Antique yet up-to-the-minute, familiar yet unrecognisable, outwardly urban but quintessentially rural, conservative yet path-breaking, space-age but old-fashioned, China is a land of mesmerising and eye-opening contradictions.
Awe-Inspiring AntiquityChina may be modernising at a head-spinning pace, but the slick skyscrapers, Lamborghini showrooms and Maglev trains are just eye-catching but wafer-thin gift-wrapping. Let's face it: the world's oldest continuous civilisation is bound to pull an artefact or two out of its hat. Travel selectively around China and you can quickly tap into a rich seam of antiquity: ponder the legends and myths of the Forbidden City, rediscover your sense of wonder on the Great Wall or attempt to fathom the timeless expressions of the silent Terracotta Warriors. Submit to the unique charms of Píngyáo – China's best preserved walled town – or get a glimpse of Nirvana at the serene Mògāo Caves outside Dūnhuáng. Meander among the historic villages of Wùyuán, wake with the cock crow in an ancient Hakka roundhouse or join well-dressed Tibetan pilgrims on their circuitous kora around Labrang monastery.
Out-of-This-World FlavoursChina is famously fixated with food but do yourself a favour and exchange your meagre local Chinatown menu for the lavish Middle Kingdom cookbook. Wolf down Peking duck, size up a sizzling lamb kebab in Kāifēng or gobble down a bowl of Lánzhōu noodles on the Silk Road. Spicy Húnán food really raises the temperature but find time for momo (boiled dumplings), tsampa (roasted barley flour porridge) and other titbits from Tibet. Impress your friends as you gānbēi (down-in-one) the local firewater, sip a frozen daiquiri in a slick Běijīng bar or survey the Shànghǎi skyline through a raised cocktail glass. Second to none, the never-ending culinary adventure is possibly the most enticing aspect of Middle Kingdom travel and you'll come back from China with highly stimulated taste buds and much-cherished gastronomic memories.
Stupendous SceneryChina is vast. Off-the-scale massive. And you've just got to get outside: island-hop in Hong Kong, gaze out over the epic grasslands of Inner Mongolia or squint up at the mind-blowing peaks of the Himalayas. Trek your way around Tiger Leaping Gorge or cycle between the fairy-tale karst pinnacles of Yángshuò. Ponder the desiccated enormity of the Taklamakan Desert or swoon at Huángshān's preternatural mists. Become entranced by the Yuányáng Rice Terraces of Yúnnán, size up the awesome sand dunes of Dūnhuáng, hike your way around the exquisite landscape of Déhāng or, when your energy fails you, flake out for a tan on the distant beaches of Hǎinán island.
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Húnán’s two most potent exports – its fiery cuisine and the combustible thought of firebrand Mao Zedong – have scorched trails across the Middle Kingdom. Xiāngcài restaurants have eyes streaming and foreheads sweating nationwide, and effigies of Mao stand unblinking through the land, monuments to a period of ideological fervour that took China to the brink of ruin.
Long before the country – and other countries – kowtowed to Běijīng, there was Cháng’ān: a thriving city of emperors, courtesans, poets, monks, merchants and soldiers; a place where many of the world’s great religions coexisted and Chinese culture reached an apogee of creativity and sophistication.