China is the world’s most populous nation, and has rapidly emerged as the powerhouse of Asia. It's the region’s largest economy, second only to the U.S. But China is also a treasure-house of art and artifacts, temples and tombs, walls and cities stretching back 3,000 years. The attractions are many, the nation vast. Let Stride be your guide in selecting the best tours to China.
The contrast between the modern and the ancient is stark in many countries, as you would see on trips to Thailand or South Korea, but in China it takes on monumental dimensions. At every turn the world’s oldest continuous civilization collides with the 21st century’s most explosive economy, producing moments of bewilderment, but also of insight.
At one end of the street is the serene temple where Buddhism was born in China; at the other end, a traffic jam of raucous Volkswagens and Buicks. These jolting juxtapositions of past, present and future are abundant in the three places you should visit first in China: the modern capital of Beijing, the ancient capital of Xi’an and the capital of China’s economic future, Shanghai.
Beijing: The First Must-Do
Beijing is first on the list because nowhere else has so much survived that defines Chinese civilization -- and survived on such a monumental scale. The Great Wall is an emblem of all that China was throughout its history of dynasties, and it can be viewed and walked upon at several points north of the modern capital, foremost at Badaling where most tourists go, but notable too are the less visited sections at Mutianyu and Simatai.
Nearly as colossal is the Forbidden City, the lavish royal residence of Ming and Qing Dynasty rulers. The Forbidden City fronts Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public square and site of Chairman Mao’s mummified remains.
Also flanking the square is the National Museum of China, the mainland’s largest repository of imperial treasures. There are legions of other sites to see in Beijing, too -- the splendid Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Ancient Observatory, the Ming Tombs, the traditional hutongs (alleyways), Olympic Park and the up-to-the-minute 798 Art District.
Westward and deep into China’s interior is Xi’an, China’s ancient capital spanning a dozen dynasties, including the first. Here Emperor Qin Shi Huang unified China in 221 BC and constructed the underground Army of Terra-cotta Warriors guarding his tomb. This site has become China’s foremost archaeological attraction and a top stop on the world tourism list.
Not to be missed in Xi’an, too, are its Ming Dynasty city walls, the towering Big Goose Pagoda (AD 652), the Great Mosque, an array of ancient Buddhist and Daoist temples and two museums: the Shaanxi History Museum, with its exceptional displays of terra-cotta warriors and Tang Dynasty arts, and the Forest of Steles Museum, with its incomparable collection of engraved stone tablets.
In stark contrast with Xi’an, there’s Shanghai, China’s boomtown, where skyscrapers serve as 21st century pagodas and high-end shops and restaurants give the city an international flare.
Historical treasures remain here and there -- especially in the fine Shanghai Museum and on the grounds of the splendid Yuyuan Gardens -- and there are still some interesting architectural reminders of Shanghai’s colonial days in the French Concession, along Nanjing Road and particularly along the Bund river promenade. But be prepared to be blown back by Shanghai’s very modern, frenetic pace, its arrogant attitude, and its grand and grandiose shopping outlets.
The Should-Do Spots
Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai are must-dos, but there are plenty of should-dos, too. These include the panda preserves of Chengdu, the uncanny karst scenery of Guilin, and the remoter Shangri-Las of Yunnan Province, Mongolia, the Silk Road and Tibet.
For those touring China’s major cities, however, the most notable extension is a cruise on the Yangtze River, where two top Western operators, Viking River Cruises and Victoria Cruises, provide excellent voyages through the heart of the Middle Kingdom.
For many visitors to China, booking a tour from an experienced operator makes sense, saving time and effort while delivering quintessential sights and experiences. Stride gives you a wide choice of China escorted tours, capable of unrolling the enigmatic scroll of China and translating its ancient script.
Food in China
Chinese food is an extremely popular cuisine in the western world, but beware that “westernized” Chinese food is nothing like the traditional offerings you’ll encounter in China. Some things you absolutely won’t find while traveling in China include Sweet & Sour Pork, Beef & Broccoli, Orange Chicken, and Fortune Cookies (yes!).
Food in China is a point of reservation for some travelers. Similarly to traveling in India, those with weaker stomachs may take much longer to adjust to the food, and it’s true that not everything will sit well.
Traveling with a tour in China is one of the best ways to ensure you eat in reputable establishments, as well as help you explore new tastes you might not otherwise eat simply because you don’t know what you’re ordering!
Here are some top dishes to try while you’re traveling in China:
1. Hairy Crab - despite the unappetizing name, this delicacy is one of the most popular items in Shanghai’s street food scene. It has a short season, so be sure to taste it if you can (and also be aware if you see it in the off-season). The best time to find it is in the Autumn for about three months. They are small - so you have to do some work for not much payoff amount-wise. But the meat is rich and very flavorful.
2. Cantonese BBQ - A Hong Kong street food staple, this is definitely an enticing meal option. Traditional meats include chicken, goose, and pork.
3. Chilled Sichuan Beef - One of the more recognizable Chinese regional cuisines by name, “Sichuan” is most commonly connected with spicy food, commonly meat based. The chilled version is a local treat found in Chengdu, where your China tour will highlight the best of Sichuan cuisine. Served with cilantro and hot chili oil this chilled beef combines wonderful flavors for a spicy pick-me-up.
4. Bamboo - Not just an aesthetically pleasing natural landscape, bamboo is also featured in many Chinese meals. In the region of Anhui especially, this hearty stalk is often used in savory dishes, especially soups and stews. Bamboo has a crunch texture and the flavor is often likened to corn.
5. Soup Dumplings - Steamed dumplings are an everyday staple in Chinese home cooking. The dough is wrapped tightly, containing broth inside, along with pork and a delicious blend of spices. They are served extremely hot, so be prepared to wait a bit before enjoying, or risk burning your tongue!
Etiquette in China
The Chinese are infamous for having a complex and highly nuanced social and cultural structure. It’s easy to offend while traveling in China and their expectations of proper etiquette can be intimidating. However, they also have a wonderful sense of humor and are welcoming to people visiting their country, so simply being polite will go a long way.
Having a local tour leader in China is one of the best ways to avoid being unintentionally rude as you travel through the country, especially if you are visiting more rural areas. They will highlight certain conventions such as how introductions are made (typically younger people are introduced first to older members of the party, males are introduced first, and hosts are introduced to guests first).
Gift giving is a very important ritual in China. If you are a guest in somebodys home, it is customary to bring a small gift as a token of your appreciation. Many tours in China feature a homestay, where travelers can live with a family and learn more about local life and culture; having a gift to present will help you get off on the right foot (unless you bring a clock!).
Business travelers will learn Chinese etiquette rules very quickly. One of the more commonly talked about rules is one must accept business cards with two hands. And punctuality is extremely important, in both business and personal settings.
Important Information for Traveling to China
Capital city: Beijing
Dialing code: +86