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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions 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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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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Shanghai French Concession
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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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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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Lama Temple (Yonghegong)
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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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Terracotta Warriors Museum (Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum)
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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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Dragon's Back
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Recognized by travelers and locals as one of the world’s best urban hikes, Shek O Peak and Dragon’s Back trail draw visitors in search of wilderness adventure. The pristine forest is filled with tropical Chinese foliage and a number of challenging climbs that offer the promise of stunning ocean views.

Travelers who venture to the top of 284-meter-high Shek O Peak will be greeted with panoramic views of Shek O, Tai Long Wan, Tung Lung Island and even the distant Hong Kong skyline. While exploring the entire trail can take even an expert hiker upwards of six hours, the less adventurous can still experience the beauty of the forest on shorter treks.

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Ngong Ping 360
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It used to be that visitors landing in Hong Kong’s airport quickly hopped on the metro or hailed a taxi to Kowloon or Hong Kong Island, completely skipping Lantau Island. Thanks to a massive development project, Lantau is now home to some of Hong Kong’s most popular attractions, the Ngong Ping Cable Car among them.

The 3.5-mile (5.7 kilometer) takes passengers on a 25-minute journey from the Tung Chung metro terminal to the plateau at the peak of Ngong Ping. From the gondolas, you’ll be able to look out over the South China Sea with views over verdant Lantau Island and its Tian Tan Buddha, which you can visit upon arrival at the top.

Cable car passengers have the choice of riding the standard car or a Crystal Cabin equipped with a glass bottom. For special occasions, you can ride the 360 Sky Lounge, a private cabin appointed with Swarovski crystals.

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Big Buddha (Tian Tan Buddha)
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The Big Buddha (Tian Tan Buddha), located on Lantau Island, has the very specific distinction of being the largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha on earth. Including its podium and lotus flower, the entire statue stands 112 feet (34 meters) tall. The stature was erected in 1993 and faces north toward Mainland China.

When you make the climb the 268 steps to the Big Buddha’s base, you’ll have panoramic views over the surrounding mountains and South China Sea. Just opposite the statue sits the Po Lin Monastery, one of the most important in Hong Kong. Come hungry and eat at the highly rated vegetarian restaurant run by the monastery.

Saturdays and Sundays are always busy at the Big Buddha, as this is when locals and many mainland tourists come. While you can ride a bus to the top of the mountain, the best and most scenic way to go is on the Ngong Ping Cable Car from the Tung Chung MTR station.

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Po Lin (Precious Lotus) Monastery
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Po Lin (Precious Lotus) Monastery, is one of the city’s most important Buddhist sites. It was established in 1906, long before the Big Buddha was erected, by three monks traveling from China. The three men discovered a flat stretch of land amid the verdant mountains and though it would be a perfect place for meditative religious practice. The monastery didn’t gain a spot on the global tourist map until 1993 when the Buddha statue was completed, and today it welcomes thousands of tourists who ride the cable car to see the statue and gaze out over the South China Sea.

The monastery itself is easy to overlook but is well worth a visit, particularly for the excellent vegetarian restaurant run by the monks. Dishes vary season to season and are made from fresh, locally sourced ingredients thought to help cleanse the body and spirit.

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More Things to Do in China

Tai O

Tai O

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Lantau Island

Lantau Island

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Lantau Island is twice the size of Hong Kong Island, but only a fraction of the population live here, leaving its beaches, hills and national parks to visitors to enjoy.

The highlight is the Po Lin monastery and temple, reached by the Ngong Ping 360 cable car on the western side of the island. The temple’s amazing seated bronze Giant Buddha is the world’s largest.

Hong Kong Disneyland offers more familiar entertainment, and the island’s fishing villages, walking trails, beaches and seafood restaurants are also popular.

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Shanghai Old City (Nanshi)

Shanghai Old City (Nanshi)

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At first glance the Old Town of Shanghai might seem like just another tourist trap, but Nanshi, as it used to be called (or Southern Town as most of the residents of the city call it) has a genuinely fascinating history.

This part of town predates the colonial presence in Shanghai. It's bordered by Renmin Lu and Zhonghua Lu, roads that echo the line of walls built in the 15th century to keep out Japanese pirates and since demolished. You'll get a feel for a brand of Chinese urban living that's fast disappearing - and you might just find a bargain in the process.

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Tiananmen Square (Tiananmen Guangchang)

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)

Summer Palace (Yiheyuan)

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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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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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South Gate (Yongningmen)

South Gate (Yongningmen)

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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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Little Li River (Yulong River)

Little Li River (Yulong River)

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The Little Li River (Yulong River) is the largest tributary of the Li River and the most popular for travelers in Yangshuo County, China. The Little Li River starts in northern Yangshuo County near the town of Litang and meanders 22 miles (35.4 kilometers) to where it empties into the Li River near Ping Le. While the Li River is a major thoroughfare with motorboats shuttling passengers between Guilin and Yangshou, the Little Li is serene and slow-moving, just like the agrarian lifestyle of the denizens along the banks.

An excursion down the river starts a few miles south of Yangshuo’s town center. The two to three hour trip takes visitors through the towering limestone karst formations that make the area famous along shallow, crystal-clear water. During the hotter summer months, boatmen will stop at a few popular swimming holes to get a break from the heat. While a rafting trip down the Little Li is generally peaceful and relaxing, it can be quite exhilarating as well.

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Impression Sanjie Liu

Impression Sanjie Liu

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Impression Sanjie Liu is a unique outdoor night show directed by the renowned director, Zhang Yimou and staged at the Li River in Yangshuo. This is the world’s largest natural theater, using the setting of the Li River as its stage and the mist-shrouded karst hills as its backdrop – along with whatever weather the evening may bring. For this open-aired spectacle, which is performed twice every evening in the summer, the audience watch from designated terraces while hundreds of performers appear to float on the water before them. Most of these performers are fishermen from the villages along the river, and the show itself depicts the story of the history and culture of the local Yangshuo people. Throughout the performance, impressive lighting, sound, and special smoke effects blend in harmoniously with the natural landscape of the river and its surroundings, creating a truly mesmerizing experience.

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Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai

Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai

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Jinshanling and Simatai are two of the most remote and least restored portions of the Great Wall near Beijing. Visitors craving a more natural Great Wall experience, without the buses and crowds of domestic tourists posing for photos at every step, should plan to make the day hike between the two wall segments.

This stretch of the Ming wall was built here to protect the 17-mile (27 kilometer) defensible pass. The segment between Jinshanling and Simatai extends roughly 6 miles (10 kilometers), passing many portions of the wall left completely unrestored since the wall’s original construction.

From Jinshanling, it takes about 4 to 5 hours to hike all the way to Simatai, passing 43 watchtowers in various states of disrepair. Jinghanling, the starting point for the hike, sits 81 miles (130 kilometers) northeast of Beijing, so be sure to get an early start if you plan to complete the entire hike.

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Gubei Water Town

Gubei Water Town

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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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