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    Flowers in bloom
    Flowers in bloom

    As the Olympic host for 2008, Beijing was the showpiece city for a nation that celebrates sporting heroes with the fervor once reserved for political icons – soccer and basketball have become big spectator sports. The spending power and leisure interests of China’s booming middle classes translate into more sporting choices for visitors too – there’s skiing, golf, rock climbing, and more. Courses in martial arts can be found in most tourists centers, or head to the hallowed halls of the Shaolin Temple to find a master. Organized tours ply the major sights of the country, but for a really memorable experience consider booking a trip that has a fascinating focus, whether photography, whitewater rafting, costume, or horse trekking.

    The Olympic games
    The 2008 Beijing Olympics made a dramatic impact on the capital, with infrastructure improvements and massive construction projects transforming the city in the run-up to the games. Beijing promised a "Green Olympics, Hi-tech Olympics, People’s Olympics," so visitors enjoyed acres of parkland and futuristic stadiums. Half of the main Olympic Park area, at the apex of an extended imperial axis running north-south through the city, is being turned into woodland and lawns.

    At the 2008 Olympics, 43 world records and 132 new Olympic records were set. China won 100 medals, 51 of them gold, and so the Games were declared a logistical success.

    In 2010, the Asian Games takes place in Guangzhou, where the city has also received a Beijing-style pre-Olympic makeover.

    Spectator sports
    China has gone soccer-mad. Although ancient records describe a game of kick-ball with three players on each side, and paintings show a Song emperor juggling a ball with his feet, soccer is a recent phenomenon here. The Chinese Professional Soccer League was established in 1994, and the China Super League, an elite group of teams, kicked off in 2004. The Super League has a massive fan base, but has run into problems with sponsor-ship recently. Basketball is also gaining in popularity and its profile has been boosted by Chinese NBA stars such as the towering Yao Ming.

    The annual Rugby Sevens tournament in March is a massive – and very rowdy – event in Hong Kong, with international teams playing almost 70 games over three days. The Hong Kong Rugby Football Union plays regular fixtures during the rugby season, which runs from November through March.

    Both Shanghai and Beijing now host the ATP Masters Series tennis tournaments.

    Shanghai hosted the Formula One Grand Prix for the first time in 2004. Tickets are expensive, but 80 percent of the circuit is visible from the stands.

    For a Chinese flavor, track down the Minority Nationalities Traditional Sports Games. Ethnic groups play unusual sports from dragon boat racing to elephant tug-of-war.

    Golf grows in popularity in China, despite initial Communist Party reluctance to embrace this elitist, land-hungry sport. Visiting golfers can enjoy over 200 courses nationwide. Mission Hills in Shenzhen with 10 separate courses holds the Guinness record for the largest; while the course on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain near Lijiang, Yunnan, is one of the world’s highest. Perhaps the most alluring is the beautiful Spring City course near Kunming. Most courses are open to the public, and prices are similar to those in Western countries.

    China has plenty of coast-line but lacks the beach culture of its southeast Asian neighbors. However, Hainan Island is touted as China’s Hawaii, and the resorts there are improving fast, while Beihai in Guangxi boasts a very long stretch of sand. Closer to the capital, enjoy Beidaihe, long the Communist Party’s summer retreat, or the seashores of the lovely city of Qingdao.

    Downhill skiing
    The Chinese are discovering the thrill of downhill skiing. The best natural snow and ski resorts lie in Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces. Yabuli, about 100 miles (160 km) from Harbin, is one of the most established resorts and hosted the Universiade Winter Games in 2008. In the Beijing suburbs at least 10 slopes, mostly with man-made snow, attract skiers, and Shanghai has one of the world’s largest indoor facilities. Large feet may cause problems with equipment rentals, and watch your back – complete novices abound.

    Boarding a traditional raft kept afloat by inflated sheep stomachs, Yellow River
    Boarding a traditional raft kept afloat by
    inflated sheep stomachs, Yellow River

    Choosing a tour
    A multitude of tour companies ferry groups of photo-snapping tourists through the top sights of China. If you are thinking of booking a tour, do your research carefully; it is essential to find one that suits you well. Beyond the obvious essentials of types of accommodation, transport, the size of the group, and the itinerary, be sure to ask about the tipping policy, which can sometimes add a sizeable unexpected cost to your trip. Also query the frequency of shopping stops, the bane of all organized trips in China. These detours (from which your guide may be earning a commission) can cut sightseeing time short and will become increasingly boring.

    Traversing the sand dunes of Mingsha Shan by camel, near Dunhuang, Gansu
    Traversing the sand dunes of Mingsha Shan
    by camel, near Dunhuang, Gansu

    There’s a wide choice of tour companies to travel with. Abercrombie and Kent is an established international group, which has provided well-organized trips for decades. Steppes Travel, which is particularly strong on the Silk Routes and Tibet, provides suggested itineraries that it is happy to adapt. The company also organizes special interest tours, such as those that seek out the intricate embroidery and beautiful textiles of Tibet and Guangxi. Mongol Global Tours organizes trips focusing on costumes and special itineraries for photographers. Myths and Mountains has some well thought-out itineraries that cover Yunnan and Tibet, and also organizes horse trekking. Wild China is strong on southwest China, organizing trips to remote Tibetan monasteries in western Sichuan and through the dense jungle and rural hamlets of Xishuangbanna.

    Train spotting
    With such an extensive rail network, China has been a favorite destination of train lovers for years, particularly as it has continued to run steam locomotives well after other nations have discontinued their use. Sadly, the last line to run steam, the Jitong railway, which crosses the Jinpeng Pass in Inner Mon-golia, is currently scrapping its remaining steam locomotives. However, tours to highly indus-trialized areas will certainly continue to run, as many private lines at mining pits still use steam. Train spotters have a strong internet presence – check the web for details.

    Although the curse of the automobile threatens the bicycle kingdom, China re-mains a great place to saddle up. You will see more from a bike than a bus, and gain greater insight into the lives of the locals. A well-organized tour should provide alternative transport if you become exhausted or fall ill, and will have all the fix-it gear and able mechanics to deal with problem chains and derailers. Itineraries are set at different levels, from easy to challenging, and some companies provide bikes, while others ask that you bring your own wheels to keep costs down. For biking tours and shorter trips near Beijing, consider specialist operators like Bike China Adventures who are based in Chengdu.

    In rural areas, renting a bike for a day or two is the best way to see sights just outside of town and get a feel for countryside life. There are plenty of bike-hire shops in most places, and many hotels can also arrange bike rental. In cities remember to park in designated areas (retain the token) and keep to cycle lanes where possible.

    A class of soon-to-be kung fu masters, Shaolin Temple, Henan
    A class of soon-to-be kung fu masters,
    Shaolin Temple, Henan

    Martial arts
    China attracts thousands of martial arts enthusiasts hoping to find the roots to their practice. Many head for famous Shaolin Temple in Henan, where Bodhidarma is said to have first taught the monks exercises that developed into shaolin quan during the 6th century. The temple is surrounded by kung fu schools, which have courses that range from a week to six months or longer. The less well-known monastery on Wudang Shan in Hubei, said to be the home of tai ji quan, also has schools of martial arts.

    Most forms of kung fu taught in China are watered-down versions of the original martial forms, which have become popular and effective ways to keep fit. If you are looking for pure fighting technique, you may have more luck overseas, or possibly, in Hong Kong. In Beijing, Shanghai, and other big cities, courses are advertized in listings magazines, but although there are plenty of sports institutes in China with classes, you may have difficulty finding an English-speaking instructor. Head to one of the traveler havens, such as Yangshuo, Dali, or Lijiang, and you are certain to find capable instruction in English. Of course, you can always try joining the leagues of kung fu practitioners at daybreak in the nation’s parks, particularly if your interest is tai ji quan.

    If you want to fight with more than your bare hands, paintballing is growing in popularity – try the listings magazines in the large cities. For those who really need to let off steam, anti-aircraft guns and AK-47s are available for venting at the firing range en route from Beijing to the Great Wall at Badaling.

    Hot air balloon floating amongst the karst peaks of Yangshuo, Guangxi
    Hot air balloon floating amongst the karst
    peaks of Yangshuo, Guangxi

    Most of China’s sacred and scenic mountains, such as Tai Shan and Huang Shan, have steps, cable cars, and crowds all the way to the summit. Some of the mountains have less-used paths that make for pleasant hiking, but if you are a serious mountaineer, you will need to head to western China. The true roof of the world awaits in Tibet – topping Mount Everest will require patience and official approval, but treks to Everest base camp in the Rongbuk Valley are offered by several travel operators. Other spectacular climbs include Gongga Shan in Sichuan and also Muztaghata in Xinjiang (an easier climb and you can ski down), but, again, seek permission first.

    More feasible is rock climbing at Yangshuo in Guangxi, where the limestone crags that inspired poets down the centuries now inspire climbers up the peaks. Asia’s fastest developing sport climbing area combines a wide range of climbs with beautiful views, winding rivers and great accommodations.

    A few intrepid spelunkers have been exploring the extensive karst cave network of Guangxi. A small industry of caving tours has developed, although, for the most part, the itineraries are geared to the experienced spelunker.

    Horse trek up the steep sides of Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan
    Horse trek up the steep sides of Tiger
    Leaping Gorge, Yunnan

    Trekking & camping
    The fascinating southwest offers some of the best trekking possibilities in the country, such as exploring the jungle of Xishuangbanna or visiting remote Tibetan monasteries. Horse-riding trips are possible in the heavenly mountains of Xinjiang and the national parks of Sichuan. Check with specialist tour companies and the Northwest Yunnan Ecotourism Association. Whitewater rafting trips are popular in the southwest and in Tibet. If you are thinking of signing up, check the comapny’s credentials and past history, and ensure that high-quality helmets, lifejackets, and, if necessary, wetsuits are provided.

    Camping independently in China is tricky, and not recommended. However, the lack of legal camping facilities may be about to change, because caravan culture has just reached China. RVing is still in its birthing stages and as the industry develops, trailer parks and camp grounds are certain to appear. Restrictions on foreign drivers mean that motorhoming is not yet an option for non-residents.

    Panda at the Breeding Center near Chengdu
    Panda at the Breeding Center near Chengdu

    Wildlife & bird-watching
    Spot a panda at the Wolong Nature Reserve or in the Breeding Center, where efforts are made to conserve the threatened species. Bird-watching tours head to Qinghai province for Bird Island on Qinghai Hu, and to parks such as Zhalong National Reserve, in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, where the largest wetland ecological region in China hosts over 300 bird species.

    China’s environment was savaged in the 20th century by political campaigns to move mountains with manpower; in the 21st, rampant economic growth threatens both biodiversity and cultural diversity, and conservation efforts are growing to save China’s unique wildlife and ways of life. To support a responsible approach to tourism and the environment, consider tours and ecolodges offered by organizations such as the Northwest Yunnan Ecotourism Association, based near Lijiang in Yunnan.

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