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Things to Do in China

China, the king of Asia, is simultaneously ancient and futuristic, rural and metropolitan, traditional and cosmopolitan. In a land of paradoxes, culture and cuisine project a distinct identity enhanced by vast landscapes and iconic landmarks. Tick off a New7Wonder of the World at the Great Wall of China; soak up Hong Kong’s unique island culture; and immerse yourself in attractions such as the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, and Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the endangered species. Each city, be it Shanghai, Beijing, or Xi’an, offers fine food, lively entertainment, and rich history.
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Shanghai French Concession
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260 Tours and Activities

Shanghai’s Old French Concession, an area once leased to the French in the Luwan and Xuhui districts of the city, is a reminder of an older Shanghai. The visitor-friendly area is packed full of beautiful colonial mansions and hotels dating back to the first three decades of the twentieth century. The French took control of the area in 1849, but it wasn’t until the 1920s when the neighborhood reached its peak of popularity as one of Shanghai’s most elite neighborhoods.

When you walk through the heart of the area on the tree-lined streets between Julu Road and Huaihai Road, you’ll find a collection of nicer restaurants and boutique shops occupying the surviving historic structures alongside Shanghai locals going about their day to day life. The French Concession is a good place to grab some food as there are so many choices; you’ll find almost everything here from Indian to French, Spanish and Thai food.

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Terracotta Warriors Museum (Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum)
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867 Tours and Activities

The 1974 discovery of thousands of life-sized Terracotta Warriors near Xian was one of the archaeological sensations of the 20th century. The figures date from 210 BC and were meant to guard the first emperor of China in the afterlife.

A huge statue of the emperor now guards the entrance to the Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, undeniable high point of any trip to Xian. To avoid disturbing these priceless treasures, they were left in situ with enormous structures now shielding them from the elements.

Three enormous pits are filled with row upon row of these remarkable effigies, with the first pit alone holding some 6,000 examples in excellent condition. There is a fourth exhibition space which holds other pieces found here, including bronze horses and chariots.

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South Gate (Yongningmen)
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654 Tours and Activities

The Ancient City Wall at in Xi'an is one of the best-preserved city walls in China. It was built in the 14th century during the Ming Dynasty, under the regime of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, and expanded upon from walls remaining from the Tang Dynasty. Visitors can either cycle or walk along the Ancient City Wall, which is almost 14 kilometers long and takes around three hours at a leisurely pace. The site features a moat, a drawbridge, the main towers, watchtowers, and gates, all of which combine to depict an impressive ancient defense system.

The South Gate is situated near the Bell Tower and is widely considered to be the most significant, with greeting ceremonies by the government held in the South Gate Square, which has recently been restored. Like the other gates, the South Gate features three towers – the gate tower, which holds the drawbridge, the narrow tower and the main tower.

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Victoria Harbour
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80 Tours and Activities

Riding a Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island is a signature Hong Kong experience.

The low-slung, double-decker, green and cream ferries are a Hong Kong emblem, dating back to 1888. Until the cross-harbor road tunnel and underground train link were built, the only way to cross between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island was by ferry.

Take a trip by day to experience the harbor and see the buildings on both sides, then take another trip at night to see the buildings light up and enjoy the nightly Symphony of Lights.

You can also cruise Victoria Harbour aboard a circular Star Ferry harbor tour, or book yourself onto an evening dinner cruise to sit back and drink in those twinkling views.

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Forbidden City (Palace Museum)
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Have you ever wondered what's so forbidden about the Forbidden City? It's called that because it was closed to the outside world for 500 years. This was the seat of the Ming and the Qing emperors, and no one could enter - or leave - the imperial domain without their permission. These days, the Chinese mainly call it Gu Gong, or Former Palace.

The Forbidden City, or Beijing Imperial Palace, is BIG - you'll need to allow at least one day for your visit. UNESCO have listed it as the largest collection of ancient wooden structures in the world. There are nearly 1,000 rooms in over 800 buildings. However, because it's been ransacked by invaders and gutted by fire several times (wooden buildings, lanterns, you do the math) most of the structures date from the 18th century on. As you move around the gardens and palatial buildings, which have now been converted to museums, you'll start to get a feel for what it was like to live the imperial life.

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Mutianyu Great Wall
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Located 56 miles (90 kilometers) northeast of Beijing, the Great Wall at Mutianyu was restored in 1986 after the section at Badaling rose in popularity. This section of the great wall includes a long, flat segment winding along the heavily forested hilltops of the area. This segment extends 1.6 miles (2.5 kilometers) with 22 watchtowers spread out along the way, allowing you to walk the wall for more than an hour, sometimes in solitude. If you have a full day to spare for a Great Wall tour, the Mutianyu segment is a good choice. It’s less crowded than Badaling but is still easily accessible and incredibly scenic, particularly on a misty day. Visitors can either climb to the top, with steps in good condition and handrails the entire way, or take a cable car to the top. When you’re ready to return to the bottom, either take the cable car back down or ride a toboggan back to the base.
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Tiananmen Square (Tiananmen Guangchang)
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Mao built the largest square in the world to flaunt the epic scale of the Communist project. This square is bounded by the Museums of Chinese History and Chinese Revolution, the Great Hall of the People, and the Chairman Mao Mausoleum. In 1989 pro-democracy rallies ended in the massacre of protesters in the streets, yet, it can be a bright, bustling sort of place, full of kids flying kites
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Summer Palace (Yiheyuan)
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846 Tours and Activities

The Summer Palace - also known as Yiheyuan - was built in 1750. In those days, it was called the Garden of Clear Ripples, and was a lakeside oasis where the royal court could escape the dust and heat of the Forbidden City in summer.

It was razed twice by foreign armies and completely rebuilt, most extensively by Empress Dowager Cixi in the 19th century. To fund her projects, she's said to have diverted a bunch of money destined for the Chinese navy. Ironically, one of her grand schemes was a marble boat that sits at the edge of the lake.

The grounds were declared a public park in 1924. These days, the 290 hectares (716 acres) of the 'Gardens of Nurtured Harmony' are madly popular with both tourists and locals.

The gardens are liberally scattered with temples, covered walkways, pavilions and bridges. Longevity Hill, one of the garden's main features, was constructed from the earth excavated when the lake was extended.

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More Things to Do in China

Temple of Heaven (Tiantan)

Temple of Heaven (Tiantan)

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A Ming temple, Temple of Heaven or Tian tan was built by the Yongle Emperor, who also built the Forbidden City, as a stage for the important rituals performed by the emperor, or Son of Heaven. Chief among these were the supplication to the heavens for a good harvest and the Winter Solstice ceremony, which was supposed to ensure a favorable year for the entire kingdom.

In those days it was believed that heaven was round and earth was square, so the architecture of the buildings (round, set on square bases) and the layout of the park (squared off at the Temple of the Earth end, rounded at the Temple of Heaven end) reflect this belief. The buildings are rich in symbolic detail - variations on the number nine, which represented the emperor; coloured glazes which represent heaven and earth; and pillars which represent the months of the year, the seasons and time. There are also echo stones where you can stand to hear your voice reverberate.

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Yuyuan Garden (Yu Garden)

Yuyuan Garden (Yu Garden)

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The Bund (Waitan)

The Bund (Waitan)

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The Bund (or Waitan) is the grand center of Colonial architecture in Shanghai. The former International Settlement runs along the waterfront of the Huangpu River, facing the Pudong district ('Bund' is a word of Indian derivation meaning 'embankment'). Loosely known as the "museum of international architecture," the Bund attracts visitors who are interested in the artsy side of Shanghai.

When foreign powers entered Shanghai after the Opium Wars of the 19th century, the Bund existed as a towpath. It quickly became the center of Shanghai as Western traders built banks, trading houses and consulates along its length, and has been synonymous with Shanghai's east-meets-west glamor ever since. Today the Bund faces the new wave of trading development - the vast towers of Jin Mao, the World Finance Center and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in the financial district of Pudong.

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Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

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There are few images more iconic to southwestern China than that of the giant panda. Unfortunately, despite its status as a Chinese national treasure, the giant panda population has been whittled down to just 1,000 pandas due to mass human development over the last century.

As a response to this ecological crisis the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was opened in 1987 and began caring for six pandas rescued from the wild. During the 25 years since its founding the Chengdu Panda Base has employed some of the world’s leading giant panda researchers to manage an open air sanctuary where giant pandas can be bred and raised in an effort to eventually be reintroduced into wild populations.

Located only seven miles from downtown Chengdu, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is inarguably one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of southern China.

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Big Wild Goose Pagoda (Dayanta)

Big Wild Goose Pagoda (Dayanta)

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While the Big Wild Goose Pagoda - or Dayanta - follows the familiar pagoda format of successive levels diminishing in size the higher they get, this solid stone tower is largely free of the frills associated with such buildings. One of Xian’s oldest structures, it was built in 652 and originally had 10 levels, though the top 3 were later lost in an earthquake.

The pagoda played an important role in the spread of Buddhism in China. Relics, figurines and writings associated with the Buddha were brought here from India along the Silk Road which ends in Xian. You can still see statues of the Buddha and other religious figures inside.

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Back Lakes (Hou Hai)

Back Lakes (Hou Hai)

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Beijing has modernized so rapidly that it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like in decades past. One neighborhood in Beijing has managed to hold on to its old-style hutong architecture, the Back Lakes (Hou Hai). Named after the three lakes in the area, the Back Lakes neighborhood is one of the last remaining places in Beijing where you can see traditional courtyard-style houses.

While wandering the hutongs lets you see Beijing as it once was, the streets surrounding the lakes, particularly Hou Hai -- the largest of the three -- shows you a modern, hip and international side of Beijing. The banks are lined with cafes, restaurants, bars and hookah dens catering to tourists, locals and the city’s sizable expatriate population alike. The best way to enjoy the Back Lakes area is to take a pedicab tour of the old hutong neighborhoods in the afternoon.

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Jade Buddha Temple (Yufo Si)

Jade Buddha Temple (Yufo Si)

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Yufo Si is a working Buddhist community - one of the few in China - but the star attractions of the Jade Buddha Temple are two figures brought to Shanghai by a Burmese monk in the 19th century.

The most impressive is the sitting Buddha, a 1.9 m (6.5 ft) giant encrusted with semi-precious stones. This Buddha is sitting in the pose which captures the moment of his enlightenment by meditation. The other Buddha is smaller and in the attitude of 'happy repose', as he goes peacefully to death. Both Buddhas are carved from white jade. Facing the reclining Buddha is a large copy in stone, brought to the monastery from Singapore. These are the main points of a visit to the temple, but take a look at the halls while you're there, particularly the Grand Hall with its golden 'Gods of the Twenty Heavens'. There's also a restaurant that serves the public, with a simple downstairs and a swankier upstairs.

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Xin Tian Di

Xin Tian Di

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Xin Tian Di (Xintiandi) is a sleekly restored area of Shanghai, where the more successful of the city's young come to play. It's also a popular strolling area for tourists, who like to check out the 19th century architecture.

The district abounds in shikumen, stone houses that were a popular residential form in the late 19th century and early 20th century city. When the districts that contained these houses were being razed, developers stepped in to save and restore this area. Today the shikumen house galleries, bookshops, antique stores, upmarket boutiques, bars and restaurants. It's particularly ironic that this Westernized playground should be cheek-by-jowl with the Site of the First Conference of the Communist Party of China.

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Ming Tombs (Ming Shisan Ling)

Ming Tombs (Ming Shisan Ling)

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The Ming Dynasty Tombs, or Ming Shisan Ling, are located outside of central Beijing and are home to the tombs and mausoleums of the Yongle Emperor. Currently, these tombs are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and are listed as part of the World Heritage object, Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

The Emperor, who built the Forbidden City, also chose the site for these Ming Tombs mausoleums according to the art of Feng Shui. Back in the Ming era, this secluded valley north of Beijing was closed to visitors and heavily guarded. The ground was considered so sacred that not even an emperor could ride a horse there. Three tombs are open to the public; only one, the Dingling, has been excavated (sadly, with artifacts being badly damaged). The other two tombs are more atmospheric. The highlight of the experience is probably the Spirit Way, the long approach to the mausoleums.

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Zhujiajiao

Zhujiajiao

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263 Tours and Activities

For a genuine experience that not only show you the history of China, but also showcase its beauty, try a visit to China’s great ancient water town known as Zhujiajiao. Formed over 1,700 years ago, this wonderful canal laden town that was once an important trading hub, has seen the days of both the Yuan, Qing and Ming dynasties, and has flourished today as a an up-and-coming bohemia of Asia.

In order to truly have an understanding of this beautiful place, one must visit the towns many bridges and canals. The Fangsheng Bridge is the biggest around, wonderfully engraved with eight dragons coiling around a shining pearl. Once you’ve done that, take a boat ride on the canal gondola, where you will experience wonderful views of this historic and well-preserved town. You can also take longer boat rides lakeside, experiencing the town from a different angle and perspective.

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Nanjing Road (Nanjing Lu)

Nanjing Road (Nanjing Lu)

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280 Tours and Activities

Nanjing Lu (Nanjing Road) is a shopping street with a history. When the British began trading in Shanghai after the Opium Wars of the 19th century, this was one of their commercial centers. In those days it was called Nanking Road, the 'k' being a more popular form of Anglicization.

Today it's not only the hectic heart of Shangai's shopping and tourism scene, but the longest shopping district in the world (6 km/3.5 mi of go-go-go). Even back in its earliest days when it served the International Settlement, it quickly became dominated by big department stores. The chains have well and truly moved in here, but really it's for the experience as much as anything that you should come. The street is divided into two lengths, east and west. The eastern section is pedestrianized. Avoid the Western generic stuff and concentrate on what are still the Shanghai specialties - silk, jade, clocks.

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Jingshan Park (Jingshan Gongyuan)

Jingshan Park (Jingshan Gongyuan)

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266 Tours and Activities

Jingshan Park (Yingshan Gongyuan), a green space in the heart of Beijing and home to one of the city’s few hills, was made from the earth dug out to make the Forbidden City’s moat. Covering about 57 acres (230,000 square meters), Jingshan Park once served as an imperial garden during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

In the early morning hours, the park fills up with elderly locals who gather in groups to since or practice tai chi. Come early and climb to the top of the park’s central peak -- once Beijing’s highest point -- for views of the Forbidden City to the south, Drum and Bell Towers to the north and Beihai Park to the west. Each spring, the park’s flowers put on a colorful display, particularly in May when the 200 varieties of peonies begin to bloom. With around 20,000 peony plants, Jingshan Park is home to the largest peony garden in Beijing.

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Lama Temple (Yonghegong)

Lama Temple (Yonghegong)

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257 Tours and Activities

The Lama Temple (Yonghegong), one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist temples in the world, started life in the late 17th century as a residence for eunuchs. It went on to become residence for a Qing dynasty prince. When he ascended to the throne, it became a monastery. The emperor's body was returned here on his death - hence the yellow-tiled roofs, which were reserved for royalty.

Inside you'll find five large halls, ornately decorated with statues of the Buddha in various incarnations, murals and carvings. The most notable of the statues is the Meitraya (the Future Buddha), which towers up to 18m (59ft) and is made from a single piece of white sandalwood.

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Beijing Olympic Park

Beijing Olympic Park

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In just a few years since Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, the structures built within the Olympic Green (Olympic Park) have become just as representative of the Chinese capital as the Forbidden City or the Great Wall. While the Olympic Green houses half a dozen different venues, most visitors come to see the two most iconic, the Beijing National Stadium (more popularly known as the Bird’s Nest) and the Beijing National Aquatics Center (Water Cube).

Today, the Bird’s Nest is used mostly for concerts and other high-profile sporting events, while the Water Cube has been transformed into a recreational swimming facility open to the public. You can visit the interiors of either for an extra fee, but both are arguably more impressive from the outside, and it doesn’t cost anything to walk the grounds of the Olympic Green. If you want to see the Olympic Green at its most beautiful, plan your visit for the evening hours with both the stadium and the Water Cube are lit up.

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