China is a country that is constantly evolving, and manages to blend 21st Century cities of skyscrapers with tiny traditional villages, sometimes with just a short bullet train ride between them. During my 14-day trip with GAdventures from Beijing to Hong Kong, I traversed the country mainly by train. In just two weeks I was captivated by historical palaces in the capital of Beijing, stood in awe of modern skylines glowing in the night and sunk into the slower pace of life that can be found in the rice-terraces of the southern countryside. To say it was a trip of contrasts is an understatement, and I’m already desperate to return and unearth more of this vast, diverse country.
Ancient palaces opening new doors
The Forbidden City in Beijing, now the Imperial Palace Museum, is a vast complex of over 90 palace quarters and over 8,000 individual rooms. In recent years, new rooms have been renovated and opened to the public, and vast amounts of artefacts and statues dating across 24 different emperors are on display here. Construction started in 1406, and by the end of 2018 around 80% of the palace should be open to the public, with the remaining repairs ongoing until 2020. I wasn’t quite prepared for the crowds here, but as China’s busiest tourist attraction with up to 80,000 daily visitors, be ready to wait to take your photos without people!
Islamic heritage amongst bustling cities
The city of Xi’an was situated at the eastern end of the old Silk Road, and Islamic snacks and goods can still be found on the small streets around the ornate wooden Mosque in the city centre. The walled city is just a short drive from the Terracotta Army, another of China’s most famous ancient sights, which is also still undergoing excavation. The Bell Tower and Drum Tower (pictured) are two of the most important buildings in the city, and although many old Chinese towns had these (the sound of the bells would signal the start and end of the day), those in Xi’an are some of the best preserved and celebrated.
City breaks blending old and new
With three or six days of visa-free travel available to nationals of certain countries heading to the main hubs of China, it has become more accessible than ever to enjoy a city break here. For those who venture to Shanghai, a short bullet train ride will connect you with Suzhou, providing the contrast of modern China with a more traditional destination. Suzhou is famous for its classical gardens and canals which run under countless ornate bridges, making boat trips a popular activity here. Step away from the busier spots though, and you’ll find small stalls of local goods, children playing by the water’s edge and a generally slower pace of life.
Gawp at 21st-century cities from sky-high towers
No city in mainland China quite encapsulates the 21st Century as perfectly as Shanghai. The dazzling views of the skyline from The Bund are electrifying at night, and the gigantic Shanghai Tower became home to the world’s highest observation deck in 2017. And it’s not just Shanghai that is embracing modern tourist attractions – the city of Shenzhen debuted its Design Hub late last year, which includes a partnership gallery with London’s V&A Museum. If you are after a more classic day out however, the tree lined streets of Shanghai’s French Quarter retain their historic charm, while the city’s temples, such as Jing’an, blend in amongst the skyscrapers.
From city to countryside by high speed rail
Now boasting the world’s largest high speed rail network, travelling around this vast country has become a lot quicker and more comfortable over recent years. Whether you want to visit the rolling rice-terraces of Longji, where traditional tribes live, or hit up the Karst Mountain region of Yangshuo, a popular backpacker hub, for those who don’t wish to fly, HSR provides a great alternative option. As China finds new ways to showcase its beautiful nature, glass hanging bridges and viewing platforms are sprouting up, giving new opportunities to admire the never ending scenery across the country.
Modern skylines and award winning street food
There aren’t many cities that can boast Michelin starred street food, the world’s longest outside escalator system and a skyline that will leave you speechless, but Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, does just that and more. Take the Peak Tram to Victoria Peak for magical sunsets over the city, and linger around to see the bright lights by night. Hit up street hawkers for delicious food that won’t break the bank, and don’t miss an evening ride on the Star Ferry, especially during the Symphony of Lights, where a show of lights and music bring the buildings around the harbour to life. If you want a city that serves up futuristic buildings alongside age-old traditions, you can’t do much better than Hong Kong.
Daniel James Clarke travelled to China with support from G Adventures (gadventures.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage. Follow @lonelyplanet for more Instagram inspiration.