Hong Kong has something for everyone. It's one of the top destinations for people on a China vacation because it's so varied. Most people on a China tour only ever scratch the surface of what the island has to offer. However, with some careful travel planning you can see things in China's most popular (and populous) island that only a handful of tourists ever get to see on a China trip. Here's a list of a few hidden gems you might want to seek out:
Yim Tin Tsai Island
Once home to the Hakka Chan this island now has no permanent residents. There's a whole ghost town here and many buildings lie unoccupied but still full of furniture and other household items. It's a great China vacation spot because it's a UNESCO heritage site that rarely makes it on to the itinerary of tour companies. You can grab a boat out to the island from Sai Kung Pier for about $35 (Hong Kong Dollars) and wander around to your heart's content in one of China's spookiest places.
The School of the Ghost
Travel to Yuen Long you'll find the old Tak Tak School. It was constructed atop an old burial ground where the inhabitants were said to have died resisting the English occupation of Hong Kong. If that wasn't creepy enough a teach is said to have killed herself in the toilet of the school and her ghost is now said to wander the school unable to rest. There aren't many great ghost stories in China but this is one of them.
The Museum of Coastal Defense
We know how dull that sounds but it's actually a cracking place to visit. It's to be found on the site of the Lei Yue Mun Fort down at the harbor. Check out the history trail and take a trip through China's military past with the chance to see a gunpowder factory too.
The Museum of Medical Sciences
This is a bit macabre and you'll need a strong stomach to enjoy the sight of old school Chinese medical equipment. However, if you're that way inclined this is a great China vacation stop. It's on Caine Lane and you can see the history of the biological research institute that it once was alongside autopsy tables, gruesome x-rays and more.
Getting in Touch With Nature
Turtle Cove Beach (South Side)
If you'd like to catch some rays during your China tour then you'll love Turtle Cove Beach. It's the one place that nobody seems to know about on the South Side and unlike the other beaches which are always packed with tourists this one is a little slice of paradise. You can't even see any of Hong Kong's ubiquitous tower blocks from its golden sands.
Wong Nai Chung Gap
If you have a military bent then you might fancy a trip out to Hong Kong's only battlefield walk. It's a leisurely 2 hour stroll among old bunkers and anti-aircraft batteries from China's participation in World War 2.
The big news this week from China is the announcement of Shanghai's brand new free trade zone. If you travel anywhere in Shanghai you'll know that China's premier city is a bit miffed that it plays second fiddle to Hong Kong on the international stage. While many a vacation visit is spent in Shanghai, business often passes the city by in favor of the small island in the south. Now, the city is all set to do something about it. You probably won't want to visit the free trade zone during your China tour but it may be one of the most significant developments on the mainland in years.
Where is it?
If you wanted to take a trip to the zone you'd need to go to the edges of the Pudong District. Where a massive 28 kilometers squared will be given over to the new development. China's Premier Li Keqiang has been plugging the development this week and it's due to open on the 29th of September.
What's a Free Trade Zone?
The idea behind a free trade zone is to provide an area that is attractive to foreign investors. So companies may be able to take an extended vacation from China's punitive tax regime or receive assistance with hiring local staff on terms more like those in their own countries. Unfortunately, to date there's been no announcement as to what the precise benefits of this free trade zone will be. We know that the country's looking to attract significant levels of foreign investment and that the zone will allow any kind of business not on the official "Chinese businesses only" black list. This list may be different from the standard list used elsewhere in the country that prevents foreign ownership in sectors like the automotive and media arenas.
There's an expectation of more transparency and less red tape from Chinese analysts but no confirmation of this as yet.
Are there Financial Benefits?
As you'll experience on your China tour – currency trading in China is strictly limited. You need to be careful when you travel that you don't convert too many dollars into RMB and then try to change them back again when you leave as there are controls over even small amounts of personal capital. For businesses these restrictions are much heavier. Many businesses run large RMB balances in the bank that cannot be converted easily into other currencies to pay suppliers with.
Some analysts expect the RMB to be freely convertible within the zone and for interest rate policies to be rather simpler there too. This may reflect an experimental approach to further liberalization of the Chinese economy. China's success in many arenas has often begun with a test case first (like the Shenzhen Economic Zone for manufacturers and exporters).
China's opening up has been one of the most exciting economic events of the last few decades. During your China tour you'll reap the benefits of that opening up. It's not too long ago that having a China vacation would have been very, very difficult because of the restrictions on travel and the permits required to make it happen. The Shanghai Free Trade Zone is another step along the long path to a completely open economy.
The food you'll encounter on your China vacation will be fantastic. China's culinary heritage is amongst the most varied in the world and you'll get to sample a massive variety of it during your tour. However, there's one place you might want to take a trip to during your time in Beijing that beats all the rest. China's newest farmer's market is gaining global acclaim for great food. It's also the healthiest possible option during your travel as everything is organically farmed or produced from organic products by craftspeople.
Where is it?
Your guess is as good as ours. The market is currently without a permanent location so it travels round China's capital and is advertised on Facebook and also Sina Weibo (China's answer to Twitter). This doesn't stop it from drawing a crowd though and should you be able to track it down it will normally pull 2-3,000 folk through the doors in the 4 hour window that it's open for.
The market relies on venues provided by sponsors so you may find that the place is covered in branding for a department store. The good news is that the Chinese government has heard about its popularity and they are now trying to give it an official site.
How did it start?
Given China's track record on “anything gets eaten” you won't be surprised to find that the market was started by expats. They wanted somewhere to eat healthily and enjoy Chinese food. With the number of food product scares that have happened in China in the last few years it didn't take long for the locals to catch on. Nowadays, it's a Chinese run occasion. It was local farmers and traders that took the market from a tiny community to the major event it is now. People travel from all over China to take part.
You'll find all sorts of products including a few that are hard to find in China at the market. There's an organic bread maker who delivers the kind of bread that most people dream of in the country. Bread in most of China is mass produced and overly sweet to Western taste buds. Here it's made with organic flour and in the same way that a high-quality French patisserie would make it.
You'll also be surprised to hear that there are several cheese makers on the site. Cheese is typically believed to be outside of the Chinese diet. The truth is more that most Chinese people didn't grow up with any access to cheese so they find it harder to acquire the taste for it as adults. If you take a trip round most of China's cities you'll see that pizza and burgers are catching on everywhere and the Chinese are no longer as resistant to eating cheese as they once were. If you do take some time out of your China tour to travel to the market you might want to hunt down the cheese flavored ice-cream a product that's probably only found here in all of China.
If your China tour passes through Beijing we heartily recommend a trip to the farmer's market. On your next China vacation it may have grown so large that it's no longer the wonderful, warm community experience that it is today.
As you'll soon discover on your China vacation the country can feel very alien at times. It's this strangeness that makes a China tour so memorable. As you travel round China it's the differences from life at home that make the biggest impact. With that in mind we thought we'd prepare you for some of the most bizarre things you might hear about during your China trip.
If you think that China's cities are overcrowded you'd probably be shocked to find that over 30 million people live in caves still. Most of them can be found in Shaanxi province (which isn't yet on China tour itineraries because it's quite remote). Living in a cave doesn't have to mean a basic life though – if you were to travel out there you'd find that many of the caves have electricity and running water. An interesting fact is that Xi Jinping (one of the most senior party members) lived in one of these caves for 7 years during the cultural revolution.
When you think of vending machines you tend to think of chocolate bars and soft drinks. In Nanjing there's a machine on a station platform that vends… live crabs. If the crab is dead when it pops out of the slot the customer can claim compensation in the form of 3 more live crabs. This trend has yet to catch on in the rest of China but give it time.
If you thought that Bigfoot was exclusive to America then think again. Back in 2010 one hundred Chinese scientists took a trip out into the wilds of Hubei, to try and track down China's "Yeren" a mythical creature that shares a lot of characteristics with America's Bigfoot. They didn't find anything but it's nice to think that they might.
Fortunately there are no cannibals to encounter on your China vacation but back in the dark and ancient history of China it was a common occurrence. Chinese warriors would eat the hearts and livers of their enemies after battle. Sometimes this was officially endorsed by military leaders as a punishment for too much resistance and sometimes it was done because the warrior wanted to take vengeance upon a particular person.
One of the worst things about working in China is the traffic in the big cities. When millions hit the roads and head off to the office; chaos ensues. Spying an opportunity in the market there are now businesses in which one gentleman will take a driver to work on a motorbike when the traffic gets too heavy and the other sits in the driver's car and takes it to his work when the traffic's done.
The Internet is a relatively new freedom for many Chinese and as you'll see during your China tour – everyone wants to take part. In fact some folks love the Internet so much that they become addicted. In response to this China now has boot camps that deal harshly with addicts. These camps are not always popular with their “guests” and in 2010 14 kids broke out and ran for the hills from a particularly strict regime.
The world's largest mall is in Dongguan in Guangdong province. Don't bother taking a trip to see it. Why? It's been open for nearly a decade and has rarely managed to achieve a 1% occupancy level of retailers. Inside it's themed on 7 countries/regions and there's even a canal running through the center but none of this has persuaded anyone to actually go there yet.
If you're including a Yangtze River Cruise in your China vacation then you'll be spending some time in the former (and potentially future) capital of China; Chongqing. The city is one of the largest in China and there's plenty to see if you want to take a little time off from your tour and set out and explore by yourself. A word of warning don't be tempted to take a bike trip the traffic is positively lethal in China compared to back home and it's a very easy city to get lost in – so please stick to travel by public transport and taxis.
Places to See
- Zhou Enlai's Former Home. Zhou was a major mover and shaker during the original communist uprising in China. He is still revered by the people today and is considered a genuinely good person from that time. His house is worth a quick trip as it's been converted into a museum with plenty of revolutionary nostalgia.
- Hong Ya Dong. Much of Chongqing's original glory has been lost in the rush to reach the modern age. If you'd like to see the city as it once was back in China's dim and distant past you can travel out to Jie Fang Bei mountain and see a model. It's nice enough but the real highlight is all the local craft shops around the area.
- Foreigner Street. It's not far from Hong Ya Dong but this is kitsch Chinese style. In essence it's where foreigners were first told to set up businesses before the grand opening up of China. So you can find all sorts of quirky places including a house that was built the wrong way up.
- Chiang Kai-Shek's Headquarters. His government is taking an extended vacation in the “other China” but you can see where the infamous former leader planned his crusades against the Japanese invaders and the compound itself is quite lovely.
- Jiefangbei Walking Street. Not to be confused with the mountain of the same name this is Chongqing's answer to Times Square. Luxury stores, shopping malls, tall buildings, and plenty of hotels, bars and restaurants. If you want to shop until your drop on your China tour there's no better place to do it.
- The Hall of the People. This is perhaps the most architecturally intriguing building in the city and it makes for a great vacation photo. You'll find China's ancient and modern styles carefully incorporated in the construction and if it looks familiar – it's because there's a considered and deliberate semblance of the Temple of Heaven within too.
- Zha Zi Dong – It's a little bleak for most tastes but this is an intriguing glimpse at prison culture in the pre-revolutionary days of World War 2. You should know that there is some evidence that suggests that much of the hardship and cruelty the occurred within the grounds was done with the full knowledge and possible cooperation of American forces and the Chang-Kai-Shek government. It's best to be very respectful if you visit this place.
We've found that when people are planning their China vacation they'd like to know what they can buy in the country that's good value and where their big expenses will be. As you'll soon discover on your China tour there are plenty of bargains to be had in a trip round one of China's ubiquitous markets. However there are a few things to watch out for too. Here's a quick guide to shopping in China during your travel and what you should expect to pay for things:
- Clothing. If you want a great deal on clothes then China's the right place to take a vacation. You should be aware that sizes are likely to be a little on the small side outside of the main tourist spots but you won't be charged too much of a premium in the tourists spots. Haggling is expected (outside of designer stores in shopping malls) and the best bargains are had when you start very low (10% of the price offered is a good place to begin).
- Food. China is an absolute steal when it comes to eating out. In general the price tags tend to reflect the quality of the seating rather than the quality of the food – so keep that in mind when you choose where to dine on your trip. Sometimes you may pay a little extra for in-house entertainment like Chinese opera too. Be careful with street food which is a big travel highlight but can result in an upset tummy if you're not vigilant. The best rule of thumb is to eat where the queues are because it means the locals know and trust the vendor.
- Electronics. In general electronics in China are best avoided. They tend to be low quality and not as cheap as you might expect them to be. Computer equipment is expensive and pirated operating systems and software full of viruses are the norm. If you want to pick up some cheap electronics during your tour then make sure your vacation plans include Hong Kong where real bargains can be had and where vendors are more reliable than in mainland China.
- Antiques. You need to know what you're doing in China when it comes to antiques. It's not that bargains aren't available but there are two things you should know; the first is that there's a whole heck of a lot of fakes and the second is that real antiques normally require an export permit from the Chinese government which can be hard and expensive to secure. Don't spoil your trip by having everything confiscated at the airport on the way out.
- Local Crafts. These can be a huge bargain and they can be a major rip off. The key is to set the price you're willing to pay for these and never go above it. Haggling is expected and welcomed and if you're not happy – walk a