China is a land of contrasts. China is the third largest country in the world and the climate varies dramatically. It can be near freezing in the far north and sticky in tropical Hainan, an island on China’s southern-most tip.
The one thing you are unlikely to find in China is a street empty of either cars or people. The population of Australia could fit into Shanghai.
The other thing you won’t see is families with large numbers of children in tow. China’s one child policy is strikingly evident on city streets where only the occasional toddler can be seen, usually surrounded by a host of besotted adults.
My trip took in three destinations, Beijing, Shanghai and Sanya on Hainan. I packed for weather equal to Brisbane in the depth of winter, balmy springtime and hot summer to cover all climates and was glad I did.
On arrival, Beijing lived up to all my smoggy expectations, dreary and overcast the sky threatened to do much but actually did little. That didn’t stop us from exploring, with Tiananmen Square at the top of our list.
Our Helen Wong Tours guide, Lisa, who spoke excellent English, explained the queue which wound like a snake around the square was to gain entry to the Mao Mausoleum, the final resting place of Mao Zedong.
It’s a place, she said, that all Chinese would like to visit at least once in their life.
Just over the road, with an entry guarded by dapper young Chinese soldier, was the Chinese Imperial Palace, The Forbidden City.
The name comes from the fact that no-one could enter or leave the palace without the emperor’s permission. This sounds harsh, but the city covers 72 ha with outstanding examples of Chinese architecture.
Even such a huge space is still crowded by visitors, including many locals. Likewise the fascinating Summer Palace, rebuilt in 1888 by the Dragon Lady Empress Cixi with money embezzled from the Chinese Navy.
For Olympics fans, a visit to Beijing would not be complete without sighting Olympic Park. The Birds Nest (National Stadium) and Water Cube (National Aquatic Centre) buildings were awe inspiring as were the giant television screens.
But for me, the quintessential moment was standing atop the Great Wall of China. After a night of rain the sky was magically blue and the surrounds deep green.
The wall is surreally steep, especially on the descent, so if you’re not up to a steep climb, make sure you visit the sections that offer a cable car alternative.
In Shanghai, the highlight was strolling the historic Bund with 52 blocks of modern Shanghai on one side, the city’s colonial past on the other and the Huangpu River in the middle.
A leisurely cruise up the river or a quick lift trip to the viewing platform of the 468 metre high Oriental Pearl TV Tower are other ways to take in the Bund. From May to October, visitors will flock to Expo 2010, close by along both sides of the Huangpu River.
My other Shanghai favourite was an extravaganza ‘Era – Intersection of Time’, a high octane combo of amazing acrobatic arts and modern technology. I still can’t work out why the eight motor bikes in the cage didn’t crash.
Even if you don’t want to buy a rabbit, dog, turtle, squirrel or cricket, Shanghai’s Flower, Bird and Insect Market is a fascinating stop. There’s plenty to outfit the rest of the house next door in Fangbang Road where vendors sell everything from chestnuts and fruit to vibrators and drills from footpath stalls.
Sanya on Hainan Island, my final destination, is China’s southernmost tropical seaside resort city perched on the same latitude as Hawaii. It’s home to palm trees, tropical fruit, coral reefs, long sandy beaches with thatched huts, several golf courses and the Miss World Finals.
Here the offerings include scuba diving on coral reefs, hot springs, golf and islands filled with monkeys.
The Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone is fascinating to explore with its temples, bell garden, dragons and the Nanshan Kwan-yin, a 108m tall Goddess with three sides – peace, wisdom and mercy.
The vegetarian food available in the on-site restaurant is fashioned to look like everything from squid to meat balls and tastes the same.
Locals will tell you the vegetarian diet and climate of Sanya is responsible for the extraordinary number of centenarians who live in the local village.
While the contrast in weather between the three locations was extreme, the friendliness of the people remained constant along with the ever present traffic.
China is ancient history and tomorrow’s news all in one scoop. As shrouded in mystery the country may be, it certainly is accessible provided you have patience and a good guide.
Taxis are inexpensive and convenient. Check with your hotel concierge for an estimate of the fare cost and ask for the address of your hotel and destination written in Chinese.
In Shanghai, the Metro is a fast, efficient and cheap way to travel. The new Maglev train from Pudong International Airport takes only eight minutes to travel 30 kilometres and links with the Metro.
The fluctuating Aussie dollar means that shopping in China is not the bargain it was, however there is still plenty to excite. Don’t miss the Pearl Market and Silk Market in Beijing and 580 Nan Jing West Road in Shanghai. The markets underneath the Science and Technology Centre also are reputed to be good.
Changing money in China is simple if you do it at your hotel. It’s more complicated, but possible, at local banks. Keep your currency exchange receipts because you need to show them when you change RMB back to Aussie dollars at the end of your visit.
The restrictions that apply to liquids over 100ml on international flights in Australia, also apply to domestic flights in China. It’s safer to buy your duty free alcohol and perfume when you arrive back in Australia.
Food and drink
Food from a huge range of cuisines is available in hotels and shopping centres. Always drink bottled water.
Where to stay
Marriott Beijing City Wall, HuaTing Hotel & Towers Shanghai and Sheraton Sanya. Here are more ideas on which luxury hotels in China to choose.
Kerry Heaney travelled with the support of Helen Wong’s Tours.