I’ve been traveling to China for, I’m shocked to admit, nearly 20 years. One of the first pictures I have of me in China was taken from the Bund in Shanghai, with my back to the Huangpu and, across the river, an expanse of rice paddies and run-down one-story buildings. I vaguely remember my friend telling me that the Shanghai government had just announced plans to develop a new economic zone in the area called Pudong. I was barely listening. In the aftermath of Tiananmen, a year and a half earlier, I more interested in politics than economics, and at any rate, on that dreary grey day, in that run-down city, I lacked the imagination to see what Shanghai would become.
I am further shocked to admit that I have been planning tours to China for nearly 16 years. This has enabled me to visit far-flung corners of the country, from Harbin in the far north to the border with Vietnam; from Qingdao on the Yellow Sea to Kashgar and the border with the Kyrgyz Republic. And yet, when people ask me where they should go when they visit China for the first (and quite possibly only) time, I always recommend Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, and, if time and money permit, one other place. That’s perhaps a little out of character, because I love to travel off the beaten path myself. However, some of my own most indelible impressions of China come from some of the “must-sees,” but doing them a little differently from most.
I never tire of going to the Great Wall. Even though I’ve seen it probably a dozen times, I still am blown away every time I trace its twisting path over and between the mountains north of Beijing. I of course avoid the Badaling section, preferring Mutianyu or, better yet, Jinshanling or Simatai, and I leave very early in the morning so I have the place mostly to myself.
These days it’s almost impossible to visit the Forbidden City and not share it with thousands of others, many of whom are wearing identical hats and are following a bullhorn. Fortunately, most of those thousands are only interested in the admittedly extremely impressive halls in the center of the City. I love to wander through the sections off to the sides, exploring the smaller rooms and hidden alleys. I’ve even been fortunate enough, through the amazing connections of my friends and partners at Hubei Overseas Travel Corporation, to visit, on occasion, sections not open to the public, where some of the most exquisite gems are hidden.
In Xi’an, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the scale of the terra cotta army of the emperor Qin Shi Huang. These days, anyone can take pictures of the soldiers and horses, and for a fee, anyone can go down to the VIP level for a slightly closer look and slightly better angle. What trumps both, though, is actually getting down into the pits and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a 2200-year-old clay warrior. Again through the my friends at HOTC, I’ve had the opportunity to do that twice, and it remains one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in China.
In Shanghai, I love to visit the Shanghai Museum. In a city that is all about the future, the museum is a beautiful reminder of the thousands of years of exquisite artisanship that are otherwise obscured by the glass and steel and traffic and Maglev. And in the basement, closed off to the public, is a beautiful replica of a tea garden, with mood lighting that can be adjusted to simulate different times of day. It’s a peaceful place, in stark contrast to the hubbub above ground.
What I REALLY like about Shanghai, though, is the change. Shanghai is about growth, the future, transformation, possibility. Whenever I can, I go to the Bund and stand where I stood nearly 20 years ago and gaze over at the unimagined reality of what China has become.