilisation stretching back 5,000 years? With immense difficulty, is the answer, but here goes. Modern China contains striking contemporary metropolises such as Shanghai and Hong Kong, and rural areas where life has changed little for centuries.
After the upheavals of Maoism, China has become a capitalist powerhouse in all but name, a transition symbolised by the hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Compare and contrast that with our Olympics four years later - we did an austerity budget, ironic pastiche of the UK as a bucolic 'Shire' for the opening of our Olympics, they did thousands of perfectly synchronised drummers and the biggest ever firework (their invention) display. Here in the UK we do pop-up restaurants while China's blast furnaces (their invention) produce enough steel to create pop-up cities almost overnight with populations larger than that of Holland.
It's this speed and scale of development that truly boggles the mind, and gives the venerable capital Beijing - your likely starting point on a luxury holiday to China - a certain comforting sense of permanency. Granted, at a cool 20 million souls Beijing is another city of Dutch population proportions, but one that took rather longer to evolve. 3,000 years longer, to be precise. Not to imply that this a staid or backwards looking city; far from it - that many people equates to a whole heap of ideas, ambition and creative energy, the flames of which are being fanned by the government's new found light(ish) touch 'state capitalism'. Speaking of capitalism, guess what? Yup, The Chinese invented that too, way back in the Song Dynasty.
Away from the capital the country contains a similarly diverse range of landscapes, plus renowned cultural treasures such as the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an. Han Chinese make up most of the population, but there are 55 other major ethnic groups, notably the Uighurs in Xinjiang province and, of course, the Tibetans.
Depending on the length of your stay, after Beijing the next most important place to visit would arguably be Xian and those staggering terracotta troops, but the buzzing city of Shanghai is also well worth a look. Other smaller but equally memorable places to consider - although realistically only for anyone with ten days or more to spare - would be the pandas and Sichuan cuisine in Chengdu; Lijiang, Dali and Shangri-La, the fabled cities of Yunnan Province; the staggering limestone pinnacles of Guilin and Yangshuo, and the architectural marvel that is Pingyao, a city seemingly untouched since the Ming Dynasty in the 1300s. Finally, for anyone who can forgive China's policies in the disputed territory of Tibet, then Lhasa and the high Tibetan plateau are genuinely staggering places to visit, best reached by one of the world's most amazing train journeys from Beijing via Xian to Lhasa.
On the subject of journeys, there's no denying China can be a tricky place to get around, so it is best done in conjunction with a tour operator who knows the country well, and uses the best people on the ground. Like us, for example. Several of the Original Travel team have travelled in this fascinating destination so can talk you through what best to do in a fast-changing land.
|Shanghai & Hangzhou|
|Beijing & the Great Wall|
|Xi'an & the Terracotta Army|