From the Great Wall to the Ming dynasty to the culture and cuisine, there is so much to discover in China. Our Flightie Justin recently explored this part of the world on a tour with G Adventures and shares the highlights:
I was lucky enough to experience China on a small group tour with G Adventures. It was a whirlwind week and an amazing way to see the highlights of this magnificent country. We stopped in Beijing, Xian, Suzhou, and Shanghai, all which had something different to offer and all which had distinct personalities. My first foray into China started into bustling Beijing. Here are some of my favourite highlights:
The Forbidden City
Located in the centre of Beijing and once home to the emperor, the Forbidden City is an imperial palace that housed China’s most powerful rulers, including the Ming dynasty, hundreds of years ago from 1368 to 1644.
Our group explored a few corners of this ancient World Heritage Site and walked through a few of its 950 buildings and corridors. We learned about the stone lions that guard the front gates. Lions are a common symbol perceived as protectors of spiritual teaching, ‘dharma.’ Lions are always seen in pairs, one male and one female, like the yin and the yang. The male is always depicted with an embroidered ball under his paw as a symbol of rulership, and the female is always depicted with a cub under her paw as a symbol of guardianship over the people.
A cultural icon in the heart of Beijing, Tiananmen Square is one of the world’s largest public squares. Built during the Ming dynasty, the square was named after Tiananmen, “the Gate of Heavenly Peace,” a gate in the wall of the Imperial City that divides the square and the Forbidden City.
Communist revolutionary Mao Tse-tung’s presence is everywhere, not just in the mausoleum where you’ll find his remains resting in peace in the comfort of a crystal coffin – but his face was on everything. Mao-mania was very alive. It was plastered on gates facing the square, it adorned hats and scarves, it was printed on rows and rows of postcards, and it bobbled on the bobble-heads – all hawked by vendors in the square.
The Great Wall of China
One of the world’s most iconic structures, the Great Wall holds some of the country’s most historic and symbolic significance. Construction started as early as the 7th century as a means of border patrol and as an act of defense to protect the Chinese Empire.
Here, we climbed the rolling hills of Mutianyu, one of the best-preserved sections of the Great Wall and popular spot for tourists. I definitely recommend doing this hike for the remarkable views of the surrounding hills and mountainscape. The best part about this hike was if you don’t feel like hiking all the way back down, you could take a toboggan down instead! Luge down a metal bobsled-like track down the mountainside. This in itself was an epic experience and is worth adding to your bucket list.
It’s a usual sight to see a group of friends and family sitting around a large table with an enormous Lazy Susan in the centre circulating a feast of delicious noodle dishes, soups, seafood, and rice. The food goes around and around and you grab what you want as it makes its way to you.
- Do try to use chopsticks whenever you get a chance. But don’t worry, if you aren’t that great with them… you can always request a fork.
- Do try something before you ask what it is, unless you have an allergy, and have an open mind when it comes to a whole new world of flavours, textures, and scents. Deep fried crickets, scorpions and sea horses taste similar, like deep fried Crunchie bars. Sea star was not my favourite and river crab is far more delicious than one would expect. Pork and vegetables are staples, often served spicy.
- Do try the Peking duck. Chinese food is well-known for its popular Peking duck dishes and there is definitely a reason why. The best way to find out is to taste it in the country it was perfected in.
- Do try the street food. Get your hands on some of the best food in the country! Outside of our hotel, a food cart vendor was selling breakfast sandwiches served in delicious buns for one whole dollar. It was the best dollar I’d ever spent.
Beijing was full of enormous six-to-eight lane streets where traffic laws were more of a suggestion than a rule. Cars drifted in and out of lanes and pedestrians were more like daredevils crossing at their own peril.
- Expert tip: take the train whenever possible – transit is the best in China!
Although some of the newer buildings have adopted western-style sitting toilets and plumbing, many of the older buildings…have not. Older buildings are more commonly equipped with eastern-style squatting toilets. The good news is, after a few days of practice, it’s surprisingly easy to get accustomed to!
- Expert tip: bring hand sanitizer and toilet paper.
China is so culturally and historically rich. The culture shock can be a bit intense at times, but being part of a group tour really quelled those nerves. Our G Adventures tour leader was fantastic and pointed out details we would not have noticed and showed us China from a local’s perspective. The experience on a small group tour was rewarding. Leave home with an open mind and experience a whole other world just across the Pacific.