Much of what you see on your China vacation will be ancient history. There's no doubt that China's history is the best reason to take a tour of the country. It is, however, important to acknowledge the huge progress when it comes to modernization in the country. If your China trip is passing through Chengdu then you should take the time to travel to what is now officially the world's largest building. China is attempting to break records everywhere and this is a spectacular success.
How Big is Big?
Huge. You could fit the Sydney Opera House inside of it over 20 times. Even the colossus of buildings that is the Pentagon could comfortably fit inside 3 times. The New Century Global Center is quite simply the biggest place you've ever seen. It's 18 stories tall and built completely from glass and steel so it's an imposing looking place too. It makes a superb snapshot for your China vacation album.
There's a whole heck of a lot inside; as you might imagine. You can find the Paradise Island Oceanic Park with a real sand beach to soak up the rays on. Though this being China you might find that your trip to the beach involves sharing it with about 100,000 other people. Given that there's no actual sea anywhere this far inland you'll also have to make do with projections of water and tropical destinations on the walls – given that this is done on another record-breaker, the largest LED screen in the world, it's almost worth a tour of the place just to see the screen.
If you like cinema then it's impossible not to be impressed with 14 IMAX screens. It's worth remembering that the choice of English language films may not be that great as there is a limit on the number of Western movies allowed to be shown in China each year. Though we suspect you won't travel to
China just to watch a film...
There's also an Olympic sized ice rink but please don't trip and hurt yourself here as medical facilities in this part of China are still a touch basic. You don't want to come back from a China vacation early do you?
The shopping mall is one of the largest in China and should be decked out with all the latest designer goods. In general the prices you see are likely to be the prices you pay here and bargains may not be thick on the ground. It's bad form to haggle in a shopping mall. Do keep your eyes peeled for discount offers which will be advertised separately from the price of the goods themselves. They're normally stuck to a rail nearby the item rather than on it. This lets the stores go through a steady cycle of “different offers” without having to sticker each item every few days.
On the grounds but not inside the main building are also an art museum, conference center, auditoriums and more shops and even a few bars.
While a China vacation is one of the most sensible choices you can make in life; we think that a China tour can be enhanced with a little background knowledge about the country. Before you travel to China we'd like to share some interesting and fun trivia that might make your trip to China even more fulfilling.
- There are more big cities in China that you might believe. You'll see a fair few during a tour of the country but would you believe that there are now 21 cities in China with more than 5 million people living in them? There are also more than 150 cities with more than 1 million people! In the US there are only 2 cities with more than 5 million and only 9 with more than 1 million souls.
- Economic growth in China has been 7 times higher than in America during the last decade. They still need to travel a long road to catch up with the US economy overall but it might be sooner than you think.
- Pollution has become such a concern in some parts of the country that you can now buy cans of fresh air spray in the worst affected cities. For 5 RMB (less than $1) you could spruce up your vacation by buying one to take home. Only in China could they bottle air and sell it...
- You will be greeted with a cheery “Ni Hao” (Hello) almost everywhere you go on your tour. But if you'd have arrived in China during the Tang Dynasty era you'd have been greeted with a poem instead. They'd also say goodbye like that. Each poem would have been unique and made up just for you.
- Christianity may not be the official religion of China but there are now over 50 million Christians in the country. That's more than there are in Italy! In the next 100 years or so China may be turn out to be the most-Christian nation on earth.
- One thing you won't fail to notice on your trip is how the Chinese have taken to the cellular phone. There are over 800 million of them in use in China. The most phones in any nation on earth.
- Chopsticks are consuming China's forests with nearly 100 billion sets of chopsticks manufactured each year. There's growing pressure to switch to plastic washable versions from the wooden ones as a result.
- Did you know that 85% of all the plastic and artificial Christmas trees on earth are produced in China? It's also true that nearly 80% of all the world's children's toys are made there too.
- The Chinese like pork as you'll see during your China travel and they like it so much that they keep more pigs than the next 40 biggest pork producing nations combined!
- While they may seem pushed for space – the truth is that there are over 64 million empty homes and apartments in China. That's enough to house every man, woman and child in England in their own home and still have some left over!
If you're thinking of taking a China vacation in 2014 and you'd like to fit Macau into your China trip then you might want to aim to travel in May. China's special administrative region will be out celebrating drunken dragons on May 12th. If you think you'd like to see this on your China tour read on...
It has to be said that as China undergoes dramatic modernization many of the local traditions are quietly disappearing and it's good idea to take a vacation in the country before more of them vanish. However, in Macau there's a steadfast tradition which is unlikely to disappear even if you can't take your tour in the next year. The drunken dragons come out every year and it's a great way to see China's folklore come to life and enjoy the refreshingly inebriated company of the locals.
The fishermen from Inner Harbor carve small dragons out of driftwood and then carry them through the city. They stop at the Kuan Tai Temple to dance (somewhat the worse for wear for the drink they have consumed on the way) and then continue the dance down the harbor and all along the seafront.
On their travel they consume a lot of China's favorites rice wine and throw the rice wine about drenching the occasional bystander so you might want to keep an eye out as they pass you by to avoid the spray. It's an occasion that is considered to be a true highlight of a trip to Macau and you'll be offered plenty of rice wine to drink as well. They say that this will bless you with health, wealth and fertility. The origin of the festival is to be found in mainland China in Zhongshan (just over the border from Macau).
The story goes like this; a long time ago there were villagers devoutly marching with a stature of the Buddha and hoping for his divine interference to cure a vicious outbreak of disease in the locality. Their travels took them to the river and when they reached it a huge python is said to have jumped from the waters onto the bank. This being China the villagers didn't bat an eyelid at the arrival of the snake and instead quickly sliced it into three parts and threw it back in the water. The snake wasn't as keen on being dismembered as it might have been and pulled itself together and leapt up into the heavens themselves. The plague is said to have vanished from the land immediately that this happened.
The snake wasn't a snake it was the sacred Dragon of China. Its trip to heaven blessed the people and happily coincided with the Buddha's birthday. Ever since the people of Macau have been celebrating the drunken dragon dance (thanks to a rather glorious celebration of the dragon's healing properties at the time of the event). The celebrations are open to all though you should take care as when night comes round – there is a tendency to throw firecrackers in the air.
One of things people love about Hong Kong on a China tour is the wealth of wonderful Chinese baked goods. Unlike other locations you’ll encounter on your China vacation – English is widely spoken in Hong Kong and it’s much easier to determine what’s hidden inside a pastry than on the mainland. If you’d like to take a trip to the sweeter side of China’s special administrative region then it’s time to take a little time to travel to the best bakeries in China.
Hang Heung Cake Shop (Near Mong Kok and Near the Causeway MRT Stations)
As you may have guessed it’s cakes that are the order of the day at Hang Heung’s. If you want to take something home from your China vacation you might want to check out the “century-egg” pastries as they aren’t in the remotest bit perishable and can be given as gifts easily. If you want something a little more immediate we recommend the sweet red-bean pastry which is a truly traditional Chinese favorite.
Kam Fung (Wan Chai)
Tucked away in this traditional stopping point on a China tour you’ll find Kam Fung and here we’re all about the egg tarts. Egg tarts in this part of China are nearly the equivalent of culinary trip to heaven. If you’re in the mood for something savory then check out the chicken pies which are absolutely awesome and packed with tasty chicken gravy.
Ming Wah (Mong Kok)
For something different check out the chicken biscuits which are unique to this bakery. If you want to go for something sweet then you’ll be better off relaxing after your travel through this busy district of Hong Kong with a red bean cake. They are exceptionally sweet and if you’re hoping to head home from your China vacation a few pounds lighter they won’t help with that plan at all.
Hoover Cakes (Kowloon City)
This is supposedly the best place to much on a custard tart anywhere in China and they rely on duck’s eggs to create a much stronger taste than other vendors. However, our favorite here is the whipped-cream offering which is just scrumptious.
Tsui Wah (Central)
If you’re in Central then you’ll be in one of the busiest places in the world and it’s lovely to sneak off for a cake during your China tour to escape the madness. The original Tsui Wah was founded in Mong Kok nearly 50 years ago but they’ve shifted locations to a rather more modern premises in the city’s heart. Try asking for the pineapple pastry with extra butter. The butter should be liberally applied and then allowed to melt before consuming it. It’s absolutely wonderful.
Tai Cheong (Central)
Another great escape and a long term favorite of Hong Kong’s elite is the Tai Cheong which offers the flakiest and for our money best custard tart in the region. They open at 9 a.m. and queues start forming almost immediately. Get there early to avoid disappointment.
This is one of the most interesting and fun museums that you'll encounter on your China vacation! The history of this museum of interesting China memorabilia is a must during your travels in China
The owner and founder of this special place is named Yang Peiming and he came into possession of his first China propaganda poster quite by accident. A friend had asked him to get some vintage Chinese lady posters, but upon trying, he was shipped the wrong kind of posters. He now has over 5,000 Chinese propaganda posters stretching from the years 1949-1979.
Mr. Yang will gladly show you the entire collection personally, which should add a lot of enjoyment to your China tour. These near relics show illustrations of Chinese Communist mottos and sayings that you wouldn't normally see in public, in modern China, during your travels. These pieces of history will add much enjoyment to your China tour. Mr. Yang has also been asked to present pieces of his collection in International galleries in Europe and America. He has the original China lady posters he was supposed to get years ago as well!
A must see on your vacation in this wonderful bastion of Chinese memorabilia is hidden in one corner near the back of Mr. Yang's basement gallery. Shown here are some of the rarest relics of the Cultural Revolution. Many of them are painted and hand composed condemnation notices that were put on university campuses at the peak of the Cultural Revolution.
If that's not entirely your cup of tea then we also recommend:
Shanghai Animation Museum
China has a long history of animation and if you fancy a change from Disney on your vacation; you could find that this is a really pleasant change of pace. You can a take a trip back in time to China's earliest animations and of course pick up on all the modern day favorites too. Pleasant Goat and Big Bad Wolf are probably the best known characters in China but we'd say that our own top pick is San Mao, Shanghai's very own cartoon character. You may need to lift any very small children in your party up to see some of the displays as they're often oriented towards the adult-eye line though you'll be pleased to hear that there's no adult content.
You can also find some Western cartoons around on your tour of the Museum and there's a permanent exhibit dedicated to Steamboat Willie.
The 3-D cinema experience is nowhere near as polished as Epcot but despite some reports advising you to skip it completely we think it's quite fun. Take a little time out of your trip to see how China is slowly catching up on the entertainment front.
There's a huge interactive section to reward the effort of travel to the museum. Cartoon tracing is probably not that much fun but you can make your own clay models of cartoon characters and that's awesome and cheap at around $2 a character.
This is perhaps one of the most light-hearted day trips you can make in China's largest city. We think eventually it's going to be a must-see on a China vacation.
To follow up with more imperial history for your China tour; we’ll be talking about the sixteen kingdoms. These were a group of transient sovereign royal states in ancient China and outlying areas. If you don’t learn about this wonderful period of history before your vacation to China, then you might be missing out.
This was one of the most distressing eras in the history of China. Most of the rulers of this great period in China history hailed from the Wu Hu ethnic group. The trials, travels and tribulations of this period are well-known to many people you will meet on your China vacation. These Kingdoms were named as follows: Later Qin and Western Qin, Cheng Han, Former Yan, Later Yan, Northern Yan, Southern Yan, Former Qin, Han Zhao, Later Zhao Former Liang, Later Liang, Northern Liang, Western Liáng, and Southern Liang
In 304 A.D. the Wu Hu revolted against the rule of the ethnic Chinese. This military tour was led by General Xiongnu. By 317 A.D. the Quin dynasty had been forced to take a permanent vacation from Northern China.
Even though the Xiongnu regime was prevailing in North China, the general Shi Le contested the supremacy of General Xiongnu. In 329 AD, Shi le went on a military tour and regained power over Northern China. Jie’s rule was horrendously ruthless, purportedly giving many people permanent vacations from their heads. Afterwards Zhao's rule was finally extinguished with the rise of Ran Min in 350 AD.
The upsurge of Ran Min
Ran Min, who was ethnically Chinese reestablished rule over China after an extensive military campaign and long travels. This rule was almost as short as your vacation, though as the Xianbei invaded and overthrew Ran Min in 352 A.D.
The rise of former Quin
The Xianbei thereafter proceeded to rule over much of China. While all this was happening in the North, the region around Shanxi fell to the Di tribespeople and created the regime of Former Quin.
Finally in 376 A.D. after 2 extensive military tours throughout China, Fu Jian conquered the former Yan, ruling over much of North China. He must have been well in need of a vacation after all that work! Now, the last ethnically Chinese Jin dynasty was in peril of losing their foothold.
The Jin General Huan Wen was resolute to reconquer Northern China for the Jin dynasty. So, between 346 AD and 369 AD, he started a series of attacks against the Northern Wu Hu states. However, after many trips to the Jin court and receiving no support from the emperor, his attempted conquest failed miserably.
The breakdown of former Quin
After this Fu Jian took a trip to attempt to conquer the territory of the Jin dynasty, but was repelled in a massive battle on the Fei river.
After this massive fight, the Jin reconquered most of Henan and Shantung
The excursions of Liu Yu
A Jin general named Liu Yu, in the year 406 A.D .began a long sequence of military action with the goal of reclaiming China for his people. The campaigns went extremely well and he recaptured the capitals of Luoyang and Chang'an. However Chang’an was lost again in the year 417 A.D. Be that as it may, Liu Yu’s holdings stretched all the way to the Yellow River, but the North was still under the control of the Xianbei
Just imagine how much history you can learn on your China Vacation, and this is just a scratching the surface!!
Traditionally in the long history of China, life has been based mainly around agriculture, with rice being the staple of life.
On your China vacation you’ll see rice served everywhere. No matter where you go on your China trip you’ll be served rice with nearly every meal.
The necessity for rice has steered the Chinese towards developing multiple irrigation methods, therefore improving the growing process. Rice has played such a large part in China culture for many thousands of years that China can be considered a "rice culture".
A professor from China; (who is well-versed in cultivation) named Zhang Deci says that rice first grew in the country when hunter-gatherers left seeds in a field that sprouted. In the near future these people started cultivating the land in order to grow much larger crops of this necessary China food. If you travel to the Yellow River valley on your China vacation then you can see the area where rice cultivation first started. You can also take a trip to the breathtakingly beautiful rice terraces at Longsheng.
During your China travels, you’ll come to learn about how the progression of rice cultivation gave rise to an efficient financial lifestyle based almost solely on agriculture. In ancient times giant quantities of land were fit for the planting of rice. China people in different parts of the country cultivated the land in diverse ways during different seasons.
Rice delicacies you may encounter on your China trip
Rice plays a major role in the Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner. Should you be lucky enough to make the trip during the right time of year on your China vacation, you can see families making New Year’s cake from sticky rice. You might even be able to taste some too! Quite a China delicacy!
Another special way the Chinese use rice is to make rice dumplings. These are eaten during the first lunar month on the 15th night. Your China trip couldn’t be complete without this tidbit in your stomach!
Yet another specialty you might enjoy during your China travels is zongzi, indulged in at the time of the Dragon Boat Festival, on the fifth lunar month on the fifth day to commemorate the memory of Qu Yuan, a government official hailing from Chu state who lived from 340 BC - 278 BC. He committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River. China people cast zongzi in the river to stop the fish from eating his body.
On the ninth day of the ninth month, China people make Double Nine cakes to celebrate the rice harvest. Many China people also climb a mountain on this day. Why not add some exhilaration and excitement to your China vacation by joining them? You can show the photos your friends and family back home what you did during your tour of amazing China!!!
Last but not least, China people make rice porridge during the twelfth lunar month on the eighth day. The porridge is produced with rice, dried fruit, nuts, beans, and cereals. This is because the Buddha is supposed to have attained enlightenment during this day over 2,500 years ago. China people also celebrate this occasion by bathing Buddha images and eating rice porridge.
Suzhou is one of the prettiest places you'll see on your China tour and it's easy to get wrapped up in the beauty of forget about eating. We've seen that wherever your China vacation goes – there's always great food to be had. If your China trip takes in Suzhou you won't be disappointed with the variety of dishes available. In fact if you travel round this lovely town you can find some of China's best culinary experiences within the food streets.
If you want to dine in the footsteps of China's history then a trip to Tajian Long is a must. In the times of the Ming Dynasty this was all the rage with the courtiers and eunuchs that ran China. Whenever their travels passed through Suzhou they'd be certain to stop and share the latest gossip from around the country.
Today the street offers 10 restaurants along 200m of pleasantly paved walkways. The Song He Lou Restaurant here is over 100 years old and represents truly authentic local cookery. If you'd like something a little less formal – we recommend the Wang Si which offers a bunch of local snacks for very reasonable prices. It's a lovely place to take a break from your China tour and watch the world go by as you eat.
Bifeng Fang is just round the corner from Taijian Long and if you haven't found anywhere that catches your eye just keep walking. If you want to guzzle as many snacks during your China vacation as possible – then this is the place to do it. There's plenty of street food as well as a reasonable amount of “international” fare. We don't recommend that you travel to China in hopes of great American food but the Korean and Japanese offerings are pretty darned good here.
The main hotel district sits on Shiquan Jie so you may not need to travel too far to find a bite in Suzhou. You may want to avoid the fish-head soup restaurant which is probably a taste that most of us would prefer not to attempt to acquire. However, there are some lovely tea shops and plenty of barbeque places to try. We kind of like the hot pot place on Shiquan Jie and if your China tour isn't passing through Sichuan – it's a happy blend of Northern and Western Chinese approaches to cooking it.
While not as popular with the locals as some of the other locations – there are some good reasons to visit Guangqian Jie. Those reasons are pastries, cakes, and sweets. You can buy sesame cakes for literally pennies here and we recommend that you keep an eye out for China's favorite fruit and sweet store – Cai Zhi ZZhai.
Shang Tang Jie
We saved the best for last – Shang Tang Jie sits alongside the Grand Canal and has been in constant use for over a 1,000 years. You may even find a bar in amongst the cafes, restaurants and souvenir stores. It's a great place to take the weight off your feet for an hour or two.
If you're lucky then your China vacation will take you to Suzhou. Suzhou is one of the crown jewels of a trip to China. Its canal and gardens hold UNESCO world heritage status. If you are going to travel to Suzhou you might want to know a little more about the people of the city and its history. One of Suzhou's most famous former residents is Feng Melong the writer. His work is occasionally available in English translation if you keep your eyes peeled on your China tour.
Feng Melong – A Little Background
If there's anything that China loves more than a tragic background we've yet to work out what it is. Feng Melong's early life in the 16th century was more than a little troubled. The love of his life was an indentured concubine. He would travel to see her every day and was desperately saving money to buy her freedom. Sadly a wealthy merchant from another part of China took a vacation in Suzhou and took it upon himself to spirit the lovely lady away. Feng Melong was left heart-broken and never saw his love again.
In his loneliness and pain he would take regular trips around the gardens of the city composing some of China's most famous poetry to relieve his sorrows. Feng's poetry unlike much of the work produced during this period is well-known for its soul-searching emotional honesty. His female characters are far more developed and 3-dimensional than in most Chinese literature. His tour de force was painting pictures of strong, intelligent women who knew what they wanted and knew how to get it. This is in stark contrast to the more popular literature of China in those days when women were considered weak, cruel and intellectually inferior to the male characters portrayed in its pages.
For example; in his work "Wan Xiuniang Takes Revenge on Jing Shi Tong Yan". The eponymous Wan is able to demonstrate courage in the face of extreme adversity. She is light on her feet and her quick thinking offers her an escape that would otherwise been denied to her. The supporting cast also includes other strong women in the form of Du Shi Niang and Qu XiuXiu.
Most of all Feng's work is a trip through China's social issues of his day. He had become a military officer and took a tour of duty through the local region. He had a reputation for fairness and honesty. He was one of China's "few good men” of those times. He was appalled by his colleagues application of graft and he witnessed corruption, bribery and extortion at every level of society. He realized that if he challenged this behavior it was more likely than not that his head would be given a lasting vacation from his body so he attempted to tell morality stories in his work that he hoped would one day impel lasting change in China.
His most famous works are Illustrious Words to Instruct the World, Stories Old and New and the classic "Romance of the Eastern Zhou Kingdoms”. They're very much worth a read if you can find a copy in Suzhou.
We often find that people are curious about Chinese heroes on their China vacations. They'd like to talk to the locals but are nervous about what might be hot button topics on their China trip. If there's a unifying factor you can talk about during your China travel; it's Deng Xiaoping. While politics are best left off the conversational menu on a China tour – there's no doubt that everyone will be pleased to talk to you about Deng Xiaoping.
Who was Deng Xiaoping?
Deng was a leader of the party. He was never the head of state but he's considered to have been the ultimate leader of the country from 1978 to 1992. Deng's trip to power began when China wasn't a communist country. He became a member of the communist party back in 1923. He would travel to France to study for most of this decade and would return to China to become a commissar to the rural poor. He is thought of as "veteran of the revolution" as he took part in the "Long March".
After the People's Republic of China was formed he took a tour of duty in Tibet to help establish the system of government. He was a key part of the policy making committee on China's economy under Mao but they often disagreed and twice he was forced out of the Cultural Revolution. Following his enforced vacation – he returned to prominence in 1978 after Mao's death.
Deng inherited a nation in turmoil. The country was trying to develop its cultural, economic and political identity following the Cultural Revolution and the sweeping changes of the past two decades were not yet fully effective.
He is considered today to be the brains behind a whole new form of socialism. Often called "Socialism with Chinese characteristics" he developed the concept that would eventually be known as a fully socialist market economy.
It's likely that without Deng it would be hard for you to undertake a China vacation of any kind. It was under his leadership that China opened up to the world for the first time and foreign investment poured in as China began to tackle globalization head on. It is commonly understood that this process began when Deng Xiapoing took a tour of Hong Kong and famously remarked; "It is glorious to become rich."
Why is he so admired in China? Deng Xiaoping's policies are directly responsible for lifting nearly a billion people out of poverty in the last 30-40 years. No other leader in the history of the world can claim to have had such an amazing influence over that number of people and to have done so much in such a short period of time.
The Chinese have nothing but respect for Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution but their true hero is Deng Xiaoping. Without his leadership it is possible that China would not be the hospitable and welcoming country that it has become today.
We hope that you'll be too busy seeing China during your vacation to spend too much time watching TV. However, we think that many people who take a China tour are curious about what Chinese television is like. Firstly, it's worth noting that all the programming on Chinese channels that you'll encounter during your China trip will be broadcast in Mandarin so unless you speak the language there's a good chance you won't want to watch that much of it anyway. So here's a quick run-down on what to expect before you travel to China.
Chinese Viewing Habits
Chinese people watch a whole heck of a lot of TV. In fact as you'll discover on your China vacation it's perhaps the number one pastime in the country. Most Chinese people don't have that much in the way of disposable income and even those that do normally prefer to save money rather than spend it. That means in China that the whole family will spend much of the week watching TV as doing something else would start to eat into their savings. Travel to any Chinese home of an evening and everyone will be crowded round the box.
How Does that Impact Chinese TV programs?
Switch on the TV anywhere during your China tour and you'll find that there are essentially two main types of program in China. The first is the historical drama series. The second is the romantic-drama series which is full of poor people trying to get rich and rich people enjoying being rich. There is a certain amount of reality programming too so you can tune into China's Got Talent! on your trip too.
If you watch any TV during your vacation then you want to make it a Chinese historical drama. Don't worry about not speaking the language – it's impossible to understand these dramas without an enormous background knowledge of Chinese history as well. These programs are incredibly attractive to watch – the costumes, the scenery and even the ham-fisted over-acting are enormously entertaining.
They don't travel well though. Outside of China pretty much no-one watches them. Why? Well Chinese viewing habits make these an endurance test. Because everyone in China watches TV all the time historical dramas can run for hundreds of episodes and they are aired every single night of the week for months. They also rely on your having previous knowledge of Chinese history and as most people don't they are really hard to follow.
These are easier to follow and tap into the current ambition of every Chinese person. To follow Deng Xiaoping's advice; "It is glorious to get rich."
Unfortunately if you don't speak the language they're also a touch tedious. They tend to involve lots of beautiful people slapping each other's faces and scenes around the Mah Jong table. Once you've watched 10 minutes of one of these programs you will be able to predict the next 200 episodes worth of content easily.
In short don't expect too much from the TV during your stay in China. You may catch the occasional American drama but as each channel is only allowed to buy one foreign series a year – you may find that there's not much on the box that you can relate to. So why not get out of your hotel room and enjoy the scenery instead?
No trip to China is complete without a tour of Shanghai; China's biggest city. Beijing may be the country's capital but Shanghai is the financial and cultural number one. If your China vacation is heading that way – you might want to check out some of the following museums during your travel. These are some of the most interesting places in China.
The Shanghai Postal Museum (Hongkou District)
If keeping to a budget is important on your China vacation what better way to make your money go further with a trip to a free museum? That's right there's no entry fee for the Shanghai Postal Museum. It can be found in a lovely 1920's building which was once the home to the headquarters of China's postal service. It's worth a visit for the architecture alone and the central hall is particularly striking. Inside the museum you'll find model air planes, angry letters from the Postal Commissioner to employees (including a tirade on riding their bikes without wearing shirts), stamps, and post boxes. There's also a mind-boggling "Future Cinema" where you travel into the future to see how China expects postal services to change in the long-term.
However, the real reason to take a break in your tour at the Shanghai Postal Museum is the roof top garden. It offers one of the best views of China's megacity and you'll want to bring your camera to capture the occasion.
The Shanghai Glass Museum (Baoshan District)
If you'd like to do something hands-on during your China travel then this is a great opportunity to do some art with the experts. You'll need to book in advance to work with the craftsmen and it's 300 RMB for a 30 minute glass blowing class (you get to keep what you make) but it's very much worth your effort.
The museum itself is brand new and as you might expect from a glass museum it's very shiny. It has a certain house-of-mirrors appeal to it and it's one of the more unusual spots to visit on a China vacation. We heartily recommend it.
The Shanghai Museum of Public Security (Xuhui District)
If you're faint of heart or of stomach this is not the place to visit. However, if you enjoy grisly spectacles this is a great place to spend some time. Unfortunately the museum hasn't got around to providing English translations on most of the exhibits but there's still plenty of material that's clear enough to provide entertainment.
The whole focus is on the history of China's security forces (since 1854) and you'll find weapons, model police officers, and some rather disturbing murder histories (be warned these are seriously graphic and you probably wouldn't want to take children to see them). There's also a scale model of the inside of a Chinese prison which is extremely attention grabbing and gives you a strong incentive never, ever to get into trouble with the law in China. It's a very different day out compared to most other museums in the country and indeed in the world.
Chengdu is a stopping off point for those on a Yangtze River Cruise and it’s the only place in China where you can take a trip to see pandas in the wild. However, there’s another great reason to include Chengdu in your China vacation itinerary. It was the first city in Asia to be awarded UNESCO heritage status for its food. If your China tour is going to pass through Chengdu then you have to get out and travel round the best food culture in China.UNESCO city of Gastronomy – What Does That Mean?
Those folks at UNSECO have some fairly strict criteria for picking up this prize and it’s why you won’t find any other cities of gastronomy during your China tour. The criteria include:
- The city needs a well-developed cooking culture which is genuinely identifiable with the region itself
- The city must have a community of cooks, chefs, etc. and a host of traditional eateries
- The city must be able to demonstrate its understanding of traditional cookery and show how they have survived improvements in both technology and industry
- The city must have traditional wet and dry markets
- The city must show that it has hosted many events relating to gastronomy over a significant period of time
- The city must prove that it works to provide and promote sustainable produce from local sources
- The city must be involved with education projects promoting nutrition
- The city must also include bio-diversity conservation in any schools of cookery
What Kind of Food will I find in Chengdu?
When your China trip hits Chengdu you’ll find that the real key to Sichuan cookery is pepper. In fact the way that Sichuan peppers numb your tongue is something of a trial for new comers to the region. They use over 15 peppers and chilies to create their famous fiery dishes and they deliver an exquisite combination on the palate.
However, if you don’t want to spend your China vacation time getting used to chili, chili and more chili don’t worry you’ll find plenty of other options on your travel round Chengdu. You see only 20% of Sichuan cookery is really based on chili the rest of it is a wonderful hodge-podge of other ingredients and flavors.
Check Out Some of These Restaurants on Your Trip
Yunmen Emerald (Renmin Nanlu)
China takes on molecular cookery at this posh and fun restaurant. It’s a touch pricey but well worth the investment particularly if you want a unique dining experience on your China tour. The menu is extremely varied and you can take on classics and modern dishes to suit your own tastes.
If you want to catch up with China’s marvelous opera then you might fancy grabbing some hot pot (ask for the mild one to avoid chili overdose) here. You can sit back and enjoy the show as you eat and the setting is a lovely old-style home with gives you just a little extra slice of Sichuan culture for the price of dinner.
If you're going on a Yangtze River Cruise then sooner or later your China tour is going to take you to the city of Chongqing in Sichuan. Chongqing is one of the biggest cities that most people have never heard of and we've found that people really appreciate the place when they stop off on their China travel. There's even talk of the government moving to Chongqing from Beijing in the long run. However, the best reason to make Chongqing part of your China trip is the food. The most famous dish of them all and the most popular in Sichuan is Chongqing Hotpot. It's a serious treat for the taste buds if you're prepared to give it a whirl.
Chongqing Hotpot is Unique
Forget the soup like clear broth as a base you'll find that a Chongqing hotpot is a far more labor intensive effort. It can take several hours to prepare the broth, some chefs use over 15 ingredients! The most likely contenders are beef and pork stock combined lovingly with beef dripping, chili, ginger, plenty of garlic, local peppers, onions and soy sauce. If you take the time to take a trip through China's heartland (Sichuan is the most populous province in China) you should be able to smell the broth being prepared everywhere you travel during the day. Don't ask what's in the broth when you choose where to eat on your China tour though; it's considered to be the biggest commercial secret of the restaurant. You'll get a recipe in Beijing because the broth is so simple but in Chongqing you can forget it.
Ready to Dig In?
OK by now you're ready to take the plunge during your China vacation. The hotpot arrives on the table and you're itching to get stuck in. Wait a second. You may need to think hard about this before you do. Sichuan is famous for its pepper. In fact as you'll learn on your China tour it's thought that the spiciness of Chongqing food rubs off on the locals and it's what makes them such delightful company. However, if you can't stand the heat you can ask the chef to tone it down a little for you.
Then there's the other question; how particular are you about which part of a creature it is that you're eating? The Chinese will proudly tell you that they let nothing go to waste. Now, we've found that much of the offal is tasty enough but you may want to watch out for intestines, tripe, neck and our favorite a blood pudding produced from a duck. Brawn (brain to you and me) also makes an appearance in some places.
So if you'd prefer to be a little less adventurous on this trip to China then you may want to keep a careful eye on what's arriving on the table. More usual items include pork, beef, chicken, lamb, goat, prawns, tofu, etc. You should also be offered a healthy selection of vegetables and mushrooms. If you're lucky there'll be lots of noodles to support the whole thing.
Eating a hotpot is easy; throw what you want into the broth and wait about 10 seconds for most items and then pull them out and munch away. For large chunks of fish or tofu you might want to leave them a little longer.
Returning to our history tour of China this week we're taking a looking at the Jin Dynasty. You'll certainly encounter objects and buildings from this time period during your China vacation. In fact you'll find them wherever you travel in modern China as the Jin Dynasty ruled pretty much exactly the same area as China covers today. Here's what you should know about the Jin period before your China trip.
The Jin initially came to power in 265 A.D. and ruled the country until 290 A.D. this period is known as the Liang Jin. They then lost power until 419 A.D. and held it for only a single year again until 420 A.D. in the brief period known as the Sima Jin. As with many stories of China's history it begins with a military tour and Sima Zhao's conquest of the Wei people in 265 A.D. The dynasty aggressively consolidated their grip on power but the pace of conquest caused deep rifts within the dynasty and they quickly split again.
When the second Jin Emperor came to power it became clear that the country was up for grabs again. A major war followed and despite his travel to every corner of China to put down a rebellion by 8 major princes; the dynasty could not hold. The Wu Hu uprising triggered an end to the Jin rule of China and the dynasty fled South of the Huai River. This led to the formation of the 16 kingdoms (which we will look at in another piece). The Jin were now to take a 130 year vacation from power.
The Jin would reunite the kingdom in 419 A.D. but could not hold the peace together. The new emperor was quickly moved aside and replaced by Liu Yu and the Liu Song Dynasty which was to follow.
Jin rule wasn't completely lost during the break between the two Jin periods. The Jin themselves held much of Southern China during the period of the 16 Kingdoms but found themselves constantly pushed back out of Northern China. Their biggest problem was a lack of military force, they could raise taxes on merchants and refugees in their territory but there wasn't enough manpower available to retake the North of the country.
Things to Look for on Your China Trip
Given their minor significance in Chinas history you'd be surprised to find how much remains of the Jin Dynasty for you to see on your China tour.
Ceramic objects from the Jin period were of particularly high quality and the green-celadon porcelain jars which would have been common place at the time can be found in many museums in the country.
The majority of Jin ruins are found in Chang'an and Nanjing but the remains of Jin civilization are often brought to other parts of the country and displayed in grand exhibitions. You might want to keep an eye out on your China vacation for these exhibitions as they're very much worth visiting.
If you're thinking of taking the plunge and booking a China vacation you may be a little worried about staying healthy during your China tour. Unfortunately, it's only the big news that makes it across the world to America regarding China and its often bad news that travels that far. That means many people have heard about various health scandals in the country and think it may affect their China trip. We've put together a list of things to do to ensure you have a healthy and happy China vacation.
Wherever you go in the world you may end up with a bad reaction to the local tap water. In China our advice is not to drink from the tap throughout your China tour. Theoretically it's safe but in practice while the water is clean when it leaves the filtering station it may not stay that way on the journey to your tap. Stick to bottled water and you're much less likely you'll have an upset tummy. You should always check the seal on bottle water and if the bottle isn't sealed politely decline it and ask for another. Ice is fine in 5 star hotels and high end venues but should be avoided elsewhere.
Keeping Pollution to a Minimum
In Beijing the pollution can be quite unpleasant at times. If you'd prefer not to get the worst of the pollution you may want to consider a disposal face mask. You'll see people wearing these everywhere during your China trip as they became popularized during the SARS scare in the 90's. Today, it's just a way to keep your lungs better protected. If you suffer from asthma or other lung problems this is a particularly useful tip.
Food hygiene is somewhat variable in developing nations but you don't need to let this put you off eating the food during your China travel. The best way to eat is to adopt a common sense approach. Look for large numbers of Chinese present at a restaurant or café this will tell you that the owner has a good reputation for not getting his/her customers sick. Large numbers of tourists without any Chinese present at all is probably a cause for concern except in certain 5 star hotel venues. Always wash your hands before eating particularly if you've been handling any money during the day. If you are ever in doubt about the quality of food in China it's probably best just to leave it.
Get Your Vaccinations Done in Plenty of Time
Your doctor or health professional will be able to tell you exactly what shots you need for a China vacation. As soon as you book your China trip you should start talking to them as some vaccinations need repeat shots over a period of time to be 100% effective.
In general most visits to China don't involve any serious health problems. If you do have any issues please speak to your tour guide and they will be able to offer any assistance necessary. The real key to staying healthy is common sense, the same as it is everywhere in the world including at home.
Our next stop on our tour of China's best food is Beijing. Beijing has long been considered second best to Shanghai by some visitors but we think you'll agree if your China vacation takes in Beijing that this reputation is underserved. In fact if you travel round China's capital city you can find at least as many great dining options as you can in its' second city. We're positive that on your trip to Beijing you'll find some of the best food in China and possibly the world too.
Temple Restaurant, Zhizhusi
If you want to go upmarket during your tour of Beijing then you'll want to head to the Temple Restaurant. It's one of China's best kept secrets. It's in the shadow of a Tibetan temple and you'll love the beauty and elegance of the setting. In fact you may find it hard to equal anywhere else on your China trip. Go for the pigeon or the smoked duck and soak up the ambience of this Francophile menu and wine list.
Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard, Donghuamen Street
This is one of the weirder dining options even for China travel. Brian McKenna is all about molecular cookery and if you're not used to it then watch out for the salad (you need to use a spade to eat it – we're not kidding). There's a darn good reason to eat here besides the food though; the view from the restaurant is directly over The Forbidden City one of a China vacation's most memorable spots. So if you want to experience it all over again following your tour – this is your chance.
Capital M, Tiananmen Square
The view's not quite as good as @ The Courtyard but it's not too shabby either. China's most famous square is yours for the taking in style. Grab a table and try the suckling pig because it's superb and then tuck into a Pavlova for pudding. The service is amongst the best in town and you may well see a few Chinese superstars in here too.
Maison Boulud, Qianmen Dong Da Jie
If you're not so adventurous and you'd prefer to have something that tastes of home then this is the China vacation spot for you. Daniel Boulud is one of New York's most famous chefs and this is his place. So the Wagyu burger is to die for and the petit fours are the talk of the town. It's a taste of America but all the better for being in China.
Duck de Chine, The Hidden City
There's one dish that Beijing is justly known around the world for and that's the Beijing (or Peking) Duck. Pancakes, hoi sin sauce and lots of lovely shredded duck. There's no place better to try it than at Duck De Chine where the birds are lovingly turned into culinary artworks. It's actually run by a father son duo from Hong Kong so expect some excellent Cantonese offerings to go alongside your dinner too.